Jacob Williams
Saturday 25th January, 2014

The penny and the bun

The penny and the bun

Following the customary opening remarks and procedural formalities at Monday morning’s extraordinary meeting of the Audit Committee which had been convened to look into the Pembroke Dock building grant schemes; the committee’s lay-member Chairman, John Evans MBE, introduced Dr. Steven Jones, the council’s Director of Development, to address the committee.

As an introduction prior to the commencement of the agenda items, Dr. Jones told the committee that, whilst he leads the directorate which is responsible through its regeneration division for these external funding schemes, he was: “not hands-on involved in the management of either the THI scheme or the Commercial Property Grant Scheme.” He continued:

“As such it’s very difficult for me to give a personal guarantee this morning to members that every single penny of money that is spent is accounted for, but what I will say, and go on to I think provide a sufficient amount of evidence to members this morning which I believe goes a considerable way if not all the way, to reassure members that the processes that we have in place to ensure in itself that funding managed through the directorate is in accordance with the relevant grant conditions and as such provides the reassurance that members are looking for.”

Both WEFO and HLF ‘appear satisfied with the financial management of the programmes,’ members were reminded, and Pembrokeshire County Council was ‘the most successful local authority in Wales in terms of the Townscape Heritage Initiative programmes,’ with a recently announced fourth THI award, for Haverfordwest, which reflects ‘the quality of delivery’ of the previous and current THI schemes in Pembroke Dock and Haverfordwest. He estimated that, in the six years since he’s been with the authority, his team of ‘competent and highly motivated staff’ had accessed ‘something in the region of £50m of external funding.’

Going on to discuss the large-scale management of public money, Dr. Jones said he had noticed that the last few cabinet meeting reports had made reference to the large number of contracts the council has, which amounted to around £20m over the past year, over all service areas of the council. By way of analogy, members of the committee were told: “with the £80,000 that was reported that we spent on bakery projects – I don’t know if somebody’s counting the number of bread rolls that get delivered on a day-to-day basis, but again, through our risk-based internal audit arrangements we are reassured that we are getting value for money for these contracts being delivered.”

Dr. Jones said that, whilst the Townscape Heritage Initiative scheme is ‘in many respects relatively straightforward to manage,’ the Commercial Property Grant Scheme is ‘much less so, due to the eligible and ineligible works,’ continuing:

“…in some areas the difference between the eligible and ineligible is black and white, however, in other areas, there are various shades of grey, which means that judgements have to be made and on occasions challenged, and on occasions defended.

In my experience it is not unusual that we enter in to negotiation with the Welsh European Funding Office over areas of eligibility, and indeed from my own experience, our track record to date in this area is very good, however, I am clear that if there is an error then we will look to correct that immediately, and, if needs be we will look to claim back any money that hasn’t been properly accounted for, and we’ll look to move on, Chairman, to the next opportunity and challenge that we have to support the regeneration agenda in the county.”

Following this, members were guided through two slideshow presentations, firstly by Gwyn Evans, the council’s European Manager, with an introduction to the THI and CPGS schemes and how they work, the audit regimes, and how the two grant schemes differ. This was followed by a presentation from Jon Haswell, the authority’s Head of Finance and Assurance, which outlined all of the properties the committee would be visiting, the original and actual costs of the projects and grant money awarded against them, and some of the concerns which had been raised by Cllr. Mike Stoddart over the various projects.

The Pembroke Dock site visit followed, during which the seven members of the committee, along with numerous officers and a handful of other councillors, saw the old Coronation School on Meyrick Street, numbers 16-19 Commercial Row, and finally 25, 27, 29 and 31 Dimond Street, the last of which was also the recipient of CPGS grant funding, a large project which received a modest amount of grant money, for which the committee has not been made aware of any concerns.

A short while after the minibus arrived back at County Hall, the meeting resumed at 2.30 pm, when almost immediately the committee resolved – with my vote cast against and Cllr. Guy Woodham’s to abstain – to enter into private session, behind closed doors.

At this point the journalists and non-councillors in the public gallery were asked to leave. This step – to go into private session – was taken to protect what the committee was told was ‘commercially sensitive information.’

The meeting did not continue for much longer, because instead of continuing with the agenda, the committee agreed it was a good idea to be taken through the detailed assessment and allocation process followed for grant projects, by using number 29 Dimond Street and its documentation as an example.

