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‘Fundamental flaws’ cost Welsh taxpayers

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Welsh TaxpayersFUNDAMENTAL flaws in the way the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was managed, overseen, and advised, cost Welsh taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, according to a National Assembly for Wales committee.

RIFW was set up as an arms-length body by the Welsh Government to sell off land around Wales including in north Wales, Monmouthshire and Cardiff and use the money, in conjunction with European funding, to reinvest in areas in need of regeneration.

But the Public Accounts Committee found that the body was poorly managed, poorly overseen by government, and that, because of a change in the direction of RIFW, from one of regeneration to property asset disposals, some of the Board members felt they lacked the necessary knowledge and expertise to fulfill their roles.

It also learned that the Board was not presented with key information regarding the value of the land in its portfolio, or of expressions of interest from potential buyers. Fifteen plots of land, originally supposed to be sold separately, were instead sold as a single portfolio at a price which did not take into account potential use of the land in the future. This decision resulted in Welsh taxpayers missing out on tens of millions of pounds of funding. The Committee learned that one of the organisations charged with offering expert advice to the Board, Lambert Smith Hampton Ltd, had previously acted on behalf of a director of the buyer of the land, South Wales Land Developments Ltd (SWLD), and signed an agreement to do so again one day after the sales went through.

The Committee concluded that the RIFW Board had been poorly served by its own expert advisors.

Members also agreed that, in light of South Wales Land Developments Ltd onward sales, the Welsh Government’s contention that it is not possible to demonstrate that the sale was under value, is unconvincing, pointing to the following as evidence (overage is an agreed sum of money to claw-back in addition to the sale price if the buyer meets certain conditions):

  • The Rhoose site was purchased from RIFW for less than £3 m, without overage, and sold on by SWLD for nearly £10.5 m;
  • The Abergele site was purchased from RIFW for £0.1 m, without overage, and sold for £1.9m.
  • Lisvane, near Cardiff, was / is the ‘jewel in the crown’ and should have been disposed of via a properly marketed open and competitive sale process. The Committee believed it incomprehensible that this was sold to SWLD at an agricultural land value of £1.835 million (even with overage) when its potential open market value for residential housing is at least £39 million.

“The Public Accounts Committee’s inquiry into the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) has been one of the most significant and deeply troubling inquiries undertaken by the Committee,” said Darren Millar AM, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.

“The fact that one of the largest sales of publicly owned land in Wales should have generated tens of millions of pounds more for the taxpayer than it did, is inexcusable.

“While the Committee found the concept of RIFW to be innovative, we concluded that it was poorly executed due to fundamental flaws in Welsh Government oversight and governance arrangements, and that the Fund was poorly served from those appointed and trusted to provide the Board with professional advice and expertise.

“It is regrettable that many of the flaws we identified are consistent with issues this Committee has considered during previous inquiries.”

The Committee makes 18 recommendations in its report including:

  • The Welsh Government must strengthen monitoring and oversight arrangements of its arms-length bodies and, in particular, ensure that any concerns are swiftly identified and escalated internally;
  • That measures are put in place to ensure that Board Members have the appropriate expertise and capacity to fulfil their duties and receive adequate and appropriate induction training, and;
  • The Welsh Government should ensure that robust overage arrangements are considered whenever it disposes of public assets that possess future development potential.

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was established in December 2009 in response to the constrained financial climate which restricted access to capital for investment in regeneration in Wales. RIFW was created as a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) wholly-owned by the Welsh Government. RIFW’s purpose was to invest £55 m initially in urban regeneration schemes across Wales, comprising £25 million of European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and £30 m of Welsh Government funding. The Welsh Government provided RIFW with £9.4 m cash, and a portfolio of 18 land and property assets valued in existing use at £20.5 m , based on a valuation commissioned by the Welsh Government.

