west*wales*news*review

West Wales News Review — analysis with a sustainability slant

Tax Terrors Imposed by Deaf HMRC

HMRC not listening to House of Lords’ worries about digital tax compulsion

“Please note, we are currently experiencing high volumes of enquiries and apologise if replies are outside of 15 working days.” – HMRC, VAT ‘help’, today February 9th 2019.

HMRC, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, can use pressure of work as an excuse for not responding to enquiries in a timely manner.

But will HMRC allow taxpayers to use the same excuse?

From April, the month after next, all 1.2 million or so UK businesses with annual turnover of £85,000 and more must use commercial software to file VAT returns to HMRC, under the new ‘Making Tax Digital’ (MTD) rules . (Unless you have a really big business and have negotiated an exemption because of ‘complexity’.)

We have kept financial records for 30 years, at first on paper and then Excel spreadsheets and paper. Now I have failed at Quick Books (not as simple as TV ads make it seem, either that, or I am just too dumb). Quick Books is probably the most heavily advertised of the commercial accounts packages, but I looked for alternatives and found Xero, with which I am doing a little better.

The change is not going to alter the amount of VAT we pay, but it is imposing new costs in both money and time.

By November 2018, between 30% and 40% of businesses affected by the new requirements were not even aware of them, let alone ready to file directly from software. There will be no copying and pasting, your digital accounts have to be kept up to date in real time.

The House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee has issued a blistering report on the shortcomings of ‘Making Tax Digital’.

Making Tax Digital for VAT: Treating Small Businesses Fairly, published on November 22nd 2018, lists 54 points of concern, which add up to an accusation that HMRC is failing to treat small businesses fairly. For example, points 24 to 28 (referring to paragraphs in the main report):

“ 24. HMRC is alone in its confidence that all one million businesses will be ready for Making Tax Digital for VAT in April 2019. They have underestimated the time for research, planning, training and system changes that some businesses will need. (Paragraph 89)

“25. HMRC told us on 16 October that it was “significantly increasing its communications activity” to ensure businesses were ready for April 2019. With less than five months remaining before introduction, it is too late to begin an effective communications campaign. (Paragraph 90)

“26. We recommend that HMRC increases the communication and support available to agents, and listens to agents’ concerns. Within that communication strategy, HMRC needs to address how it supports unrepresented taxpayers. (Paragraph 91)

“27. Some businesses with complex affairs have been granted a six-month deferral after they complained about the April 2019 deadline. Smaller businesses also need to be heard by HMRC specialists and the case for further categories of deferral should be considered. In addition, specific support in dealing with implementation problems will be needed for unrepresented taxpayers. (Paragraph 92)

“28. The evidence presented to us suggests that HMRC, taxpayers and the software market are unprepared for the implementation of Making Tax Digital for VAT in April 2019. (Paragraph 94)”

More than two months on from the House of Lords report, HMRC has not changed course, not even to the extent of handling the evident backlog of enquiries at weekends, when at least some small business owners may have a few hours to labour on the mandatory switch to digital.

Businesses without access to reliable broadband may apply for an exemption, but it is not clear to me how readily this would be granted. HMRC has not sent us any information on this. The most recent communication was in December 2018, about preparing for a no-deal Brexit.  “Register for a UK Economic Operator Registration and Identification (EORI) number”, the letter ordered.

Surely managing the repercussions of changing the UK’s relationship with the EU are, on their own, more than enough for HMRC to cope with, let alone requiring businesses to switch to real-time digital filing?

Currently HMRC has a simple online form for submitting VAT returns. Even I can do it.

The new draconian requirements are enough to drive me, and lots of other small businesses run by people who grew up before the computer age, finally into retirement. Either that, or we do less work, take turnover to below £85,000, and deregister from VAT.

Far from receiving more VAT, the government could find instead that its VAT income dips.

PDR

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Lack of a Layby Holds Up Operation of Controversial Llangadog Poultry Business

For the want of a passing place…

Constructing a large new building before meeting all the conditions of planning permission is risky.

This is the case at Carregsawdde, Llangadog, where Mr Eifion Hughes of T V Hughes & Co, Godre Garreg, has permission for a 32,000-bird ‘free range’[i] egg-laying unit and adjacent manure store. One of the conditions of the permission is the creation of a layby passing place on the narrow road across Carregsawdde Common, to allow for two-way traffic.

A layby passing place should be constructed here — but the land is on Carregsawdde Common

The proposed passing place (pictured) is part of the common, so T V Hughes & Co proposed deregistering the layby land and swapping some of Godre Garreg’s own land by way of compensation. It sounds simple – but a serious snag emerged. Although Mr Eifion Hughes has commoner’s rights for sheep to graze the common, it appears that neither he personally nor T V Hughes Ltd has proof of ownership of the 194-acre level expanse of grassland, including the site for the layby.

West Wales News Review understands that ownership of the common is likely still be with the Cawdor Estate, a remnant of the 50,000 or so acres which the Vaughans of Golden Grove owned in Carmarthenshire from the early 17th century. The estate was inherited by the 1st Baron Cawdor in 1804.

Common land cannot be deregistered without the consent of the owner. This simple fact is holding up the provision of the layby passing place which is mandatory before the egg production unit can start operations. The situation is being monitored by the Planning Inspectorate of the Welsh Government.

Meanwhile the chicken building, 140 metres long and 20 metres wide, is up.

The impressively large new poultry building

The poultry unit application was itself controversial, supported by many in the farming community, but opposed by dozens of local residents, who fear odours, toxicity and environmental damage. In addition, 1,300 people signed a petition against the scheme.

The controversy highlights the tensions between meeting consumers’ expectations of plentiful and affordable food, in this case eggs, and local people’s worries about risks to their health and to the environment.

Report admits critical ammonia levels would be exceeded

A report into likely ammonia emissions, prepared as part of the planning application, stated that (I quote): “The exceedance of the Critical Level is predicted to impact upon a stretch of the River Towi [Tywi] SAC of length approximately 1.0 km and the exceedance of the Critical Load is predicted to impact a stretch of approximately 1.2 km of the River Towi [Tywi] SAC. It should be noted that the River Towi [Tywi] SSSI/SAC, is a rather dynamic river bed and that the effects of excess nitrogen deposition act over a multi-annual timescale and therefore, the cited ruderal[ii]and ephemeral features are unlikely to be affected adversely.” [My emphases]

SAC stands for Special Area of Conservation. These are EU-designated areas, and in the words of DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, they are “strictly protected sites designated under the EC [European Community] Habitats Directive. … The listed habitat types and species are those considered to be most in need of conservation at a European level (excluding birds)”. The statement that the Tywi is a “rather dynamic river bed” is an opinion that may be correct sometimes, but not in dry summers. Climate change means we are likely to experience more extreme weather, including droughts.

The Sawdde (foreground) flows into the Tywi at Carregsawdde Common

Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee appears to have decided that breaching ammonia limits was unimportant and outweighed by the financial benefits the poultry is expected to bring to the farm. Natural Resources Wales contributed to this decision with the verdict that damage to the SAC would not be significant.

“NRW assessed the information accompanying the application, including the nutrient and manure management plans, the onsite storage facility[iii, export of manure off site and air quality reports. Based on the information provided, NRW cannot conclude that the development will have a significant effect on the Afon Tywi SAC features, “ West Wales News Review was told.

The statement from NRW also said: “With regards to the development affecting Carregsawdde Common, this land is not a designated site for any biological features and therefore falls outside NRW’s remit for comments.”

This section of Carregsawdde Common extends from Godre Garreg in the background to the Sawdde river (behind the photographer’s position)

Ammonia is a by-product of poultry manure. Ammonia (NH3), a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, has unpleasant impacts.

