GOVERNMENT and council officials have been “locked in for a day” to finalise business cases for two city deal projects for the Swansea Bay City Region, a leading politician has said.
Councillor Rob Stewart said he was confident that UK and Welsh Government ministers were, as a result, being recommended to release £31m.
This would be the first sight of a £241m Government contribution over 15 years to the £1.3bn city deal, more than two years after the deal’s heads of terms were signed.
Cllr Stewart, who is chairman of a key city deal group called the joint committee, spoke at length at a scrutiny meeting attended by elected representatives of the four participating authorities – Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.
“Everything at this point suggests we are heading to an imminent sign-off (of money),” he said. “But the proof of the pudding will be when ministers get their pens out.”
And he cautioned that any announcement could be restricted if European Parliament elections take place in the UK in late May.
The urgent get-together of officials had been recommended by one of two governance reviews of the city deal. Cllr Stewart said officials were “locked in for a good day”.
Cllr Stewart expressed surprise at the scrutiny meeting at a recent report by Neath Port Talbot Council chief executive Steve Phillips, which said leaving the city deal might be “the only logical course of action” for the authority, given the apparent lack of progress and an ongoing investigation of employees at Swansea University – a key city deal partner.
Neath Port Talbot Council will consider altering three of its city deal projects, but could pull out entirely if progress isn’t made in the coming months.
“I was a bit surprised to see the tone in the Neath Port Talbot Council report,” said Cllr Stewart.
He said he understood some of the council’s frustrations, but said comments made by its leader Rob Jones were “much more measured and balanced”.
Cllr Stewart said the joint committee expected to see project progress from the authority in the coming weeks and months.
“The ball is now in their court,” he said.
All four authorities, he said, needed to develop their projects and bring them to the joint committee.
“It is time for grown-up politics,” he said.
Also at the scrutiny meeting was Carmarthenshire Council chief executive Mark James, who said some of the 11 projects had made good progress – despite none being signed off yet by Government as yet – while others had not.
Mr James said: “I ask the question – why the projects haven’t moved? One of the projects in Neath Port Talbot has not budged at all.
“I think there are real questions.”
The scrutiny committee heard that if Neath Port Talbot Council was to pull out of the deal, its projects would be offered to the other three councils to lead on – and that Government money earmarked for them would still be on offer.
Mr James and Cllr Stewart also rejected suggestions that the city deal had lost the high-tech vision set out by its early architect, entrepreneur Sir Terry Matthews.
Mr James said at one point the proposed deal had 24 projects and sought £480m of Government funding, but was “not going anywhere”.
He said the city deal which was eventually agreed has four distinct digital themes, and that this version had been approved by a board chaired by Sir Terry.
“We have not moved away from anything,” said Mr James.
He and Cllr Stewart also bridled at criticism from one of the two reviews about incomplete business cases for the 11 projects being provided to Government officials.
Cllr Stewart said: “The reason for incomplete business cases is because we were directed to do that.”
The plan, he said, was for officials to comment on them and suggest alterations to keep the process moving.
Mr James said: “It was ironic and disengenuous for them (the two Governments) to say they were unhappy with that process.
“It was a process which was incredibly frustrating – waiting four or five months to get comments back. Sometimes 70 questions. Then a different official, so we had to start again.”
The scrutiny committee was told there was also frustration from the Governments’ point of view.
Mr James said the joint committee was now working with different Government officials with experience in the delivery of projects, rather than “the policy side of Government”.
Cllr Stewart said: “I will praise the the new Welsh Government official – he has made a huge difference.”
Cllr Stewart also said work was under way to implement some of the recommendations of the reviews, including the appointment of a managing director, to improve governance and speed up delivery.
Committee members asked about adding a regional Metro transport project to the city deal portfolio.
Cllr Stewart said he was in favour of this, but said a lot more Government funding would be required.
He called on all city deal partners to pull together and deliver “a once-in-generation opportunity to turbocharge our economy”.
The scrutiny committee will now request that Neath Port Talbot Council’s leader and chief executive, among others, attend a future meeting.
Scrutiny committee member, Councillor Tony Baron, said it was “incumbent” on the two Governments to make city deal funding available.
But he added: “This scrutiny committee must be satisfied that the governance structure is adequate for what is trying to be done.”