west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Reincarnation Shock at Llanelli’s £250m Wellness Village

Carmarthenshire County Council’s private-sector partner in the £250 million* Wellness and Life Science Village development project at Delta Lakes, Llanelli, a cornerstone of the Swansea Bay City Deal, is a new incarnation of the dissolved Kent Neurosciences Ltd, the company with which the county council signed an exclusivity agreement in 2016.

The new partner, alongside Swansea University, is Sterling Health Security Holdings Ltd, of Longcroft, 8 Windmill Park, Wrotham, Sevenoaks, in Kent, a company started in October 2015, dormant in its first year, and with a negative value of £137,722 and zero cash in the bank and zero employees at the end of its second year, at October 31st 2017.

The company’s accounts explain that “to continue trading [the company] is dependent on a loan from the directors, who have confirmed their intention to provide financial support to the company for the foreseeable future”.

So the county council’s private-sector partner for a £250 million contract – incidentally the only company to tender for the opportunity – had no money and no employees, but six-figure debts and an ongoing reliance on loans from its directors. It was a small enterprise, but the contract award notice released by the Welsh Government stated somewhat surprisingly that the company is not an SME (a small or medium-sized enterprise).

The directors are Franz Hermann Dickmann (77), Dr Phyllis Holt-Dickmann (66), Rupert Knight Harrison (58), Kevin Stephen Smith (54), James Edward Dickmann (49), and former leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, Meryl Gravell (73).

Franz Dickmann, Phyllis Holt-Dickmann and James Dickmann were all directors of Kent Neurosciences Ltd too, although James Dickmann resigned four years before the company was wound up in May 2018.

Rupert Harrison is listed at Companies House as a banker and attorney, and is a current director of some 19 companies, half of which are new and as at the end of July 2018 had not yet submitted accounts. Kevin Smith is listed as a company director, and apart from Sterling Health Security Holdings is a director of Heart 2 Heart Telemedicine Ltd. Franz Dickmann and Phyllis Holt-Dickmann, the duo who personally control the shares of Sterling Health Security Holdings, as well as serving as directors, are also directors of Heart to Heart Telemedicine Ltd.

Both Franz Dickmann and James Dickmann are former directors of KIMS Hospital Ltd, a private hospital at Maidstone, Kent, which opened in 2014. The hospital has yet to attain profitability. In the year to April 2016 it lost almost £15.89 million, and the following year to April 2017the loss was £9.72 million.

The Wellness Centre is not just about money, of course, but it will need to be profitable if taxpayers are not to be saddled with liabilities, and there must be doubts over the current financial capacity of the West Wales population to buy heavily enough into the wellness vision to ensure its success. West Wales is, after all, one of the poorest parts of North West Europe.

*Swansea University put the cost at £200 million as recently as July, in a press release titled ‘Landmark agreement boost for Llanelli’s £200m Wellness Village’. The contract award notice from the Welsh Government’s Sell2Wales, also in July, said £250 million. In June 2018 Carmarthenshire County Council reckoned the figure was ‘more than £200 million’. So it appears to be, a hefty 25% more.   

PDR

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Cashless Society Damages Local Trade

Llansawel Market is this Saturday, July 21st, in the village hall from 10am to noon. The third Saturday of the month is always market time in this North Carmarthenshire village, more or less in the centre of a triangle with Lampeter, Llandovery and Llandeilo at the corners.

One modern development does not help it at all, though – the cashless society.

The nearest cashpoint is a good ten miles away, at the Co-op supermarket in Llandeilo. We rely increasingly on Co-op supermarkets to provide this rural area with cash, from the cashpoints in Llandeilo, Llandovery and Lampeter, and from the tills as ‘cashback’. These small but historic towns have suffered the withdrawal of banking services. HSBC, Lloyds and NatWest closed in Llandeilo and Llandovery. In both, Barclays is the only bank left in town, four days a week in Llandeilo and three days in Llandovery. The university town of Lampeter has lost NatWest, another blow for rural areas delivered by parent company Royal Bank of Scotland, which since 2008 has been bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of some £45 billion.

