Public Service Ombudsman for Wales

Jan 022017
 

It’s difficult to know where to start with this rather complex story. Maybe we should go back to 2008 and the Welsh Housing Quality Standard, presented as an attempt to improve the standard of social housing. The WHQS was in fact nothing more than the Decent Homes Standard that operated in England. Another example of ‘Welsh’ legislation being just renamed and repackaged English legislation. Though in this instance, there was one very important difference, to be found in this National Assembly document, which says . . .

If the ‘Welsh’ Government can fund housing associations and also fund councils that retain their housing stock, then surely it can find the money for ALMOs? To argue otherwise doesn’t make sense. Limiting the choice to those options might make sense though to those in the social housing sector who saw WHQS as a weapon that could be used to get local authorities to hand over their housing stock. But do housing associations really exert such influence?

Well, consider this. The umbrella body for housing associations in Wales is Community Housing Cymru (CHC). From July 2006 until July 2014 the group chief executive of CHC was Nick Bennett. Prior to that he’d been a Spad for a few years until October 2002 and in between he’d been a director of Cwmni Cyfathrebu Bute Communications. Another director of this long-defunct company was Alun Davies, who had not long before switched his political allegiance from Plaid Cymru to Labour, and would be elected as a regional AM in 2007.

So Nick Bennett was in business with a rising star in the Labour Party – who’d already stood for the party in Ceredigion in the 2005 UK election – and this would have done him no harm when he applied for the post of group chief executive of Community Housing Cymru in 2006. Bennett’s strong links with ‘Welsh’ Labour also explain why he got the job of Public Service Ombudsman for Wales in July 2014.

In addition, many housing associations, particularly in the south, are stuffed with Labour Party members and supporters, and the party goes out of its way to help these associations. A recent example would be the takeover of Cantref by Wales and West. I’ve written about this disgraceful episode a few times, my posts can be traced back from Cantref: ‘Welsh’ Labour Takeover Challenged?

Cantref is a housing association based in Newcastle Emlyn, operating in a bilingual area with bilingual staff. It hit a rocky patch and a scavenger soon appeared in the form of Wales and West Housing, whose chief executive is Anne Hinchey, wife of Cardiff Labour councillor Graham Hinchey. Business is now conducted in English only and ‘Welsh’ Labour has an important beachhead in an area where it has very little electoral support.

The latest example of the influence housing associations exert over the Labour Party and its ‘Welsh’ Government comes with the news that, “In September (2016), the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced housing associations should be considered part of the public, not private, sector. But the Welsh Government promised to take “whatever steps are necessary” to reverse the change, following concerns.”

The key to understanding what’s going on here is, firstly, that these “concerns” come from housing associations and their umbrella organisation Community Housing Cymru. I am not aware of anyone – other than CHC’s fifth column inside the ‘Welsh’ Government – who believes that housing associations becoming public bodies is a bad thing.

The reason given for opposing the ONS initiative is, “Community Housing Cymru (CHC) said it could affect their (housing associations) ability to borrow money and to build new homes.”

Let us look at the first of those claims that, if reclassified as public bodies, housing associations would find it more difficult to raise private funding. Which suggests that housing associations are now borrowing considerable sums from banks and other financial institutions. But are they? In my investigations into housing associations I have found little evidence that they rely on commercial loans. So where does housing associations’ income come from?

The largest and most obvious source of income is rents from their housing stock, most of which they inherited from local authorities. Yes, these properties have to be maintained and improved, up to Welsh Housing Quality Standard, but as we’ll see below, the ‘Welsh’ Government – i.e. you and me – pays for it all! And there are other funding streams, as I explained in Housing Associations – The Great Deception. (Nov 17, 2015.)

As I said back then, “One of the facts unearthed is something called Dowry Gap funding, paid to certain housing associations for them to use in upgrading the housing stock they’ve inherited from councils under voluntary transfer (i.e. through a vote by tenants). This funding is currently being paid to ten housing associations and in 2015 – 16 the total cost will be £43.8m. Tai Ceredigion Cyf’s ‘Dowry’ will be paid at the rate of £1.6m a year for 30 years. If this 30-year term applies to the other, larger housing associations, then the total cost will be £1.3bn.

