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Alex Seabrook

Alex Seabrook is a Local Democracy Reporter covering Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, based at Wales Online.

A developer for Cardiff’s planned 15,000-seater indoor arena will be chosen in “the next couple of months”.

But questions have been raised whether the planned arena and conference centre is still a good idea considering the impact of the pandemic.

As part of the plans, Cardiff council bought the Red Dragon Centre in Cardiff Bay earlier this year.

The council is currently choosing a developer and operator for the indoor arena, and a decision is expected over the “next couple of months”, according to Ian Allwood, head of finance.

The chosen developer will then apply for planning permission, revealing detailed plans of what the arena could look like.

Mr Allwood was updating councillors on the policy scrutiny committee about the council’s current financial position, at a public meeting on Tuesday, September 15. During that meeting, councillors raised concerns about the plans for the arena and the impact of social distancing rules.

Councillor Rod McKerlich said: “The consideration of having a conference centre must have dramatically changed as a result of Covid. Are we still intent on going ahead with it?

“I have no doubt that having a conference centre and an indoor arena looked like a good idea three years ago. But it must be looking like a much less good idea now.”

Cllr Rodney Berman said: “I do share concerns about whether the arena project is actually a sensible project to be moving forward with in the changing circumstances. We don’t know that this vaccine will come along and take away the problem in a few months and then everything will be back to normal.

“There could well be quite a change in the way people operate for a long time. I know there are a lot of employers, for instance, who are contemplating having far more of their staff working from home, at least for part of the week.

“There have also been a lot of moves towards virtual conferences and some of that may well stay. There may be less demand for an arena for conferences and things like that.”

But the arena firmly remains part of the city’s future, according to Cllr Chris Weaver, cabinet member for finance.

Cllr Weaver said: “This could have a significant impact on large elements of our lives for a long time to come. But we are not never going to have live music again. We are not never going to go back to mass gatherings.

“We need to recognise that while this is an extremely difficult situation, and will have lasting impact, it cannot put everything and will not put everything on hold forever. I do see a successful indoor arena as a very viable and important part of the city’s future.”

A million pounds of council tax income has been lost to the Vale of Glamorgan council due to the coronavirus.

The financial impact of Covid-19 means many people have been unable to pay council tax on time, meaning councils are receiving less income.

In the Vale of Glamorgan, council tax collection rates were down by 1.1 per cent, at the end of June.

Council Leader Neil Moore said: “The revenue position is bound to be challenging, and it will continue to be challenging, because I don’t think Covid is going to go away quite as quickly as people think.”

He made the comments in a public meeting of the cabinet, on September 7, where councillors were updated on how Covid-19 has impacted council finances from April to July.

Cllr Moore said: “There has been a 1.1 per cent reduction in council tax collection, as compared to the same time last year. This equates to the loss of £1 million. The position is being closely monitored.

“We are writing to people asking them if they’re in a position to continue to pay, but we have also delayed payments to those people who have requested it.”

Some council tax payers in the Vale have deferred their payments from April and May this year to February and March next year.

Elsewhere, the council has suffered a “substantial” loss of funding from other sources of income.

Cllr Moore said: “We’ve shut down our car parks, leisure centres were closed. We’re out of lockdown as such, but we still have to be careful, and we’re still losing income.

“Some funding has been covered by the Welsh Government to cover some of these financial pressures. It’s early in the financial year and this year is going to be even more uncertain than usual — and it looks like there could be another spike.”

Between March and July, the council asked the Welsh Government for £6,416,000 in grant funding to cover the extra costs fo Covid-19. So far the council has received £3,792,000 in grant funding.

Extra costs to the council include providing childcare for key workers, buying huge stocks of personal protective equipment, and upgrading IT for council workers to be able to work from home.

An entire year at a school in Dinas Powys has been asked to self-isolate after a pupil tested positive for coronavirus.

The positive case at Dinas Powys primary school was confirmed by Test, Trace and Protect.

