Saturday 23 April 2016

Through a glass darkly - the local press and Cantref

The Carmarthenshire Herald and its sister paper in Llanelli recently celebrated their first birthdays. It seems unlikely that Mark, Meryl and the denizens of County Hall's press office donned their party hats and popped champagne corks to celebrate this momentous anniversary, and the Wales Media Awards a few weeks back studiously ignored the existence of the Herald stable of titles, choosing instead to hand an award to the venerable Carmarthen Journal as Weekly Newspaper of the Year.

There were several deserving winners, including Iolo ap Dafydd, until recently BBC Wales' environment correspondent, although eyebrows will have been raised at the decision to crown Chris Betteley of the Cambrian News (Mike Parker ate my Nazi Hamster) as political journalist of the year.

Newspaper circulations are in free fall everywhere. At one end of the business the Independent and Independent on Sunday have now disappeared from the newsstands, and at the other the Tivyside Advertiser seems likely to draw its terminal breath any day now.

The Heralds are the only new local titles to have been launched in Wales in ages, and the Pembrokeshire Herald played an important part in bringing about the downfall of Bryn Parry Jones. In Carmarthenshire where established titles have been content for years to publish gushing press releases trumpeting Meryl Gravell's various "successes" without question, the Heralds have lifted a few stones and peered at some of the invertebrates that inhabit her schemes.

The Heralds' strength is their investigative journalism, although some of their full page exposés could do with a little ruthless sub editing. Lack of resources and fear of upsetting the powers-that-be with large advertising budgets have meant that serious journalism disappeared from our more established local titles a long time ago.

The Heralds' weakness is that they don't do the community news stuff which the ageing readership of local papers loves: grandchildren and great grandchildren dressed up for Dewi Sant, cats stuck up trees, old dears getting to grips with Facebook and the Cwmscwt Arms darts finals.

This week, a certain someone turned 90, and the Journal was naturally keen to celebrate this momentous anniversary. So it has rummaged through its archives to remind us how much Carmarthenshire means to Her Majesty, who pops back to see us about once every thirty years.

Look! There she was in 1947, and there she was again in 1977. She seems not to have made it back again until 2002 when she opened the Milennium Coastal Park and met some Very Important People:

The riff raff look on from behind a cordon as HM meets Mark and Meryl

With all that going on, no wonder there's no space for trivia such as the fate of a regional housing association.

A week ago Cneifiwr was talking to a friend who is now in her seventies. She is of the generation that still has a daily newspaper delivered and a brace of local weeklies. She is well connected, and generally has a pretty good idea of what is going on locally and further afield, and yet news that Cantref, the local housing association based just a short walk from her home, is in serious trouble was, well, news to her.

Rumours that something had gone wrong at Cantref have been circulating for almost a year, but unless you read the Carmarthenshire Herald or Jac o' the North's blog (here is a good place to start), you would not have known that anything was afoot.

Until a a couple of days ago, neither the Carmarthen Journal nor Cambrian News appear, at least on their websites, to have mentioned the association's troubles once, the only references of Cantref by the award winning Journal being recycled press releases about charity fun runs and an innovative new "lego" construction method. Tivyside readers have fared little better, and were probably startled to read a couple of weeks ago that the association was looking for a merger partner, and that Elin Jones AM was very worried about it.

This is a hugely important story to the areas served by the Journal and the others, and events are now moving rapidly.

Cantref owns 1,400 homes for a start, and in an area which has all too few decent employment opportunities, it offers relatively good pay and conditions and the prospect of long-term careers for local people. Or it did.

Let's leave the detail to Jac o' the North, but in a nutshell the government made the almost unheard of step of carrying out a statutory investigation into the association. Eventually a report was produced highlighting what were said to be various governance, leadership and personnel issues. The chief executive and chair resigned. The report is secret, and the government is being extremely tight-lipped about it all.

