A COUNCIL’S decision to spend £620,000 on a 3G pitch, after it missed out on Levelling Up cash from the UK Government won’t be referred to the Wales Audit Office.
Conwy County Council spent the cash to install an artificial surface at Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay. The stadium is the home of the North Wales rugby union side RGC and Wales under 20 Six Nations matches are played there too.
Last year the council failed in a multi-million-pound Levelling-Up fund application to pay for a new surface and to increase the capacity of the stadium. Conservative councillors accused the council of making an “undemocratic” and “unlawful” move to spend the money anyway, without a vote, and had pushed at a finance meeting in Bodlondeb on Monday for the issue to be referred to the Wales Audit Office.
But council leader, Charlie McCoubrey rejected the accusation and said the Tory opposition of “wasting taxpayers’ money” by pursuing the matter.
Officers argued they did have legal authority and were acting in a “spend-to-save” capacity as the new surface would reduce the costs of maintaining a grass pitch.
Conservative councillors Cheryl Carlisle, Harry Saville, Gareth Jones, Louise Emery, and Tom Montgomery grilled officers on their reasoning, refusing to accept explanations offered by leader Cllr Charlie McCoubrey, chief executive Rhun ap Gareth, cabinet member for leisure Cllr Aaron Wynne, or the council’s head of finance.
Cllr Emery said: “Had we seen all the costings in a proper spend-to-save business case last July, maybe attached, that said ‘if we don’t get the bid, we are going to do this’, then I think we wouldn’t be here today.
“We would have had that debate as part of the Levelling-up bid. So there’s the crux of the problem. You are never going to convince me that you had lawful authority from last July, which is why I think it’s important that somebody else decides with the word ‘audit’ in the title that you did have authority to do what you’ve done based on that 14 July report last year.”
Conwy’s head of finance Amanda Hughes said officers had acted legally.
“I would critically point out that the reduction in the maintenance budget and increased income could not have happened without the new pitch.
“In other words, the reason I make that point is that money couldn’t have been diverted elsewhere to support other spending within the council budget, and I think that’s critical to point out because ultimately it demonstrates the absolute validity of the business case because the savings and additional income generated effectively can only happen as a result of the installation of the pitch,” she said.
Cllr Cheryl Carlisle then asked why the matter didn’t return for further scrutiny before the money was spent.
Ms Hughes responded: “Once the amount was in the capital programme, that gave officers lawful authority to move forward with that scheme.
“We have many, many capital schemes within our programme half a million pound in spend, and they don’t all come back to committee on a regular basis unless there’s reason for that.”
She added: “As I say, on the 14 July 2022, council unanimously approved the addition to the capital programme, which included the area of 3G pitch to be funded from supported borrowing. That received full support, and that gave authority for officers to continue with that scheme in good faith.”
“I am confident that we have complied with our standing orders.”
This opinion was backed up by Conwy’s chief executive Rhun ap Gareth.
“That project then proceeded in accordance with your usual capital investment for this type of facility by procuring the right developers and by instigating that project,” he said.
“Not every single project that we undertake here has to have a project board. If we did that, we wouldn’t move things forward at all.”
Councillors voted to accept officers’ explanation and not take the matter to the Wales Audit Office, nor the council’s own audit committee.