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James Evans MS calls for overhaul of ‘toxic’ Meat Promotion Wales

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A CONSERATIVE MS called for Hybu Cig Cymru to be made fully independent amid concerns about a “toxic bullying culture” within the meat promotion organisation.

James Evans, the shadow rural affairs secretary, warned the farming industry is losing faith in Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC), Wales’ meat marketing board.

He said HCC’s chief executive has stood down, two senior executives are leaving and board members are on the verge of resigning.

Mr Evans said: “There have been no board minutes published since 2022, and no up-to-date financial statements or annual reports on their website since 2021.

“This is a very concerning position for HCC to find itself in. The body underpins an industry that’s been valued at more than £1b to Wales.“

The Brecon and Radnorshire MS said a toxic culture of bullying and governance issues within the Welsh Government-owned company are undermining farmers’ confidence.

He said: “A lot of people in the industry, as well, are very concerned about whether the board and the chairman of the board have got the power and the levers that they need to actually turn the organisation around.

“The industry is losing faith.”

During rural affairs questions on June 19, Mr Evans called for a fully independent meat marketing board, run by farmers and processors for farmers and processors.

He told the Senedd: “A lot of farmers I’m speaking to are telling me, ‘Take it away from the Welsh Government, give it back to the industry, give it to the processors, let them directly appoint people onto that board, and, if they don’t perform, they can take them away’.”

Llyr Gruffydd, Plaid Cymru’s shadow rural affairs secretary, warned that the situation is “going from bad to worse”, with two directors resigning this week.

The North Wales representative raised concerns about absence levels and staff turnover as he echoed calls for government intervention.

Pressing Huw Irranca-Davies, the Welsh Government’s rural affairs secretary, he warned of the risk of undermining the faith of HCC levy payers and the reputation of Welsh red meat.

He asked: “For how long will you say that this is someone else’s problem?”

Mr Irranca-Davies replied: “We have to leave it to Hybu Cig Cymru to actually work through these issues and do them properly and assiduously. That is HCCs role…

“It is not for me to step in and, in some ways, tell HCC what to do, or intervene in what are sensitive and delicate discussions with both current and former members.”

Mr Irranca-Davies said he has not heard a universal voice from farmers calling for HCC to be made independent of the Welsh Government.

The rural affairs secretary, who is also responsible for climate change, recognised concerns about governance, saying he has met the chair to seek assurances in the past few weeks.

He told the chamber: “In terms of their day-to-day business and their performance, they’re getting on with it. I’ve had those reassurances that performance is not affected….

“But clearly, I’m aware of the internal governance issues and I’m sure they’re focused on resolving them.”

Mr Irranca-Davies, a former MP and Defra minister under Gordon Brown’s UK Government, pointed out that Heather Anstey-Myers was appointed interim chief executive in January.

Business

Steel industry faces turning point amid planned blast furnace closures

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THE CLOSURE of the UK’s last remaining blast furnaces has sparked significant debate and concern. As Britain plans to shut down the last blast furnace at Port Talbot and the two still in operation at British Steel in Scunthorpe, many are questioning the implications for the country that invented modern steelmaking.

The transition from traditional blast furnaces, which produce “virgin steel” by melting iron ore with coking coal, to electric arc furnaces (EAFs), which recycle scrap steel using electrical currents, is at the heart of this debate. Virgin steel production is notoriously carbon-intensive, while EAFs offer a more environmentally friendly alternative, aligning with Britain’s net-zero laws.

Critics argue that the UK will become overly dependent on steel imports, which could be problematic in times of international conflict. However, this argument fails to acknowledge that the UK’s virgin steel production is already heavily reliant on imported materials such as iron ore from Sweden, Brazil, and Australia, and coal from various parts of Europe. By shifting to EAFs, the UK would instead use domestic scrap steel, reducing reliance on foreign materials.

It was once true that EAFs could not produce advanced steel grades, but technological advancements have changed this. For instance, the finest grades of steel for aircraft landing gear and nuclear submarines are already produced in UK EAFs. While some argue that certain steel grades still require virgin steel, others in the industry believe EAFs can meet all steel production needs with the right materials.

Tata Steel UK’s plan to replace Port Talbot’s blast furnaces with EAFs could significantly reduce carbon emissions. While there are concerns about the economic and employment implications of this transition, it also presents an opportunity to recycle the 7-8 million tonnes of scrap steel the UK currently exports annually.

Despite these benefits, there is unease about the rapid closure of all UK blast furnaces. This drastic shift may lead to unintended consequences, especially given the high energy costs in the UK. If electric arc steel production proves more expensive, it could drive up the cost of steel, making imports from countries with less environmentally friendly practices more attractive.

Additionally, the UK’s steel strategy appears conservative compared to pioneering efforts in countries like Sweden, where hydrogen DRI plants are being developed, and the US, where electrolysis is being explored for steel production. The UK, once a leader in industrial innovation, risks lagging behind by committing solely to EAFs.

While the closure of the UK’s blast furnaces represents a significant step towards reducing carbon emissions, it also underscores a broader issue: the need for a more ambitious and innovative approach to steelmaking. The country that once spearheaded the Industrial Revolution must now rise to the challenge of leading the next wave of industrial innovation.

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Calls for extra charges for holiday let owners to be relaxed

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A CALL for an update on Pembrokeshire County Council’s position on a potential relaxation of the ‘182-day’ rule, allowing self-catering accommodation to avoid paying a council tax premium is to be heard later this week.