Getting hold of your cash is not at all easy, especially if you do not have your own transport. Closer to home than Llandeilo, the friendly Post Office in the National Trust village of Cwmdu, six miles away and open in the mornings Tuesday to Saturday, is an extremely valuable community asset, and so is the Post Office van at Llansawel village hall for an hour (2.15-3.15) on Monday afternoons. What we don’t have is a free-to-use cashpoint available round the clock.

Llansawel Village Hall, home of the village market — which runs on cash

Stallholders at the market take cash. Customers need cash. The market sells local products – such as cheeses, fruit and vegetables, beef, eggs, baked goods, confectionery, plants, crafts – so is an outlet for nearby enterprises, delivering the short supply chains which the EU has been encouraging. Small-scale producers who sell at markets and fairs benefit the rural economy and are helping to keep villages viable. Yet their need for customers with cash to spend is largely ignored by the big banks.

We are not talking about shoppers carrying wads of £20 notes, just modest amounts of cash for buying from small traders and also for donating to charity collectors. Homeless and recently homeless sellers of the Big Issue magazine, for example, depend on passers-by stumping up £2.50 for a copy. A debit card is no use for buying the Big Issue.

The scarcity of cashpoints in the countryside is itself a big issue, needing government and banks to get together to work out how to prevent rural regions from descending into financial deserts.

 

PDR

Welsh Government Recruiting Consultants for Llandeilo Bypass

The Welsh Government is recruiting consultants to manage the construction of a bypass for Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire.

The estimated value of the four-and-a-half year management contract is £6 million. The bypass itself is expected to cost about £50 million.

Talk of a Llandeilo bypass began in 1939 when traffic was far lighter than today. The length of the A483 Manchester to Swansea trunk road bisects Llandeilo as Rhosmaen Street, which has illegal levels of air pollution resulting from heavy traffic including super-sized lorries.

The preferred route for the Llandeilo bypass (see below) was agreed before the new comprehensive school Ysgol Bro Dinefwr was constructed, and now there is only a narrow corridor between the school and homes in Ffairfach.

Concerned residents, who delivered a leaflet to local houses early in 2017, worried that traffic on a new bypass would bring air pollution close to the school, and that “heavy, fast-moving traffic will threaten the safety of children travelling to and from the school”.

Pupils walking between the school and town will need a safe way to cross the bypass where it meets the A476, the road on which the school entrance is located.

Given these issues, construction of the bypass is unlikely to be free of controversy, and so the project managers will need more than a shovel-sized capacity for diplomacy.

The preferred route for the Llandeilo bypass, shown above, was agreed before Ysgol Bro Dinefwr was constructed, leaving only a narrow corridor for it between the school and homes in Ffairfach. 

‘High Octane’ Afan Valley Resort — No Planning Permission Yet, but Lodges Already Offered for Sale

Would you buy a house off plan before the site even had planning permission?

Northern Powerhouse Developments, the smartly named real estate company led by Gavin Lee Woodhouse, is selling lodges off the blueprint for the Afan Valley Adventure Resort in Neath Port Talbot.

“With the emphasis on healthy living and high octane activities, Afan Valley will offer guests of all abilities a unique and exhilarating experience which will be the first of its kind to hit the UK holiday market. With its wealth of breath-taking activities, this exciting new resort has been designed to push guests to the limit while at the same time recharge, rejuvenate and relax all who visit,” proclaims the Northern Powerhouse Developments website.  There is also a reference to ‘award winning restaurants on site’, which is clearly in advance of reality, because currently the development has not started.

The company says it completed the purchase of 450 acres of land in December 2017. The website mentions 400 lodges, but the outline planning application submitted on May 21st 2018 increases this to 600 lodges. There would also be a 100-bed hotel, restaurants, adventure activities, accommodation for administration, and of course lots of parking.

All this on 450 acres for adventurous activities would be a tight fit. Even if the holiday lodges were crammed in at 12 to the acre – the minimum density for most new housing –they would cover 50 acres.

