Finding myself at a loose end I did what I often do to ward off ennui – I delved into StatsWales, a site I recommend to anyone with a strong stomach who is free from high blood pressure or problems with their cholesterol levels.
And here’s a link to the Buyer’s Guide. In a nutshell; you need to come up with 5% deposit, 75% mortgage, and then you apply for a 20% equity loan from Help to Buy – Wales to complete the purchase of a new-build home. It’s basically a programme to stimulate the building industry.
Going through the various tables, and making comparisons, certain anomalies began to appear, anomalies which, when I gave them some thought, were rather worrying, for it was difficult to think of an acceptable or innocent explanation for some of the curious data confronting me.
Diving in . . . why have there been 1,339 completions in Newport (population 151,485, 2017 mid-year estimate) but only 326 in Cardiff (362,756, ditto)? Or why should there have been 768 completions in Flintshire (155,155) but only 205 in neighbouring Wrexham (135,571)? Moving to the south west we see that Carmarthenshire (186,452) completed 645 while in neighbouring Pembrokeshire (124,711) it was just 191, while up the road in Ceredigion (73,076) it was a measly 21!
Moving down the list, a table I found very interesting was the one dealing with house prices, which is worth spending some time on because it raises more questions about the workings of the Help to Buy system. Let me explain what I mean.
Earlier we noted that there were many more properties bought with Help to Buy in Carmarthenshire than in Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion combined. The table suggests that this may be due to most of the properties sold in Carmarthenshire being under £150,000, which would suggest that there the scheme has been used to help first-time buyers, who reassuringly made up 80% of sales, one of the highest percentages in the country. By comparison, the first-time buyer figure for Torfaen was just 59%.
The figures for Merthyr I find very strange. Without wishing to do the area down, I was surprised to see that 68% of the Help to Buy properties there were priced at over £150,000. For Carmarthenshire – where property values are higher than Merthyr – the figure was just 24%. The figure for Swansea is 25%, and for Blaenau Gwent, the other Heads of the Valleys authority, it’s 22%.
So why are people buying such expensive houses in one of the poorest areas of a poor country?
For most areas – even Merthyr – there is a tailing off as we approach the £300,000 limit, which is to be expected. Yet in the following local authority areas the top price bracket shows an increase in completions over the cheaper band preceding it: Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrexham, Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Torfaen.
For Flintshire, the figures are striking: 99 completions in the £200,001-£225,000 bracket, 105 in the £225,001-£250,000 band, and then a leap to 150 in the top £250,001-£300,000 band. Which means that 89% of the properties bought in Flintshire using Help to Buy were priced at over £150,000.
According to the Land Registry, the average house price in Flintshire in June 2017 was £162,703 (and has since dropped). For Merthyr the figure was £98,172. The figures for all local authority areas are available here, scroll down.
In the hope of pulling everything together I decided to compile a table of my own. (Available here in pdf format.) The columns show, from the left:
The local authority.
The area’s population from the ONS’ mid-year estimate for 2017.
A breakdown of the prices of properties bought with Help to Buy (split into four bands rather than the eight supplied by StatsWales).
The total number of Help to Buy completions.
The number and percentage of first-time buyers.
The average house price for each area in June 2017, supplied by the Land Registry.
The average price paid for a Help to Buy property.
The difference between 6 and 7.
So in addition to the questions already posed, why have there been so many Help to Buy purchases in some areas and so few in others? As mentioned, the most obvious stand-out is Newport, which with 4.8% of the population accounts for 18.7% of the Help to Buy completions.
Could it be that many, or most, of the Help to Buy purchases in Newport are investments in anticipation of the expected influx of Bristol commuters? Come to that, are many of these properties being bought by Bristol buyers thinking ahead? It’s difficult to explain the Newport anomaly without bringing Bristol into the equation.
But whatever the explanation, isn’t Newport taking up a disproportionate amount of the £170m available? Is there no mechanism to ensure that all parts of the country are treated fairly?
As for Flintshire, we can reasonably assume that many of the buyers there will have come from over the border, which points up another serious shortcoming in Help to Buy.
It would be nice to think that this scheme focuses on first-time buyers, local young people buying their first home. We have the excellent example set by the three south western counties but elsewhere the picture is patchy. With 83% of Help to Buy sales in Wrecsam and Cardiff being made to first-time buyers but just 59% in Torfaen, Newport’s hinterland.
Carmarthenshire also deserves praise for the fact that 76% of the properties sold in the county with Help to Buy were priced at £175,000 or under. Which when coupled with an 80% first-time buyer figure suggests that it’s young locals being helped.
You’ll notice that in three local authorities – Vale of Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire – the average Help to Buy price is lower than the average sale price for those areas. But Monmouthshire and the Vale have the highest property values in Wales so this is nothing to worry about. While for Pembrokeshire we see that 77% of the Help to Buy properties were £175,000 or less which, when coupled with an 85% first-time buyer rate, suggest that it’s on the same righteous path as next-door Carmarthenshire.
Though I’d like an explanation for why there have been so few Help to Buy sales in Ceredigion. (And I don’t want any Cardi jokes!)
And then there’s Merthyr. I can think of no good reason why most of the properties bought there with Help to Buy were priced over £175,000 when the average house price is £98,172. And why are only 67% of them first-time buyers? Somebody’s taking the piss.
Administered properly Help to Buy could have done a lot of good. If it had been limited to first-time buyers and those who had lived in Wales for a minimum of five years. But because the impetus was to build more houses, and because the more expensive the house the bigger the profit margin, ‘anomalies’ were guaranteed.
When we look at the list of participating builders we see a long list of companies, a list that contains quite a few outfits that I bet have never laid a brick in Wales.
