Monday, 14 August 2017

Mr James and Cardiff Bay - the Western Mail reports


20th August;
The next instalment of Cneifiwr's long-running series, the Council of Despair has been published today featuring an exclusive interview with Sir Ephraim Jams...a couple of new characters make a first appearance, including a certain Miss Ludmilla Legova...

Council of Despair - An exclusive interview

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Mark James' property dealings down in Cardiff Bay seem to have reached the ears of the Western Mail today, with an interesting article about residents' concerns over the management of their flats.

WalesOnline 14th August 2017

Blogger Jac o'the North recently went into a lot more detail in two posts, Baywatch 1 & 2, both of which I linked to here and urge you to read.

Mr James is a director of various Right To Manage (RTM) companies for Century Wharf flats and is also a director of a private company Building and Estate Solutions Today Ltd (BEST) set up in March 2017 with two business associates. All this information is freely available on Companies House website.

Aside from his burgeoning management empire, Mr James' property portfolio includes at least one flat in Century Wharf and two in another complex in Cardiff Bay, and he is also a registered landlord. (He also has a £250 per month hold over Caebrwyn's humble abode for his damages from his illegally funded counterclaim).

Amongst the issues some residents have with Mr James and the management of the Century Wharf complex is that flats are let for overnight stays, Airbnb, etc which is contrary to the terms of the leaseholds, as well as disturbing for the long term residents. I am also told that Mr James and his business associates seems to have 'taken over' the RTM Board and there is some speculation that the new company, BEST, may be seeking to contract maintenance and management work for themselves, and expand their interests elsewhere, not just Century Wharf.

The other issue is the appointment as a manager in the complex of a young lady, a former tenant of one of Mr James' flats, who, according to sources, has little or no experience in the field of property management and was introduced to the post by Mr James himself...

Then there is the manner in which Mr James has dealt with criticism, and I am told that he runs things in the Bay in an extraordinarily similar fashion to the way he runs the council. Needless to say, this is not a good thing. There are claims to legal advice which are never disclosed, claims to ministerial 'contacts', and veiled legal threats to those who question his actions.
Having been involved in litigation with Mr James myself for a number of years I have absolutely no reason to doubt any of the claims and allegations I have heard, and I've heard quite a few.

His responses to residents, as reported in the Western Mail article are quite revealing. He dismisses their concerns over the short stay lets as having no evidential basis; stag parties and hen-dos are no more disturbing that long term lets..says he, from the comfort, and quiet, of his home in Carmarthen...

He then goes on to claim that there is not only a 'cancer' in the complex (presumably this is a charming reference to dissatisfied residents) but the young lady's appointment was all above board; having a personal knowledge of the 'candidate' was an advantage, apparently, and avoided all the fuss of advertising for the post...

I'm sure readers are getting the drift by now, and that Mr James has quite a time consuming 'hands-on' approach to his affairs in the Bay...

With that in mind, and let's not forget the many months spent chasing myself through the civil and criminal court, let alone his extensive involvement with the Swansea City Deal, isn't it time he was asked how he squeezes in his £170,000 a year role as chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council? And, for the avoidance of doubt, has anyone asked about any potential conflicts of interest yet?

And a final point, if Mr James is content to take public money to pursue his legal affairs, and use council facilities as if they were his own, who's to say he hasn't furthered his own business (or other) interests in exactly the same manner, and with exactly the same arrogance?

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Freedom of Information - the difference a Review can make...


Freedom of Information responses from Carmarthenshire Council can be a mixed bag.
Sometimes they try to baffle you with b******t, (appointment of Monitoring Officer, Linda Rees Jones) and sometimes there are bizarre refusals (top secret transfer of public toilets to community councils).

Occasionally, a few interesting beans are spilled, (the, er, 'car park deal', released whilst the chief executive happened to be confined to his potting shed courtesy of Gloucestershire police) whilst sometimes they're met with hellfire, brimstone, and raging defensiveness (asking for correspondence between County Hall and an evangelical church).

My latest FOI request concerned the Wellness Village thingy at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. More specifically, how much the council has spent on the project so far.

My request was clear and asked for information from 2013 to date. I also asked for the cost of any 'works' to be detailed in the response.

The response duly arrived, scant in detail (a hallmark of the whole project so far) but, aside from the match funding from other partners, the figure for the council itself was £32,597.50.

