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New thinking key to tackle budget

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New plan: Cllr Bob Kilmister

New plan: Cllr Bob Kilmister

IN A FIRST for Pembrokeshire, and possibly Wales, an opposition group has produced alternative proposals for the county’s budget for the coming financial year.

At a County Hall meeting, the Pembrokeshire Alliance unveiled its plans to rejuvenate Pembrokeshire’s town centres by slashing car parking charges, introducing free Wifi and employing two town centre managers to encourage and facilitate promotional activity and commercial opportunities.

The services will be paid for by a small increase in Council Tax.

Alliance leader Bob Kilmister outlined the plans, which have been costed with the input of Council officers to ensure that the plans are deliverable and financially viable.

Targeting Pembrokeshire’s ailing town centres in particular, Cllr Kilmister told The Herald: “The council has received a number of reports and drawn up a number of plans setting out its intentions, but has delivered little more than words. These plans seek to ensure that the council takes an active and constructive role in our town centres’ future. I understand that council approved the setting up of free WiFi in town centres in 2012. I believe it was vetoed by the then Chief Executive without explanation. It should be a priority to set this up within the next twelve months. The benefits for retail and tourism should be obvious.”

He continued: “My own experience in retail tells me that car parking is a significant issue. If it was possible, I would scrap car parking charges altogether. It is, however, right to be cautious; so, by cutting parking charges to a nominal level, in the event footfall in town centres does not increase or there is no improvement in trade, we maintain the option of increasing the parking charges in the future without incurring the massive costs of having to create parking orders all over again. We want car parking to be a reason to come to Pembrokeshire’s town centres and not be a reason to stay away. We have over a million pounds unspent in earmarked reserves for regeneration. What is that money for? It is there to be used and it should be used for the purpose for which it is set aside. As a council, we can and must do more to help our town centres.”

One of the eye-catching proposals is that the council dispose of its interest in Withybush Airport. Cllr Kilmister repeated the sentiments expressed in the motion before council as part of the wider budget proposals: “Running an airport is not a suitable function for a local authority. A purchaser should be found at the earliest possible opportunity for the airport or the Council should find an operator who can move it to the much more suitable site at Brawdy, where the runway can take much larger aircraft.”

Highlighting the potential benefits of disposing of Withybush Airport, Cllr Kilmister said: “I understand that Brawdy can accommodate aircraft up to the size of a 737; far better to use those existing facilities than throw money at what will always be a compromise solution. The Withybush Airfield site is listed as an asset worth £14m. The Council should maximise the gain to be had from disposing of the site. As it is, it has badly miscalculated the take up for commercial units at Withybush and appears to be prepared to do the same next year.”

The budget proposals also suggest cutting the car allowances for senior officers and reducing the budget spend on them year on year, while allowing Pembrokeshire to remain competitive in the local government jobs market: “I don’t agree that the car allowance scheme should be scrapped,” Cllr Peter Stock said. “That is going too far. We must be able to recruit the best people we can. That does not mean paying through the nose for cars for senior managers, however; I think the way the system has been milked in the past is outrageous.”

Peter continued: “In the same vein, we need to look to save money where we can, as councillors. The proposal to end the chauffeur-driven service is an acknowledgement that in an age of austerity, when things like libraries are operating on reduced hours, or possibly being closed, it is only right and fair that it be scrapped.”

Both Cllrs Stock and Kilmister agreed that the Council should provide communities with adequate notice when it proposes cuts to services locally, or the closure of buildings and facilities: “People should know, they should be told, well in advance of what is proposed and not have it dropped on them as a minor item on a Cabinet agenda when a decision has already been made. We must be open and transparent. People have a right to know and, if they want to, lobby for the services to be retained or take over the running of facilities themselves, as has happened at Theatr Gwaun and Narberth Swimming Pool. The Council must be open about these matters.”

One topic that the Alliance is particularly keen to move forward is an increase in scrutiny of the Council’s own budget. Bob Kilmister said: “The amounts being shuffled around without any scrutiny at all by councillors are huge. The 21st Century Schools reserves are being inflated by drawing down from other reserves not in the thousands but in the millions. In addition, money is routinely juggled in the reserves to shore up departmental budgets. All of this needs to be subject to proper scrutiny by councillors. The Wales Audit Office has already said we should do this and we must follow their lead.”

The budget amendments are to be discussed at Full Council alongside the budget already proposed.

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Primary school teacher would ‘moan’ as he touched female pupils, court hears

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A HAVERFORDWEST primary school teacher would “moan” while he touched his female pupils in a sexual way, a witness said in Swansea Crown Court.

In total, 11 former pupils, who were all under 13, have come forward and accused James Oulton, 34, of sexually assaulting them.

Oulton denies all the charges – saying the case was a “witch-hunt” and that he had behaved appropriately all times.

One of the pupils, who was in year four at the time, opened day four of the trial by giving evidence via a video link.

The girl told the court: “He would put his arm around by back and backside.”

Under cross examination Chris Clee QC, for the defence, asked the witness: “Did you tell the police that you were touched in an inappropriate way?”

The witness answered: “Yes, teachers should not be touching in that way.”

James Oulton

Asked if what he was doing wrong, the witness replied:

“Yes, very wrong”

In cross examination letters and cards were produced, made the witness whilst in school, where she had said Mr. James Oulton was “the best teacher in the whole world.”

One of the cards said: “You’ve made my life complete”.

Another card said: “Thank you for being so nice, and thanks for everything that you’ve done for me.”

The witness added: “Despite what he did do, he was a good teacher.  

“He used to buy us treats.

“He was nice caring and a sweet and fun teacher – but not what he was doing.

Referring to the cards, she said: “I would definitely not be saying that stuff now.”

