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Officer fiddles council minutes

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Grants panel: Minutes tampered with

Grants panel: Minutes tampered with

THE PEMBROKESHIRE HERALD understands that a senior officer in the County Council’s Development Directorate has undergone disciplinary proceedings for altering the minutes kept of several European grant-awarding panel meetings to put a more favourable gloss on the scrutiny that took place.

Writing on his website, Hakin Councillor Mike Stoddart explained how last year he submitted a Freedom of Information request to obtain the minutes of several panel meetings where applications for European funding were evaluated and approved. Cllr Stoddart duly received the minutes, but says he received an email out of the blue last week from County Hall stating that after he submitted his request, the minutes were significantly altered with the result that the documents Cllr Stoddart was sent as a true record of the panel meetings, were materially different to what had been approved by the panel.

Cllr Stoddart told The Herald:  “Some of the amendments are trivial and some less so, but the point is that someone within the authority thought fit to make these alterations.”

“While most of the alterations are merely concerned with tidying up the grammar, those regarding No 29 Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock, involve substantial additions to the text and seem to have been designed to give the impression that the Grant Panel’s evaluation of this application was a good deal more rigorous than indicated by the original minutes.”

The re-writing of such public records is a damning indictment on the authority’s handling of publicly-funded grant cash for property development projects, which has been reported for over a year in the Herald and our sister publication, Pembrokeshire’s Best.

Officers’ role questioned

Allegations of questionable practice have dogged two European-funded property grant schemes in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock since Pembrokeshire’s Best magazine uncovered in 2012 that the majority of monies for multiple projects in Pembroke Dock had gone to a single developer, Cathal McCosker, who had used a maze of pop-up companies to avoid restrictions intended to cap grant money awarded to grant applicants.

In January 2013 it emerged that Cathal McCosker had been granted a licence for bedsits by the County Council in the former National Westminster Bank building in Meyrick Street Pembroke Dock. Those bedsits had been built in a flagrant breach of the planning permission granted by the Council, who turned a blind eye to the developer’s conduct and the well known complaints and behaviour logged by the emergency services as a result of overcrowding. An application for retrospective planning permission for the bedsits was submitted by Mr McCosker, which officers intended to approve under delegater powers, however the local member Cllr Alison Lee called it in to be determined by the committee. Amid public outcry and angry scenes, only the officers and a few ruling IPPG councillors backed the Irish developer’s application for approval, and the application was refused.

Following refusal, and amid strong local opposition to his scheme to develop more bedsits, Mr McCosker subsequently withdrew from other plans he had announced to develop properties in Pembroke near the castle, which had not been required to go to tender by the County Council. In particular, it emerged that Mr McCosker had been accompanied to a key meeting by Council officers to assist his “pitch” for those plans to Pembroke Town Council.

Last year, Pembrokeshire’s Best Magazine revealed that Council officers in the local authority’s Planning Department had acknowledged Police reports of anti-social behaviour in the Meyrick Street bedsits development but withheld that information from members of the Planning Committee.

The Herald then obtained further information which suggested that officers used a contrived definition of its obligations to provide “affordable housing” for those in need, in order to justify the construction of bedsits, widely regarded as Housing Benefit magnets for private developers and a blight upon any hope for economic regeneration of commercial properties.
Cllr Mike Stoddart continued to press the Council for answers to questions about the works supposedly carried out under the scheme and the way in which public money had been lavished on building bedsits in the commercial heart of Pembroke Dock.
His efforts were met with obstruction by officers and repeated attacks on his integrity by IPPG Cabinet member Cllr David Pugh, who at a meeting in December received the support of barely a third of Councillors in a no confidence vote, and had the grants schemes responsibility removed from his cabinet portfolio and handed to Cllr David Simpson.

After a reversal of position by the Council’s Monitoring Officer Laurence Harding on the legal stance, it was agreed that the law allowed the documents sought by Cllr Stoddart to be made available for inspection by all councillors, which also allowed copies to be taken. Shortly thereafter the Police were called in by the Council following representations made to Mark Lewis, Director of Finance and Leisure, by Cllr Stoddart and Cllr Jacob Williams after discoveries they made in the files.