It means that all Year 6 pupils, as well as the teaching staff for that year group, will be off school for at least 14 days.

Pupils in other year groups will still be asked to come into school, which officials say has been deep cleaned.

The school, Vale of Glamorgan council, and Public Health Wales have drawn up a risk assessment of the case.

Council leader Neil Moore said: “It’s not unexpected that we were going to have some cases somewhere. But what I want to assure everybody is that everything is on hand.

“The particular group has been asked to self-isolate for 14 days, and that would clearly include anyone who has been in contact with them.

“Covid-19 hasn’t gone away. What people need to realise is you are not immune. If you’re not immune, then you can pass it on to someone else.

“We are in constant contact with the school. If anybody has any queries, please phone our offices and we can give advice.”

Cllr Moore made the comments in a public meeting of the cabinet, on September 7.

A Vale of Glamorgan Council spokesman said: “The NHS Wales Test, Trace and Protect system has confirmed one positive case of Covid-19 at Dinas Powys Primary School.

“The school and Council have been working closely with Public Health Wales to undertake a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation.

“As a consequence, staff and pupils in the respective year group have been asked to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. The school will remain open to other year groups.

“In addition to social distancing and safety measures in place, a deep clean of the school has been carried out. Test Trace and Protect officers are also carrying out all necessary follow-on activity.”

The Covid-19 infection rate in the Vale of Glamorgan rose to 7.5 cases per 100,000 population last week, an increase of 1.5 from the week before.

The Vale of Glamorgan council has been criticised for a perceived lack of transparency in a controversial move of a rural school.

Llancarfan Primary School will soon move to Rhoose, despite a fierce campaign against the relocation. Campaigners said the move effectively means the closure of the rural village school.

The new building will have enough space for 210 pupils, and 48 places in nursery. Planning permission was granted in a meeting on Wednesday, September 2. However this information was not made public until two days later.

The Vale of Glamorgan Council has now faced criticism for a perceived lack of transparency in the planning decision, and more widely since the coronavirus pandemic.

Public access to council meetings was protected in law by parliament in 1985, in an amendment to the Local Government Act. That access stopped in March, as social distancing rules came in.

Councils now hold public meetings virtually, with video-conferencing apps like Microsoft Teams. Several councils, like Cardiff, allow the public to watch meetings live, to witness how important decisions are made.

However, the Vale council is denying live access to the public and reporters, instead uploading recordings of meetings days, sometimes weeks, later. One licensing hearing, about a controversial chippy selling booze late at night, was not made public for more than a month.

Former Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies — who stood for election as a councillor on the Vale to campaign against the school move — criticised the decision and lack of transparency as “deeply regrettable.”

Cllr Davies said it was “clearly evidenced that Labour campaigned to save the school” while in opposition. He claimed as the current administration is now “adamant” it wants to move the school to Rhoose, saving the Llancarfan school would need a “change of administration”.

He said: “The smell of power made them change their minds. What they promised in the Rhoose by-election, they soon ran away from.”

The former Tory leader in the Senedd also criticised the Vale council for denying reporters and the public live access to public meetings.

He said: “Other councils can stream meetings live, so I don’t see why the Vale council can’t. I fail to see why, in the open and democratic era we live in, journalists can’t sit in meetings live as if they were held in the Civic Offices.

“Cardiff has been holding full council over the course of the summer. The Vale is only holding its first full council on September 14. There hasn’t been the opportunity to have a full council meeting and scrutiny of what the executive is doing since March — which is not good for democracy.”

Cardiff Council has been holding public meetings virtually since May, broadcasting them live. Many other councils across the country have also adapted to new technology, broadcasting meetings live for months.

Vale of Glamorgan Council said it is still trialling different platforms and “implementing new systems takes time”.

A council spokesman said: “In recent weeks, the council has adopted new technology to enable meetings to take place and recordings are uploaded to the website following their conclusion. The planning committee meeting referenced is now available to view.

