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Politics

Corporate greed blamed for rising veterinary costs

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VETERINARY care is unaffordable for many pet owners in Wales due to “ridiculous” price increases fuelled by corporate greed, a committee heard.

Caroline Allen, chief veterinary officer at RSPCA Cymru, said a survey found more than half of Welsh pet owners were worried about being able to afford vet bills.

She told the Senedd’s petitions committee it is a challenging time for the animal rescue sector due to inflation and the wider cost-of-living crisis.

Dr Allen, a practising vet for 20 years before joining the RSPCA, said 78% of pet owners reported an increase in bills and 90% were worried about feeding their pets.

She explained that when she qualified many practices were owned by vets and embedded within the community, but most have since been bought by big businesses.

Calling for reform of the “outdated” Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, Dr Allen said vets can be held to account under the law but corporate entities cannot.

She said the RSPCA has had to withdraw direct services for the public to focus on its core role of helping animals suffering neglect and cruelty.

Carlie Power, representing the Cats Matter charity, described price increases as ridiculous, hitting out at a “continuous greedy rise in profits”.

Giving evidence to an inquiry on the corporate takeover of the veterinary profession, Ms Power told MSs she had to pay £62 for three days’ worth of eyedrops for her cat.

She said it cost a total of £52 to have one of her cats, Dolly, neutered seven years ago but she recently took another cat, Nix, and was billed £159 – an increase of more than 200%.

Ms Power, who has five cats, warned that responsible owners cannot afford to get their pets neutered, which piles yet more pressure on shelters.

She raised a Daily Mirror article on veterinary practices in Turkey offering cut-price treatment due to rising costs in the UK. Dr Allen warned this could lead to “hideous welfare problems”.

Peredur Owen Griffiths, who has two cats, called Treacle and Marmalade, and once wanted to be a vet, asked witnesses how the profession has changed over the past 25 years.

Sue Paterson, president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, told the Plaid Cymru politician that practice structure, facilities, workforce and education are the four big changes.

She said 41% of Wales’ 351 practices are corporatised, with around 150 owned by the “big seven”, which is lower than elsewhere in the UK.

Dr Paterson warned the Royal College cannot regulate veterinary practices, saying: “We can only regulate veterinary professionals – that is a huge hole in the regulatory process.”

Julia Mewes, who set up The Mewes Vets as an independent practice 28 years ago, raised concerns about other vets working on commission, saying she does not set financial targets.

She warned this has created anxiety, an unpleasant atmosphere and competition between colleagues, rewarding the best at selling rather than the best at caring.

Jack Sargeant, the Labour committee chair, who has a cavalier king Charles spaniel, named Coco, highlighted the Competition and Markets Authority’s concerns about the sector.

Peter Fox, the Tory MS for Monmouth, who has been a farmer for 30 years, cautioned against demonising the private sector, pointing to positive advances in treatment.

The short inquiry was prompted by a 308-name petition submitted by Linda Joyce-Jones, a campaigner, who warned that corporatisation has had devastating consequences.

Dr Joyce-Jones explained that a change of law in 1999 allowed practices to be owned by not only qualified veterinary surgeons, paving the way for big business.

Describing the profession as barely recognisable now, she wrote: “In many parts of Wales, it is virtually impossible to find an independently run veterinary practice.

Dr Joyce-Jones said corporations also own laboratories, drug companies, and pet crematoriums, as well as shares in many pet food businesses.

She warned: “Such a monopoly makes the few remaining independently run practices’ presence virtually untenable.”

Business

Legal challenge to £6m holiday park expansion

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A CAMPAIGN group which has launched a legal challenge against a recently-granted scheme for a £6m expansion of a south Pembrokeshire holiday park is appealing for financial support to cover its legal fees.

Back in February, Pembrokeshire planners heard a legal challenge to a granted application for works at Heritage Park, Pleasant Valley/Stepaside had been launched.

The holiday park scheme had previously been backed twice by county planners after a ‘minded to approve’ cooling-off period was invoked as it was against repeated officer recommendations to refuse.

The controversial scheme by Heritage Leisure Development (Wales) Ltd includes the installation of 48 bases for holiday lodges, a spa facility at a former pub, holiday apartments, a café and cycle hire, equestrian stables, a manège and associated office, and associated works.