The council refused to confirm or deny the identity of the officer who has been disciplined for tampering with the grant panel meetings minutes, following emails sent by the Herald.

The council also refused to confirm or deny what disciplinary action has been taken against the officer, and if they have been suspended to prevent further documents held by the council being tampered with, in light of the ongoing Police investigation into the grant schemes.

The only response the Herald received from the council came from a spokesperson who said:
“Pembrokeshire County Council’s Audit Committee will be reviewing how the Council deals with grants. As the matter has been referred to the Police, the County Council will not be making any further comment at this time.”

Audit Committee take action on grants

Yesterday (Thursday, April 24) the Council’s Audit Committee considered the ongoing issue and briefly discussed the alterations made by the unnamed officer, of the record of grant panel meetings. The Monitoring Officer Laurence Harding told the committee that the officer responsible had been disciplined, but added that he could not reveal who it was nor could he say what punishment was given out.

Cllr Jacob Williams told other members: “There are two recent developments that I’m aware of with which I’m very uncomfortable: firstly the fact that the minutes of the grant panel have been edited by an unnamed member of staff. That to me is very frightening.
“The second matter is that at the cabinet meeting in early April, an updated report was presented in which WEFO (the Welsh European Funding Office) requested that the Council sends them a response.

“I have now received a copy of the confidential report the council sent in response to WEFO, and I’m absolutely appalled at it. It’s shocking to me, knowing what I do about what’s happened, and as councillors you are all entitled to see it and I urge you to, you’ll be amazed at what has been said – I can’t believe anybody thought this was a fit and accurate representation of what’s gone on here”.

Cllr David Simpson, who recently took over control of the Council’s public works grants schemes from Cllr David Pugh, said:  “We should be looking at a full internal audit into the process on one of the units. A full audit by the authority to look at the process, to see where we started at, the process in its implementation, how grants were paid, the staff that were involved”.

Independent lay-Chair of the committee, John Evans MBE, responded saying:  “We should start something now to learn lessons as quickly as possible.

“By taking one and learning the lessons as quickly as possible from that, so we need to learn those lessons quickly to rebuild the confidence of others in the organisation so that we can move forward”.

Cllr Mike James added: “Time is of the essence”.

As a result of their deliberations, the Audit Committee agreed that a management review should take place in respect of the grants process for 29 Dimond Street, Pembroke Dock, as quickly as possible, which will return to a reconvened extraordinary meeting at a date which has not yet been set.

It was also agreed that the two matters raised by Cllr Jacob Williams – the tampering of documents and the response the council sent to WEFO – would also be discussed when the extraordinary meeting reconvened, though this is likely to be behind-closed-doors in private session, where the press and public are excluded.

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Port boss: Pembroke Dock development full permission an ‘important step’

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THE CHIEF EXECUTIVE of the Port of Milford Haven has welcomed a decision of “non-intervention” by the Welsh Government over plans to re-vamp Pembroke Dock’s historic port facilities.

The redevelopment scheme, approved by Pembrokeshire County Council’s Planning Committee in May, will see some areas such as a dock covered with sand and “infilled”.

Plans also include the demolishing of some buildings, erection of buildings and ancillary works.
Despite planning being granted at council level, full authorisation to go ahead with the development was not to be issued until the Welsh Government made its decision regards the matter.

More about the planning application can be read here: https://www.herald.wales/west-wales/pembrokeshire/major-marine-project-causes-concern-about-visual-impact-and-heritage-loss/

Now that the Welsh Government has decided not to interfere with Pembrokeshire County Council’s grant of planning permission, the Port’s boss, Andy Jones, expressed his delight, saying: “This marks an important step forward in the development of Wales’ clean energy centre at Pembroke Dock.

“It will provide sustainable opportunities for the many people who rely on the activity along the Milford Haven Waterway for employment.