“We appreciate there has sometimes been a delay in this happening and are in the process of trialling different platforms to make all public meetings accessible more quickly.

“Transparency and accountability have always been central to the function of the council and that firmly remains the case. A list of emergency powers used by the managing director while formal meetings were not taking place has been regularly updated on the council’s website.

“Like the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic suddenly changed the way in which we operate and sometimes implementing new systems takes time.”

Plans have been revealed to install a stairway and zipline on the roof of the Principality Stadium so tourists ‘can experience the Cardiff skyline’.

The stadium has asked for planning permission from Cardiff council to build the stairs and zipline on the roof.

If built, people will be able to climb up the spires of the gigantic stadium and look out to views of the city centre.

The plans include a ‘suspension wire bridge’, a viewing platform, and a zipline from the top of one of the roof spires.

Wheelchair users will also be able to get up to the roof of the stadium, with a ‘specifically designed wheelchair hoist’.

Designs submitted with the planning application show people walking along the roof, and riding down the zipline. The stairway up to the roof will be built from within the stadium.

The Principality Stadium, on Westgate Street, was opened in 1999, cost £121 million to build, and is home to Wales’s national rugby union team.

This year, the stadium has also been home to the Dragon’s Heart temporary hospital to deal with the impact of the coronavirus.

Plans for the stairway and zipline were sent to the council in July. They need permission from planning officers before they can be built.

The Principality Stadium was asked to comment.

Cladding on Cardiff flats is finally to be removed three years after Grenfell Tower fire

Cladding on student flats in Cardiff is finally set to be removed more than three years after the devastating Grenfell tower block fire in London.

Lumis Student Living, in Tyndall Street, is clad with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding, similar to that which caused the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 although not as combustible. Although it was compliant with earlier building regulations, more stringent regulations were introduced in 2018.

Cladding is attached to a building as an external rainscreen, to prevent water getting into walls. But after the fire, which killed 72 people, concerns were raised over how combustible some cladding is.

Work to remove the combustible ACM cladding on the two apartment blocks of 602 beds run by Lumis will soon begin, after Cardiff council granted planning permission for the works.

Builders will replace the ACM cladding with non-combustible, solid aluminium cladding, the same colour as currently.

James Hansel, a council planning officer, said in a report that the changes were needed “due to concerns over the combustibility of the existing cladding”.

He added that no consultation had taken place or formal publicity about the cladding, “given the minor nature of the proposal”.

Viridis Real Estate Services applied for planning permission for the works on July 13. The council granted permission two weeks later.

A spokesman for Viridis Real Estate said: “Following the Grenfell Tower fire the Tyndall Street building, which is less than half the height, was certified by the Fire Officer as of low risk and safe to occupy.

“There is no reason to suppose that the building is any less safe now than it was then. The risk of fire can never be eliminated entirely, but the measures we have put in hand will mean that a risk, already certified to be low, may be further reduced.”

The purpose built student accommodation was first given planning permission in 2013.

The NHS spends half a million pounds each year on providing care placements for children with private providers in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Some children in care with complex needs are looked after by charities and private companies. These external placements are paid for by councils and the NHS.

Last year, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan University Health Board spent £568,612.31 on placing children with external care providers, according to a freedom of information (FoI) request. The year before, the health board paid providers £575,642.63.

During those two years, the health board paid for 43 placements for children’s care. While the costs of each placement are unclear, the average cost would be £26,610.58.

The providers used were: 

  • Action for Children, a charity which runs a respite home at Ty Robin in Barry;
  • Ambito Care & Education, a private company which runs a special needs school and residential care home at Craig y Parc in Cardiff;
  • Ferry Care, a private company which runs a care home called Five Oaks, in Abergavenny;
  • Ty Hafan, a charity which runs a children’s hospice in Sully;
  • Ysgol Y Dery, a special needs school in Penarth;
  • Ludlow Street Healthcare, a private company which runs Beechwood College in Penarth; and
  • Heronsbridge School, a council-run special needs school in Bridgend.

