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Politics

‘Fundamental flaws’ cost Welsh taxpayers

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Welsh TaxpayersFUNDAMENTAL flaws in the way the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was managed, overseen, and advised, cost Welsh taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, according to a National Assembly for Wales committee.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfill their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers. Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding. The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Members also agreed that, in light of South Wales Land Developments Ltd onward sales, the Welsh Government’s contention that it is not possible to demonstrate that the sale was under value, is unconvincing, pointing to the following as evidence (overage is an agreed sum of money to claw-back in addition to the sale price if the buyer meets certain conditions):

  • The Rhoose site was purchased from RIFW for less than £3 m, without overage, and sold on by SWLD for nearly £10.5 m;
  • The Abergele site was purchased from RIFW for £0.1 m, without overage, and sold for £1.9m.
  • Lisvane, near Cardiff, was / is the ‘jewel in the crown’ and should have been disposed of via a properly marketed open and competitive sale process. The Committee believed it incomprehensible that this was sold to SWLD at an agricultural land value of £1.835 million (even with overage) when its potential open market value for residential housing is at least £39 million.

“The Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) has been one of the most significant and deeply troubling inquiries undertaken by the Committee,” said Darren Millar AM, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

“The fact that one of the largest sales of publicly owned land in Wales should have generated tens of millions of pounds more for the taxpayer than it did, is inexcusable.

“While the Committee found the concept of RIFW to be innovative, we concluded that it was poorly executed due to fundamental flaws in Welsh Government oversight and governance arrangements, and that the Fund was poorly served from those appointed and trusted to provide the Board with professional advice and expertise.

“It is regrettable that many of the flaws we identified are consistent with issues this Committee has considered during previous inquiries.”

The Committee makes 18 recommendations in its report including:

  • The Welsh Government must strengthen monitoring and oversight arrangements of its arms-length bodies and, in particular, ensure that any concerns are swiftly identified and escalated internally;
  • That measures are put in place to ensure that Board Members have the appropriate expertise and capacity to fulfil their duties and receive adequate and appropriate induction training, and;
  • The Welsh Government should ensure that robust overage arrangements are considered whenever it disposes of public assets that possess future development potential.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was established in December 2009 in response to the constrained financial climate which restricted access to capital for investment in regeneration in Wales. RIFW was created as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) wholly-owned by the Welsh Government. RIFW’s purpose was to invest £55 m initially in urban regeneration schemes across Wales, comprising £25 million of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and £30 m of Welsh Government funding. The Welsh Government provided RIFW with £9.4 m cash, and a portfolio of 18 land and property assets valued in existing use at £20.5 m , based on a valuation commissioned by the Welsh Government.

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Politics

Slurry lagoon near Boncath conditionally approved

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AN APPLICATION for a slurry lagoon near the north Pembrokeshire village of Boncath has been conditionally approved by county planners.

A H & V F Picton sought permission for a slurry lagoon and associated works at 230-acre Ty Mawr Farm, a mixed farm of a herd of dairy cattle plus followers, beef cattle, and sheep, some 150 metres north of Boncath.

A supporting statement by agent Cynllunio RW Planning Ltd said: “The proposed development seeks to increase the farms slurry storage capacity to above the five-month storage required by NVZ regulations. The existing slurry store and slurry handling facilities are not adequate to comply with the new regulations.”

It stressed the applicant does not intend to increase livestock numbers on farm as a result of the 48 by 30 metre development. 

It added: “The lagoon proposed will have very low banks and as such the proposal will not be visible from the surrounding area.  The proposed will be screened by the adjacent building and hedgerow and will have no adverse impact on the landscape in line with relevant policies of the Pembrokeshire LDP.”

One letter of objection to the scheme was received by planners, raising concerns including potential noise, odour, and the impact on property value for their property and properties within the wider village of Boncath.

An officer report said: “It is considered that the location of the development, within a rural setting, is appropriate and sustainable.

“The development allows the operation of the existing farm business and results in positive economic, social benefits and improved welfare facilities. It is considered that sufficient need is evidenced and that the lagoon is justified.”

The application was conditionally approved.

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News

Withyhedge Landfill: Multi-agency statement issued to residents

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NATURAL Resources Wales (NRW) shared the most recent findings from a visit to Withyhedge Landfill site in Pembrokeshire at a Multi-agency Incident Management Team meeting on Wednesday, 10 April. The meeting included representatives from Pembrokeshire County Council (PCC), Public Health Wales (PHW) and Hywel Dda University Health Board.

All authorities acknowledge and empathise with the impact this prolonged odour issue is having on members of the communities that surround Withyhedge Landfill.

