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Council ‘expresses interest’ in Tai Cantref

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Cantref’s Aberystwyth development

Cantref’s Aberystwyth development

THE HERALD can reveal that Carmarthenshire County Council has been engaged in discussions with the Welsh Government and consultants engaged by troubled housing association Tai Cantref to take over the social housing provider.

Confidential documents relating to the plan were received at both Herald Offices on the morning of Wednesday (Apr 13), the same day as a behind closed doors discussion of the matter took place in County Hall, Carmarthen.

While the content of both sets of documents varied they accorded on the central issue: Carmarthen County Council approached the Welsh Government on regarding very soon after it was publicly announced the housing association was seeking a partner for merger.

After that initial approach, we understand that at the beginning of April the Executive Board responded to an enquiry from Tai Cantref representatives and confirmed it would be interested in partnering with the association.

The Herald can confirm, however, that what is contemplated by Carmarthenshire County Council is not a merger of equal partners in an enterprise, but an acquisition by the Council of Tai Cantref’s business and properties as a close fit with the Council’s existing mission to provide affordable housing.

Tai Cantref Housing Association Ltd is based in Newcastle Emlyn and owns 1,477 homes and employs 72 staff.

Despite being based in Carmarthenshire, only 174 of Tai Cantref’s homes are in Carmarthenshire. The remainder are in Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys, with the overwhelming majority based in Ceredigion.

WHAT HAPPENED AT TAI CANTREF?

Last July, The Welsh Government commissioned external consultants Campbell Tickell to review and investigate three distinct lines of enquiry at Cantref: governance of the organisation, procurement irregularities and HR (treatment of staff). That report was delivered in December and has been kept under wraps ever since.

The investigation arose following ‘whistleblowing’ by either past or current Cantref employees.

A confidential source has claimed to us that the report ‘is damning about the organisation’s culture, governance, treatment of staff.’

Specific allegations had previously been made to The Herald that Cantref was short of money to pay for repairs to its properties and that over £200,000 had been paid to a HR Consultancy to carry out what was described to us as ‘a botched pay review’.

The Herald has been told that Cantref is struggling to find people to take up residence in its new Felinfach development while the student accommodation built in Aberystwyth, and which was intended to fund further projects, has proven a similarly hard sell.

After the report was delivered to the Welsh Government, the Chair of Tai Cantref stood down, shortly followed by the Chief Executive, Lynne Sacale.

An interim Chair, Kevin Taylor, was appointed, while the sister of Carmarthenshire Executive Board member Hazel Evans was engaged as an interim Chief Officer.

Since January, a Carmarthenshire County Council officer, Jonathan Morgan, has been seconded to Tai Cantref. The Herald understands that since the report by Campbell Tickell was received by the Welsh Government, staff from Ceredigion County Council and Bro Myrddin Housing Association have also been involved at different stages.

While the Campbell Tickell report found no signs financial impropriety of any description at Tai Cantref, focussing on issues with the Association’s management regime and controls, a number of lenders are considering withdrawing facilities they have provided to Tai Cantref.

Should those facilities be withdrawn, Tai Cantref would be trading while insolvent.

Information in our possession shows that its lenders have given a Tai Cantref a very short timescale to secure a partner for merger or acquisition.

The Association has previously expressly denied that its search for a partner was anything to do with the report prepared by Campbell Tickell.

THE WAY FORWARD

The acquisition of Tai Cantref by a local authority would be a first in Wales, and is potentially one which requires a redrafting of the rules governing Welsh housing associations.

In addition, there would need to be a very thorough ‘due diligence’ exercise and the approval of the Welsh Government for the acquisition or merger.

Furthermore, The Herald understands that taking over Tai Cantref would entail Carmarthenshire County Council either guaranteeing the Association’s existing borrowing or loaning it money to pay off existing lenders. On checking the legal position, we understand that the Welsh Government may need to consent to such a move – providing the lenders approve it.

On the plus side of the move, the acquisition of Tai Cantref would certainly chime with Carmarthenshire County Council’s rural homes and Welsh language policies.

However, questions arise about partnership with a Council, which, under the previous Labour-led administration, effectively abandoned its own housing estate at Brynmefys, is necessarily a good match for Tai Cantref. It also remains to be seen whether the continuing uncertainty about the future structure of Welsh local government will have an impact on the proposal’s viability.

Even if there was no change in local government in Carmarthenshire, future cuts to local authority spending seem more likely than not. In the latter circumstance, Council Tax payers in Carmarthenshire would be entitled to wonder why they were propping up an Association whose properties were overwhelmingly outside the county.

