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Welsh Government scraps council mergers

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Leighton Andrews: Piloted merger plans

THERE has been a widespread welcome and cautious approval of the announcement by Welsh Local Government Cabinet Secretary Professor Mark Drakeford that the Welsh Government has scrapped its controversial plans to force councils into mergers.

The decision is an embarrassing U-Turn by the government and a recognition that, not only was there little or no support for its scheme – described as ‘grandiose’ by former AM William Powell – among Welsh local government, but no enthusiasm for its plans in the Assembly.

Former local Government Leighton Andrews’ spectacularly maladroit words at the end of the last Assembly, when he described Plaid’s preparedness to work with the Welsh Government as making them ‘a cheap date’, not only soured relationships enough to cause other legislation to fall, but poisoned what little goodwill existed for the proposals to merge councils under any circumstances.

Professor Drakeford’s announcement follows long-running guerrilla warfare by local authorities resistant to the change and what is understood to be direct pressure brought to bear on the Welsh Government by Labour Party controlled councils in the south east of Wales, who faced losing their autonomy under the scheme.

LOCAL COUNCILS RESPOND POSITIVELY

Cllr Jamie Adams, Leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, and who was implacably opposed to the merger scheme proposed by former minister Leighton Andrews, said: “I welcome the certainty provided by Mark Drakeford. There is no question that the recent period of uncertainty has had a negative effect on the running of all local authorities.

“I will take the opportunity to engage in shaping sustainable services for the people of Pembrokeshire and ensuring that they are underpinned by local democratic accountability.

He added: “We look forward to the opportunity of building on the excellent services provided by Pembrokeshire County Council for the people of Pembrokeshire, as evidenced recently by the Local Government Performance report for Wales 2015-16.”

Cllr Adams’ words were echoed by Ceredigion leader Ellin ap Gwynn, who told us: “I welcome the change in direction by the Welsh Government, and the new Cabinet Secretary’s appreciation of the importance of local decision making and accountability.

“Ceredigion is an historic county steeped in tradition, and I am very pleased that Ceredigion residents will be able to continue to fully engage in democratic processes at this local level.

“Ceredigion County Council is no stranger to working in partnership with other authorities at a regional level, wherever such a model may enhance our ability to respond to the needs of our residents.

“I and my fellow Members will look forward to working with the Welsh Government to further discuss the implications and opportunities of broader collaborative working, and to play a full role in determining the most effective model possible for the county.”

Cllr Emlyn Dole, Leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, has welcomed the statement by Local Government Secretary, Professor Mark Drakeford, confirming that compulsory council mergers are off the table, with more emphasis added to regional partnership agreements.

“I very much welcome the statement by the Minister. He called with us at the beginning of the summer to engage in the conversation – he was open to listening and so were we,” said Cllr Dole.

“We welcome the fact that the 22 local authorities stay and keep their roles, but with emphasis on regionalisation for the delivery of certain services.

“In Carmarthenshire, we have already forged very strong and successful partnerships across the region to deliver a variety of services, and for us, we go where the strength is – what works best for Carmarthenshire in terms of stronger and better services.”

NO RETURN TO DYFED

West Wales’ councils and councillors had been staunch in their opposition to the scheme advanced during the last Welsh Assembly term, which was widely regarded as a power-grab by the Cardiff Bay government.

Ceredigion Council refused to enter even into preliminary talks on any potential merger; Pembrokeshire Council were united in rejecting reorganisation on the terms dictated by former minister Leighton Andrews and Carmarthenshire County Council was similarly unanimous in its opposition to the scheme.

The prospect of forced mergers and what amounted to the recreation of the hated Dyfed County Council, but without the former district council tier underneath, was not only a major sticking, but the focus of councillors’ and local AMs’ opposition to the plans, which increasingly seemed as though they were being made to serve the interests of Cardiff Bay by stripping out democratic accountability from local government.

Responding to the announcement, Councillor Bob Wellington CBE (Torfaen), Leader of the WLGA, said: “As a statement of intent we welcome these proposals and also the constructive way in which the Cabinet Secretary is working with local councils to develop a more resilient and stable future for local public services in Wales.