Despite the application’s submission in May, there is no sign of it in Neath Port Talbot Council’s planning application database. When I rang the council to ask what had happened to it, I was told that it is not yet a valid application because the planning department has not received all the necessary information. So there is no date for the proposal to come before the planning committee.

That is potentially worrying for investors who have already paid for lodges, but only one of the many risks in this type of scheme.

Today, the ‘Financial’ page of Northern Powerhouse Developments’ website is missing. The teaser text said ‘commercial assets are retained by the SPV’, but the ‘Financial’ page itself was not there. I had wanted to see if the information on it was any different from the contents in October 2017, when I last looked (Risky Deals? Landmark Welsh Hotels Sold Room by Room to Investors, see here), but no luck.

SPV stands for Special Purpose Vehicle, a company with a legal structure isolating it financially from the parent company. This sort of structure is common in the investment markets for hotel rooms, suites and annexes, care home rooms and student accommodation. Typically, an investor buys a hotel room, or chalet, or holiday lodge leasehold from a property company and rents it back to an operating company for a specified number of years. The property company ‘guarantees’ to buy the ‘asset’ back at the end of the term, often at a premium to the purchase price.

This was broadly the arrangement at The Corran Resort and Spa, Laugharne (see here, and search this website), where close on £20 million of investors’ cash disappeared. Rooms and fractions of rooms at The Corran were sold off plan, in what seemed to me a Ponzi scheme (returns to early investors, enough to generate a ‘buzz’, appear to have been paid with purchase funds from later investors, who are very disappointed).

Why didn’t the investors do more due diligence, especially as this type of investment is not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority? A lot of hard selling went on, backed with classy marketing materials, and the often elderly investors, with money losing real value in savings accounts paying interest below the rate of inflation, were desperate to boost their rate of return.

Northern Powerhouse Developments may not be another Kayboo Ltd, the former owner of The Corran, but information at Companies House raises flags that are reddish in hue. A company called Mysing Capital Ltd has in 2018 taken a charge on all freehold and leasehold properties  acquired by Northern Powerhouse and associated companies The Imperial Crown Hotel Ltd, The Old Golf House Hotel Ltd, and Gilsland Hall Ltd and all properties that may be acquired by them in the future.

Mysing Capital, known as Mysing Properties Ltd until December 8th 2017, is controlled by Steven Turner (51), civil engineer Matthew John Ferguson (47) and engineer Robert James (Rob) Coxon (51), the founding trio of the Castleford-based Stroma Group in 2002. Mr Turner’s address is listed as 9 Fryers Way, Ossett, West Yorkshire WF5 9TJ, the same address as Mysing Capital. The address for Mr Ferguson and Mr Coxon is Murray Harcourt Accountants, Elizabeth House, 13-19 Queen Street, Leeds LS1 2TW.

Stroma provides building control and compliance services, certification for the construction industry and software to the energy and operational efficiency markets. Private equity firm LDC, with funding from Royal Bank of Scotland’s NatWest, bought in to Stroma in 2014, and since then the founders have resigned from the board, but have ventures like Mysing Capital to keep them busy.

Mysing’s balance sheet at March 31st 2017 showed shareholders’ funds of almost £1.27 million, up from £0.978 million the year before. It was carrying £15 million of debt, but had cash of over £9.215 million and £7.143 million in monies due from others.

As for Northern Powerhouse, it has acquired three more properties since October 2017, bringing the total portfolio to 18. The latest is a hotel to be called Lakeside Manor (formerly Monk Fryston Hall) at Monk Fryston between Leeds and Selby in Yorkshire. Almost half the properties and developments are not yet operational. The Afan Valley Adventure Resort seems the most ambitious, and sales agents are busy extolling its future charms. Select Portfolio, which appears to be selling the majority of Northern Powerhouse’s opportunities, advertises Afan Valley properties between £82,000 and £240,000 and suggests returns on investments of up to 268%.

The time scale is optimistic, given that no planning permission yet exists. Select Portfolio says the resort should be completed between April and June 2021, less than three years away. Investors are enticed with ‘iconic global brands’, ‘world class facilities’ and ‘one of the biggest and most thrilling outdoor adventure parks in the UK’. Lodge purchasers are told they can use it themselves (once it is built, of course) for two weeks a year, one in high season, one in low.

