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Timber industry have ‘no confidence’ in NRW

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IN AN unprecedented move ten of Wales’ major timber processors have formally notified the Welsh Government they have no confidence in Natural Resources Wales’ (NRW) management of its commercial forestry.

The companies expressing concern include local firms Teifi Timber Projects Ltd and James Davies (Abercych) Ltd.

In a leaked letter, the companies claim that NRW mismanagement of its forestry estate risks 12,000 jobs in the Welsh rural economy; £100m of new investment; Welsh Government revenues; mill closures; and Welsh processing becoming uncompetitive.

The problem is particularly acute as NRW forestry is the principal supplier of the Welsh wood processing industry, providing over 50% of raw material to the companies.

Their principal request is the removal of commercial forestry management from NRW.

NRW ACTIONS INEXPLICABLE

Late last year, a key Assembly Committee concluded that incompetence alone could not explain the actions of NRW in the awarding of a series of multi-million pounds timber contracts to a single logging company, that led to the qualification of NRW’s accounts qualified for three consecutive years.

The Committee stressed it didn’t have enough evidence to reach a full conclusion but said it struggled to comprehend how an organisation led by highly experienced, knowledgeable and skilled individuals could repeatedly make the same mistakes despite previous warnings both by the Assembly and the Wales Audit Office (WAO).

NRW awarded more contracts to the same company without a tendering process even AFTER it was warned off by the WAO.

David Sulman, Executive Director of the UK Forest Products Association told the Committee: “I certainly wouldn’t call these actions mistakes or oversights, as has been claimed. And it seems to us that these actions were premeditated, deliberate, and made in the full knowledge of the facts and the existence of long-standing and well-understood official procedures around timber marketing.

“Talking to people in the industry, some might even go so far as to say that, in view of the very serious concerns that the Auditor General and his staff—and, indeed, this committee had expressed about NRW’s behaviour, their action might amount to almost being contemptuous.”

For Welsh Conservatives enough is enough.

Shadow Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary, Andrew RT Davies AM, called for NRW to be scrapped and replaced by two separate bodies; one handling the regulatory duties undertaken by the organisation and the other its commercial aspects.

The scandal has claimed the scalps of former-NRW Chair, Diane McCrea and former Chief Executive Emyr Roberts.

PLAID WANTS INDEPENDENT REVIEW

Responding to the letter, Llyr Gruffydd AM Plaid Cymru shadow minister for environment and rural affairs said: “This letter is a significant development in the ongoing issues surrounding Natural Resources Wales’ handling of its responsibilities over forestry in Wales.

“For the sector to state that it has lost confidence in NRW’s ability to deliver a commercially viable and sustainable service should force the government to consider looking again at whether NRW is the best vehicle to deliver some of these services.

“I am therefore calling on the Welsh Government to establish an independent review to ascertain whether it is still appropriate for NRW to continue to manage the commercial forest estate in Wales. If the inquiry finds that a change is needed then it should offer alternative models for the government to consider. If it concludes NRW is the appropriate body then it must make clear recommendations as to how to improve relations with the sector.”

A Welsh Government spokesman said: “We do not comment on leaked correspondence.”

Clare Pillman, chief executive of Natural Resources Wales, said: “We fully accept that we have had some significant issues in our commercial forestry operations.

“We are taking these very seriously and have left no stone unturned in getting to the bottom of these issues, which is why we commissioned independent experts to carry out a thorough review, which will conclude very soon.

“Our relationship with our forestry partners is very important to us and we will be meeting with them in the near future to discuss our plans for improvements.”

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Completing the Census will help improve the county’s services

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As Census Day approaches, everyone is reminded of the benefits of taking part in this once every ten years survey.

The Census gives an accurate picture of the population and the needs of the people in the county, and affects the funding that is allocated to Ceredigion from Welsh Government annually and therefore the funding that’s available to provide critical services in the county. As a result, it is vitally important for everyone to take part in this year’s survey.

Every household in the county will receive a Census Pack in the coming weeks, which will include either a letter with a unique access code for online completion or a paper questionnaire. The Census Packs will include instructions on how to complete the questionnaire.

The last Census, which was held in 2011, showed that 75,922 people lived in Ceredigion, including 11,318 students. The most popular occupation for the county’s residents was farming, with 2,063 people identifying themselves as farmers, and 676 people noted they were nurses.

Data from Census 2011 supported the identification of Ceredigion (and three other local authorities in Wales) as target areas for the £2 million Arfor Innovation Fund Scheme.The data highlighted Ceredigion as a suitable area for the scheme, due to the county’s high proportion of Welsh speakers, and inflow of older people and outflow of younger people. Consequently, almost £500,000 has been made available by the Welsh Government to Ceredigion, to support Welsh language businesses and entrepreneurs in the area.

