ITS WEBSITE says that Cymdeithas Tai Cantref is a housing association which provides ‘good quality affordable homes’ and housing services for almost 3,500 people across four local authority areas in West Wales: Ceredigion, North Pembrokeshire, North Carmarthenshire and the Machynlleth area in Powys.
What it does not tell visitors to the website is that it is currently under investigation by the Welsh Government and has been the subject of previous investigations into its management and an alleged culture of bullying.
With 84 staff, largely based in its Newcastle Emlyn HQ, Cantref is a major employer. And one it appears with a number of major problems.
The recent AGM of Cantref was held at Cardigan Castle, a venue itself no stranger to controversy. It was a bumper event, with tenants invited to partake of a hog roast and free wine, while residents of Cantref’s hostel were similarly entertained.
The uncharitable have suggested that perhaps the Association’s money would have been better spent on repairing its existing stock. Something which it is claimed the Association is too cash-strapped to manage.
Meanwhile, The Herald has been told that Cantref is struggling to find people to take up residence in its new Felinfach development while the student accommodation built in Aberystwyth, and which was intended to fund further projects, has proven a similarly hard sell.
The Herald has confirmed that three senior staff left Cantref’s employment, among them the Director of Housing, whose replacement Jamie Saunders took up his post earlier this month. Mr Saunders’ background in housing appears limited to the twelve years’ experience he gained working for Hugh James Solicitors, latterly as a senior associate solicitor specialising in property litigation.
The Finance Director was replaced in March. The new post holder, Rhodri Jones, was formerly with Newport City Homes. In 2013, the Welsh Government reported that ‘Newport City Homes recognises that it is not yet always providing excellent outcomes in the way services are delivered’. Comments made by former staff were less kind. One staff comment dated March 20, 2015 on the site glassdoor.com said: “Horrendous working environment, incomprehensible structures & processes, mainly incompetent managers & directors completely out of their depth with personal values to match with all too few exceptions. Stress levels that hugely impact on your quality of life, ill health, huge staff turnover, very high staff absence mainly due to stress. Incredibly poor recruitment policy”.
The Herald has confirmed that officials from the Welsh Government are now using their powers to investigate Cymdeithas Tai Cantref. The Herald has been told, but has not been able to confirm, that this is the first time the Welsh Government has used those powers.
The Herald has, however, confirmed that the investigation has arisen following ‘whistleblowing’ by either past or current Cantref employees.
The Welsh Government is following three lines of enquiry: Governance of the organisation, procurement irregularities and HR (treatment of staff ).
The Herald has been told that the Welsh Government’s officials initially made great play of the situation’s seriousness.
Our sources have confirmed that staff are unaware of any further visits by the Welsh Government to Cantref to follow up that initial intervention. Consultants from a firm called Campbell Tickell, a housing consultancy, are involved and while its representatives have spoken to senior managers, no staff have been interviewed to date, or even been asked their availability. One source has told us that Cantref’s management have told staff the investigation could take four months.
The Herald understands that a letter sent to stakeholders by Cantref has played down the importance of the Welsh Government’s intervention.
We have also been told that senior managers have told staff that if they say anything to WG or the investigators the Association will be shut down and everyone will lose their jobs. A planned (cost of living) pay rise has been cancelled. The move has been widely regarded by staff as a collective punishment for the actions of the whistle-blowers.
Our reporter contacted Cymdeithas Tai Cantref and asked them to comment on the situation.
Lynne Sacale, Cantref’s Chief Executive, told The Herald: “Cantref believes in ‘placing our customers at the heart of our work’ and we want to reassure our tenants that Cantref is fully compliant with all financial and regulatory requirements to date. We have recently undergone a robust and successful statutory audit and our performance indicators show we deliver high quality services to our customers. We welcome the inquiry on the basis that any findings will be to the benefit of the association going forward”