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Can council be trusted with town centre cash?

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Concerned: Cllrs Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams

Concerned: Cllrs Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams

COUNCIL OFFICERS, whose ineptitude led to a police investigation into allegations of fraud, are to have a hand in managing a further sevenfi gure project in our county. Unaffi liated councillors have expressed concern about the potential for a repeat the questionable practices which are currently subject to a Dyfed- Powys Police inquiry. On Monday (Jan 5), the Cabinet will receive a report that the authority has secured a £1.25m Welsh Government loan to fund town centre regeneration schemes. The funding forms part of the Welsh Government’s ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ (VVP) town centre regeneration programme. The Council applied for VVP funding which was not successful, but the Welsh Government has made available loan funding to four local authorities, including Pembrokeshire.

REPORT CONCEALS ‘ABJECT FAILURE’

The report on the loan, which is to be considered by Cabinet on Monday, glosses over the chequered history of the Council’s involvement in similar schemes in the past. The report blandly states: “The Audit Committee has recently reviewed the delivery of a property related grant scheme – the European funded Commercial Property Grant Scheme. It is proposed that these arrangements be replicated for the town centre loan fund.” The conduct of at least one offi cer involved in the delivery of the Commercial Property Grants Scheme was recommended for internal disciplinary action, while the report referred to Cabinet members but not provided to them also points out a series of abject failures by the offi cers concerned in that project’s administration. The management structure for the new project is a straight repetition of that which produced nothing but bad headlines for the Council for the last three years, with the addition of Cabinet.

AUDIT MEMBER’S MISGIVINGS

Audit Committee member Jacob Williams expressed considerable surprise at the way in which the Cabinet paper permits the inference to be drawn that the Audit Committee approved or endorsed the chaotic management structures which led directly to a situation in which a Police investigation into allegations of possible fraud remains ongoing. Speaking to the Herald on Tuesday (Dec 30), Cllr Williams said: “The Audit Committee’s “fi ndings” were a shocking indictment of the way things were being run, yet they didn’t even scrape the surface. The Council’s administration was so horrifi cally poorly managed that even a cursory examination of material by the Audit Committee fl agged up eyebrow raising goings-on.” Shortly after that investigation was launched, Cllrs Mike Stoddart and Jacob Williams provided evidence gathered from the documents to the then Director of Finance Mark Lewis. The material handed over suggested that a contractor had received preferential treatment in relation to one development in the Town Heritage Initiative. The same contractor and developer were concerned in other developments under the Commercial Property Grant Scheme After delay until after a Council meeting due to discuss the unlawful pay supplements made to its CEO, the Council referred the alleged irregularities to the Police and they continue to be under investigation. Concerns raised at the time that some of the fi les made available to Council members to inspect had been “fi lleted”, were sharpened when it emerged that the Council’s European Manager, Gwyn Evans (no relation), who has overall responsibility for the Commercial Property Grants Scheme, had carefully re-written the record of grants panel meetings to suggest greater caution and scrutiny of proposed developments than was actually the case. Gwyn Evans has been the subject of the Council’s internal disciplinary procedure as a result. Jacob Williams concluded: “Hell knows what else the Audit Committee would have found if it was allowed to complete its investigation properly and in the way originally intended.”

