Shop fit-up

That other website had an interesting post recently about the police investigation, or should that be non-investigation, of the grants caper in Pembroke Dock.
Five months after being sent a dossier by PCC, the police are still consulting with the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) as to whether a criminal investigation is “appropriate”.
According to the council’s internal audit service, WEFO has carried out multiple audits of these grants and found everything to be in order.
So, as Jacob says, WEFO is marking its own homework.
Having passed this way before (see here and here) Old Grumpy suspects there is some deal being cobbled together designed to avoid these matters ever coming before a court where people are are required to tell the truth on pain of imprisonment.
Not to mention the risk that one of the defendants might blow the gaffe on the full extent of what went on.
I had a visit from three WEFO officers on 9 June when it was let slip that Mr McCosker was offering to pay back grant monies in respect of these Pembroke Dock projects.
Now, if everything is above board, why would he do that?
If I was a conspiracy theorist, I would suspect that something along the following lines is being hatched behind the scenes:

1. Mr McCosker has paid the money back, so there is no loss to the public purse.
2. Most of the overpayments were in respect of works which were not eligible for grant aid.
3. Staff in the department had a very heavy workload and didn’t always have the time to check things as thoroughly as they should.
4. Staff have now been given extra training.
5. The procedure manual, which sets out the rules for what is eligible for grant aid, and what is not, was not as clear as it might have been and has now been completely rewritten.
6. Given all the above, it would not be in the public interest to conduct an expensive, time-consuming police investigation.

On reading Jacob’s piece, it occurred to me that PCC and WEFO had rather too much control of the situation, so I sent off a complaint to the police in my own name.
I had already made a large contribution to the dossier provided to the police by the council, so I based my complaint on some of the more glaring examples.
Sure enough, within a couple of days the police were on the phone.
The reason they were consulting with WEFO, I was told, was that WEFO were the “losers”.
I retorted that it was the taxpayers who were the losers, not WEFO.
Unfortunately, there was no meeting of minds and there the situation rests.
To understand what has gone on here you have to master the rules of engagement.
First there are three different rates of grant available:

1. Architectural heritage (including windows) attracting 90% grant funding.
2. Structural repairs (Including rendering and roofing) attracting 70% grant funding.
3. Refurbishing retail space attracting 40% grant funding.

The council’s procedure manual explains the distinction between what is eligible under the first two grant headings and what is not:

External improvements to the facade [my emphasis]of the commercial property are eligible for grant funding (regardless of whether the floor space is residential commercial space). The rationale for this is that the improvements have an impact on the street scene and hence a contribution to increasing the footfall in the town centre. In a similar vein, the roof works on the street side elevation of the property would be eligible for grant funding (or depending on the situation of the building, any part of the roof that was having an influence/impact on the street scene.

This is supplemented by a FAQ document that was produced by the European Officer in response to my concerns and presented to the audit committee in September 2013..


Q: Can this grant scheme fund work to residential as well as business properties?

A: No. This grant scheme is strictly only for commercial properties. [My emphasis.] Many properties in town centres are mixed use, often being in commercial use on the ground floor but in residential use on upper floors. In these cases no internal works in parts of the building used for (or intended to be used for) residential use will be funded by the grant. We will fund external works to upper floors even if they are in residential use if they help to improve the street scene, because this contributes to improving the look of the town centre for businesses.

Q: Has any property ever received a grant for flats or for a house of multiple occupation?

A: No, this has never happened through this grant scheme. Such works have always been ineligible. [My emphasis.] Sometimes property owners carry out residential works at the same time that builders are working on commercial parts of the building but this is entirely at their own cost. In fact the Council encourages this, in order to improve people’s accommodation, although we cannot and do not make any financial contribution to these costs.

