Over the past couple of days you’ve probably read or heard about what has been presented as a scandalous waste of public money on a silly idea for a “kung fu lodge” in Llangollen. This is how the BBC News website covered it. (The Public Accounts Committee reports can be found here.) Having followed this story for a couple of years, and spoken with Pol Wong, the man behind the project, quite a few times, I can tell you that the truth is very different. And rather worrying.
To get where we find ourselves today official documents have been altered; senior civil servants have been dishonest and partial; the Welsh Government deliberately misinformed the Public Accounts Committee; decent people have been scapegoated; while the former local Labour Assembly Member (Karen Sinclair) sank to a level of vindictiveness that would have drawn gasps of awed approval from the brothers and sisters down south.
A valuable and financially viable project, a project that could have become a national asset, was sabotaged because those behind it ‘didn’t fit’, they didn’t meet with the approval of the Labour Party and certain civil servants. Wales could have been home to the only officially-sanctioned Shaolin monastery outside China, but the party of Cledwyn Hughes and Jim Griffiths destroyed the project because the man leading it is ‘too Welsh’.
Though I am convinced that the death-blow to the project was provoked by Pol’s simultaneous involvement in exposing the hitherto secret West Cheshire sub-regional strategy (in which ‘West Cheshire’ equates with north east Wales). The chronology persuades me that fighting this takeover of our north east made Pol enemies in high places, and they took their revenge.
For me there are three lessons to be drawn from this case:
1/ The Labour Party in Wales still contains too many anti-Welsh bigots. Bigots of the kind that would, in a normal country, be an embarrassment to any mainstream political party.
2/ Wales is in reality governed by civil servants, who can run rings around the buffoons sitting in the Assembly. Many of these civil servants operate with complete freedom because their authority comes from London, and this trumps anything in Cardiff. The perfect illustration of this would be the Local Development Plans being forced on Welsh local authorities by the English Planning Inspectorate.
3/ In a normal country, with a healthy and independent media, the story of Powys Fadog would be meat and drink for investigative reporters. In Wales today, all we have are sad and compliant outposts of London, or else regurgitators of press releases and promoters of Cardiff.
What follows is Pol Wong’s reponse the Public Accounts Committee report. It was originally issued – yesterday – as an e-mail. Pol has kindly allowed me to reprint it here, so that more people might learn the truth of the Powys Fadog / River Lodge project. (I decided to publish certain sections in bold type to highlight what I consider to be their significance.)
“Powys Fadog response to Welsh Government report on River Lodge – “half a story”.
The headline quote of the report is that “over £1.6m of public money has been wasted”. This is nonsense. The same could be said of any Welsh Government property bought at the top of the market and which has substantially reduced in value as a result of market forces. The Welsh Government still own a valuable asset in River Lodge, which they acknowledge is worth at least £500,000 in today’s market, so how can the money have been wasted? They still own the property. Similarly had the lease to Powys Fadog gone ahead, the Welsh Government would still have owned the building and Powys Fadog would have been obliged to pay a rent of £31,000 a year , which is an income for the public purse.
Value for money only became an issue from 2010 onwards, AFTER the Welsh Government stopped the project. The relevant officers with the relevant authority making the decisions, thought in their professional opinion that the project was value for money. Of course, these officers had read the business plan. It’s only many years later that these decision have been overturned without being quantified. As far as we know, the people who overturned these decisions don’t seem to know anything about the project.
Value for money is of course a very subjective issue. The purchase price was market value, this is now acknowledged through this report, therefore I think they need to explain why they think it was a waste of money.
If Powys Fadog had been successful then the value for money in terms of the project is proven. If it wasn’t successful then the building would have reverted back to the Government. Instead they’ve chosen to keep the building empty with a vague plan for a health centre, that has clearly been pushed through whilst holding back our project approval. Is that value for money?
We also need to look at value for money in terms of other projects and the criteria used for them. For example, Canolfan Cywain in Bala (more here and here), Nant Gwyrtheyrn*, the Royal Hotel in Llangollen. They’ve all received funding from the public purse which is many, many more times what Powys Fadog was looking for. Although we’re not knocking these projects, a hotel in Llangollen had £1m to refurbish the outside of their building, and this was a private business. We are a not-for-profit social enterprise, the question we ask is: “what was different about our project?”