AN INCOMPLETE INVESTIGATION

The original intention of the Audit Committee, as revealed previously to The Herald by Cllr David Simpson, was to examine one project undertaken in the Commercial Property Grants Scheme as a test subject – 29 Dimond Street in Pembroke Dock – and see if any issues arose in relation to that project. It was then intended that the Audit Committee should move on to consider other projects to see if the same issues arose when they were subject to the same level of scrutiny. The Committee found issues aplenty, but its determination to continue with its probe by looking at other properties was thwarted by the intervention of senior offi cers, who were keen to draw a veil over the range and number of irregularities, and the incompetence and possible complicity of Council staff in those matters now under Police investigation. Senior offi cers’ intervention in the investigation contributed directly to the resignation of Audit Committee Chair, John Evans MBE in May 2014. When he left his position, John Evans MBE made it clear that he considered that council offi cers showed little “appetite for change” and said that he had been thwarted in his aim to bring openness and transparency to the way in which the Council operated. AN ONGOING SCANDAL While Jamie Adams’ allegedly “independent” group and senior offi cers are keen to avoid scrutiny, it was only at last month’s Council meeting that the Pembroke Dock grants issue raised its head again. The massed ranks of the “independent” group and the fl awed advice of Council offi cers could not thwart a motion by Cllr Mike Stoddart to allow Audit Committee members access to correspondence between the authority and developer Cathal McCosker, including the substance of negotiations that led to Mr McCosker offering to repay over £180K rather than allow access to bank statements proving that payments claimed were supported by a paper trail. When Council members reconvene in January existing Audit Committee members will now have the opportunity to fi nd out just how that £180K fi gure was arrived at and to which projects it relates.

MAKING MOTORWORLD ‘VIBRANT AND VIABLE’

The Council’s VVP application centres on a proposal to regenerate the Motorworld building, Charles Street, Milford Haven. The conceptual proposal for the Charles Street site is to demolish the current building and redevelop with a mixed use scheme which includes social housing and retailing. However, other town centre buildings and sites – re-development opportunities – could also benefi t from the loan fund. At the time the Council made its original bid, its scheme was made up of an ambitious plan to revitalise the Rath by creating a new lido-type development. In order to gain backing for those proposals, Milford Haven Central representative Stephen Joseph was induced to join Jamie Adams’ allegedly “Independent” group on the Council. The failure of the original bid appears to have put the kybosh on Cllr Joseph’s vision and replaced it with the Development Directorate’s preferred option of building bedsits in town centres.

 

CALL FOR BETTER SUPERVISION

Mike Stoddart told us: “Following the abject failure of the Grants Panel to adequately supervise the commercial property scheme in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, I would have thought some more stringent method of assessing these projects might have been devised. “Having a Cabinet member along as a mere observer doesn’t seem to fi t the bill. “Perhaps the involvement of elected members with some experience of these matters would be a better way to assure the public that their money is being wisely spent.”

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‘Reach out to friends and family’ says Council Leader

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THIS week’s update from Cllr David Simpson, Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council:

‘Hello everyone, I hope you are all keeping well and safe.

‘I’d like to highlight that this week is Mental Health Awareness Week.

‘I’m very aware that the last 15 months has had a huge impact on our lives and, in some cases, our wellbeing.

‘Mental Health can be a hidden issue and we all need to be aware that some people may need some extra support.

‘On a personal level the lockdown restrictions have reminded me of the importance to talk to people and to ensure people are supported.

‘Supporting your friends and family can be as simple as a phone call to say hello. A quick hello can ensure people are ok and managing and can give someone a huge uplift.

“Our communities have done a fantastic job of supporting each other so please, Team Pembrokeshire, continue these efforts.

‘I urge you all to pick up the phone and say hello to your friends and family, as we all need to play our role in everyone’s wellbeing – talking about issues does make a difference.

‘If you are suffering from Mental Health or general wellbeing issues please reach out, do not struggle on your own, your friends and family can help and make a difference.

‘Please also take the opportunity to also view the website at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week which has much more information and support.

‘I now want to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in last week’s elections.

‘Elections take a phenomenal amount of organisation at the best of times but even more so in a pandemic situation.

‘To all those who ensured the smooth running of the elections process, thank you.

‘Congratulations to all the successful candidates and I look forward to working with them to further improve the lives of Pembrokeshire people.

‘We have now had further updates from Welsh Government and the next phase of the unlocking road map has been unveiled.

‘From Monday, 17th May, indoor hospitality can re-open.

‘Up to six people from six different households will be able to meet indoors in pubs, cafes and restaurants.