The purchasing procedure is also ahead of reality. According to Select Portfolio, on completion of a purchase, an order for the lodge “will be placed with the manufacturer”. A buyer will hope to receive a return of 10% between years four and ten, when the lodge would be bought back by the developer for 25% more than the net purchase price.  A couple of purchasing models are offered, but in both no return is payable for the first three years.

I hope it works. I hope the Afan Valley Adventure Resort will receive permission and be a resounding success with local residents and with visitors alike. I hope all the other hotel investments will pay off.

But the risks associated with this crowd-funding approach to development are real,  substantial, and not for those for whom loss of capital would be a disaster.

PDR

How Sustainable is Our NHS?

Questions from an amateur

Here in Wales, can we still afford the National Health Service on which so many of us depend? Is it really sustainable in the hard-up future to which we seem to be speeding?

All the time that the Welsh Government depends on financial allocations from Westminster to fund the NHS, every year the answer edges closer to ‘No’.

Take the Hywel Dda University Health Board, looking after the NHS in West Wales — Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire. Hywel Dda is in the middle of an intense series of consultations about its planned reorganisation. A main purpose of the proposed changes is to reduce over-spending.

Three proposals are on the table. Here’s a short summary of plans for the main hospitals, but the detailed options, at www.hywelddahb.wales.nhs.uk, are well worth reading and responding to, before the deadline of July 12th 2018.

Proposal A

Two main hospitals – the existing Bronglais, Aberystwyth, and a new-build for urgent and planned care, somewhere on or just off the A40 trunk road between St Clears (Carms) and Narberth (Pembs). Withybush at Haverfordwest, Glangwili at Carmarthen and Prince Philip, Llanelli, would be downgraded from general to community hospitals, without accident and emergency or acute admissions.

Proposal B

Three principal hospitals – Bronglais, the proposed new hospital in the Carmarthenshire-Pembrokeshire borderlands, and Prince Philip.

Proposal C

As B, except the new hospital would be for urgent care only, and Glangwili would be a centre for pre-planned operations and procedures.

Anxiety and agitation

Community and town councillors at a consultation evening in Carmarthen on April 25th were far from quietly accepting the plans. They worried about long journeys to A&E, distant down the A40 (between 30 and 40 miles for my community in north-east Carmarthenshire, depending on the eventual site). They agitated that ambulances would get stuck in traffic jams, especially at holiday times. They praised the Wales Air Ambulance, but knew that it operates for 12 hours a day, not 24, and depends entirely on voluntary fund-raising. They were concerned that public transport services are, and will continue to be, inadequate to take patients and visitors to and from a new hospital.

At the same time, I sympathise with Hywel Dda, squeezed between the rock of rising demand and the hard place of not enough money, and so far unable to attract enough highly skilled, permanent medical staff. The upshot is that the board spends heavily on agency and locum staff, which as well as being more expensive than permanent personnel, can deny continuity of care to patients.

West Wales can feel quite remote, which is an attraction for holiday-making visitors but not necessarily for medics with partners wanting to work and children needing education, because in West Wales there isn’t much choice of schools or employment, and until the mainline railway is electrified, the region will not feel well connected to urban South Wales or onward to England. But in 2017 Prime Minister Mrs May vetoed the electrification plan.  Could it be that the money had to feed the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland instead?

For mature consultants with grown-up children, it may be that West Wales is attractive for its landscapes and tranquillity, but younger medics often have different priorities. Hywel Dda knows this, of course, and the intended ‘Wellness Village’ at Llanelli could be a step towards raising the medical profile of the region…. if, and a very big if, there is enough investment from the private sector.

Frayed shoestring

The health board’s budget for 2017-18 was £743.95 million, but that was not enough – an extra £69.6 million was spent, a total of £813.55 million. This was almost £2,119 for each of the 384,000 people living in the Hywel Dda area. The budget limit was £1,937 per head.