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Politics

North Wales Commissioner to stand down

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PLAID CYMRU Leader Adam Price has paid tribute to North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones who has announced he is standing down at the next election.Mr Jones of Plaid Cymru is the region’s second-ever police and crime commissioner and has been PCC since 2016, and the next election had originally been due to take place last May but the vote was put back a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Arfon Jones said: “The main reason I have decided not to seek re-election is that I will have been working for more than 46 years by the time of the next election.“As a result of the pandemic, the term of office was extended for a year. I started thinking about this last May but I didn’t talk to anybody else about it until three months ago.

“I have achieved a lot in the past five years and it is going to be more difficult to make a difference next time because of the pandemic, Brexit and the fact that the term of office has been curtailed to three years.”

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price MS said: “We are indebted to Arfon Jones for his tremendous contribution as the Police and Crime Commissioner for north Wales.“From launching Checkpoint Cymru – a project to address the underlying causes of offending; commissioning over £2 million worth of services to support victims of crime; leading the charge in tackling domestic violence and to more recently keeping our communities safe during the Coronavirus pandemic, Arfon’s considerable achievements in office are a testament to his commitment to the constituents he serves.

“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I would like to thank Arfon Jones for his contribution to Welsh public life and send him our warmest wishes for the future.Plaid Cymru Chair Alun Ffred Jones added: “From safeguarding the most vulnerable in our society, protecting our communities and preventing offending and reoffending, Arfon Jones’s tireless work has helped make North Wales a safer place.


“A true public servant, he will be remembered for representing the people of north Wales with determination and for fighting to ensure that the voices of victims of crime are heard within the justice system.


“On behalf of Plaid Cymru, I wish him all the best for the future.”Mr Jones succeeded Winston Roddick in the Police and Crime Commissioner role and had a 12,000 majority over Labour’s David Taylor in the last Police and Crime Commissioner elections in 2016.The elections for the role of Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales are scheduled for Thursday, May 6, the same day as voters head to the polls in elections to the Welsh Parliament.

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Taskforce returns empty homes to use

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MORE than 500 applications have been received to bring empty homes back in to use through Welsh Government’s £10 million Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Grant Scheme, Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters has announced.

Phase One of the initiative was launched a year ago by the Deputy Minister, and Chair of the Valleys Taskforce, after a successful roll-out across Rhondda Cynon Taf.The scheme is open to homeowners across the extended Valleys Taskforce, which runs from Carmarthenshire in West Wales to Torfaen in East Wales. Its boundaries were also extended last year to include the Gwendraeth and Amman Valleys.

Phase Two of the scheme, launched in July 2020, will ensure even greater numbers of local businesses are used to bring empty homes back to life and incentivise applicants to use more energy-efficient measures within their renovations. Not only will this help to reduce carbon emissions it will also result in lower energy bills for future residents.

While the scheme will see some applicants going on to live in their refurbished properties, other properties will be brought in to use for social housing by Registered Social Landlords, helping to increase the supply of affordable housing.Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport Lee Waters said: “A year ago, I announced that following the success of a Rhondda Cynon Taf scheme, we were opening a £10 million Welsh Government Empty Homes Grant scheme across the whole of the Valleys Taskforce areas.“It is heartening to see that scheme progressing well, with over 500 applications already received and I hope many more to come. 

Of course, this year has been challenging for everyone but despite the pandemic causing a delay on the scheme for many months, and the floods that impacted many Valleys areas, we have seen great progress.

Local authorities have worked hard to roll out this scheme in their areas and provide the necessary match funding to make this success and I would like to put on record my thanks for their hard work.“With strengthened criteria, which we developed collaboratively with local authorities and other stakeholders, this scheme has not only brought empty properties back in to use but has also supported the foundations of our local economies by providing work for small local businesses in the construction sector.

The retrofitting element also means it is supporting our decarbonisation agenda while also reducing energy bills for the future.“I look forward to seeing the full results of this Valleys Taskforce scheme  and will work closely with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to use our learning to influence and develop a future empty homes schemes for the whole of Wales.”Mike Roberts, from Carmarthenshire, applied to Phase One of the scheme. He said: “My house had been empty for more than two years and desperately needed to be restored to a decent standard.“The Empty Homes Grant Scheme was a great help and allowed me to carry out essential works all at once.