This Dowry Gap funding seems to complement the Welsh Housing Quality Standard legislation, which demanded that all RSL properties be up to WHQS standard by 2012. This deadline – and its funding of £108m a year – has now been extended to 2020. Introduced in 2004 and running to 2020, £108m a year totals up to £1.7bn.

Adding the two we get a total figure of £3bn for ‘improvements’. Seeing as Wales has 143,790 RSL properties, this works out at almost £21,000 per property! (Is this right? Will somebody please check the figures.) That is a lot of moolah for windows and doors, especially when we accept that many of the dwellings inherited from local authorities were in good condition, certainly not needing ‘refurbishment’ to the tune of 21 grand per property.”

Another lucrative source of ‘Welsh’ Government funding for housing associations is the Social Housing Grant. The latest figures I have tell us that between 2008 and November 2015 £771,708,622.59 was paid in Social Housing Grant.

We are talking billions of pounds of public funding going into social housing. Perhaps four billion pounds by 2020.

The second part of housing associations’ objections to becoming public bodies is that they claim it could affect their ability “to build new homes”. Why? They’d still have the income from their rents, and they’d still receive public funding. This claim is just baseless scaremongering done to hide the real objections those running our housing associations have to them becoming public bodies.

As things stand, housing associations, or Registered Social Landlords as they’re also known, have the best of all possible worlds. They operate as private companies, but with massive advantages over what we would normally consider to be private companies.

To begin with, most of them inherited their housing stock for nothing when council tenants were given a vote (often after receiving misleading information). Then, as I’ve just explained, they receive staggering amounts of money from the public purse, despite, with their assets, being able to raise private funding just like other businesses. Being registered as Industrial and Provident Societies with the toothless Financial Conduct Authority means that they are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act – yes, despite all that public funding! Finally, oversight and monitoring by the ‘Welsh’ Government is non-existent.

This last fact explains how we can have a situation in which a publicly-funded RSL like Pembrokeshire Housing can set up and fund a subsidiary, Mill Bay Homes, for it to build and sell homes on the open market to retirees and investors (with of course Mill Bay Homes having an unfair advantage over independent house builders in the county).

When Pembrokeshire Housing will get back the millions of pounds it is has ‘loaned’ to Mill Bay Homes is anyone’s guess . . . but why should you worry when nobody in the ‘Welsh’ Government seems in the least concerned by this bizarre arrangement. I have written about Pembrokeshire Housing and Mill Bay Homes many times. Work back from Welsh Social Housing, A Broken System (Oct 23, 2016) to Mill Bay Homes and Pembrokeshire Housing 2 (June 14, 2016).

Those of you who enjoy a good read should settle down with this report into the workings of the Pembrokeshire Housing Group compiled by a concerned member of the public. (No, not me.) It has been circulated to interested parties, too many of whom seem to believe that if they whistle and look elsewhere the embarrassment will disappear.

But there are so many other problems with housing associations.

The most recent stock transfer seems to have been in Gwynedd, in 2010, when the council transferred its housing stock to Cartrefi Cymunedol Gwynedd (CCG). Among the first things CCG did was to hand over the maintenance contract for its properties to English company Lovell, which then brought in sub-contractors from north west England. I saw this first-hand in my village, and wrote about it in The Impoverishment of Wales (Aug 26, 2014).

Another issue I recently unearthed was that of housing associations leasing properties from shady offshore companies, the biggest of which is called Link holdings (Gibraltar) Ltd. I wrote about it in a piece entitled, unsurprisingly, Link Holdings (Gibraltar) Ltd (Oct 10, 2016). Equally unsurprising is that the ‘Welsh’ Government’s civil servants don’t want to talk about this scandal, ‘All a long time ago . . . leases taken out by previous incarnations . . . stop bothering us’. But nothing changes the fact that Welsh housing associations in 2017 are putting a lot of public money into companies hiding in tax havens. Should public money be used in this way?