We are trying to run an advanced, comprehensive health service on a frayed shoestring that will soon break. All the time that Wales depends on largesse (or stinginess) from the UK Government, and the present Welsh Government continues its uninspired administration, this depressing state of affairs is set to remain. Yet if Wales were independent, would the Minister for Health have enough taxation revenue to channel more resources into a next-generation NHS? Given Wales’ relative poverty – gross disposable household income per head of £15,835 in 2016 compared with £19,878 for England as a whole and £27,151 for London (1) – the answer looks negative. Household members with an average of £15,835 left after taxes and National Insurance have been deducted, and with social security benefits added, are not likely to have had much tax liability in the first place.

Take as an example the median remuneration of the 8,053.7 full-time-equivalent employees at the Hywel Dda health board, which in 2016-17 was £26,483 (2). Just for illustration, in 2018-19 income tax on this nominal amount would be £2,926.60 and National Insurance, £2,167.08, leaving £21,389.32 before other deductions such as student loan repayments and pension contributions. That doesn’t leave much leeway for higher taxes.

Better elsewhere? Not really

It could be time to change expectations of what the NHS does for us. Costs of healthcare per head in the UK are already low compared to other ‘rich’ countries – in Switzerland the amount is 90% more, and in Norway almost 60% more, to take just two examples. The USA’s hugely expensive and far from universal system costs nearly two-and-a-half times more per head (and could be forced on the UK in a post-Brexit trade deal!).

New Zealand spends, per head, about 85% of the UK total. How efficient is their system, and could we adopt it? In New Zealand there are charges to see a GP, and a two-tier system with usually much longer waiting lists for publicly funded treatments than for private appointments. How about Spain, spending around 77% of the UK amount per head?  That’s a creaking system too. As Pablo Avanzas, Isaac Pascual and César Moris write in ‘The great challenge of the public health system in Spain’ (3):

“In all EU countries (including Spain), during most of the second half of the 20th century, health expenditure has been growing faster than national income. The same is happening in all member countries of the OECD, so this situation calls into question whether the economic sustainability of healthcare systems, most of which were created and developed in times of greater prosperity, will be guaranteed in the future. In the context of a worldwide economic crisis, the impact of financial difficulties of healthcare systems has become particularly evident in Spain, where unemployment rate is one of the highest in the European Union.”

They also said:

“There are basically three ways to guarantee the financing of a quality public health system with universal coverage and free of charge: to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the health provision system, prioritize health spending in relation to other public policies and/or increase income taxes for that purpose.”

In Wales, even if there were freedom to do so, there is very little scope to raise universal taxes, because of the country’s relatively low incomes.

Hywel Dda health board cannot prioritise health spending over other public policies, because health is its remit. The Welsh Government could do so only to a very limited extent, because in essence it is a distributor of monies authorised by the UK Treasury. The present Westminster Government has shown no interest in assisting Wales. So Hywel Dda is tackling the only available option, to increase efficiency.

There comes a point when ‘increasing efficiency’ means the system is too emaciated to work at all, but Hywel Dda could give itself a little breathing space if more permanent staff could be attracted to West Wales, to cut the £4 million plus a month or so costs – amounting to some £50 million a year – for ‘variable pay’ to agency personnel and locums, and for staff overtime.

Over the longer term, though, the questions will be even harder, and a new hospital between St Clears and Narberth is unlikely to be the answer. It will be new, and as such attractive to accountants (low maintenance costs) and recruiters (a magnet for staff) only for a very short time.

Surely the emphasis has to be on turning the system inside out from a focus on cures to prevention of illness, accompanied by infrastructure improvements – such as rail electrification – to help diversify and expand the economy of West Wales.

If that does not happen, when we are ill or injured the likelihood of receiving the most effective treatment will diminish, and rationing for those who cannot pay will become the order of the day.

 

(1) ONS Statistical Bulletin, Regional Gross Disposable Household Income 1997-2016, May 2018.

(2) The full-time equivalent was 8,053.7 people, 6,202.12 female and 1,850.58 male. The total headcount was 10,975 – 8,574 female and 2,401 male. Hywel Dda University Health Board annual report for 2016-17.

