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Clash of the councillors over ‘phantom’ grant improvements

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at warA WAR OF WORDS broke out at Pembrokeshire County Council’s monthly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, as the row over grant money awarded to controversial Irish property developer, Cathal McCosker, escalated.

Members of the Cabinet discussed backbench member Cllr Mike Stoddart’s request for the authority to make available all information to councillors relating to the Pembroke Dock property grants schemes after serious doubts have been raised over their administration.

Cllr Stoddart addressed the cabinet meeting in support of his request, and said that as a member of the council the information he is requesting – bills of quantities, tender reports, and final accounts – should be available to him as a matter of course, however officers and the cabinet disagree and hope to keep the information under wraps.

Cllr Stoddart explained that he had a lengthy career in the building trade, and had concerns that public money had been given out for building works which had ‘simply never taken place’, and that he had been hampered in his quest to ‘get to the truth’ by officers.

Council Leader Cllr Jamie Adams, and other cabinet members were less than sympathetic to the request, and became hostile to the idea that there was something going on which the council’s internal auditors, among others, had failed to pick up on. At one point Cllr David Pugh, cabinet member with responsibility for the portfolio under which the grant scheme operates, shouted at Cllr Stoddart, during a tirade in which he said that there were no problems with the awards and that the necessary works referred to had either taken place or were not paid for by public money.

According to Cllr Stoddart, money from both the National Lottery funded Townscape Heritage Initiative, and the European funded Commercial Property Grant scheme has been spent on certain construction work which has never materialised, on Pembroke Dock properties owned by Mr Cathal McCosker or companies which he is a director of.

He believes that there could be administrative shortcomings in relation to the grant payments, and that the Council is further trying to cover it up, backed by councillors and officers at the highest level in the authority, and preventing him from ‘getting to the truth’.

In a lengthy presentation, Cllr Stoddart told the meeting: “My attempts to obtain further information via Freedom of Information requests have met stubborn resistance from the Council. When I did receive some of the information, black redactions were included in the reports. All financial information had been blacked-out.”

Emphasizing that the redactions were not due to an over-careful council, but an attempt to hinder Cllr Stoddart’s attempts to uncover the truth, he said: “During the public inspection of the accounts I found sheets readily available for inspection with even the bank details of the developer, Cathal Mc Cosker, and his signature, there for all to see.”

However, the cabinet committee was having none of it, and Cllr Stoddart’s attempts seemed to be falling on deaf – or bunged – ears.

“All I want is the access to information that I require so that I can get to the truth” he said; adding:

“I am entitled to these documents as an elected member of the Council.”

To explain the difficulties he had been faced with, holding up one document, which was blank except for several large areas with black rectangles, Cllr Stoddart said:

“Look at this sheet. These are the names of the tenders I requested. Look here, all information has been blacked out. All this is cloak-and-dagger stuff about hiding behind the Data Protection Act, when really it is about not wishing to disclose the information.”

Cllr Stoddart added: “If the amount of money claimed for all of the building works has actually been spent on 29 Dimond Street then, in the famous words of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, ‘I am a banana’.”

“In respect of 16-19 Commercial Row, Pembroke Dock, £41,900 is said to have been spent on 427 square metres of “New Spanish slates” at a price of £98.25 per square metre. This is already an expensive price, however, seven-eighths of the roof currently does not have new slate on it, yet the developer has been paid for the work.”

Cllr Stoddart told the committee: “With respect to 25 Dimond Street, there was a tender of £222,000 for a small shop of 35 metres squared retail space. You could easily knock it down and rebuild it twice completely for that price. In fact, for little more than that, Persimmon Homes would fit you up with a pair of semi-detached houses including the plot of land, road, and sewerage connection.”

Several decades ago, Cllr Stoddart ran his own construction company which employed thirty people at its peak. His company built many large developments in the county including commercial buildings and schools. Attempting to discredit Cllr Stoddart’s judgement and knowledge of the work conducted on the Pembroke Dock properties, Cllr Adams attacked his record as a builder, saying: “I have received information that you were not so successful in the building trade,” though he refused to say any more after being brought to task about it.

When pushed by Cllr Stoddart, the leader would not say what he had heard or from whom, and asked to ‘move on.’

In defiance, Cllr Stoddart said: “No, I will not move on. You have not addressed the snide innuendo you’ve just made about my career in the building industry.”

Cllr Adams barked back: “I am chairing this meeting – I will ask you to stand down”, and said he thought Cllr Stoddart was ‘confused’ over which works he referred to were eligible for grant funding, and those which were not eligible.

He also added: “And, from some of the submissions you have made, your understanding of the building trade is not what I would have expected. The fact that you consider it appropriate to make some sort of comparison between Persimmon Homes and restoration work on important heritage properties shows you have a lack of understanding. Nevertheless we will move on.”

Following the meeting Mike Stoddart told The Herald: “This is Cllr Adams’ usual tactic. He uses smears when he can’t think of anything intelligent to say. As you can imagine, he uses this tactic quite often.”

The ongoing saga of the notorious Pembroke Dock grants scheme and the council’s attempts to deny access to the necessary information to establish the truth has even attracted the attention of the national media.

In its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column, last week’s edition of the satirical news magazine, Private Eye, reported on a statement it had received after approaching the council for its view on the “phantom building works.”

Private Eye published: “A statement explained that the chimney and playground (non) works had not been paid for with public money but “by the developer ” . How generous! As for the roof, it was indeed grant-funded: “The whole roof was stripped of and re-covered in a mixture of new and recycled natural slate on new felt and battens” in 2010, according to the council statement . Achieving such an “aged” look on a brand-new roof must require restoration skills of the very highest order!”