“There was a formal process and a range of forms to complete but my grant was approved and the work has been done. I am delighted.”To be eligible for the Valleys Taskforce Empty Homes Scheme, homes need to have been empty for at least 6 months. Applicants to the scheme are also restricted to one grant per person and in cases where repair work exceeds £20,000, will have the option to apply for the Welsh Government’s Houses into Homes scheme.

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Politics

Call to replace the Lords

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OVERHAULING Parliament’s London-dominated second chamber would help empower the UK’s nations and regions, writes Willie Sullivan a senior director at the Electoral Reform Society.

It’s been a year since Boris Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election, an election won with a commitment to ‘level up’ those communities left behind.

Since then, our politics has been shaken by a pandemic that has put pressure on the already strained constitutional settlement that holds the nations and regions of the UK together.

We’ve seen attention turned to local and regional government as well as the devolved administrations. We’ve seen clearly how the over-centralising nature of Westminster can hamper and undermine public trust. The video of Andy Burnham first hearing news of Greater Manchester’s Covid funding settlement at a live press conference will go down as a low point in Britain’s patchwork devolution framework.

This is all set to the backdrop of declining faith in our politics. At the same time as the PM was returning to Number 10 last winter, polling for the Electoral Reform Society showed that just 16% of the public believe politics is working well in the UK – and only 2% feel they have a significant influence over decision-making.

For a government publicly committed to a levelling up agenda, this democratic malaise must serve as a warning: it will take more than economic investment or shiny new infrastructure to remedy the feeling of powerlessness that many feel outside of Westminster.

Tackling that will require some long-overdue reform. The calls for a clear framework for devolution in the UK have become impossible to ignore in recent months. Even areas of England with mayors felt sidelined this year, but the picture was even worse elsewhere – with zero guarantees that local people would be consulted on changes that would affect their lives immeasurably.

There’s a good way to start empowering the UK’s nations and regions: overhauling Parliament’s unelected second chamber.

Abolishing the outdated and unaccountable House of Lords offers a chance to rebalance politics away from Westminster – and create a representative Senate of the Nations and Regions.

Recent Electoral Reform Society analysis found that nearly a quarter of peers are based in London, compared to just 13% of the UK public. Over half – 56% of peers – live in the capital, or the east and south-east of England, while peers in the east and west Midlands make up just 6% between them – leaving many areas in which the Conservatives won seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ woefully underrepresented.

It should be said, this is only peers we know about: more than 300 refuse to state even the country they live in (some live overseas), and hundreds more do not even provide a direct email address for people to get in touch and stand up for their areas.

All this undermines the government’s stated intention to ‘level up’ the regions, when we have a chamber that is skewed towards one patch of England.

Reforming this London-dominated second chamber is a rare issue that is highly popular across all parties. 71% of the UK public back an overhaul of the House of Lords, research showed this year. The issue cuts across Britain’s divides, with an overhaul backed by a majority of those who voted Conservative or Labour in the 2019 general election, and those who voted Leave or Remain in the EU referendum.

As well as levelling up representation – with peers elected using a fair, proportional voting system – a genuinely accountable second chamber could establish a guaranteed voice for the regions of the UK, to speak as one, to scrutinise legislation and our constitutional settlement with clear communities in mind. The UK remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe – and the archaic, power-hoarding set-up in Westminster has a big role to play in why this is.

The pandemic has shown just how important it is for those outside the capital to be truly heard. There are many reasons why voters had more confidence in their governments’ Covid responses more in Wales and Scotland, but having a stake – being genuinely ‘in it together’ makes a big difference.

This is a challenge to all parties, from Boris Johnson as he tries to plot a path for recovery for the UK, to Keir Starmer as he begins to outline his own view of devolution.

One thing’s clear: the London-dominated House of Lords is undermining the voice of local communities. A Senate of the Nations and Regions could be the gamechanger we need.

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