‘We have so many fantastic hospitality venues in Pembrokeshire who we know will be giving their customers a big welcome after so long away.

‘The opening of indoor hospitality will be a major landmark in our emergence from the pandemic and towards recovery.

‘While out and about please remember social distancing rules are still in pace, consider your actions on others, remember your footprint has an impact on our communities, so please tread lightly.

‘When you go home, leave with a smile – enjoy your days out, enjoy seeing your families and most importantly enjoy our beautiful county and please support us in keeping Pembrokeshire special – play your part and please be responsible.

‘I want to wish you all a lovely weekend and I look forward to talking to you all again next week through my update.

‘Thank you everyone.’

You can keep up to date with all the Council’s press releases here: https://www.pembrokeshire.gov.uk/newsroom

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Plan to rescue rare butterfly from extinction in Pembrokeshire

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THE PEMBROKESHIRE Coast National Park Authority is stepping up efforts to save the marsh fritillary butterfly, which was once widespread in Wales but is now close to extinction in Pembrokeshire.

Funded by the Pembrokeshire Nature Partnership, the new landscape scale strategy aims to improve the fortunes of the rare species, which relies on networks of flower rich marshy grasslands across the landscape.

Much of this habitat, which is home to the favourite food of its larva – the devil’s bit scabious (succisa pratensis), has been lost due to drainage, inappropriate tree planting and the neglect of traditional management of grasslands through light grazing with heavy animals such as cattle.

National Park AuthorityBiodiversity Officer, Sarah Mellor said: “The marsh fritillary in Pembrokeshire is now in a very precarious position. We think it has already become extinct in a number of areas in its former range and it has not been seen on the St Davids Peninsula since 2013. The population around Keeston and Tiers Cross is also now thought to be extinct.

“We must find a way to make space for wildlife in our landscape to ensure that nature can thrive for future generations. It is quite sobering to think this species could disappear from Pembrokeshire in my lifetime. We have a responsibility not to let this happen on our watch.

“Even in those areas where it remains we have seen dramatic declines, for example around Mychanchlogddu it used to be recorded from 32 sites, but since 2015 it has only been seen at seven sites.”

The National Park Authority has already stepped up its action to rescue the rare butterfly by assisting landowners to bring sites into suitable management through grant aid and providing suitable grazing animals through the Pembrokeshire Grazing Network and the Conserving the Park Scheme.

The new strategy will include mobilising Park Authority staff and volunteers to undertake targeted surveys at sites across the county, as well as helping landowners to manage their land in a sensitive way to help ensure the future of this rare butterfly.

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Santander turns away customers due to nationwide computer glitch

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CUSTOMERS of Santander in Haverfordwest were being turned away this morning by branch staff saying that they were unable to make transactions due to a computer glitch. It is understood that branches use the same computer systems which run the bank’s other systems.

Problems arouse last night when computer updates which the bank was implementing did not go to plan.

Some Herald readers contacted the news room to speak of their surprise that they were not able to access their funds.

One reader, who had gone to the bank to withdraw funds to pay rent on his home was told that there was nothing that could be done.

Website and App transactions are also being affected at the high street bank, and card transactions are being declined

The head of money at consumer magazine Which?, Gareth Shaw, said many customers will be stressed, “with people reporting that they have been unable to make online payments or in some cases purchase food in their local supermarket”.

“Customers can incur fines, penalties and fees when they’re not able to access their finances, so the bank must offer compensation to all those who have been impacted in this way”.

Santander told customers they can “access cash from other banks’ ATMs, at the Post Office and can get cashback where that’s available”.

A service status page on its website said planned maintenance was due to be performed on the Santander mobile banking app overnight on Friday. It is not known whether this prompted Saturday’s problems.

On Twitter, a Santander spokesperson said: “We’re sorry that a technical problem is affecting our services, our teams are working hard to fix it.

“You can access cash from other banks’ ATMs. Please check back here for further updates.”

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