The cabinet’s unanimous vote, to deny Cllr Stoddart’s request “that all information (Bills of quantities, tender reports, final accounts, etc) on the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock commercial property grants scheme is made available on a confidential basis to all Council Members”, is not the final decision. That decision ultimately rests with full council at its 10am meeting on Thursday December 12.

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Coastal car parks at beauty spots remain closed

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THE RECENT changes in regulations reinforce that movement is restricted to your local area.

This has been identified by the Welsh Government as an approximation of a five mile radius from your home.

Members of two separate households from the same local area (not travelling more than five miles) can now meet outdoors, as long as they maintain social distancing.

You should aim to meet another local household as close to your home as possible. Always take care to maintain social distancing and hand hygiene.

Pembrokeshire County Council car parks at attractions and beauty spots (including public toilets) currently remain closed so you should check before travelling.

They remain closed as a clear message that travel remains restricted, and associated tourism amenities remain closed.

A critical point for all to note is that lifeguards are not currently patrolling beaches and toilets and other facilities are not open.

Full details of the car parking facilities which remain open for the local community can be found on the Council’s website:
https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/emergency-planning/service-changes

Councillor Phil Baker, Cabinet Member for Infrastructure said: “The emphasis is on careful, structured unlocking, and not to put in danger any of the recovery measures that relate to public health and not to undo the safeguarding that lockdown has delivered.

“We will continue to review and monitor this carefully and take cautious, measured steps only to provide the benefits of the eased regulations without putting our residents at risk.”

Motorists are reminded not to contravene parking restrictions – such as yellow lines – where they exist as parking enforcement is still being undertaken.

As with other service areas, car parks will be reviewed in line with current advice.

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Pembrokeshire County Council Leaders coronavirus update

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PEMBROKESHIRE County Council Leader, Councillor David Simpson, has provided a further coronavirus update for Tuesday, 2nd June, as follows:

‘I want to thank everyone for the continued support to myself, Elected Members and officers of the Authority.

‘We have all experienced many challenges over the years but this continued struggle is very testing for all. We continue collectively to work together to ensure we, in Pembrokeshire, remain safe and avoid catching Covid-19

‘It is clear that we still have to remain “local”. There is no remit for travelling outside our local community. You will have read and heard clear guidance on only travelling five miles from home.

‘As always and where you can, please exercise from your home. The more we can do to reduce the spread of the virus, the better we will all fare in the long term.

‘I want to highlight that today marks the 50 th anniversary of the collapse of the Cleddau Bridge. This was indeed a tragedy as lives were lost and it is a sad chapter in Pembrokeshire’s history.

‘As in any incident, people can, and do, rebuild and also learn lessons. After Covid-19 the new “normality” will look different from what we were used to. But we will all move forward and regain Confidence.

‘I’m sure, like you, I question how I should be tackling this issue. Should I be doing more? The answer is simple and direct – we need to ensure social distancing is maintained; wash our hands regularly and listen to the advice given by experts.

‘Remember: ‘Stay Strong and Stay Local.’

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‘Check in, Catch up and Prepare’ All school’s in Wales prepare to enter next phase

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ALL children will have the opportunity to “Check in, Catch Up, Prepare for summer and September”, the Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced today as she published details of the next phase for schools in Wales.

It is proposed that all schools will start the next phase on 29 June, with the term extended by a week, therefore ending on 27 July.

In the next academic year, beginning in September, the intention is that the autumn half-term break will be expanded to two weeks.

In each school there will be a phased approach. Year groups will be split into cohorts with staggered starts, lessons and breaks. It is expected that this will mean, at most, a third of pupils present at any one time, though schools may need time to reach this level of operation.

There will be much smaller classes, providing secure dedicated time with teachers and classmates. This time will include online and personalised classroom experience, getting children and teachers ready for a similar experience in September.

Next week, the Welsh Government will publish guidance to support schools, as well as further and higher education institutions. This will include information on managing their facilities and logistical arrangements, including buildings, resources, cleaning and transport.

The Government is also today publishing a paper from its COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group, representing the latest understanding of the virus with respect to children and education.

Further Education colleges are ensuring that appropriate measures are being taken to re-open for face-to-face learning from 15 June. They will prioritise those students requiring licence to practice assessments and vulnerable learners. This follows close working with Government and the joint trade unions.

Guidance for childcare providers will also be published in the next week, supporting them to increase the numbers of children in attendance alongside schools.

Kirsty Williams said:

“My announcement today gives schools three and a half weeks to continue preparing for the next phase.

“We will use the last weeks of the summer term to make sure pupils, staff and parents are prepared – mentally, emotionally and practically – for the new normal in September.

“29 June means there will have been one full month of test, trace and protect, which will continue to expand. I can also announce that teachers will be a priority group in our new antibody-testing programme. As we continue to keep Wales safe, this approach will be critical.

“The evolving science suggests that warm weather and sunlight gives us the best opportunity to ensure more time in school. Waiting until September would mean almost half a year without schooling. That would be to the detriment to the wellbeing, learning progress and mental health of our young people.

“This is and has been a worrying period for us all. I know that many will feel apprehensive. We have not rushed this work and this decision.

“The three and a half week period before the next phase also gives us time to keep watch on developments elsewhere and provides further check-points to review evidence and the roll-out of testing.

“This is the best practical option that meets my five principles which underpin my decision making.

“I am also convinced that it is only by returning to their own school that we will see increased attendance from our more vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

“Working together we will secure equity and excellence for pupils as they check in, catch up, and prepare for summer and September.”

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