July 25, 2021

Newyddion Cymru Ar-Lein : Wales News Online

Newyddion Lleol a Chenedlaethol Cymru – Local and National News for Wales

TREE surgeons have been overpaid thousands of pounds by Carmarthenshire Council, auditors have found.

Helen Pugh, the council’s head of revenues and financial compliance, told councillors there were “serious concerns” about the contract framework which was set up by the authority in 2018.

These concerns related to the management side of the process, the way invoices were raised and approved, and the lack of checks on the work carried out.

The council’s governance and audit committee heard that tree surgery invoices exceeded estimates in 14 out of 15 cases in a sample examined by auditors. The total price exceeded was £23,025.

The higher day rate of £395 per day was paid by the council in all of the invoices tested, regardless of whether the job was groundwork – where a lower rate applies – or aerial work.

The removal of green waste was incorrectly added to two of the invoices. This should be included in the price. Machinery and equipment costs were wrongly added to three invoices. This also should be included in the price.

In one instance, £11,850 was owed to the council but the sum was only recovered when auditors asked about it.

Some tree surgery jobs were being arranged verbally – a practice Ms Pugh described as “not acceptable”.

She said improvements have been put in place by the waste and environmental services department and that a further audit would take place.

“These issues were taken very seriously by the department,” she said.

Ainsley Williams, who heads the service, said he sat down with the team in February this year to go through the audit’s findings and “made sure they were fully aware of what needs to be done”.

He said the changes put in place included all job requests being submitted via the council’s business support unit rather than two supervisors which, he said, had created “quite a pressure point”.

Mr Williams said invoices had to include time sheets, details of labour and the materials used, and that any variation between an estimate and invoice had to be sanctioned. He added that photographs of the work carried out were requested.

He said overpaid jobs could have been due to sub-contractors not understanding the full extent of the work actually needed.

He would, he said, carry out periodic checks himself to ensure the new systems were working.

Committee member Cllr Gareth John said “very basic failures” had been unearthed, and wanted to know how long this had been going on, and whether contract management weaknesses might exist in other areas of expenditure.

Mr Williams said he could not answer how long it had been going on, although the contract itself dated from 2018. He also said he was satisfied that these weaknesses were limited to the grounds and cleansing area of the service.

Ms Pugh said her team was looking more widely at the council’s contract management and procurement processes.

Councillors wanted a follow-up audit on the arboriculture framework done sooner rather than later.

Cllr Elwyn Williams then hit out at ongoing work to fell thousands of ash trees identified as suffering from ash dieback disease.

He said the system of marking diseased trees with red paint or ribbons was “a joke” because one section of road might have numerous red markings but a section nearby might have none.

Cllr Williams claimed contractors could “name their price” and that “they openly brag” that half the trees they fell have nothing wrong with them.

“I raised this back in March in 2020, and I was laughed at,” he said.

Ms Pugh said the ash dieback contract framework was separate to the one examined by auditors, and that contractors had to compete to win a particular contract for a road.

Councillors were also told that diseased trees posed a health and safety risk.

Cllr Tina Higgins asked if more than one person had checked the trees identified as being diseased.

Mr Williams said: “There are teams of people out there – they would have all been trained in identifying those diseased trees in the first instance.”

Cllr Williams said: “Whoever these experts were, they weren’t expert enough.”

Mr Williams said he would look into any particular ash dieback concerns raised by elected members.

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