“Our ideas for future service innovation chime well with the proposals outlined by the Cabinet Secretary.

“What is encouraging is that these proposals highlight how councils will remain embedded in their communities, acting as the ‘front door’ through which people access a range of vitally important everyday services. In doing so, the proposals outline a vision that keeps the ‘local’ in local democracy and local government, while also offering a coherent agenda for regional collaboration on key service areas.

“There is much detail now to explore, not least on how the proposed ‘mandatory’ approach to regional working will work, but we look forward to working with the Cabinet Secretary and our other partners to ensure we deliver a workable vision for public service reform in Wales.”

DRAKEFORD’S NEW PLAN

Professor Drakeford told AMs that he had listened to the views of local authorities and trade unions and had found ‘an approach on a possible way forward’.

The new plan means retaining existing local authorities as the ‘front door’, through which people access services, but with key services being delivered regionally.

The Cabinet Secretary explained: “Behind this front door, we would have an enhanced level of mandatory and systematic regional working. This will give local authorities more resilience in terms of staffing and finance and also ensure that services are planned and delivered on the right scale.”

However, mergers were not ruled out altogether, with Professor Drakeford saying: “Some authorities may wish to build their resilience further by voluntarily merging and we will support them to help make that happen.”

Tackling a major sticking point with the previous plans regarding Community Councils, he said: “We will also make improvements to Community Councils in the short term, and establish an independent review to look at the future role of this tier of local Government.”

Responding, Labour Regional Assembly Member Eluned Morgan told The Herald: “I think it’s sensible that local authorities work together more to deliver key services.

“There’s less and less money available because of Westminster Government decisions on spending. This is likely to get even tougher with the decision to leave the EU. There are many examples of good practice in local authorities and more formal sharing arrangements can only help.”

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Cllr Dowson asks police to stop UN-backed anti-racism day protests

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THE UNITED NATION’S Anti-Racism Day has upset a Pembrokeshire County Councillor, and he has written to the police in an attempt to stop demonstrations locally.

March 20 2021 is UN Anti-Racism Day – but Pembroke Dock Councillor Paul Dowson thinks events should not go ahead as planned in Penally, Pembroke Dock and Haverfordwest.

The controversial UKIP councillor who has been defending himself against accusations of racism of late. He also has had to defend the actions of a fellow UKIP member who has had his YouTube channel, in which he participated, blocked after a BBC and S4C investigation concluded that there was racist content.

The UN event he is opposing is being supported all over the world, will be marked, according to its organisers, with an online national rally with speakers representing the broad alliance of communities and organisations that make up the anti-racist movement.

“We will come together united against racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism and fascism. We will stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants”, a spokesperson said for the cause.

A ‘national day of action’ in support of the UN’s efforts is being championed by the worker’s union Unison in the UK.

The plan for Pembrokeshire is laid out on social media. According to the Facebook group ‘Stand up to racism Pembrokeshire’ is a series of ‘socially distanced events’ starting at 11am on the day in Penally, which the group calls ‘Solidarity with refugees’.

That is to be followed by the online rally at 1pm organised by Stand Up To Racism. Then at 2.30pm there will be an event in Pembroke Dock described as ‘an event light the town in purple and declare it racism free’

The International UN Antiracism Day online rally starts at 5pm.

Similar demos have taken place before locally (Pic Herald photographer)

The Facebook page then goes on to say that at 5.29pm at Haverfordwest Picton Fields demonstrators will ‘Take the Knee with Louisa Calderon’ at the same time as Swansea and Cardiff footballers before their game – in solidarity with BLM

“We will be all compliant with Covid regulations… Please wear a mask and socially distance” it says.

In this letter to the police Cllr Dowson wrote: “As County Councillor for The Pembroke Dock Central ward, I am concerned about the fact that a public protest has been scheduled to take place.. in breaching tier 4 lockdown regulations.

“I am reliably informed that there are people attending from outside the county and outside Wales.

“The posters advertising these events also state the same.

“Like all other towns in the country, we have a section of the community who are more vulnerable to Coronavirus than others and it is the duty of all of us to ensure that we do not place these people at risk by adhering to the COVID-19 lockdown legislation.

