Voice of experience

As councillors we are encouraged to avoid doing anything to threaten the bond of trust and confidence between members and officers.

Obviously, a bond of trust is of great importance to the smooth running of any organisation, whether it be a local authority or a business.

But trust is not a right, it has to be earned, or as Professor of statistics David Spiegelhalter puts it in a recent article: “You should not want to be trusted. Instead, what you should want to do is to demonstrate your trustworthiness.”

My own experiences lead me to the conclusion that PCC is not all it should be in the trustworthiness department and, if you want to know the truth, be prepared to find it out for yourself.

My concerns about the degree of trust that we members can put in what we are told by council officers go back a long way.

For convenience, I will start with the meeting of the audit committee in September 2013 which discussed issues raised on my website during the early months of 2013 regarding the Commercial Property Grant Scheme in Pembroke Dock.

My main concern was the large level of grants allocated to projects carried out by one particular developer Mr Cathal McCosker and companies he controlled.

Having read my website in April 2013, Plaid Cymru Leader, Cllr Michael Williams, brought the matter to the attention of the audit committee’s June meeting.

This led to a report to the September meeting by PCC’s Principal Auditor who attested that the Pembroke Dock grant scheme had been audited by:

1. The Wales Audit Office whose most recent report had concluded: “There is a reliable control environment in place”.

2. The Welsh European Funding Office; whose report following the May 2012 visit stated: “Pembrokeshire County Council adhered to a policy of competitive tendering via the adoption of open, transparent and documented procurement processes, demonstrating compliance with EC and WEFO guidelines.”

3. The Welsh Government European Funds Audit Team (EFAT); whose verdict was: “Effective (Works Well)” and identified as areas of good practice: “Effective Financial Systems, Policies and Procedures; Good Management and Project controls; and Good external communication and publicity”

4. The Directorate General for Regional and Urban Policy, European Commission who emailed the council’s European Manager following the audit to say: “The audit work performed by the Commission auditors did not evidence any additional issues to those already identified by the audit authority”.

The Principal Auditor concluded:

“Internal Audit has shared its findings with the Council’s Monitoring Officer who is satisfied that there is no evidence of maladministration or non-compliance with the governance arrangements relevant to the specific schemes or of any lack of competence in officers concerned with the administration of the schemes.”

Things moved on, and at its meeting in January 2014 members of the audit committee received an officer’s report on the grant scheme which informed them:

 “…when a claim was submitted, the Authority required evidence of payments made, including invoices and bank statements (my emphasis) to provide a breakdown of eligible and ineligible works.”

At that stage, there was no reason for anyone to doubt any of this because it was in complete accord with the grants scheme Procedure Manual which stated:

“Evidence must also be provided proving that the invoices from the builder and architect etc have been paid and the funds defrayed, i.e. that the payment has left the bank account of the grant recipient.

This will usually be proven by copies of the cheques used to pay the invoices together with certified copies of bank statements (my emphasis) showing the cheques clearing through the account.”

However, when Cllr Jacob Williams and I examined the files in early February 2014 the only evidence of defrayment we could find were photocopies of cheque book stubs.

And when the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO) got to hear about this it demanded to see Cathal McCosker’s bank statements as proof that the amounts certified had been paid to the builders.

However, rather than produce the bank statements Mr McCosker offered to pay back the whole of the £180,000 grant money he had received on four completed projects and to forego the £129,000 he was due on 50 Dimond Street, then nearing completion – £309,000 in all – even though my investigations had only identified £60,000 worth of questionable payments.

And, despite the claim at the audit committee’s previous meeting in September 2013: that the Principal Auditor and the Monitoring Officer had found “no evidence of maladministration or non-compliance with the governance arrangements relevant to the specific schemes or of any lack of competence in officers concerned with the administration of the schemes”, WEFO (who were supposed to have audited the grant payments) insisted that PCC pay back the whole of the £309,000 it had received in respect of McCosker projects.

As we now know, this brilliantly run scheme which EFAT described as having: “Effective Financial Systems, Policies and Procedures; Good Management and Project controls” is the subject of a long-running police investigation.

A conspiracy theorist might argue that the five years (and counting) the police investigation has taken could have something to do with the alphabet soup of very powerful people (WAO, WEFO, EFAT, and PCC) who would rather not have the administration of this grant system closely examined in the truth-seeking environment of a court of law.

The audit committee’s meeting in January 2014 also included a visit to Pembroke Dock to view the various sites that I had complained about.

Of special interest was 29 Dimond Street (then Paul Sartori charity shop) which had attracted a grant of some £63,000 – £23,800 of which came under the heading: refurbishing retail space.

As this retail space refurbishment grant was paid at the rate of 40%, this meant that almost £60,000 had been spent inside the shop itself.

Prior to the audit committee’s meeting, a council quantity surveyor with no previous connection with the grant scheme was dispatched to No 29 to inspect the shop premises in order to see if this level of expenditure could be justified.

His report is a masterpiece in obfuscation, but, in respect of the two separate charges for electrical work, he did climb halfway down from the fence.