CEO: Port Authority’s Andy Jones (Pic MHPA)

“Pembroke Dock Marine will unlock new opportunities for young people to enter the maritime, renewable and engineering sectors, build resilience within Pembrokeshire’s business community, and make a positive contribution to our natural environment as we transition to a low carbon energy generation.”

Tim James, head of commercial and energy at the Port of Milford Haven called the project a “once in a generation opportunity to improve Pembrokeshire’s economy for years to come”.

Objectors had complained that the plans were too large and would damage the historic dockyard, as well as having a visual impact on the dock.

The was opposition from local heritage campaigners, with complaints over the size of two huge proposed hangars which the project’s critics said would impact adversely the landscape.

The economic benefits of the £60 million marine energy “far outweigh” any impact on the historic environment, a report earlier this year to council planners said.

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Medical evacuation from LPG tanker off St Ann’s Head

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ANGLE Lifeboat was launched on service at 12:59pm on Thursday afternoon (Jun 10) to assist in a medical evacuation from a LPG tanker 13 miles SSW off St Ann’s Head.

The coastguard helicopter from Newquay in Cornwall was also on route. With the poor visibility due to fog, Angle all-weather lifeboat was to stand by the vessel to provide an alternative route for evacuation if needed.

After a choppy route in the poor visibility the RNLI volunteers arrived on scene at 2:07pm.

At the time of their arrival, the paramedic from the coastguard helicopter was aboard the vessel preparing the casualty to be winched to the helicopter.

In less than ten minutes the casualty was winched up to the helicopter and flown to hospital, at which point the lifeboat and crews were stood down and headed back to the station.

After rehousing shortly after 3:30pm the lifeboat was washed fuelled and made ready for service shortly after.

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Milford Haven child sex offender Colin Sharpe jailed for 10 years

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A MILFORD HAVEN child abuser sat crying in court as details of his four-year long abuse of a schoolgirl were read out.

Colin Sharpe’s teenage victim says she is now “plagued by nightmares” that he will return and abuse her again, Swansea Crown Court heard.

Sharpe, 40, of Howarth Close was told by Judge Paul Thomas QC at Swansea Crown Court that “Your only concern was your own selfish sexual pleasure.”

The court heard that after the matter was reported to police and officers began a search for tSharpe. He was found in his vehicle in a car park at St Ann’s Head.

The court was told that police used their car to block Sharpe’s exist from the car park but he “sped off” across the grass towards the cliff edge before crashing into a fence.

The defendant abandoned his vehicle and made off on foot to the clifftop. A standoff then developed during which police brought in a specialist negotiator to talk him down.

After a lengthy negotiation Sharpe was arrested.

Passing sentence, the judge told Sharpe: “You had no concern for the psychological damage you did.”

He added: “But it is to your credit that you immediately admitted what you had done; this had saved his victim the further ordeal of giving evidence in a trial.

Judge Paul Thomas jailed Sharpe for 10 years and imposed an indefinite order requiring him to sign the sexual offences register on release.

Sharpe will now be subject to an indefinite sexual harm prevention order and an indefinite restraining order when he is released.

As The Herald previously reported, Sharpe, who has been on remand since March, admitted one charge of sexual assault and five of sexual activity with a child, all between July 2017 and March 2021.

Police were informed about the sexual abuse by a third party, who discovered what he had done, and he was arrested and questioned early last year.

Earlier, Ian Wright, counsel for the CPS said that Sharpe used “emotional blackmail to frighten the girl into staying silent”.

He added “Matters seem to have come to a head on March 12 this year after Sharpe had once again sexually abused his victim.”

Dean Pulling, defending, said that when the police interviewed Sharpe he gave ‘guilty pleas and admissions’ at the earliest opportunity.

Excerpts from a personal victim statement highlighting the ongoing ordeal of Sharpe’s teenage victim were also read out in court.

“I am having nightmares,” the statement reads.

“I have nightmares of him coming back from prison and starting to do worse. My life has been greatly affected.”

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