In addition to this, the data collated during Census 2011 helped to develop play and recreation areas at Llanddewi Brefi, Llanon, Ponterwyd and Cardigan. By using this data, it was possible to apply to the Welsh Government Rural Communities Development Fund (RCDF) and show how much these services are needed by local residents.

Information gathered as part of the Census enables local and national governments to plan services for various sectors, including healthcare, social care, schools and transport.

Councillor Ellen ap Gwynn, Leader of Ceredigion County Council, said: “Not only is the Census fascinating, but it also gives the best possible estimate of our population today. Over the years, we have been able to use this data to plan services, by tackling and prioritising the needs of our communities in Ceredigion. I urge everyone to complete this mandatory survey in order to gain a true picture of the county’s fabric. Who knows what the data from Census 2021 will bring? But one thing is certain, taking part will benefit the residents of our county.”

Census Day will be on 21 March 2021, but households will soon receive Census Packs in the post explaining how they can take part. The Census will include questions about your sex, age, work, health, education, household size and ethnicity. And, for the first time, there will be a question asking people whether they have served in the armed forces, as well as voluntary questions for those aged 16 and over on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

In Wales, households will also be asked a specific question about their Welsh language skills. And those who wish to complete the Census in Welsh can do so both online and in paper form. 

Because these things matter to us all, everyone needs to complete the Census. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) runs the Census in England and Wales and is independent from government. Your details are protected by law and information published is always anonymous.

For more information and to find out how you can access help, go to www.census.gov.uk or call the contact Centre on 0800 169 2021.

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Elin Jones backs calls for business rates holiday extension for independent businesses

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CEREDIGION’S Member of the Senedd, Elin Jones, has backed calls by the British Independent Retail Association for the extension of the current rates holiday for non-essential businesses in 2021/22.

Many local independent businesses have been closed for the best part of a year, and many will be in a more precarious situation now than when the initial rates holiday was announced last year. Many businesses will be looking forward to the easing of restrictions over the next few months, but Elin Jones warned that many would benefit from the continued business rates holiday.

Elin Jones said:

“Every effort must be made to secure the future of independent businesses in Ceredigion. They are such an important feature of life in Ceredigion, both as employers, and as a draw for people to our towns and villages.

“Normal trading will eventually resume, and these businesses will be able to flourish again, but local businesses owners know that this cannot be rushed. Therefore we must continue to sustain our businesses until they are once again back on an even keel.

“It will take a while for footfall to resume, and extending the business rates holiday is one way to help in this time of need.”

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MP makes Budget case for support for self-employed and small businesses in Ceredigion

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BEN LAKE MP has called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the government’s financial support package for businesses and self-employed workers in next week’s Budget as many struggle to stay afloat during continued lockdown restrictions. 

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak is to set out the UK Government’s budget on Wednesday 3 March, almost a year since the last Budget on 11 March 2020. 

To help businesses and our local high streets over coming months, the Ceredigion MP has called on the Chancellor to extend the lowered rate of VAT at 5% for hospitality and tourism for a year to March 2022 and to extend the business rates relief package. 

Mr Lake also called on the Chancellor to retain the furlough scheme for the duration of pandemic restrictions, as recent figures show more than 178,000* in Wales are still receiving government help from the CJRS. He also urged the Chancellor to expand the existing eligibility criteria for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme in order to offer some help to the many individuals who have not received a penny in Government support thus far. 

Ben Lake MP said: “For many businesses and self-employed workers, the financial support government has offered over the last 12 months has been a lifeline. Now, as we are finally starting to see light at the end of the lockdown tunnel, we cannot remove this lifeline prematurely. Extending this help for a little longer, and expanding the criteria to help those that have been excluded thus far, would offer small businesses the support they require to ‘bounce back’ from the pandemic.” 

Many businesses who are still not open due to lockdown measures are also now expected to start repaying their Bounce Back Loans. This is despite their situation largely remaining unchanged since they took out the loan, or in some unfortunate instances, worsened as they have not yet been able to trade.  

UKHospitality has estimated that the hospitality sector lost around £72 billion in sales in 2020 and faces, frankly, a debt mountain, including £4.2 billion in state-backed loans.  

Mr Lake said:  “It is important that businesses that took out bounce back loans and CBILS are required to pay only when they are in a position to do so – once they have ‘bounced back’ from the pandemic. Affording such a level of flexibility, and thus preventing avoidable business failures, would protect jobs, the taxpayer’s investment in the recovery, and the integrity of our financial system.

“We remain in the early stages of a vaccine-led recovery, and it is likely that we will have some form of restrictions for many months to come. Having done so much to protect the economy and the workforce, we must not withdraw support prematurely, as to do so would risk throwing away the investment taxpayers have made in the last year, and potentially our economic recovery.” 

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