A lot has happened in the short time since this post was published, and we have a great deal more to worry about than whether Meryl’s wellness village gets built or not.
The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU means that a lot of schemes, some good, some ill-conceived, will now be shelved, probably for good.
Unless Meryl can grab whatever is left of the last pot of EU funds for her project, there will be no more money from Europe, and neither Carmarthenshire County Council nor the two NHS health boards have a spare £20 million or so down the back of the sofa. Given the reports from Kent, it would seem that the council’s exclusive private sector buddies will struggle to find the money as well.
As ducks go, the wellness village seems to heading for a quiet burial, and to extend the poultry metaphor a little further, recent reports in the Herald, West Wales News Review and this blog that Meryl's new pet quacker was not looking well appear to have ruffled some feathers in Trimsaran.
It was left to council leader, Emlyn Dole, to pick up the pieces and pay a sincere and moving tribute.
Quite apart from being in extremely bad taste, Meryl’s outburst shows that the culture which she and Mark James together developed over many years is alive and well. In their view, the role of the press is simply to reprint council press releases, and even the mildest criticism, such as the South Wales Guardian’s niggle about roadworks in Ammanford a couple of years back, is an outrageous assault on the council, by which they mean themselves.
Before Meryl went on the rampage, a spokesperson for ARCH got in touch to take issue with some of the critical statements made in the piece below, and they did so in a perfectly reasonable and polite way.
For the record, and in the interests of accuracy and fairness, this is the substance of what ARCH had to say:
“Until last month apart from two of us – everyone else involved in getting the collaboration off the ground has being doing it pro bono…….. We now have a very modest team dedicated to ARCH – none of us are “highly-paid” – we are a small team of people who are working extremely hard to start delivering on the ARCH aims.
We have had to hold engagement on the ARCH vision (hence the presentations, events and meetings) to ensure key stakeholders agree with our direction of travel and are helping to shape the plan moving forward.
Until this point, ARCH has been in the design phase – we are now working to submit our Portfolio Delivery Plan to Welsh Government which will detail our deliverables and tangible milestones.”
The spokesperson goes on to argue that the council and the two health boards “have governance in place to ensure accountability”, although at least in the case of the county council, that governance would appear to take the form of Meryl and Mark James operating behind closed doors, and well away from backbench councillors.
Despite being in its start-up phase, ARCH says that it has delivered several projects already, including:
- Health and WellbeingAcademy to open in Autumn.
- The new PhysicianAssociates course goes live in September.
- Work is progressing quickly as part of the Swansea Bay City Region.
- The new Fujitsu DigiLab will open in October with a pilot of the Talent Bank education course starting.
The spokesperson added that there were a few other [unspecified Ed.] major projects being delivered this year.”
Update 14 June
Waleseye is reporting that Swansea University is planning to demolish its Digital Technium building which cost almost £10 million when it went up just 13 years ago. The same piece includes a synopsis of the career of Professor Marc Clement who played a leading role in the disastrous Technium project and is now beating the drum for Meryl's "wellness village" on the outskirts of Llanelli.
More to come.....
For something which modestly claims that it will deliver a "world-class and visionary health and wellbeing ecosystem to improve the health, wealth and wellbeing of the people of the South West Wales region", the founders of ARCH seem to have been singularly lacking in imagination and linguistic awareness when it came to finding a name for this new body. ARCH stands for the rather pedestrian "A Regional Collaboration for Health" in English, while in Welsh it means coffin.
In Wales you can notch up a record of serial failure and more than the occasional brush with scandal and still stalk the land, sitting on countless boards and committees while collecting gongs for public service and dispensing vast amounts of public dosh which somehow always seems to end up improving the wealth and wellbeing of a very select few.
ARCH brings together the University of Swansea, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board (ABMU) and Hywel Dda Health Board, and the board is comprised of various members of the great and good from those three distinguished bodies. In addition, there are various partner bodies, including Swansea Bay City Region (joint vice chair: Meryl Gravell) and Carmarthenshire County Council (Executive Board member for Regeneration: Meryl Gravell).
ARCH came into being in early 2015, and so has now been in business for 18 months. It has a team of no doubt very well-paid staff, but so far it seems to have produced nothing except a small mountain of buzzword-laden press releases, snazzy videos, Powerpoint presentations and numerous conferences and meetings.
Alert readers may already have spotted that one thing missing from this heady mix is anything resembling public accountability. The closest we get to that is, as we shall see, an ARCH subgroup where the interests of voters and taxpayers are represented by Meryl Gravell OBE as chair, with our old friend Mark James CBE lurking in the shadows just offstage.
Now doesn't that feel reassuring?
What is ARCH?
ARCH has its very own website (Cymraeg - coming soon!), and much of the material on it is devoted to answering the question "What is ARCH?". You could spend a lot of time wading through the acres of verbiage and playing bullshit bingo and still end up asking yourself, "so what is ARCH?"
It is innovative, revolutionary, visionary, sustainable, state-of-the art, transformational, collaborative. It will create "a global platform" using both radical thinking and a radical approach to develop centres of excellence and embed a culture of personal ownership in a wellbeing ecosystem.