Explaining how she told her parents the witness said: “Once I realised that [x] was in his class, I asked her ‘did he do this stuff to you?’

“She said yes.

“I realised more and more it was wrong and it was time to grow up now, and to speak.

“As soon as I found out that this was happening to [x] I stood up and told my parents.

Asked if she had seen inappropriate behaviour happening to anybody else the witness answered: “He did it to most of the girls in the class, but he had his favourites.

Asked if she had spoken to other girls about the touching, the witness said: “Yes, I was just curious was it just me, or was it normal?”

“Teachers should most definitely not be doing that to students.

“Doing what?”, the witness was asked, “You said in your police interview that he would pull you off your chair and make you sit on his lap, is that true?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Did you try and stop him?” she was asked.

“Yes, I tried to push him off sometimes and said, ‘get off its weird’, but I didn’t want to make a scene.

“He would make me sit on his lap whilst he was marking my work.”

When asked by the defence barrister how she was sat on her teacher’s lap, and if it was under a desk, the witness answered: “No, not under the desk, as both of our legs wouldn’t fit under.”

The witness also said that when she was sat on the defendant’s knee he would make “a low grunting noise.”

Asked if she had spoken others about this case, the girl said: “Police told my mum and dad that there were very many people involved in the case.

“I thought it was just me and [x] that was going to be at court, I only recently discovered that others had come out.”

A second female pupil was also giving evidence via video link. She was 9-years-old at the time of the alleged offending.

Firstly, a pre-recorded interview was played in court in which the witness said: “My teacher, Mr. Oulton always put his hand up my leg like that and up my t-shirt.”

She added: “If he calls you over and he pulls you onto his lap, if you don’t, he pulls your chair over and makes you.”

“How would he make you?” the QC asked.

“He would grab your arm, push you, and then pull you in”, she replied.

When asked if this was a one off, the witness said that the defendant “did it every day.”

“How would you be sat on his lap?”, she was asked.

“He would have one arm on my stomach, then the other arm would be rubbing my leg.”

“He would swap arms and then put one arm up my t-shirt.”

When asked to clarify if it was under her t-shirt the girl explained: “Yes it was under my t-shirt rubbing his hands up and down.”

The witness added: “If I tried to get up for work, he would just grab my arm.”

“He would make a funny sound like a hissing airplane.”

“We had a helper in the class, and when he came in, he would stop, and then I could go and sit down.”

The trial continues.

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New trees planted to help town

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SEVERAL new trees have been planted on Riverside Avenue in Neyland.

They were planted by Grandiflora, courtesy of the Town Council which recently pledged to plant more trees in the town in an attempt to help the environment.

As well as helping the environment, the trees will prevent vehicles from being parked on the grass verges on Riverside Avenue, which had been severely churned up over the winter and looked unsightly.

The Town Council will be working with Pembrokeshire County Council regarding parking issues in Neyland.

The trees will be tended and watered over the summer period to ensure they reach their maximum potential and enhance the area for residents and visitors alike.

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Golden goodbye report likely to be critical

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A REPORT by Audit Wales into the departure of former CEO Ian Westley is very likely to contain criticism of senior council officers.

In November 2020, Mr Westley left Pembrokeshire County Council with a £95,000 pay-out, something which has been criticised by a number of councillors.

In a document before the Audit and Governance Committee on Tuesday (April 13), it says that termination payments to Chief Officers are routinely examined by Audit Wales but in the case of Mr Westley, the audit team was unable to locate a recorded decision to enter into the settlement agreement which led to a termination payment being made to the Chief Executive.

An Audit Office spokesperson said: “This appeared unusual and therefore the audit team decided to undertake an early examination of the process that resulted in the payment being made.”

No complaints were raised, by councillors or any other body, with Audit Wales but the number of concerns and questions being raised at following council meetings prompted them to commence an audit.

Audit Wales state: “Our audit fieldwork is substantially complete. However due to the complex nature of some of the issues involved we considered it necessary to take some external legal
advice. We are currently considering that advice. 

“In the near future we will draft a document setting out our provisional findings and conclusions. 

“Once this document is ready we will commence a clearance process to confirm factual accuracy. 

“If the document contains criticism of identifiable individuals, in the first instance we will provide those individuals with any extracts of the document that pertain to them. Once
we have confirmed the factual accuracy with individuals, we will send the full draft document to the Council’s Chief Executive to identify any remaining factual inaccuracies. 

“We will only issue the finalised document once the clearance process has been completed. #

“We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process.”

Only a handful of senior officers were involved in the procedure surrounding Ian Westley’s departure.

The inference which can be safely drawn from Audit Wales’ report to the Audit Committee is that some of its content will be critical either of councillors, senior officers, or both.

The process of asking those named to respond is known as Maxwellisation, a legal practice that allows persons who are to be criticised in an official report to respond prior to publication.

The report highlights the exceptional nature of the case at Pembrokeshire County Council and demonstrates the sensitivity of the issues raised.

If senior officers are sharply criticised or found to have failed in their duty to their employer, they will almost certainly have to go.

The council’s interim Chief Executive will read the document after maxwellisation.

It is also likely that the council’s newly appointed Chief Executive, Will Bramble, will have a chance to see it.

The Audit Wales spokesperson added: “We are unable to provide a definitive timetable for reporting because it will depend on the responses we receive within the clearance process. We are unable to respond to queries about our emerging findings whilst the audit is progressing, and until we have finalised our conclusions.”

In January, Cllr Jamie Adams had called for the council to commence an internal investigation into Mr Westley’s departure but that was deferred to allow for the Audit Wales review to be completed.

Cllr Adams said that the decision of payment should have been a ‘democratic decision’ and has asked why that wasn’t the case.

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