Going back to the ‘Welsh’ Government website, those thinking of using Help to Buy are also advised to find, in addition to a builder and a lender, an approved financial advisor and an accredited conveyancer. Clicking on the links for these brings up the same long list of professionals, and again, many of them are outside of Wales. Bristol and Chester seem popular locations. (List available here in pdf format.)
As I say, properly applied and administered Help to Buy could have helped a lot of our people, and given a boost to Welsh companies, but like most legislation that passes through Cardiff docks and then into the hands of civil servants it is intended that as much as possible of the benefits spread over the border.
And inevitably, there will be some jiggery-pokery, as alliances are forged between builders, solicitors and lenders. Other may be drawn in, such as local government officials and councillors. Also, friends and family of those involved will be ‘helped’ to apply for Help to Buy.
Standing back, looking at the big picture, one thing becomes clear. By and large, the Help to Buy programme seems to have been implemented more sensibly, more fairly, and less wastefully, in those local government areas that are not controlled by the Labour Party.
It’s been a while since I wrote the previous instalment in this saga, August 6th to be precise, and even though I have no earth-shattering revelations for you, it’s clear that we are moving towards a conclusion.
In addition to this latest post being an update on the saga, I shall also use it to give some thought to what this incredible story tells us about the state of modern Wales. Basically, how the hell did Paul and Rowena Williams and their associates get away with so much for so long?
Because irrespective of what now happens to those you’ve been reading about over the past few months there are others who have questions to answer, and I might as well do the asking, because nobody else will.
WHY DID THEY GET A FREE RIDE?
The Daily Post‘s involvement in this saga is quite extraordinary in its willingness to publish any old nonsense. I have drawn up a list of the DP’s articles on Plas Glynllifon and the other Gwynedd properties since Paul and Rowena Williams first became involved.
Starting with this article on 10 June 2016 telling us that the mystery owner of Plas Glynllifon – speaking through property company Lambert Smith Hampton (LSH) – said that the renovation would take three years, and would cost an estimated £5m.
The new year brought this piece on 22 February 2017 in which the Daily Post was graciously granted access, to be told by Rowena Williams, “We hope that the project will hold dear to the Prince of Wales, who enjoyed his investiture ball here and also takes a very keen interest in our heritage and historic properties such as Glynllifon. We hope that he will be an asset to the project.”
We were not informed if Carlo had been asked to cough up a few quid towards the “£5.5 to £6.5” needed for the restoration. Maybe it wasn’t needed, for a finance package had been agreed with “Together in Manchester”. And Team Williams was also “in talks with the Welsh Government about grant support”.
On 23 May 2017 we learnt that the owners of Plas Glynllifon had enlisted the help of Lord Newborough (whose family pile Plas Glynllifon had once been), and also helping Paul Williams were “Bangor University, the Institute for the Study of Welsh Estates (at Bangor Uni), Gwynedd Archives, and other bodies”. The more the merrier!
There was now a gap until 26 November 2017, and an article headlined, “Take a look at stunning £16m transformation of historic mansion into five star hotel”, which was a bit naughty, because Paul and Rowena Williams have not spent anything approaching £16m at Glynllifon. There was no explanation for how the cost of renovating Plas Glynllifon had increased from £5.5m-£6.5m in May to £16m in November. Brexit, I suppose.
There was yet another video, this one without the Gruesome Twosome but with weird musical accompaniment. Then there were photos, of, er, scaffolding; while inside the building, we saw a bath, an organ, statues and a four-poster bed. This article, like previous ones, drew a number of positive comments, including one from ‘MarkoMarko’, who I suspect may not be local, and may even have been an employee of the Williams gang.
The final plug report of the year was on 4 December 2017. Now the focus switched to the Seiont Manor Hotel , lined up for a £5m expansion. This would involve, ” . . . extending the restaurant with the provision of a new lake view terrace, expansion of the existing leisure facilities to improve the changing and spa facilities and add treatment rooms, a purpose built lake side function suite with bedrooms above and luxury lodges in the grounds”.
The first article in the new year appeared on 7 February 2018 and the focus switched again, this time to a snowy Plas Brereton and Plas Tŷ Coch, which we were told Paul and Rowena Williams were buying. The obligatory video introduced ageing juvenile lead Rikki Reynolds, general manager of the Seiont Manor Hotel.
This new project included, “a 100 bedroom hotel with a pool, spa, restaurants and bars”. There was to be a seafood restaurant, and holiday cottages, with the Daily Post adding, “They (Paul and Rowena Williams) said the residential parts of the project will help with funding for other parts of this 240 job scheme and the ongoing restoration at Glynllifon and expansion of Seiont Manor in Llanrug, which they also own.”
Two hundred and forty jobs! This is bullshit piled so high that it must have blocked out the sun. But by this stage if Paul Williams had said he was Jesus Christ come to give us all another chance the Daily Post would have reported it without question . . . and of course with a video.
Just three days later, on 10 February 2018, the Daily Post returned to Plas Brereton and Plas Tŷ Coch, for which, we were told, “project proposals have come and gone”; but things were to be different this time with Paul and Rowena Williams and the boy wonder. Maybe, but the video was the same one we’d seen three days earlier. We also heard of a new player in “Developer Plas Glynllifon Group”, of which no one has seen hide nor hair since.
On 27 April 2018 a fire was reported at Plas Tŷ Coch. ‘Disgraceful’ behaviour according to Paul Williams (a man who knows a thing or two about disgraceful behaviour). The Daily Post took the opportunity to remind us that Plas Tŷ Coch would be restored (sic) into luxury period apartments with low density housing in the grounds of the mansion and the restoration of walled and formal gardens.
I’m losing track now of how many apartments, houses, lodges, are involved with the Williams’ properties. Add them to the hotels, restaurants, pools, spas, bars and God knows what else and it’s getting bloody crowded!