“These planned social gatherings are wilfully and deliberately intended to ignore legislation. If I were to do the same I’m certain I would be reported for the offence. The people attending this planned gathering on the 20th March have no justifiable excuse for placing local people’s lives in danger.

“I would appreciate your reassurance that this mass gathering will be dealt with according to Welsh Government legislation on tier four lockdown.

“I’d also be grateful for your confirmation that any person travelling from outside the permitted area will be reported for the offence and sent back home.

“As a County Councillor people are looking to me for reassurance… that [the demos] will be prevented from taking place and penalties will be issued accordingly.

An organiser told The Herald: “The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a fresh spotlight on the horrific levels of racism around the world. With the Coronavirus crisis intensifying, structural racism & health inequalities mean the epidemic is continuing to disproportionately impact Black communities.

“On March 20 2021 we will come together united against racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism and fascism. We will stand in solidarity with refugees and migrants.”

Last month Cllr Dowson hit back at the BBC – calling the broadcasting company a ‘shambolic mess’ following a news report where fellow UKIP members were accused of displaying racism on their YouTube channel.

The controversial who represents the Pembroke Dock Central Ward has also taken aim at what he calls online ‘bullies’ who have set up Facebook groups with the sole intention of harassing him, simply because he doesn’t agree with their views.

The county councillor has come out in defence of the Voice of Wales hosts Dan Morgan and Stan Robinson after the BBC and S4C broadcast a news item last week where accusations were made by senior politicians from the Senedd that ‘unacceptable’ language and hate speech had been used by the YouTubers and guests on their channel.

In 2020 the controversial councillor denied he shared images on social media that were racist, hateful to women and people of different religions.

Dowson said the images, alleged by the union Unison to have come from his Facebook account, were “manufactured” by political opponents.

Speaking at the time he told a reporter from BBC Wales: “Give me 24 hours and I could come up with the same screenshots in your name.”

Mr Dowson “categorically” denied sharing the allegedly offensive posts. He also denied he was racist. Elected with a majority of just four votes to represent the Pembroke Dock Central ward in 2017.

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Fr. Liam Bradley to become Lead Chaplain for Dyfed-Powys Police

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THE CATHOLIC CHURCH in Haverfordwest will see some changes over the coming weeks as Father Liam Bradley, who has been the parish priest for seven years is to move from his post to become the Lead Chaplain for Dyfed-Powys Police.

From Cardiff, Archbishop George Stack said in a statement: “Fr. Liam Bradley has given outstanding service as volunteer chaplain to the police in Haverfordwest over recent years.

“So much so, that he has been seconded by the Diocese of Menevia to become Lead Chaplain for Dyfed-Powys Police with responsibility for a team of volunteer chaplains. He will be engaged in this work of spiritual care and pastoral support of police officers and civilian workers for a period of three days each week. He will be based at Dyfed-Powys Police Headquarters in Carmarthen.

“Whilst this means that Fr. Liam will have to stand down as parish priest of Haverfordwest, I am pleased to say that he will continue to have responsibility as chaplain to the staff and patients at Withybush Hospital for two days each week. In addition to this, he will also offer his services to the Cistercian community at Holy Cross Abbey, Whitland.

“I am grateful to Canon Pius Valummelmalayil for his invitation that Fr. Liam should take up residence at St. Mary’s Presbytery, Carmarthen.

“I have asked Fr. Matthew Roche-Saunders to assume pastoral responsibility for the parish of St. David and St. Patrick, Haverfordwest and the Immaculate Conception, Narberth, for the foreseeable future. These changes will take place after Easter.

Writing of this appointment, Fr. Liam said on the parish’s social media page: “Whilst I am sorry to stand down from the role of parish priest at Haverfordwest and Narberth, I give thanks for serving the community for the last seven years. The huge need for spiritual and pastoral support of those who work at the front line in serving our communities and keeping us safe lies behind this appointment. My voluntary work with the police has taught me how much they value such support.

“I offer it on behalf of the Catholic Church to those of all faiths and none”.

Fr. Matthew added: “I wish Fr. Liam every blessing in his new role of bringing the service of the Church to the wider world. His gifts for such outreach have been recognised in this appointment. I am pleased that he will continue to remain in contact with parishioners in Haverfordwest through his work as hospital chaplain.

