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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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National 20mph limit comes into force in Wales next year

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WALES will be the first UK nation to impose a 20mph default speed limit following a vote held in the Senedd yesterday (July 12). The Welsh Government voted to limit residential roads and busy pedestrian streets to 20mph. 

According to the Welsh Government, this will lessen the likelihood and severity of accidents involving vulnerable road users. It will also encourage more people to cycle and walk. 

39 members of the Senedd voted in favour, while 15 members voted against. 

The new national default speed limit will come into effect from September 2023. The Welsh Government say the changes affect residential roads and busy pedestrian streets. 

According to the Welsh Government, the modifications have an impact on major pedestrian routes and residential roadways. The Welsh Government is still deciding which highways will have 20mph speed restrictions and which ones should stay at 30mph.

The 22 councils in Wales will collaborate with Go Safe to determine implementation timelines, according to the Welsh Government, but enforcement will continue throughout the transition period.

Climate change minister, Julie James, stated: “The future of our towns and cities depends on our ability to move around sustainably and on solutions that have a positive impact on public health environment and communities.

“That is why we will use the principle that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and a 20mph default speed limit will help achieve this. The introduction of a national 20mph limit would be an important and far reaching policy. If passed Wales would be the first country in the UK to introduce the change. We’re asking you all to be part of this change and make our communities understand the wider benefits of 20mph.

“This change is a generational one and when the time to embed, it will need to be accompanied by an important communication and marketing campaign and behaviour change initiatives. Achieving behavioural change is challenging but Wales has previously shown that we can do it successfully with policies such as organ donation, the banning of smoking in public places, and limiting the use of plastic bags. It does, however, require a collaborative effort between agencies, local authorities and by communities. We need to bring speeds down.”

She continued, saying there is evidence that 20 mph speed limits encourage more people to bike or walk, and she hoped this would lead to people naturally choosing those modes of transportation.

According to Ms. James, 80 people die on Welsh roads on average each year, and current data shows that 30mph is the speed at which 53 percent of accidents occur.

The immediate cost is about £33 million, but according to the Welsh Government, increased road safety brought on by slower average speeds could generate a positive financial return of about £25 million over the course of 30 years due to the money saved on fewer emergency services and hospital visits.

Additionally, the policy might result in significant wider economic gains from increased road safety (£1.4 billion), environmental and health gains from increased active travel (£5 million), and additional unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies.

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Large number of NHS staff in Wales currently off work as Covid cases rise

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HEALTH MINISTER Eluned Morgan has said Wales is in the “midst of a new wave” Covid infections” and that around 1 in 20 people had the virus last week.

According to ONS data, it’s estimated that 149,700 people tested positive for COVID-19 for the seven days to 30 June.

Ms Morgan said a large number of NHS staff in Wales are currently off work because they have Covid-19.

Updating Senedd Members on the current situation in Wales, the health minister said: “Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a steady rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Wales.”

“We are in the midst of a new wave of infections, caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subtypes of the omicron variant.”

“These are fast-moving, highly infectious forms of the virus, which are causing a surge in infections across the UK and in many other countries around the world.” She said.

Public Health Wales reports the current dominant variant in Wales is the BA.5 variant of omicron.

The latest results of the ONS’ Coronavirus Infection Survey estimate 4.93% of the population in Wales had Covid-19 in the week ending 30 June – equivalent to approximately one person in 20.

This has increased from an estimated 1.33% of the population (one in 75) from the week ending 2 June.

Across the UK, the estimated prevalence of coronavirus ranges from 3.95% in England to 5.94% in Scotland for the week ending 30 June.

Ms Morgan said: “As we have seen in previous waves, the increase in cases in the community, has led to an increase in the number of people being admitted to and treated in hospital for Covid-19.”

“The latest available information shows there are now more than 960 Covid-19-related patients in Welsh hospitals and there has also been an increase in number of people with Covid-19 being treated in critical care.”

She said: “The NHS has been working incredibly hard to provide planned care for people across Wales and to reduce waiting times, which had built up over the course of the pandemic. This task becomes more difficult when pandemic pressures increase.”

“Some hospitals have taken the difficult decision to restrict visiting to prevent coronavirus from spreading among patients and staff; others are asking all visitors to wear face coverings.”

“We are not making face coverings mandatory in health and care settings , but I would encourage everyone to wear one if they are visiting a healthcare setting and I would also ask people to consider wearing a face covering in crowded indoor public places, while cases of coronavirus are currently high.”

“We have extended the availability of free lateral flow tests for people who have symptoms of coronavirus until the end of July.” Ms Morgan said.

She added: “There are a number of other simple steps everyone can take to keep themselves and Wales safe.”