The Air Pollution Information System, sponsored by the Environment Agency, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and seven other organisations, summarises the effects on vegetation:

  • Eutrophication leading to changes in species assemblages; increase in N [nitrogen] loving species (e.g. grasses) and species that can up regulate their carbon assimilation at the expense of species that are conservative in their N use.
  • Shift in dominance from mosses, lichens and ericoids (heath species) towards grasses like Deschampsia flexuosa, Molinia caerulea and ruderal species, e.g. Chamerion angustifolium, Rumex acetosella, Rubus idaeus.
  • Increased risk of frost damage in spring (van der Eerden et al 1991)
  • Increased winter desiccation levels in Calluna and summer drought stress
  • Increase in N loving epiphytes, e.g. Xanthoria parietina, at the expense of epiphytes that prefer acid bark.
  • Increased incidence of pest and pathogen attack, e.g. heather beetle outbreaks.
  • Direct damage and death of sensitive species, e.g. lichens and mosses, Sphagnum, Pleurozium schreberi.
  • Reduced root growth and mycorrhizal infection leading to reduced nutrient uptake, sensitivity to drought and nutrient imbalance with respect to N that is taken up via the foliage (Perez Soba 1995 for Scots pine).
  • Increase in soil pH follows acidification.
  • Ammonia excess will lead to increases in nitrification and denitrification, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. [My emphases]

Potential hazards to human health

There are potential impacts on people, too. The Health and Safety Executive warns that dust emanating from poultry units can vary in composition from pure wood dust to a complex mixture of organic and inorganic particles, faecal material, feathers, dander (skin material), mites, bacteria, fungi and fungal spores and endotoxins depending on the type of birds, the work activity and the point in the growing or production cycle. “Some of the individual components, eg storage mites and softwood dust, are known asthmagens (substances that are capable of causing occupational asthma), the HSE counsels.

Poultry dust contains particles of varying size in the range approximately 0.5-50 microns, the HSE’s explanation continues. “The presence of particles in the respirable range …. means that poultry dust particles can penetrate into the gas exchange region of the lung. Larger particles can also cause disease by impacting in the upper and larger airways below the vocal cords.

“Bacteria, fungi and their components (often referred to under the generic description of bioaerosols) are likely to be components of the dust. They may be present as single cells or spores, clumps of cells or chains of spores, or may be attached to other dust components and therefore be present in a range of particle sizes. There will be a combination of live and dead organisms, but both may trigger allergic response. In addition to particulates, gases may build up as a result of the decomposition of biological material and these include ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. These substances have acute effects on the respiratory system and may compound the effects of the dust.”

Dust from the fans on the chicken unit at Godre Garreg will be blown on the wind, which characteristically and often moves from south west to north east, therefore over nearby properties and the whole of Llangadog village, which is less than half a mile away.

If wrongly sited, and also if there is a concentration in a particular area, ‘free range’ poultry units like that at Godre Garreg can damage the environment and human health. They may be misleadingly named, but they (and their free range name) are at present entirely legal.

Natural Resources Wales is now investigating the impact of multiple intensive poultry units on air, water and land pollution, “so that informed decisions can be taken about the regulation of poultry farms in the future”.  NRW goes on to tell West Wales News Review that the “changes we made to our assessment guidance last year have resulted in many more applications for planning permission or environmental permits needing a detailed impact assessment prior to a decision being made. We also require assessment to include the combined impact of multiple farms in the area of the application, so additional pollution is not built up incrementally.”

The Godre Garreg application predates this guidance, but is still hamstrung by the absence of a layby at the designated point on Carregsawdde Common. The county council’s planning department sent West Wales News Review a statement saying that the Common Lands Officer has not been consulted on the application for land exchange, the agent[iv] handling the application for T V Hughes & Co has not yet responded to a query whether such a consultation is on the way, and there has been no application to revoke that particular planning condition.

So at present T V Hughes & Co have a huge poultry building which they cannot use for its intended purpose.

Mr Eifion Hughes was invited on January 24th to comment on the layby issue, and on the concerns of some Llangadog residents about the potential impacts of the unit, but by January 28th had not yet opted to do so.

[i] In this context free range means the hens are housed indoors but are not confined in individual cages, and there are exit doors as part of the design, so that hens have some access to the exterior.

[ii] Ruderal plants are so called because they are the first to colonise disturbed land.

[iii] The manure store is not yet built.

[iv] Roger Parry & Partners, Oswestry office.

PDR

Shambolic Broken Broadband Rollout

Unfinished Welsh connection schemes set to remain unfinished

From our house in Llansawel, north Carmarthenshire, I can see a roll of ‘fibre to the premises’ (FTTP) cable tied to a telegraph pole in our street. The cable has been there since 2016. To bring it here, workmen for Openreach – which is owned by BT — dug trenches in the recently resurfaced roads of our village. We were told that high-speed broadband was on its way.

It was not.

What’s the point of bringing fibre optic cable into the heart of a village and then looping it up for an indefinite wait?

From a window of our house, I can see a roll of stranded FTTP cable tied to the telegraph pole.

 

Fast broadband for this village is not included in the next contract, either. Our postcode is excluded from the Welsh Government’s ‘white list’ of areas expected to benefit. Openreach’s fibre broadband checker (www.homeandbusiness.openreach.co.uk/fibre-broadband/when-can-i-get-fibre) confirms this: “We are exploring solutions…. ….but don’t have a plan for your area yet”.

So they don’t have a plan to finish the uncompleted project, but will be moving on to start rollouts elsewhere – rollouts which themselves may remain unfinished when the next tranche of money runs out.

The first rollout programme, which was supposed to include our village, was backed with £225 million from the Welsh Government, but when the budget was used up, Openreach stopped work, leaving our project and several others unfinished.

FTTP cable left tied to a telegraph pole in Llansawel since 2016. 

 

This unsatisfactory outcome was highlighted by the telecoms news service ISPreview on October 31st 2018, which reported that premises which cannot get a fibre broadband service under the first contract are not included in the second contract. ISPreview added on November 5th that “It is presently unclear how many premises unable to order fibre broadband, that were in the scope of the first contract, fall outside the scope of the second contract.”

‘Rodney’ from Ceredigion, commenting to ISPreview on this unwelcome news, said:

“Just another shambles by the clowns in the WA [Welsh Assembly]. Ceredigion is littered with unconnected fibre cables, some attached to posts, some lying in the grass verges, still on the drum….  Many of these areas have cables run up to villages, hamlets etc with only a few sections missing, but they’re not going to be included in phase 2 of this omnishambles.”

Rodney continued:

“Who in their right mind signs up to contracts that allow fibre infrastructure to be installed in such a haphazard, disconnected way (literally). It was completely pointless allowing installers to start runs of fibre without them being contractually required to see those runs being connected to properties. It beggars belief that anyone would agree to such a ludicrous plan… As things stand right now, many parts of Wales will remain unconnected for years as the unconnected shiny new fibre cables rot on the posts or get chewed up by hedge trimmers.”

What a colossal waste of money!

October 2016: trenches for FTTP cable being dug in Llansawel, into recently resurfaced roads.

Welsh Government Minister under pressure at packed meeting

Public annoyance, anger even, spilled over in Pontargothi Hall on Thursday (January 24th) when in a meeting hosted by Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price AM, more than 100 residents from north Carmarthenshire interrogated Lee Waters, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport in the Welsh Government, Adrian Berry, Senior Project Manager for Openreach in Cardiff, and other officials about the repercussions of broadband market failure.

