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Clash of the councillors over ‘phantom’ grant improvements

at warA WAR OF WORDS broke out at Pembrokeshire County Council’s monthly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, as the row over grant money awarded to controversial Irish property developer, Cathal McCosker, escalated.

Members of the Cabinet discussed backbench member Cllr Mike Stoddart’s request for the authority to make available all information to councillors relating to the Pembroke Dock property grants schemes after serious doubts have been raised over their administration.

Cllr Stoddart addressed the cabinet meeting in support of his request, and said that as a member of the council the information he is requesting – bills of quantities, tender reports, and final accounts – should be available to him as a matter of course, however officers and the cabinet disagree and hope to keep the information under wraps.

Cllr Stoddart explained that he had a lengthy career in the building trade, and had concerns that public money had been given out for building works which had ‘simply never taken place’, and that he had been hampered in his quest to ‘get to the truth’ by officers.

Council Leader Cllr Jamie Adams, and other cabinet members were less than sympathetic to the request, and became hostile to the idea that there was something going on which the council’s internal auditors, among others, had failed to pick up on. At one point Cllr David Pugh, cabinet member with responsibility for the portfolio under which the grant scheme operates, shouted at Cllr Stoddart, during a tirade in which he said that there were no problems with the awards and that the necessary works referred to had either taken place or were not paid for by public money.

According to Cllr Stoddart, money from both the National Lottery funded Townscape Heritage Initiative, and the European funded Commercial Property Grant scheme has been spent on certain construction work which has never materialised, on Pembroke Dock properties owned by Mr Cathal McCosker or companies which he is a director of.

He believes that there could be administrative shortcomings in relation to the grant payments, and that the Council is further trying to cover it up, backed by councillors and officers at the highest level in the authority, and preventing him from ‘getting to the truth’.

In a lengthy presentation, Cllr Stoddart told the meeting: “My attempts to obtain further information via Freedom of Information requests have met stubborn resistance from the Council. When I did receive some of the information, black redactions were included in the reports. All financial information had been blacked-out.”

Emphasizing that the redactions were not due to an over-careful council, but an attempt to hinder Cllr Stoddart’s attempts to uncover the truth, he said: “During the public inspection of the accounts I found sheets readily available for inspection with even the bank details of the developer, Cathal Mc Cosker, and his signature, there for all to see.”

However, the cabinet committee was having none of it, and Cllr Stoddart’s attempts seemed to be falling on deaf – or bunged – ears.

“All I want is the access to information that I require so that I can get to the truth” he said; adding:

“I am entitled to these documents as an elected member of the Council.”

To explain the difficulties he had been faced with, holding up one document, which was blank except for several large areas with black rectangles, Cllr Stoddart said:

“Look at this sheet. These are the names of the tenders I requested. Look here, all information has been blacked out. All this is cloak-and-dagger stuff about hiding behind the Data Protection Act, when really it is about not wishing to disclose the information.”

Cllr Stoddart added: “If the amount of money claimed for all of the building works has actually been spent on 29 Dimond Street then, in the famous words of Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, ‘I am a banana’.”

“In respect of 16-19 Commercial Row, Pembroke Dock, £41,900 is said to have been spent on 427 square metres of “New Spanish slates” at a price of £98.25 per square metre. This is already an expensive price, however, seven-eighths of the roof currently does not have new slate on it, yet the developer has been paid for the work.”

Cllr Stoddart told the committee: “With respect to 25 Dimond Street, there was a tender of £222,000 for a small shop of 35 metres squared retail space. You could easily knock it down and rebuild it twice completely for that price. In fact, for little more than that, Persimmon Homes would fit you up with a pair of semi-detached houses including the plot of land, road, and sewerage connection.”

Several decades ago, Cllr Stoddart ran his own construction company which employed thirty people at its peak. His company built many large developments in the county including commercial buildings and schools. Attempting to discredit Cllr Stoddart’s judgement and knowledge of the work conducted on the Pembroke Dock properties, Cllr Adams attacked his record as a builder, saying: “I have received information that you were not so successful in the building trade,” though he refused to say any more after being brought to task about it.

When pushed by Cllr Stoddart, the leader would not say what he had heard or from whom, and asked to ‘move on.’

In defiance, Cllr Stoddart said: “No, I will not move on. You have not addressed the snide innuendo you’ve just made about my career in the building industry.”

Cllr Adams barked back: “I am chairing this meeting – I will ask you to stand down”, and said he thought Cllr Stoddart was ‘confused’ over which works he referred to were eligible for grant funding, and those which were not eligible.

He also added: “And, from some of the submissions you have made, your understanding of the building trade is not what I would have expected. The fact that you consider it appropriate to make some sort of comparison between Persimmon Homes and restoration work on important heritage properties shows you have a lack of understanding. Nevertheless we will move on.”

Following the meeting Mike Stoddart told The Herald: “This is Cllr Adams’ usual tactic. He uses smears when he can’t think of anything intelligent to say. As you can imagine, he uses this tactic quite often.”

The ongoing saga of the notorious Pembroke Dock grants scheme and the council’s attempts to deny access to the necessary information to establish the truth has even attracted the attention of the national media.

In its ‘Rotten Boroughs’ column, last week’s edition of the satirical news magazine, Private Eye, reported on a statement it had received after approaching the council for its view on the “phantom building works.”

Private Eye published: “A statement explained that the chimney and playground (non) works had not been paid for with public money but “by the developer ” . How generous! As for the roof, it was indeed grant-funded: “The whole roof was stripped of and re-covered in a mixture of new and recycled natural slate on new felt and battens” in 2010, according to the council statement . Achieving such an “aged” look on a brand-new roof must require restoration skills of the very highest order!”

The cabinet’s unanimous vote, to deny Cllr Stoddart’s request “that all information (Bills of quantities, tender reports, final accounts, etc) on the Pembroke and Pembroke Dock commercial property grants scheme is made available on a confidential basis to all Council Members”, is not the final decision. That decision ultimately rests with full council at its 10am meeting on Thursday December 12.