The University Health Board was also asked to disclose the cost of each individual placement, but refused to publish this information as it could “give unfair commercial advantage to competitors” of the private providers.

Responding to the FoI request, the health board said: “There could be a significant risk in prejudicing the commercial interests of the company in question.

“The UHB believes that disclosure of information — in a manner which fails to protect the interests and relationships arising in a commercial context — could discourage companies from dealing with the health board, because of fears the disclosure of information could damage them commercially.”

One of the private companies, Ludlow Street Healthcare, made £3.4 million profit and paid out £1.2 million in dividends in 2019, and is owned by a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, according to accounts filed on Companies House.

The parent company of Ambito took in £31.6 million revenue last year, but made a loss of £6.98 million. Ferry Care did not report its profits to Companies House last year.

How much Cardiff council and the Vale of Glamorgan council spend on external placements for children, and with which providers, is currently the subject of separate pending FoI requests.

A spokesperson for Cardiff and Vale University Health Board said: “Occasionally the health board uses external placements for children to address their specialist clinical needs.

“A child may require specialist treatment that the health board doesn’t provide. To ensure the most clinically appropriate care is provided, the child is referred to a specialist treatment centre through the Welsh Health Specialised Services Team for their clinical needs to be met.

“A number of different providers are used because there isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ approach when dealing with children with complex needs.”

Residents have said road markings at a roundabout on the A48 near Cowbridge need to be changed after a motorcyclist died this week.

The motorcyclist, Robert John Evans, 72, died after crashing into the roundabout on Tuesday, August 11.

The new roundabout and its layout have been criticised as an “accident waiting to happen” by Alan Thomas, a Cowbridge resident who uses the roundabout regularly.

When approaching the roundabout from the east and heading straight on to Bridgend, road markings tell drivers to merge from the left hand lane into the right hand lane. Mr Thomas claimed this catches many drivers by surprise, and criticised the lack of warning signs.

Mr Thomas said: “Ever since the roundabout opened I have been concerned that accidents are going to happen there. There is no slip road for traffic turning left towards Llantwit Major.

“Instead we have a dual carriageway approach. Just before the roundabout, the inside lane is told by the road markings to cross into the outside lane if they are going straight on.

“I have seen many cars panic at the last moment and pull out, sometimes causing the outside lane traffic, usually faster, to take evasive action. There are two lanes on the roundabout, then merging into one on the Bridgend side.

“Why on earth don’t they just have road markings asking the outside lane to merge into the slower inside lane on the roundabout itself, or provide a proper slip road?

“I can only think it’s a mistake which could have disastrous consequences.”

The council said the new roundabout was audited by independent consultants to make sure it was safe, and the junction meets all road safety standards.

A Vale of Glamorgan council spokesperson said: “The council was saddened to hear of the fatal collision which occurred on the A48 at the new roundabout junction with the Clare gardens development, and sends its condolences to family and friends of the motorcyclist involved.

“We are cooperating with the ongoing police investigation regarding this collision, however, initial indications are that there are no highway implications or contributory factors associated with this incident.

“The council would assure residents that the new junction has been the subject of a full and comprehensive road safety audit by independent consultants. This was carried out as part of the design and implementation of this new roundabout junction to ensure it meets all necessary highway safety standards.

“We will continue to liaise with the police to ensure that this section of road remains safe for use following this tragic accident.”

New analysis showing a lack of black officers working for South Wales Police has prompted calls for more diversity.

Just six police officers working for the force are black, out of a total of 3,092 officers, according to figures in July from the Home Office. That’s about 0.2 per cent.

Meanwhile black people make up 1 per cent of the population across the area covered by South Wales Police.

How the police treat black people has come under increasing scrutiny recently due to the Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The ethnicity figures were analysed by Liberal Democrats, who said the lack of diversity could prevent the police building trust among black communities.