The Westminster Government has not yet imposed a duty on broadband infrastructure providers – and except in Kingston-upon-Hull, that means Openreach – to connect every household and business that requests one. Yet that same government has made Universal Credit a digital-only benefit, making no provision for people who do not have access to reliable broadband (or for applicants without digital skills, but that is another story). Businesses must also file, online, documents such as annual confirmation statements and VAT returns. Rural businesses in slow- or no-broadband areas are at a big disadvantage. If they cannot file online, how can they sell online?

Surely it is unjust for government to demand online communications from the population without also requiring universal broadband infrastructure?

The frustrations evident in the meeting seemed to surprise Lee Waters, the Assembly Member for (urban) Llanelli. He had nothing immediate to offer.

Only 45% of Wales geographically was populated enough for internet service providers to bring broadband on a commercial basis, he said. The Welsh Government had spent more than £200 million to subsidise broadband availability, and in Carmarthenshire overall about 85% of households could get a service. Adam Price pointed out that in the Carmarthen East and Dinewfr constituency, a wide rural area without any large towns and in which Pontargothi is located, availability is only 79%.

The Welsh Government has found about £62.5 million in a second phase of contracts to bring fast broadband to more premises across the whole of Wales, but has not insisted that the rolls of fibre optic cable stranded in phase 1 can finally be connected to the homes and businesses for which they were intended. Initially there was a hope that 88,000 more premises would be connected, but late in October 2018 that figure was downgraded to 16,000.

In Carmarthenshire alone between 12,000 and 13,000 households[i] have either very poor broadband or old-technology dial-up over their land line telephone (provision of a telephone service is a universal service obligation!). Clearly if the all-Wales target is 16,000, Carmarthenshire’s share will be a small fraction of that, nowhere near enough to meet the need.

Maybe the Welsh Government is expecting too much from a planned universal service obligation for broadband which the Westminster government expects to bring in from 2020. This will not be fast broadband, though, as the minimum download speed is set at 10 Mbps (Megabits per second), and the obligation will apply only if connection costs less than £3,400.

A speed of 10 Mbps is at best only one-third the speed of ‘Superfast’ (30 Mbps and more) and one-thirtieth the speed of ‘Ultrafast’ (300 Mbps and over). Rural Wales will remain disadvantaged.

Llansawel, festooned with FTTP cable but waiting indefinitely for superfast broadband.

 

Wealthy individuals and large businesses can pay for expensive connections themselves, or use vouchers as part-payment, but these schemes discriminate against people (the majority) who are on modest incomes.

The voucher schemes in Wales are Ultrafast Connectivity for businesses, worth 100% of the cost up to £3,000 and 50% between £3,000 and £17,000. There is also Access Broadband Cymru, offering up to £800 for at least doubling download speed. In 2016 and 2017 only 128 applications for Access Broadband Cymru, and just eight for Ultrafast Connectivity, were approved and installed.[ii] These schemes have been little used, probably because households and small businesses cannot afford their share of the cost.

They are not the answer to market failure. Neither is a cost-limited, minimum-standard universal service obligation.

PDR

[i] Based on the stated 15% of approximately 81,450 households which do not have any or very poor access to a broadband service. The figure does not include business premises.

[ii] Figures from House of Commons Library Briefing CBP 06643, November 13th 2018, by Georgina Hutton and Carl Baker.

Whistleblowing Plunges Maesybont Couple into Disaster

Whistleblowing too often leads to blowback which flattens the complainants, even ending their careers and badly hurting them financially.

Whistleblower Trisha Breckman and partner Eddie Roberts, from Maesybont, blew the whistle against Carmarthenshire Council’s Planning Department, and are about to lose their house.

The connection between the whistleblowing and the immediate likelihood of being turfed out of their home is complicated and convoluted, but real.

Trisha Breckman: neighbour’s planning breaches were ignored, to her detriment. 

It all began 16 years ago when Trisha and Eddie moved to a six-and-a-half acre smallholding, Pantycastell  Fach, in Maesybont, and realised that the property next door, Blaenpant Farm, was not solely a farm but also an unlicensed site for heavy haulage and quarrying. They discovered that other people had complained, including a previous owner of Pantycastell  Fach. News of their investigations got back to Blaenpant’s occupants, recycling company owner Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas. Their retaliation spiralled into severe harassment and intimidation, revealed in print and in television documentaries.*

Blowback 

The county council and its Chief Executive, then as now the about-to-retire Mark James CBE, declined to do anything to curb the planning breaches at Blaenpant, and instead labelled Trisha a persistent complainant and prevented her from contacting councillors.

Trisha’s and Eddie’s view from their cottage was blocked by a scrap lorry placed there by the occupants of Blaenpant next door. This was just one of many acts of harassment.

The conflict damaged Trisha’s health. She became too nervous to be at home alone, in case Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas launched into a new tirade of aggression, so Eddie gave up his work in Sussex to be with her. The access track to Pantycastell  Fach passed over Blaenpant land, and to make life difficult, Mr Thomas erected motorway-style barriers to narrow the track from 14 feet to nine, and put gates across, so it was hard for Trisha and Eddie to leave their home, and to return, and large vehicles could not use the track at all. All the aggravation meant that they did not open the cattery for which they had planning permission, and because Eddie had given up his work to stay with Trisha, and because of the legal fees they were incurring, they could no longer repay their mortgage.

Maladministration

On Christmas Eve 2018, what might have been a Christmas card was in fact a letter from a firm called Mortgage Agency Services, asking for more than £80,000 before the end of January, to clear the mortgage. Trisha and Eddie do not now have that money.

Although the county council denied all responsibility, in 2010 Planning Inspector Clive Cochrane backed up Trisha’s and Eddie’s complaints. In 2012, the then Public Services Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, found the council guilty of maladministration, but the council did nothing. In 2016 the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys at the time, Christopher Salmon, issued a full apology for wrongful arrests of Trisha (six arrests instigated by Karen Bowen Thomas and Andrew Thomas). The Chief Constable then, Simon Prince, also apologised. Trisha and Eddie’s County Councillor, Cefin Campbell, tried to help. So did Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas and his successor, Adam Price. But no breakthrough.

Legal loophole

Trisha and Eddie applied to the council for compensation, but this was rejected by the council’s lawyers Weightmans late in 2016 because “the law of England and Wales does not allow an individual to recover compensation from a public body where the statutory duty or power involved did not itself confer a private law cause of action for a failure to exercise it”.

It all boiled down to the legal point that a planning authority can investigate planning breaches, but is not obliged to do so. In the case of Trisha and Eddie, Carmarthenshire County Council actively chose not to investigate, or to admit publicly what certain planning staff already knew. A culture of denial held sway.  This advantaged those operating at Blaenpant without permission, but gravely disadvantaged Trisha and Eddie. Their lives have been blighted for sixteen years – seven years of strife and nine of coping with the repercussions. Eddie is now 82 and Trisha is 75. The past 16 years have been exceptionally stressful for both of them.

Ex-gratia payment surely due

The harassment has stopped, and the track to Pantycastell Fach is back to its former width, but that cannot wipe out the years of aggravation. Surely the fact that the Ombudsman found Carmarthenshire County Council guilty of maladministration means that Trisha and Eddie deserve an ex-gratia payment?

Whistleblowers are essential to help society battle corruption and criminality, but how many of us would be whistleblowers if the evidence we present is ignored and buried, or turned into a boomerang to attack us?

*e.g. Wales This Week in October 2007 and March 2008, and The Good Life Gone Bad, October 2012. They can be watched on You Tube.

PDR

Republishing Y Cneifiwr’s ‘Mark Leads Us to the Promised Land’

Excellent article by Y Cneifiwr, first published in October 2017, on the financial risks threatening the planned ‘Wellness Centre’ in a marshy area of Llanelli. Since 2017 even more black, thundrous clouds have clustered over the site at Delta Lakes.

Meanwhile, the people of West Wales face a continuous barrage of cuts to public services.

