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Controversial council boss to step down

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THE CONTROVERSIAL Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, Mark James, is to retire.

Mr James, who has served the council for 17 years, will retire later this year when he turns 60.

He has spent over 40 years in local government, taking up post in Carmarthenshire in March 2002 and previously serving as Chief Executive at Boston Borough Council. He has also worked in Westminster and Barnet in London.
He received the CBE in the Queen’s 2012 New Year Honours.

Carmarthenshire County Council will now begin the process to recruit a new Chief Executive before Mr James leaves in June.

“It has been an honour and privilege to lead a great team of officers at Carmarthenshire over the last 17 years,” he said.

“The Council has delivered so much over that time including the development and regeneration of Carmarthen Town Centre, Eastgate and Y Ffwrnes Theatre in Llanelli town centre, Machynys, Parc y Scarlets, Pemberton, Burry Port Harbour and Xcel Bowl.

“We have delivered new care homes, £250m of new schools all over the county including Bro Dinefwr and QE High, a new leisure centre in Carmarthen, business and retail parks in Cross Hands, invested £220m modernising our 9000 homes and became the first in Wales to build new council homes since the 1980s, and so much more.
“I have been delighted to be part of this exciting regeneration of our County. I want to pay tribute to the many Councillors who have helped to shape this programme of development and to thank them for their support and confidence.”

He added: “Having been a Chief Executive for over 23 years, it is now time to hand over the reins. Whilst it is a rewarding and satisfying job, it is also highly demanding and all-consuming. I wish my successor all the very best and know that the fantastic team of officers at the Council will continue to deliver first class services and developments for Carmarthenshire.”

Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader of the Council, said: “Mark has been a great leader and ambassador for Carmarthenshire. He has delivered so much in his time as Chief Executive and we will miss him enormously.

“I thank him for his tireless dedication to the County and for his unstinting and selfless work to regenerate Carmarthenshire. We owe him a huge thanks and gratitude for all he has done over the past 17 years.”

Cllr Mair Stephens, Deputy Leader of the Council, added: “Mark has truly been Mr Carmarthenshire. Over the years he has shown how much he cares for Carmarthenshire – whether that be just recently personally visiting and supporting residents and businesses in the communities affected by floods, or working tirelessly to secure millions of pounds to transform our schools and towns and create employment for local people.

“His guidance and dedication is something we have come to rely on. He will be a hard act to follow, but we wish him all the very best. He leaves with our enormous thanks for a job very well done.”

While Mr James’ tenure and achievements have been praised by the Council’s leadership and by himself, his time as CEO has been dogged by controversy, particularly over his apparent penchant for large building projects.

Parc y Scarlets has offered no return to the Council on its eight-figure investment while the value of the asset secured by its investment has declined to the point where any capital receipt would be less than the sum advanced by the Council. Many other developments launched with hugely optimistic predictions of their economic worth have imploded or failed to achieve anything like the economic impact predicted.

The Beacon Centre is almost wholly occupied by council-backed entities instead of acting as an incubator for new business; the Eastgate Centre has proved an unattractive centre for retail business; it is only after denuding Llanelli Town Centre by approving out of town developments in the past that the current administration is taking belated steps to rectify the massive misjudgement which left west Wales’ largest town centre a business and retail desert.

The development of part of the retail park at Cross Hands was highlighted as a questionable use of huge sums of public money, while funding which should have been directed to an independent social services project was misused to support the Council’s own social services budget.

Even schools which have been built were left with difficulties arising from entirely foreseeable problems with drainage and traffic.

The Xcel bowl, or as it has become known ‘God’s Bowling Alley’ is operated by a controversial evangelical group and has required repeated propping up by the local authority. In one budget, in which support for learning disabled students was cut, the Xcel Bowl received a massive discretionary grant.

A tax avoidance scheme entered into by Mr James with the connivance of a supine Executive Board was ruled unlawful by the Wales Audit Office.

Ever since that point, and the events related below, the Council has treated the Wales Audit Office with disdain and attempted to rubbish its findings where they embarrass the authority.

However, Mr James’ tenure has been most marked by the County Council’s support of him in a libel action against local blogger Jacqui Thompson. Mr James was on the point of settling a case for libel brought against him by Ms Thompson before the then County Council proceeded to offer him an unlawful indemnity in relation to his costs.

At that point, Mr James promised to reimburse the Council if he was successful and withdrew his settlement offer.
His victory in the proceedings, widely criticised in the national press, was followed by an apparently determined personal campaign against Jacqui Thompson coordinated from County Hall.