Did it never occur to anyone that this bloke might be a sinister kind of Walter Mitty?
On to 11 May 2018 when we were told that Paul and Rowena Williams intended to part-fund their ambitions in the north through the sale of those properties they owned in Powys and over the border. This was the £10m ‘sale’ to convicted fraudster Keith Partridge, which was about as convincing as a ‘Welsh Labour’ Party manifesto.
The cost of renovating Plas Glynllifon was now £20m, up from £5.5m to £6.5m a year earlier. Inflation on this scale is no problem if you’re fluent in bollocks, pluck figures out of thin air, and are trying to wangle grants . . .
We only had to wait one day, to 12 May 2018, for the next intriguing episode headed, “Take a look inside stunning Plas Glynllifon as restoration continues”. And we were treated to yet another video and more photos of scaffolding and further examples of Victorian interiors at their worst.
Giving us an effect that is quite overwrought and claustrophobic. I can only assume that this bedroom would be the Edgar Allan Poe Suite. Who’s that in the mirror!
The Daily Post went for its hat-trick with three consecutive days’ coverage on 13 May 2018, with the emphasis now shifting to the parkland and pleasure gardens around Plas Glynllifon. For the headline told us “Mansion owners in ‘advanced talks’ to take ownership of Parc Glynllifon country park”.
If this carried on it was only a matter of time before Paul Williams approached Cyngor Gwynedd with an offer they couldn’t refuse to buy the whole bloody county.
The long-awaited news of open days at Plas Glynllifon was brought to us on 6 June 2018. There was yet another video, this one confirming that a number of deliveries had been received from the local garden centre, with photos of the happy couple, scaffolding, and the Edgar Allan Poe Suite.
The cobwebs were blown away when, on 9 June 2018, we were back to the bracing air of Plas Brereton on the Menai Strait, and among fresh proposals for the site was a fishing village! So if we add that to the apartments, houses, lodges and hotels, how much accommodation does that give us? How much extra accommodation does the Caernarfon area need?
We made another slight detour on 16 June 2018 as Paul Williams’ house-trained “expert in land and heritage conservation”, dragged up specially from Cornwall, tut-tutted about the state of Parc Glynllifon and suggested that it was in such a mess it should be handed over to Paul Williams at a knock-down price.
Of the accompanying photos two were of scaffolding. (They can grow on you!)
Maybe my blog was being read at the Daily Post, for the uncritical plugs stopped and the first cloud appeared in the Williams firmament with the report of 11 July 2018headlined, “Welsh Government considering whether grant funding to mansion developers can be recouped after hotels close”, a reference to the closure of the Radnorshire Arms Hotel In Presteigne and the Knighton Hotel in the town of that name.
For all I know there might have been other articles that I’ve missed, but the 18 I’ve listed here tell an alarming tale of a gang of shysters given free access to an important source of local news. For they were allowed to say anything they wanted with nary an awkward question, let alone any journalistic digging to find out who they really were.
But as the local ‘paper the Daily Post is more guilty than others of not doing its homework on these crooks. Indeed, the other news outlets may have been attracted to Glynllifon by the endless plugs they saw in the Daily Post. Seeing as they got it so wrong with Paul and Rowena Williams we have to ask if the Daily Post will identify the next shysters arriving on its patch, or will it be more free and uncritical publicity.
Because I can predict with certainty that the easy ride Paul and Rowena Williams received from the local media, the council and others, will encourage other crooks to chance their arm in Gwynedd.
Of course, I tried to post comments to the endless ‘Aren’t they wonderful!’ stories about Paul and Rowena Williams; trying to warn people, but I’m blocked from the Daily Post and WalesOnline websites.
The question for newspapers and other media outlets before repeating press releases, or running encomiums, must always be – ‘What do we really know about these people?’ And if the answer is ‘Nothing’, or ‘Very little’, then start digging!
THE FAT LADY IS WAITING IN THE WINGS
In the previous episode I told you that Leisure & Development Ltd was in the hands of receivers and the establishments involved locked, with CCTV installed. Since then I’ve heard that Paul Williams was still getting access to some of the buildings, for example, to the Knighton Hotel, either from the flat or ground floor showroom he still owns.
The latest information I have says that an offer has been made for the Radnorshire Arms by some local nobs who hope to start refurbishment work early next year. There is also interest in the Knighton Hotel and the properties in England and Cornwall, all of which might be offered for sale very soon.
In Gwynedd, things are also moving to a conclusion. For example, in the extracts you’ve just read from the Daily Post you’ll see that Plas Brereton and Plas Tŷ Coch crop up quite regularly, with ludicrous plans for fishing villages and God knows what else – but Paul and Rowena Williams never owned these properties!
They seem to have put down a deposit but never got around to paying off the balance. The deadline to complete the sale passed on Tuesday 18 September, and so, on the reasonable assumption that the balance was not paid, Paul and Rowena Williams are now left with Plas Glynllifon and the Seiont Manor Hotel, the latter run for them by drug-dependent Rikki Reynolds.
The Daily Post couldn’t forget old habits and tried to put a positive spin on the story, as if the deal would be finalised . . . as if non-completion was a mere oversight . . . nothing to do with the money having dried up . . . the other properties being in the hands of liquidators . . . everything falling apart . . .
STOP PRESS: But, finally, on Wednesday 19 September the Daily Post was forced to submit to reality and admit that the deal had fallen through.
I now visualise Paul Williams holed up in Plas Glynllifon, something like Jean Gabin in Le Jour se Lève, chain-smoking Gauloises and ready to shoot it out with the flics receivers. (God! I must lay off the Malbec!)
But enough of 1930s French movies and the Daily Post, what about other individuals and agencies we’ve encountered in this saga, how do their roles stand up to scrutiny?
