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Politics

Two week national ‘Firebreak Lockdown’ announced for Wales from 6pm on Friday

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MARK DRAKEFORD, The First Minister of Wales has announced a two week ‘fire break’ lockdown from Friday October 23 at 18:00 HRS, to last until Monday November 9 at 00:01 HRS

Mr Drakeford said: “This firebreak is the shortest we can make it. It must be sharp and deep in order to have the impact we need it to have on the virus.”

All non essential businesses, including tourism businesses will be told to close.

Businesses have been told that they will be given £1000 each automatically to help with the economic impact of the shutdown.

Mr Drakeford added that children will be the priority and that childcare facilities will open as normal. Primary schools will open after half term.

Secondary schools will be closed for a week after half term to help control the virus.

Universities will offer a mixture of face-to-face learning and learning via video link. Students must stay at their university accommodation during the lockdown.

Responding to the Welsh Government’s announcement of a Wales-wide lockdown, Paul Davies MS, the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament, has called the lockdown “not-proportionate” and is calling on the Welsh Government to be “open and transparent” on the evidence to support a lockdown and if the First Minister is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns every month.

Paul Davies MS said: “Sadly, the First Minster has failed to get public support for this second Wales-wide lockdown, failing to be open and transparent about the evidence to justify this lockdown and what his actions will entail for the future.

“The Welsh Government also has to be honest that this road they are taking us down is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns. This is not a two-week break to solve the pandemic, it is likely that we will see regular lockdowns across the rest of the year. The Welsh Government must be clear what actions they are taking during the lockdown to prevent further Wales-wide lockdowns which will have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

“However, the main concern is that this national lockdown is not proportionate. The impact on businesses in areas such as Powys, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion, who have the lowest rate of Covid-19 cases in Wales, will be severe at a time when they are desperately struggling to recover from the pandemic so far this year.

“The First Minister needs to urgently come to the Welsh Parliament and answer these questions, to face effective scrutiny by elected representatives and not run his government by media.”

Preseli Pembrokeshire MP, Stephen Crabb told The Herald: “The evidence to support an all-Wales lockdown is weak and I am sceptical that this so-called ‘fire-break’ will tackle the situation in those parts of Wales where infection rates have been out of control. The key issue for Welsh Government to address is what will be done differently after the firebreak ends in those parts of Wales where infection rates have spiralled out of control. Otherwise the whole of Wales risks being dragged back into a series of rolling lockdowns.

“As we saw earlier in the year, lockdowns come with huge costs in terms of harm to the economy and to people’s emotional and mental wellbeing. With the Welsh Government asking UK Government to fund this lockdown, I hope that as many businesses as possible get support they need quickly. Pembrokeshire’s hospitality businesses will be hit particularly hard by these latest restrictions and I will be fighting hard again to see that they are protected as the lockdown kicks in.”

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Politics

Barclays closure in Haverfordwest sparks calls for banking changes

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A CALL for Pembrokeshire County Council to potentially change its banking arrangement with Barclays, after the bank announced it was closing its county town branch, is expected to be turned down next week.

Barclays Bank in Haverfordwest, located on the town’s High Street, is to close on May 10.

The council has had a banking services contract with Barclays since 2013, with the most recent contract – for four years – signed last May following an independent review.

Councillor Huw Murphy, in a notice of motion to be heard by Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet meeting of April 22, is asking the council to review its banking arrangements with Barclays following the announced closure.

“The loss of many banking facilities within Pembrokeshire over recent years has had a detrimental impact on many town centres such as Tenby, St Davids, Fishguard, Milford Haven, Narberth, Newport and Pembroke and Pembroke Dock and will soon impact Haverfordwest with the loss of Barclays bank to the town.”

He said the loss of a branch “not only impacts upon town centres and businesses but also disproportionately impacts the elderly who are less likely to embrace on-line banking options”.

After the Haverfordwest closure was announced, a spokesperson for the bank said that the Haverfordwest branch only had 32 regular customers who used the branch exclusively for their banking and do not interact with Barclays in any other way.

A report for cabinet members says, in terms of the impact on Pembrokeshire residents, Barclays has said that it is “not leaving Haverfordwest and [will] continue to provide face-to-face support for those who need it” via community locations.

It adds: “Everything else can be done via alternative channels such as everyday transactions via the Post Office. We will be making personal contact with our regular and vulnerable branch users to discuss their options and guide them through alternative ways to bank.”

Two options were presented to cabinet following Mr Murphy’s motion, to retender the banking services contract, and, the favoured, to work with Barclays to ensure a community location is set up in Haverfordwest.

The report says the costs associated with moving to a new service provider “can be excessive and in some cases greater than the cost of the annual contract value,” adding: “Whilst the costs can vary between local authorities it can be in excess of £50,000.”

For the second, favoured option, the report says: “An integral part of the branch closure communication, Barclays advised that they will be setting up a community location in Haverfordwest.

“Whilst this is a change to how Barclays currently operate in Haverfordwest, this concept mirrors the successful implementation of a hub located within The Giltar Hotel in Tenby that operates twice a week.”

It adds: “Discussions have commenced with Barclays to see what the council can offer in terms of locations.”

Cabinet members are recommended to back the second option.

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Community

Burned down hotel to be used for social housing

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A SCHEME to build 38 affordable and social housing units on the site of the fire-ravaged former Cleddau Bridge Hotel, Pembroke Dock is expected to be backed by senior Pembrokeshire councillors next week.

Members of Pembrokeshire County Council’s Cabinet, meeting on April 22, are recommended to support a contract with developer Castell Group Ltd for the mix of affordable homes and social housing units at the site, with the actual contract details expected to be discussed in a private and confidential session.

