Thursday, 21 July 2016

Executive Board Agenda - Questions, budgets, Masterplans and the Guildhall - updated

Update 26th July
After a very lengthy meeting, most of which concerned the changes to Llangennech schools to Welsh medium, the Board voted to accept the council's proposals to be sent out to formal consultation. Each side of the argument will have a further say on the matter and the final decision will eventually be made by full council.

Following the inadvertent release of the Guildhall report it was decided to discuss this in public. The Board decided to buy the building for the sum advised by the district valuer, £225,000. The report, with the other options and implications, should now be published (or re-published) on the agenda.

I've heard that work on the new shower block planned for the Pembrey 'Masterplan' actually started a couple of years ago. Construction was stopped when it emerged there was no planning and no building control, and was stopped completely when the newly purchased boilers mysteriously disappeared... (See also Pembrey Park scandal - where does the buck stop?)

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There's quite a packed agenda for our executive board councillors to nod through next Tuesday. The Member for education, Cllr Gareth Jones (Plaid) will be particularly busy as the raft of public questions, both for and against council plans to change Llangennech schools from bilingual to Welsh medium, deferred from June's Executive Board meeting, (see post here) have reappeared on the agenda and will be put to him.

The deferment was required as Cllr Jones had apparently gone to watch the Euro footie in France. A 'long standing arrangement' which, unfortunately or otherwise, hadn't been conveyed to the twenty-odd folk who turned up at the last meeting.

The answers will have been carefully prepared, particularly as a judicial review challenge has been mentioned by those opposing the plans, and the priority will be to control any potential outbursts, but whatever your take on this whole matter, it is refreshing to see members of the public exercising their democratic rights to speak.

Also on the agenda is a taster of the next budget which won't actually go through until next February so it's early days yet. There's plenty of time to chop and change but as signalled back in February this year, school budgets are in for a hammering. £6 million to be axed in 2017/18, another £6 million in 2018/19 and £3.4m in 2019/20. How this will impact on educational standards remains to be seen but at a rough guess, it won't be positive. Valuable teaching staff will be lost - there is a limit to how much can be saved through 'back office efficiencies'.

In general terms 576 jobs have been lost across the council over the last three years, 374 of them from the bottom rung of the pay scale and exit packages have cost a total of £11.2m. Out of the 374 (which accounts for £2,4m in exit packages) 142 have been compulsory redundancies.

On the subject of education I took a brief look again at the 'Education through Regional Working' website, ERWs being the regional education 'consortia' of officials and councillors, and the relevant body in these parts covers Carms, Pembs, Ceredigion Swansea, Neath Port Talbot and Powys. A brief delve into the minutes show a great deal of talking, and, surprisingly, given the topic, several spelling mistakes...I noticed, for example, there were numerous 'observors' at these meetings.

Presumably these regional arrangements were a Welsh Government precursor to council mergers which are now on the back-burner, in the short term anyway, so each authority is still a Local Education Authority. As with any extra tier of government the ERW is a multilayered organisation of bureaucratic expense and its main existence seems to be as a vehicle to dish out the WG education cash to its constituent parts.

Prior to the ERW, this money was paid direct to each LEA but now there's an additional layer of middle men and red tape. It's not cheap either costing over half a million to administer per year, In last years accounts, the figures included a Managing Director on £70k and another unnamed employee on £100k. £221k was also shelled out on consultants.

Another purpose of the ERW is to improve, or at least maintain, educational standards and a network of Challenge Advisers are employed to support and monitor local standards.  This is on top of each councils' own scrutiny committee. The challenge advisers are not employed by the ERW though but by each local authority.

Carmarthenshire is currently advertising for three of them (£55k - £58k pa) though have limited this to internal applicants only. Perhaps this arrangement will provide an opportunity for those senior teaching staff displaced by the council's mammoth education cuts. Personally I'd prefer teachers in the classrooms to 'challenge advisers' with clipboards.

Back to the agenda and what better way of persuading people to forget about dodgy deals, clandestine meetings, hidden agendas, cover-ups and alleged corruption, (see previous posts), than a Masterplan or two.

The future visions for Parc Howard and Pembrey Country Park are reproduced in glorious glossy technicolour graphics. £150k has already been dug out of the reserves for the play area at Parc Howard, much to the surprise of town and county councillors who have been told that the council can't afford to maintain their own local playgrounds so they must take them over, or else...It was an 'exceptional circumstance' apparently. No one begrudges a playground but the rest of the vision appears to be highly dependant on private investment so let's hope things are a little more transparent this time round...

The plans for Pembrey park are even more visionary with the estimated cost put at £1.5m, but unfortunately there's only £80k left this year after some emergency work. Again, 'sympathetic' private investment is required. Again, given the scandals, and the mess over a relatively small catering tender,  the words brewery and p***up spring to mind. See also my previous post.
I suspect, in the long run, the dreams of Mark and Meryl and their Grandmasterplan will be realised... it's just a roundabout way of getting there.

There's a small but quiet hint of what's to come with regards to the Wellness Centre, or Wellness Shed, as Cadno recently dubbed the project with a £25,000 'contribution' to the project manager's salary. So far none of the payments to this project have to be signed off by the council, just Mark and Meryl by the look of it. Exactly how many £millions will be involved remains to be seen..

Finally I must mention the report on the council's prospective purchase of the Carmarthen Guildhall. Obviously this grand old building, the former court, is a central feature of the town and calls have been made for the council to buy it from HM Courts. The report appeared on the agenda for about 20 minutes until someone decided it should be exempt and discussed in private. However,  the deletion wasn't complete and, at the time of writing, it still remains on the full report pack.
I have kept a copy if anyone's interested, and in case it disappears completely.
(Update 17:41 - after 24 hours online, the report has now been removed and is a 'restricted' document)

The decision whether or not to buy the Grade 2* listed building, for £225,000, is up to the Executive Board only, not full council but the cost implications (running costs estimated at over £100k per year), options, potential uses and negotiations should be of general interest. I particularly favour the option to turn part of it into a police station, with bars on the windows to boot, combined with council offices...preferably the chief executive's...

The report adds that HM Courts "claim" (sounds like the council don't believe the courts) to have spent £1m on refurbishments since 2009. It does seem a little incredible and appears to have amounted to little more than a lick of paint, a bit of polyfiller and some rewiring. It sounds like it could actually do with a new roof. The costs could be astronomical.

The disability access is poor and the restrictions from the listing and involvement of CADW could prove problematic as well as lengthy. Various council owned historic artefacts are currently in the building and in danger of damage, these would have to be removed and stored.

But it is certainly a grand old building and a historic centrepiece of the town and, as the report states, HM Courts might go and sell it to someone "unscrupulous" (there's irony there folks) and, more to the point, there might be "public criticism" if they don't accept the valuation and go ahead with the purchase. For those who cherish the Guildhall, even with the potential cost in capital and maintenance, the other option, to hold out until HM Courts, out of desperation, accepts the council's lower offer, might be a gamble too far.

An interesting one to watch and given its inadvertent publication, maybe it'll be put back on the open agenda and considered in public.

Guildhall, Carmarthen

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So CCC have abandoned the tender process and all of a sudden we have a master plan to build a new cafe/hub etc now that was a quick decision as this plan was seen less than a week after the tender was officially abandoned due to a corrupt officer who has been suspended