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Council ‘expresses interest’ in Tai Cantref

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Cantref’s Aberystwyth development

Cantref’s Aberystwyth development

THE HERALD can reveal that Carmarthenshire County Council has been engaged in discussions with the Welsh Government and consultants engaged by troubled housing association Tai Cantref to take over the social housing provider.

Confidential documents relating to the plan were received at both Herald Offices on the morning of Wednesday (Apr 13), the same day as a behind closed doors discussion of the matter took place in County Hall, Carmarthen.

While the content of both sets of documents varied they accorded on the central issue: Carmarthen County Council approached the Welsh Government on regarding very soon after it was publicly announced the housing association was seeking a partner for merger.

After that initial approach, we understand that at the beginning of April the Executive Board responded to an enquiry from Tai Cantref representatives and confirmed it would be interested in partnering with the association.

The Herald can confirm, however, that what is contemplated by Carmarthenshire County Council is not a merger of equal partners in an enterprise, but an acquisition by the Council of Tai Cantref’s business and properties as a close fit with the Council’s existing mission to provide affordable housing.

Tai Cantref Housing Association Ltd is based in Newcastle Emlyn and owns 1,477 homes and employs 72 staff.

Despite being based in Carmarthenshire, only 174 of Tai Cantref’s homes are in Carmarthenshire. The remainder are in Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys, with the overwhelming majority based in Ceredigion.

WHAT HAPPENED AT TAI CANTREF?

Last July, The Welsh Government commissioned external consultants Campbell Tickell to review and investigate three distinct lines of enquiry at Cantref: governance of the organisation, procurement irregularities and HR (treatment of staff). That report was delivered in December and has been kept under wraps ever since.

The investigation arose following ‘whistleblowing’ by either past or current Cantref employees.

A confidential source has claimed to us that the report ‘is damning about the organisation’s culture, governance, treatment of staff.’

Specific allegations had previously been made to The Herald that Cantref was short of money to pay for repairs to its properties and that over £200,000 had been paid to a HR Consultancy to carry out what was described to us as ‘a botched pay review’.

The Herald has been told that Cantref is struggling to find people to take up residence in its new Felinfach development while the student accommodation built in Aberystwyth, and which was intended to fund further projects, has proven a similarly hard sell.

After the report was delivered to the Welsh Government, the Chair of Tai Cantref stood down, shortly followed by the Chief Executive, Lynne Sacale.

An interim Chair, Kevin Taylor, was appointed, while the sister of Carmarthenshire Executive Board member Hazel Evans was engaged as an interim Chief Officer.

Since January, a Carmarthenshire County Council officer, Jonathan Morgan, has been seconded to Tai Cantref. The Herald understands that since the report by Campbell Tickell was received by the Welsh Government, staff from Ceredigion County Council and Bro Myrddin Housing Association have also been involved at different stages.

While the Campbell Tickell report found no signs financial impropriety of any description at Tai Cantref, focussing on issues with the Association’s management regime and controls, a number of lenders are considering withdrawing facilities they have provided to Tai Cantref.

Should those facilities be withdrawn, Tai Cantref would be trading while insolvent.

Information in our possession shows that its lenders have given a Tai Cantref a very short timescale to secure a partner for merger or acquisition.

The Association has previously expressly denied that its search for a partner was anything to do with the report prepared by Campbell Tickell.

THE WAY FORWARD

The acquisition of Tai Cantref by a local authority would be a first in Wales, and is potentially one which requires a redrafting of the rules governing Welsh housing associations.

In addition, there would need to be a very thorough ‘due diligence’ exercise and the approval of the Welsh Government for the acquisition or merger.

Furthermore, The Herald understands that taking over Tai Cantref would entail Carmarthenshire County Council either guaranteeing the Association’s existing borrowing or loaning it money to pay off existing lenders. On checking the legal position, we understand that the Welsh Government may need to consent to such a move – providing the lenders approve it.

On the plus side of the move, the acquisition of Tai Cantref would certainly chime with Carmarthenshire County Council’s rural homes and Welsh language policies.

However, questions arise about partnership with a Council, which, under the previous Labour-led administration, effectively abandoned its own housing estate at Brynmefys, is necessarily a good match for Tai Cantref. It also remains to be seen whether the continuing uncertainty about the future structure of Welsh local government will have an impact on the proposal’s viability.

Even if there was no change in local government in Carmarthenshire, future cuts to local authority spending seem more likely than not. In the latter circumstance, Council Tax payers in Carmarthenshire would be entitled to wonder why they were propping up an Association whose properties were overwhelmingly outside the county.

REACTIONS TO THE HERALD

Cllr Linda Evans, Carmarthenshire’s Executive Board Member for Housing, said: “Carmarthenshire County Council has submitted an Expression of Interest to be considered as a preferred partner to Tai Cantref Housing Association.