Now, I have to be a bit careful about what I say because some of the information in my possession was provided to me as a member on terms of commercial confidentiality.
However, commercial confidentiality only extends to the builder’s rates – disclosure of which might assist his competitors.
Thanks to the sterling efforts of Cllr Rob Summons, the amount of grant paid is in the public domain.
So let us pay a visit to No 29 Dimond Street (Paul Sartori charity shop) where a 40% grant of £21,000 (£52,500 gross) was paid in respect of refurbishing the inside of the shop.
There is no question that work to the retail space qualifies for grant aid, but there are large doubts as to whether £52,500, or even a tenth of that, was ever spent inside this shop.
Indeed as Cllr David Pugh told the council meeting on December 12 last year: “If he’d bothered to check, he would see that the main work done in that retail space by bringing a semi-derelict building back into use and is not just the front shop. The bulk of that work was done to the rear and was completed satisfactorily.” The problem for Cllr Pugh, who had the temerity to tell the Cabinet on December 2 that I didn’t understand the difference between eligible and ineligible work, is that this semi-derelict building was converted into bedsits and, as residential development, clearly didn’t qualify for grant aid.
As this residential development represents roughly half of the £21,000 grant for refurbishing retail space that means in excess of £10,000 was wrongly claimed and paid.
Regarding the other half, that presents an even bigger problem for Pugh and Co because most of it wasn’t done at all.
A visit to the shop reveals that the walls and ceilings haven’t been touched, though a large amount of money (£29,000 – of which grant funding amounted to £11,600) was claimed for their renewal.

Here is Pugh again: “I don’t know when Cllr Stoddart did his inspection, or whether he didn’t bother to walk to the back of the shop. But as you know, this is a charity shop and most of the retail space is taken up with space that has been used for storage and cleaning of clothes and so on.”

It later came to light that when Adams and Pugh visited No 29 (Paul Sartori) the shop was closed and they had to resort to peering through the front window.
So, while we listened to Pugh sneering at me for not bothering to walk to the back of the shop to inspect “most” of the space, little did we know that he and the Leader hadn’t made it past the front door.
And it turned out that “most of the retail space” consisted of a poky little store room that made up less than 15% of the total retail space.
This is the builder’s description of the work done in this store: “Take down ceilings, strip walls, take up floor, soundproof ceiling (new suspended ceiling including two layers of plasterboard and skim, insulation) reline walls, create soundproof party wall with front of retail space and skim, new concrete floor and decorating.”

The photographs below – taken during the audit committee’s site inspection – will help you decide how much of this work was actually done.

1. Take down ceilings. That looks suspiciously like an ancient artex ceiling to me. Also the two square plastic plates are of a type used by electricians to blank off redundant electrical fittings. And why would there be redundant electrical fittings in a new ceiling?

2. Strip walls. The walls are covered in the same panelling (including shelf brackets) as existed when this was a branch of Lloyds pharmacy.

3.Take up floor. No information on this.

4. Soundproof ceiling. Can’t be done without taking down old ceiling (see 1 above).

5. Two layers of plasterboard and skim. Not done (see 1 above).

6. Reline walls. Walls as original (see 2 above).

7. Create soundproof wall. Done.

8. New concrete floor. No information.

9. Decorating. The brown horizontal stripe on the the back wall (near the top left of the photo) is where a piece of redundant plastic electrical trunking has been removed exposing the original (undecorated) perforated hardboard. The remaining trunking can still be clearly seen.

29 Dimond Street 1

The following two photographs of the same room will also give you some idea of how much work was actually done. You’ll note the brown stripe is again in evidence, as is some of the £4,800-worth of electrical work to the retail space towards which the taxpayer contributed a grant of £1,920.

29 Dimond Street 3

29 Dimond Street 2

And all this was approved for grant aid by one or more of the council’s European Officers.

It is only fair that Pugh should have the last word.
As he told full council on December 12: “Having received the reports that refute all his arguments, Cllr Stoddart then changes tack and asserts that the grant schemes rules are flawed and that the council has wrongly interpreted them. I know he claims a much higher level of expertise in most matters, but here I will take the opinion of our highly regarded and experienced European funding team over his any day.”

Pugh has since been relieved of the responsibility for overseeing these grants, though the fact that he remains a member of the Cabinet is an indication of the depth of the gutter into which politics in Pembrokeshire has sunk.
The Leader, in his own inimitable fashion, dressed up this reduction in Pugh’s portfolio by claiming that it would allow him to concentrate on “driving forward the county’s economy”.
Abandon hope all ye who enter here!
In my next post, I will utilize my “higher levels of expertise” to analyse the fiddles on the roof at 29 Dimond Street.