A former County Councillor and Chair of the Audit Committee for Carmarthenshire County Council has expressed his concern about cuts being made to essential services while more than £300,000 is spent on a prospective Wellness Centre, which has not as yet had one single brick put in place.
Speaking to Llanelli Online today, Wednesday (Dec 19) Callum Higgins a former Labour councillor said he had received the information from a Freedom of Information Request submitted to the council. “He said: “I have submitted an FOI request to find out how much money has been spent so far on the Delta Lakes site. It came to over £300,000 with deductions from contributions from other parties. The actual spend could be a lot higher.”
The former councillor claims that more should be done to ensure the council is meeting its responsibilities under statutory duties rather than risking vast sums of money on glossy projects, where there is a potential risk of losing public money.
Callum, who was the County Councillor for Tycroes and who also stood for election as MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr now works within the third sector and says that he is seeing the result of austerity and a lack of statutory services impacting on those at the bottom of the pile in the county.
Speaking about the risks involved in using public money for speculative projects Mr Higgins said: “They (the council) said they envisage that they will get that money back from partners. It’s a speculative investment. In my view it all sounded like a great idea and the council have some experience. There are some great officers in finance but there is a real failure in political leadership especially in getting commitments from partners.”
Mr Higgins also raised concerns that there was not enough transparency and accountability when it comes to informing the public on major projects like the Wellness centre. He said: “The worry is that the process could be more transparent. Politicians from all parties could all be working together. It has been shrouded in mystery. It is not the fault of the professional officers it is political leadership or the lack of it. They have not followed up on where the money is coming from. This valuable time and money spent in a time of austerity might be spent on something that may not get off the ground. We should be looking at major statutory services.”
Mr Higgins spoke about existing projects, which he says have left the council footing the bill where private investors have backed out. He said: “The pattern is that we get promises from private sector. Eastgate is an example, the Scarlets stadium is another of promises from private sector. When completed it is hard to get that commitment form them. We ended up underwriting it and we moved council staff in there. The principle of what happens is that the council takes all the risks based on a load of promises from private sector. When you look behind those promises there is nothing there.”
When asked about the need for due diligence when it comes to risking public money Mr Higgins said: “They (the officers) will tell the Exec Board what the risks are but they don’t have the final say. They do have responsibility. Finance officers would have done due diligence checks. That information would be made available. Carmarthenshire has always felt a poor relation to Swansea. When investors show interest they feel flattered. It’s easy to promise without having to show they can deliver. They have been guilty in the past of allowing the ball to roll before they ask questions.”
Mr Higgins said that he was concerned that there has been a lack of investment at the ground level within core services. He said: “We need economic investment. We should do more for ourselves and have an ambitious outlook without having to collaborate with people who don’t have a track record. We have the talent and the skills. The officers could lead on the projects themselves. We just have a lack of ambition.”
The former county councillor was also critical of the process of democracy at County Hall. He said: “There is a definite deterioration of whats happening at full council. It was a great idea to introduce questions to hold the Executive Board to account. It has become theatre and if a difficult question is asked it gets an aggressive response. The applause for Emlyn (Dole) showing they support him as leader shows an attitude that they would like to stop people asking questions. It is shutting down debate. He (Rob James) has the right to ask the questions. We are starting to go down the road of stopping someone asking questions and accusing them of jeopardising the project. Councillors should do more to involve local residents too.”
Mr Higgins had high praise for former ‘rottweiler’ of the council Bill Thomas, who he said was a man who did ask the difficult questions. He said: “Let’s be honest the electorate value straight talkers. Don’t gloss over it, let’s be frank with public and local councillors. People can see the risks and benefits. What we get instead is big glossy press releases. There are not many like Bill Thomas doing the asking in the chamber. I always defended Bill’s right to ask the questions. Rob (James) does it a lot more in other meetings.”
Speaking about the council’s own PR machine Mr Higgins said: “The council are media savvy. They know how to do the PR well. There has been massive investment in the press office. The council need to change priorities. Councils love regeneration but that is not a statutory service. There are still these big economic projects coming up. They are concentrating too much on the glossy economic stuff. The world has changed. If we invested in those statutory services we could be building new houses and new care homes.”
When asked if there was a disconnect between the council and the elected AM’s and MPs in Carmarthenshire Mr Higgins said: “I know Lee Waters has launched an economical plan for Llanelli. He has a great grounding in third sector. He spoke to private sector industry experts and there needs to be more of that cross party collaboration. I am afraid it is a leadership issue. The attitude is that ‘you cant work with them because they are labour’. The public want to see politicians working together. We all want more jobs across Carmarthenshire. You have to drop the partisan politics to achieve that.”
We asked Carmarthenshire County Council for the figure already spent on the Wellness Centre and an estimated figure on the spend before any construction takes place.
We have not received a response. (20, 12) We have been asked to submit an FOI.
The email reply to the FOI request by Mr Higgins is as follows:
Dear Mr Higgins,
I refer to your request for information, which was received on 29th September, 2018 and has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The specific information you requested was as follows:
The up to date Council expenditure on the Delta Lakes wellbeing project, including an estimate of Council Officers time as a cost to the Council.
In response, as of 18th October 2018, Carmarthenshire County Council has expended £308,298.13 on the Llanelli Wellness and Life Science Village development.
This is an aggregated project cost with partner contributions deducted, and includes outline planning fees, legal services, staffing, I.T and other associated expenditure. We would expect a significant proportion to be reclaimed through the Swansea Bay City Deal investment.
We managed to find more details on the spend, which gives the actual figure as £1,281,699.10
The spreadsheet is available here: Delta
Callum Higgins was County Councillor for Tycroes from 2012 to 2017. He served as Chair of the Audit Committee for three years. He stood for election as MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr at the 2015 General Election. He now works within the third sector.
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