POLITICAL leaders in Carmarthenshire clashed in a heated exchange over questions about the £200m Wellness and Life Science Village planned for Llanelli.
Council leader Emlyn Dole accused Labour’s Rob James at full council of undermining the city deal project, while Cllr James said his Plaid counterpart and his administration did not like any scrutiny.
Cllr James asked for an overview on how and why the private sector partner — Sterling Health Security Holdings — had been chosen.
The Plaid leader said a development partner was sought via a “prior inquiry notice” and questionnaire, that a notice was placed in the Official Journal of the European Union, and a tender issued to solicit interest from organisations or consortia.
Bidders, he said, were asked to submit a pre-qualification questionnaire.
Cllr Dole said 34 organisations viewed the pre-qualification questionnaire, with just one bidder submitting it.
He said this bid was deemed to be compliant and that it led to dialogue sessions and workshops attended by key council officers, plus representatives from other project partners including Swansea University.
“This concluded with a collaboration agreement, signed between Carmarthenshire County Council, Swansea University and Sterling Health Security Holdings,” he said.
Cllr James asked about the transparency of the process given, he said, that the council had previously signed a 12-month exclusivity agreement with a company called Kent Neurosciences whose directors “were virtually the same” as Sterling Health’s.
Cllr Dole said this had all been outlined previously at an executive board meeting, and added: “I’m just wondering why would you want to try to presumably undermine that process.
“Why do you choose to attack what we intend to do at Delta Lakes?”
He outlined the benefits of the project, which he said was expected to create some 1,800 jobs over the next 15 years, generate £467m for the local economy and create many education opportunities.
“What part of that don’t you like?” he said.
Cllr James replied: “It does not appear that the leader was able to answer the first question, so we will try another one.”
In reply to the next question about who the directors were for the project’s “joint venture partner”, Cllr Dole said they were yet to be confirmed and that legal advice had been sought about the most beneficial corporate structure and shareholding agreement for the council to enter into.
Cllr James also asked about Sterling Health’s directors, which he said included former council leader Meryl Gravell, and what experience they could bring to the project.
Cllr Dole said Sterling Health was partnered with world-leading architects, medical device companies and medical consultants, among other things, and then named four directors, which did not include Mrs Gravell.
Cllr James said: “I think it’s concerning that the leader is not telling us what role the former leader has?”
According to Companies House, Mrs Gravell’s director role ended on November 6 this year.
The debate then moved to how the £200m Delta Lakes scheme would be funded.
Cllr Dole said it would comprise £40m city deal funding, £32m from the council and £127.5m from the private sector.
He added there was significant interest from major financial institutions and that all the requisite due diligence would be carried out.
Cllr James then said a financial statement from 2017 indicated that Sterling Health had £137,000 of liabilities and was relying on loans from its directors to continue trading.
“How does this council expect this company to make a financial contribution to the £127m?” he said.
The Plaid leader replied that new corporate vehicles — also called special purpose vehicles — would be set up which would have the effect of a “clean slate start”.
They would, he added, incorporate business plans, a risk register and policies designed to protect the council, including the accountability and recognition required of local authority governance.
In response to a subsequent question about consultancy fees incurred by the Plaid-led administration since 2015, including ones relating to city deal projects, Cllr Dole said it would take three or four council officers the best part of a week to answer — plus input from other public sector city deal partners.
Renewing his attack on the Labour leader, Cllr Dole said: “I am starting to wonder — do you really want this wellness village to happen? What exactly is your problem here?”
Cllr James replied: “I just think this highlights that this administration just does not like scrutiny.”
He said there were so many questions to be answered, and added: “All you are doing is saying: ‘It’ll be all right on the night’.”
The Labour leader then called on his opposite number to halt the “outsourcing” of council work to companies which he said had reduced public oversight.
“No,” was Cllr Dole’s answer.
The Labour leader said: “It’s clear from this exchange that this administration is in over its head and is being led down a very dark path.
“Do you really believe that the public are going to trust you with the public purse going forward?”
Cllr Dole said: “That one is ‘yes’.”
The Plaid leader added the companies to which Cllr James referred had the same relationship to the authority as the authority had to any of its departments and that 80% of their activities had to be for the benefit of their public sector owner.
Cllr Dole also said the Labour Welsh Government had approved the region’s city deal and that councils across Wales were having to come up with new ways of delivering services that people relied on.
He said this was due to limited council funds and the priorities set by a “tired and inept Welsh Labour Government”.
Cllr Dole added that more money had come from the UK Treasury to Cardiff Bay but that the latter’s leaders were running their own form of austerity “and we are at the sharp end”.
The £200m Wellness and Life Science Village planned for Delta Lakes, Llanelli, is to include:
A leisure centre
A wellness hub
Life sciences institute
A wellness hotel
Assisted living accommodation
Cycling and walking routes
A children’s play area
An outline planning application is due to be considered in the coming months and the project completed in full in 2023.