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‘Investigation’ into grants begins

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grants beginsON MONDAY, January 20, what was scheduled as a review of controversial grants awarded to property developers in Pembroke Dock under the Town Heritage Initiative and Commercial Property Grants Scheme turned into a full-blown investigation into the activities of builders and property developers who have benefited under them.

Although the word “review” appeared on the meeting’s agenda, the word “investigation” featured prominently in addresses to the Council made by Council officers, Mark Lewis, Director of Finance and Leisure; Dr Steven Jones, Director of Development; Gwyn Evans, the authority’s European Manager; and Jonathan Haswell, the Council’s Head of Internal Audit.

The meeting began with a striking reversal of position; Monitoring Officer Lawrence Harding confirmed that ALL Councillors WOULD have confidential access to documents and financial information concerning claims submitted for works and payments made under the schemes.

WE CAN’T ACCOUNT FOR EVERY PENNY

IN A REMARKABLE address to the County Council’s Audit Committee on Monday, Director of Development Dr Steven Jones confirmed that the audit procedures used by the authority meant that he could not guarantee that every penny claimed under the Town Heritage and Commercial Property Grant Schemes in Pembroke Dock had been spent by the developers concerned.

Dr Jones prefaced his remarks by claiming that although the chain of command left him ultimately responsible for the schemes, he was not involved in their day-to-day management and was not involved in their detailed scrutiny. Dr Jones went on to announce that in circumstances where money had been claimed for works not done then the Council would seek to recover those monies from property developers.

KEY PROPERTIES NOT INSPECTED

COUNCIL OFFICERS adopted a bullish and confident tone in their presentations to the Audit Committee, each pointing out that they had complied with procedures applicable to their respective roles. Mr Gwyn Evans told Committee members that even if there were problems with the Commercial Property Grant Scheme “which there are not” the Council had sufficient powers to reclaim money incorrectly paid out.

Under questioning from East Williamston Cllr Jacob Williams and Independent Committee Chair John Evans it was confirmed that DESPITE the assurance to the contrary given to December’s Full Council by IPPG Cllrs Pugh, Adams, Hall and Allen-Mirehouse properties in Dimond Street had NOT been checked and inspected: at the time of a major inspection in May 2012 the projects had not begun. Council officers had no idea which properties were inspected in a further audit visit in October 2012. Cllr Guy Woodham followed up by establishing that the Old Coronation School in Meyrick Street, Pembroke Dock, had not been checked by external auditors, as it was a residential development funded by the Town Heritage Initiative.

Under further questioning from Cllr Woodham officers confirmed that the process used by the Council to provide information to external bodies depended upon the provision by Council officers of small samples of data relating to individual projects, instead of a detailed examination of the bills of quantities for all of them.

Officers also confirmed that the Town Heritage Initiative did not have a procedural manual available for inspection as none was in place.

COUNCIL’S “MARGIN” REVEALED

ONE PIECE of information provided to Audit Committee members was the revelation that for each £ paid out under the Commercial Property Grants Scheme, the County Council obtained 9p. The recovery of this 9% was explained by the Council’s European Manager, Gwyn Evans, as covering its administration costs for the grants scheme and funding other enhancement works.

Mr Evans went on to claim that enhancement works and Council street improvements, such as the Tudor Rose paving project in Pembroke, would have been impossible without the Council recovering money out of the grants scheme.

COUNCILLORS QUERY WORKS

AUDIT COMMITTEE members and officers travelled to Pembroke Dock to see the buildings for themselves.

Stopping first at the Old Coronation School, where questions were raised about the refurbishment of the roof and windows, they moved on to Commercial Row before moving on to Dimond Street.

Accompanied by Cllr Mike Stoddart and Labour Leader Paul Miller, the Committee and officers visited 29 Dimond Street to gauge the works done for which £21,000 had been claimed. Councillors expressed some astonishment at the condition of the shop’s interior in light of the claims made for its refurbishment and were told by a Council surveyor, Steve Owen how grant money had been spent:

“There has been a new kitchen, WC, staff room, new wiring and fire alarm system – that’s the kind of thing they had to do.”

Cllr David Simpson asked: “You mean don’t know what work has actually been done?”

A local passer-by who knows the shop well, told Herald Assistant Editor Jon Coles, taking photographs of the visit, that he was amazed at the claims, saying that little or no work had been done in respect of the shop’s retail space. He said that the old fire alarms were still there, the partition and ceiling had not been removed and that apart from “perhaps a lick of paint” little had been done to change the shop’s interior.

