Libraries, Bus Cuts, Schools Moves & Parc Slip II

                                                                       (Pic: porthcawl-wales.com)

Bridgend Council’s (BCBC) first cabinet meeting of 2015 was held yesterday afternoon, and some interesting items appeared on the agenda. I return to the Parc Slip open-cast issue later too.

BCBC Cultural Services To Be “Outsourced”?


I doubt many of you remember, but late last year, BCBC launched a public consultation on their forthcoming budget proposals. One option on the table was to outsource cultural services to a not-for-profit company (Bridgend’s Cabinet Expansion & Cuts Consultation).

This has already happened with leisure services, with BCBC entering into a similar agreement with Halo Leisure in 2012. At the moment I’d say the partnership is going reasonably well, with Halo investing in the ongoing redevelopment of Bridgend Life Centre, for example.

BCBC propose (pdf p223-293) to develop a business case to create a new not-for-profit distributing organisation (NPDO) to run cultural services. These services include:

  • Public libraries
  • Theatres and venues (including Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion)
  • Community arts projects
  • Community centres
  • Bryngarw House & Country Park
  • Adult learning
The proposal, in principle, was agreed in May 2014, but a more detailed plan is yet to be devised. BCBC also put forward three alternatives to an NPDO: 
  1. Do Nothing.Services listed above remain part or wholly run by BCBC, which will require £3.87million a year. BCBC say this “cannot be recommended”.
  2. Cuts. £625,000 cuts would be passed on to cultural services, which means reduced access to the arts, staff redundancies, possible failure to meet Welsh library standards and closure/mothballing of public buildings.
  3. In-House Efficiencies.BCBC would retain its functions, but would review opening hours, staff and housekeeping. BCBC say this would be, “very difficult to deliver without reducing the quality of services” – some £310,000 has already been “saved” from library services, for example, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to squeeze more.

So the preferred option is a new NPDO. I’m not going to go into the technical details, but consultants drafted five not-for-profit models which could be used, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

It looks like the preferred option is a completely new charitable NPDO, similar to Celtic Leisure which runs leisure services in Neath Port Talbot. BCBC estimate it would save £633,000 by 2017-18. There are specific advantages in terms of VAT and business rates, though the company will still have to run cultural services on a commercial basis. However, any profit would have to be re-invested.

Surprise, surprise, there’ll be another bloody committee for councillors and local people of good standing to sit on and badge to add to their blazers, with talk of a board of 11 trustees.

If approved, this process will start very quickly indeed; the transfer to the NPDO could happen as early as October 2015. Other items of interest include:

  • Maesteg Town Hall (which is run by an independent company) would/could also transfer as the operators are considering surrendering their 99-year lease.
  • The council would be asked to act as the guarantor of the NPDO pension fund.
  • The council will set fees for core services and events, which can’t be changed without their consent. BCBC will remain responsible for structural maintenance, replacements and major repairs.
  • The management agreement for the NPDO will last 20 years with a review every 3 years.

Further Bus Shake-Up On The Way
Two changes to Bridgend county bus services were up for discussion.

Firstly, BCBC are considering introducing a 30p departure charge at Bridgend Bus Station (pdf p145-147). BCBC need to save £100,000 in running costs over the current two financial years, and they considered alternatives like reducing security, putting a shop in the station or reducing opening hours.

As Bridgend is one of the few major bus stations in Wales that’s doesn’t have a departure charge, BCBC opted for that instead. £60,000 has already been saved elsewhere, and it’s estimated a further £43,000 would be raised by introducing the departure charge, as well as installing vending machines in (which would raise an extra £3,000). As the bus station is fairly well-used, I’m sure passengers would welcome the latter.

The second bit of news is more serious (pdf p149-152). Last year, BCBC withdrew subsidies for six Sunday bus services (Babies, Buses, Bro Ogwr & Bikes), though they managed to find agreement with bus operators to retain four of them on a commercial basis.

This year, there’s another – more significant – round of bus subsidy cuts, this time covering weekday services that “are not cost-effective”, which in practical terms means those services which have a subsidy per passenger of £5+.

The affected services are:

  • No. 3 Bridgend to Betws via Sarn (Mon-Sat between 8-9am)
  • No. 15 Bridgend to Betws (Mon-Sat)
  • No. 56Wildmill/Litchard to Brynteg Comprehensive (Mon-Fri term-time only)
  • No. 128 Betws to Nantymoel (Mon-Fri)
  • No. 152 Sarn to Aberkenfig (Mon-Fri Schools/term time only)
The following service was part of the same contract as No.56 and will be re-tendered and retained :
  • No. 61 Nottage-Porthcawl (Mon-Sat)

BCBC believe ending subsidies and/or re-tendering contracts for these services would save £120,000. The council will have to give 12-weeks notice to bus operators, though it’s likely the school services (Nos. 56 & 152) will be withdrawn in September 2015.

Brynmenyn Primary Outgrows Itself

After last week’s post on the Betws Primary replacement, this week sees another new school proposal in the central part of Bridgend county, with a consultation set to be launched on plans to enlarge and relocate Brynmenyn Primary to land next to Coleg Y Dderwen in Ynysawdre (pdf p189-202).