A long-standing problem with housing associations, perhaps more visible in rural areas, is that in order to appear busy, to pretend there’s a demand in order to keep the funding coming, they will often bring into Wales misfits and petty criminals. This was certainly an issue with Cantref. Note the reference in the information below to “young tenants from the hostel”. I’m told that Cantref brings in from England young tearaways and within a very short time extended families of scruffs and roughs are wandering Aberteifi. Other housing associations do the same, because it pays well.

One of the worst cases in recent years was the gang of paedophiles and rapists housed in Kidwelly by Grwp Gwalia. I wonder how much Grwp Gwalia was paid to inflict these creatures on a small Welsh town? Were those responsible ever reprimanded or sacked? Did Grwp Gwalia compensate the victims?

It was in attempting to get information on this case that I realised housing associations are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act. Because when I asked for details a door was slammed in my face . . . a heavy and expensive door paid for with public money.

Finally, before leaving this section, let’s ask ourselves exactly who is complaining about the ONS proposal to make housing associations open and honest public bodies? Well we can be sure that the minions employed by our RSLs don’t have a direct line to Stuart Ropke, Nick Bennett’s successor as Group Chief Executive at Community Housing Cymru. The opposition is coming from much further up the food chain.

From people like the £150,000 a year chief executive of RCT Homes. After that bit of bad publicity RCT Homes rebranded itself as Trivallis. Most people in the Central Valleys are still trying to figure out what Trivallis means, and how much it cost to change everything. But, hey, it’s only public money, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

With social housing we have bodies operating in a Twilight Zone that allows them to pretend they’re private companies, free from bothersome FoI requests and any worthwhile official scrutiny, yet enjoying assets they did nothing to build up while having their finances constantly topped up by the public purse. With overpaid CEOs pretending they’re part of the business community.

Registered Social Landlords are part of the Third Sector, that monkey that we must shake from our backs if we are to build up a healthy economy and a prosperous country. Wales is over-dependent on hand-outs, but instead of using even that funding wisely, far too much of it is passed on in further hand-outs. This is trickle-down economics Welsh style.

The fundamental problem with the Third Sector in Wales is not that it exists – for there will always be shysters looking for some ’cause’ to exploit in their own interest – but that it is so interwoven with the ‘Labour movement’; which in itself might not be a problem were it not for the fact that ‘Welsh’ Labour is the recipient and distributor of the handouts.

We should be thankful to the Office for National Statistics for giving us this chance to clean up the expensive mess that is social housing in Wales. We should grasp this opportunity with both hands and make our housing associations public bodies, open to public scrutiny.

The worst possible outcome would be for the ‘Welsh’ Government to be swayed by individuals like Nick Bennett, Stuart Ropke, the £150,000 a year CEO of Trivallis, and too many others with a vested interest in maintaining the indefensible status quo.

To maintain that status quo would be to pander to a selfish, sectional interest against the national interest. Of which we have seen far too much since 1999.

♦ end ♦

P.S. Here is my submission to the Public Accounts Committee for its Inquiry into the Regulatory Oversight of Housing Associations.

Jul 202014
 
No insult intended to any reptiles reading this.

NO INSULT INTENDED TO ANY SNAKES OR REPTILES READING THIS ARTICLE.

Wales is a small country, and once you start delving into the darker recesses of public life you uncover organisations of which you’ve never heard, you discover avenues of questionable funding, and you see names cropping up over and over again. This interconnectedness is not healthy; especially when so many of the shadowy groups and individuals influencing political decisions in Wales have minimal knowledge of our country and serve agendas that are dismissive of or hostile towards the best interests of the Welsh nation.

Everywhere you look in the public life of Wales you find English-run organisations of limited or negligible benefit to Welsh people yet enjoying wholly disproportionate political influence and seemingly unlimited funding. In fact, the more I study how Wales is run, the clearer it becomes how badly the interests of the indigenous Welsh are served. Seventeen years on, those who voted devolution into existence are a forgotten and neglected people.

Here are some examples that should help explain what I’m condemning.