Unfortunately the information only went back to 2016, not 2013 as I'd requested, and didn't include any of the 'works' such as preparing and raising the site so the whole thing doesn't get washed away. It's not called Delta Lakes for nothing.

Given the omissions I asked the council to review their response, the outcome of which arrived yesterday with a new figure, slightly erm, higher than the first at £564,427.72...

At some point soon the council might even get round to submitting the planning application, which in itself has cost £34,000...

The full thread of the FOI request, and responses, can be seen here. There will be more on the Wellness venture in due course, and I've also asked Welsh Government for some figures, but this is an illustration of how, when a council doesn't routinely publish spending details, and has a culture of defensiveness; scrutiny and monitoring can be problematic.

Whilst I'm on the subject, the Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill is slowly wending its way through parliament and, as the title suggests, hopes to extend the reach of the FOI Act. The Statement of Purpose (in full here) sums up the aims;

'The Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill will seek to make housing associations, local safeguarding children boards, Electoral Registration Officers, Returning Officers and the Housing Ombudsman public authorities for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, whilst making information held by persons contracting with public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000...'

All very welcome and interestingly it includes Returning Officers. A request I made some years ago concerning fees paid to our Returning Officer/chief executive was considered by Mr James to be an outrageous invasion of his personal space...I might as well have been asking for his bank details and PIN number.

(all previous FOI requests mentioned in this post can be found by searching this blog, they're there somewhere!)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

News round-up - budgets, selling the silver, and a new Director..


Yesterday's Executive board meeting included the first glimpse of the next budget, which will not be determined until next February. The last budget was passed earlier this year, just as the campaigns for the local elections were underway. There is no such 'pressure' to please anyone this time.

The figures take us up to 2021 and include various unknowns, for example, the effects of Brexit, and how much will come from Welsh Government (a 2% funding reduction is assumed). All in all £36m is likely to be cut over the next three years and by far the largest casualty, nearly half of the 'savings', is yet again the schools budget at £15m.

After tinkering with the council's debt repayment plans (council debt now stands at £388m) last year's planned cut to schools was reduced to a 'cash neutral' position, which sounded better than the £2.4m which was actually cut. Next year this figure is £5m.

One of the great 'unknowns' within the budget report is the future expenditure on interest payments to cover the unknown loans, from government, for the City Deal projects, including the Wellness Village at Delta Lakes, Llanelli. This project, as I have mentioned several times on this blog is led by the council and includes assorted partners such as the health board, universities, the Welsh Government, the ARCH project, the City Deal people and unknown private investors.

So far it has been high on spin and low on facts, a problem likely to continue as monitoring such a development, with so many interested parties will be a difficult one to unravel.
The budget report repeats the vague promise from Government that the cost to the authority in interest payments for the project will be offset by allowing the council to keep half of any future business rates which (may or may not, given the likely incentives to attract the private sector) become payable.

To allay anyone's fears that the council and health boards are funding a luxury private health spa on the Llanelli Riviera they've come up with a novel way of presenting the spin in a set of FAQs.

By far the most misleading and manipulative question, and answer, is;

'Will I have to pay for my health care if I am referred by the NHS to be seen in the Wellness Village?'

..and the answer?

'No. The Local Health Board is a partner on the project and is working closely with the council to identify services that could provide better outcomes for patients if they are delivered in the community rather than in a hospital environment, for example, some nursing and therapies assessment and treatment. This will enable space in the hospital to be freed up for patients who need to be seen in hospital.'

Also on the agenda, albeit briefly, was the 'Agile Working Investment Plan'. This seems to be a plan to make the workforce more 'agile' in terms of reducing office space and the use of tech, although even by Carmarthenshire's standards this is a particularly awful report.
As the council scratches around to fund the 'plan' it not only plunders most of the 'Development Fund' (waiving aside the 25% limit) for new enterprises, but proposes the sale of Ammanford Town Hall, the council's main customer service centre in the east of the county, and several other offices and buildings. Rumours are also rife that the recently refurbished Llandeilo offices are shutting up shop, leaving no customer services in the entire eastern area.

Ammanford Town Hall
It was less than transparent to have included the proposed sell-offs, let alone the implications for staff (none of whom have been consulted) within a report with such a misleading title. Smoke and mirrors, as usual.

In the event the Item was deferred, hopefully to have a rethink. Not least of all because these proposals, which included the sale of public buildings, were for an Exec Board decision only, with no reference to full council at all.

