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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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Llanelli bus depot to close after 100 years

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THE LLANELLI HERALD understands that the Llanelli Bus Depot at Inkermans Street will be closing its gates for good. 

The Bus Depot has served the local community for approximately 100 years, Drivers will now be sent to work from depots in Carmarthen, Swansea and Tycroes. 

All services will remain in the the town, this newspaper can confirm, and our reporter was told that there will not be any redundancies. 

One bus driver told us that he and he co-workers were “not completely happy”, but the unnamed source added “At least we still have jobs to go to.” 

Further updates are expected on this developing story.

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MARK DRAKEFORD, The First Minister of Wales has announced a two week ‘fire break’ lockdown from Friday October 23 at 18:00 HRS, to last until Monday November 9 at 00:01 HRS

Mr Drakeford said: “This firebreak is the shortest we can make it. It must be sharp and deep in order to have the impact we need it to have on the virus.”

All non essential businesses, including tourism businesses will be told to close.

Businesses have been told that they will be given £1000 each automatically to help with the economic impact of the shutdown.

Mr Drakeford added that children will be the priority and that childcare facilities will open as normal. Primary schools will open after half term.

Secondary schools will be closed for a week after half term to help control the virus.

Universities will offer a mixture of face-to-face learning and learning via video link. Students must stay at their university accommodation during the lockdown.

Responding to the Welsh Government’s announcement of a Wales-wide lockdown, Paul Davies MS, the Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament, has called the lockdown “not-proportionate” and is calling on the Welsh Government to be “open and transparent” on the evidence to support a lockdown and if the First Minister is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns every month.

Paul Davies MS said: “Sadly, the First Minster has failed to get public support for this second Wales-wide lockdown, failing to be open and transparent about the evidence to justify this lockdown and what his actions will entail for the future.

“The Welsh Government also has to be honest that this road they are taking us down is committing Wales to rolling Wales-wide lockdowns. This is not a two-week break to solve the pandemic, it is likely that we will see regular lockdowns across the rest of the year. The Welsh Government must be clear what actions they are taking during the lockdown to prevent further Wales-wide lockdowns which will have a significant impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

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“The First Minister needs to urgently come to the Welsh Parliament and answer these questions, to face effective scrutiny by elected representatives and not run his government by media.”

Preseli Pembrokeshire MP, Stephen Crabb told The Herald: “The evidence to support an all-Wales lockdown is weak and I am sceptical that this so-called ‘fire-break’ will tackle the situation in those parts of Wales where infection rates have been out of control. The key issue for Welsh Government to address is what will be done differently after the firebreak ends in those parts of Wales where infection rates have spiralled out of control. Otherwise the whole of Wales risks being dragged back into a series of rolling lockdowns.

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Drakeford to make decision on ‘fire-break’ lockdown in Wales by Monday

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WALES is facing a national lockdown lasting at least two weeks in plans described as a “fire-break” by the first minister.

He said a decision was likely to be made on Monday, while talks continue with health officials, scientific advisors and councils over the weekend.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

Responding to the speculation First Minister, Mark Drakeford, is set to announce a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in Wales, Welsh Conservative health spokesperson, Andrew RT Davies MS said: “I implore the First Minister to think again before heading down this path.

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“Only yesterday, the former director of communicable diseases at Public Health Wales, Dr Roland Salmon, said a circuit-breaker is likely to fail and the Welsh Labour Government should listen carefully to his warning.

“Earlier this week, Welsh Conservatives called for the urgent resumption of shielding in Wales with a substantial package of support to ensure the financial, physical and mental well-being of those most at risk is protected.

“This should be the immediate action taken by ministers along with prioritising PPE and testing in the problem areas in Wales such as hospitals, care home, universities and meat factories.

“It’s not too late for the Labour Government to reconsider and choose a different approach in Wales.”

Mr Drakeford warned that 2,500 people were now being infected with coronavirus every day in Wales, with critical care units in hospitals full.

“A successful fire-break would re-set the virus at a lower level,” he added.

Together with a new national set of rules for the whole of Wales after the fire-break period we would have slowed the virus down enough to get us through to Christmas.”
Plaid Cymru has been calling on Mr Drakeford to introduce the circuit-breaker without delay, while Labour at Westminster says a similar approach should be adopted in England.

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