ON 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.”
Air Quality Bill passes amid road charging row
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT’s Air Quality legislation only awaits Royal Assent after passing its final vote in the Senedd.
The World Health Organisation has described air pollution as the world’s largest environmental health risk and noise pollution as the second largest risk in Western Europe.
The Welsh Government is the first government in the UK to bring forward legislation that requires governmental consideration of soundscapes, and the Bill places a duty on Welsh Ministers to promote awareness of air pollution and to publish a progressive national soundscapes strategy.
The Bill, introduced to the Senedd in March 2023, passed on Tuesday, November 28.
It implements measures that contribute to improvements in the quality of the air environment in Wales and reduces the impacts of air pollution on human health, biodiversity, the natural environment and the economy.
Wales experiences some of the United Kingdom’s poorest air quality, and air pollution presents the nation-state’s biggest environmental risk to public health. The health impacts of air pollution exposure within the country are estimated to contribute to 1,400 premature deaths annually.
The Welsh Government has enjoyed considerable cross-party support during the Bill’s long gestation, with Conservative members repeatedly criticising the failure to bring forward a Bill in the last Senedd term, which ended in 2021.However, despite supporting most of the Bill’s principles, the Conservatives voted against its passage on the issue of road charging.
The Welsh Government has repeatedly claimed it has “no plans to introduce road charging” in Wales.
Mark Drakeford made the position explicit in October. Even with the provisions clearly stated in the Bill – Climate Change Minister Julie James repeated that line during Tuesday’s debate.
The Welsh Government’s line is that although it now has the power to introduce road charging to improve air quality, it will do so, as far as Julie James says, “only as a last resort”.
Welsh Ministers do not “plan” to introduce it unless the “last resort” arrives.
As attempts to defuse electorally difficult issues go, several angels are dancing on a very small pinhead.
Janet Finch-Saunders, the Conservative’s Shadow Climate Change Minister, seized on the road charging issue and claimed the Welsh Government was targeting motorists.
She said: “Throughout the Environment Bill’s passage through the Welsh Parliament, the Welsh Conservatives aimed to make the Bill succeed for the people of Wales by achieving amendments that would make it work better.”
The Aberconwy MS continued: “Nevertheless, with the Labour Government’s Environment Bill introducing road charging for hard-working residents simply trying to get on with their lives, the Welsh Conservatives could not support it.”
A pointed intervention by Plaid MS Llyr Gruffydd diminished the potential for the Conservatives to gain political traction on the issue.
He asked what lessons the Welsh Government had learned from the Conservative Westminster Government’s introduction of road charging in England.
The way the Conservatives chuntered at the gibe underlined its effectiveness.
Climate Change Minister Julie James said: “I am delighted the Senedd has passed the Bill. It demonstrates a collective commitment to support preventative action about air, noise and soundscapes to achieve public health and environmental improvements.
“This Bill enables us to deliver enhanced air quality targets for Wales, with strengthened duties for Welsh Ministers to set out how we will improve our air environment. It also improves our legislative powers to manage air quality better at the local and regional levels. Finally, it sets out important new duties for Welsh Ministers to promote awareness of air pollution alongside ways of reducing its impact.
“We must empower this generation and future generations with knowledge of the impacts of air pollution and the steps they can take to minimise their exposure.
“Now is the time for action. I look forward to continued collaboration with delivery partners, stakeholders and the public to implement the Bill.”
The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Sir Frank Atherton, said: “Wales already has a strong track record of leading the way in protecting the public’s health. The Bill shows the dedication and commitment across the Welsh Government to improving the air we breathe and promoting healthy soundscapes.
“We know exposure to air and noise pollution can increase the risk of serious illness, impact our wellbeing, and reduce our quality of life. That is why I am delighted this legislation has become law.
“By making our air cleaner and our sound environment better, we can improve public health for current and future generations.”
As for road charging, it all depends on how much you trust the Welsh Government.
Body found in missing person search in Carmarthenshire
IN THE LAST few moments, Dyfed-Powys Police can confirm that a body has been found this afternoon, Wednesday, November 29, during the search for Angharad, who had been reported missing.
Formal identification has not yet taken place, however Angharad’s family has been informed of this development.
Police said: “Our thoughts remain with the family at this difficult time.”
Excellent progress on construction of new Welsh medium primary school
A CELEBRATION event was held on the site of the new Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Penfro in Pembroke on Tuesday 14th November to mark the reaching of the highest point of the building, traditionally known as the ‘topping-out’ ceremony.
The event was hosted by Morgan Sindall Construction & Infrastructure Ltd and attended by pupils and staff from Ysgol Gelli Aur, the Executive Headteacher of the new school, governors of the Temporary Governing Body of Ysgol Bro Penfro, Cabinet members, senior Council officers, and a members of the project team.
Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet Member for Education and the Welsh Language, Cllr Guy Woodham, said that he was extremely pleased with progress at the site.
“Whilst I was unfortunately unable to attend the ceremony, my Cabinet colleagues have shared with me their experience, and the excellent progress being made on the new school.
“I am particularly pleased that the project remains on budget, and on programme, which means that Ysgol Gymraeg Bro Penfro will be in a position to admit pupils in September 2024.”
Members of the school’s Temporary Governing Body expressed their delight with the building.
The Executive Headteacher of Ysgol Bro Penfro, Mr Dafydd Hughes, confirmed that pupils and staff thoroughly enjoyed the event and that everyone connected with the school is excited at the prospect of moving to the new school next year.
“The fact that a new Welsh medium primary school is being built in Pembroke is an important and exciting development on so many levels.
“As Executive Headteacher of Ysgol Bro Penfro I am committed to ensure that when the school opens its doors in September 2024 every pupil will be given opportunities to flourish and thrive in a welcoming Welsh medium setting. I am also focused on ensuring that the whole Pembroke community takes great pride in the school.”
Pupils were very excited to see the new school. Among the comments received were: “We loved signing the steels, it will help us to remember when we came here when our school was being built and we will always be a part of our new school”
“I can see that everyone is working really hard to build us our school. The school is so much bigger than we expected and can’t wait to start learning in our new classes”.
The project is being funded by Welsh Government and Pembrokeshire County Council, and will provide a significant contribution to the Council’s Welsh in Education Strategic Plan.
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