With regard to a sum of £4,800 he concludes that, provided it is “not wholly allocated to the retail area”, it might be considered reasonable, while in respect of a sum of £9,800 for “Electrical improvements – Flats 1-4” he concludes “This is assumed non-eligible work and therefore, no further consideration has been given to this work”.

This seems like a reasonable assumption seeing that in the report to the audit committee in September 2013 the European Officer had produced a FAQ document designed to explain how the grant system worked and “clarify aspects of the scheme where misunderstanding has led to unwarranted negative publicity.”

This idea – that my website comments about these grants were based on my failure to understand how the system worked – was a constant theme promoted by the European Officer Gwyn Evans and Cllrs Jamie Adams, David Pugh and Rob Summons.

One of these clarifications read:

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. 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. [My emphasis throughout]

However, this independent quantity surveyor had no need to make assumptions because the final account for No 29 had been produced in October 2012 and, had he bothered to ask for a copy, he would have found that the “non-eligible” £9,800 had attracted a grant of £3,920 and that the £4,800 had been “wholly allocated” to the retail area and had received a grant of £1,200.

So the electrical work in this modestly-sized shop cost £14,600 (allegedly) and attracted grants worth £5,120 in total, so both his assumption and the FAQ document were wrong.

I could go on and on, indeed I am thinking of writing a book about the whole grants saga, but I will restrict myself to the dispute as to whether the whole of the roof at Coronation School Pembroke Dock had been slated on new felt and battens.

When Cabinet met on 2 December 2013 to consider my Notice of Motion calling for the files on the various grant schemes to to open to inspection, it was presented with a joint report by the Director of Development and Director of Finance & Leisure

One of the issues under discussion was the roof at Coronation School Pembroke Dock which, according to the final account had been completely re-slated at a cost of £50,000.

My allegation was that only a small part of the roof had been re-slated – see November 7 2013.

My blog post included the photo below:

In what must be an extreme case of confirmation bias (believing what you want to believe in spite of the evidence) the report to Cabinet almost a month later stated:

“The whole roof was stripped off and recovered in a mixture of new and recycled natural slate on new felt and battens. These works commenced in May 2010 and were completed in July 2010”

Cabinet was shown photos of new felt on the inside of the roof to prove the point, though no one thought to question whether pictures of a small section were enough to prove that the whole roof had been done.

Buoyed up by this, Leader Jamie Adams and cabinet member David Pugh made a visit to Pembroke Dock accompanied by the quantity surveyor who had overseen the Coronation School project.

And when full council met on 12 December they were able to tell members that they had climbed up into the loft “and seen for themselves” that the entire roof had been reslated on new felt and battens.

It took me a couple of months to unpick this story (Jamie Dodger) but the upshot was that these two were not telling the truth because it was not possible to see the whole of the inside of the roof from the two available access points.

And, after a bit of prodding, the director of finance eventually admitted that what he had told the Cabinet on 2 December 2013 was wrong.

In a rather long-winded email dated 13 April 2016, he admitted:

“In regard to whether the “whole” of the roof had been re-slated on new felt and battens, I would no longer state the word “whole”. I did not work for the Authority when the project was undertaken so I had to rely on available photographs of the work and confirmation from the Quantity Surveyor. I definitely saw photographs which satisfied myself that re-slating had been undertaken on the roof and believe I saw photographs of new felt and battens (albeit I can’t remember if this was on a different property). I was advised by the Quantity Surveyor that the “whole” of the roof had been re-slated on new felt and battens, hence its inclusion in the report. I have since had to question a number of things I was advised by the Quantity Surveyor, hence the reason I would no longer state the word “whole”.”

This was the same quantity surveyor who accompanied Adams and Pugh on their visit to Pembroke Dock in early December 2013 and it was he who filled their heads with all that nonsense about phantom ‘third side elevations’ and work being done at the back of the shop (Pugh).

He also signed off the final accounts for 10 Meyrick Street and 29 Dimond Street, including large sums for work that either hadn’t been done or wasn’t eligible for grant aid.

You will not be surprised to learn that, soon after this all blew up, this quantity surveyor took early retirement on health grounds and that, when a senior police officer addressed the audit committee on 4 May 2016, he was able to assure members: “that no evidence had been gathered to show that any criminal acts had been taken by an employee of the Authority.”

And, just so you don’t run away with the idea that it is only in matters concerning the Pembroke Dock grants that the council is prone to wild inaccuracies, I would remind you of the strange goings-on over size of a viable A-level class in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between PCC and Pembrokeshire College over A-level provision.

The first effort concluded that 26 should be the minimum number, but that was changed to 18 when it was discovered that the wrong value for income per pupil had been used.

When I questioned this 18 number by way of a NoM it was admitted that errors had been made, but that they cancelled each other out and 18 remained the minimum number (Under the carpet).

However, when I pressed further, it was discovered that a stray £1 million had made its way into the calculation and when this was removed the minimum for a viable A-level class came down to 15!

I was still not happy with this because it is based on what seems to me to be an excessive 75% overheads on top of salary costs.

Unfortunately my attempt to further interrogate the figures was brought to a shuddering halt when scrutiny committee chairman Cllr John Davies decided it was time to “move on”.

This shameless cover-up can be viewed here, starting at 1 hr 36 mins.