Review of the Year: March 2013

South Wales Argus: Caerphilly council chief executive Anthony O’Sullivan Caerphilly council chief executive Anthony O’Sullivan

March

PAY rises of up to 20 per cent for top officers at Caerphilly Council – which prompted hundreds of staff to walk out in disgust – were “unlawful” in the way they were set, a damning Welsh Audit Office report concluded.

The council was heavily criticised in the report for “failures”, “inadequacies”, and for acting “unlawfully” in determining the rises, which would cost £1.5 million over the next four years.

The rises were awarded by a five-strong committee including both the council’s deputy leaders, based on a report written by chief executive Anthony O’Sullivan, who gave advice leading to his own £32,000 increase.

This was later reduced to £5,000 following an outcry from unions and staff, many of whom had had their pay frozen for three years.

Assistant auditor general Anthony Barrett said the original decision, made as part of an exempt item during a senior remuneration committee meeting on September 5 2012, had been unlawful for a number of reasons, including that Mr O’Sullian, who would be a beneficiary, wrote the report and sat in on the meeting to approve salary increases.

Other officers who stood to gain also sat in. No declarations of interest were made and the officers did not leave the room during the decision-making.

“Consequently, they participated in the decision-making process when they had a disqualified financial interest,” concluded Mr Barrett in the report.

The revelations prompted calls for Mr O’Sullivan to resign, and Gwent Police said the matter should be investigated to ensure transparency and independence.

But the force referred the matter to Avon and Somerset Police – which continues to investigate – due to its proximity to, and working relationship with, Caerphilly Council.

The matter provoked a furious political row, with the council’s Plaid Cymru group demanding actions on the report’s recommendations.

Councillor Colin Mann, Plaid Cymru’s group leader, called on Mr O’Sullivan to resign, saying his position had become “untenable.” Carl Sargeant, then the Welsh Government’s local government minister, also demanded action.

Public sector union Unison welcomed the report’s findings, calling the pay awards “immoral, insensitive and unjustified” and calling on the officers to forego any pay award.

Days later Mr O’Sullivan was suspended on full pay. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru maintained its attacks, demanding the council’s political leadership face the same level of scrutiny as its administrative leadership.

The pay award decision was rescinded at a meeting on January 17 this year, when independent legal advice was received and the reduced award was made.

March 1

NEWPORT County confirmed a 10-year deal to play at Rodney Parade, and appealed to supporters’ groups to help fund improvements to the playing surface.

As part of a deal agreed with Newport RFC and Newport Gwent Dragons, County committed to investing around £100,000 in the pitch. It was hoped half the amount would be covered by a grant from the Football Foundation, leaving a £50,000 shortfall the football club wanted its fans to raise.

The investment was to provide a new grass pitch with improved drainage, and a sprinkler system, with the work to take place during the summer.

March 3

THE first City of Newport half-marathon was hailed an “outstanding success” by organisers at St David’s Hospice Care.

Around 1,000 people defied the early morning cold, with entrants running and raising money for a range of good causes.

A fast, flat course took runners from Newport’s International Sports Village and back, via the city’s riverfront path and the cycleway to Caerleon.

“We’ve had absolutely brilliant support from the business community and our partners, local running clubs, volunteers, marshals,” said Kris Broome, director of fundraising and lottery with St David’s Hospice Care.

He said “very strong foundations” had been laid to make the event an annual one.

March 11

THE Argus reported Newport city centre was in crisis, with almost a quarter of shops lying empty and a 42 per cent vacancy rate in one street alone.

Our survey revealed that rate of vacancies in Lower Dock Street, with John Frost Square having a 68 per cent rate, though it was due to undergo a multi-million pound redevelopment.

Shoppers and businesses warned that the city centre was dying, variously describing it as “lost”, “a nightmare”, and “dominated by charity shops.”

Of the total number of shop units surveyed, 24.88 per cent were closed, and a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that £700,000 in business rates had been lost since 2008 due to shop closures.

The city was also branded the dirtiest in Wales, based on 2011/12 figures, with the lowest percentage of streets deemed at a high standard of cleanliness.

March 14

HE was a fixture on the streets of Chepstow, a character, and “the most famous cat in Monmouthshire.” Alfie the Chepstow Cat used up all of his nine lives at the grand old age of 19, and his passing inspired hundreds of people to pay tribute, and a town publican to organise a wake in his honour.

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