The reason the committee didn’t commence with the review of the documentation as stipulated on the agenda, was because on the Friday prior, the council’s lawyers had confirmed agreement with Cllr. Mike Stoddart that the law provides the right to all councillors – not just members of the Audit Committee – to inspect the files being made available, and that all members should be given time to be able to inspect them in preparation.

To that end, it was resolved with unanimous support that the meeting would adjourn for an unspecified time, though roughly two to three weeks was mentioned, after which the committee will reconvene. In the intervening period, council officers are to draw up an itinerary of all documents available for inspection by members, and place them in a ‘data room,’ where an arrangement will be made to allow convenient access by members, under the supervision of officers.

Councillors were told that, when inspecting documents, they would only be allowed to take notes. Since the meeting, it has been confirmed that members are actually entitled to copies of the documents as well.

Before the committee can reconvene, a new agenda and formal notice of the meeting will be required to be published.

In light of the council’s recognition of the legal entitlement all councillors have to access the documents being considered by the Audit Committee, I understand Cllr. Mike Stoddart no longer intends to pursue his requisition for an extraordinary council meeting; because what he was calling for – that the documents be made available to all members – has now effectively been realised.

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  • Goldingsboy

    The most telling point in the contentious history of the Pembroke Dock grant money saga is the extent to which senior council officers have deprived an elected councillor open access to all of the improvement schemes’ relevant paperwork, when he has experience in the building industry and serious concerns about some of the projects carried out under the schemes.

    It is difficult to see why the access by councillors to the documentation took so long and that it took a small group of councillors, in the face of determined opposition, to persuade the council’s legal department to set that perverse decision aside.

    In any event, serious questions remain: why, for example, did these high-ranking administrators hang on so tenaciously? It surely follows, that serious issues regarding levels of experience and/or competence within the management structure at County Hall inevitably come into question, as a result of this fiasco. Were these managers unaware of the true position concerning the legal rights of councillors?

    Let’s hope that this affair, in which there has already been an extraordinary admission by the Director of Development (Pembrokeshire Herald; 24/1/14), “that he could not guarantee that every penny claimed [in grants] had been spent by the developer concerned”, avoids the fate of so many other PCC investigations of the recent past.

  • Morgi

    Dr Jones speaks of the difficulty in interpreting eligible and ineligible works when dishing out taxpayers’ money.

    Quite often if there is expertise at the top of the public enterprise tree, then additional, lower tiers of bureaucracy are brought in to the picture when things go wrong – the buck stops at the bottom of the tree – not at the top.

    Remember of course that the more below, is reflected in all pay packets paid by yours truly and other tax payers.

  • Keanjo

    What an amazing statement from Steven Jones. He is paid a handsome salary to head his department and he is responsible for their performance – good or bad.

    CC Stoddart raised these doubts several months ago and it is his DUTY as an elected member to investigate them to establish if there was any substance in the complaints. Steven Jones needs to be asked whether he undertook any investigation and the result. If he did not then the Chief Executive should have insisted he did.

    Reading between the lines, there appears to be considerable substance growing behind MS’s accusations and there needs to be a thorough investigation into the matter. Even now I think the council leader CC Adams, responsible cabinet member CC Pugh, and the whole of the cabinet should make an abject and public apology to CC Stoddart for the disgraceful way he has been treated.

  • Roy McGurn

    A most amazing speech from Dr Jones, people will make their own conclusions from it.

    Dare anyone suggest that all previous grant awards and projects should now undergo similar scrutiny? As everyone knows, PCC never does anything wrong!

  • Morgi

    Everybody involved needs to be reminded whose money PCC is spending.

    Do I understand that out of the taxpayer funded grant for eligible or, as the case may be ineligible works, a 9p admin charge is levied and spent on other projects?

    Every penny of legitimate or illegitimate grant money awarded is a penny from another possibly more deserving project.

  • Morgi

    With this new found spirit of openness the Committee upon its return went into private session – I don’t give a hoot to someone spending their own money as they see fit.

    Where it comes to my own money (taxpayer) my rights should be considered far more than those who have commercial sensitivities or as I believe is more honest, those who decide on the allocation of my money.

    Who do these councillors represent?

  • Jon Coles

    As I was present for Dr Jones’ introductory remarks, I couldn’t help wondering who he thought was responsible for the mess the Council now find themselves in. Or does he not draw a very large salary in exchange for responsibility?

  • Richie S.

    Dr Jones refers to money spent on ‘bakery projects.’ Quite appropriate as he ‘waffles on a bit’ don’t he?

