Wales politics

Caldicot drainage board could have risked thousands of lives

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Media captionThe Caldicot and Wentlooge Internal Drainage Board is responsible for work to prevent flooding on the Gwent Levels

The lives and homes of thousands of people could have been put at risk because of poor management at a public body, a committee of AMs has warned.

The Caldicot and Wentlooge Internal Drainage Board is responsible for ensuring the Gwent Levels do not flood.

The latest criticism follows a Wales Audit Office (WAO) report which said the board misused public funds.

AMs said the findings did not reflect on the board's managers now. Its powers are likely to be transferred elsewhere.

The Welsh government said it understands appropriate control measures are now in place at the board.

The body, which is independent of government, manages drainage systems in an area of low-lying coastal land between Cardiff and Chepstow, south of the M4 and bordered by the Severn estuary.

The WAO investigation into the board's 2010/11 accounts found irregularities in the way some senior staff had awarded themselves and others pay rises.

It also had evidence that the board went on trips around Europe with "little or no" business case to justify their need.

It said that in 2005, 37 people went on a £4,333 three-day inspection visit to Venice, including 13 staff and board members and 21 guests, mainly spouses or relatives.

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 Welsh assembly's public accounts committee said events at Caldicot and Wentlooge were "a prime example of how not to run a publicly-funded organisation".

'Strategically critical'

In a new report, committee chair Darren Millar AM said: "There were no clear lines of accountability for the board and it was not effectively monitored in developing and implementing a strategic plan for flood-risk management in the Gwent Levels.

"We believe that this potentially put the lives and property of thousands of people at risk."

The committee report concluded that "poor governance and accountability" led to staffing disputes and infighting at the drainage board.

Mr Millar said: "Caldicot and Wentlooge IDB is responsible for managing the appropriate drainage for a strategically critical area of Wales, which encompasses major infrastructure, businesses, farmland and tens of thousands of homes.

"The committee believes that the poor governance, accountability and transparency at the board had the potential to put all of that at risk."

He also warned that the committee was concerned that the issues at the board may not be unique and urged Welsh ministers to remind other public bodies of their responsibilities.

But Mr Millar said the board had taken action to address many of the issues highlighted by the WAO and the report's findings did not reflect on the current management team.

'Checks and balances'

There are three internal drainage boards currently operating wholly or mainly in Wales: Caldicot and Wentlooge Levels, which is wholly in Wales; Lower Wye, which is mainly in Wales and partly in England; and Powysland, which is also mainly in Wales and partly in England.

Natural Resources Minister Alun Davies said he was now considering merging all three boards with environmental body Natural Resources Wales.

In a statement to AMs, he said the issues raised about Caldicot and Wentlooge board do not "reflect the culture or standards of public service that we have a right to expect from any public body".

"It is clear from the report that it lacked some of the necessary governance controls, checks and balances that a public body must possess," Mr Davies said

"We have already consulted on the future of these bodies and in the consultation we made clear that our preferred option was to transfer the powers of the internal drainage boards to Natural Resources Wales.

"I have considered responses to the consultation and have asked officials to look at the costs, benefits and risks of a transfer to Natural Resources Wales, alongside other options.

"This work is well advanced, and I expect to announce my decision on the future of these boards in the next month."

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