August 15 2013

Joining the dots

A couple of readers have emailed to ask if there is any progress on my investigations into the activities of the Kinver Kreations/Cathal McCosker/G & G Builders triad with respect to property grants in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock.
The answer is yes, but it's glacially slow.
Unfortunately the county council is refusing to provide priced bills of quantities for the various contracts on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
I have been sent copies, but with all the interesting financial information blacked out (redacted).
I have appealed to the Information Commissioner and I am hopeful that he might take a more liberal view of the public's right to know.
Happily, when I conducted my annual trawl through the council's accounts last month, I came across G & G Builders priced bills for two other McCosker projects: Coronation School and Commercial Row, both in Pembroke Dock.
The architect on those two contacts was Pembroke Design.
Why these "commercially confidential" document were available for public inspection during the audit is anyone's guess.
The two contacts were carried out under a different grant regime - the Townscape Heritage Initiative (chairman Cllr Brian Hall) which was part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
So much for good causes!
All I can say after studying G & G Builders' rates in these two documents is that I packed in building too soon.
The Commercial Row development, which involved turning four terrace houses (16 - 19) into 22 flats/bedsits, had a price tag of £1.2 million not including the original cost of the buildings themselves.
At roughly £55,000 a throw, it doesn't strike me as much of a bargain.
I had a stroll round there last Sunday lunchtime and I was reminded of the advice I was given many years ago not to let the clerk of works inspect the brickwork when the sun's rays are shining along its face.
Meanwhile Old Grumpy has been slowly accumulating information on Mr McCosker's other projects in Pembroke Dock.
I already had the original tender figures and grant offers from the reports to Cabinet that are now in the public domain.
Now I have obtained the final outcomes which can be seen in the table below.

 Project  Tender price  Grant offer  Final account  Grant paid  Final account as % of tender  Grant paid as % of original offer
 10 Meyrick St  £114,000  £71,000  £105,000  £62,000  92%  87%
 29 Dimond St  £188,000  £81,000  £161,000  £63,000  85%  77%
 27 Dimond St  £224,000  £70,000  £118,000  £36,000  52%  51%
 25 Dimond St  £227,000  £65,000  £92,000  £27,000  40%  41%