    At the end of the day, the allegations we are talking about concern grants using public money that have been allocated for work that has not been carried out. Surely, in any language, this would be fraud, and PCC should be looking at initiating/calling for a criminal investigation with proceedings against those who may have been involved.

    But that would be in the real world, wouldn’t it?

  • Welshman 23

    The police must investigate the use of public monies, are they doing this? Or are they like the Western Telegraph, conspicuous by their absence?

  • Goldingsboy

    Welshman, I think it’s known as wilful ignorance.

  • Tasso

    I am sure everything is absolutely fine. We can trust the Western Telegraph’s judgement. Can’t we?

  • Morgi

    In his introduction, Dr. Jones said he was not the one with hands on involvement for the CGS or THI – would it not have been useful to have those in attendance who did?

    In view of the above, I can understand his difficulty in accounting for every penny spent on these schemes.

    Is this department, with its success in obtaining finite funds from the Welsh European Funding Department, fit for purpose if it is found that funds have not been used as intended?

  • Hi Morgi, yes the committee did hear from those with a more hands-on involvement – Dr. Jones spoke before them.

  • Jon Coles

    Not least of the wonders of the site visit was the notion advanced about works it was suggested had been done at 29 Dimond Street, compared to the physical condition of the shop’s interior and fittings.

    Bearing in mind the requirement to provide equality of access for the disabled, it was also surprising to see a “lip” at the entrance – effectively hindering wheelchair users – and a lack of disabled access to those parts of the building not used for retail space, but which the grant for retail space had been spent on refurbishing.

    As public money was used, it occurs to me that it should have been obligatory to provide equal access to those parts of the building benefiting from grant-funded works.

  • Malcolm Calver

    All that is needed is for a reputable quantity surveyor to take a fresh look at the projects and report back to full council.

    Dr Jones indicates that he was “not hands-on involved in the management of either the THI scheme or the Commercial Property Grant Scheme.”

    I wonder what Dr Jones has his doctorate in and is it relevant to the position he holds, perhaps someone can inform us.

  • John Hudson

    May we dare ask why the legal advice given to members appears to be a bit “iffy”, and is changed when challenged?

  • Paul Absalom

    The real question is, will the possible discovery of payments of grant money for non-eligible works (or work that hasn’t been done) be down to incompetence, or corruption?

    Why was Cllr Stoddart not able to access these documents until he backed the council into a corner with too many facts to ignore?

    Good old Grumpy, keep it up.

  • John Hudson

    It is worth reflecting on the way the council “levers” grant funded schemes into its annual budget estimates.

    The draft annual capital estimates are approved by councillors with such schemes included on the basis that they are subject to grant being awarded.

    At this stage, some preliminary work by PCC must have been done to arrive at a project estimate. Our councillors will know nothing of this. However, after they have approved the annual estimates and grant is awarded, officers then have authority to carry out the grant funded projects.

    Following completion of these projects, masterminded by officers, no completed project reports are submitted to councillors. Certain councillors are allowed to participate in THI working Groups with “partners”. These are informal groups which are not hindered by the inconvenience of public meetings, agendas or minutes open to the public. I doubt whether other non-involved members even know about them.

    So these major grant funded projects are levered into the county behind the backs of councillors who remain oblivious to the effectiveness of such projects.

    Is anyone aware of the claimed achieved benefits of the Haverfordwest completed THI scheme or the aims of the current phase?

  • Steve

    Malcolm, you wondered what Dr Jones has his doctorate in.

    Dr Steven Jones B.A. (Hons), D.M.S., M.B.A., Ph.D, M.C.I.M..

    DMS – Post-Graduate Diploma in Management Studies
    MBA – Master of Business Administration
    Ph.D – Doctor of Philosophy
    MCIM – Member Chartered Institute of Marketing

  • Goldingsboy

    Wow Steve, Dr Jones has a really impressive list of academic qualifications; so why, one asks, has the regeneration scheme in Pembroke Dock turned into such a calamitous fiasco?

  • Martin Lewis

    Doctorate, Moctorate Foctorate!!! All those letters after his name and no doubt an extremely generous salary and benefits package.

    What we need is some councillors with a degree in common sense.

  • Lizzie-Tish

    If there’s grants going to improve the Dock, can someone please use some to get the really old ‘VOTE BRIAN HALL’ stickers removed from sight please? They’re like the proverbial dog shit – everywhere!

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