Last year, the rules on holiday lets in Wales changed; Welsh Government criteria saying holiday lets must be filled for 182 days a year – up from a previous 70 – in order to qualify for business rates rather than pay second homes council tax.

In Pembrokeshire, second homes, and self-catering businesses not meeting the criteria, are now paying a 200 per cent council tax premium in the county, effectively a treble rate of council tax.

At the July 18 meeting of full council, a question submitted by leader of the Independent Group, Cllr Huw Murphy will be heard, a follow-up from a previously submitted notice of motion where he had called for a relaxation in the ‘182-day’ rules in the county.

Cllr Murphy will ask: “At full council on October 12, 2023, I submitted a Notice of Motion (NoM) requesting that PCC use its discretionary relief policy regarding the current 182-day occupancy rule for self-catering accommodation and reduce the eligibility criteria to 140 days in support of the tourism industry.

“This NoM was debated by Cabinet on Dec 4, 2023, where it was not adopted but would be reviewed in 12 months following the impact of legislative change where evidence to support potential change to the 182-day occupancy rule will have been gathered.

“Furthermore, Cabinet stated they would write to Welsh Government to highlight concern over the 182-day occupancy rule and to be provided with information on how the current regulations are working both in Pembrokeshire and the rest of Wales, to support a review in 12 months’ time.

“Nine months have elapsed since this NoM was presented to Council in Oct 2023 and seven months since Cabinet debated it with two recommendations and this question is submitted in two parts.

“Can Council be provided with an update of what data has been obtained since Dec 2023 to examine the impact of the 182-day occupancy rule for self-catering properties in advance of a review to be completed by December 2024 prior to any decision over what level of second home council tax to be levied for 2024/25 as it may be necessary to consider a reduction to support an industry under pressure?

“Have PCC received a reply from WG with regards to the concerns raised with regards to the 182-day rule and its impact on the Pembrokeshire tourism industry?”

Cllr Murphy’s questions will be heard at the full council meeting.

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Business

Concerns over risk to public funds in TVR deal

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TAXPAYERS could face a multi-million-pound bill after the Welsh Government spent more than £14m on a failed attempt to attract sports car manufacturer TVR to Wales.

Adrian Crompton, the auditor general for Wales, said the Welsh Government spent £4.75m buying the former Techboard factory in 2021 and £7.6m on refurbishment.

TVR received a £2m five-year loan and a £500,000 investment from the public purse, with the aim of creating 150 jobs and building 2,000 sports cars in Ebbw Vale by 2020.

But at the turn of 2024, the carmaker confirmed it no longer wants to lease the factory – or locate production in Wales – after announcing a new base in Hampshire.

Mr Crompton, who oversees the annual audit of some £24bn of public money, said selling the building for a market value of about £7.5m would net taxpayers a loss of £4.85m.

In a letter dated July 12, he told a Senedd committee that ministers have been trying to find an alternative tenant since November, with TVR paying a £322-a-month rent in that time.

Mr Crompton wrote that the 180,000 sq ft factory – which could generate an income of about £735,000 a year – has attracted some market interest but no formal offers.

Wales’ auditor general said Welsh Government officials’ advice was not to award a contract for the factory refurbishment in advance of a lease agreement with TVR

But he told the public accounts committee: “In August 2020, the minister wrote to TVR telling them the Welsh Government would progress refurbishment with or without them.”

Refurbishment of the factory, which was initially expected to cost £4.5m in 2017, was finally completed in July 2023 with the budget having ballooned to £7.6m.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for a botched investment in the company’s shares, the letter revealed, despite TVR being deemed a high-risk business at the time.

The Welsh Government bought 3.3% of the sports car manufacturer in 2016 but the public’s stake in the company has since more than halved to 1.6%.

TVR received a multi-million investment as part of a joint venture with Ensorcia, a lithium-mining business, which diluted the Welsh Government’s shareholding in 2021.

In May, ministers received external advice about the TVR stake – including a lower valuation than paid in 2016 – and secured an option to sell the shares back to the company.

Officials are now preparing ministerial advice for a decision on whether to sell the shares at a loss or retain the investment in the hope the price increases.

Mr Crompton said TVR breached loan requirements in September 2016 because it had not secured a promised £5.5m private-sector investment to start production.

He added that TVR negotiated extensions to the Welsh Government’s loan default requirement, which otherwise would have led to early repayment in full

In April 2022, TVR paid the Welsh Government £4.3m, covering the £2m loan and accrued interest, which released the company from a requirement to base itself in Wales.

Mr Crompton wrote: “The Welsh Government had to extend the loan repayment period but still achieved a return on investment when TVR eventually repaid it….

“Full repayment has now removed the conditions that were originally attached to the loan.”

In his briefing, the auditor general said he reviewed Welsh Government support for TVR after receiving correspondence that expressed concerns about the risk to public funds.

Mr Crompton pointed out that the public purse will have incurred further costs in terms of officials’ time over many years, external advice and professional fees.

Ministers’ attempts to woo TVR coincided with the failed £425m Circuit of Wales project.

The proposals for a motor racing circuit in Blaenau Gwent collapsed in 2017, with Ken Skates, then-economy minister, refusing to underwrite a £210m loan.

In 2020, Mr Skates wrote off nearly £15m related to loans for the Circuit of Wales after failing to claw back taxpayers’ money.

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