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In my previous post I dealt with the bright young things of the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre. Though as questions remained unanswered about the structure of the group I sent an e-mail to the parent body, the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (an object lesson in short, snappy names, these people). The reply, from Diana Clark, Executive Officer, began, ‘Dear Roy, I hope you are keeping well’. I don’t know the woman, so the unwarranted familiarity was mildly offensive. Recovering my composure I perused the information Ms Clark supplied. On WTSWW managementthe left you will see the management team, though I have no idea why this can’t be made available on the website. Maybe some of these names will register with readers. The chief executive seems to be yet another fairly recent arrival in our country, who also serves on PONT . . .

I know, you’ve never heard of PONT, and neither had I. The acronym stands for Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth (Grazing, Nature and Heritage), here’s a link to their website. It appears to be yet another publicly-funded environmentalist group with a fig leaf Welsh presence to disguise its real intention, which seems to be curbing ‘over-grazing’, perhaps a euphemism for farming (though Georges Monbiot’s name is not on the website). I assume PONT is still in existence, for I see ‘Copyright 2014’ at the foot of the page, but no Annual Report after 2010. If PONT is still in existence, and still receiving funding from the ‘Welsh’ Government (as shown on other Annual Reports), there should be a more recent Annual Report available.

Maybe PONT had a hand in persuading Alun Davies, recently sacked Minister for Environment and Food in the ‘Welsh’ Government to reduce funding to our farmers and transfer it to “rural development projects” back in January. In other words, to Greens, hippies and other invaders who don’t give a toss about us Welsh. Note how the department name even avoids using the words ‘agriculture’ or ‘farming’. More on Alun Davies later.

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Returning to the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, the over-familiar Ms Clark also provided me with the company structure of her organisation (click on panel to enlarge). All fairly straightforward, and easy enough to understand, even for those who don’t like flowcharts. I was however drawn to the mention of Autumn Peaks down towards the bottom, and described as a ‘dormant trading company’, so I did a little investigating.WTSWW structure

The first thing I discovered was that the name given is incorrect. According to Companies House the correct name is Autumn Peak Ltd., based at ‘The Nature Centre, Fountain Road, Tondu, Bridgend’, and that it is still active with the next Returns due on November 8th this year. (The company number is 03262690.) Yet it is described in the 2013 WTSWW Accounts thus: “It (the WTSWW charity) also wholly owns a dormant subsidiary, Autumn Peaks Ltd which also operates two charities as inactive companies, Glamorgan Wildlife Trust Ltd and Wildlife Trust West Wales Ltd”.

Turning to DueDil I learned that the very forward Ms Clark became Autumn Peak’s Company Secretary on February 11th, 2008. The only other directors being Dr. Ruth Watkins and Mr Peter Gerald Hunter. There have been thirteen directors since the company was formed in 1996, by the Glamorgan Wildlife Trust Ltd, all of them now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, apart from the aforementioned Ms Clark who, at 55, is a mere slip of a gel, which may account for her flibbertigibbet attitude in dealing with business correspondence.

Of more interest were the figures provided on Autumn Peak by DueDil, which suggest that as a ‘trading company’ it was not a great success. By December 2000 it was well up Shit Creek with total liabilities of £170,000. How did a nature reserve run up debts like this? Did this ruinous adventure pave the way for the merger in April, 2002 with Wildlife Trust, West Wales Ltd? Was public funding used to resolve the situation?

DueDil WTSWW

In the flowchart you will see another company mentioned, this one still active, DWT Ltd. It was not straightforward to track down because, again, the company name is given wrongly; it is in fact DWT (Enterprises) Ltd, company number 02702793. Registered at the same Bridgend address as Autumn Peak Ltd, and incorporated on April 4th, 1992, over four years before the ill-fated Autumn Peak.

This subsidiary is described thus in the 2013 Accounts: “The Charity (the WTSWW) owns the whole of the issued ordinary share capital of DWT (Enterprises) Ltd, a company registered in Wales (Company No: 2702793). This subsidiary is used for non-primary purpose trading activities – namely the provision of holiday accommodation on nature reserves,
catering for visitors and the retailing of bought-in goods to visitors”. The company secretary is Gillian Clark.

The chart for DWT (Enterprises) Ltd suggests that it took on the debts of Autumn Peak and has limped along ever since. While not as far up Shit Creek as Autumn Peak managed to get it has definitely turned into that side stream with liabilities in excess of assets for the past four years.