UPDATE 21.09.2018:Today the Daily Post reported that Dyfed Powys Police had met with Powys County Council trading standards officers last week to discuss the now closed Powys hotels owned by Paul and Rowena Williams.
Paul Williams was quoted as saying, “We are unaware of any meeting allegedly held between the local authority and the police in Powys. However, we are pleased to hear that they are looking into matters as this will without doubt vindicate Rowena and I.”
The Daily Post‘s reporting was again abysmal. Just two days ago, Owen Hughes, the DP’s Business Correspondent – who has written all the puffs for Paul and Rowena Williams – told us that the deal to buy Plas Brereton and Plas Tŷ Coch had fallen through, but today he wants us to believe that they’ve “agreed the purchase” of these properties.
Can’t he remember what he’s written . . . or did somebody else write it?
Not only that, but he sticks to the Williams story about these Powys properties having been sold to convicted fraudster Keith Partridge, when everyone else knows this was just a ploy allowing them to slip away and lay the blame on somebody else.
Plas Glynllifon is a Grade 1 listed building. The Radnorshire Arms in Presteigne and the Knighton Hotel are both Grade II listed buildings. (Plas Brereton and Plas Tŷ Coch are also listed.) Which means that they come under the watchful eye of Cadw, or English Heritage (West) as it is more honestly known.
Cadw/EH(W) awards grants to those owning listed properties, and so, given Paul and Rowena Williams’ talent for sniffing out easy money, it would be reasonable to assume that they applied to Cadw/EH(W) for funding. And this is what I’m told happened. I’m further told that grant funding was given.
More specifically, large amounts were given to the Powys properties, enough for Williams to claim that grants had paid for the Knighton Hotel. While in Gwynedd, it’s reported that there was a dispute between Paul and Rowena Williams and Cadw/EH(W) over a grant given to Plas Glynllifon which appeared to have been diverted to the Seiont Manor Hotel.
In the hope of getting the facts I submitted a FoI request to Cadw/EH(W), but if the reply I received is to be believed then the Williams gang haven’t received a penny. Read it for yourself.
Which means that either my informants are mistaken, or else – and I hate to even consider this possibility! – Cadw/EH(W) is telling old Jac porkies!
With Paul and Rowena Williams’ empire now reduced to Plas Glynllifon and Seiont Manor it’s worth asking what roles have been played by the local council and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai which runs the adjoining Glynllifon Agricultural College.
Cyngor Gwynedd has remained tight-lipped, saying only that Plas Glynllifon is privately owned and has nothing to do with the council. Which I suppose is fair enough up to a point, but the council must have concerns when such a prominent local building is constantly changing hands between dreamers and crooks.
So how far did these talks progress? Were they concluded with an agreement to hand over land to Paul and Rowena Williams? In light of recent developments, how difficult would it be for Cyngor Gwynedd and Grŵp Llandrillo Menai to issue a statement assuring us that no deal was done? I suggest they owe it to us.
A name that has cropped up throughout this case is that of property company Lambert Smith Hampton, and in particular Dudley James Cross, who often seemed to act as a personal advisor to Paul and Rowena Williams, or perhaps even a partner, for at one time he was a director of Leisure & Development Ltd, the company that was ‘sold’ on 1 February to Keith Partridge, but then went tits up.
You’ll notice that on his Linkedin profile Cross is Regional Head of LSH based in Northampton, but when he was director of Leisure & Development Ltd he was apparently resident in Wales, with his address given as Plas Glynllifon.
So what sort of a company is Lambert Smith Hampton that it gets involved with crooks like Williams and Partridge? Where is Cross now? Is his role in all this being investigated?
A LAND READY FOR THE TAKING
The deeper I dig and the more I learn about how modern Wales is run the more I realise how easy it is for crooks like Paul Williams to come waltzing in demanding this that and t’other. And demand that we pay for it!
Just a few miles away, at Nebo, a gang set up in a farm, and a benefit claimant threw up a seven-bedroom mansion! The police eventually raided the place. I understand this is another case from which Gwynedd’s planning department does not emerge with any credit.
All this is happening in Gwynedd, which many outside the area think of as some impregnable fortress of Welshness. The truth is its walls have been breached, and from the inside.
And yet, perversely, when I see how easy it is for people who are obviously greedy and corrupt, but none too bright, to get away with all this, then in a curious way it gives me hope.
For I see that the political machinery is old and broken, with few taking any interest in its running; the social structures that once seemed so permanent are in a state of flux; people are discontented and looking for something new; while the traditional media is discredited and dying before our eyes.
We are at a stage in the history of Wales where enough determined people, with the right message, can generate enough enthusiasm and public support to direct the political and social agenda.
Seeing as no one knows what kind of Brexit the UK government wants, and because so much of what you’re reading and hearing on the subject is either biased or just ill-informed, it falls upon Uncle Jac to shed a little light on the matter. Because there are implications in Brexit for the unity of the UK, and these are already being addressed with covert strategies that may be reported in the mainstream media but are not identified for what they really are.
To make the best sense of what follows you must understand that the whole debate has moved beyond Brexit to the point where it is now about two unions, the EU and the UK, and also the future of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Not to be outdone the Labour Party is also confused, but there we also find other issues at play.
The overall UK vote was 51.89% Leave to 48.11% Remain. In Wales 52.53% voted Leave. By comparison, Scotland voted 62% for Remain.
Since then, from the UK government, it’s been a revolving stage of pantomime, tub-thumping jingoism, farce, soap opera and slapstick, but now, as the end approaches, things are beginning to take a darker turn.
But before getting to the creepy bits let’s consider where we are with the main UK political parties.