REACTIONS TO THE HERALD

Cllr Linda Evans, Carmarthenshire’s Executive Board Member for Housing, said: “Carmarthenshire County Council has submitted an Expression of Interest to be considered as a preferred partner to Tai Cantref Housing Association.

“The Council shares many of Tai Cantref’s core values, especially in relation to the Welsh language and affordable rural housing. This would give us the opportunity to work in partnership to develop that relationship and to deliver our vision for quality affordable and social housing.”

Carmarthenshire County Council leader Emlyn Dole, who The Herald believes is passionately behind the potential deal, said: “I would be disappointed if a member of the council has broken their declaration to abide by the National Code of Conduct, and breached this ethical code of behaviour by releasing exempt information.”

The Herald has confirmed to the Council that its story comes from several sources and that councillors have not discussed it with us. A statement from Ceredigion County Council said: “The Council is aware that the Board of Tai Cantref has established a process to select a ‘preferred partner’ as part of the constitutional changes and organisational re-configuration that are being pursued by the association at present.

“The selection of the partner is the responsibility of the Board of Tai Cantref and whichever organisation is selected, we will look forward to working with them in both a strategic and operational capacity in the future to ensure that the interests and ambitions of Ceredigion are promoted.”

A spokesperson for Tai Cantref told us: “Tai Cantref can confirm that following its announcement that it intends to merge with a suitable partner that can complement its business, there has been a great deal of interest from a number of organisations.

“We are currently analysing and working through the detail of what potential mergers would look like and it would be inappropriate to comment on specifics at this time.

“However, the service and support we provide our tenants is our number one priority and at the heart of everything we do. In order to ensure we continue providing the best service possible to our tenants and to grow and develop as an organisation, Tai Cantref considers a merger the best way forward.

“We hope to announce more detail on specific discussions that are taking place in the near future, but in the meantime we will continue to implement changes recommended within a recent review by the Welsh Government, to ensure Cantref is as strong as possible as we engage with potential partners.”

Ceredigion’s Plaid Cymru AM Elin Jones has urged the Welsh Government to step in to ensure that the needs of tenants and the long-term future of social housing in Ceredigion are fully considered in any decision to merge the operations of Tai Cantref with another housing association.

Elin Jones said: “Tai Cantref has a longstanding history in Ceredigion and beyond. The vast majority of its stock is based in Ceredigion. It has strong community credentials and is a fully bilingual housing association.

“Any takeover by a housing association from outside the area risks the integrity and continuity of Tai Cantref’s work. Social housing needs local control, not a takeover by a large company from elsewhere.”

Taken at their face value, it would appear that Elin Jones’s words more than match the aspirations of Carmarthenshire County Council in relation to Tai Cantref.

The Herald understands that more than one expression of interest has been received relating to Tai Cantref and that other potential suitors include another larger housing association.

(Left to right) - Elin Jones: ‘Social housing needs local control’ - Linda Evans: Confirms Council’s interest - Lynne Sacale: Departed CEO Lynne Sacale

(Left to right) – Elin Jones: ‘Social housing needs local control’ – Linda Evans: Confirms Council’s interest – Lynne Sacale: Departed CEO Lynne Sacale

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Carmarthenshire’s sensory garden: why locals should embrace this wellness trend

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WITH ‘#sensorygarden’ 499.1k views on TikTok – locals have the advantage of experiencing a sensory garden on their doorstep at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Wildlife experts explain why you should visit.

Wildlife expert Sean McMenemy shares how sensory gardens can do wonders for our wellness whilst providing a safe haven for wildlife and encourages Carmarthenshire locals to visit their local sensory garden this autumn.

A sensory garden is an outdoor space that stimulates the five senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste, and can be created in your own garden. Sensory gardens at home remain relatively rare, but the trend is growing with the TikTok hashtag ‘#sensorygarden’ amassing 499.1k views*. 

Carmarthenshire, dubbed the Garden of Wales, has a huge array of beautiful green spaces to explore. It’s home to the National Botanic Garden of Wales which spans a huge 568 acres, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The stunning Great Glasshouse features a sensory trail that explores the largest single-span greenhouse in the world! From fluffy flowers from South Africa to a strongly scented Australian plant, it’ll engage all your senses. 

Having recently gifted King Charles with a beautiful oak sapling, the National Botanic Garden of Wales care deeply about the nation’s natural heritage. For those visiting the garden, the paths are wheelchair accessible with manual wheelchairs available on site. Open 10am – 6pm every day of the week.

Wildlife expert and founder of bird food provider Ark Wildlife, Sean McMenemy, explains the benefits of sensory gardening: “Sensory gardens provide a great deal of physical and mental benefits for different people and purposes. From getting vitamin D from sunlight to improving physical fitness by maintaining a garden, there are several physical benefits. Mentally, you can benefit from a mood boost and relaxation by spending time surrounded by calming stimulation.