The only other thing we were told was that the report had not uncovered any financial irregularities, but the association's lenders reacted by demanding their money back pronto, presumably because they know rather more than the rest of us. Why would banks suddenly pull lines of credit to an organisation which was in robust financial health, you may wonder.

First off of the starting blocks was Carmarthenshire County Council. A vision of partnership and shared values was painted, with an anxious Welsh Government encouraging the happy couple to consummate their relationship. Other interested parties made approaches soon afterwards, but Cantref has now announced that its preferred partner is Wales and West Housing Association, based in Cardiff.

As a hard bitten New York banker once told Cneifiwr, there is no such thing as a merger, before explaining what he meant in biological terms which are not suitable for a blog which is read in many a manse and respectable household.

According to the Herald, which says it has seen some interesting documents, Carmarthenshire was not proposing a takeover or merger, but the acquisition of Cantref's housing stock, almost 90% of which is outside Carmarthenshire.

Ceredigion County Council was understandably less than keen about the prospect of a takeover of a large chunk of its social housing stock by another local authority, and it will certainly feel the same about the arrival of the cavalry from Cardiff.

The effect of all these sudden revelations on Cantref's tenants and staff can be imagined. In Newcastle Emlyn, where Cantref has its headquarters, Cantref is the largest and certainly best paying employer we have, and the fate of the association is hugely important to the local economy.

Who exactly is calling the shots at Cantref now is unclear. Is it the association's lenders, or is it Kevin Taylor, the interim chair, most of whose career appears to have been spent in the luxury hotel industry in sunny Bermuda?

Our award winning local newspaper of the year only seems to have noticed what was happening when a press release arrived from County Hall in Carmarthen last night announcing Carmarthenshire's disappointment at having been knocked out of the running.

It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that the fate of Cantref is as important to this corner of Wales as the future of the steel industry is to Port Talbot, but it's not much of an exaggeration.

The Welsh Government should now intervene, press the pause button, underwrite Cantref's debt and ensure that the interests of the tenants, staff and the local economy are placed first.


Anonymous said...

Wales & West Housing Association based in East Wales will takeover the administration of the housing - transfer bulk of the jobs back to its HQ in the East leaving g a few technical staff, and a few to look after the tenants . The Welsh ethos of Tai Cantref will be lost . At least Carmarthenshire which has a housing stock unlike Ceredigion and Pembs which threw their tenants at the mercy of Housing Assoc would have a] kept the local jobs. b] keptt the Welsh ethos / Tai Cantref made money but was badly governed from the start .

Anonymous said...

Braf iawn i dy weld di'nol.

Jac o' the North, said...

There are still a number of questions to be answered, not least, who the hell is Kevin Taylor, and who parachuted him into Cantref? (Or is that two questions?)

Another big question is who encouraged Mark James / CCC to believe that they could just walk in and take over, because that's the way it looks. Mark James already had a minion in place and the rest was a mere formality, then someone pulled the rug from under them.

Suggesting to me that the fight over Cantref is not finished. The mysterious Kevin Taylor may favour Wales and West, but I wouldn't write off Mark James yet, nor Tai Ceredigion.

Anonymous said...

You're correct Jac - never write off Mark James - the man is ruthless and brooks no opposition and is probably right now plotting his next three or four moves.

Anonymous said...

Chris Betteley of the Cambrian News as political journalist of the year!?

Blow me down. Those awards are not only beyond parody, but beneath contempt if that's the case. Who nominated him? His editor? Someone with a warped sense of humour.

Perhaps those Herald's hacks haven't crawled far enough up the bottoms of whoever selects these awards. There's more strong writing on any four pages of news in the Journal, Star, or Cambrian.

It's true about the subbing and twiddly bits of community news, though.

JonnyCee said...

I smell yet more grant and public money farming by the great and good when it comes to Tai Cantref...

Anonymous said...

Mark and Meryl are desperately trying to devise their exit strategies. Meryl has already been rejected as Chair of the Arts Council. They are now looking for lucrative board positions and the Rev'd Dole is happy to help them out while the other Plaid Exec Board Members are in the dark.