On examination of the shop, Councillors noted that contrary to the expectations raised by the summary of works provided by the Council’s surveyor, a large hole in the toilet roof enabled them to see the underside of the floor above it and establish that the ceiling had not been insulated as stated or at all.

MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

MIKE STODDART told the Herald that the visit raised more questions than answers about how the Council justified the grant given to the developer:

“It seems that part of the answer lies in some creative thinking by the officers involved in calculating these grants. What emerged during the site visit to 29 Dimond Street was that the cost of the Celotex insulation in the roof had been charged to retail space on the grounds that it would contribute to countering heat loss from the shop.

“You might think it would contribute a lot more to keeping warm the five bedsits on the upper two floors.

“These 40% retail refurbishment grants – financed by the Welsh Government – are designed to regenerate the shopping centres of places like Pembroke Dock. “Quite how this is achieved by turning former retail space into bedsits is not immediately obvious.”

INVESTIGATION TO TAKE TIME

ON RETURNING to County Hall, Committee Chair John Evans told members that there was a consensus that the site visit was a positive and worthwhile exercise Members of the Committee and all members of the Council now have the opportunity to look at the information about the scheme and satisfy themselves as to the claims submitted and payments made. It is anticipated that this process will take over several weeks in a room set aside for members to scrutinise the paper trail.

Mike Stoddart told The Pembrokeshire Herald:

“This is a big improvement on what I was trying to achieve at Full Council, where my Notice of Motion to allow members to inspect these documents with the all financial information redacted was defeated by the IPPG block vote. I have now withdrawn my call for an Extraordinary Meeting to enable the investigation to proceed.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Les

    February 1, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    The tax payers of Pembrokeshire owe a big vote of thanks to one individual for his dogged persistence in uncovering the issues around these grants.

    Despite being vilified and bullied by the leadership of the council and others, guess what – it turns out Old Grumpy is right ! Any body who follows Cllr Stodarts blog will have known that he was right from day one.

    His photograph of a slated roof and the comment ” they must have re-battoned and felted the entire roof without actually removing the slates” was the killer fact for me.

    The council should realise they are dealing with a superior intellect and not try to outwit him !!!

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Pembrokeshire cottage letting agency offers free holidays to NHS heroes

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PEMBROKESHIRE-BASED holiday letting agency St Brides Bay Cottages has teamed up with its property owners and Operation Recuperation to offer free holidays to frontline healthcare workers. The family-run firm has announced the scheme to say thank you to the healthcare heroes who are risking their lives to keep the UK safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

The generous initiative will see healthcare professionals enjoy a well-deserved break in picturesque St Davids, Solva, Newgale or Porthgain, after the crisis is over. The scheme is part of Operation Recuperation, a UK-wide campaign launched to gift future stays in beautiful places to frontline healthcare providers.

Sam Sibbald, manager of St Brides Bay Cottages, based in Solva, said: “This is our way of showing our dedicated healthcare workers that we appreciate everything they’re doing in such difficult circumstances.

“I saw first-hand the pressure the NHS is under, when my dad had a stay in hospital last year. I could tell how pushed they were on a normal day-to-day basis, let alone with having COVID-19 to deal with. Now my dad is at home, needing carers every day, and I can see, more than ever, how much we rely on the people who look after us.

“We’re taking part in Operation Recuperation thanks to the generosity of our cottage owners. By gifting stays to these dedicated workers, we’ll be helping them to recover from the fight against coronavirus.”

Several cottage owners, whose properties are let by St Brides Bay Cottages, have come forward to donate stays in their holiday homes.

Among them is Sheila Morgan, who together with her husband Chris, owns The Anchorage, a two-bedroom apartment in Solva. She said: “As a retired nurse with medical staff in the family, I can fully appreciate the strains and stresses all NHS staff are going through at present. Thank you all for your sterling work. Hopefully the peace, quiet and Pembrokeshire air will aid recuperation.”

Debbie and Patrick Bowie-Moore, the owners of five-bedroom holiday home Mount Pleasant, in Solva, said: “The healthcare workers have offered their all, and it’s our privilege to give a family – who may have been kept apart – the opportunity to stay in Mount Pleasant as a massive thank you.”