(3) Journal of Thoracic Disease, May 2017, 9 suppl 6, S430-S433.

PDR

 

Calon Cymru Minds the Housing Gap

From ‘Affordable Homes and Sustainable Livelihoods in Rural Wales’, report for community interest company Calon Cymru Network, 2017 (slightly amended).  The full report, focused on the Llandovery area, is here. The ongoing introduction of Universal Credit, replacing other benefits including Housing Benefit, does nothing to increase the supply of dwellings but cuts the ability of many lower-income households to afford a home at all. 

Right to Buy and the housing shortage

Each year there are more renters and fewer owner-occupiers. Owner-occupation in the UK peaked in 2008 at 18.184 million households but by 2014 was down to 17.712 million.[1] The fall in owner occupation, and the rent subsidy from public funds in the form of Housing Benefit, both reflect the affordability crisis. In 2015-16 £24.244 billion was distributed as Housing Benefit in the UK: £5.972 billion went to local authority tenants in rent rebates, £9.489 billion to tenants of housing associations and other registered social landlords, and £8.783 billion to tenants of private landlords.

The benefit is payable only to tenants paying rent, not to owner-occupiers, and in 2015-16 there were 4.777 million claimants – people whose incomes were insufficient to pay commercial rents.[2] The claimants amounted to almost one tenant in every two, and their average annual benefit was £5,075.

A significant proportion of all the local authority homes sold under Right to Buy (RTB) were, by 2016, calculated to be in the hands of private landlords:

“It is clear that a significant number of properties sold under the statutory RTB are now in the private rental sector. In August 2015 Inside Housing published an analysis based on Freedom of Information requests to 91 councils, which found that almost 40 per cent of ex-council flats sold through the statutory RTB were now in the private rented sector. There is a similar pattern in Scotland; Dr Mary Taylor from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations explained that many of the properties sold through RTB ended up “in the private rented sector at rents approximately 50 per cent higher than social rents for the exact same properties, in worse conditions. That has impacted on our ability to manage the assets of social landlords, and on the public purse in terms of the housing benefit bill, and has constrained access for aspiring tenants and for those needing to move.” (Housing Associations and the Right to Buy, report from the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, January 19 2016, Section 4, paragraph 45)

Rents charged by private landlords are normally higher than social rents for equivalent properties. This means that more housing benefit is required. The Communities and Local Government Committee said:

“We note also the finding from our commissioned research of increased housing benefit costs of over £1,000 per year per claimant in the private rented sector rather than in social housing.” (paragraph 46)

Why did former tenants who became homeowners, or their descendants, decide to sell? Diverse reasons, including cashing in and spending the money, moving to another area, or worry about the cost of maintaining their homes, or after their death having the house sold to pay care fees and/or legacies.

Under Right to Buy, central government prevented local authorities from using the proceeds of sales to build replacement homes. Now, when they can afford to, authorities are buying homes on the open market to try and ease their waiting lists, which are exacerbated by the UK’s rapidly rising population. It took 34 years from 1971 to 2005 for the total population to rise from 55.928 million to 60.413 million, and only ten years from 2005 to 2015 to expand from 60.413 million to 65.110 million. The Office for National Statistics estimates that by 2025 there will be 69.444 million people living in the UK, a figure predicated on net migration remaining at 185,000 a year from 2020 (compared with 313,000 in 2014, 332,000 in 2015 and 248,000 in 2016).[3]

The Wales population, mid 2015, was 3.099 million. Since 1971 it has grown by 13%, compared with almost 16.5% for the UK as a whole.

