Econews West Wales

Economy, environment, sustainability

News: Talley Targets Climate Change with Ambitious Green Scheme

The award of more than half a million pounds to the neighbouring small Carmarthenshire villages of Talley and Cwmdu promises to enable major environmental improvements and to help a new green economy to take root.

Community woodland owned by Talley village, at the heart of an environmental scheme which has attracted EU funding

 

The £520,000 grant, announced in late April 2019, is from the EU-funded Rural Development Programme for 2014-2020. This programme, not yet closed, is the final opportunity for the UK to participate unless Brexit is reversed.

Talley Community Amenity Association (TCAA) submitted a carefully researched and detailed application for the funds, which are administered by the Welsh Government and dedicated to rural viability, sustainability and resilience.

The entrance to Talley Woodlands

The grant will largely fund a £560,000  sustainable management project called Local LAND (Live Actively, Nurture Diversity), and includes two part-time jobs for a Project Co-ordinator and an Engagement Officer, for three years between July 2019 and July 2022.

The TCAA, a charitable company limited by guarantee, has nine trustees drawn from Talley and the nearby village of Cwmdu, who have put a huge effort into attaining the grant. The talented group includes Linda Tame as chair and Angela Hastilow as treasurer.

Linda Tame is a smallholder who, with husband Ian, raises Llanwenog sheep and Shetland cattle, and welcomes visitors to a holiday cottage. Linda has a background as a college lecturer in agricultural and countryside topics, and in rural and out-of-school education for disaffected teenagers. Angela Hastilow runs a saddlery firm and is also a trainee saddle maker. Two Talley-based advisers, Catherine Nakielny and Rhian Corcoran, are in the team. Catherine works with Farming Connect, and as a Nuffield scholar studied methane emissions from sheep production. Rhian is an environmental manager now specialising in sustainable rural and community development.

The ruined Talley Abbey, near the entrance to the land managed by TCAA

The multiple aims of the project should interact with each other, to create a countryside more resilient to climate change and kinder to wildlife, while also making public access easier, and teaching country craft skills. A 24-hectare (59-acre) expanse of land called Talley Woodlands, owned by Talley village and managed by TCAA, is at the heart of the plans. This land, on a slope rising to the west of the village, would have better public access and an education and community centre. On this land, and on 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) of surrounding land owned mainly by farmers, water storage and new planting will slow run-off during downpours, helping to prevent flooding. Wildflower meadows, variegated grassland leys, managed woodland and newly planted trees, would create more diverse habitats for wildlife and protect soils. Watercourses would become wildlife corridors.

A new green brand for local businesses, and increased public awareness of Talley and Cwmdu and their importance in climate change adaptations, should reinforce each other. There would be a focus on bilingualism, better signage for walking routes, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, benches sited to suit older walkers, a programme for education in traditional skills like hedge-laying, coppicing, orchard management and basket making, a compost toilet, and other changes to bring Talley to the forefront of planning for ecological resilience. A boost in visitors and students should drive increased revenues for local food, craft and tourism businesses especially.

This terrace in Cwmdu, owned by the National Trust, includes an inn and a shop with Post Office

Around half of the expenditure would be devoted to land management. Community facilities would take a quarter, with technical support, professional surveys and monitoring, staff costs and administration accounting for the remaining quarter.

Several organisations, including Natural Resources Wales and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, are already collaborating on this scheme. Talley School, a fortunate survivor of decades of rural school closures and with more pupils now than five years ago, is also participating.

PDR

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News: Lammas Ecovillage Ten Years On: Revitalised Land, Some Rocky Relationships

Lammas, the 76-acre ecovillage at Tir y Gafel, Glandwr, Pembrokeshire, now has richly flourishing productive smallholdings, but no longer functions as a fully united, collaborative community venture.

The original nine leasehold smallholdings are now individually-owned freeholds. The original landlord, the not-for-profit industrial and provident society Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, is defunct.

At the beginning hopes were high for a long-term co-operative venture. It took more than two and a half years, from December 2006 until August 2009, for planning permission to be granted. The application was under Policy 52 of Pembrokeshire County Council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, for low-impact development. This was the rather less stringent forerunner, in terms of management and reporting requirements, of the Welsh Government’s One Planet Development policy. The long and painful process was documented  by Tao Wimbush,[i] who with spouse Hoppi was – is — one of the Lammas pioneers. Tao also told the story (as Paul Wimbush) in this 2012 book The Birth of an Ecovillage.

