Alternative facts

The very first Pembrokeshire County Council meeting (13 Dec 2013) to be webcast featured the now famous speech during which the cabinet member with responsibility for grants, Cllr David Pugh, tried to blacken my character by claiming that my allegations about irregularities in the administration of grants in Pembroke Dock were nothing but a pack of lies.

Unfortunately for Pugh, this attempted character assassination came to a rather sticky end when I demonstrated that everything he had said was untrue, and after a decent interval Jamie Adams removed him from his fifteen grand a year cabinet post.

Indeed, as one wit remarked, this turned out to be the most expensive ten minutes in Pugh’s life.

However, an alert reader from Pembroke has reminded me that, although Pugh stole the limelight on that dark December day, there was another participant, Cllr Brian Hall, who should be considered for “Best supporting actor”.

She had been idling away her time on the Internet, as one does, when she came across an evaluation of the Pembroke Dock Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) by Dr Alan Reeve, Reader in Planning and Urban Design, Oxford Brookes University and Dr Robert Shipley, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo, and suggested it might be interesting to make a comparison of the two PhDs’ conclusions with what Pembroke Dock THI’s chairman Cllr Brian Hall (at 1hr 12 mins) had to say.

So, here’s Hall:

“To start with, the majority of Pembroke Dock residents are delighted with the improvements that these THI phases 1 and 2 have done for the town.”

And the two academics:

“Approximately 500 household questionnaires were mailed to residents in Pembroke Dock during 2010. A total of 127 were completed and mailed back, representing a return rate of 25.4%. Whilst the 2006 household questionnaire indicated a slight but noticeable rise in most of the measures [of improvement] over the 2001 figures, 2010 saw a drop in 60% of those same measures with a third going up and a couple staying the same.”

And:

“People in Pembroke Dock feel that their politicians care but are not necessarily making good decisions. Negative sentiment about council performance rose from 42% to 55% between 2006 and 2010.”

Not much sign of any delight there!

After giving a list of the bodies involved in THI, Cllr Hall went on to highlight the refurbishment of the Sunderland Hangar and the Western Hangar as examples of the grant scheme’s achievements.

Our professional evaluators were rather less impressed:

“More of the dockyard properties are in use, but that is mainly for storage, including one of the old Sunderland hangars. However, one wonders if at £1.4 million (£383 /m²) it is not very expensive warehousing for sugar beets. Much is made of the use of the other hangar for constructing sets for recent popular movies, but in fact it was used for making Star Wars long before it was renovated.”

And:

“It appears that between 2000 and 2010 over £12.7 million was spent on the Pembroke Dock THI. What a closer look at the numbers reveals is that £6,468,535 was spent on structures not in the town proper but within the former naval precinct. Of that 50% of the total budget, the lion’s share of £4.5 million went in to three buildings, the two Sunderland Hangers and the Garrison Chapel. About a quarter of the total budget, £3.4 million, was spent refurbishing buildings that remain empty or are used irregularly.”

As for any suggestion of financial impropriety, Cllr Hall was keen to stress that the scheme was “not only audited internally, it was audited by several external organisations.”

The evaluation team took a rather less favourable view:

“The researchers found it difficult to understand the financial information regarding project expenditure that was provided to them by the local THI administration. There was a list of buildings that received or were slated to receive funding up until 2007. This list did not coincide with another list of sites that had received funding over the whole period of the scheme as reported in 2010. There were lists of sites showing floor area renovated, businesses housed and jobs created but not all of those lists indicated how much money was spent on each site.”

They were also rather sniffy about the job-creation figures being bandied about by Cllr Hall’s THI committee:

“The local THI managers indicated in 2010 that in each of the former Sunderland Hangars 50 people were now employed. Consultation with the Milford Haven Port Authority revealed that only 10 people were permanently employed in one building whilst as many as 100 worked in the other but only on a cyclical basis when projects were available.”

And it should also be pointed out that, after this report was written, an independent surveyor was appointed to audit the scheme and he discovered irregular payments of £183,000 which the council has had to pay back.

Cllr Hall spent some time waving about four certificates the council had been awarded for its THI scheme.

He claimed that, if there had been irregularities:

“There is no way that we in Pembroke Dock and the county council would have won national awards for being the best THI in the country. And we had requests from other parts of the country for others to visit and see how well we were doing.”

This exercise in boosterism is difficult to reconcile with the table on page 232 of the report which shows that, in 2011, as thirteenth out of seventeen when compared to the 2000 baseline, Pembroke Dock was one of the worst performers in the country.

Hall continued:

“I can’t agree that there is any irregularity in what has gone on. It’s made a massive, massive difference to Pembroke Dock and I’m sure they can’t say it hasn’t made things better.”

Our varsity chaps don’t seem to share Brian’s enthusiasm:

“It is when we look at sites such as Burslem, Newport and Pembroke Dock we might be led to assume that large expenditures resulting in very little change were perhaps not wise investments.”

And

“Worst of all in the efficiency measure was Pembroke Dock which saw large investment in structures that a) are not part of the town proper and b) remain unused or under used.”

This referred to a table which showed that in terms of improvement/cost per head ratio, Pembroke Dock was by far the most expensive at £2,205 which was four times more costly than the next worst, Draperstown, at £582.

And, being Brian Hall, he couldn’t resist some enemy-of-the-people stuff of the sort that is often associated with political parties of a particular stripe.

Referring to Haverfordwest’s recent, successful bid for THI funds, he concluded:

“My information is that because of all the innuendo that has been thrown around there is a distinct possibility that that might be withdrawn.”

Old Grumpy wonders who fed him that particular line.