At a hearing in 2017, in which it was pointed out Mr James had undertaken to repay the Council for its indemnity, he recanted and said, through his lawyer, that he could throw the money in the gutter if he wanted.

Mr James’ vigorous promotion of the City Deal and the Delta Lakes project has led him into difficult waters in which his sure-footedness appears to have deserted him.

Whether the Delta Lakes project goes ahead or not, Carmarthenshire will be counting the cost of Mark James CBE for years to come.

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Significant step forward for Llanelli’s multi-million-pound Pentre Awel

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LLANELLI’S ground-breaking Pentre Awel project has taken a major step forward paving the way for building work to start as early as this autumn.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee has today (Thursday, June 23) approved reserved matters for access, appearance, landscaping, layout and scale for Zone One of the landmark project.

It follows the outline planning application, which was granted back in August 2019, and means work can officially commence on-site.

Pentre Awel is the first development of its scope and size in Wales providing world-class medical research and health care delivery and supporting and encouraging people to lead active and healthy lives.

Detailed design work has been undertaken on Zone One, which will bring together education, business, research, leisure and health in a single building. These facilities will be linked together in a ‘street’ layout, connected by a central atrium comprising a reception, café and other public amenities. The street will be the community heart of the village with lots of exhibition space and breakout areas enjoying spectacular views across the lake, and to the Loughor Estuary and Carmarthen Bay.

The designs showcase the council’s ambition to create a development that is landscape-led, connected to local communities and amenities and is sustainable. The  facilities will maximise the use of daylight and natural ventilation where possible, and bring the ‘outside inside’ to promote good physical and mental wellbeing.

Externally, Pentre Awel will enjoy landscaped outdoor public spaces for recreation, with walking and cycling paths and stunning coastal views, all set around the freshwater lake as a key defining feature.

Site clearance, ground investigation and ecology works have already started on site with ‘spade-in-the-ground-works’ expected to get underway this autumn and full completion estimated for summer 2024.

Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Leisure, Culture and Tourism Cllr Gareth John said: “This is yet another exciting step forward for this ambitious and truly innovative project that will benefit people locally in Llanelli, as well as across Carmarthenshire and South West Wales as a whole.

“Pentre Awel will deliver a significant programme of community benefits and economic regeneration across the county, creating major employment and training opportunities, along with world-class leisure and health facilities for our residents.

“It is important that local businesses benefit from this project, and I was delighted that more than 100 businesses recently attended a ‘Meet the Buyer’ event at Parc y Scarlets to find out more about the opportunities available. I look forward to seeing building work starting on site very soon.”

Pentre Awel is being delivered by Carmarthenshire County Council in partnership with Hywel Dda University Health Board, Universities and Colleges including Cardiff University, Coleg Sir Gȃr, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Swansea University. It is part-funded by the Swansea Bay City Deal (£40million).

As well as improving health and wellbeing, the project will create over 1,800 jobs and training/apprenticeship opportunities, and is expected to boost the local economy by a £467million over the next 15 years.

Bouygues UK has been awarded a two-stage design and build contract for Zone One with a key focus on social value to ensure employment and training opportunities for local people are maximised during the construction phase.

Zone One includes a new state-of-the-art leisure centre; hydrotherapy pool; education, research and business development space; a clinical research and delivery centre with community level clinical trials; and a well-being skills centre delivering health and care training.

Later phases of the scheme include a hotel, a range of social and affordable housing, assisted living accommodation and a nursing home.

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The Welsh Government launches Basic Income pilot scheme

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FROM 1 July 2022, more than 500 people leaving care in Wales will be offered £1600 each month (before tax) for two years to support them as they make the transition to adult life.

Launched by First Minister Mark Drakeford, it is hoped the pilot will set care leavers on a path to live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.

The radical approach has trust, autonomy and respect at its centre. It will provide independence and security to people who have faced immense challenges during their childhood, giving them greater control and empowering them to make decisions about their future.

The £20 million pilot, which will run for three years, will be evaluated to carefully examine its effect on the lives of those involved

Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt said the scheme is a direct investment in the lives and futures of some of Wales’ most vulnerable young people.

Those taking part in the pilot will also receive individual advice and support to help them manage their finances and develop their financial and budgeting skills.

Local authorities will play a key role in supporting them throughout the pilot. Voices from Care Cymru will also work with the young people to give them advice on wellbeing, education, employment and help them plan their future after the pilot.

To launch the scheme, First Minister Mark Drakeford, Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt and Deputy Minister for Social Services Julie Morgan met with people taking part in the pilot, and young people who themselves have been in care, to talk about the impact this support will have on peoples’ lives.

They discussed how they hope the financial stability will give people the opportunity to make positive life choices as they leave care and provide a more solid foundation from which to build their adult lives.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We want all our young people to have the best possible chance in life and fulfil their full potential. The state is the guardian of people leaving care and so has a real obligation to support them as they start their adult life.

“Our focus will be on opening up their world to all its possibilities and create an independence from services as their lives develop.

“Many of those involved in this pilot don’t have the support lots of people – myself included – have been lucky enough to enjoy as we started out on our path to adulthood.

“Our radical initiative will not only improve the lives of those taking part in the pilot, but will reap rewards for the rest of Welsh society. If we succeed in what we are attempting today this will be just the first step in what could be a journey that benefits generations to come.”

Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt said:

“We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis like no other and we therefore need new ways of supporting people who are most in need.

“Our Basic Income pilot is an incredibly exciting project giving financial stability to a generation of young people. Too many people leaving care face huge barriers to achieving their hopes and ambitions; such as problems with getting a safe and stable home, to securing a job and building a fulfilling career. This scheme will help people live a life free of such barriers and limitations.

“We will carefully evaluate the lessons learnt from the pilot. Listening to everyone who takes part will be crucial in determining the success of this globally ambitious project. We will examine whether Basic Income is an efficient way to support society’s most vulnerable and not only benefit the individual, but wider society too.”

Tiff Evans of Voices from Care Cymru, speaking on behalf of young people who have experienced care, said: “This is a brilliant opportunity for care leavers in Wales. It is good to see that care leavers in Wales are being thought of and Welsh Government are providing this opportunity for them as young people to become responsible, control some parts of their lives and have a chance to thrive and be financially independent.

“We thank Welsh Government for investing in them and their future and we look forward to other changes and developments for care experienced young people in Wales in order for them to reach life aspirations.”

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Community checks out new Carmarthenshire Policing Hub and Custody Suite

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POLICE and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn today (24.06.22) hosted an open doors event for local stakeholders at Dyfed-Powys’ new Custody Suite and Policing Hub, that is currently under construction at Dafen, Llanelli Carmarthenshire.

Planning permission was granted to the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner by Carmarthenshire County Council back in April 2021 for the proposed development, which is to be an ambitious sustainable construction, with a BREEAM excellence rating.

Wilmott Dixon, who are the Construction Contractor have been on site since autumn preparing for the first construction phases, with specific progress now beginning made on the development, that aims to be completed by May 2023.

PCC Dafydd Llywelyn said; “This is a major investment for us which will see an ambitious, modern, sustainable fit for purpose policing hub and custody suite that will meet the needs and expectations of modern policing. 

“During the planning application process between 2020 and 2021, we engaged widely with the local community,  and It was a pleasure to open the door, and welcome local community representatives to the construction site today, to show the progress that has been made to date.

“I’ve worked extremely hard with partners over recent years to ensure that we get to this position and I now look forward to seeing the construction work continue to develop at pace over the year”.

In being a BREEAM related development, the new build will offer a more sustainable environment, that aims to enhance the well-being of the people who work within it, and help protect natural resources.

Amongst some of the sustainable credentials of the new build will be a photovoltaic solar power installation to minimise the carbon footprint of the building; a rainwater harvesting facility for toilets and non-potable water, and electric car charging facilities.

Chief Inspector Richard Hopkin, Dyfed-Powys Police’s operational lead on the new build, said: “We feel very fortunate to be having a new build custody suite and hub coming to Llanelli.

“Our current Llanelli estate is old, so to see a new build that is being designed with such consideration for the environment and the wellbeing of our staff and the community within which it sits is really positive.

“The development will provide a fit for purpose, future proof solution which will complement the town centre Neighbourhood Police Team base.”

Ian Jones, Director at Willmott Dixon commented, “This is the first project that we have worked on with Dyfed Powys Police, and as part of what has being a collaborative partnership, we are delighted to have the opportunity to deliver this development. 

“This is a purpose‐built, new custody suite to replace and supplement provision of custody within Carmarthenshire which will provide excellent facilities to meet the needs of modern law enforcement and detainee wellbeing for Dyfed Powys Police. 

“We were delighted to have the opportunity to welcome guests to the site to show them first-hand how construction is progressing.”

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