Hoppi and Tao Wimbush’s productive smallholding at the Lammas ecovillage. The photos were taken in summer 2014

 

Once planning permission was granted, nine sets of leaseholders worked hard and creatively to start their low-impact land-based businesses and to build their carbon-neutral homes and buildings of natural materials. Every year, Lammas Low Impact Initiatives submitted a report to Pembrokeshire County Council to show they were meeting the Policy 52 criteria for living from the land and minimising vehicle use.

But by 2017 cracks had split the harmony. Residents on two of the nine smallholdings, who sat on the management committee of Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, wanted to alter their leases. They engaged a solicitor and applied to the Land Registry to register the new leases they desired — but it appears no one else knew until the society received a solicitor’s bill for £2,529.[ii]

The falling out continued. In January 2018 one of the change-seekers wrote to Peter Horton, Head of Planning at Pembrokeshire County Council, accusing unnamed others at Lammas of “bullying and harassment, a total absence of co-operation over the whole site, singling out people and using positions of power to put pressure on individuals to leave and sell up, using public meetings and a wider membership to name and shame individuals, holding large parties without seeking consent of those living close by and bringing in people to drum outside through the night in some cases with large fires and fireworks, allowing damage to properties without liability”.

The letter-writer continued “At times I feel as if others are working to make me leave, while attracting people in with offers of help to find plots”.

The emphasis is on edible plants

 

The conflict meant that Lammas Low Impact Initiatives could no longer publish an annual monitoring report covering all nine smallholdings. The society had published six annual reports between 2010 and 2015, as required by Policy 52 to show how much income their activities both replaced and earned. Since 2016 individuals have compiled their own reports.

Tao Wimbush wrote to Pembrokeshire County Council in March 2018 to explain the developments at Lammas:

“The plots are due to become freehold (rather than leasehold as specified in the planning application), and the common land (including the trackways and Community Hub) is to be transferred to a private company. Lammas will no longer have any role at Tir y Gafel and the Society [Lammas Low Impact Initiatives] will almost certainly be dissolved.”

In January 2018, after featuring on the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs, the nearly-completed home of Simon and Jasmine Dale burned down, and the devastated couple — who were not in the minority group seeking to change the ownership structure — opted to sell up. Simon’s website, simondale.net, carries this news:

“After nearly ten years establishing our low impact smallholding at the Lammas ecovillage in West Wales, we have decided that the time has come for us to sell the holding and have a fresh start. We are now looking for people who would be interested in the opportunity to buy our smallholding which includes:

  • Earth-sheltered roundhouse
  • Workshop
  • Barn
  • Planning permission for 3-4 bedroom eco-home
  • Large, horticultural glasshouses
  • 9 acres in total freehold ownership
  • Includes 1.5 acres rewilded forest garden and plant nursery stock
  • Renewable hydro-electric supply
  • Spring water supply
  • 5 acres of private woodland and joint ownership of common woodland
  • Community ownership of hub building, surrounds and millpond”

As the advertisement makes clear, ownership of the smallholdings has transferred from Lammas Low Impact Initiatives to the individual former leaseholders. Also the communal woodland, owned at the beginning by Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, is now owned jointly by the new freeholders.

The cost of the Dales’ holding is not revealed in the advert, it is a case of ‘offers invited’.  During 2018 fellow Lammas pioneer Jane Wells ran a Just Giving campaign to raise money for the Dales to rebuild their house, and donors offered £35,270.23. The Dales, though, have decided not to rebuild on the Tir y Gafel site.

Lammas was an ‘intentional community’, a group of people who got together to lead low-impact, living-off-the-land lifestyles. During the initial planning and land improvement phases, the participants pulled together, as they needed to because Policy 52 required a project involving members of more than one family to be controlled by a trust, co-operative or other similar structure in which the occupiers had an interest.

But people’s health, family circumstances and income needs change over time, leading to divergent views about future directions.

Manon Bertrand, of Ghent University, has studied the issue at Lammas. In Conflict and Group Development in a Young Alternative Community: Ethnographic Research in a Welsh Village, translated from the original Dutch and dated 2016-17, Manon writes in the conclusion:

“The findings show conflicts at Lammas originate in external structural features and different values and ideals. Because no clear visions, procedures and guidelines were agreed upon from the start, there aren’t shared meanings and collective goals. This led to different groups with a strong hostility and distrust towards one another. There are a few distinguishable positions among the residents which form a typology based on two dimensions; compromise and investment in conflicts: the invariables, reconcilers and mediators. At Lammas, these are respectively reformists, middle ground people and conventionalists. There’s a strong in-group/out-group thinking between these different groups. Conflict at Lammas is a dynamic process in which recurrent patterns in the group lead on the one hand to consolidation of positions, but on the other hand also to withdrawal and formation of subgroups. This conflict seems to be stuck because no positive, productive group culture was created. Thus conflict isn’t functional in this case because it led to a standstill of the group. Furthermore mediation is difficult because the original conflicts grew into relationship conflicts and there are no procedures or mechanisms to attain a constructive solution.”