BCBC believe the new/enlarged school is needed to cater for demand due to housing developments in the “Valleys Gateway”, with the three primary schools in the area (Tondu, Bryncethin, Brynmenyn) already over-subscribed. It looks like the aim is for this new school to serve a large bulk of Sarn as well as Brynmenyn.

The new school will be significantly larger (420 places) than the current Brynmenyn Primary (136 places). Also, changes will be made to school catchment areas to ensure a more even spread of pupils. This is because there are concerns about Tondu Primary in particular (which absorbed Pandy Infants School in the last few years) which will struggle to operate on its small single site due to overcrowding.

The current Brynmenyn Primary is less than a mile away from the proposed site, so it’s unlikely to have much opposition. If all goes according to plan, subject to consultation the new school will open in September 2017.

Return of The Parc Slip Monster

Days after my last post on this, BCBC’s Development Control Committee held a meeting where the future of the Parc Slip open-cast site was discussed. The report provides more detail on the background to the scandal, and it gives clearer reasons why restoration hasn’t happened.

Here’s a round-up of the most important points from the report (pdf p32-44):

  • Authorities refused permission to extend mining in 2008, but various appeals prevented BCBC and NPT enacting enforcement notices – on advice of legal counsel – as it could’ve affected the outcome of the appeals, which were eventually thrown out by the courts.
  • Planning Contravention Notices (PCN) were served in February 2013, which confirmed Oak Regeneration’s ownership of the mine and Celtic Energy’s position as mining licence holder.
  • Planning officers from BCBC and NPT would prefer to see the site completely restored as originally agreed, despite proposals for a garden village by Oak Regeneration. In total, Oak Regeneration and Celtic Energy presented 18 different proposals, ranging from projects that require extensive additional mining, limited mining or wholly residential-led development.
  • Restoring Parc Slip will cost £30-40million, but the owners only have £5.7million to cover the work. This money would be used up pumping the water out with nothing left to cover the costs of backfilling the hole.
  • Water levels are being monitored, with the aim of keeping it at a depth of 40m. At the moment it’s slightly above this, though pumps are ready to be installed to keep it at a “safe” level. If water levels reach 51m, there’s a risk it’ll overspill and cause flooding.
  • Network Rail said they may take legal action if flooding affects operation of the Tondu-Margam branch line (which is used for diversions between Bridgend and Port Talbot).
  • Natural Resources Wales are monitoring pollution in the water, and have no serious concerns, but BCBC say, “it’s too early to tell if any water….is a risk to watercourses”.
  • BCBC say that although there’s an expectation from the public and elected representatives that a single enforcement notice would solve the problem, the process is “not always straightforward with regard to complicated sites”. The likelihood of successful legal action against an off-shore landowner is “low” (though no explanation is given).
  • There may be a joint NPT-BCBC public meeting on this held sometime “early in 2015”.

The report presented five options to councillors:
  1. Do Nothing. Oak Regeneration have been silent, while Celtic Energy have washed their hands with it as they say they no longer own the site – though there’s a commitment to pumping the water out on “a temporary basis”. This scenario will lead to the workings filling with water over and over again, putting the stability of the mine’s retention bunds at risk.
  2. Serve an enforcement notice. Only NPT can pursue enforcement as the mine workings lie within their borders, even though the negative effects will be felt by Bridgend county residents in Kenfig Hill. It’s certain that enforcement would fold Oak Regeneration (possibly Celtic Energy too), and costs would then fall on local authorities, who don’t have the money either.
  3. Alternative restoration with further coal mining. Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration propose further extraction of 800,000 tonnes over three years. The restoration would then be residential or leisure-led, with BCBC preferring a resort similar to that proposed at East Pit. There’s likely to be “considerable political and public opposition” to further mining.
  4. Alternative restoration without further mining. The hole will be filled by material that’s already on the site to create a shallower lake, while former roads and paths will be reinstated. The rest of the land would then be used for leisure or energy, but it won’t resemble what it once looked like.
  5. Restore the site using the current available funds (£5.7million). As mentioned this is will only cover the cost of pumping the water out, though engineering works could be undertaken to keep the water at a safe level when it inevitably refills.

BCBC officers recommended options 4 or 5, which would mean the land will never return to exactly how it was.

Both local authorities and the Welsh Government deserve some criticism for this – though not as much as I previously suggested – for a distinct lack of leadership and being overly concerned with proper process when they should’ve grown a spine (take note of what I said here). There’s absolutely no excuses for them not seeing this coming.

Most of the blame and responsibility should now be focused at Celtic Energy and their dodgy offshore subsidiary Oak Regeneration. Not wanting to repeat myself from last time, but they’ve taken local residents and officials for fools and have acted appallingly. It’s all well and good saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but they should never have been awarded mining licences if they were unable to afford restoration works, and the way by which ownership of the mines transferred should be illegal (even if it skirted the edge of legality anyway).

I suppose Option 4 is the best one on the table at the moment, but that’s dependant on the cooperation of Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration, who’ve said sweet FA on this since June 2014 (until the AMs intervened last month) and are still pushing for a residential-based development, which would run roughshod over Bridgend’s Local Development Plan.

I don’t know if there’s a way to punish the two companies, but the onus must now be on the Welsh Government to prevent this happening again elsewhere in Wales.

Based on their track record on open-cast, don’t hold your breath.

 

Owen