——————

Y Cneifiwr’s article

Mark leads us to the Promised Land

Despite all the regeneration schemes, the Valleys and the west of Wales remain some of the poorest, most disadvantaged parts of Western Europe with creaking infrastructure and heavy dependence on low-paid employment. Every year droves of talented young people leave for Cardiff and the big English cities to earn a living, while heading west is a steady flow made up disproportionately of pensioners, unskilled and poorly educated inner city families and younger people who bring their own problems with them.
At first glance initiatives such as the Swansea Bay City Region, or “the City Deal” as it now seems to be known, and the ARCH wellness village at Delta Lakes on the outskirts of Llanelli offer the prospect of many thousands of highly paid jobs. A welcome departure from Carmarthenshire County Council’s love affair with shopping centres, supermarkets and handouts to owners of holiday cottages, punctuated by grandiose development schemes built on wildly optimistic forecasts which somehow always seem to end up making pots of money for a very few, while being a drain on local government finances for decades to come.As always, however, the devil lies in the detail, and seasoned observers of the Carmarthenshire scheme could be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical when they see that we are being led into the new promised land by some old familiar faces whose track records stretch all the way back to prestige developments such as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, the Technium fiasco(s) and other “won’t cost you a penny” white elephants.

In Carmarthenshire, all roads lead to the door of our teflon-coated chief executive, Mark James CBE, who when he is not doing his day job running the county council, is busy building up his own property empire, setting the lawyers, the courts and police on Jacqui Thompson and now also at the epicentre of both the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village – two originally separate schemes which are coalescing into Mr James’s biggest ever bid for glory.

Politicians and councillors who question these schemes, currently with a price tag of around £1.5 billion and rising fast, know that they will be accused of undermining opportunities to create jobs and transform the local economy, and the likelihood is that Mr James will ensure that they sign off a huge borrowing spree in a blitz of spin and corporate PR which will leave taxpayers in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring counties exposed to huge risks, with any upside being scooped up by private sector fat cats, many of them resident in sunny tax havens.

But there are signs of growing concern among some of the participants, with accusations of secrecy, lack of transparency and byzantine legalistic draft agreements, of “partners” not being kept informed, of chaotic planning, over-optimistic forecasts, spin and what amounts to a plan by Mr James’s authority to fleece his friends and neighbours. Add to that a lack of accountability, an onslaught against what is left of democratic oversight and cronyism.

That does not sound anything like our widely loved and admired council chief executive, does it?

_______________

Before we take a closer look at the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village, let’s take a small detour to draw attention to a lecture given the other day by Martin Shipton, chief reporter of the Western Mail and a self-described old-fashioned journalist.The full text of his sobering address on the state of the Welsh media can be found here, and it is well worth reading.

“It is a fact universally acknowledged that a democratically elected administration must be in want of some scrutiny”, he begins before going on to examine how the Welsh Government and so many other of our public bodies like to claim that they are models of openness and transparency while being anything but. 

He details Jane Hutt’s shocking responses to the plight of NHS patients; the ways in which the Freedom of Information Act can be and is used to deny freedom of information; the Circuit of Wales fiasco with its strange parallels to what is now happening with the City Deal and ARCH schemes; legal bullying designed to silence the press, and the culture of fear and clientelism which prevents whistleblowers from coming forward.

He goes on to describe the ways in which serious news is being edged out by the revenue-driven click-bait culture of media companies, before ending with a passage from his recent book on George Thomas:

Our society continues to have too much ‘cap-doffing’ to our perceived ‘betters’ and a craving to ingratiate ourselves with them for social and career advancement. There remain, to this day, too many politicians like George Thomas, who combine a self-seeking ambition with the readiness to pretend that Britain persists in being a great power built on the remnants of an empire that makes it superior to all other European countries.

Martin Shipton’s lecture is a cri-de-coeur for journalists to hold the powerful to account and submit them to scrutiny, and is a world away from the media’s obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle, “click-bait” online articles (“10 things you never wanted to know about Katherine Jenkins”) and the unquestioning cutting ‘n’ pasting of press releases churned out by the PR merchants employed by public bodies.

The trouble is that newspaper companies, Martin Shipton’s employers included, find it difficult to understand why resources should be devoted to the sort of hard-nosed political reporting he specialises in, when the punters prefer reading about Katherine Jenkins and Weatherspoon’s menus.

Serious journalism is, in their eyes, expensive and time consuming, and they have a point when you consider the effort needed to try to find out what is going on with schemes such as the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village.

____________

There are countless gushing press releases, slick videos, artists’ impressions and Twitter streams which verge on soft pornography as they record all of the conferences, lavish receptions, “envisioning days” and other junkets associated with these schemes. Everything is brilliant, inspired, fantastic, innovative and imbued with excellence. Take a look as the ARCH Programme’s Twitter feed, for example.

What you will not find are any meeting minutes, reports or sober assessments of the costs and risks involved. Even finding out who the movers and shakers are requires detective work.

Almost the only exception to this is a report published by Neath Port Talbot Council here, which was  the subject of a two-page spread in last week’s Carmarthenshire Herald and blogposts by Jacqui Thompson (here) and Siân Caiach (here). There is also an interesting piece on WalesOnline here.

The NPT report, dated 4 October 2017, shows that all is far from well with the City Deal which is relying on four county councils – Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire – to stump up £396 million to fund an array of projects, at least some of which should be ringing alarm bells across the region. ARCH is now also touting a very large begging bowl around the region’s county halls, having discovered that the Welsh Government and the NHS are strapped for cash. Who would have thought it?

The City Deal 

In addition to the £396 million which is to come from “other public sector” bodies (that is the four participating councils), the UK and Welsh governments are expected to chip in £241 million, with a further £637 million predicted to come from the private sector for the 11 projects which make up the City Deal. The ARCH wellness village is not one of them.

The Swansea Bay City Region has been rumbling away for years, and as far as the public is concerned has so far produced nothing more than a torrent of press releases and snazzy videos. The PR orgy came to a climax in March of this year when Theresa May met Carwyn Jones to sign off an agreement.

This was just before Mrs May went for her famous walking holiday in Dolgellau and decided to call a general election. At the time the Tories had high hopes of winning seats in and around Swansea, including Carwyn’s own backyard.

We all know what happened next, and Mrs May’s love affair with Wales seems to have cooled dramatically, with the ditching of the scheme to electrify the Great Western Mainline all the way to Swansea and a distinctly chilly response to hopes that she would back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project.

The NPT report notes,

The Welsh Government wants the process led by a Joint Committee of local authority leaders (consistent with their approach to local government reform) whereas the UK Government has insisted upon a private sector led Economic Strategy Board (ESB) as part of the arrangements.

The report then tells us that an ESB was “pretty much what we had prior to 31 March 2017 in the form of the Swansea Bay City Region Board; but the Welsh Government effectively abolished it”.

Hands up all those who remember Jamie Owen telling us that Carwyn had sent Sir Terry Matthews and the other board members packing, in the nicest possible way.

That report was published at the beginning of this month, and for all we know the UK Government is still insisting on a private sector led board, or possibly an even more byzantine arrangement where an ESB exists alongside a public sector led body. Meanwhile, the councils are ploughing on with what they term a “provisional governance structure established in shadow form”.

The trouble is that after six months of wrangling and a draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA) commissioned by Mark James, the councils cannot agree on  how the City Deal should be run. Mr James’s draft, produced at no doubt huge expense with the aid of external lawyers, ran to 70 pages, with NPT saying that, if asked, its officers could not explain to councillors how the agreement would work.

Who would have thought that a legal framework drawn up under the auspices of Mr James would be so opaque?

So they have agreed to start again, although the UK Government could yet veto their efforts, especially now that the Tories’ very brief love affair with Wales has ended in heartbreak.