“The Council shares many of Tai Cantref’s core values, especially in relation to the Welsh language and affordable rural housing. This would give us the opportunity to work in partnership to develop that relationship and to deliver our vision for quality affordable and social housing.”

Carmarthenshire County Council leader Emlyn Dole, who The Herald believes is passionately behind the potential deal, said: “I would be disappointed if a member of the council has broken their declaration to abide by the National Code of Conduct, and breached this ethical code of behaviour by releasing exempt information.”

The Herald has confirmed to the Council that its story comes from several sources and that councillors have not discussed it with us. A statement from Ceredigion County Council said: “The Council is aware that the Board of Tai Cantref has established a process to select a ‘preferred partner’ as part of the constitutional changes and organisational re-configuration that are being pursued by the association at present.

“The selection of the partner is the responsibility of the Board of Tai Cantref and whichever organisation is selected, we will look forward to working with them in both a strategic and operational capacity in the future to ensure that the interests and ambitions of Ceredigion are promoted.”

A spokesperson for Tai Cantref told us: “Tai Cantref can confirm that following its announcement that it intends to merge with a suitable partner that can complement its business, there has been a great deal of interest from a number of organisations.

“We are currently analysing and working through the detail of what potential mergers would look like and it would be inappropriate to comment on specifics at this time.

“However, the service and support we provide our tenants is our number one priority and at the heart of everything we do. In order to ensure we continue providing the best service possible to our tenants and to grow and develop as an organisation, Tai Cantref considers a merger the best way forward.

“We hope to announce more detail on specific discussions that are taking place in the near future, but in the meantime we will continue to implement changes recommended within a recent review by the Welsh Government, to ensure Cantref is as strong as possible as we engage with potential partners.”

Ceredigion’s Plaid Cymru AM Elin Jones has urged the Welsh Government to step in to ensure that the needs of tenants and the long-term future of social housing in Ceredigion are fully considered in any decision to merge the operations of Tai Cantref with another housing association.

Elin Jones said: “Tai Cantref has a longstanding history in Ceredigion and beyond. The vast majority of its stock is based in Ceredigion. It has strong community credentials and is a fully bilingual housing association.

“Any takeover by a housing association from outside the area risks the integrity and continuity of Tai Cantref’s work. Social housing needs local control, not a takeover by a large company from elsewhere.”

Taken at their face value, it would appear that Elin Jones’s words more than match the aspirations of Carmarthenshire County Council in relation to Tai Cantref.

The Herald understands that more than one expression of interest has been received relating to Tai Cantref and that other potential suitors include another larger housing association.

(Left to right) - Elin Jones: ‘Social housing needs local control’ - Linda Evans: Confirms Council’s interest - Lynne Sacale: Departed CEO Lynne Sacale

(Left to right) – Elin Jones: ‘Social housing needs local control’ – Linda Evans: Confirms Council’s interest – Lynne Sacale: Departed CEO Lynne Sacale

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Outdoor hospitality given go-ahead and rules on mixing outdoors relaxed in Wales

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SIX people will be able to meet outdoors in Wales from Saturday 24 April while outdoor hospitality will be allowed to reopen from Monday 26 April as cases of new COVID-19 infections continue to fall, First Minister Mark Drakeford has confirmed today.

The current rule provides for up to six people (not including children under 11 years of age or carers) from a maximum of two households to meet outdoors.

The new rules from Saturday will allow six people (not including children under 11 years of age or carers) to meet outdoors.

People should observe social distancing from people from outside their household or support bubble when meeting others outside.

The rules for meeting indoors remain unchanged.

The First Minister has also confirmed outdoor hospitality will be allowed to reopen from Monday 26th April 2021.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford said: “The public health context in Wales remains favourable, with cases falling and our vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength. Because meeting outdoors continues to be lower risk than meeting indoors, we are able to bring forward changes to allow any six people to meet outdoors.

“This will provide more opportunities for people, especially young people, to meet outdoors with their friends. This will undoubtedly have a significant positive impact on people’s wellbeing.

“I’m also pleased to confirm outdoor hospitality will be allowed to reopen from Monday 26th April.

“These changes will help the hospitality sector recover after a difficult twelve months.

“It is thanks to the continuing efforts of people across Wales we are able to introduce this change. Together, we will continue to keep Wales safe.”

On Friday (23rd April 2021), the First Minister will confirm further relaxations to the covid rules that will come into force on Monday 26 April 2021.

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Scientists issue urgent appeal for help on ground-breaking Covid genetic study

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SCIENTISTS involved in a ground-breaking COVID-19 genetic research study are urgently asking people across Wales who caught the virus to donate a small amount of blood to their project.

