The WHOLE truth

It was way back in 2013 that I first wrote about anomalies in the Heritage Lottery Initiative (HRI) and Commercial Property Grant Schemes (CPGS) in Pembroke Dock.

And after I put down a Notice of Motion calling for elected members to be allowed access to information on these dubious grants, PCC mounted a spirited cover-up at the Cabinet meeting on 2 December 2013 and full council of 12 December 2013, which was Pembrokeshire County Council’s very first meeting to be webcast (see AGENDA ITEM 10).

My NoM was resisted by the ruling Independent Plus Political Group which used its block vote to kick the can down the road by referring the matter to the audit committee.

I was, however, able to convince the Monitoring Officer that, now the matter was being investigated by a council committee, members had a statutory right to the information.

After that, the cover-up quickly unravelled and by early February 2014 Cllr Jacob Williams and I had unearthed sufficient evidence to leave the council with no option but to refer the matter to the police.

The debates in December 2013 featured disputes between myself and Cllr Jamie Adams over what had gone on during these various council-administered grant schemes.

In short, I was claiming that there had been widespread fraud, while Cllr Adams and the council were maintaining that everything was in tip top order.

This is an example from the report to the audit committee in September 2013.

4.3 Commentary from the Authority’s Monitoring Officer
4.3.1 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.

In the early stages of this affair, the town’s former Coronation School played a prominent role for the simple reason that it was part of the earlier Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) and I had stumbled on the final account for it during the public audit inspection in the summer of 2013 while the council were steadfastly refusing to provide me with the details of schemes in Pembroke Dock shopping centre under the later commercial property grant scheme (CPGS).

One item that caught my eye in the Coronation School final account was a charge of £46,900 for stripping the roof and re-covering it with new and used slates on new felt and batten.

Having some experience in the building industry, the price seemed a bit steep, especially as they were reusing the existing slates and even more so because it was obvious to anyone standing in the street that only part of the roof had been renewed.

So, on 7 November 2013, I put up a blogpost containing the photograph below which shows several details (including the neatly matched lichen) that indicated that not all the slates had been recently re-laid.

In my submission to Cabinet in support of my Notice of Motion, I made the following statement in an attempt to show that all was not well with these grants:

“According to the final account for this project £46,924 was paid to the builder for slate, felt and batten.

As far as I know, no one has yet mastered the art of felt and battening a roof with the slates in situ. There is other evidence that these slates have not been disturbed. Then there is the £3,645 included in the final account for “ridge tiles”.”

In the report to Cabinet, officers responded:

“The roofing works were included in the original tender and were eligible for grant funding.

The whole roof [my emphasis] 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 with the works to the chimney stacks happening at the same time the roof was stripped.”

The council also included some photographs showing newly-slated areas of the roof, but, as the issue was whether the whole roof had been renewed, these were largely irrelevant.

Emboldened by the officer’s assurance that I had got this wrong, Cllr Adams and and his Cabinet colleague David Pugh headed down to Pembroke Dock on a fact-finding mission.

So, when full council met on 12 December, they were fully armed with information with which they aimed to personally discredit me.

At that meeting Cllrs Adams and Pugh both told the council chamber that they had been up in the loft at Coronation School and seen for themselves that the “entire roof” had been re-covered and that my claims were patently false.

Pugh even went so far as to say: “But, then, getting at the truth is not on his agenda.”

Thanks to the wonders of the webcast, I can tell you exactly what they said.

Pugh told the meeting:

“The whole [my emphasis] of the roof was stripped off and re-covered in a mixture of new and recycled natural slates on new felt and battens.

I personally have been up in that roof and checked it, as has the Leader. That work has been done to the specification.”

While the Leader claimed:

“I do have in my possession here today signed letters from, for example, the main contractor and indeed the subcontractor for the roof at Coronation School, Meyrick Street, Pembroke Dock which indicate that the entire [my emphasis] roof was stripped and re-clad in new and used natural slates on new felt and batten.

And, as Cllr Pugh has indicated, both he and I have been in those lofts and have seen that for ourselves.

And that was the end of the matter, or so it seemed.