So now you know.
ARCH may not have produced anything very tangible so far, but the first shoots of a real project are pushing their way up through the soil at Delta Lakes on the outskirts of Llanelli. This project is an offshoot of ARCH and has been described as a "wellbeing village". Chairing this exciting new venture is none other than Meryl Gravell.
Diagnosing problems in a modern sort of way
Now that we have cleared up any lingering uncertainty about "What is ARCH?", you may be left wondering what exactly is a wellbeing village. If so, you would be in good company because when Jane Tremlett (Ind.), Meryl's old friend and Carmarthenshire's Executive Board member for Social Care and Health was asked in a council meeting back in February, she said she wasn't an expert, but thought it was about "looking at how we diagnose problems, very much in a modern way".
|Zombie apocalypse in Carmarthenshire
Rather better informed at the time was the council's chief executive,
He couldn't "say much more for now", but added that the project involved Swansea University, the two health boards and the Welsh Government, as well, of course, as Carmarthenshire County Council.
No mention of any specific private sector involvement, although the site earmarked for the new wellbeing village had been designated for development as "private healthcare" in the council's Local Development Plan.
As readers will be aware, Local Development Plans are the product of years and years of interminable deliberation, statutory "consultations" and stultifying paper shuffling in which property developers and other business interests (many of the bigger ones domiciled offshore) and civil servants carve up local communities, while applying a fake veneer of local democracy to the finished product.
To designate a chunk of land for private healthcare in an LDP is highly unusual, and even more so in one of the poorest parts of the UK. Someone, somewhere, not a million miles from Mark and Meryl, clearly knew something long before Cllr Tremlett was put on the spot.
But back in February, the whole thing was, if we are to believe Mr James, just about a collaboration between the NHS, the council and the Welsh Government, part of which would involve building a new leisure centre for Llanelli. As for that mysterious reference in the LDP, there was merely "potential private sector interest".
While Mark James was delivering his Ladybird Book explanation to councillors, Meryl was basking in the afterglow of what must surely rank as one of the most self-congratulatory press releases ever to see the light of day in Carmarthenshire. And that is saying something.
Although written in the third person, we can almost hear the Duchess of Trimsaran dictating the words to be sent off for publication by a grateful local press.
Meryl Gravell, who is chair of the ARCH Wellness and Wellbeing working group, has been a driving force in not only developing the idea for the wellness village, but in making sure it is delivered. And her innovation and commitment to the project is (sic) now bearing fruit as the partners look to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to continue the project.
The press release continues in this vein for several more paragraphs, with Meryl giving rein to her famously Victorian values:
Prevention and personal responsibility for wellness and wellbeing is (sic) vital for our communities.
In other words, if you are poor and cannot afford the range of private therapies and specialists to be housed in Meryl's village, it's all your fault if you fall ill, fatty.
If you're not sure how to take personal responsibility for wellbeing, the press release has some self-help guidance for you:
There are five ways to wellness: connecting with others, being physically active, ongoing learning, mindfulness and giving.
Now that you are have taken up the lotus position and are breathing in the fug of a hundred joss sticks, the press release naturally gives the last word to Meryl who tells us that while the value of the scheme was estimated to be £60 million just a few short months ago, it has now likely to be in excess of £100 million!
|"This looks like a good place to bury £100 million!"
The village could create "many highly paid jobs", she added, without putting a figure on that claim.
Jobs, jobs, jobs!
As it turns out, we did not have to wait very long for private investors to pop out of the woodwork because the council's Executive Board meeting held on 23 May considered an exempt item (i.e. a report to be discussed behind closed doors) recommending that a company called Kent Neuro Science Ltd (KNS), "a company with a proven track record for similar developments within the health, medicine and wellness sector", be awarded an exclusivity agreement "to enable negotiations and a full business case to be further developed".
No tedious tendering processes then, just a slamdunk secret agreement which means that the council will not enter into any discussion with anyone else.
According to the minutes of the meeting:
The project derived from an idea within the work undertaken by a regional partnership between two University Health Boards [Abertawe Bro Morgannwg and Hywel Dda] and Swansea University. The Partnership, collectively known as ARCH [A Regional Collaboration for Health] had approached Carmarthenshire County Council in mid 2015 with the opportunity to develop the ‘Wellness’ project and the concept had since grown with rapid momentum and captured national interest.
The kind of national interest the scheme has attracted can be seen in this little gem which tells us that the NHS really has had its day.
The minutes confirm Meryl's prediction with knobs on. The project has "the potential to transform the Carmarthenshire economy with an investment of over £100m and the creation of over 1000 jobs."
So far, the PR campaign has run true to form. All of the "exciting" projects backed by Mark and Meryl always start with an initial estimate of investment (or what cynics might call "cost") which then grows explosively within the space of a few months, delivering "jobs, jobs, jobs" and in this case, "transforming the economy" of the entire county.
Any councillors who harbour concerns that the emperor is once again parading through the streets and exposing himself, and that this latest new suit may not be all that it is cracked up to be, will keep schtum because they know that if they so much as squeak they will be accused of undermining a golden opportunity to create jobs (see the saga of Sainsbury's in Cross Hands for a textbook example of how this works).