“Procedures or mechanisms to attain a constructive solution”: these were not high on the priority list at the start, when a heady sense of pioneer excitement prevailed. By the time their absence was apparent, it was too late to repair the damage to relationships.

The original members of the community invested huge amounts of time and energy in obtaining planning permission. As Paul (Tao) Wimbush wrote in The Birth of an Eco Village (p.151): “The news that we had won planning permission came as a massive, massive relief. In the end it had all been worth it; the anguish, the despair, the long wait had all paid off. We had set a new planning precedent”. For him, it was time to “step back and for others to step forwards” (p.154).

Those steps forwards have followed a different path, towards individual enterprises and away from the initial ideal of a collaborating community, highlighting a weakness of Policy 52 and the current all-Wales One Planet Development policy. The policies assume that people who choose to live off the land will always be able to abide by their management plans and maintain a steady-state rural economy. In reality, over time some One Planet participants will become very successful and want to expand beyond the confines of their smallholding, others will reach peak self-sufficiency and happily stay there, but a number will probably be unable to reach their targets because of accident, illness, infirmity, or even prolonged bad weather.

Pembrokeshire councillor Huw George was on the BBC’s Wales Today TV news programme on April 29th 2019, worrying that One Planet Developments are not being properly monitored and calling for a halt to new applications. Cllr Phil Baker complained about the workload for planning officers.  The issue appears to be lack of capacity in austerity-hit planning departments, and this is not the fault of people trying to provide their own sustenance and livelihood and doing their best to live within the resources of planet Earth – as will be essential if Wales is to comply with its own Environment Act, which mandates a fall of at least 80% between 1990-1995 and 2050 in net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Dr Erica Thomson, chair of the One Planet Council, commented on Wales Today that One Planet Developments are opportunities for diversification of the rural economy, bringing in different forms of income, and she hoped that more applications would come from existing farmers. “It’s not some green hippy policy,” she said.

Despite the relationship conflicts that hit Lammas, the overall impact on the land has been entirely beneficial. The 76 acres of Tir y Gafel have been transformed from sheep pasture to ecologically diverse production on improved soils, with the emphasis on fruit, vegetables and forest gardens. The holdings are off-grid, with electricity from hydro and solar power. These are big, continuing positives, no matter what has happened to the ownership structure.

Array of panels for solar power

 

Tao and Hoppi Wimbush and their two children, whose Maes Melangell smallholding covers 7.2 acres, produced 68% of their food from it in 2017, plus produce sales of £3,494, and £4,164 from land-based education and consultancy. That was more than enough to live on. They have a private water supply, private drainage, generate their own electricity, and use their own wood for fuel much of the year. If everyone lived as they do, we would need only 0.79 of a planet.

Looking ahead, Tao says he expects the eco village to continue to grow in biodiversity, productivity and wellbeing. “We have already played an important role in exploring and demonstrating the viability of a one-planet lifestyle on marginal agricultural land,” he said. “After 10 years the change in landscape, microclimate and ecology is astounding. The feedback that we get from our guided tours and courses is that Lammas inspires hope that we, as human beings, can transform our relationship with the natural world for the better.

“Having said that, it has not been without its challenges and struggles. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Whilst the majority of residents are very settled and happy here some people have still to move out of temporary accommodation into their final dwellings. It takes courage, stamina and resources to build the infrastructure necessary to support a sustainable land-based lifestyle from scratch.”

Lammas has shown that it is “possible to transform depleted upland pasture into a biodiverse ecology that supports a small community in meeting all their basic needs from the land base”, Tao added. “We are not perfect, and we still have a long way to go, and we are walking our talk,” he said.

 

[i] http://lammas.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The-Process.pdf

[ii] Affordable Homes and Sustainable Livelihoods in Rural Wales, Calon Cymru Community Interest Company, 2017, p.92

PDR

Opinion: Council in Clampdown on Recycling

A startling clampdown on recycling household waste has been announced by Carmarthenshire County Council.

The council is setting up a bureaucratic system to check identities of drivers and vehicles entering recycling sites, and to limit a wide range of vehicles to 12 visits a year.