As things stand, this £1.3 – £1.5 billion scheme (and rising) has no formal governance structure, and Mr James has effectively replaced Sir Terry Matthews as the ring master of a shadow body made up of representatives of bodies with very different agendas.

Top slice

Even less welcome news for Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Pembrokeshire councillors are reports that Mr James not only plans to siphon off a chunk of the City Deal money for the wellness village in his own backyard, but that he is also proposing to “top-slice” (i.e. pocket) a hefty chunk of the funds for projects outside Carmarthenshire, as well as charging them a stiff  annual “administration fee”.

It’s the not the sort of stuff to inspire private sector investors to part with their cash or the sort of thing that will improve relations with the neighbours.

This is just the tip of an iceberg of a catalogue of concerns and problems facing the City Deal and ARCH mega-schemes.

Chicken, and chicken and egg

While the shadow governance team struggles with agreeing the rules of the game, the Welsh Government has told the councils that it will not release its share of the project funding until the business cases for all 11 projects have been approved. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?

Unless the Welsh Government drops this insistence, all 11 projects will have to move at the pace of the slowest, with NPT adding that this “could also result in the local authorities taking all the risk by funding projects up front with no absolute guarantee that the Government funding will follow immediately or at all, if one considers how they have been trying to re-write the clauses in the JWA”.

In other words, councils are having to contemplate what could be a very risky and expensive game of chicken.

If that were not bad enough, NPT, in common with all other Welsh councils, faces huge budgetary pressure, and the report warns councillors that “the City Deal featured as a potentially significant financial pressure in that [budget, Ed.] presentation (albeit largely unquantified at this stage), so this begs the question of competing priorities for prudential borrowing and finance”.

The bottom line for NPT is that it has many other pressing local priorities, that it lacks the bandwidth and resources to work on this time-consuming project, that the risks are significant and that the extent of its financial commitment is unquantifiable.

And there is much, much more where that came from, including the likelihood that there will need to be significant changes to accounting rules which would have to be approved by the government and
new legislation.

Meanwhile progress on the 11 City Deal projects is mixed. By far the most important of these is  something called Internet Coast.

Internet Coast

The centre piece of the City Deal and by far the most ambitious project would have as its starting point a trans-atlantic fibre optic cable between New York and Oxwich Bay. This project alone would account for £500 million of the £1.3 billion City Deal package, and Sir Terry Matthews, former chair of the city region board, told the BBC back in February 2016 that the aim would be to create up to 33,000 hi-tech jobs in the region over the next 20 years.

Here is what the NPT report says:

The digital infrastructure agenda was very dependent upon the active engagement of the former City Region Board Chair and his wide senior level network; but the board was abolished and that opportunity put at risk. The simple truth is that the necessary expertise (or contacts) exists neither in the Welsh Government nor local government. As a consequence, little work has been done in recent months to progress the project, although a part-time external adviser has now been appointed.

Unelected Sir Terry Matthews may have been, but he does at least come with an impressive business pedigree. In effect responsibility now lies with the equally unelected and apparently unsackable Mark James, whose first major project was what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena.

In addition to his many and varied other duties and interests, Mr James is also heavily involved with the ARCH wellness village project, about which there are almost as many worrying questions and mysteries as there are with the City Deal.

Here is what the NPT report says:

A major issue is the uncertainty around the so called ARCH (regional Health Collaboration) programme which is linked to the City Deal. A bid was submitted to the Welsh Government by the two health boards in the region in January of this year and we are well aware of the competing priorities for revenue and capital funding within the NHS. The ARCH programme has been asked to look at “alternative sources of funding”; but assumes more than £100 million from the City Deal. Increasingly, we do not believe that the ARCH programme will secure significant medium to long term funding from the Welsh Government. If so, there can be no question of Councils being invited to plug any gap. This uncertainty could, in turn, undermine the ability of projects to attract the even larger required private sector match funding. These matters therefore remain unresolved.

Bearing in mind that this quotation is taken from a report published two weeks ago, it is interesting to contrast what NPT has to say with this message currently fronting Carmarthenshire County Council’s website:

The ambitious project – which will see an investment of more than £200million – is being led by Carmarthenshire County Council in partnership with Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Boards and Swansea University.

It is also a key project for the Swansea Bay City Region and is earmarked to receive £40million as part of the £1.3billion City Deal funding.

If, as NPT says, the Welsh Government is unlikely to help fund the wellness village and the councils will not plug the gap, who is providing that £40 million?

ARCH

The wellness village is just one part of a much bigger collaboration between the health boards and universities, and its origins are shrouded in Delta Lake mist.

According to ARCH’s own website, the wellness village board is chaired by none other than Meryl Gravell, representing Carmarthenshire County Council. It may be that someone has not got around to updating the website because, as a former county councillor, Meryl no longer represents anyone and is even less accountable than she was when she sat in County Hall.

The fact is that the wellness village was Meryl’s baby right from the beginning, and as one half of the Mark and Meryl dream team, there is no need for a paternity test.

One of the first clues as to what was being planned for the Delta Lakes site came in Carmarthenshire’s vast Local Development Plan. Anyone who buried deep enough in the labyrinth of documentation would have been surprised to see that the site had been ear-marked for “private healthcare”.

That was unusually and almost uniquely specific. Normally you would expect to see the much less transparent “employment land”.

The convoluted way that LDPs are put together means that the designation for private healthcare was inserted at least 5 years ago, and it suggests that some very specific discussions had taken place with unknown third parties well before then.

The wellness village, predicated on being a private healthcare development, almost certainly dates back to when Meryl was council leader.

According to the minutes of a Carmarthenshire County Council executive board meeting held in 2016, however, the idea first saw the light of day when the council was approached by the health boards and the universities in mid-2015 – well after the council had adopted its LDP and the private healthcare provision.

Like so much else in this story, things just don’t add up.

The trouble is that potential private investors would have been unwilling to stump up the money to transform a desolate brown field site. Roads, drains and other basic infrastructure don’t come cheap, and so it was an immense stroke of luck that Carmarthenshire decided that the existing leisure centre in Llanelli was no longer fit for purpose, and that the ideal location for a new centre would be Delta Lakes, well away from where most Llanelli residents live.

Around the same time, the council signed an exclusivity deal with a company called Kent Neurosciences Ltd “with a view to ensuring the aspirations of the Wellness and Science Village within Carmarthenshire”. KNS, part of a group of companies based in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, was a remarkable choice of partner, as you can read here.

It then went on to ear-mark another £7m originally allocated for a council care home to fund an “assisted living village” as part of Meryl’s vision for Delta Lakes.

Slowly but surely Mark and Meryl were scraping together the funding to make Meryl’s vision a reality, and the raid on the City Region is a part of that.

Meanwhile, the cost and scope of the wellness village have soared. Early in 2016 it was put at £60 million. By the middle of that year it had risen to £100 million. Now the council puts the figure at £200 million.

Perhaps a little too confidently Mr James told the press a couple of years ago that he did not think he would have to put the project before councillors for their approval, presumably because he was not planning to have to get them to stump up the (borrowed) cash.

Now, to soften them up, they are to be treated to a special slide show. We can expect a report asking them to sign off on a hefty loan not long thereafter.

If Mr James gets his skates on, councillors can expect to be told that not only will the wellness village deliver untold thousands of new jobs, but that the cost of borrowing is at an all-time low – for now, although the Bank of England may have other plans.

Perhaps we should all suspend disbelief, but past experience and the typically Jamesian way in which the wellness village has taken shape, with all its contradictions, mysteries and evasions, do not inspire confidence.