This is a complex and ever-changing situation, and partners are working extremely hard to reach a point where the odour problems are resolved.

NRW officers attended the site on Monday 8 April. It appears, from a visual assessment of the work undertaken on site, that the required capping work and gas well installation has been completed by site operators, RML, in line with the deadline of the S36 Enforcement Notice, issued by NRW on 13 February 2024.

However, this can only be fully assessed by NRW once survey and construction validation reports have been submitted. The operator is now preparing these and once received, a formal assessment will be undertaken.

The authorities will review the findings and revise their action plans where appropriate.

Odour Monitoring

Since the passing of the S36 Enforcement Notice deadline of Friday 5 April, and in response to continued high volumes of odour reports from the local community, NRW and PCC increased odour monitoring in residential areas over the weekend and into this week.

Other possible areas on site where odour may be coming from have been identified and the statement from the company issued 9 April provides further detail.

RML submitted plans to address these on 10 April, which are now being considered by NRW.

Air Quality Monitoring

RML has also commissioned an independent party to carry out air quality monitoring, and this work continues. PCC and NRW are providing technical advice in support of this work.

The first round of diffusion tubes monitoring results detected Hydrogen Sulphide (H2S) at one of the 10 monitoring sites. Hydrogen sulphide being a colourless gas which often smells like rotten eggs and can come from the breakdown of waste materials in landfill.

More data is required for meaningful analysis and Public Health Wales continue to advocate for further air monitoring to take place as soon as possible. This is being progressed by PCC and NRW.

Reporting odour

NRW requests that instances of odour from the landfill continue to be reported via this dedicated form: https://bit.ly/reportasmellwithyhedge.

Please report odours at the time of them being experienced, rather than historically. Reporting odours in a timely manner will help guide the work of partners more effectively, particularly in the further development of air quality monitoring.

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Health

Doctors to enter pay negotiations with the Welsh Government

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BMA CYMRU Wales has suspended forthcoming industrial action for Consultants and SAS doctors following a constructive meeting with the Welsh government to resolve its pay disputes.

As a result of sustained pressure, including three rounds of industrial action by junior doctors in Wales, the Welsh Government has made a significant proposal to form the basis of talks to end the pay disputes with all secondary care doctors including Consultants, SAS and Junior doctors.

Since the meeting last week, the committees representing doctors from all three branches of practice have voted to enter pay negotiations based on this proposal.

The planned 48-hour strike by Consultants and SAS doctors due to take place from 16 April will now be suspended.

Junior doctors have paused plans to announce more strike dates whilst they enter negotiations with the Welsh Government.

The Welsh junior doctors committee, Welsh SAS committee and Welsh consultants committee will now each engage in pay negotiations, with the aim of reaching deals which can be taken separately to their respective members.

Dr Oba Babs Osibodu and Dr Peter Fahey co-chairs of the BMA’s Welsh Junior doctors Committee said:

“This is a significant step forward. It is sad that we had to take industrial action to get here, but we are proud of members for demonstrating their resolve in pursuit of a fair deal for the profession.

“Whilst we are optimistic and hope to quickly resolve our dispute, we remain steadfast in achieving pay restoration. Until we reach a deal, nothing is off the table.

 “We will continue to work hard to reach an offer that is credible to put to members who will ultimately have the final say.”

Dr Stephen Kelly, chair of BMA Cymru Wales’ Consultants committee said:

“The Welsh Government’s recent efforts to reach an end to the pay dispute are encouraging and so we have called off our planned strike for now whilst we allow time and space for negotiations to take place.

“We’re hopeful that we can reach a deal that sufficiently addresses years of erosion to our pay to help retain senior doctors in Wales but remain ready to strike if we’re not able to do so during negotiations.”

Dr Ali Nazir, chair of BMA Cymru Wales’ SAS doctor committee said:

“As a committee, we felt that this latest development goes someway to understanding the strength of feeling of our members. We will work hard to reach a settlement that sufficiently meets the expectation of our colleagues who have faced real terms pay cuts of up to a third since 2008/9.”

In August last year, the BMA’s committees representing secondary care doctors in Wales voted to enter into separate trade disputes with the Welsh Government after being offered another below inflation pay uplift of just 5% for the 23/24 financial year. SAS doctors on some contracts were offered as little as 1.5%. This was the lowest pay offer any government in the UK offered and less than the DDRB, the pay review body for doctors and dentists, recommended last year.

As part of their disputes, SAS doctors, consultants and junior doctors carried out successful ballots for industrial action. Since then, junior doctors have taken part in 10 days of industrial action since January this year.

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