Jacob Williams
Tuesday 29th November, 2016

Many questions?

Many questions?

Next Thursday’s full council meeting will be the first to feature questions submitted by the public.

For those sensing a bit of déjà vu this was the proposal I put to council as far back as 2013.

It was nearly introduced at the time, and was given a rare seal of approval by the council’s senior officers, who recommended its adoption.

Officer approval may be rare, but my proposal was unprecedentedly given a nod by the council’s capo di tutti capi, the erstwhile chief exec Bryn Parry-Jones, when it came up for discussion at the council’s corporate governance committee.

The Porsche-driving Oxford law graduate said the wording of my public questions policy was better than the version drafted by the Welsh Government’s lawyers.

Whilst only a whisker away from gaining almost certain approval by full council, there were no celebrations as Cllr. Jamie Adams – who would be fielding the public’s questions as the council’s leader – put up one of his well-practised diversionary arguments.

It wasn’t difficult to detect his opposition to the idea, but, without having to admit as much he dressed up his lack of support as ‘concern.’

Concern that, if approved, the council would be adopting a new constitution in a “piecemeal” approach, whereas he wanted the constitution to be reviewed in its totality.

With his ruling party’s zealots ready to support anything he said, he got what he wanted – the proposal was effectively dead, kicked into the long grass, without having to win or even take part in an argument.

Here we are, near the end of the 2012-2017 council term, and PCC’s new constitution finally came into action earlier this month.

Whilst I’m pleased it includes the hard fought right for the public to ask questions at council meetings, it’s not quite what I had proposed – my drafting allowed questioners the chance to read their question and to ask a follow-up.

It’s one of several proposals I’ve spearheaded to open up the council to public scrutiny and provide more accountability. Another of mine was that the council leadership post should be elected annually, instead of serving the whole council term.

This one followed a similar story.

I came within a single vote of success in December 2014 when I first proposed it. The narrow defeat was encouraging, so the following year I resubmitted it. This time it was bundled in with other well-meaning proposals to be considered as part of ‘the ongoing review of the council’s constitution.’

This process, which concluded in the summer, included a failed effort by deputy leader Cllr. Keith Lewis, arguing that the leader should be elected for the whole council term.

The best support I could manage at the adoption of the new constitution in July’s full council meeting was for a leadership election every other year – and even that was a struggle, but progress nonetheless.

The agenda will be published later this week for next week’s (Thursday 8th) full council meeting, where I know of two members of the public who availed themselves of the chance to submit a question – both have previously commented on this blog.

David Edwards asks:

Whilst applauding the decision of the Leader to consult the public about potential savings needed to be made by the Council, would he agree that the savings are more easily made from the discretionary, not mandatory, items in the budget.

To assist those members of the public who wish to engage in the consultation will he provide a list for each Department of those items which are mandatory, so can’t be cut, and those which are discretionary so can be cut?

Ryan Dansie asks:

In the agenda for the 24th November Policy O&S committee, options for a number of possible changes to the waste collection service were published. Options under consideration include a 3 weekly collection of black bags and a limit on the number of black bags collected per household.

The executive summary report and forward work programme indicate that a decision on these changes will be made by Cabinet in January. A public consultation has not been carried out prior to the Policy O&S meeting and no attempt has been made to publicise the rights of the public to participate in the scrutiny process for these options being considered. Do cabinet see any value in seeking the views of the public on this matter, and therefore will a public consultation be carried out prior to the cabinet decision being made?

They’ll need to be present for the meeting with “evidence of identity,” apparently, or their questions will be binned.

The 2017 election must be approaching fast, as many more questions and motions have been submitted by councillors than usual.

It’s probably just as well the chairman’s post-meeting Christmas dinner reception has been abolished, or the turkey slices would be curling up at the edges by tucking in time.

Due diligence

Back in businessThe council’s financial involvement in a possible Haverfordwest riverside multiplex cinema scheme has been much discussed, but with no official word on how the reputed seven-figure sum would be appropriated.