Banned Businessman is Linked to The Corran Resort

Laugharne Hotel Cost Investors £ Millions

Investors lost around £17 million in The Corran Resort and Spa, East Marsh, Laugharne, Carmarthenshire.  Now, one of the businessmen involved in the resort hotel has been officially linked with financial fraud.

Today, December 19th 2018, the UK government’s Insolvency Service announced the disqualification of Paul James Manley, who was a director of companies connected with The Corran.

Mr Manley, who has an address in Newquay, Cornwall, has been disqualified from running companies for 12 years, operational from January 1st 2019.

The Insolvency Service found that he helped one of his clients to defraud creditors of more than £1.65 million.

The ban is not linked with The Corran directly, but with Mr Manley’s County West Commercial Services Ltd and its involvement with Inn Take (UK) Ltd.

The Insolvency Service says: “One of County West Commercial Services’ clients was Inn Take (UK) Ltd, a company which ran pubs on a short-term basis before it went into liquidation in December 2011. Two of its directors, William Dene Lyall and Joseph Harthen, have subsequently been banned from running companies for 8 years and 5 years respectively. On October 27th 2016, the High Court of Justice ruled in favour of Inn Take’s creditors that parties, including County West Commercial Services, knew about and assisted Inn Take’s intent in defrauding its creditors.”

According to the Insolvency Service, Mr Manley made this admission: “Between 26 April 2010 and 14 February 2011, I caused County West Commercial Services Ltd to be a knowing party to the carrying on of a client’s business with the intent to defraud creditors. As a consequence £1,654,451.53 of client funds were received by a bank account controlled by the company and distributed with no discernible benefit to the client.”

Paul Manley was the company secretary of County West Commercial Services, and one of its two directors, the other being Elzbieta Maria Wernik. The firm, specialising in accounting and auditing activities, is currently being liquidated. Mr Manley is at present a director of two other companies – Simple Skips Ltd and Rigil Corporate Rescue Ltd — both in liquidation. He has 278 former directorships.

The Corran Resort and Spa, formerly known as Hurst House on the Marsh.

At The Corran, Mr Manley was a director of Glendore Real Estate Ltd and Plustocks Management Ltd, companies that replaced Kayboo Ltd and East Marsh Operational Co Ltd, the proprietors and operators respectively of The Corran. He resigned from both successor companies in October 2016. Companies House is now proposing to strike off Glendore Real Estate Ltd.

Plustocks Management continues to operate, under the ownership of James Brown, who controls Corran Resorts Ltd, the latest company set up to own The Corran. The hotel is still open, after HBG Corporate Ltd, the first liquidators when Kayboo failed, allowed a controversial pre-packaged buyback deal for just £150.000.

PDR

Afan Valley’s Adventurous Beverly Hills Connection

Adventure resort plans parked

Adventure, anyone? Mr Gavin Lee Woodhouse’s dream of an adventure resort in the Afan Valley north of Port Talbot is parked on a shelf gathering dust while the planning department at Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council awaits more information, and there is as yet no date for the planning committee to debate the outline application, submitted in June 2018.

The site at Pen y Bryn, Croeserw, covers 327 acres on which would be packed ski slopes, zip wires, high wire, an aqua park, equestrian centre, mountain biking track, BMX track and skate park. There would be a 100-bed hotel, spa, retail and restaurants plaza, the European HQ of the Bear Grylls Instructor’s Academy, and parking for 800 cars. And 600 lodges as holiday homes, over phases 1 and 2 of construction.

The resort would evidently not cater for visitors seeking rural tranquillity. The very large number of buildings and leisure constructions would create an urban ambiance, as would the hoped-for 275,000 customers annually.

The adventure resort would occupy land between, and above, Caerau and Cymmer. Source: Google Earth

Sales to “sophisticated and high net worth investors”

As West Wales News Review has reported previously, holiday lodges are already being sold off plan although there is no planning permission yet.

Select Resorts Ltd, Poole-based and owned by Pauline and Paolo Bonanni, is one agency advertising properties in the adventure resort from £82,000 (as a deposit) to £240,000. Payment reserves a plot and buys an order for a lodge from a manufacturer, although in the absence of planning permission the buyer would not be able to locate the lodge on the park.

The Elite Investor Club is another organisation selling future properties in the future park, seeking to attract “sophisticated and high net worth investors” wanting to “build and protect multi-generational wealth” and offers them 450 lodges for deposits starting at £82,000.

The financial sell sounds enticing: “….acquire a superb 2 bedroom lodge worth £205,000 with just an £82,000 deposit. The remainder of the purchase price is repaid from our rental income then, at the end of the 10 year term, we sell the lodge back to the developer for 125% of its full initial value. That means a payment of £256,250 and, when you add in the £45,100 in rental payments we also receive, plus 14 days a year of personal use worth over £20,000, the overall return on capital employed is a staggering 393%!

“The site already has planning permission for a project on a similar scale to Afan Valley Adventure Resort,” potential investors read. “The developer has submitted a revised proposal which has been validated by the local authority planning team who expect to make their decision during November. Given the existing planning permission and the high level of support in the Welsh Assembly for a project that will create 1,250 new jobs near Port Talbot, the developer is confident that permission will be granted.”

Looking south-east from near Cymmer, over the proposed adventure resort, and showing its extent. Source: documents supporting the planning application

Elite Investor Club does flag up some risks. Planning permission might not be granted, but this would be “highly unlikely given the jobs being created and the wider economic impact”. The developer might go bust, but “their cash flow comes from lodge sales so they will always have money up front with which to build the infrastructure to support the development. No payments to investors will be required before 2020 so there is time for the park to become operational before the company needs to commence cash payouts. As a Plan B, banks and institutions would lend substantial sums against the value of the land once planning permission is obtained”. Tourists might not come, a risk regarded as minor “given the existing popularity of adventure tourism in Wales and the number of unique factors driving this project”, which the Club says include the involvement of Bear Grylls, the combination of extreme adventure experiences, year round skiing, a high-end branded spa and amazing countryside.

Maybe the park would flourish, but there was no decision “during November”. The last planning permission was for F&P Developments Ltd of Driffield, East Yorkshire, in 2010 for 240 lodges, a ski slope and a golf course, a lower-density project overall. F&P Developments did not go ahead because it proved impossible to raise sufficient investment funds.

As for lodge values, is a timber holiday lodge really worth over £200,000? Scandinavian-style timber lodges in the Cotswold Water Park can be bought for under £140,000 for a two-bedroom and for less than £165,000 for a three-bedroom version.

And there is still an empty site just one year before revenues are supposed to start flowing.

Mysing Capital takes a charge

Mr Gavin Lee Woodhouse heads the Afan Valley adventure park project through a chain of recently established companies.

Nineteen47 Ltd, chartered town planners and urban designers, submitted the outline planning application on behalf of Afan Valley Ltd, the sole director of which is Gavin Lee Woodhouse. Afan Valley Ltd, founded in April 2016 as Caerau Parc Ltd and recording a loss of £166,985 in the period from April 14th 2016 to March 31st 2017, is controlled by Northern Powerhouse Developments Adventure Resorts Ltd, set up in September 2016 with Gavin Lee Woodhouse as director, dormant at March 31st 2017 with assets of £1, and which is turn is owned by Active Resorts (UK) Ltd, dormant at March 31st 2017, when accounts show assets also of £1.

Active Resorts (UK) Ltd, also started in September 2016 and with Gavin Lee Woodhouse as the sole director, is owned by Northern Powerhouse Developments (Holdings) Ltd, another entity dating from September 2016, renamed from Bryn Lodge Ltd and owned by Gavin Lee Woodhouse.  The last published accounts for Northern Powerhouse Developments (Holdings) Ltd, to March 31st 2017, are for a dormant company with assets of £1.

