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Politics

Welsh councils fail audit requirements

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Maenclochog: A small council had big problems

JUST two-thirds of Wales’ town and community councils met the statutory deadline for publishing their audited accounts
The timescales for councils to publish their accounts are set out by law, and yet only 486 of Wales’ Town and Community councils (66%) met this deadline in 2019.
There are 735 community and town councils in Wales. As a tier of local government, they are elected bodies, with discretionary powers and rights laid down by Parliament to represent their communities and provide services for them.
As at 30 November 2019, while a further 51 audits had been completed, 38 community councils still had not submitted accounts for audit. The number of qualified audits is still too high at 218 councils. This is according to a report issued today by the Auditor General for Wales.
The audit arrangements for community councils are designed to provide residents with a reasonable level of comfort that public money is being handled effectively. With councils handling more public money than ever, it’s increasingly important that councils follow the process set out in law.
However, the Auditor-General’s report shows that the number of councils failing to submit their accounts on time has risen compared to last year.
The failures have led to 218 qualified audit opinions to date, which means 218 councils either failed to comply with their statutory requirements or misstated information in their annual return. While this is less than last year, this number may rise once work on the remaining councils has been completed.
There are circumstances in which issues are of such significance that the Auditor General brings these to the attention of the public. During 2019, twelve such reports were issued in the public interest due to significant failures in the management of public funds by local councils.
MAENCLOCHOG A CASE IN POINT
One of the reports issued in 2019 concerned Maenclochog Community Council, where the Wales Audit Office identified a worrying series of governance failures for the financial years 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Maenclochog’s Community Council, with an annual precept of £4,000, is one of the smallest Community Councils in Wales. However, in spite of its small budget, councillors – who are ultimately responsible for ensuring public money is fully accounted for – failed to check proper accounting records had been maintained. The absence of bank statements reconciled to items of expenditure meant that the Wales Audit Office couldn’t provide an opinion on whether or not the annual accounts properly present the Council’s receipts and payments.
As a result, the WAO qualified the Council’s accounts for both 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The Auditor also mad a swingeing criticism of councillors for failure to ensure compliance with basic governance requirements. The Maenclochog report discloses that in the two financial years covered by the report, councillors had signed off on statements that they had fulfilled their statutory duties when they had done no such thing.
While the then clerk’s tardiness was a significant factor in the Council’s failure to comply with its statutory responsibilities, the Auditor points out council members sitting at the time bear responsibility for the Council’s failure to file accounts on time, or at all, until the WAO intervened in January 2018.
Since that time, a new clerk has been appointed to the Council, while the failures took place in a period which bridged the 2017 community council elections.
The report found no evidence that the Council took any steps concerning the overdue accounts. The Council’s minutes do not record any concerns related to the delayed submission of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 accounts.
The Auditor concluded, therefore, individual councillors did not understand their responsibilities about the accounts.
There was also no evidence the Council had prepared a budget either for 2015-16 or 2016-17, as required by law.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Auditor General, Adrian Crompton said: “Local councils are expected to play an increasingly important role in the delivery of public services and local communities. While I am delighted to see the positive response from some councils to our recommendations from last year,
“I am disappointed that some councils still receive qualified opinions for multiple reasons. I recommend that all councils consider the issues raised in this report and reflect on whether any of the issues may apply to them.”

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Politics

Paul Davies Plays Cancer Strategy Jenga

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Preseli Pembrokeshire Assembly Member Paul Davies recently met with representatives of Cancer
Research UK and even had a go at their Cancer Strategy Jenga! Mr Davies heard how there are around
2,700 cancer cases per year in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area and that to achieve better
outcomes for patients, the Welsh Government needs to tackle preventable risk factors and address
shortages in the cancer workforce.

Mr Davies said, “It was a pleasure to speak to Cancer Research UK about how we can improve cancer
services and patient outcomes for those affected by cancer in Pembrokeshire. I enjoyed playing the
Cancer Strategy Jenga and learning about the different ‘planks’ that an ambitious cancer strategy for
Wales should have. Thanks to research and improvements in diagnosis and treatment, survival in the UK
has doubled since the 1970s so, today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer and hopefully that figure will
continue to rise. I will of course, be doing all that I can to call on the Welsh Government to bring forward
a cancer strategy – and one that makes a very real difference to patients and their families in Wales.”

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Community

Closing day approaching for deposit plan consultation

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The deadline is nearing for public comments on Pembrokeshire County Council’s replacement Local Development Plan – known as the Deposit Plan.

The public consultation on the Deposit Plan opened in January and will end at 4.30pm on Wednesday, 18th March.

The consultation has included seven drop-in sessions at locations around the county. Cllr Jon Harvey, Cabinet Member for Planning, said they had been well-attended and thanked members of the public for their feedback.

“We would encourage anyone interested in the future development of Pembrokeshire to participate in the consultation if they haven’t yet done so,” he added.

The Deposit Plan and related documents are available to view on the Council’s website at: www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/local-development-plan-review/deposit

The Deposit Plan covers the area of Pembrokeshire excluding the National Park.

It identifies a need for 6,800 new homes between 2017 and 2033 (425 a year) including 2,000 affordable homes. This growth will be distributed across the Plan area in accordance with a whole County strategy, which promotes sustainable development.