EU membership has been a divisive issue within the Conservative Party for half a century or more. In the hope of settling things prime minister David Cameron announced in February 2016 that there would be a referendum. He also stated that he would be campaigning to stay. When he lost, he resigned.
Since the referendum it has been almost impossible to separate what passes for ‘negotiations’ with the EU from the ongoing civil war within the Conservative Party, with the internecine fighting being a prelude to the inevitable leadership contest.
We’ve now reached the stage where it seems to be the incumbent Theresa May versus Boris Johnson. ‘Bonking Boris’, reviled by ‘progressives’ and opposed by many in his own party. Yet Tories of a more pragmatic bent may see him as a winner.
Not least because Boris Johnson has achieved that priceless political status of being universally recognised by his first name. How many politicians today can say that?
And don’t forget that Johnson was elected mayor of multiracial London in 2008, beating Comrade Livingstone, and increasing his share of the vote in getting re-elected in 2012, again by beating Livingstone. There will be a number in the Conservative Party who’ll see a lesson there for a future tussle with Comrade Corbyn.
At the time of writing this the elite against whom I and many others voted in June 2016 is pushing for a People’s Vote on the “final Brexit deal”. Having lost the vote in 2016 they’re hoping for a re-run and a different result . . . but believe me, it’s got sod all to do with ‘the People’.
The English Labour Party in Wales is generally supportive of this initiative because by and large our MPs and AMs want to remain in the EU. But their leader is proving more cautious, for Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand better than his Wales-based representatives why Labour voters in the post-industrial areas and the lower socio-economic brackets voted for Brexit.
Corbyn is reluctant to further alienate this white working class, and so, sure of the loyalty of his Momentum base, and believing that his ethnic minority and middle class voters have nowhere else to go, he seems to have concluded that the best option is to keep ’em guessing.
Others in Labour are less reticent about speaking out against Brexit and in favour of a second referendum. Here in Wales Labour politicos have reminded us how much money we’ve received from the EU, which doesn’t really help their cause because too much of that money has been frittered away by successive Labour management teams in Cardiff docks with no discernible benefits accruing to the areas in need.
But what the hell! – we’ve got the biggest third sector money can buy.
He’s not alone in seeing the possibility of Brexit breaking the UK apart – it’s one of the reasons I voted for Brexit – but I’m sure he takes the side of his Tory masters and will do his best to maintain the Union. Why change the habit of a lifetime?
But Carwyn’s masters are not blind to the danger either, and are implementing measures to counter the threat, certainly in Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is, as ever, different.
Without knowing anything about the Flight of the Earls, the Plantation, Partition, or even the Troubles, most people are vaguely aware that the politics of ‘Ulster’ or the Six Counties is dominated by whether this part of Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom or whether it should join the rest of the island.
(Though this does not apply to Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who seems to have imagined a homogeneous population made up of individuals who take a pin into the polling booth.)
As things stand, those wishing to stay part of the UK remain in a majority, but a majority being whittled away year on year by demographic trends. So that by 2030 there will probably be a Catholic majority and a referendum on reunification could choose a united Ireland.
Brexit has added a new ingredient to the mix and might accelerate reunification.
Because the prospect of a ‘hard’ border after the UK exits the EU will not only be bad for business, it also raises fears of a return to violence. This has resulted in a number of people hitherto opposed to a united Ireland prepared to consider that option in order to stay in the EU. And let’s not forget that Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to Remain. The only party pushing a Leave vote was the Democratic Unionist Party, predictably following the BritNat line.
Yet one of the alternatives, that of somehow keeping the Six Counties within the UK and the EU by having the customs border somewhere in the Irish Sea, has Mrs May’s DUP allies shouting ‘No Surrender!’ and strapping on their Lambeg drums.
The other option seems to involve no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and a ‘soft’ or invisible border, with customs checks carried out by technology that doesn’t exist, or possibly by leprechauns.
The question of whether there should be a united Ireland could of course be resolved with a referendum, allowed for in the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement (Schedule 1,2). But the power to call such a vote rests with the Secretary of State. As we’ve seen, at the moment that is Karen Bradley, who thinks people in the Bogside don Orange sashes when the humour is on them.
So we’re in the absurd position of the Secretary of State having the authority to call a referendum , ” . . . if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” Which, when you consider it, is a very good reason for the British government NOT to call a referendum.
The political situation is further complicated by the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in January 2017 and seems unlikely to get back on its feet any time soon.
There is little the British state can do to influence things in Northern Ireland for a number of reasons: 1/ the Republic’s government keeps a close eye on events; 2/ Ireland is now crucial for the EU because it will soon be a land border; 3/ there’s the interest from the USA, for no American politician can ignore the Catholic Irish-American vote.
And as I’ve suggested, the UK establishment is resigned to losing Northern Ireland in 10 or 20 years time anyway due to ‘the revenge of the cradle’, so the worst Brexit can do is hurry up that process. While never having to deal again with Northern Ireland politicians is a prospect most civil servants welcome.
In Scotland, things are very different.
The 2014 Scottish independence referendum gave the UK establishment one hell of a fright and may only have been won at the last minute by the intervention of senior politicians promising everything short of independence in The Vow. Though Brexit is causing a rethink for the man behind it.
The Scots voting to Remain coupled with the growing prospect of a ‘hard’ Brexit is increasing support for Scottish independence. This has prompted the UK state go on the offensive. It’s worth focusing on two, ongoing elements of this attack.
First there’s the crude and unambivalent ‘Britification’ campaign, most visible in the packaging of Scottish goods with the Union flag. In the image below we see whisky and, even weirder, that quintessentially Scottish delicacy, haggis, branded as ‘British’!
But the alternative name for whisky is Scotch. Can you imagine anyone going into a bar and saying, ‘Give me a large British, barman’? Which might get the response, ‘A large British what, sir?’ As for haggis, branding it with the Union Jack is liable to lose sales because people might think it’s counterfeit, something like Albanian ‘champagne’.