A suggestion doing the rounds is that this wouldn’t be a loan or gift to any particular developer, but spent by the council on remodelling the adjacent multi-storey car park and the area around the bus stop.

Meanwhile, cabinet yesterday morning approved the long-term loan of £365,000 to Pembrokeshire Frame – the noble charity doing sterling work helping disabled and disadvantaged adults with employment and training.

Well, they did and they didn’t – the devil is in the detail.

The arrangement, common to PCC, was used whereby cabinet members happily delegate to unelected officers the power to see through financial deals on terms the officers see fit, without coming back for approval. Often this includes the sale of assets and buildings for terms – and even prices – deemed suitable by senior officers.

What cabinet approved with regard to Pembrokeshire Frame’s loan, according to the official written record of yesterday’s cabinet meeting, was:

(a) That a loan of up to £365k be made available to Pembrokeshire Frame Ltd for a period of 20 years; and that the Director of Finance and Head of Legal and Committee Services be delegated authority to negotiate and agree terms to facilitate the loan, subject to appropriate due diligence.

(b) That a representative of the Authority be required to sit on the Pembrokeshire Frame Ltd Board of Trustees throughout the period of the loan.

Readers may or may not be reassured that PCC’s current trustee representative is the venerable Cllr. Rev. Huw George.

But what stood out for JW was the final two words of cabinet’s resolution (a) – “due diligence.”

These words were nowhere to be found in the report to cabinet, on which the loan was predicated – although it did state that, legally, if such a loan was to gain cabinet members’ support, it:

“…would have to be financed from the Council’s reserves or supported borrowing, both of which are already earmarked for specific purposes or projects.”

The report, by the council’s newly-promoted director of finance, Jon Haswell, says that Pembrokeshire Frame has “current loans totalling £315,000 and require a further £50,000 to provide working capital.”

And that:

“If Cabinet determine not to approve the loan, Pembrokeshire Frame Ltd do have an alternative source where the finance can be obtained.”

Back to due diligence, it just so happens that, days before cabinet met to approve this loan, I had tabled the following question to be answered by the leader at next week’s full council meeting:

Could the leader please outline the process by which Pembrokeshire Frame Limited’s request for financial assistance came to be placed on the agenda of his cabinet’s 28th November meeting, including who was approached at the council, and a breakdown of the due diligence carried out?

Coincidence? You decide!

I looked back and found no reference to ‘due diligence,’ either, in the record of this summer’s cabinet meeting which offered the developers of the former Narberth school site a third off the previously agreed sale price and a huge loan – which is, to this day, a secret figure.

On that occasion PCC’s cabinet lineup followed the advice of the council’s director of development, Dr. Steven Jones, that he and the council’s finance chief should be “authorised to negotiate and agree terms to facilitate the loan.”

Maybe that’s where cabinet went wrong – the need to carry out due diligence needs to be a recorded instruction, not just implied.

On the same cabinet agenda, yesterday, we saw the future of Tenby’s Avenue Centre for disabled adults quietly brought back into question.

This is all for the sake of money, not, as they would say, to secure the ‘best provision’ for these vulnerable citizens.

At the same time, the council can free up money for, by their own admission, vulnerable commercial projects.

Speaking of which, I’ve tabled a second question to next week’s full council meeting on the Narberth situation:

Could the leader provide an update on any progress in relation to the redevelopment of the council’s former Narberth school site by the chosen developer, and say how confident he is that the project will comply with the December 31st commencement deadline imposed by cabinet?

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  • Ryan Dansie

    I withdrew my question about the waste service after watching the overview and scrutiny meeting last Thursday. They gave assurances that no decision will be made in the January cabinet meeting and that there will be a public consultation. I would have waited but the 10 day deadline for submitting questions meant I had to submit it by Wednesday.

    A new consultation with online questionnaire has been published on the PCC website today at this link. This includes a lot of questions about the waste service review along with other cost saving measures being considered. Definitely worth a look.

  • Keanjo

    Thank you for this very full report Jacob.

