Tuesday 26 August 2014

Grants: Reputational risk

This is the first in what will be a series of pieces looking at the world of grants, and the millions of pounds of public money handed out every year in Carmarthenshire to charities, private business interests and council projects, often with very disappointing results.


The other day Caebrwyn noted that the Wales Audit Office has once again repeated its warnings that, "weaknesses in the Council’s grant management arrangements .... present a significant financial and reputational risk to the Council".

The council's officers were having none of the WAO's criticisms when they first surfaced last year. In last September's meeting of the full council there was an orchestrated response to the auditor's concerns. The criticisms were pedantic and nit-picking. There was nothing to worry about and nothing to see, so move on. And this interference from the WAO was costing the council a lot of money.

So it's been business as usual, with the Queen of Grants, Meryl Gravell, happily continuing to splash the cash.

Meryl has quite a track record in this field, extending at least as far back as the Technium fiasco more than 10 years ago. Not only was there massive incompetence on the part of the County Council and the now defunct Welsh Development Agency, but also what looks very much like large scale fraud from some of the beneficiaries.

As you can see from this earlier post, this spectacular debacle featured some familiar names - Pam Palmer (Ind), now deputy leader of the council, and Rob Sully, now director of education, for example.

The affair was quietly brushed under the carpet, and no lessons were learned. In the case of one "investor" who walked off with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, nobody seems to have carried out even basic checks to find out about his business background, and the same error has been made repeatedly since then. People with histories of company failures, bad debts and defaults find that the Council is open for business, especially if they know the right people.

When a less than grateful electorate demoted Meryl's Independents to third place at the last elections in 2012, the veteran councillor and near-eternal leader was visibly put out when she had to hand over the reins to Kevin Madge.

In the early days of the rickety Madge administration Meryl would frequently remove herself from the front seats and sit glowering at the usurpers from her perch among the old codgers on the depleted Independent benches, even though she was still a member of the cabinet or Executive Board, as it's known in Carmarthenshire.

Happily, Meryl has come to terms with her new position and discovered that power without responsibility can be quite enjoyable. So while poor old Kev has to deal with the drains, sort out the rubbish and shut down village schools to howls of protest from the rabble, Meryl can get on with all those nice regeneration projects and handing out grants. The only fly in the ointment is leisure, where attempts to jack up fees for sporting facilities have gone down with the public like a lead balloon.

The leisure centres are also a bit of a problem in a time of cuts, but here Meryl and friends have hit on the novel idea of grabbing lots of money from the schools budget to keep them afloat.

And to show what a consummate political operator she is, Meryl has somehow managed to get Kevin Madge to take all the flak for the playing fields fiasco. While Kev was out there defending the policy to outraged sports clubs, Meryl was nowhere to be seen.

Thanks to a change (another one) in the council's constitution a couple of years ago, members of the Executive Board now hold private decision meetings. Some, like Pam Palmer (Ind), hardly ever have to make decisions, making you wonder quite what she is doing for her £31,250 a year.

This new arrangement suits Meryl down to the ground, however, because not only are the meetings secret, but the reports which they rubber stamp are also declared exempt from publication. And the grants approved in these private sessions are just the tip of the iceberg because many others can be approved using delegated powers without any public record. This makes scrutiny and holding Meryl and the officers to account next to impossible, and even better the Regeneration brief encroaches on a good many other departments, so you can interfere and ride roughshod over any opposition with backing from where it matters. Thankfully planning, which is a very useful tool in the regeneration box, is also in the hands of Meryl's "Independent" puppets.

Effectively, then, Meryl gets to run all the nice bits of the council which will be largely immune from any spending cuts, while Kev gets the rest, plays at being leader and takes all the flak.

In the next piece we will look at tourism and ask how much benefit some of these grant schemes really bring to the local economy.


Redhead said...

She gets to run the nice bits IN SECRET. Ask some difficult FOI questions on grants, they will be refused, ask for an internal review of those decisions, that will confirm refusal and then go to the Information Commissioner, who has been shown to have at least a few more teeth than totally toothless Ombudsmen.

There is no "commercial sensitivity" in grants - or there should not be. Unless, of course, you are providing grants to (a) those who don't need them or (b) those not fit to have them or (c) those who have had them and have not adequatelt accounted for the money.

Anonymous said...

It is quite staggering that these people with little or no qualifications between them, apart from experience in how to 'screw' the system, are allowed to allocate funds raised through taxes as they see fit.

What qualifies them to do this, apart from some legislation that appears to be written in their favour?

Even in parliament there is open & accessible debate yet Carmarthen, with its 4th rate politicians sees fit to attempt to exclude the public. It begs the question, why? What have they got to hide?

I believe there should be a time limit imposed on local government. Gravel has been in the role too long and appears to run her won fiefdom, with her patsy, Palmer and fall guy Kev.

2 terms in office is long enough and allows a clean sweep/fresh approach. The public would be more accepting too. But this gang currently operating in their ivory tower is rapidly becoming unacceptable.

Local elections are coming and I truly hope people will see the light and remove these narcissists.

There is an ideal opportunity for people like Y Cneifiwr and the other blogger to get together and deliver alternative candidates in time for the forthcoming elections.

Gravel, Madge, Palmer et al should be retired. They are an embarrassment to the people they claim to represent.

Redhead said...

To do this, bearing in mind that there will be no change in the process before 2015, new people must come forward and offer a viable alternative - getting back to what being a councillor used to be about - public service, with no high salaries, no inflated expenses and a committment to serve the public who elect them.

The problem is that these are not people who naturally put themselves forward. We must encourage these people to take on cleaning out these particularly dirty stables.