To help encourage as many people as possible to join the study, volunteers are now able to quickly and easily book an appointment for a nurse to visit their home and donate a sample.

The unique GenOMICC COVID-19 Study, which is being delivered in Wales through Health and Care Research Wales, analyses the genes of people who have had the virus to discover why some experienced mild or no symptoms while others became extremely ill. The study is already contributing to the fight again COVID, with preliminary results helping identify possible new treatments.

study open to anyone who caught COVID but didn’t need hospital treatment

However, for the study to continue to make progress, the scientists urgently need to recruit 2,500 more people from all backgrounds. Along with seeking the help of members of Asian and Black communities, they’re also keen for more men to volunteer.

The home appointment system has already proved popular when the scheme was launched in Scotland and Bradford earlier this year – and with lockdown restrictions beginning to be eased in Wales, organisers are hoping for a similar response from people across the country.

“This study has one key objective – to help us understand why COVID-19 has impacted different groups in different ways,” said Dr Matt Morgan, Consultant in Intensive Care Medicine at the University Hospital of Wales and Specialty Lead for Critical Care at Health and Care Research Wales.

“Across the UK, a disproportionate number of people who ended up in hospital have been male as well as people with Asian and Black heritage – that’s why we need people from these groups in particular to join the study as soon as possible.”

“If you are eligible, please register and join the project. You’ll be making a direct contribution to helping improve our knowledge of the virus and discovering new ways of beating it.”

scientists issue urgent appeal for assistance to help them identify new treatments

Dr Kenneth Baillie, the study’s Chief Investigator, said: “We’re appealing for more volunteers from all walks of life to come forward and register. We need to find people who tested positive for COVID but experienced either mild or no symptoms and didn’t require hospital treatment. To maximise the study’s potential, it’s important these volunteers are similar in age, gender and ethnicity of those people who were severely affected and hospitalised.”

Professor Sir Mark Caulfied, Chief Scientist at Genomics England added: “The quicker this research can be completed, the faster we can solve the COVID-19 puzzle and protect vulnerable people.

Genetic research into COVID-19 is now playing an increasingly important role in our fight against the virus, enabling us to identify new forms of the virus and develop treatments.

“The findings from the GenOMICC COVID-19 Study will improve the treatment, care and outcome for those most at risk and lower the number of deaths.”

Dr Nicola Williams, Director of Support and Delivery at Health and Care Research Wales, said: “It’s vital we learn as much as possible about COVID-19 and to do that we need people to volunteer to take part in research. By introducing an appointment booking system, the GenOMICC COVID-19 Study is giving people the opportunity to contribute to potentially life-saving research from their own homes. These contributions can help provide the evidence we need to give all patients the best possible outcome.”

The research project is open to anyone who tested positive to COVID-19 but experienced mild or no symptoms and didn’t require hospital treatment – volunteers can register online here.

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A Llanelli household is hospitalised following reports of an “unknown substance”

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REPORTS of an “unknown substance” at a Llanelli property led to a multi-agency operation.

Police, ambulance and the fire service descended on a property in a village, just outside of Five Roads, Llanelli,  following reports of members of the household feeling unwell and the presence of an “unknown substance”.

Three members of the household in Five Roads, Llanelli, Carmarthenshire were taken to hospital as a precaution.

Emergency services were alerted to members of the household feeling unwell and the presence of an ‘unknown substance’ on Sunday, April 11 at 7.30am.

The ambulance service were first on the scene with one rapid response vehicle, four emergency ambulances and the Hazardous Area Response Team and were supported by police and the fire service.

A spokesperson for the Welsh Ambulance Service said: “We were called to a residential property in the village of Five Roads, Llanelli at 7.30am on Sunday, April 11 to reports of three people needing medical attention.

“We responded with one rapid response vehicle, four emergency ambulances and our Hazardous Area Response Team.

“Three patients were taken to Glangwili Hospital, Carmarthen, for further treatment.”

Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service (MAWWFRS) assisted the police and ambulance service, deploying a specialist officer and an Environmental Protection Unit to the property.

The service ventilated the property and remained on the scene until 5.29pm.

A MAWWFRS spokesperson said: “At 7:44am, crews from Llanelli were called to assist the ambulance service and police at an incident in a property in Five Roads, Llanelli.

“An unknown substance was found at the property and its occupants reported feeling unwell.

“The occupants were taken to hospital by the ambulance service.”

“The incident was contained to one property and there were no concerns for the wider community of Five Roads.”

A Dyfed-Powys Police Spokesperson confirmed the force assisted in the multi-operation incident.

A spokesperson said:: “Members of one household in the village were feeling unwell, and were taken to hospital for assessment.

“They were found to have no medical concerns.

“Following examination of the scene by a number of agencies, there was no cause for further investigation into the incident.”

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