Tuesday 16 August 2016

Cantref - judicial review?

Readers of the Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire Heralds, and more especially followers of Jac o' the North, will be aware of the slow-motion disaster which has overtaken Cantref, the housing association based in Newcastle Emlyn which serves large parts of Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and a bit of Powys with a portfolio of 1,800 properties.

Rumours that all was not well have been circulating for at least a year, and those who rely on other local newspapers would have been blissfully unaware that anything was amiss until a couple of weeks ago.

Anyone unfamiliar with the story so far should turn to this piece by Jac o' the North, but in a nutshell something went very badly wrong at Cantref leading to a government-appointed investigation and the resignations of the chair and chief executive. Precisely what went wrong remains a closely guarded secret, with the government refusing to publish the findings of the report it commissioned, but major factors were probably a string of bad investments in student accommodation in Aberystwyth and flats elsewhere, and very poor relations between staff and management.

The upshot of the review was that the association's lenders allegedly threatened to call in their loans, triggering a fairly chaotic scramble to find new "partners". The victor was ultimately Wales and West, a much larger housing association based in Cardiff, and Cantref's shareholders or members voted by a large majority to merge (i.e. be swallowed up by) Wales and West at an EGM on 9 August.

In the weeks and months running up to the meeting there were complaints from various interested individuals that their applications to become members had been vetoed or were ignored, and Cantref appears to have engaged in an almost total news blackout, with no mention of these events on its website or its newsletter to tenants, apart from a brief article saying that the chief executive had left and that they wished her well.

As news management goes, that is on a par with the old joke about Harold Wilson which said that if he had been captain of the Titanic, he would have announced to passengers that there was no cause for alarm - the liner was merely stopping to take on ice.

It is fair to say that political reaction to this debacle, at least in public, has been a long time coming, but Jonathan Edwards MP and Adam Price AM have now called for the merger process to be halted, and warned that the decision is open to judicial review.

Their reasons for intervening include,

 * A questionable tender process for which bidders were expected to submit applications within just 7 days, in addition to "preliminary merger discussions" not being available to all potential bidders;
*    Tenants being expected to live in sub-standard accommodation with the Wales Quality Housing Standard not being met until 2024 – an additional 4 years on the current completion expectation on 2020;
*    The dilution of the Welsh language in one of west Wales's largest employers;
*    ​No formal consultation on the merger has taken place with tenants.

It seems that one of the things which swung the vote in favour of Wales and West were last minute undertakings that Cantref's Welsh language policies would be respected and that local contractors would continue to be used for maintenance.

Cantref has an excellent record of using the Welsh language day-to-day and encouraging Welsh learners. In the run-up to the merger decision it is said that Wales and West managers adopted an English only approach to meetings.

Cantref also contributes significantly to the local economy by using independent local contractors, where as Wales and West has its own inhouse maintenance department.

There is no doubt that the merger has been rushed and chaotic. If claims that the lenders were threatening to pull their credit lines are true, the Welsh Government could have intervened to underwrite Cantref's debt pending a decision about its long-term future.

As for the undertakings about the Welsh language and use of local contractors, a key question is how those promises could be enforced and who would hold Wales and West to account.

Wales and West is known to have very close links to Welsh Labour, and ultimately it would be up to a (Labour) minister to step in if those promises turn out to be empty.

The government's track record of intervention, particularly in Labour fiefdoms, hardly inspires confidence.

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