I should point out that the final accounts for 10 Meyrick St and 29 Dimond St were settled before I made known my interest in the matter.
When I asked the council why the 29 Dimond Street contract had come out lower than expected I was told:
"This was because the grant award was based on estimates that included provisional sums. As it happened, these sums were not needed (or weren’t needed to the extent expected) so the eligible costs were lower than anticipated and this is reflected in the grant paid being less than that approved."
While that might just possibly explain the 8% difference between the tender price and the final account for 29 Dimond St, it surely can't be that these unneeded provisional sums came to 60% of the tender for 25 Dimond Street.
If that was the case, the bill of quantities would be largely a work of fiction.
I have taken a particular interest in 25 Dimond St and, as I've said previously, it was always a mystery to me how anyone could plan to spend £227,000 (not including the cost of buying the building) on a building containing 35 sq metres of retail space and with a value when finished of £150,000 (at best).
Well, now we now the answer: they only spent £95,000.
So why the tender for £227.000 in the first place?
Thereby hangs a tale, but its telling will have to wait for another day.
One of the provisional items at 25 Dimond St was "internal commercial shop modifications" (exact amount unknown for the time being) except that the report to Cabinet states: "The grant element related to the reuse of vacant floorspace is £23,118 and will operate under under the Welsh Local Government Capital Investment Scheme (X98/2009).
As the rate of grant on this aspect of the work was 40%, a quick calculation revels the total cost to be £57,750.
Bearing in mind that Persimmon Homes will provide you with a three-bed semi for ££137,000 (including the cost of land and infrastructure) it is difficult to see how this sort of money could be expended on an area of retail space less than twice as big as the average living room.
The Cabinet was also told: "This award of funding will contribute to the refurbishment of 35 sq m of commercial property floor space, will potentially accommodate a new enterprise and three jobs, and potentially create two FTE jobs."
Having studied the specification provided by the council, I noticed that this proposed "refurbishment" was intended to include the provision of a new soundproof stud wall in front of the existing walls, new soundproof and fireproof ceilings and electrical rewiring.
For whatever reason this seems to have been deemed "unneeded" because the original tiled butcher's shop walls, the ceilings and light fittings remain intact.
But the Cabinet approved these grants on the understanding that these works would be carried out in order to create employment opportunities.
As for the promises of jobs, the building is now occupied by something called a community hub - a cross between a drop-in centre and a charity shop - so where is the commercial floorspace?
And who decided that this refurbishment of retail space was uneccessary?
I have also visited 27 Diamond St which is now the home of the misnamed Bargain Booze (they didn't have anything that could remotely match the Gellyswick Road supermarket's £3.99 Blossom Hill) and No 29 which is occupied by Paul Sartori's charity shop.
I have nothing against charity shops - most of my clothes are sourced from these temples of recycling and one of my boasts is that I prefer Italian tailors like Sartori and Barnardo, and where do you think the phrase sartorial elegance came from - but they are hardly the stuff of commercial regeneration.
To provide cover for my visit to Paul Sartori, I pretended to take an interest in the men's clothing section.
More than just a passing interest because I acquired some rather nice T-shirts with a Next label at a quid apiece.
Unfortunately the £5, pin-striped three-piece suit was just a bit too tight round the waist.
I also noticed that the funding which was designed to "contribute to achieving the overall results of the project by refurbishing 50 sq m of commercial property floorspace" at No 29 didn't seem to run to removing the rather tired-looking woodchip wall paper that looks as if it might have been there since about 1965.
And the late seventies artex ceiling didn't quite meet what is nowadays considered as the height of retail chic.
My investigations into this matter are a work in progress and I will report further when I have more data to hand.

Party lines

Stephen Joseph's decision to abandon Plaid and join the IPPG has caused a bit of a stir.
It is not only the disloyalty that bothers me, but crimes against logic and the language.
For instance the Mercury quotes Cllr Joseph as saying:"I had to decide: could I achieve more for Milford as an unaffiliated councillor or as a member of the ruling group, and, to be honest, it's as a member of the ruling group. It's not a matter of preferential treatment".
I may have missed something here, but if councillors can achieve more for their communities by being members of the ruling group how can this be done without preferential treatment.
And it seems to follow that those of us who are members of the opposition will be able to achieve less i.e our constituents will be discriminated against.
In any case, the prospect of Milford Haven getting a £20 million facelift is not the near certainty that Cllr Joseph made out in his statement in last week's Pembrokeshire Herald where you may recall he was reported as saying: "[The] bid has been lodged with the Welsh Assembly and decisions will be made as early as September to start giving the go-ahead".
Well, it transpires that all the other 21 Welsh local authorities have also submitted bids and what will happen in September is that a shortlist will be drawn up and the selected few will be asked to flesh out their proposals for further consideration.
The history of the bid itself is interesting in itself.
It appears it was made by a shadowy body called the Pembrokeshire Business Panel which meets in private and is chaired by by former Milford Haven Port Authority CE Ted Sangster.
As far as I can ascertain none of its members is elected.
The proposals themselves are worth close examination.
The biggest ticket item is a £7.5 million multi-storey car park on the docks.
This will be built close to the cliff alongside Hamilton Terrace and, in addition to parking facilities, it will provide a link to the town, presumably by means of a lift, or similar.
Then there will be a pedestrian link from Hamilton Terrace up to Charles Street though what form this will take (escalator?) is not made clear.
The second biggest expenditure is £5.5 million to demolish what is known as the Motorworld building in Charles Street and redevelop the site for mixed residential/retail use.
And then there is a creation of a piazza in front of the Torch Theatre - £1 million give or take a few quid.
This would appear to require the demolition of some of the buildings in lower Robert Street/Charles Street but how many, or which ones is not clear from the bid document.
£750,000 for refurbishing the shopping centre and a few other bits and pieces takes you near to £20 million.
The impression I got from Cllr Joseph's statement in last week's Herald was that this £20 million was the amount of the grant.
However, that is not the case.
The grant only makes up half the total - the rest comes from European funding - circa £2 million - and, most problematic, private sector £7.5 million.
There were two things that struck me about the bid, one good and one bad.
The first was the statement: "Planning policy is to consolidate the town centre on a smaller footprint to reduce vacancies and convert retail space to residential."
That is realistic given that, like many other towns, Milford Haven is over endowed with retail space: Charles St, Havens Head and the Marina.
What I think would be a disaster is if the shopping centre was atomised with shops interspersed with houses.
How it will be decided which part of Charles Street should be retail and which residential is a question for the future though it is difficult to see how such a reorganisation might be achieved without compulsory purchase powers being invoked.
But this next bit takes the biscuit
"There are 99 outlets in Milford town centre (2012) with a significant catchment population and available consumer expenditure of £102.5m yet much of that leaks to Haverfordwest or further afield, and that which remains mostly occurs in the Haven Head retail park."
Of course the reason that much of Milford's spending power leaks to Haverfordwest is that the county council's policy is to promote the county town as a regional shopping centre.
Milford Haven falls within that region.
It seems to show a lack of joined up thinking to be at the same time to be encouraging Milford people to shop in both Haverfordwest and their home town.
Where do they think the money is coming from?
It should be emphasised that Cllr Joseph's proposal to resurrect the open air swimming pool is entirely separate from the town centre grant issue.

