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Audit Committee Chair quits

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john evansA SMALL item of news on the County Council’s website is all the local authority has placed on the record about the departure of John Evans MBE, the lay chair of the Council’s Audit Committee. 

The announcement invited people to put themselves forward to be a lay member of the Council’s Audit Committee with a closing date for applications of 8th July and directing applicants to write to the Council’s CEO in application. The announcement made no mention of Mr Evans’ resignation, neither did it thank him for his service nor his contribution to the Council’s scrutiny mechanism. John Evans MBE had been in post since September 2012. A senior Council official told The Herald that Mr Evans had not endeared himself to Council officers allegedly “used to getting their own way” by trying to bring some of the rigour and discipline of his successful business background to bear on the Council’s audit machinery. John Evans, who lives in Saundersfoot, received his MBE in 2004 for services to the electronics industry. Described by Bloomberg Business as “a pivotal figure in consumer electronics manufacturing, with over 30 years top-level experience”, Mr Evans is known to have strong views about the rewards the Council pays to its top officers. In February 2011 the Tenby Observer carried a letter from Mr Evans in which he detailed ways in which the Council could cut costs by freezing Councillors’ allowances, cutting the pay of top earners and abolishing the post of Chief Executive Officer, suggesting a more appropriate level of salary for the post would be around £70,000. Bryn Parry Jones received over £200,000 in remuneration and unlawful “pay supplements” from the local authority in the year to April 2012. Mr Evans is understood to have handed his letter of resignation to controversial CEO Bryn Parry Jones after a key meeting of the Audit Committee was postponed. Cllr Mike Stoddart told the Herald: “Although the grants schemes in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock have now been referred to the police, at Mr Evans’ insistence the audit committee was pressing on with its probe into the administration of those grants which are outside the criminal investigation. “The committee was due to consider a report on this subject by the Council’s internal auditors at a meeting on 29 May, but that was cancelled without explanation. “I hear on the grapevine that the reason for the cancellation was to give the Director of Development Dr Steven Jones, the opportunity to answer any criticisms of his department and explain what steps were being taken to correct any flaws in the current procedures. “That meeting had been rescheduled for later this month but, following Mr Evans’ departure, it will not now take place because there is a statutory requirement that the audit committee must have at least one lay member. “So, during the time it takes for the council to advertise the post and appoint a replacement, the committee is in limbo – possibly until September.” Mr Evans’ resignation is a blow to those who are seeking to hold the Council to account for the shambolic organization of grants schemes in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock. December’s County Council meeting in which the IPPG leadership attempted to prevent scrutiny of the Council’s conduct of the grant schemes by smearing those seeking to get at the truth, was followed in January by the Audit Committee under Mr Evans launching a wideranging investigation into the schemes. At that meeting, John Evans MBE confirmed that not only would Audit Committee members have access to the previously secret documents, but that all Councillors would have the opportunity to scrutinise the material. A step which went beyond the very limited request for access made by Cllr Stoddart in December. 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. 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 files made available to Council members to inspect had been “filleted”, 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 and is at risk of further action from the Information Commissioner in relation to his law-breaking. We asked the Council for a copy of John Evans’ MBE’s letter of resignation, but were told that it is not the Council’s to publish. A request made before last week’s edition made direct to CEO Bryn Parry Jones was met with the news that he is on holiday until the end of the month and unable to respond. Speculation is mounting as to the letter’s content and the opinions the usually direct Mr Evans expressed within it. The Council seems determined to draw a veil over the reasons behind the departure of the genuinely distinguished chair of a key Council committee and speculation is mounting as to what he said in his letter of resignation. Certainly, the low-key way the Council is going about replacing John Evans MBE suggests that it is now seeking a rather more biddable person who will not rock the boat and ask too many awkward questions.

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Milford Haven: Police investigating sexual assault

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POLICE are investigating an incident of sexual assault which occurred in Hakin, Milford Haven.

Milford Haven Police say that the alleged incident took place in Croft Avenue on February 7, 2023 at around 19:50hrs.

If anyone is able to give any information regarding this incident please ring 101 quoting reference DPP/0956/07/02/2023/02/C.

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Pembrokeshire County Council faces less bleak finances than previously expected

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PEMBROKESHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL faces a less bleak financial position than had previously been expected, to the tune of nearly £10m, members of a schools committee have heard.

At the February 6 meeting of the Schools and Learning Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Cabinet Member for Corporate Finance Cllr Alec Cormack, presented outline draft 2023-’24 budget proposals to members.

He told members an updated draft budget was to be reported to the February meeting of the council’s Cabinet after a previously feared funding gap of £28m was now smaller, at £18.6m, due to a higher settlement from Welsh Government.

An expected 3.5 per cent settlement ended up being 7.9 per cent, which meant some expected cuts were now unlikely to happen, he told committee members.

“A large number of the most severe cuts are now very, very unlikely; we’re now looking at a deficit of £18.6m, it’s not as severe as it was.

“The officer team is looking at how that funding gap could be closed with budget savings and with different levels of council tax.”

Members heard the budget is expected to be addressed through an increase in council tax – potentially in the area of 7.5 per cent – along with significant cost reductions.

Director of Resources John Haswell said: “It was a better settlement, but still an £18.6m gap; this isn’t a one-year issue, this is an issue over the medium-term plan, over £50m over the four-year period.”

He said that Pembrokeshire, having the lowest council tax rates in Wales, meant that each potential percentage increase returned less than other local authorities.

Members heard papers listing the latest budget proposals for Cabinet discussion are expected to be released soon, in advance of the February 13 meeting.

Members agreed to defer making any recommendations to Cabinet, pending the release of the revised papers.

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Welsh Freeport competition heats up with Senedd vote

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ON WEDNESDAY, the Senedd will hold a debate regarding freeports as the competition for UK and Welsh Government funding nears its conclusion.

Currently, three bids are in from across Wales for a chance to benefit from £26 million of direct UK Government funding, as well as reduced taxes for businesses in the freeport area. A Welsh freeport could see up to 16,000 jobs created and further investment or the local area into the billions.

Speaking ahead of the debate, Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for the Economy, Paul Davies MS said:

“Benefits of a freeport cannot be understated, bringing much needed jobs and investment into some of the most deprived areas of Wales.

“The UK Government put the challenge to Wales to submit exceptional bids, and Wales has delivered.

“All three bids would help to transform their local communities in different ways. It’s essential that the UK and Welsh Governments work together to deliver that second freeport for Wales, maximising the opportunities that these bids have to offer.”

The three Welsh Freeport bids are:

  • The Celtic Freeport (covering Pembrokeshire to Neath) which has estimated that it would create over 16,000 new jobs and up to £5.5 billion in new investment.
  • The Anglesey Freeport would support up to a £1 billion contribution to UK GDP by 2030, while also creating up to 13,000 new, high salary jobs in Ynys Môn.
  • The Newport Freeport (including Cardiff Airport) is aiming to increase non-passenger revenues to 50%, ending their reliance of passenger generated income.

The UK Government stated that “if a truly exceptional proposal were presented at the bidding stage” than a second freeport would be funded.

The Welsh Conservative debate reads:

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Recognises the opportunities for freeports to energise the Welsh economy, create high quality jobs, promote regeneration and investment.

2. Notes that three bids from Wales have been submitted for consideration by the UK and Welsh Governments.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with the UK Government to deliver two freeports in Wales, recognising the truly exceptional proposals submitted and the transformational benefits they can deliver for the Welsh economy.

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