Tuesday 10 February 2015


The chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council has been warning for some time that cuts to local authority budgets will mean that councils will have to think out of the box and deliver services in different ways.

As Caebrwyn reports, brace yourselves for the effective privatisation of leisure centres, swimming pools, theatres, museums, libraries, and much else that comes under the banner of culture and leisure.

The council has engaged the services of RPT Consulting Limited, a very small company based in Rowlands Castle, deep in the stockbroker countryside of Hampshire.

RPT are the initials of Mr Robin Patrick Thompson who has carved out something of a niche for himself advising local authorities on how to get rid of all those tiresome culture and leisure facilities they have managed to accumulate over the years.

The company was founded in 2010 and at some point gained the influential ear of SOLACE (the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives). Quite possibly as a result, it has also been given a seal of approval by the Welsh Local Government Association, and that has led to contracts with Blaenau Gwent and Bridgend councils.

A pretty good idea of RPT's pitch can be gained from this Powerpoint presentation, quite possibly coming to a council meeting in Carmarthen some time soon. The future is bright and transformational in the hands of visionary leaders who buy into RPT's message, unleashing a torrent of new investment and innovative solutions, and - as a by-product - possible cost savings. Honey will flow from every lamp post.

Given all this, it was only a question of time before the siren song would be heard by our own visionary and transformational pairing of Mark James and Meryl Gravell, whose portfolio includes leisure.

Mark James has a long track record of visionary and grandiose sports schemes, enthusiastically supported by Mrs Gravell. One of their more recent triumphs was the introduction of drastically increased charges for using bowling greens and playing fields in the south of the county.

The proposals went down like a lead balloon, and Kevin Madge was left defending the decision claiming that they would "create a level playing field". The sort of level playing field that is usually created by bulldozers because, if implemented, the plans would have shut down a swathe of local sports clubs.

Faced with massive public opposition, the council eventually backed down and entered into a consultation.

Remarkably, throughout the entire fiasco, Meryl Gravell managed to remain entirely silent, allowing Kev to take all the flak.

At the heart of RPT's big idea is transforming tired leisure facilities by DBOM (Design, Build, Operate, Maintain), co-locating libraries, swimming pools, gyms and other facilities in shiny, newly renovated buildings.

The problem, of course, is where the money for all this is going to come from now that council coffers are bare.

The solution is to borrow money, something which RPT points out is currently cheap. While councils will retain the freehold over their former leisure facilities, they would be operated by trusts, operated in turn by private companies and possibly "third sector" bodies such as Towy Community Church.

The likelihood is that the council would end up having to underwrite massive loans, and one day, when Mark James and Meryl are enjoying their golden retirements, the bills would come in.

If you look at the RPT presentation, you will find that most of the examples quoted are in very prosperous parts of the south of England. Prosperous and/or densely populated.

Carmarthenshire is neither densely populated nor prosperous, and it is hard to see how the massive increase in revenues from local customers needed to underpin this model can be brought about.

But RPT certainly knows its target audience of massive council egos, and local government egos don't come much bigger than in Carmarthenshire.

The spiel ends with a slide featuring black and white pictures of Maria Callas, Alfred Hitchcock, Picasso and Amelia Earheart and this message:

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

As far as we know, none of these ever ran a Welsh county council.

No comments: