Sainsbury’s, the saviour of Carmarthenshire’s school reorganisation plans?
by Pat Dodd Racher, October 16 2012
UPDATE, October 31 2012
Today I had a phone call from Simon Davies, the school modernisation manager with Carmarthenshire County Council.
He told me that the minutes did not mean what they actually said.
He said that the reference to “the new school proposed under the Dinefwr project” was not to the new school but to the improvements planned for Maes yr Yrfa, an existing school that is to remain on its site following the planned merger with Ysgol y Gwendraeth.
This was not what I was told by a council officer a few weeks ago.
Mr Davies conceded that the minutes were misleading.
The original story
To judge from the verbal attacks emanating from Carmarthenshire County Council’s ruling Labour/Independent coalition, directed at Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards and Welsh Assembly member Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the council must have bet its last £10 note on the rise of new retail developments at Cross Hands and Llandeilo. Why else would it have pushed aside all concerns, as raised on behalf of constituents by the local MP and AM (Assembly Member), that the Llandeilo store specifically would worsen the already serious air pollution, add to flood risks, extend into open countryside and lead to closures and job losses in East Carmarthenshire’s recession-hit retail sector?
Cross Hands appears altogether more suitable for a retail superstore, as the site includes a closed-down Kwik Save supermarket and there is already big-store competition within a few hundred yards, from Aldi and the Co-op, and a larger population than at Llandeilo.
Many aspects of the Sainsbury Affair are puzzling, at least to members of the public like me who are totally ignorant of the ‘confidential’ negotiations that have been going on behind the scenes.
Why did Carmarthenshire push so hard for TWO big stores just eight miles apart – when their combined size brought them over the limit at which retail applications had to be referred automatically to the Welsh Assembly ? The two applications were considered on the same day, by the same planning committee (although very little “considering” went on in the public arena, it was mainly a case of officers reading reports, and hands up to vote).
We do not have open access to the answers to the puzzle because, as per Schedule 12A of the Local Government Act 1972, part 1, “Any terms proposed or to be proposed by or to the authority in the course of negotiations for a contract for the acquisition or disposal of property or the supply or goods or services” are exempt from freedom of information requests and cannot be revealed. In this case, I understand that 26 of the 57 acres at the Cross Hands site are the property of Carmarthenshire County Council, and so under the terms of the Local Government Act, negotiations with Sainsbury’s remained secret.
What goes on in sensitive matters like this is often not accessible to councillors themselves, unless the salaried officer who is the Director of the relevant department, after consulting the Monitoring Officer, decides they have a ‘need to know’. As Part 5.5 of the council’s constitution spells out, “mere curiosity is not sufficient. The crucial question is the determination of the ‘need to know’ for a purpose necessary to enable the member to carry out his or her public duties”.
Planning officers’ recommendations to push through both applications, together, and the firing of copious quantities of verbal manure at opponents of the Llandeilo plan, make you wonder what is bubbling under the surface, and a clue came when I was reading the minutes of the Education and Children Scrutiny Committee* for September 27th 2012. The minutes refer to the ‘Crosshands West’ site, bordering Maes yr Yrfa school (which would benefit from improvements, courtesy of Sainsbury’s). The minutes say:
“It was asked what impact the Crosshands West development would have on the new school proposed under the Dinefwr project. The Director advised the two developments had been worked up in tandem and involved transfer of land (my emphasis). The Crosshands West planning decision had however been called in and the Authority now had to wait for the Welsh Government’s decision.”
To those like me looking in from the outside, the meanings are not crystal clear, but the minutes suggest that the ‘two developments’ are the proposed new comprehensive school, to replace the nearby Tregib and 13-mile-distant Pantycelyn, on land near the river Tywi at Ffairfach, and the planned Sainsbury’s at Cross Hands. If the Cross Hands superstore is not approved, it seems there would be adverse repercussions on the plan to build a new comprehensive school. Just where Sainsbury’s application for a store and online shopping depot at Llandeilo fits in is not entirely clear to me, but given that the Cross Hands and Llandeilo applications have been considered in tandem, as it were, it seems that they too are linked.
There was another warning flagged up in the Scrutiny Committee minutes. The Director of Education and Children’s Services was asked what would happen to the three secondary schools to be vacated under the ‘Modernising Education’ plan, namely Tregib and Pantycelyn, and Gwendraeth, the latter because of its merger with Maes yr Yrfa.
The Director replied that there “was not yet a clear strategy for the three sites which would be vacated under the Dinefwr project” and that discussions with local communities would be necessary. He added that “the property market was extremely flat and a vacant school site had recently sold at a very low value. He reminded the Committee that the capital receipts for school sites were used to support the delivery of the MEP” (the Modernising Education Programme to replace five secondary schools with three, my emphasis).
The difficulties of piecing all this together arise because of the high levels of confidentiality enveloping council business, a determination to protect data that sometimes prevents us, in our capacity of voters, from holding councils properly to account. Even if I have not interpreted all the detail correctly, the written record indicates a link between Sainsbury’s planning applications, and the council’s capacity to implement fully its school reorganisation plans. Am I right or wrong?