A proven track record
Hardly had the ink on the exclusivity agreement dried than it emerged that KNS's track record might be about as convincing as the emperor's new outfit. Here is a report from the Kent Messenger on the Kent Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Maidstone, revealing that the hospital ran up a huge loss of £15.2m and had to seek a £20m bailout after its first year of operation.
This was put down to much lower than expected
For more on this and the relationship between KNS and a group of related companies trading under the KIMS name, see West Wales News Review.
West Wales News Review also reveals that the ultimate parent of at least some of the KIMS companies involved is domiciled in the British Virgin Islands, the well-known tax haven, and that we know this thanks to the recent Panama Papers leak.
There was more bad news for the Maidstone private hospital and its patients in April of this year when the Care Quality Commission delivered a report warning that some of its services, including chemotherapy, were unsafe and that there was a lack of robust governance.
But as Meryl has always insisted, Carmarthenshire is "open for business", and we should not let these minor quibbles rain on the parade. As she told councillors last week, we are "most fortunate" to have the private sector involved.
Interesting to note too that Meryl did not think it would be "quite the right thing" at the moment to treat councillors to the presentation that ARCH and KNS had delivered to the Executive Board back in May. This echoed sentiments previously expressed by Mark James who told the press that he did not think it would be necessary to get approval for the scheme from mere councillors.
Ghosts of Christmas turkeys past
It is not just KNS's track record which might give some of our less gullible councillors pause for thought because another character in this rapidly thickening plot is Professor Marc Clement whose colourful and often controversial career will have brought him into contact with Meryl on a number of occasions over the years.
Professor Clement's biography on the ARCH website (remember, Cymraeg coming soon!) describes him as "an attempted entrepreneur having founded several businesses and is the named inventor of many patents in the field of medical devices". For some reason, this hagiography neglects to mention that Prof. Clement was also a director of KNS until August 2015.
His career highlights include being President of the University of Wales before that august body came close to collapse in the wake of scandals involving a scheme called the Prince of Wales Innovation Scholarships. Despite the name, the scheme was funded by the EU until various "serious irregularities" were identified by auditors, and the EU switched off the money tap.
For those with an hour or two to spare, much, much more about the professor's ups and downs can be found on WalesEye. Try here, here, here and here for starters.
Before all of that, Clement was one of the leading lights in the Technium science park and business incubator fiasco which is reckoned to have gobbled up £111 million of EU and other taxpayer cash, and it was probably back in that rip roaring golden age of easy money that he would have come to know Meryl and her old buddy, Cllr Pam Palmer, who were responsible for a string of Technium disasters in Carmarthenshire. In some cases, Meryl's wonderful investors disappeared with huge amounts of money which was never seen again.
This week's Carmarthenshire Herald notes that a consultancy group later calculated that each job created by the Technium scheme had cost the taxpayer £190,000.
If you fancy a trip down memory lane, head for this blogpost.
Give us your wallet
It is by no means clear where the £100 million plus will come from that Mark and Meryl reckon will be needed for their wellness village. Match funding, private investors and EU grants was the rather vague answer given to rank and file councillors last week.
Based on their past experiences with Professor Clement, Mark James and Meryl Gravell, EU mandarins could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous at the prospect of yet more money being poured into visionary schemes in West Wales.
Meryl to the rescue
Readers who took the time to read the Executive Board minutes for 23 June may also have noticed that Cllr Gravell is not just busy with her wellness village. In yet another exempt item, we are told that Ken Skates, while he was still just a deputy minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, wrote asking if Auntie Meryl would mind chairing a task and finish working group to come up with ideas for the ailing National Botanic Garden of Wales.
Either Ken's civil servants don't know how to use Google, or the Welsh Government decided that putting Meryl in charge would be the most effective way of finally finishing the garden off and washing its hands of the money-pit.
Anyway, when Meryl pops over to Llanarthne to meet the staff, perhaps she will find time to revisit the wonderful former Bio Technium in the grounds, built at enormous cost to house exciting biotech start-ups which sadly never showed up.
The garden's managers may want to take the opportunity to ask Meryl if she will teach them how to walk away from the wreckage of a failed project, career intact.
And so for the time being there we must leave Delta Lakes. Nye Bevan must be spinning in his grave at the sight of all those NHS bigwigs, most of whom will have very lucrative private practices, pushing a scheme which amounts to a backdoor privatisation of the Welsh NHS. What he would say about Professor Marc Clement's ventures and all those secretive companies squirrelling money away offshore could not be printed on a blog read in respectable homes.
How many ordinary families in Llanelli or the rest of Carmarthenshire would really benefit from this innovative, state of the art blend of hotel and conference facilities set in an ecosystem of therapy suites, business incubators and an out-of-town leisure centre is another question to ponder.
But then this was never really about their "wealth, welfare or wellbeing".
If you thought all this committee work would keep even Wonder Woman Meryl tied down, she proved us wrong a few weeks back when she popped up on the evening news to announce that she had just saved the county archives for posterity.
The reason they needed to be rescued was years of damp, mould and neglect during her record breaking reign as council leader.