Generally, I think there is too much focus on what are very sweeping statements that are not detailed nor evidenced, concerning value for money. I think what is more important are some of the other issues that the report acknowledges. These point to much more worrying actions regarding the use of public money and public trust in the Government
The report clearly states that Powys Fadog had been treated unfairly. It also clearly states that there was a “tantamount communication blackout”, and explains that Powys Fadog were shut out of options for the site in 2010, when we were the most viable option on the table even according to the district valuer. Under those circumstances they ran our lease out of time and prevented us from securing any other funding. They did not act in good faith and even stopped our potential funders from viewing the site. We were never given chance to address any so called “issues”. None of the reasons for this treatment are addressed by the report.
Possibly the most concern should be the acknowledgement that a crucial document, which was an independent review of the project, that looked into all the issues raised by Karen Sinclair AM and those responsible for stopping the project, was altered. Again this was done AFTER the project was stopped not before. The report notes that the original review found no impropriety and that the value for money was fine. The amended report shows different conclusions.
When asked to provide the tracked changes of this vital evidence by the Committee, the Welsh Government refused to provide it to the Committee. This is unbelievable to any reasonable person and highlights serious issues in terms of honesty and integrity regarding the Governments story.
To summarise, we are happy to see that some things we’ve been saying for a long time have finally been acknowledged. We understand the remit of the report was quite narrow but it has flagged up some serious concerns which now need further investigation. There are far more serious issues raised in terms of public trust than the value for money headline, which seems to be a bit of a red herring.
The Welsh Government have a building that is sitting empty and deteriorating, instead of having a centre delivering jobs, a major development in health fitness, promoting the Welsh language and culture and history, along with education and community cohesion. The project has a viable business plan and will provide international out of season tourism to Llangollen. Is the money the Welsh Government spent stopping our project over the last 6 years value for money? Hundreds of thousand of pounds has been spent on solicitors and reports to avoid speaking to us. The whole way they’ve treated Powys Fadog and the message that gives out does not show the Welsh Government in a good light. The message is that the Welsh Government think it’s perfectly acceptable to do what they’ve done.
A substantial body of the evidence we submitted has not been considered, such as what was the legal issue that was raised to stop our project? This still hasn’t been answered. What is the value for money issue exactly? Also why was the Chris Munday report altered and why are they hiding it? Why did they close the door on us, was that fair? A lot of the evidence we submitted actually reveals another timeline of events, as yet undeclared, involving Karen Sinclair AM, Welsh Audit Office officers and Welsh Assembly officers and Ministers involved in the halting of the Powys Fadog project. Most of this evidence is already in the public domain.
In my evidence I declared that I thought the Welsh audit office report was not impartial due to communication between Karen Sinclair AM and the Wales Audit Office. Since I made that declaration, more evidence has come out through FOI that in fact Karen Sinclair and Audit Office officials, and the officers responsible for blocking the project were meeting at her home. Some of this evidence contains an arrangement to meet and discuss an unfinished disciplinary report in march 2010, between Karen Sinclair AM, Arwel Thomas (Welsh Government officer responsible for recommending the project was stopped) and Richard Harries of the Welsh Audit Office. Surely this speaks for itself and at the same time letters between the Health Board, various Ministers and Karen Sinclair demonstrate that plans for a health centre on the site were well under way whilst we were being subjected to our ‘communication blackout’ and the review document was being altered.
It is beyond doubt from the evidence that we have seen that the Welsh Government and the Wales Audit Office have deliberately misinformed the Public Accounts Committee. This is a very serious matter and should be investigated as a matter of urgency.”
*One of the income streams planned for River Lodge was residential Welsh courses. As this piece shows, there is definitely a demand for such courses. It may be argued that this would have put River Lodge in competition with Nant Gwyrtheyrn, but NG is solely for language courses whereas at River Lodge such courses would have been part of a wide range of activities and courses on offer. Also bear in mind the distance – some 80 miles – between the two locations.