THE Labour opposition in Carmarthenshire said it was very difficult to examine a £200 million project due to a “climate of secrecy” – but was accused of sabotaging rather than scrutinising it.
Councillors from different parties again exchanged sharp words over the Wellness and Life Science Village – one of 11 city deal projects for the region – which is planned for Llanelli.
The council cut its ties last December with a private sector partner – and its partner Swansea University – on the wellness village project.
Opposition leader, councillor Rob James, presented a motion at full council which called on the authority to endorse two of four recent reviews of the city deal, to accept their recommendations, support the webcasting of city deal committee meetings, and support legally-binding changes to the agreement underpinning the city deal in order to implement necessary changes.
Cllr James said Labour councillors attempting to scrutinise the wellness village and city deal in recent months had been mocked, ridiculed and “even received threats”.
He said the two reviews mentioned in his motion had “completely vindicated” their actions, but that little had been said “in this chamber”.
Cllr James said Labour wanted to ensure that public finances were safeguarded, given the council’s £400 million debt portfolio, and ascertain what private sector partners which invested in the wellness village would get from it, given the private sector element of the project was nearly £130 million.
He also said regaining public confidence was “essential” and that lessons should be learned in order to move on.
Labour councillor Deryk Cundy said the wellness village was “a golden opportunity”, but that scrutinising it was the opposition’s role.
Cllr Cundy said it had been almost impossible to respond to discontent from local businesses a while back about supply chain opportunities for the £200 million scheme, which had prompted further questions.
He said two of the four reviews had given the council a clean bill of health on finance and procurement grounds, but that the two wider city deal reviews showed a lack of checks and balances.
Cllr Cundy added: “Adequate scrutiny was not possible in a climate of secrecy.”
Leader of the Plaid-Independent coalition Emlyn Dole said he would not respond to Labour’s “empty accusations” as the answers were in the two reviews which said the council had acted correctly.
Cllr Dole said his Labour opponent would know that the recommendations of the other two reviews were “the immediate priority” of the city deal’s ruling body – the joint committee – because he had attended its latest meeting.
The Plaid leader said he was all for the webcasting of meetings of the city deal joint committee and the joint scrutiny committee – the latter of which he said Cllr James had only attended once, despite being its vice-chairman.
Cllr Dole introduced an amended motion – namely that the council recommended the city deal joint committee accepted and considered all the recommendations made by all four reviews; ensured the webcasting of joint committee and joint scrutiny committee meetings, where such facilities were available; and supported legally-binding changes to the joint committee agreement to implement the necessary changes.
Former Labour councillor Sharen Davies – now a non-affiliated independent – then said Cllr James had previously tried to prevent her bringing the city deal matter to a council scrutiny committee.
Another non-affiliated independent, Councillor Jeff Edmunds, said everybody wanted to see the wellness project succeed, and added: “Instead of being self-promoting on this, we should be working together.”
Councillor Giles Morgan said senior figures at the council had rescued the wellness village project – which the administration was now looking at other ways of delivering – and had sought legal advice at every important junction.
The affiliated Independent member said the Pembrokershire Council-led review, which had been most critical of city deal governance, had in his view been released early “in an unprofessional manner”.
Cllr Morgan, who serves on the joint scrutiny committee, added: “The Welsh and UK Governments have been next to useless.”
He said the committee had sent letters to Ken Skates (Welsh Government) and Alun Cairns (UK Government) with concerns about how long things seemed to be taking.
Cllr Morgan said Cllr James voiced his concerns about the city deal in the media but was “nowhere to be seen” in the forums where he should be.
In a further dig at the Labour leader, he added: “If it comes from a blog then it must be true. If it comes from council officers, which I don’t think you even talk to, you don’t believe them.”
Cllr James hit back, saying the culture of Carmarthenshire Council was sometimes “absolutely disgusting”.
He said people said one thing in private, then another in the chamber.
Cllr Morgan, he said, was “always a champion of scrutiny” and had said he wanted exempt items made public.
“We are the only authority of the four (taking part in the city deal) which can’t see our exempt items,” said Cllr James. “Is that acceptable to you?
“It’s quite clear that the coalition here is working so closely together that the Independents are no longer independent.”
The Labour leader then said he did in fact talk to council officers, and accused the administration of “passing the buck” with its amendment.
He added: “Pembrokeshire passed their report (city deal review) to their councillors as they have respect for their councillors. What’s unprofessional about that?
“Why can’t we say mistakes have been made, and things can be improved upon?”
Labour councillor John James said there was nothing wrong with his party saying things “that don’t go with the grain”, but said he supported Cllr Dole’s amendment.
Plaid member Alun Lenny said it was right and proper for the opposition to scrutinise the wellness village and any other matter, but added: “There is a difference between scrutiny and sabotage.
“The Labour group leader speaks of rocking public confidence, yet he and his group members have constantly and vehemently taken every opportunity to criticise and put in place obstacles in front of this hugely important project, which will create almost 2,000 jobs.
“If the wellness project does not happen, those who have rocked public confidence will have to explain to the people of Llanelli and Carmarthenshire in general their part in creating an atmosphere of distrust for base political reasons.”
Plaid colleague, councillor Darren Price, said the governance arrangements of the city deal were very complex, but said he had hoped the £1.3 billion deal would have ushered in a “new mature form of politics”.
He said: “I am very disappointed – that has not panned out in practice.”
Cllr Dole closed the debate by reiterating that the administration planned to deliver all elements of the wellness village on time – and his amendment was then passed unanimously.