Wales politics

Caldicot and Wentlooge drainage board's 'spectacular failure'

Magor Marsh. Pic: Rob Waller
Image caption The board maintains drainage systems on the Gwent Levels

There was a "spectacular failure of governance" at a public body responsible for ensuring the Gwent Levels do not flood, a senior Welsh government official has acknowledged.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) found the Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels Internal Drainage Board misused public funds and was badly managed for years.

Gareth Jones said officials lacked "triggers" to alert them to problems.

The board said the findings were shocking but they would not happen now.

The board manages drainage systems on the Gwent Levels - an area of low-lying coastal land between Cardiff and Chepstow, south of the M4 and bordered by the Severn estuary.

Last October a WAO report detailed examples of spending which it described as "contrary to law".

In 2005, 37 people went on a three-day inspection visit to Venice, including 13 staff and board members and 21 guests, mainly spouses or relatives.

Although it involved visits to wetlands and drainage works, the report said the trip, which cost the board £4,333, was "primarily designed as a celebratory event".

Another excursion to Northern Ireland for 28 people in 2008, which included a visit to a distillery and the Giants Causeway, cost more than £4,700.

The report also said the board's former clerk and engineer, Dean Jackson-Johns, was involved in submitting proposals about his own pay to board committees.

In 2006 his salary rose from £55,228 to £65,553. By April 2010 it had risen to £83,122.28.

Assembly public accounts committee chair Darren Millar and several other members asked about the role of civil servants and why concerns were not raised sooner.

Mr Jones, director general of the Welsh government's sustainable futures department said that "we didn't have the triggers to alert us to the problems".

He said they would have intervened if they had known about the problems. When they found out about the governance problems through a whistle-blowing action in 2011 they referred the issue to the WAO.

Mr Jones also emphasised that the board had been "spectacularly successful in terms of managing flood risk management".

Liberal Democrat AM Aled Roberts and Plaid Cymru's Jocelyn Davies asked about the Welsh government's role in working with the board to deliver the improvements needed and the Welsh government's actions to reassure itself that there were approved decision-making frameworks for drainage boards in Wales.

'Historical' findings

Mr Jones assured AMs that the Welsh government was not complacent, and had taken a "more proactive approach" to help the board in good governance practices.

He said that since the WAO report was published, the board has drawn up new standing orders, which were approved by the Welsh government in February 2013.

A consultation had been undertaken on the future of the board, he said, and a business case was now being worked on for the minister's consideration.

Natural Resources Wales chief executive Emyr Roberts explained that, as with the now defunct Environment Agency Wales, the nature of their relationship with the board was principally around operational matters and not governance.

Board general manager Richard Penn said he was brought in after the events described in the audit report and after the previous chief executive resigned.

He described the findings of the report as "shocking" but now "historical".

Mr Penn said that it was now a very different organisation and "the issues raised will not happen again, certainly not when I am involved".

But he also said it was not clear that the board was accountable to the Welsh government, and he would welcome "clarity".

Mr Penn suggested the board needed to be reformed, including a reduction in its size from the current 37 members.

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