Given that almost everything else Pugh told the meeting on December 12 was untrue (within a couple of days he was forced to make an apology over false statements he had made about 25 Dimond Street) I was a bit sceptical of their lofty assertions.

Help was at hand, because in January 2014 the audit committee arranged a site inspection in Pembroke Dock, and while we were standing outside Coronation School I asked the project coordinator, who had accompanied Adams and Pugh on their attic expedition, whether it was possible to view the whole of the inside of the roof.

The answer was no – to inspect the whole of the interior of the roof of this former Victorian school would require cutting holes in the ceilings.

When I pressed the council’s internal audit service on this subject it was conceeded that there were only two open access points (hatches) in the ceilings, and that, as these were at the top of the two main stairwells (the lowest part of the roof), it was not possible to inspect the whole to the roof .

Sensing a weakness in the enemy’s defences, I put down a question to Cllr Adams at the council meeting on 8 May 2014.

Briefly, I asked if he would admit that his statement to the meeting on December 12: that he had seen for himself that the entire roof at Coronation School had been re-covered, was untrue.

Cllr Adams quickly retreated behind the ongoing police inquiry.

“The police have advised against any further public discussion about this matter in order to avoid prejudicing their investigation,” he told council.

Though quite how the involvement of the police has any bearing on whether Cllr Adams told the truth at the meeting on December 12 is not altogether clear.

However, I didn’t give up and eventually I obtained an admission from Jon Haswell, the officer who presented the report to Cabinet on 2 December 2013, that he no longer stood by his statement containing the words: “The whole roof was stripped off and recovered in a mixture of new and recycled natural slate on new felt and battens.”

This admission came in the form of an email dated 3 April 2016:

“In regard to whether the “whole” of the roof had been reslated 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 reslating 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 reslated 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”.”

Gritted teeth, much?

The problem is of course that his original statement is in the public domain while, up to now at least, his recantation is in the private sphere.

As you will have guessed, the council’s quantity surveyor in question took early retirement on health grounds soon after the complaint was lodged with the police in February 2014, so is well out of reach of any attempt to get him to explain himself.

I will return to what happened to the council’s February 2014 complaint at a later date. Suffice it to say for the moment that, more than five years after the complaint was made, the council received a letter from the police informing it that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had decided not to prosecute.

Elected members were so concerned by this decision that they resolved to set up a working group to explore the possibility of the authority using its statutory powers to mount its own prosecution.

Which brings us right up to date with full council’s meeting last Thursday, which received counsel’s opinion on that possibility. A redacted copy of counsel’s opinion can be read here

What this opinion shows is that it wasn’t me whose agenda lacked concern for the truth, but that of Pugh and Adams.

During last week’s meeting there was a recommendation from officers that this counsel’s opinion should be discussed in private session, but I argued, successfully, that with certain redactions it could be debated in public.

Cllr Adams objected to this proposal, and when I suggested he was trying to prevent the exposure of the false statements he had made back in 2013 he strongly disagreed:

“I didn’t lie about what I saw,” Cllr Adams told councillors. “I’m very clear about that. I’ve never lied in this chamber. I try not to lie at all but I’ve not lied in this chamber and I take umbrage at the fact that Cllr Stoddart has suggested that I had.”

“…with reference to the grant scheme again I will reiterate that […] I undertook a visit to look at some of the work that had been undertaken at the grant scheme. I did so in good faith, I guess in hindsight I should have looked further and that’s the point, I hope that’s acceptable to people. You know there is – Cllr Stoddart has made reference to looking in the attic. The work I saw in that attic had been undertaken. But I didn’t climb into the attic and crawl around to see everything at the former school. That’s the position, I gave information in good faith to council based on what I was told and based on what I saw. At no point did I lie to this chamber.”

Now, it is my contention that this is not consistent with his previous statement that:

“And, as Cllr Pugh has indicated, both he and I have been in those lofts and have seen that [the entire roof was stripped and reclad in new and used natural slates on new felt and batten] for ourselves.”

And that’s beside the fact that even if he did “climb into the attic and crawl around” he wouldn’t have been able to see “the entire roof,” anyway.