“I am grateful for the mutual support and friendship we have enjoyed over the last two and a half years and look forward to it continuing”.

“Please do keep me and Fr Matt in your prayers. Pray also for each other, and treasure in each other the may gifts that each brings to our community of faith.

“This is the closing of one chapter, but beginning of something new and exciting too.

“In all things let us give glory to God who guides us by his divine providence, and supplies what we need to complete his work.”

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Failures over use of ‘filthy’ barracks for asylum seekers – inspectors

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THERE were “fundamental failures” over accommodating asylum seekers in former military barracks, parts of which were “filthy”, inspectors have said.

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons visited Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire and Napier Barracks in Kent. They said both sites were “run-down”.

In a preliminary report seen by The Herald the inspectors said at both locations residents described feeling trapped in poor conditions. They feared that if they moved out they would jeopardise their only source of support and possibly their asylum cases, it was concluded.

Inspectors added: “We met many men who described feeling depressed and hopeless at their circumstances. In our resident survey, all of those who responded at Napier and the vast majority at Penally said they had felt depressed at some points.

“At both sites about a third of respondents said they had mental health problems; about a third of respondents at Napier said they had felt suicidal.”

Home Secretary has been asked by Plaid Cymru to consider her position (Image: File)

However, Home Secretary Priti Patel and immigration minister Chris Philp have both previously defended the use of such sites.

There have been repeated demonstrations in both Pembrokeshire and in Kent by people from both ends of the political spectrum, and by local residents, causing security costs to spiral.

On Monday evening (Mar 8), the department repeated its assertion that “it is wrong to say it is not adequate for asylum seekers”

Naomi Phillips, director of policy and advocacy at British Red Cross, said: “These sites are completely inappropriate and inhumane as housing for people fleeing war, persecution and violence.

“The people we’ve spoken to in Penally have told us that they didn’t receive health screenings, were given little or no information about what was happening to them, and simply do not feel safe in the barracks.

“Our worst fears about the impact on people’s mental health have been realised.”

The cost of policing the camp has been higher than expected, running into millions of pounds (Pic Herald)

The BBC is reporting Labour has said the findings are “utterly unbelievable”, and Plaid Cymru called for Home Secretary Priti Patel to “consider her position”.

Inspectors said both sites – which witnessed protests over living conditions in January – were “run-down and unsuitable”, but particularly criticised Napier.

They said given the cramped, communal conditions, “once one person was infected with Covid a large-scale outbreak was virtually inevitable” at the site.

Many men said they were depressed, and a survey found a third of respondents at both sites had mental health problems, while a third at Napier had felt suicidal.

Reacting to the findings, Detention Action director Bella Sankey said: “This is the sort of report that should make decent people consider their positions.”

She called for the barracks to be closed immediately and for “those responsible fully held to account”.

Police and protestors in stand off in Penally in 2020 (Pic: Herald)

Yvette Cooper MP, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “At a time when the Home Secretary and Permanent Secretary have told us they are making major changes to improve the culture and the humanity of the department in response to the Wendy Williams Windrush review, this report shows they haven’t yet learnt the lessons.”

Shadow immigration minister, Holly Lynch, said: “The Home Secretary has recklessly put the lives of all those staying at the sites, those working there, and the surrounding communities, at risk during a pandemic.”

Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said Ms Patel “must consider her position” in the wake of the report, which highlighted “fundamental failures of leadership and planning by the Home Office”.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said: “During these unprecedented times we have met our statutory duty to provide asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, with suitable accommodation and three meals a day all paid for by the British taxpayer.

“We expect the highest possible standards from our service providers and have instructed them to make improvements at the site.”

The Home Office has said people should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach rather than making the crossings, and has said illegal migrants are being returned to safe countries.

The Home Office also said it had instructed service providers to make improvements to both camps. The government department has also said it is winding down use of the camps. In Pembrokeshire the policing costs alone have exceeded a million pounds.

Rooms in the camp were said to be too small for social distancing (Pic: Camp user)

 

Penally camp: Unsuitable in its current condition, said inspectors

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