It is said the scheme, next to the historic remains of the 19th century Stepaside ironworks and colliery, will create 44 jobs.

Officer grounds for refusal, based on the Local Development Plan, included the site being outside a settlement area.

Along with 245 objections to the current scheme, Stepaside & Pleasant Valley Residents’ Group (SPVRG Ltd) – formed to object to an earlier 2019 application – also raised a 38-page objection, with a long list of concerns, describing the current application as “a reincarnation of an earlier application, which first alerted the residents of Stepaside, Pleasant Valley and the surrounding villages of the applicant’s plans to implement a complex and sprawling development which would take over the whole valley”.

The 2019 application – which had been recommended for refusal – was later withdrawn.

Legal challenges have also been mounted in connection with applications on the site.

A legal challenge to try and overturn a council decision to approve three planning applications at Heritage Park was launched in 2021 by the Stepaside and Pleasant Valley Residents Group (SPVRG Ltd), which failed in early 2022.

Following that challenge failure, a question was submitted to full council last year after it was revealed the costs awarded to the council amounted to £10,000, despite the costs being higher.

Members heard that the external legal fees paid totalled £34,000 plus VAT.

In its latest legal challenge, and fundraising appeal, SPVRG Ltd has said: “Permission was granted, even though it was against the recommendation of the planning officers and despite the objections of the three community councils involved, the two local county councillors and 245 residents. It also went against the Local Development Plan.”

It added: “This has been a stark example of a majority of county councillors, first on the planning committee and then in the full council, failing to listen to those who know best – the people who live and work in the area, and their own expert officers.”

Legal fees for the first stage of a judicial review are expected to be at least £14,000, with £1,200 raised to date through SPVRG’s crowdfunding page.

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Politics

Senedd plan to ban lying politicians ‘unworkable’

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PLANS to ban Senedd Members for deliberately lying may be unworkable, according to the Welsh Government’s chief legal adviser.

Mick Antoniw, Wales’ counsel general, raised concerns about Adam Price’s proposals to disqualify politicians from the Senedd for deliberate deception.

The ex-Plaid Cymru leader’s amendment to the elections and elected bodies bill, which would create the offence of deception, was agreed after Labour’s Lee Waters abstained.

Giving evidence to an inquiry on accountability, Mr Antoniw said: “I’ll put my neck on the line at the moment and say I don’t think criminalisation is the way that it actually works.

“I think it’s actually unworkable probably.”

He said the issue would be best considered by the standards committee inquiry, suggesting Welsh ministers will try to delete the clause during the next amending stage set for July 2.

Vikki Howells, the Labour backbencher who chairs the standards committee, asked whether Wales should adopt Westminster’s approach to removing MPs between elections.

In the House of Commons, a recall petition can be triggered by a custodial sentence for 12 months or less, a suspension of ten sitting days or more, or an expenses offence conviction.

Mr Antoniw broadly agreed with the criteria, emphasising the importance of consistency across parliaments while accounting for Wales-specific circumstances.

He said the 12-month threshold – above which Senedd members are already automatically disqualified – seems “rather high”, suggesting six months may be more appropriate.

Plaid Cymru’s Peredur Owen Griffiths pointed out people could be imprisoned over a matter of conscience such as protesting about the environment, nuclear or the Welsh language.

Mr Antoniw recognised the concern, saying peaceful protest is part of a democratic society, but he said a six-month threshold would exclude “nearly all of those sorts of circumstances”.

He cautioned: “Discretions are always very difficult in terms of things like disqualification.”

Asked whether a recall system should apply to members who change their political allegiance after an election, Mr Antoniw warned it may be a step too far.

The counsel general said politicians defecting to another party risks inappropriately changing the balance of the Senedd and the outcome of an election.

But he told the committee a politician could leave a party over a matter of conscience, such as a group changing its position on an issue post-election.

Mr Antoniw argued the most effective way forward would be to ensure Senedd members cannot form or join another political party, with a requirement to sit as an independent.

He made the case for an appeals process as part of any recall system, warning the absence of one could throw up “all sorts of human rights issues” and lead to legal challenge.

But Mr Antoniw stressed the importance of proceeding at pace as he raised concerns about previous standards committee processes going on for a “very, very prolonged period”.

He argued a simple majority vote of the whole Senedd should be required to sign off on recall processes, rather than a two-thirds supermajority.