In the main it seems to be the supermarkets at fault rather than the manufacturers, for I’ve read that Lidl and Aldi, the German chains, have stuck with Scottish branding.
I can imagine a meeting deep in the bowels of Whitehall between representatives of the main supermarket chains and high-ranking civil servants to discuss ‘promoting a sense of shared Britishness in these difficult times’, and perhaps achieving the objective without even mentioning Scotland.
(But I warn them now, if they come to put a Union Jack on my laverbread they will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.)
The other point of attack has been the allegations against Alex Salmond former leader of the Scottish National Party and former Scottish first minister. Let me say that I don’t know whether these allegations are true or not, but the motivation behind them is crystal clear.
I first understood what it was all about watching Newsnight soon after the story broke. It had been broken by the Daily Record, the Scottish version of the Daily Mirror, and therefore the mouthpiece of the Labour Party, once dominant in Scottish politics but now languishing in third place as the Unionist vote coalesces behind the Tories.
The assistant editor responsible was a cocky Ulsterman named David Clegg, and without knowing his background I would hazard a guess that he has never voted for Sinn Féin. He was positively bouncing at being interviewed over his ‘scoop’ . . . and then something rather strange happened – he kept talking about Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor in both positions!
The light bulb flashed above the old Jac noggin, I took a sip of Malbec and nodded sagely.
And so it came to pass that where there had been unity of purpose in a political party determined to achieve Scottish independence, now they were at each other’s throats! Or at least, that’s what newspapers were reporting. And desperately hoping that the Scottish public would believe it.
What we see in Scotland suggests that secret polling has confirmed the British government’s worst fears – the Brexit cock-up has created a majority for independence.
Added to the blatant BritNat bias the BBC in Scotland has exhibited for some years we now have government-controlled newspapers in a constituent part of a democracy. Were this happening anywhere else it would be reported, and condemned . . . by the very media outlets that have so readily submitted to government control.
What absolute hypocrites!
Here in Wales the Britification campaign has been less obvious and offensive, partly because we have less indigenous produce to be plastered with Union Jacks, due in large part to the unwritten rule that says any successful Welsh company is only allowed to reach a certain size before being taken over by an English rival.
That said, the campaign has taken other forms, two examples will suffice to explain what I mean.
To begin with, early last year that most colonialist of ‘Welsh’ organisations, Cadw, announced that there was to be a ring of steel erected near Flint castle to celebrate the 2017 Year of Legends, one of the regular, tiresome, and often insulting tourism marketing ploys.
Ring of Steel is an obvious reference to the castles built by Edward I to encircle Gwynedd and subjugate its inhabitants. Cadw knew this. The proposed structure was soon dubbed ‘The Anus of the North’, an epithet that then seemed to transfer to Ken Skates, the hapless minister for culture or some such in England’s Cardiff management team.
After a public outcry, political opposition, and a petition that attracted 10,000 signatures in a matter of days, this squalid and deliberate attempt to celebrate English conquest was dropped.
But then came the renaming of the Second Severn Crossing as the Prince of Wales Bridge. Again, this was widely opposed, with little support from within Wales, but it went ahead in a secret ceremony.
The renaming idea is attributed to Alun Cairns, the oleaginous Secretary of State for Severnside, but I’m not so sure. I believe the idea came from the same source as the ‘request’ for supermarkets to smother Scottish produce under the Union Jack. Cairns was only too happy to oblige.
Alun ‘Tippy-toes’ Cairns is now one of the most ridiculed and reviled politicians in Welsh political history, even more so than some of his predecessors such John Redwood; for while we expected no better from them, Welsh-speaking Cairns is viewed as a turncoat.
Having mentioned Severnside, the renaming of the bridge and the removal of the tolls will begin what we are asked to welcome as the great property bonanza in the south east. In practice, no bridge tolls and cheaper property prices on the Welsh side of the bridge will encourage a population movement into Wales.
Replicating what we see in the north as commuters from Manchester and Merseyside are guided away from exclusive communities in Cheshire into the commuter communities planned for the A55 corridor.
These machinations on the part of the UK state, coupled with the cowardice and incompetence of the English Labour Party in Wales has predictably resulted in a reaction.
In the past couple of years we’ve seen the emergence and growth of YesCymru, the launch of new party Ein Gwlad, and the realisation within Plaid Cymru that a hard left party obsessing over issues that mean nothing to 99% of the Welsh population is going nowhere.
There can no longer be any doubt that there is a Britification agenda operating in Scotland and Wales. Because the BritNats driving the Brexit process are awake to the fact that if they win they risk the Union. More moderate elements can also see the risk to the Union and even though they might oppose Brexit they have little alternative but to join in the Britification offensive.
Yet Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest must push ahead because their political reputations and their places in history are now tied up with Brexit. They cannot afford to fail. If they succeed, they know it will be easy to use the rallying-call of ‘Save the Union’ to reunite the Conservative Party, and leave the other parties no alternative but to fall into line.
The real worry is that the Britification and dirty tricks we’ve seen so far in Scotland and Wales could be nothing compared to what we might experience after the Brexit shit hits the fan.
I remember, back in the 1960s, when I was a wild young thing, visiting Owain Williams (of Tryweryn fame) on his farm, Gwynus, and then heading down for a drink at the local hostelry, the Plas Pistyll Hotel. I remember it well because ‘G–‘ and I picked up a couple of girls from Birmingham and took them up the mountain to enjoy the view. (Who says we don’t welcome tourists?)
Ah! happy days.
The old pile, with its uninterrupted views of the sea, fell on hard times and was eventually abandoned to the elements. But even if it was no longer viable as a hotel, the location alone dictated that somebody would some day come along with a plan for the site.