Simon Baker, who owns Cefn y Mor, a four-bedroom property in Solva, said: “We are backing the Operation Recuperation project because we have family members on the frontline of the NHS, and know what risks they are taking, and what effort they are putting into saving lives. Our only effort is to stay at home and avoid infection. A small price to pay.”

Jim and Maureen Dale, whose three-bedroom holiday home, May Cottage, is situated on a grade II-listed farm, near St Davids, said: “Rarely do we get an opportunity to say thank you to the staff at the NHS – we tend to take the service so much for granted. Now the chips are down and there they all are, on the frontline looking after us all. Thank you all at the NHS.”

David and Judith James, who are offering a free stay at their converted watermill, Melin Llanrhian, near Porthgain, said: “We’re delighted to be able to support Operation Recuperation as a very small thank you to everyone in the NHS who has worked so hard in such challenging circumstances.”

Operation Recuperation is collecting donations – in room nights and cash – to give free stays to frontline healthcare staff, once the virus restrictions have been lifted.

Rachel Sherwood, who launched Operation Recuperation, said: “A huge thank you to St Brides Bay Cottages for proudly supporting Operation Recuperation and to the cottage owners who have donated stays in this stunning part of Wales, despite very challenging times.

“Sometime in the not-too-distant future, a number of our frontline healthcare staff will be enjoying long clifftop walks, fresh seafood, lazy days on the beach and cosy evenings in sea-view cottages.”

To find out more about St Brides Bay Cottages and Operation Recuperation, visit: https://www.stbridesbaycottages.com/, email enquiries@stbridesbaycottages.com or call 01437 720027.

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Council pays out £2.5m in business grants to date

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL has revealed that since Wednesday, 1st April, it has already paid out £2.5 million in grants to local businesses.

The Authority’s Cabinet Member for Economy, Paul Miller, said Council staff had been working hard to make the Covid-19 business grants payable as soon as possible

Explained Councillor Miller: “Payments started on Wednesday this week for those who qualify for grants linked to the National Non-Domestic Ratings (NNDR) system. We have already paid out around £2.5 million in grants to local businesses.

“Daily payment runs are being made in order that these can get into business bank accounts as soon as possible.

“We cannot unfortunately acknowledge receipt of applications but, once authorised, businesses will be emailed and the grant will be paid within two to three working days.”

Councillor Miller added: “If there are any issues with a grant application, or information is missing, a Council officer will be in touch to discuss the matter. A dedicated team has been set up to do this.”

For further business advice refer to the Council’s Business pages which can be accessed via the following link: https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/business-advice-and-support

This will enable access to the application form for the above grants, provide answers to frequently asked questions and links to further sources of advice through HMRC, Welsh Government, Department of Work and Pensions, Public Health Wales and other organisations.

For further enquiries not answered through the business pages, email: covid19@pembrokeshire.gov.uk and an officer will respond. Please view the business pages first.

For those who don’t qualify for the grants, Welsh Government will soon be making details available of how business can access other funding through an Economic Resilience Fund.

Details will be available on the Council’s business pages as soon as they are released by Welsh Government.

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Man issued with two COVID-19 fines in 24 hours as police thank those following new legislation

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A man has been issued with two fines in 24 hours for flouting Coronavirus legislation, as police thank those who are following the new rules.

Dyfed-Powys Police officers in Carmarthenshire stopped the 22-year-old from Llanelli twice for being out of the house without a reasonable excuse.

A report was made on April 1 that three men were breaching the COVID-19 legislation by gathering in Llanstephan. A woman who had attempted to film the men reported that they had stolen her phone and driven away.

Officers quickly linked the car to a suspect and traced it driving towards Carmarthen and then Llanelli, and a roads policing unit was directed to the area.

The car was stopped, and the two occupants – a 22-year-old from Llanelli, and a 18-year-old from Carmarthen – were arrested on suspicion of theft. They were also both issued with tickets for COVID-19 offences.

T/Chief Inspector Tom Sharville said: “We are taking the new legislation seriously, and would like to thank the majority of people who are staying home to keep others safe.

“The measures are difficult to adapt to, but it is important that we stay at home to save lives.

“However, there is a minority out there who are under the impression the legislation does not apply to them, and are flouting the law.

“This was the second fine one of these men was issued with in 24 hours, after he showed a clear disregard for all guidelines.”

The men were arrested on suspicion of theft of a mobile phone, and were released under investigation pending further enquiries.

For information about the COVID-19 legislation, and answers to many frequently asked questions, visit https://bit.ly/DPPCovid19

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