On December 5th 2018 a company called Mysing Capital Ltd took a charge over the assets of Gavin Lee Woodhouse personally and 15 of the companies in the Northern Powerhouse stable. The 15 are

  • Belmont Hotel Ltd
  • Bourton Spa Ltd
  • Campus House Ltd
  • Dunsmore Hall Management Ltd
  • Giant Hospitality Ltd
  • Gilsland Hall Ltd
  • Imperial Crown Ltd
  • Llandudno Bay Hotel & Spa Ltd
  • MBI Smithy Bridge Ltd
  • Northern Powerhouse Developments Ltd
  • Northern Powerhouse Developments (Holdings) Ltd
  • Northern Powerhouse Developments Hotels Ltd
  • The Old Golf House Hotel Ltd
  • The Old Golf House Hotel Management Ltd
  • Woodhouse Family Ltd

Mysing Capital has three owners: Steven Turner, Robert James Coxon and Matthew John Ferguson, and at March 31st 2019 held shareholders’ funds of £1.476 million. All three have other directorships in common, including Mysing Care Ltd, which operates care homes and in the year to July 31st 2017 employed 187 people, turned over £4.58 million, and made a post-tax profit of £173,126.

Northern Powerhouse Developments has more than 15 hotels in its portfolio, including six in Wales, without counting the hotel and lodges intended for the Afan Valley. The first phase of the adventure park, with 400 lodges, has a published costing of £130 million, which seems very low, less than £400,000 per acre.

Climate change questions

The town planning consultancy Nineteen47 Ltd, based in York and owned by Jamie Pyper and Richard Walshaw, submitted the numerous documents required by Neath Port Talbot’s planning department, an expensive commitment costing £139,500 in fees.

A Climate Change Mitigation Report is one of the documents. This is important, given the Welsh government’s commitment to achieve an 80% fall in greenhouse gas emissions between 1990-1995 and 2050.

Yet the report has more omissions than forecasts. It considers emissions from buildings only, and not from the construction process, the manufacture or transport of materials, traffic, the operation of the leisure activities, or lighting.

Nineteen47 explains: “This is due to the challenges of attempting to estimate such emissions at outline application stage where limited or no details are available, but also because the proposed buildings are likely to be the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed development as well as the greatest scope for the reduction of such emissions.”

After confining the estimates to buildings in use, Nineteen47 suggests emissions would be 5,694.8 tonnes of CO2 a year before energy-saving measures, and 4,835.6 tonnes after, a potential reduction of 15.1%. Even 4,835.6 tonnes are a significant addition, and of course the figure ignores all other emissions pertaining to the site. Without knowing more about the overall total, it will be impossible to work out a plan to cut emissions elsewhere in Wales.

The Planning Statement, which is among the documents submitted, refers to the removal of 2,138 trees plus the possible removal of 654 more. We all know that trees absorb CO2, so removing up to 2,792 of them is the opposite of emissions mitigation. There would be new saplings planted, but they would be unlikely to compensate for the lost trees.

The applicants for Afan Valley Ltd seem to conclude that the prospect of hundreds of new jobs outweighs concerns about climate damage, but they appear rather coy about the actual business case for the development.

No business viability assessment

Mr Woodhouse’s Afan Valley Ltd has, via Nineteen47, told Neath Port Talbot Council that it is not going to submit a Business Viability Assessment. The firm is “not prepared to allow such sensitive information to be made available in the public domain. We do not consider that a request for the submission of these documents can be considered reasonably necessary in relation to either the validation or determination of the application”.

The reason, apart from a wish for complete confidentiality, is the newness and uniqueness of the “leisure brand”, i.e. there is no other UK resort with exactly the same combination of accommodation and attractions. This argument has the weakness that virtually every themed resort has to claim unique features, to encourage visitors to part with their cash.

No Business Viability Assessment, but there is a Sustainability Appraisal document, which mentions a wage bill of £12.97 million for 970 jobs in phase 1 of the park, which works out at an average of £13,371 each – bargain basement more than high end.

Beverly Hills connection

In 2018 Afan Valley Ltd announced it has “joined forces” with Landal Green Parks Ltd to develop the resort. The Landal Green Parks organisation, founded in the Netherlands in 1954, runs more than 80 resort parks catering for 2.8 million guests annually.

The chain of companies behind Landal Green Parks Ltd stretches all the way to Beverly Hills, California, to Tom Tewfic Gores and Platinum Equity Advisors Llc, which he founded and which “specialises in closing complex acquisitions across a diverse range of industries”.

The chain from Landal to Tom Tewfic Gores includes Holiday Cottages Group Ltd; the well-known UK brand Hoseasons Holidays LtdCompass Bidco Ii Ltd; and Compass Iv Ltd.

So, ultimately, Gavin Lee Woodhouse has a potentially very valuable connection with Tom Tewfic Gores and global acquisitions expertise.

Global investors would no doubt expect Afan Valley Adventure Resort to yield maximum returns, probably without deep considerations for damage to the global climate, or to the local environment. It will be about money brought into the valley and quickly extracted from it, much more than about money circulating within the communities of the valley to build prosperity.

That projected average salary of £13,371 is, surely, a stark indicator that rewards to workers would be tightly constrained.

When, and if, the plans are dusted down and taken off the shelf, Neath Port Talbot Council will have to make a very complicated decision, with the impacts likely to last for decades.

PDR

Housing Benefit Hides a Scandal

£39 billion is a high cost for exiting the EU.

Yes it is, almost £1,500 for every household in the UK.

But every two years, we pay more than that just in Housing Benefit.

The annual Housing Benefit bill in 2016-17 was £23.4 billion, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. Welfare caps and the move to Universal Credit have cut payments, in 2017-18 to about £21.8 billion. The total for the two years is £45.2 billion.

So over 24 months, Housing Benefit rent subsidy payments are equivalent to each UK household shelling out more than £1,650.

Housing construction in Llanelli back in 2013 — but the way the housing market operates contributes to ever-widening inequalities.

Housing Benefit, dating from 1982 when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, had the intention of helping families to afford to rent a decent home. Payments reached a peak in 2015-16. Since then, and against the background of 2016’s referendum result, government has been determined to cut obligations to make welfare payments.

There are 4.6 million households receiving Housing Benefit. It works out at an average of £4,745 each. That’s equal to almost 30% of the gross pay for a 40-hour week at the minimum wage of £7.83 per hour for adults aged 25+. It tells us that the minimum wage is too low for people to rent a proper home. Cuts to the benefit have led to more and more people sleeping on the streets and living in sheds, just like in a poverty-stricken Third World economy. If we didn’t have draconian planning laws, shanty towns would be appearing in our cities. We prefer to try and hide poverty, but we have reached the point at which that is no longer possible, and further cuts in Housing Benefit will make the scandal even more obvious and painful.

Margaret Thatcher’s decision to sell council houses is partly to blame. The associated decision to prevent councils from using sale proceeds to build more homes for rent is even more to blame. Measures like ‘Help to Buy’ have increased revenues for the major private housebuilders, evidenced in, for example, the £75 million bonus paid to Persimmon (now ex) chief executive Jeff Fairburn.

It would take a worker toiling 40 hours a week on the adult minimum wage 4,605 years to reach £75 million. This figure shows just how skewed against lower-income people the UK has become.

Housing Benefit has been a curtain shielding the impact of economic inequality from the wider public. In the immediate future, though, slashing benefits further cannot be the answer, unless we want more slums, more crime, more corruption, those companions of extreme inequality.

To start to redress the balance for housing, which must be done, we need a change in compulsory purchase regulations to make land cheaper – much cheaper — for local government and non-for-profit organisations to acquire.

Even in Carmarthenshire, where the local authority has taken advantage of Welsh devolution to restart a council housing programme, the open market in land is a painful barrier to try and cross.