The Executive Board...and the chief executive, just catching up with Cneifiwr's blog ;-)

You will recall, at the last council meeting, that the chief executive was very, erm, persuasive about requiring a new Director, mainly to oversee all these 'exciting projects' and his assorted 'visions'. The post of Assistant Chief Executive (Regeneration and Policy) was to be made redundant to make way for the new Directorship of White Elephants.

An amendment was put forward by Labour to cap the new salary (and that for a new Director of Education) to £112k per year from the proposed £123k pa.
The chief executive, Mr James, became even more 'persuasive' and the vote was lost.

No time was lost and the advert went out immediately (all posts over £100k must be advertised nationally) only to strangely disappear a few days later. Even more mysterious was an urgent convening of 'Appointment Committee A', which met today.

According to several reliable sources I was spot on with my earlier prediction as to who strolled, permanently, into the new Directorship post with an extra £20k per year. Apparently there were a few other enquiring applicants (who must have been remarkably quick off the mark) but they were rapidly deemed unsuitable..leaving a shortlist of one, Ms Wendy Walters, and a recommendation from the chief executive.

Whether this was a cosy arrangement, with the advertisement of the job merely a brief rubber stamped pretence I wouldn't like to say, although Mr James' 'arrangements' for Linda Rees Jones' post of Monitoring Officer were certainly a constitutional sight to behold...

It's amazing how quickly the wheels of Carmarthenshire local government can turn when a 'new' directorship is on the cards... to the casual observer it might appear that the whole exercise was pre-planned, it was certainly depressingly predictable. I am not, of course, suggesting that the new director is not capable.
Oddly, there's no rush to appoint the new Director of Education and that process will take place later in the year, maybe there's no one in the pipleline for that one...
For what it's worth I also understand that the vote was not entirely unanimous.

But back to the vote at the last meeting of full council over directors' pay. To most observers, aside from political activists and point scorers this was a rare opportunity for councillors to reflect the views of most residents and make a small stand against the eye-watering salary levels of our little rural county's top brass. As I said, it was lost by 32 votes to 18, with 14 abstentions.

Here are the 32 councillors who voted against tackling fat cat pay;

Plaid Cymru;

Glynog Davies, Quarter bach
Handel Davies, Llandovery
Emlyn Dole, Llannon
Hazel Evans, Cenarth
Tyssul Evans, Llangynderyn
Ken Howell, Llangeler
Peter Hughes Griffiths, Carmarthen Town North
David Jenkins, Glanamman
Alun Lenny, Carmarthen Town West
Dorian Phillips, Llanboidy
Susan Phillips, Hengoed
Emlyn Schiavone, Carmarthen Town West
Dai Thomas, Pen-y-Groes
Gareth Thomas, Hendy
Gwyneth Thomas, Llangennech
Elwyn Williams, Llangunnor
Dorian Williams, Abergwili
Eirwyn Williams, Cynwal Gaeo

Independent Group;

Sue Allen, Whitland
Arwel Davies, Cilycwm
Anthony Davies, Llandybie
Ieuan Davies, Llandybydder
Joseph Davies, Manordeilo and Salem
Rob Evans, Dafen
Phillip Hughes, St Clears
Andrew James, Llangadog
Giles Morgan, Swiss Valley
Hugh Shepardson, Pembrey
Mair Stephens, St Ishmael
Jane Tremlett, Laugharne
Edward Thomas, Llandeilo

The abstentions included several Plaid Cymru councillors, and one independent voted with Labour. The full list will appear in the Minutes.

Update 2nd August;
Also on Monday's Exec Board agenda was an exempt item about the Guildhall in Carmarthen town centre. This was bought by the council last year for £225,000 from the Crown Court service after the court closed. The Carmarthen Journal reports that an heritage funding bid of £100k to repair and maintain the listed building has now failed.
What is worse is that the £225,000 came out of the social care budget. It was an Exec Board decision with no reference to full council.
Whether the county council will step in and cough up the necessary cash, given the current drive to flog off public buildings, remains to be seen, but, as I reported last year when they bought it, the warnings signs were already there.

Update 10th August;
The minutes for the Exec Board meeting have now been published and the item on the Guildhall reads thus;

'RESOLVED to progress with current private sector interest, whilst seeking to ensure the heritage and cultural aspect of the building are maintained'

It would of course be helpful to know, given all the fuss about maintaining the building as an asset exactly what that private sector interest might be.