The whole scheme seems an over-reaction to prevent businesses from taking commercial items to the county’s four recycling centres, at Nantycaws, Carmarthen; Wernddu, near Ammanford; Trostre, Llanelli; and Whitland.

The new identity check rules start on April 1st – I did for a moment wonder if this was an elaborate April Fool – and require every driver entering a council waste/recycling site to show their driving licence, council tax bill or recent utility bill, to prove they live in Carmarthenshire.

Permits will be introduced from June 1st. Cars, SUVs and people carriers, with or without a single-axle trailer, will not need a permit. Nor will compact pick-ups with rear side windows and a second row of seats, or car-type vans also with rear side windows and a second row of seats.

Restrictive permits

But vans of any size without rear side windows, and single-cab pick-ups, will have to carry a permit. The permits will be registered to vehicles rather than to drivers, and will allow up to 12 visits in one year.

Vans or pick-ups drawing trailers, and any vehicle towing a trailer with more than one axle, will be completely banned from recycling centres. Unless, it appears, the vehicle has been adapted for use by a disabled person.

Drivers will not be able to exceed 12 annual visits by travelling to another waste site in the county, because the permits will have 12 tabs, one of which will be removed at every visit. No one will be able to apply for a new permit until 12 months have elapsed since the last one was issued.  If you lose your permit, that’s it, you will not be able to obtain another until the lost one has expired after a year.

The permits themselves will not be issued unless applicants provide their personal information and vehicle details including a copy or scan of the VSC vehicle log book and proof of their address. That address must be the same as the one on the log book.

More fly-tipping likely

This severe, over-zealous new set of rules will, I argue, lead to more and more serious episodes of fly-tipping in quiet country locations where there are no cameras.  That’s a real shame in a county with a large tourism industry, not to mention diverse flora and fauna which could be damaged.

People living outside Carmarthenshire will be excluded from the country’s recycling centres, even if their own council’s centres are further away.  This needlessly increases vehicle miles and thus fossil fuel emissions, unless the vehicle is electric. Even so, we all need to travel less, not more. Why not have an all-Wales policy for residents and visitors to access their nearest recycling centre?

People feel strongly about recycling — this demonstration was outside the Llangadog household waste/recycling site in 2014. The county council wanted to shut the site. It is now closed.

 

Suppose you don’t own a vehicle but still have items to take to a household waste/recycling centre? You can hire a car, but the hire period must be for no more than three days, and the vehicle must have the hire company’s name written on it. You could ask a neighbour to take items for you, but if their vehicle is one requiring a permit, that good deed would use up one of the 12 visits allowed annually. You have a relative in another county who offers to transport your recycling load? Would they be allowed entry?

I put this latter query to the council’s press office, only to be told that they could not answer it because in their view West Wales News Review is not a ‘regulated media outlet’, and they respond only to ‘regulated media outlets’. By ‘regulated’ they mean belonging to a voluntary body such as Impress or IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The full list of questions put to the county council was as follows:

  1. How much will the scheme cost to introduce?
  2. How much will the scheme cost to run in its first year?
  3. Is there an impact assessment for the scheme (particularly on whether fly tipping is expected to increase and if so, by how much)?
  4. If a friend or relative of a Carmarthenshire resident offers to take items to a recycling centre in the county but himself or herself lives outside the county, would that be allowed?
  5. Households where the only vehicle is a van, even a small van, will require a permit and be limited to 12 visits a year, and barred if pulling a single-axle trailer, but other households with vehicles offering as much or more space for items to recycle or dispose of, such as a 4×4 with rear seats folded and drawing a trailer — will be allowed to visit as often as they wish. Could this be open to legal challenge?
  6. Why has a 3-day hire limit been imposed for hired vehicles?

The press office declined to answer any of these questions, but did say they would pass the queries on to the council’s customer contact centre, which has not yet replied.

Is it surprising that I got the impression the county council is not too keen to talk about these changes, which make recycling more difficult? Surely we need to make recycling simpler, so that we protect our environment and reuse as many resources as possible? Carmarthenshire’s decision to impose a restrictive and certainly not cost-free bureaucracy on the county’s households is, I fear, a backwards step.

PDR

Opinion: Supplier Wanted for a Citizens’ Assembly in Wales

A Citizens’ Assembly is to be set up in Wales.

The National Assembly for Wales Commission is currently seeking a supplier to help organise a Citizens’ Assembly with about 60 participants. The closing date for tenders is noon on April 3rd, the award should be made on April 18th, the contract would run for five months, and the indicative budget is £85,000.