 

No more Right to Buy in Carmarthenshire

Carmarthenshire County Council was the first Welsh local authority to suspend Right to Buy, making the announcement in January 2015, thereby signalling the intention to protect its social housing stock of 9,036 homes.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s housing stock

As at June 5 2017

Type of dwelling Number
Bedsit, ground floor 4
Bedsit, mid floor 15
Bedsit, upper floor 3
Bungalow 2,182
Flat, ground floor 981
Flat, mid floor 56
Flat, upper floor 867
House 4,888
Maisonette, ground floor 15
Maisonette, upper floor 25
Total 9,036

Source: Carmarthenshire County Council

The county council has a strong housing department and officials committed to providing decent homes. Even so, the waiting list signifies a mismatch between homes required and homes available. The waiting list for the Llandovery area at the end of March 2017 was 277, including 128 single people and 36 couples. There is substantial unmet demand for 1-bedroom homes, with 164 applicants on the list, and only 15 suitable properties, all housing association stock. Sixty-six applicants were waiting for a 2-bedroom home, of which there are 97 (80 council-owned and 17 housing association dwellings).

Llandovery has empty private-sector buildings. Fifty were advertised on Rightmove for sale in and within a mile of Llandovery, on June 16 2017. Only five of these properties were under £100,000, and the cheapest home was £77,500 for a 2-bedroom house, with one bedroom leading off the other.  This, and no more, is just about affordable for an individual earning £20,000 a year and with a £15,500 deposit.[4]

The gap between house prices — and private rents — and what local people can afford, is a space where social landlords and not-for-profit groups like Calon Cymru can work.

 

Policy ideas to increase the number of affordable homes

But if land prices do not fall relative to incomes, the crisis of insufficient rural homes will deepen. Abrupt policy changes have the potential to generate severe unintended consequences as well as the desired outcomes, so a gradual approach is safer but results are slow to appear.

Policy changes worth considering include:

  • Introducing a Community Right to Build policy in Wales. Community councils convinced of the need for development in their area could override restrictions in the LDP.
  • Compulsory purchase regulations, requiring full market prices to be paid, have become a brake on provision of affordable homes. Local authorities and partner not-for-profit community organisations should be able to compulsorily purchase land for affordable housing, where there is clear evidence of need, at less than development value. The price ceiling on land zoned for development could be set at half the difference between agricultural and development value. On Rural Exception Sites outside development boundaries, a lower ceiling could apply. The Welsh Government’s role in compulsory purchase is currently unclear because the devolution settlement is silent on the matter – compulsory purchase is neither reserved by the UK Government nor devolved to Wales. However, under the Wales Act 2017, powers to determine compensation would be entirely a matter for the UK Government.[5]
  • Despite the forthcoming absence of power to vary compulsory purchase regulations, the Welsh Government’s new authority over land taxation might be applied to a scheme to persuade landowners to accept less than full market price for compulsorily purchased land in return for exemption from tax liability. Such a policy change could reduce the cost of land for social housing and other essential development.
  • Restrictions on planning permission renewals, so that more land with permission is developed without delay.
  • Planning policy alterations to
    • increase solar energy capture
    • incorporate more green open space in housing developments
    • promote orchards, allotments and wild planting within developments
    • include more live-work homes in new neighbourhoods.
  • Exempting sales of land for Rural Exception housing from tax liabilities.

PDR

 

[1] Housing chart 5-v2, from Department for Communities and Local Government table 101, in ‘UK Perspectives 2016: housing and home ownership in the UK, ONS Digital, May 25 2016.

[2] Department for Work and Pensions benefit expenditure and caseload tables 2017, Office for National Statistics.

[3] Population estimates, 2014-based population projections and provisional long-term international migration estimates, accessed June 5 2017.

[4] Data from an affordability calculator.

[5] See Compulsory Purchase by Katy Orford, The Planning Series 15, Research Briefing, National Assembly of Wales.

Gardens All In A Row

It’s a small cottage, built as one-up, one-down with a back scullery under the catslide roof. The back door of the stone cottage, in a terrace in a north Carmarthenshire village, opens onto a common access path, from which a walled path leads to the gardens. The garden of the cottage, which is now majority owned by a close relative, lies behind a line of outside privies and the gardens of three other cottages in the row. Behind all the gardens is a row of sheds, formerly one for each cottage.

Sheds belonging to different cottages, in a row behind the final garden. 

The privies are rather the worse for non-use, but have doors in different, now faded colours.

The arrangement of gardens, sheds and privies, serving an eclectic row of six cottages, is a survival from Victorian (and earlier) times of a more communal way of living.