These include:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Maintain good hand hygiene
  • Stay at home and limit your contact with others if you are ill
  • Wear a face covering in indoor crowded or enclosed places
  • Meet others outdoors wherever possible
  • When indoors, increase ventilation and let fresh air in.
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Following Boris Johnson’s resignation, who could replace him as Prime Minister?

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MOST prime ministers would have resigned over any one of the scandals to engulf Boris Johnson’s government. Johnson, never one for tradition or rules, rode out nearly every crisis – but the Chris Pincher affair was the final straw.

Led by Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, over 50 members of Johnson’s government resigned in a day and a half. Johnson has now resigned as party leader, vowing to remain PM until a new leader is chosen.

Johnson was not a typical leader, and his successor will have a difficult job.

They will need to strengthen the Conservative party before the next general election (which could come sooner rather than later).

They will need to distance themselves from the more problematic aspects of Johnson’s legacy, while steadying the ship and appealing to the electorate.

Here are the likely runners and riders for this seemingly impossible task:

Ben Wallace

While not perhaps as well known as some of the candidates, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is considered a serious contender. He has been pivotal in the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was clear in the run-up to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that action was needed to evacuate UK citizens and others in danger. He did not resign from Johnson’s cabinet, which might count against him, but he certainly looks like a strong candidate. Early polling suggests Wallace is the candidate to beat, but the campaign will test his early popularity.

Penny Mordaunt

Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt is not necessarily a household name, but she is very respected within the Conservative party. Mordaunt was a short-lived but well-respected defence minister and recently Royal Navy reservist. She previously served as secretary of state for international development (before the department was merged with the Foreign Office). Like Wallace, Mordaunt stuck by Johnson over the last few days, but her popularity within the party might allow her to overcome that issue, particularly if she can play up her pro-Brexit credentials.

Rishi Sunak

The former chancellor was considered the leader in waiting in the early stages of the pandemic. His early successes with the furlough scheme elevated his status and profile, but his star faded fairly quickly. Questions over his wife’s tax status and wealth generally made Sunak seem out of touch with voters. He was also, along with Johnson, fined by police over lockdown parties in Downing Street. While he remains a strong candidate, he might have wished that his opportunity to stand for leader had come sooner.

Sajid Javid

Javid has the distinction of having resigned from a Johnson cabinet twice. His first resignation, from his role as chancellor just before the pandemic, was driven by his desire to appoint his own staff. He was invited back into cabinet after Matt Hancock’s resignation. While considered by many within the party as a very capable MP, with a working-class background that would count in his favour, some worry Javid showed a lack of judgment in rejoining the Johnson cabinet.

Nadhim Zahawi

Zahawi came to public prominence when he spearheaded the vaccine rollout. His time as education secretary has been viewed positively, but his move to the Treasury less than two days before telling Johnson to resign have made some question his motives. Perception that he allowed personal ambition to override his moral compass is likely to hurt Zahawi. He will need to answer for this when asked by the party and country.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was out of the country for Johnson’s downfall. She returns as a possible contender for party leadership.

Liz Truss

Currently overseas on official business, the foreign secretary will undoubtedly be thankful not to have been caught up in the chaos of this week. But is she too absent? While considered by many a “safe pair of hands” she is not a dynamic candidate for leader, and it is doubtful whether she can become an electoral asset to the party. If the Conservatives want a safe choice instead of another “exciting” leader to follow Johnson, Truss may have a shot.

Dominic Raab

The deputy prime minister is another potential leader in waiting. He has occupied a number of cabinet roles including secretary of state for Brexit, foreign secretary and now justice minister. While he certainly has a high-ranking position, he has had a number of missteps. As Brexit minister, he finished off the negotiations his predecessor David Davis began, then resigned because he couldn’t accept the deal he helped to finalise. As foreign secretary, he was criticised for his lack of speed during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. That, coupled with his earlier comments calling British workers the “worst idlers in the world” before he joined the cabinet, make him a long shot for Downing Street.

The rest of the pack

On the backbenches, there are expected to be at least three potential candidates – former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, prominent Brexiteer Steve Baker, and well-respected backbench MP Tom Tugendhat. For any backbencher wanting to catapult themselves into Downing Street, the ride is likely to be bumpy. A track record of success is usually needed. This is harder for a backbencher, either because they have never been in cabinet, or because they have left cabinet (usually after being asked to). These individuals have a long road ahead of them.

There will be others who may want to scope out their prospects with the party. Cabinet secretaries Priti Patel or even Jacob Rees-Mogg might test the water, but they are likely to find it cold.

The battle ahead will inevitably have its twists and turns, and it is almost impossible to predict the outcome. Many within the Conservative party, and perhaps the country, will be hoping for less exciting times than they have recently lived through.

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