Rhys Taylor, leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cardiff council, said: “Urgent action is needed to ensure that police forces actually reflect the makeup of communities like south Wales. These figures show the government is falling woefully short of that standard.

“Building trust and confidence among black communities cannot happen without addressing the shocking lack of diversity, and bringing more black people into this key profession.”

Elsewhere in South Wales Police, 25 officers are Asian, 40 are mixed race, and 2,988 are white.

Since March 2019, when the previous figures were published, the force has hired 62 new officers. Only one of the new recruits is black.

The force said it has been trying to increase diversity for the past five years.

A spokesperson for South Wales Police said: “Making South Wales Police more representative of the communities we serve has been a force priority, as outlined in police and crime plans dating back to 2015.

“We recognise and value individuals’ unique differences, and we want South Wales Police to continue to develop as an organisation which represents and reflects our communities.

“While we have made progress during this time, we accept that we still have work to do. But we are moving in the right direction.

“We have a dedicated BAME recruitment team who encourage applications from under-represented groups. The team engages with under-represented communities and provides ‘positive action’ support to encourage applications.

“Positive action refers to a range of measures and initiatives that employers can lawfully take to actively encourage individuals from under-represented groups to apply.”

South Wales Police covers Cardiff, Swansea, Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Merthyr Tydfil, and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Campaigners are calling on Natural Resources Wales to revoke the environmental permit for the biomass burner in Barry.

The Barry biomass power plant, on Woodham Road, will ‘gasify’ wood to generate electricity for 23,000 homes, by heating the wood to high temperatures.

Builders began constructing the biomass incinerator in 2016, but the power plant has not yet begun operating fully.

The Docks Incinerator Action Group is concerned about how the power plant will impact the environment, and is calling on NRW to reverse its decision in 2018 to grant the environmental permit allowing the plant to operate.

Julia Brunskill, of the campaign group, has written an open letter to Sir David Henshaw, chair of NRW, claiming several problems with how the permit was granted.

Ms Brunskill said: “I believe laws have not been adhered to in the permitting process. NRW has been aware of these issues and have, in my opinion, ignored them.

“NRW should have been at the forefront of this battle for the protection of our health, and legally, should have been protecting people and the environment. We, as residents of Barry, expected them to do this for us and our town, and feel extremely let down.”

When NRW consulted the public about the permit, over the Christmas period in 2017, Ms Brunskill claimed key documents weren’t available for the public to inspect for enough time, and NRW were not planning to take into account the views of the public.

She said: “NRW were planning to disregard the consultation results completely.”

When assessing how the incinerator would impact air quality, Ms Brunskill claimed NRW used out-of-date, weaker standards. She added the power plant would fall short of the new standards on air quality, introduced by the Welsh Government in June 2017.

The risk of floods is another local concern. Ms Brunskill claimed NRW used a flood risk assessment from 2009, when granting the permit — also now out of date, given how a warming climate will raise sea levels and increase the risk of flooding in coastal areas.

Other problems in the open letter highlighted were the lack of an environmental impact assessment, the type of permit given, and lack of information on whether the waste heat from the plant could be used.

Ms Brunskill said: “We’re calling for the permit to be revoked until a new permit for the incinerator is in line with all legal obligations, such as the Industrial Emissions directive, Welsh Government policy, and includes an environmental impact assessment.

“NRW’s remit is to protect the health and the environment of the community of Barry and Wales. Without a legal permit, the health of the community is at risk for the 20-year life span of the incinerator.

“The Barry community demands this be put right before our health and environment suffer further.”

A spokesperson from Natural Resources Wales said: “We’ve received a letter relating to the environmental permit that we issued to Biomass UK No 2 Ltd to operate its biomass facility in Barry. We will consider the points raised and will respond to the letter in due course.

“The decision to grant the permit in 2018 followed an extensive assessment of the company’s plans, and several consultations with local people and professional bodies including Public Health Wales and South Wales Fire and Rescue.”

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