“Whips can’t apply,” he said. “I don’t think that would be appropriate in any circumstances.”

Responding to Mark Drakeford’s concerns about the risk of a minority blocking recall, Mr Antoniw agreed with the ex-First Minister that a supermajority risks over-politicisation.

Mr Owen Griffiths asked how the counsel general would envisage the process working in light of the complexities of Wales’ new fully proportional “closed-list” electoral system.

Under the members and elections bill, which is set to receive Royal Assent, people will vote for parties rather than individual candidates in future Senedd elections.

Mr Antoniw suggested a simple retain-or-replace public vote, saying it would effectively be a referendum on whether an MS should be removed.

“It’s not so much a petition because a petition is to ask permission to do something,” he explained. “And it’s not a byelection because there are no other candidates.”

He said the next person on a party’s initial list, which can include up to 12 candidates, would replace an unseated MS, retaining the make-up of the Senedd determined at the ballot box.

Asked whether parties should have discretion to later reorder lists, based on factors such as gender balance, Mr Antoniw cautioned against the added complexity.

Mr Drakeford highlighted that the 32 constituencies in Wales that will be used in the July 4 general election will be paired to create 16 for the next Senedd poll.

The Cardiff West MS suggested a threshold should be required in each constituency rather than across both, saying: “Fairness should trump anxieties about complexity.”

He said it is possible constituencies such as Blaenau Gwent and Monmouth, which have a different character, could be paired by the Electoral Commission.

Mr Drakeford warned: “Unless you have a threshold that applies to both, one half could actually determine the outcome for the other.”

Mr Antoniw accepted issues could arise, such as between industrial and rural constituencies, but his “gut feeling” favoured the simplicity of a combined threshold.

Asked whether polls should be open for a single day or longer as in Westminster’s system, Mr Antoniw preferred the latter as he argued it would best maximise participation.

The Conservatives’ Natasha Asghar asked about the chances of a recall bill being passed before the next election, and said having 96 more MSs will raise the risk of misbehaviour.

Mr Antoniw told the June 17 meeting: “The commitment given from the Welsh Government – from the First Minister – is that we would like to see this legislation in place by 2026.

“I think that is the public expectation as well.”

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Business

Emergency work at Royal Lion Hotel given the go-ahead

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A PROMINENT Tenby hotel, which had an Urgent Works Notice served on it by the national park due to the unsafe condition of external windows, has been given the go-ahead for works.

The poor condition the Grade-II-listed Royal Lion Hotel has recently led to an Urgent Works Notice being served on it by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority.

Safety concerns have been raised in recent months by councillors and members of the public over the hotel, in the town’s conservation area, overlooking the North Beach.

A listed building planning application to reinstate the hotel’s windows was submitted to the authority by South Terrace Developments Ltd.

A spokesperson for Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority has previously said: “The Park Authority has served an Urgent Works Notice on the Royal Lion Hotel in Tenby.

“The owners acknowledge the risk posed by the windows and have proposed an alternative scheme to begin remedial works, having recently submitted a listed building application to reinstate the windows to the High Street and White Lion Street frontages.”

An Urgent Works Notice can be served by an authority which believes that a building is not being properly maintained. It gives the owner a specific time in which to carry out necessary works.

The plan for the hotel sought consent for replacement bays and windows, insertion of a new door replacing an existing window, and minor ancillary works.

As a consultee to the proposal, Tenby Town Council’s members sought more information as to the materials to be used for the replacement windows.

They were also concerned about the proposal to install a door opening on to White Lion Street.

It was pointed out: “The carriageway is narrow in this location and vehicles often mount the pavement to pass each other which could compromise safety of individuals using this door.”

A report for planners, recommending approval, said: “An Urgent Works Notice is in force with regards to the unsafe bay windows to the front elevation.

“The application relates only to the original hotel building with listed building consent sought for replacement bays and windows, insertion of a new door replacing an existing window and minor ancillary works.

“The proposed scheme is in keeping with the character of the listed building, and its setting in terms of design and form. As such, the application can be supported subject to conditions.”

The application was conditionally approved by officers under delegated powers.

The hotel was rebuilt in the late C18 and extensively altered 1853-4 when the façade was remodelled and raised a storey to four floors with two tiers of canted bay windows, the report for planners said.

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