    On the subject of questions from the public to the Council, why is it necessary for the person posting the question to attend the meeting? Surely this disadvantages employed people who would need to lose a day’s pay to ask a question.

    To me it sounds like a ploy by officers to cut down on the many questions needing a reply.

  • Malcolm Calver

    Jacob, I note reading your website article it mentions a request from Frame to increase their loan facility.

    I wonder why they are coming to the council if, as stated, they have “an alternative source of finance”.

    Surely if Frame do have an alternative source of finance they should be asked to tap into it.

  • Morgi

    Due diligence, board of trustees, representing the authority for the period of the loan…it’s not that long ago that the Rev Councillor George demonstrated his arithmetic competence with his explanation of the payments in lieu of pension to BPJ and how it benefitted everyone!

    At least the loan would be to an organisation with honourable objectives.

    Does the representative receive anything like a SRA for this task?

  • Faux Espoir

    The protocol for sustainable loans/grants needs to be scrutinised carefully by members, who can and should ensure the information is easily read in the public domain.

    The agenda has been published for Thursday’s meeting alongside the number of consultations in place for the council and of course the two meetings when the public are being asked where they can save the Council money.

    Number 1: Don’t offer a ‘Head of Transformation’ post with a salary of £80k+pa.

    Every reader Jacob should write to their local councillor to voice their concerns on the proposed post, but also on the agenda items, grants investigation et al, hopefully before the meeting on Thursday.

    The councillors in position until May 2017 need to be proactive in their decision making and work for the public that they are serving.

  • John Hudson

    The Director of Finance advised that there was no slack in the council’s budget for this loan of up to £350,000 (whatever the amount) and therefore it could only be financed from the council’s reserves or supported borrowing both of which are earmarked for specific purposes or projects. There is no money for this unless WE forgo other current identified approved purposes and projects.

    In reaching its decision to agree this loan, without knowing or caring was these purposes and projects are, can the cabinet itself be said to have applied appropriate due diligence and considered all relevant matters? It appears to be a complete disregard of its fiduciary responsibility.

    It should not be for officers to determine which of the council’s approved purposes and projects must be scrapped. Cabinet does not have this authority either, but it could and should make a recommendation to council to vary the council’s approved budget.

    Such budget “adjustments” are usually covered up in the blanket Rerised annual outturn budget for the current year, approved by council as part of its next year’s budget.

    Revised outturn budgets are usually nodded through without much, if any, scrutiny and thus by default all budgetary changes made during the year by unelected officers gain council approval. Who knows what has gone on?

    At the time cabinet is disregarding the direct consequential results of its decision, the leader is asking us to comment on savings!

    Incidentally what is the position of the representative of the authority on the Pembrokeshire Frame Ltd board of trustees? As with the proposed culture and leisure trustees, such members owe a legal duty to act in the best interest of the charity.

  • Mayday

    Jamie neatly dodged issuing a list of mandatory and discretionary services, so how can the public be expected to intelligently engage in consultation around budget savings since we don’t have the budget breakdown either?

    Sounded like the Head of Transformation role is already stitched up by an insider too. Surprised they got away with mentioning him by name without the monitoring officer jumping in!

  • Malcolm Calver

    I would agree with Mayday that it seemed obvious watching the webcast who Mr Westley and Cllr Adams have got lined up for the position of Head of Transformation on £90,000+ p.a.

    Surely there is no point in advertising the position as the council have prejudged the issue and any other applicant has no chance of being appointed.

    I note Mr Westley claimed his poor staff are overworked “bless them” and doing four or five jobs. I do not know of anyone who could realistically do five jobs unless they were underworked in the first place.

    Correct me if I got this wrong but I thought we elected county councillors to make sure Pembrokeshire County Council ran efficiently so why do we need another expensive bureaucrat?

  • John Hudson

    When are officers going to throw back cabinet demands for additional spending on projects for which there is no money, until cabinet identifies and tells them what specifically is to be cut?

    Ideally this should be fully costed both for the remaining current part year and for a full year.

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