Old privies behind a terrace of cottages. 

Gardens are on either side of a path leading down to a a row of sheds. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Really Afford Free News?

The West Wales quartet of Herald newspapers – Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Llanelli and Ceredigion, the latter now digital only – angered several contributors who were not paid.  The less said about my experience of administration at the Herald, the better. The management appeared to me to regard paying bills as completely unnecessary.  And, as I discovered, the Herald’s* financial performance is as transparent as a stone wall.

But financially challenged newspapers are are two-a-penny,  and many that are well-run have disappeared.

The journalism trade paper Press Gazette said, on March 31st 2017, that “Estimates vary, but at least half the UK local newspaper journalism jobs in the UK are believed to have gone over the last decade.

“There has been a net loss of around 200 local newspaper titles since 2005 (around 1,000 are left).

“In some areas, typically the poorer ones, there are no professional journalists at all left to hold politicians and others to account.”

A dearth of probing journalism is not an immediately obvious lack, unlike empty supermarket shelves. It’s not obvious until corruption is flourishing and the local environment has been trashed. Independent journalism is important, but it costs, and in this age of social media people want to read their news for free.

The BBC is concerned enough to fund 150 ‘local democracy’ reporters, but the money goes mainly to the most powerful media companies – such as Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press, the trio which control local news gathering in England, Scotland and Wales. The West Wales contract, to cover Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire councils, went to Trinity Mirror’s South Wales Evening Post.  Three of the four contracts for Wales went to Trinity Mirror, the fourth to Newsquest. The BBC’s decision to subsidise large commercial groups was disappointing for small independent firms, and for the National Union of Journalists, which is anxious about the depressing toll of redundancies.

Commenting on 49 new redundancies at Trinity Mirror , the NUJ said on February 10th 2018 that “ Whilst Trinity Mirror are orchestrating these brutal cuts to their own workforce, they are also receiving public money, paid out via the BBC licence fee and known as the ‘local democracy reporters’ scheme. The union is extremely concerned that Trinity Mirror may be using this public subsidy to plug the gaps created by getting rid of their own employees.”

Meanwhile, local news coverage is left increasingly to voluntary bloggers, who are not paid by anyone at all.

* Companies House applied on February 27th 2018 to strike off and dissolve Herald Newspapers plc.  Paperwork is overdue. The last accounts, to December 31st 2016, are for a dormant company carrying out no trading activity.

PDR

Company Backing Llanelli ‘Wellness Village’ is Broke

Kent Neurosciences Ltd, the company which Carmarthenshire County Council signed up in 2016 as a partner for the Llanelli ‘Wellness Village’ project, is in the process of being struck off by the Registrar of Companies.

Striking off results in the company being dissolved. If any assets are left, they pass to the Crown.

It was on May 23rd 2016 that the county council’s Executive Board entered into an exclusivity agreement with Kent Neurosciences Ltd “with a view to ensuring the aspirations of the Wellness and Science Village within Carmarthenshire.” See here for the background story. It appears that the county council quietly shelved the partnership deal in 2017.

The directors of Kent Neurosciences Ltd, which is based in Maidstone, Kent, applied for voluntary dissolution on January 31st 2018. The last published accounts, for the year to July 31st 2016, show that there were no funds attributable to shareholders, only a deficit of £128,917.

Sister company Kent Neurosciences Property Ltd is under threat of being struck off, and has overdue accounts.

PDR

Thriving Local Food Scene

West Wales is now an important  centre for sustainable food, and to celebrate that the Llandeilo Local Food Guide tries to record important participants. The guide would appreciate both suggestions for new firms to include, and notifications of any mistakes  made.

A strong network is developing, with wholesalers, retailers and restaurants buying from local producers, and some producers selling direct to the public.

Added today: Carreg Cennen Tearoom, Dryslwyn Community Shop, Rhosyn Farm Produce, The Castle Hotel, The Warren, and Watson and Pratt.

See the Llandeilo Food Network / Rhwydwaith Bwyd Llandeilo page on Facebook — something new added most days.

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