And so it was. . . .
THE PLANNING APPLICATIONS
Let me start by explaining that I have drawn together all the planning references I can find relating to both Plas Pistyll and neighbouring Pistyll farm and caravan site, I’ve done this because as early as 2008 they had become one and the same project.
Here’s the link to the pdf version. Click on the planning reference number in the left-hand column to be taken to the Gwynedd planning site.
Below you’ll see a montage created for Natural Retreats by the Ark Company Landscape Architects of Middlesex, and although things have moved on the image gives the layout of the site.
The obvious place to start is with the three earliest applications, which tell us that both the farm and the Plas are owned by Sustainable Leisure, a company I couldn’t find on the Companies House website.
Even so, I know that the properties were owned by a Bill Gleave of Greater Manchester. I know because by August 2009 he had hit the rocks owing local businesses money. You’ll note that in the Daily Post report I’ve just linked to the Pistyll site is called ‘Nature’s Point’ (A name I’m sure I recall from the Mabinogion.)
This catastrophe was confirmed when the Bolton News reported that Gleave company BGH had gone tits up, with Sustainable Leisure following.
It all went quiet for almost three years until, in August 2011, there was an application from new player Natural Retreats to demolish Plas Pistyll and replace it with 20 self-catering holiday units. These to be complemented with “16 self catering holiday units in lieu of the existing static caravan site” at the farm.
To begin with, I had the same problem with Natural Retreats as I had with Sustainable Leisure – I couldn’t find it on the Companies House website. But I found a Natural Retreats website and eventually unearthed Natural Retreats UK Ltd, which changed its name to The UK Great Travel Company Ltd 25 October 2017.
Permission was given in August 2012 to demolish Plas Pistyll with the condition that the same individual or family could not live in the new holiday units for more than three months in a year. Natural Retreats appealed against this decision and the appeal was allowed permitting unrestricted holiday use for the whole site.
I understand that the last time the planning committee met was to discuss C11/0661/43/LL, thereafter everything was delegated to planning officers. Some very important decisions were made that many feel should have been referred back to the committee, not least the decision to allow unrestricted holiday use.
Having got the big prize Natural Retreats – usually operating now as Natural Land & Sea – chipped away over the next few years at more of the planning conditions imposed by Gwynedd’s planning committee, to the point where few remained.
For Gwynedd’s planning department seemed to bend over backwards to oblige: “. . . deletion of Conditions 8, 9, 10 (Code for Sustainable Homes) . . . vary the materials proposed for the external wall of the units on the farm site . . . Discharge conditions 20 (slate), 22 (stone) and 24 (external finishes) . . . Discharge condition 2 (agree stone) on planning permission . . . “
Instead of stone and slate cottages in keeping with vernacular styles (including Pistyll farm), using local materials and labour, what are being thrown up now on the Plas Pistyll site are prefabricated units brought in from God knows where – Estonia being one suggestion – with no local benefits whatsoever.
And again, predictably, searching the Companies House website turned up nothing for Natural Land & Sea. Either there is no such company, or it’s registered outside the UK, or it’s the trading name of another entity (in which case we should know the name of that entity). But Cyngor Gwynedd and its planners don’t seem to know or care who they’re dealing with.
It should be standard practice for any elected or public body dealing with a commercial entity to insist on that entity identifying itself with a Companies House, Charity Commission, FSA, etc number or some other form of identification, or else explain why it cannot meet this requirement.
Relevant digression: I’ve been helping a neighbour who’s lived the village all his life renew his blue parking badge, but he still had to provide his birth certificate and other proof of identity. If he’d rocked up claiming to represent Intergalactic Con Men Inc, and wanting to build 5,000 holiday apartments in tower blocks around Llyn Tegid I suppose Cyngor Gwynedd would have rolled out the red carpet, like they’ve done for Paul Williams, Natural Retreats, and God knows how many others.
I’ve told you that Natural Retreats UK Ltd renamed itself The UK Great Travel Company Ltd on 25 October 2017. On that very same day a company was born named NRML Technology Ltd. The sole director was soon joined by another gentleman from Bobby Lee’s home state of Virginia and in June the company name was changed to Natural Retreats UK Ltd.
Why would Natural Retreats UK Ltd be resurrected under American ownership? We shall consider this in just a minute.
Before that, let’s take a closer look at who’s behind this disaster at Pistyll, on the very site where a young Jac downed pints and chatted up young ladies. (Though I use the most generous application of that epithet.) As we’ve seen, there can easily be confusion about the name of the company involved. Hardly surprising when you read on.
There may be other companies for all I know but the people involved with almost all of those I’ve listed are: Matt Spence, Anthony Wild and Ewan Kearney.
The founder and driving force is Matt Spence, who was born on a Yorkshire sheep farm where – he tells us – it was a struggle to survive, so he and his brothers looked for alternative ways to make money. Spence hit on the idea of high quality accommodation in national parks and other areas of great natural beauty.
A noble ambition that he’s partly met in finding the right locations. But in reality Spence’s business is raising money in the form of investments – the minimum seems to have been £50,000 to join NR Investors LP (check out the document for 16.01.2008) – and whether all the money raised goes on lodges and chalets is a moot point, for he and his associates have their fingers in so many pies.
But whatever the company or partnership the bottom line remains making as much money as possible. And this often seems to mean cutting corners, for I’ve heard from a number of quarters that the ‘Natural’ empire is not always a good neighbour, or employer. Here are reports from the Cairngorms, and Yorkshire.
There are even suggestions that the empire may not be in the best of financial health. But with so many interlinked commercial and financial entities constantly changing addresses and names it’s not easy for anyone to keep track.