Residents can look at the Deposit Plan text and maps to view proposals in their area. The Plan proposes revised town and village boundaries (known as settlement boundaries) and a range of sites are allocated for different land uses, including 70 sites for housing. It also identifies a range of industrial sites (known as Strategic Employment Sites), local employment sites and two quarry sites.

The Deposit Plan seeks to respond to the challenges of climate change by including policies and designations to protect sites and species that are of importance for their biodiversity and nature conservation interest, open spaces and Green Wedges.

New growth is directed to sustainable locations. Proposals for vulnerable uses are directed away from flood risk areas and new development will be limited in areas at risk because of climate change. All new dwellings will be built to high quality, energy efficient designs and will incorporate charging points for ultra-low emission vehicles. Three sites are allocated for solar photovoltaic arrays.

The Deposit Plan and related documents are available to view on the Council’s website at: www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/local-development-plan-review/deposit

Hard copies are also available at County Hall, Haverfordwest, in Pembrokeshire County Council Customer Service Centres and in local Libraries, during normal opening hours.

• If you wish to have your say on the Deposit Plan you can do so using the Representations Form available online at the above website address, or in paper format from County Hall, Haverfordwest. This form should be used for making comments wherever possible.

• Please email your representation forms to ldp@pembrokeshire.gov.uk or post to The Development Plans Team, County Hall, Freeman’s Way, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, SA61 1TP by 4.30pm on Wednesday, 18th March 2020.

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News

Pembrokeshire MP calls on Government to Secure Access to Cash

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Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb has joined the Association of Convenience Stores, British Retail Consortium, Federation of Small Businesses, Positive Money and Responsible Finance in urging the Chancellor to use next week’s Budget to secure long-term access to cash across the UK.

Stephen Crabb has endorsed action on access to cash in a private letter to the Chancellor submitted today (Thursday). The letter outlines that to secure long-term access to cash, the Chancellor should use his Budget to:

• Reverse the arbitrary cuts to LINK interchange fees paid by banks to fund the network
• Exempt free-to-use ATMs from business rates bills
• Recognise that ATMs are the only infrastructure through which to guarantee national access to cash

ATM closures and big banks leaving communities behind are threatening the future of cash. Research commissioned by the Payment Systems Regulator shows that ‘the majority of consumers use cash regularly’ while the Access to Cash Review has found that eight million adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, said: “In many rural areas cash machines have been disappearing at an alarming rate despite the fact that lots of people still prefer to use cash. Many small businesses have yet to make the move to contactless or digital payments because mobile and internet coverage is so weak in rural areas. There is a danger of cash deserts emerging in areas where there are no ATMs or bank branches. I hope the Chancellor and his team at the Treasury consider what steps need to be taken to address these trends”.

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “We acknowledge the growth in digital payments but access to cash remains crucial for the millions who still rely on it for essential purchases. We need a planned approach to changing payment methods instead of the haphazard removal of free to use ATMs from communities.

“Cash back is not a workable replacement for the whole ATM network and comes with costs and security risks for businesses. We need the Chancellor to take action at the Budget to reverse cuts to interchange fees and exempt free to use ATMs from business rates that are making them unsustainable for ATM operators and local shops to host.”

British Retail Consortium Head of Payments Policy Andrew Cregan said: “Cash accounts for almost 40% of retail transactions and is important to many vulnerable people, especially as a tool for budgeting and control. Government should safeguard consumers’ access to cash by ensuring retailers are fairly rewarded for providing cashback services to customers and protecting the viability of free-to-use ATMs.”

Federation of Small Businesses National Chairman Mike Cherry said: “Cash is the payment method of choice for millions of small business customers, and millions more see it as an important part of the payments mix. There are some straightforward steps that the Chancellor can take on Wednesday to bolster our rapidly declining cash infrastructure. Removing business rates on free-to-use cash points is a good starting point. This a prime example of the many stifling quirks that exist within the archaic rates system. Equally, if the Treasury wants more small businesses to offer cashback, it must ensure they are given sufficient financial support to take that on.”

Positive Money Executive Director Fran Boait said: “After being bailed out by the public, banks have repaid the favour by slashing support for free ATMs, making us pay to access our own money. The Chancellor must stand up to banks’ cost-cutting in the Budget and make sure it is them and not the public who pay for Britain’s cash machine network.”

Responsible Finance Chief Executive Theodora Hadjimichael said: “The perils of relying on a single payment method have been illustrated by the weaknesses of digitalised financial systems, and the rapidly decreasing availability of free-to-use cash machines leaves million of people struggling to make payments, including the elderly and vulnerable. Paying for access to cash can compound the poverty premium for low-income families who rely on cash for their day to day budgeting and spending. It is critical that the Chancellor acts now to secure long-term access to cash across the UK.”

LINK, the ATM network body, is required under Specific Direction 8 from the Payment Systems Regulator to ensure the ongoing availability of access to free-to-use ATMs for consumers across the country. However, LINK’s own data shows over 500 free-to-use ATMs are closing every month and one-in-ten areas no longer have free access to cash via an ATM despite LINK’s commitments under the Financial Inclusion Programme.

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