A report for members ahead of the meeting says: “The potential development site on the former Cleddau Bridge Hotel site, Pembroke Dock has been up for sale for some time, and its purchase by Castell Group Ltd (‘Castell’) is now imminent.

“Following completion of their purchase, Castell will submit an application for planning consent to develop the land for affordable and social housing. It would see the development of a high-profile site with visual impact on surrounding areas that has sat dormant for many years.”

Castell has approached the housing service to determine whether there is an interest in working with them to bring forward the development as a housing site, the report says.

Castell Construction Ltd, the delivery arm of Castell, specialises in the construction of affordable / social housing, typically for registered social landlords across south Wales.

An initial proposal says the development, if backed, would see 12 one-bedroom flats, 15 two-bed houses, five three-bed, two four-bed, and four two-bed bungalows, the report adding: “This site would help towards both the council’s 300 new home target and also Welsh Government’s 20,000 new homes target.”

It adds: “The proposal by Castell Construction Ltd is for a development programme of 18 months following planning permission being secured. Castell Construction Ltd estimate commencing the development in March 2025, which would mean completion in autumn 2026.”

Delegation of the decision to enter into the works contract to the Director for Social Services and Housing is sought, and Cabinet is also being asked to delegate the decision to proceed with the land acquisition to the Assistant Chief Executive.

The development package would be part-funded from the housing revenue account, the remainder from the Social Housing Grant and/or second homes premium for affordable housing if it becomes available for the Housing Service to use in this manner.

The proposals would be subjected to an as-yet unsubmitted planning application; if granted Castell Construction Ltd hopes to start the development in March 2025, finishing in autumn 2026.

In 2023, an unrelated application by a different applicant, to demolish the remnants of the hotel and replace it with a care home was approved.

In a prime location at one of the entrances to Pembroke Dock the former Cleddau Bridge Hotel has been derelict since a fire in March 2019, which brought emergency services from as far afield as Ammanford, Aberystwyth and Swansea.

Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service previously said the fire was started by a deliberate act.

Following a fire investigation, Dyfed-Powys Police said they found there to be insufficient evidence to identify a suspect.

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Politics

Senedd backs review over watchdog ‘stitch up’

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A CALL by the Conservatives for an inquiry into the political impartiality of Wales’ public services watchdog has been backed by Senedd Members.

Sam Rowlands led a debate after the head of investigations at the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales stepped down over anti-Conservative comments online.

Mr Rowlands said the ombudsman’s office, which deals with complaints about councillors and public services, must be impartial and unbiased.

But he warned: “Unfortunately, we now know that this simply has not been the case.

“After revelations that the head of investigations had been, over a long period of time, making torrents of politically motivated, hostile, aggressive comments on social media, it’s clear that the ombudsman has a real problem.”

Mr Rowlands said non-Conservative politicians were also in the firing line with independents in Bridgend and Monmouthshire raising concerns about unfair treatment.

The Conservative MS for North Wales criticised the initial decision to appoint James Goudie KC, a barrister and former Labour council leader, to lead an investigation.

He told the chamber: “It’s almost beyond belief, but then you do remember we are in Labour-run Wales, where this behaviour is just par for the course.

“I am pleased that eventually the individual in question has been removed from this role.”

The former Conwy council leader urged the ombudsman, Michelle Morris, to reopen every investigation involving the former head of investigations.

Mr Rowlands made the case for a full and thorough investigation by a Senedd committee to understand the “exact extent of how deep the rot is” and restore credibility.

Peredur Owen Griffiths, who chairs the finance committee, said it is essential that the ombudsman investigates independently of political interference.

The Plaid Cymru MS, who represents South Wales East, urged caution in the Senedd considering operational matters within the ombudsman’s office

He said: “It is not our role to monitor the day-to-day running of the office, nor should we be challenging the ombudsman’s decision, as that would undermine the integrity of the office and investigations process.

“However, the ombudsman is ultimately accountable to the Senedd, and it is right for us to take action when serious concerns arise.”

Mike Hedges, a Labour backbencher, told the chamber the ombudsman provides an excellent service to the people of Wales in dealing with complaints about public services.

However, he argued the ombudsman is not suited to dealing with complaints about politicians as he called for the creation of an ethical standards commissioner.

The Swansea East MS warned: “Many complaints are politically motivated, and the number increases as you approach local elections.

“And they’re often by people standing against sitting councillors who then make complaint after complaint about them to try and muddy the water.”

Gareth Davies, the Conservative MS for Vale of Clwyd, said trust in the public services ombudsman has collapsed as he argued the watchdog should be replaced.

Llyr Gruffydd, for Plaid Cymru, told MSs that recent revelations around the ombudsman’s office have been deeply regrettable and damaging.

Mr Gruffydd, who represents North Wales, said upholding the highest possible standards is more important than ever in an age of declining trust.

He welcomed the ombudsman’s decision to rethink the appointment of Mr Goudie after the full extent of his Labour links came to light.

Mr Gruffydd criticised calls to wind down the public services ombudsman, saying: “I don’t think the best course of action is to rashly throw the baby out with the bath water.”

He paid tribute to the ombudsman’s hard-working staff “who have been dragged into this unfortunate episode” which has tarnished the office’s reputation.

Lesley Griffiths, responding for the Welsh Government, shared concerns about recent events but stressed that ministers would not advise the ombudsman on how she should respond.

Ms Griffiths, the newly appointed culture and social justice secretary, said public servants must behave with complete political impartiality in their responsibilities.

“This includes not doing anything in their lives outside of work that might cause that impartiality to be called into question,” she said.

The Conservative motion was agreed without objection, doing away with the need for a vote following the debate on April 17.

The Welsh Government had tabled a “delete-all” amendment and it is thought that Labour MSs allowed the Tory motion to pass in error.

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