I earlier alluded to an intervention from the Commonwealth of Virginia, so maybe it’s time to expand on what I’m sure you found to be a tantalising reference.
Spence is something of an evangelist and so we should not be surprised to learn that he spread the ‘Natural’ gospel to the USA, where they have a hell of a lot more open spaces than us. This bore fruit in Natural Retreats USA. And yet . . .
Those who have raised Natural Retreats UK Ltd from the dead appear to have no connection with Natural Retreats USA. And yet, under its original name of NRML Technology Ltd the company was formed by a Christopher Holden who gave his correspondence address as, ‘Natural Retreats, 675 Peter Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, 22911’.
Holden works with venture capitalists and investors, Court Square Ventures of Charlottesville, which has no obvious connection with Natural Retreats USA, it’s certainly not listed among CSV’s clients. He was later joined as a director by Douglas Burns. On the CSV website Holden is described as a ‘General Partner’, whereas Burns is ‘Principal & CFO’.
Unless they plucked the Natural Retreats UK Ltd name out of thin air, and found Manchester by sticking a pin in a map, there has to be a connection between Court Square Ventures and Matt Spence and his associates.
But it still doesn’t make sense.
Because if we read the CSV website, and the biographies of the partners, then we see that their backgrounds are in media, technology, communications and the like – not a sasquatch-terrorised log cabin to be seen!
And yet, Court Square Ventures is an investment company, so it’s reasonable to suggest that the boys from Charlottesville come bearing greenbacks, which inclines me towards three options:
They have come to get a slice of the action, at Pistyll and elsewhere, perhaps by investing in one or more of Spence’s many financial vehicles.
They have come to help Spence out of a financial hole.
They have come to take over.
And if you think about, it could be a bit of all three; or maybe options 1 and 2 culminating in option 3.
In the hope of clarifying the situation I e-mailed Natural Retreats USA on Friday with, “There are companies of the same name operating in the UK, in Wales, Scotland and England. I see that Christopher Holden is a director of Natural Retreats UK Ltd. What exactly is the connection or relationship between the US and UK companies?”
The reply said, “Thank you for your inquiry into Natural Retreats. I would be happy to offer some more information as to how the different companies are related. You may also view our website for further clarification: https://www.naturalretreats.com/about
Natural Retreats was originally founded in the UK by Matthew Spence, and started with a few luxury lodges in the Yorkshire Dales. Over time, Natural Retreats grew to include destinations in the Eastern and Western United States as well. At this time, the US and UK now operate separately; they only share the name of Natural Retreats. The US main office is located in Charlottesville, VA and the Western Support Office is located in Park City, UT.
If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to reach out. Thank you, again, for your inquiry; we hope you will stay with us at one of our luxury retreats in the near future!”
To which I responded with, “I am grateful for your speedy response. As I mentioned in my original query, I was a little confused seeing Christopher Holden of Charlottesville, Virginia listed as a director of Natural Retreats UK Ltd (Co No 11031026). A company formed in October 2017. This would appear to be a UK presence for the US operation, or is there some other interpretation?”
At this point the line went dead!
So we are no nearer to knowing why venture capitalists from Virginia with no obvious expertise in tourism have set up in Manchester using a company name previously used by those building at Plas Pistyll. But it’s surely no coincidence that Rural Retreats USA’s eastern office is in Charlottesville. Which throws up other questions.
I’ll ask again, does Cyngor Gwynedd and its planners really know who they’re dealing with? Not just because of the find-me-if-you-can company names but also because Spence specialises in getting others to invest in his plans, and even though I’m sure he scrupulously screens each and every investor, the fact remains that the money to develop Plas Pistyll could be coming from anywhere.
Court Square Ventures is another company that invests money for third parties.
The properties at Pistyll are now being advertised on Rightmove and other sites. So let’s consider what we’re dealing with, and its implications.
For a start, I note that these properties are being sold leasehold. Yet England’s management team down in Cardiff docks – those clowns that hope to be mistaken for a ‘Welsh Government’ – has turned against leasehold, except, apparently, when it’s used by RSLs or, more secretively, by unregistered private subsidiaries of publicly-funded RSLs. And of course by the likes of the ‘Natural’ empire.
Then again, just imagine Matt Spence and his gang turning up and saying, ‘Oi, Taff, we want to build a new holiday village overlooking the sea. We ain’t gonna use local materials, suppliers or labour. Then we are gonna give it some idiotic English name and there’s fuck all you can do about it’.
There would have been an outcry, even Plaid Cymru might have been roused to mumble something.
But that is exactly what has been achieved incrementally!
This development at Pistyll is only a few miles from Plas Glynllifon where dwells our old friend Paul Williams of Weep for Wales fame. Yet Plas Pistyll and Plas Glynllifon represent for the ‘Welsh’ Government ‘high end’ tourism, which must be unquestioningly encouraged.
For it is all set out in TAN 13: Tourism (1997) . . . which observant readers will have noted was two years before the Assembly first sat. That’s really thinking ahead!
Yet from what I can see, ‘high end’ tourism only attracts the smarter shysters and the outright crooks. Though if we are to attract high end tourism then what is being done to phase out the barrel-scraping tourism represented by mile after mile of ugly coastal caravan parks that can only deter the high rollers?
Because we are expected to believe that in a tiny country like Wales we can have all kinds of tourism and unlimited numbers of tourists without causing catastrophic cultural and environmental damage.
This is because it’s what England wants, due to the fact that a) money spent in Wales will make its way back to England, and b) tourism and the population influx it encourages makes Wales less of a ‘worry’.
As for the aforementioned clowns down Geiger Bay, well they’ll always do what London tells them, and some of them are even stupid enough to believe that a healthy economy can be based on tourism. Not forgetting that many in the Labour Party would be happy to see the death of Welsh identity.