“Sensory gardens can also have huge benefits for children, older people, those with learning disabilities and those who struggle with their physical and mental health. You can also create a sensory garden for your pets and garden wildlife!”

Top tips for creating your own sensory garden

If you do have the outdoor space, creating your own sensory garden is therapeutic in itself and doesn’t need to be a complicated process. The most important thing is to ensure that the garden engages all five senses. 

Melody Estes, landscape design gardening supervisor, says: “Whether you’re new to gardening or a seasoned pro, you can always improve your garden by adding some sensory elements.” 

Here are some tips from Melody for creating a sensory garden:

Sight – Plant colourful flowers that change with the seasons.

Sound – If you have a fountain or water feature on your property, consider adding some relaxing music to play alongside it. You could also place chimes near your front door to welcome people in.

Smell – Use scent. Consider planting scented flowers or herbs like lavender, rosemary and thyme that will give off a lovely aroma when they bloom.

Touch – Mix textures. The texture of plants can be as important as their colour and shape. Try using plants with soft leaves like ferns or grasses that are texturally different.

Taste – Planting herbs, fruits and vegetables not only provide tasty treats, but is a sustainable source of food.

Sean McMenemy adds: “Sensory gardens are an easy way to engage with wildlife and the outdoor environment. Growing your own plants and vegetables provides countless ways to learn about the natural world.

“You can bring your sensory garden to life by using bird feeders to attract beautiful feathered friends into your garden. They’ll bring the sound element to your sensory garden naturally. Fragrant flowers will attract colourful butterflies and other pollinators to your garden, giving you something to observe whilst helping nature to thrive.”

Some people may not have the time, money or space to create their own sensory garden. However, those with balconies and window ledges can still plant colourful, sweet-smelling flowers and edible plants. This mini sensory garden can still provide the benefits and satisfaction of an outdoor garden.

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Prince and Princess of Wales to visit Wales

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THE PRINCE and Princess of Wales have planned a trip to Wales to visit a variety of communities across the nation and learn about the work of key charitable organisations. 

The Prince and Princess have a deep affection for Wales, having made their first family home in Anglesey, and have thoroughly enjoyed their previous visits and the warmth and kindness shown by the Welsh people. 

Their Royal Highnesses are looking forward to spending more time in Wales over the next few years, they hope to strengthen their relationship with communities in all parts of Wales. 

During their first engagement, Their Royal Highnesses will visit the RNLI Holyhead Lifeboat Station, where they will meet crew, volunteers and some people who have been supported by their local unit.

Holyhead is one of the three oldest lifeboat stations on the Welsh coast and has a remarkable history of bravery, having received 70 awards for gallantry. 

Their Royal Highnesses will then take a short walk to the Holyhead Marine and Cafe Bar, where they will meet local people, including representatives of small businesses and organisations, including the Coastguard and Sea Cadets. 

In their second engagement, the Prince and Princess of Wales are expected to visit Swansea. 

Their Royal Highnesses will visit St Thomas Church, a re-developed church in Swansea which supports people in the local area and across the City and County of Swansea. 

Over the last two years the church has been transformed into a thriving community hub and is home to a vast array of services, including:

  • A foodbank which supports over 200 people per week
  • Swansea Baby Basics which distributes essential items for vulnerable mothers across the city, such as toiletries and clothes
  • Facilities for the homeless including food, showers and toilets
  • A not-for-profit cafe and community training kitchen
  • A surplus food distribution network which collects food from supermarkets at the end of each day and distributes it from the church to prevent food waste and to help end food poverty

As part of their visit, Their Royal Highnesses will meet those volunteering at the church across different initiatives including Baby Basics and the foodbank. Their Royal Highnesses will also spend some time meeting members of the public gathered outside the church. 

The Princess of Wales has previously worked with Baby Banks and the in summer of 2020 brought together 19 British brands and retailers to donate over 10,000 new items to more than 40 baby banks nationwide, operated by Baby Basics, Little Village and AberNecessities. 

Her Royal Highness has visited a number of baby banks across the UK, including in London, Sheffield and West Norfolk where she has spent time speaking with families about their experiences of using their local baby bank services, as well as helping unload donations. 

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Carmarthenshire farmer dies following attack by bull near Llandeilo

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A FARMER has died following an incident with a bull on a farm in Llandeilo.

The 58-year-old, named locally as Maldwyn Harrier, was attacked by the animal during a TB test on Friday morning.

Police have confirmed that they were called to a farm in the Penybanc area of Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, and are investigating alongside the Health and Safety Executive. 

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