DueDil WTSWW 2

The third company listed in the flowchart is ‘WTSWW Ltd’, a name that, again, will get you nowhere unless you have the full name, which is of course, The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales Ltd. The company number is 04398959, and it’s a private company limited by guarantee and listed as a non-trading company in the business of “Botanical and zoological gardens and nature reserves activities”.

The chart for WTSWW Ltd looks pretty healthy; cash in the bank of £910,936 and net worth of over £2.5m. Though this may be a little misleading as Companies House makes reference to nine outstanding mortgages, which almost certainly accounts for the bulk of the assets. The company secretary is, again, Ms Diana Gillian Clark. In fact she is listed as company secretary for five companies; in addition to the three mentioned here, we can add The Wildlife Trust (West Wales) Ltd and The Glamorgan Wildlife Trust Ltd. She took on all five posts in January and February 2008.

DueDil WTSWW 3

The WTSWW is also a registered charity, number 1091562. And it’s there you can find the most recent set of accounts. The accounts confirm, under ‘Tangible Fixed Assets’ just under £1.5m in ‘Freehold Nature Reserves’ Among a multiplicity of other fascinating facts contained therein my eye was drawn again to the name DWT (Enterprises) Ltd (the still active trading arm), where I learnt that this company returned a trading loss of £5,035 yet spent £137,205 on staff costs! I shall repeat that for the hard of reading: This company spent over 137 grand employing staff who obviously possess as much commercial nous as your average Labour politician or, for that matter, Third Sector scrounger. In total – salaries, wages, social security and pension costs – the Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales spent £546,899 on staff. So where did it come from . . . cos it sure as hell didn’t come from the ‘trading arms’!

Donations and Gifts amounted to £106,685; Legacies came to £266,444; Fundraising brought in 72,197; and Grants £970,712. Of the latter figure (p25) the greater part comes, by one route or another, from the ‘Welsh’ Government. One grant I would like more information on is the one listed simply as ‘S106’ for exactly £100,000. Update 21.07.14: It seems that S106 refers to a community infrastructure levy paid by developers to local authorities. So which local authority gave the WTSWW £100,000? This levy is supposed to be used for community benefits – how does that apply in this case? There may be a good reason why the Trust is so vague about the details. (Diolch i AK.)

The way the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales operates could be described thus. It persuades old dears not to leave all their money to cats homes; it begs from anyone else with money, including the ‘Welsh’ Government; but the WTSWW raises very little itself of the cash it spends on buying up parcels of Wales in order to provide further employment and recreation for its friends. Now this might be acceptable if the work done was beneficial to the Welsh people, but it’s not. Though if the ‘Welsh’ Government does deem this work to be important then, rather than throwing money at people who clearly couldn’t run a whelk stall, why don’t they do it themselves and provide employment for the people they claim to represent?

If the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales was a private company it would have gone bankrupt long ago. But it’s not a private company, and it has a great advantage over private companies in an unending supply of funding from external sources. Which means that these hectoring and manipulative poseurs can be nonchalant with how they spend that money, which leads to trading arms that run up massive debts, or subsidising the beach bums of the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre and other holiday camps for the English middle class.

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Many of you will have missed the news that Nick Bennett is the new Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. ‘Who the hell is he?’ I hear you shout. Well, for some years prior to taking on his new job he was, from July 2006, chief executive of Nick BennettCommunity Housing Cymru, the umbrella organisation for housing associations. Reading of Mr Bennett’s new appointment made me remember my only contact with him.

It came in a rather strange way, just before Christmas 2010. I had sent a letter for publication to the Wasting Mule. In it I asked Nick Bennett why Welsh housing associations were taking in criminals and other undesirables from England. The letter was not published but instead I received a remarkable e-mail from Pat English, the Mule‘s Letters Editor, which began: “Mr Jones, here are the detailed answers to your points, from Nick Bennett …”

In over forty years of writing to newspapers and other publications I have never received a response in that manner. In his lengthy reply that followed Pat English’s intro one phrase Bennett used confirmed for me that Welsh housing associations are linked to and co-operating with their English counterparts. For in among the denials and unconvincing excuses was this revelatory gem: “There are over two million people on waiting lists for social housing . . . “ ‘Over two million’ – in Wales! For this, remember, was written by the chief executive of Community Housing Cymru.

