August 29 2103


Weed control

It has been one of the best summers ever for the vegetable garden.
The dry weather has kept the slugs in check and controlling weeds is a much easier task when the sun burns them to a cinder within a couple of hours.
There is nothing more disheartening than hoeing a row of cabbages only to find that next day's rain has allowed the weeds to take root again.
But enough of my gardening exploits, though they are an apt metaphor for my other main activity: keeping an eye on the grant situation in Pembroke and Pembroke Dock.
My earlier investigations were focused on the historic towns commercial property grant scheme; funded by the EU through European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), but they have been hampered by the county council's refusal to provide me with priced Bills of Quantities (BoQs) on the grounds that the contractor's rates are "commercially confidential". (Taken for granted) (Information blackout)
I have appealed to the Information Commissioner and await his verdict.
Denied the hard evidence,l I was left to speculate as to how a competitive tendering exercise (allegedly) could possibly lead to £224,000 being spent on doing up a 35 sq metre shop (25 Dimond Street) especially as the finished article can't be worth much more than a hundred and fifty grand.
In the final analysis my speculation proved to be close to the mark because, by some process which I don't pretend to fully understand, the final cost was £92,000 (see Joining the dots).
Of course I have my theories, but they are no substitute for hard facts, though it is noticeable that there has been a huge change in the tender : final account ratio since I made known my interest in the subject (see Joining the dots).
However, as anyone with a scientific education knows, correlation is not proof of causation, though it may indicate that the matter is worthy of further study.
As reported earlier, Pembrokeshire County Council have refused my FoI request for the priced bill of quantities on the grounds that the builders rates were "commercially confidential".
However the unpriced bill did at least enable me to make comparisons between what was in the original contract and the work that was actually carried out.
And I have to say the resemblance is hardly striking.
However, as luck would have it, I came across just the sort of information I was seeking during the recent public audit inspection.
There up on the computer screen were details of two Pembroke Dock projects: the final account for the former Coronation School and a similarly detailed interim claim for 16-19 Commercial Row and both containing the "commercially confidential" builder's rates.
So, I took the opportunity to print them off.
The interim claim for Commercial Row signed off by the "architects" Kinver Kreations includes a sum of £45,000 for 410 sq metres of new Spanish slates - roughly 100 sq metres for each of the four properties.
I can say with some confidence that at least three-quarters of this roof area has not been blessed with new Spanish slates.
But the former Coronation School is easily the most productive area of investigation because this involves a priced final account together with an architect's certificate confirming that the work had been done and that the builder was due a certain amount from the client.
In this case the client was Mr Cathal McCosker, the builder G & G Builders (Pembrokeshire ) Ltd and the architects Pembroke Design.
In all other instances the "architect" was Kinver Kreations.
The client engages the architect who then puts the job out for tender and recommends the contractor who offers the most attractive terms.
During the course of the contract the architect will issue interim certificates telling the client how much the builder is due to be paid and, on completion, a final certificate detailing the cost of the completed works.
There must have been 12 interim payments because this final certificate was, by happy coincidence, Number 13.
Where grants are concerned, the architect's certificate serves two purposes.
Firstly, it informs the client how much he owes the builder and, secondly, the client produces it to the grant-awarding body (in this case PCC) as proof that the work has been done and that the grant money (usually a percentage of the total cost) is due.
So, the higher the cost, the bigger the grant.
One thing that immediately struck me was the sum of £13,086 for "H14: Take off roof coverings to Boys and Girls toilets".
My first thought was that this might be a twelve inch thick reinforced concrete roof that had been constructed as a bomb shelter during the Second World War, but then I noticed: "H15: Take of roof timbers to Boys and Girls toilets £1,204"
Having some experience in this area, I would estimate that a couple of labourers could do this work in two days at most.
If that seems profitable then what about "AW 201: Rebuild left and right chimneys/turrets £11,531" which doesn't appear to have been done at all.
And just to rub it in there is "AW 101: Scaffolding to chimneys/turrets £2,400."
Then there is the matter of "provisional sums".
For the uninitiated, these take two main forms.
First they are a sort of contingency sum to cover unforeseeable expenditure.
The county council's guidance for applicants under the commercial property grant scheme contains a perfectly clear definition:

Contingency sum - Payment will be calculated on the actual cost (my emphasis) of the project and no payment will be made in respect of any money from the contingency sum remaining unspent.