The supplier would be involved in recruiting the membership, and arranging payments including travel and accommodation. Liaising with speakers, transcription of the assembly, and writing reports would all be part of the contract.

The information notice outlining this business opportunity suggests that this “innovative public engagement” will be part of the National Assembly’s 20th anniversary celebratons.

Citizens’ Assemblies are not unknown in other parts of the world. Ireland has one, established in 2016, and others are reported in Canada and, newly, in Belgium.

Kofi Annan, general secretary of the United Nations from January 1997 to December 2006, was an enthusiast. “We need to make our democracies more inclusive.” he said. “This requires bold and innovative reforms, such as selecting parliaments by lot instead of election, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes.”

The drawbacks of self-perpetuating political classes have been only too obvious during the Westminster Parliament’s interminable Brexit deliberations, informed by loyalties to the dominant parties as much as by clear vision for the future of the four nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall). Would Citizens’ Assembly members drawn at random  bring finely developed problem-solving skills to their new role?  They would all bring their past experiences and predelictions, and some might be members of political parties, unless membership was a bar to participation, but they would probably be focused more on the tasks before them than on the advancement of one or other political party.

The cost of a small Citizens’ Assembly might be hundreds of thousands of £s, rather than £ millions, but given the shocking cuts in social care and now in education too, is it really a top priority right now? There could be a Citizens’ Assembly composed entirely of unpaid volunteers, but that would exclude on the bases of income and wealth.

Would an even more important option now be to switch to proportional representation for all government elections? Diverse points of view would be better represented than they are at present. A proportional system does not solve the problem of excessive party partisanship, but a Citizens’ Assembly, with members appointed for fixed terms, might in time replace the House of Lords as an advising and revising chamber for the UK, and augment the elected governments in Wales, Scotland and, when it is rescussitated, in Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords costs around £68 million* a year just in allowances paid to peers, without adding in the costs of running the premises, paying the staff, and supplying the services. That would fund several Citizens’ Assemblies, ensuring that a more representative democracy would not syphon money from our stressed public services.

 

 

PDR

Feature: Damaging Digital Divide

Former Lloyds Bank, Llandovery, closed in 2017.

The digital economy is damaging our small towns and dividing rural areas from the cities.

Withdrawal of services from the towns damages the quality of life in the surrounding villages and countryside, which are not exactly on the front page of governments’ policy books. It often appears that they are not anywhere in anyone’s policy book.

Nobody seems to have a plan to restore vitality to towns from which schools, banks, post offices, bus services and shops have departed. Young people move out, accelerating the decline.

Llandovery, a market town in the Upper Tywi Valley loses its final bank on June 7th when Barclays closes, following HSBC in 2012, NatWest in 2015, and Lloyds in 2017. The 11-18 comprehensive school shut early in 2016. The whole Upper Tywi Valley is also disadvantaged by slow broadband and very patchy mobile phone coverage. These drawbacks limit participation in the digital economy, which is being imposed on us whether we like it or not.

The rapidity of the transition to digital makes no allowances for people without broadband, or a computer, or a mobile phone, or the knowledge to navigate the online world. They are shut out.

Former NatWest Bank in Llandovery, closed in 2015. 

Even if you can access online banking, you are still going to need some notes and coins, but they are ever harder to obtain, even if your bank current account is in credit.

Barclays has an ATM (automated teller machine), the only one in Llandovery town centre. When there is no bank, there will almost certainly be no ATM and therefore no cash. Yet cash is so important for everyday transactions, whether in the newsagents, butchers, bakers, convenience store or local market.

There was an ATM outside the Co-op supermarket on the Brecon Road but on February 7th smash-and-grab criminals smashed the wall it was in, grabbed the whole ATM and made off with the loot. Of course, nowadays there is no regular police presence in the town. Another step backwards.

There are gleams of light in this dismal landscape, shining from the invaluable Youth and Community Centre in Market Square, and from the old HSBC bank also in Market Square. After months without a Post Office, a new one opened in the bank building in late November 2018, thanks to the team from the Ystrad garden centre and café outside the town. The Post Office, which during its opening hours enables customers to access many mail and financial services, including withdrawal of cash from most UK banks, is a real boost for a town sorely in need of one.

What’s needed as well, and urgently, is government recognition — in both Cardiff and Westminster — that people living in rural areas are just as important as city dwellers to our collective future.

Opinion: 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

News: 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

Opinion: 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.

Opinion: 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

Opinion: 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.

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