The cost of providing housing has to reduce, and incomes need to rise, to create a new and more equitable balance.

PDR

United Nations Condemns Poverty in Wales

Professor Philip Alston’s new report for the United Nations on poverty in the UK* is damning, and statistics back it up.

Specifically about Wales, he wrote:

“Wales faces the highest relative poverty rate in the United Kingdom, with almost one in four people living in relative income poverty. Like the rest of the United Kingdom, employment has not proven to be an automatic route out of poverty in Wales. In-work poverty has grown over the last decade, despite considerable improvement in the employment rate. Twenty-five percent of jobs pay below the minimum wage, and low-paid, part-time or insecure jobs are often disproportionately taken up by women, due to difficulties in balancing work and caring responsibilities.

“Faced with these challenges, the Welsh Government has determinedly shifted its focus to increasing economic prosperity and employment as the gateway to poverty reduction. A poverty-specific action plan and the post of the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty were scrapped in 2017, in favour of adopting a “whole Government” approach to poverty reduction. The new Prosperity for All Strategy, however, has removed the strategic focus on and the Ministerial responsibility for poverty reduction, and lacks clear performance targets and indicators to measure progress and impact.

“In the absence of devolved power over social security benefits, the Welsh Government’s capacity to directly mitigate the reduction in benefits is limited, thereby shifting the burden to low-income households. There is a wide consensus among stakeholders that the benefit changes are one of the structural causes behind the increase in poverty, rough sleeping, and homelessness in Wales. Parliamentarians and civil society voiced serious concerns that Universal Credit may exacerbate the problem, particularly in light of the Welsh Government’s inability to introduce flexibilities in its administration, unlike its Scottish counterpart.”

Plaid Cymru’s central answer to problems like this is Independence, but I see an inconsistency in wanting to exit the UK but remain in the European Union, an entity which struggles to be flexible, has improved workers’ rights but caters carefully for transnational corporations, frowns heavily on state support for the economy, and is managed by unelected officials. Not enough open democracy there, in my view. True independence means freedom to create and apply new policies, to develop a more self-sufficient, resilient economy, and to build a society fully accepting the limitations imposed by climate change.

The immediate blow to Wales, if the UK leaves the EU, would be financial. The EU is sending some £2 billion to Wales between 2014 and 2020, especially to support West Wales and the Valleys, the poorest regions in Northern Europe (and still poor!). Without the UK in the EU, that quantity of money would almost certainly be unavailable, because the UK is the third largest contributor to the EU after Germany and France, paying in 13% of the total, more than £1 in every £8 in the budget. Wales in, England out, would not solve this issue because the EU’s budget would shrink. The populations of Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, to name but four of the financially challenged, are hardly going to react happily if told to fill the budget hole left by a departing UK.

What could other political parties do? Labour’s long administration within Wales has achievements (especially during the Labour-Plaid coalition of 2007-2011) but has since become lacklustre, I would argue. The Conservatives offer a Tory-light agenda to suit the Wales electorate, but are unlikely to focus on reducing inequalities. UKIP’s presence in the Assembly/Senedd reflects the fact that in 2016 Wales voted to leave the EU. Beyond that, what does UKIP stand for? As for the LibDems, Education Minister Kirsty Williams is talented and hard-working, but their sole representative in the Assembly.

The statistics for households’ income and expenditure in the UK reinforce Professor Alston’s findings. Figures in Family Spending for 2016-17, from the Office for National Statistics, show that four households in ten struggle and often fail to make ends meet. These households have disposable incomes from nothing to under £473 a week, and little capacity to save.

Consumer credit in the UK soared 13% in the year to September 2018, to £215.198 billion outstanding, records the Bank of England’s Bankstats. That’s over £7,900 in outstanding consumer credit per household, at a time when interest rates are low. It will be fiendishly difficult to repay. Mortgage debt and consumer credit together are equivalent to £59,000 for every household, not just the 24% with mortgages.

And Wales is poorer than the UK as a whole.

Meanwhile, the recent chief executive of Persimmon Homes, Jeff Fairburn, received a bonus of £75 million for ‘success’ resulting largely from the UK Government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme for new homes, which is nothing more than a transfer from us the public into the private sector.

Mr Fairburn has since resigned, but the system which allows mega bonuses of this size tells us why four households in every ten in the UK, and a quarter of households in Wales, are financially insolvent at worst, insecure at best.

Solving this systemic failure requires fundamental reconstruction, not merely a little tinkering at the margins.

 

  *Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.  

London, 16 November 2018

 

PDR

 

One Flight to New York Burns Our Annual Personal Carbon Budget

Are you annoyed at appalling weather but don’t think it’s due to climate change? Do you cheer yourself up after Christmas by planning an exotic long-haul holiday?

I know people who say “All the time I can fly, I will,” on the basis that climate change is nothing to do with us, and if planes are going anyway, what’s the harm in getting on board?

Flying is, though, a huge contributor to our carbon footprint, about one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions) for every FOUR HOURS. So if you are a family of five on the 8 hour 15 minute flight from London to New York, total CO2-equivalent emissions are 10.31 tonnes. If you all come back, 20.62 tonnes – over 4.12 tonnes each!

The sustainable level per person PER YEAR is about 1.5 tonnes. That’s a little bit more than the average for people in India.

The lifestyle changes we need to make are so out of kilter with dominant cultural norms as to seem extreme.  I think it’s extreme not to make changes, but although I do not fly, my progress towards a low carbon footprint is slow.

My footprint, according to the informative carbonindependent.org*, is 8.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. This is substantially less than the UK average of over 13 tonnes, but it’s still vastly more than 1.5 tonnes. To reach that, I would have to go without my economical (55-60mpg) almost 12-year-old Fiat (1.45 tonnes). Electric car? Currently not practical ten miles from the nearest town, due to lack of charging points.

No more new purchases of anything other than food (saving 2.19 tonnes). Become a vegan (save a further quarter of a tonne). If I did all this, and expanded fruit and vegetable production in the garden, I would still be emitting over 4.5 tonnes a year, and I wouldn’t be leaving the village much, just occasionally by bus. And bus services are vulnerable to further cuts in public subsidies.

The big problem for our household is heating, the bulk of my remaining emissions. The house began as a small row of tiny single-storey stone cottages. An upper storey of brick was added, and then a kitchen and bathroom two-floor extension of rendered block. The roof is tiled, and the heating is bulk LPG (liquefied petroleum gas). Fossil fuel. The thermostat is set on 17 degrees, which is not exactly tropical, but it really needs to be set lower still.

The fossil fuel for heating will have to go before I come anywhere near a sustainable level of emissions, but that change is likely to alarm economists who push for economic growth.  Not buying new stuff, not travelling, not flying, has minimal impact on economic growth if it’s just me, but the warming world requires us all to make similar reductions.

If we are all buying less, consuming less, we are creating more unemployment. At least, we are if we opt to keep the present economic model (which requires growth to function). So we are in a real bind. Just think what we have monetised to create the illusion of continuing economic growth — caring for other people’s children and elderly relatives, and including estimates for prostitution and drug trafficking  in national accounts, for example.

In a de-growth world there would still be more than enough work for everyone – such as in nursing, teaching, caring, farming, repairing, inventing – but the majority of these activities do not generate profits. There are a number of partial and local answers to this, including barter, time banking and local currencies, but no national or international frameworks into which they can fit.

Economics as usual means we will be incapable of ever living within the constraints of our one planet, but we cannot over-shoot for long without bringing about a collapse far more painful than an ordered low-carbon life.

The writing is on the wall. But will enough of us choose to read it?

PDR

*The carbonindependent.org website was launched in February 2007 by Ian Campbell and Margaret Campbell, and updated in November 2015.

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