Eye-catching events

A couple of weeks ago, I poured cold water on the supposed economic benefits of publicly sponsored spectaculars like Iron man, Fish Week and cruise liners.
Purely by coincidence, last week's Mercury and Pembrokeshire Herald carried a Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) inspired story about the need for a jetty to accommodate large cruise liners carrying 3,000 passengers.
The Mercury had some interesting numbers which on close examination seem to support my earlier observations.
Last year, it says, 23,000 passengers on 27 ships docked in Wales - Newport (1) Cardiff (3) Fishguard (3) Milford Haven (6) and Holyhead (14).
Using MHPA's figure of £80 spent by the average passenger onshore gives £1.84 million; About 60p per head per head of Wales' population.
Hardly a game-changer, then!
Applying the average number of passengers per ship (850) to Milford Haven paints a slightly rosier picture (6 x 850 x £80 = £408,000 which amounts to £31 per head of the town's population).
Better, as they say, than a kick in the goolies, but hardly enough to justify investing millions in a new jetty.
Of course, as the Mercury article says, if MHPA had a purpose built jetty it might attract the 3,000-passenger super-liners that currently stop off at Holyhead.
So how many of these big ships are there plying up and down the Irish Sea?
What is the potential market?
A little arithmetic helps here because if a single super-ship berths at Holyhead the average for the remaining 26 drops to 770.
Two of these monsters brings the average for the other 25 down 680, three 580 and four 480.
After that it gets ridiculous because a 1,000-seater berthing in Milford Haven would in turn pull the average of what's left down to cabin-cruiser levels.
So, it can be safely assumed that there are not too many of these behemoths about.
I am pleased to say that I am not alone in the view that this cruise liner bonanza exists only in the minds of people who understand neither arithmetic or economics..
Grumpette recently attended a public meeting with MHPA where the question of a new cruise liner jetty came up.
She tells me that MHPA's chairman David Benson dismissed the idea with the words: "The maths just doesn't stack up."
Quite so!
Of course, as MHPA chief executive Alec Don told the Mercury, if a jetty was to be constructed for some other self-financing purpose, and the occasional cruise liner could pull up alongside, that would be a different matter.

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