So what else do we know about Nick Bennett? Well, from November 2000 to October 2002 he was a special adviser (spad) to Mike German, one-time leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Notional Assembly. Then (on his Linkedin front page) there is a gap until April 2004, when he becomes a director of Cwmni Cyfathrebu Bute Communications Ltd, company numbeJohn Lastr 05076125. The other directors were Professor John Last and a Mr Alun Davies. The professor, originally from Liverpool, and a retired academic, is still a busy man, serving on the St. Asaph Diocesan Board of Finance and the Bodelwyddan Castle Trust. The panel (right) is taken from the Glyndŵr University website, for Professor Last is a former governor. A perfect exemplar for those who populate the upper reaches of ‘Welsh’ public life. The other director is of course, Alun Davies AM, the recently sacked Minister for Environment and Food.

Bute 2Let’s look at recent Welsh political history to see if it can offer any clues to Nick Bennett’s career. From 2000 to 2003 there was a Labour-Lib Dem coalition down Cardiff docks, in which his boss Mike German was Deputy First Minister. This would have allowed spad Bennett to put himself about, to ‘network’ and ‘touch base’ with those who mattered, especially in the Labour Party. This probably accounts for him going into business with Alun Davies. From 2003 to 2007 Labour had an overall majority, so we can be certain that his friendship with rising star Davies didn’t do him any harm when he applied for the job of Group Chief Executive at Community Housing Cymru. Coming up to date, Bennett was appointed to the post of Public Services Ombudsman in March 2014, when Alun Davies, his former business partner, was still a popular and influential minister in the ‘Welsh’ Government. Naught but coincidences, of course.

Having mentioned Bennett’s earlier business venture with Alun Davies, Bute Communications, it seems only right and fair to mention another; one that looks suspiciously like another ‘trading arm’ of a publicly-funded Third Sector body. It is called – for it still exists – ‘Community Housing Cymru – Policy and Research Ltd’. The graph suggests another great example of Third Sector ‘enterprise’. Current liabilities exactly match current assets, with net assets (i.e. book value) of £1, and a turnover of considerably less than your average whelk stall.

Community Housing Cymru 1

And now Nick Bennett is the Public Service Ombudsman for Wales. Within his jurisdiction will be all his old friends in the housing associations, who can be guaranteed to generate many complaints. Those bodies that he assured me do not import criminals, ‘problem families’ and other riff-raff from England (though he was unwilling to put it in writing in the Wasting Mule). His years spent smooching politicos will probably ensure that no one with good political connections will ever feel the wrath of his office. Welcome to the nest of vipers that is public life in Wales!

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This is a truly amazing system, one I have written about over many years. A sphere of Welsh life run by, and for the sole benefit of, those with little business acumen and weak links to Wales (but often strong connections to the Labour Party).

Politicians – Labour, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat – see nothing wrong in showering these incompetents with billions of pounds of public funding to do what could be done cheaper, more efficiently, and with more accountability, by either the private or the public sector. As an example of the amounts involved, since 1999 over one billion pounds has been given, from a single funding stream (Social Housing Grant), to housing associations.

Whereas in healthily functioning democracies commercial interests spend money lobbying politicians and trying to influence legislation for their own financial gain, this being Wales – where private enterprise and commercial activity is regarded with the greatest suspicion – the government actually funds Left wing and Green pressure groups to produce ideas to be turned into legislation that then results in further support and funding for those very same groups!

When the inevitable corruption, incompetence and financial disasters occur, the ‘Welsh’ Government’s natural reaction is to hush it up and / or pour in more money. Made easier by the absence of a national media capable of anything more demanding than regurgitating press releases, and self-justifying Third Sector reports, as ‘News’.

This is the road to national destitution, and explains why Wales is getting poorer, year on year, compared to just about every other part of Europe. Also less democratic. This system must be dismantled if Wales and the Welsh people are to prosper.