Provisional sum - This is a set figure included in the specification by the agent [architect] to cover a specified, but unquantifiable element of work e.g. where dry rot has been identified, but the extent of treatment required cannot be accurately ascertained until some opening up work has been undertaken.
The cost of the work can then be taken out of the provisional sum and the payment recalculated (my emphasis) as set out above.

In other words the work will be remeasured to arrive at the price to be paid.
The Bill of Quantities, especially on renovation projects, will often contain a round provisional sum for this type of work and when the final account is prepared this sum will be taken out and amount the work actually cost will be included in its place.
Unusually, the final account for Coronation School contains both the provisional sum for the replacement of defective roof timbers (£400) and the amount for actually doing the work (£4,120).
Similarly, there is a provisional sum for steelwork of £13,000 and two amounts: £5,983 and £1,031 for the work actually done.
So, it seems, it is possible to have the penny and the bun!
There was also a provisional sum "G16: Repairs to windows £40,000" presumably because until the scaffolding was erected it was impossible to know just what was involved.
It seems that whoever prepared the Bill of Quantities (BoQ) was a pretty good guesser because this £40,000 figure also appears in the final account.
I will leave it to you to judge how likely it is the that the cost of the actual work required was, when recalculated , exactly the same as the contingency/provisional sum in the BoQ.
All I can say is that, even with a margin of error as small as +/- £1,000, the chances of hitting the target to the nearest penny is 1/200,000.
It is perhaps fitting that this project was part-financed by a Heritage Lottery grant
And there were several more such contingency/provisional sums in the BoQ all of which were exactly on the button.
One that caught my eye was "G18: external works £20,000".
The design statement in the planning application is revealing because it describes these external works as: "A suitable and comprehensive landscape [will] be prepared and implemented in the first planting and seeding season following the occupation of the building and that any species that fail are replaced by a more robust alternative in order to maintain an attractive communal garden for the residents."
The sum of £20,000 has been included in the final account though "the attractive communal garden" consists of nothing more than a couple of loads of concrete chippings spread over the school's former playground (cost a couple of grand at most).
Though, when I visited the site recently, I did notice not a few robust weed species had taken root.
Must remember to put the hoe in the car next time I'm passing that way.
There is a second type of provisional sum which covers work to be carried out by a specialist subcontractor such as the electricity board where the BoQ will contain a rough estimate of the cost and the main contractor will be reimbursed for the actual cost plus profit and attendance.
The BoQ for Coronation School contains a number of these e.g. "G09: Water connection (provisional sum) £9,000" and "G10: Electrical connection (provisional sum) £60,000."
These figures are, in defiance of the laws of probability, exactly replicated in the final account.
It is not as if Pembroke Design can have any excuse for including in the final account work such as the chimneys/turrets that was never done because their offices are just a few doors away down the same street.
Nor can they roll out the lack-of-resources excuse because I notice that their fees for the job came to a juicy fifty grand.
And we might ask why the council's project coordinator didn't notice that the final account that he signed off included work that simply hadn't been done
Of course you might ask what advantage there is for the client if he pays the builder more than the job is worth just to get a few grand in extra grant money?
After all, if you pay the builder £100,000 and obtain a grant of £20,000 (20%) you are forty grand worse off than if you paid him £50,000 and got a grant of £10,000.
Well, the way these grant scams usually work is that there are in effect two contracts.
One is for consumption by the grant awarding body, when the object is to inflate the price (and the grant) as much as possible, while doing the least possible amount of work.
The second is between the client and the builder and involves only paying for the work done.
When grant rates are high e.g. 70% for structure and fabric repairs under the ERDF commercial property grants, it only takes a little imagination to arrive at a situation where the grant covers the cost of all the work, and more.
In response to my earlier articles on this subject, Plaid Cymru leader Cllr Michael Williams forced the matter onto the agenda for the Audit Committee on 17 June.
The draft minutes of that meeting record that the Director of Finance and Leisure said the Internal Audit Service had been asked to review the situation and ". . . a report would be submitted to the committee in due course (my emphasis)"
And that the committee resolved ". . . to await a report from Internal Audit when completed (my emphasis)."
A rather leisurely approach to the council's finances, if you'll forgive the pun.
It reminds me of the Irishman who was asked if there was anything in his language equivalent to the Spanish word manana.
"Nothing that conveys that sort of urgency", he replied.

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