The man who gave Vaughan Gething £200,000 breaks his silence

David Neal from Dauson Environmental Group, who donated money to Vaughan Gething's campaign
-Credit: (Image: Richard Swingler Photography)

The man convicted of environmental offences who donated £200,000 to Vaughan Gething's leadership campaign has given his first interview. David Neal, who runs a network of waste and energy firms, said he felt like he had been used as a "stick to beat Vaughan with".

Mr Neal spoke to WalesOnline at the offices of Cardiff-based waste and recycling to demolition group Dauson Environmental where he is the chief executive and main shareholder. In a wide-ranging interview, he

  • Explained when he first met Vaughan Gething to discuss donating to the campaign

  • Why he provided such a significant sum of money in the context of Welsh Labour leadership races

  • What he told him about his environmental convictions

  • The help the Cardiff South and Penarth MS has given him in the past

  • The other donations he has made to what he sees as progressive causes, including a second referendum on EU membership

  • His response to claims he was trying to seek political influence to benefit his companies

  • The controversy over his management of the Withyhedge landfill site.

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Mr Neal was personally convicted and given a three month suspended sentence for company related environmental breaches, following action brought by environment regulator Natural Resources Wales (NRW), at his company’s 175-acre operation located in a site of special scientific interest (SSSI)in the Wentloog area of the Gwent Levels.

He received a further 18 week suspended sentence in 2017 for failure to remove waste. While acknowledging his convictions, Mr Neal insists they were related to “technical breaches” with no evidence of harm to the SSSI. NRW were asked to respond to Mr Neal’s claims.

David Neal at his company's site in Wentloog
David Neal at his company's site in Wentloog -Credit:Richard Swingler Photography

Dealing with industrial and domestic waste, including rubble which is then used in the making of concrete, the Atlantic Eco Park site is owned by Mr Neal and was once home to the family’s dairy farm established by his father Henry. The Neal family began a process of diversification away from farming in the early 1990s beginning with soil recycling business Neal Soil Supplies.

Having backed Mr Gething’s unsuccessful leadership campaign in 2018 with donations totalling £55,000, made from three of his group companies- Dauson Environmental Group made two separate donations of £100,000 to support Mr Gething’s leader campaign in December last year and then a month later. In total Mr Gething raised £251,600.

His rival Jeremy Miles, whose campaign only £58,800 - less than a quarter of the sum raised by Mr Gething - said he would not have accepted the £200,000 funding from Dauson Environmental. The opposition parties have tabled a vote of no confidence in Mr Gething following the donation controversy.

Mr Neal has insisted that the £200,000, as with previous donations, were not made on the basis of seeking future favourable treatment for his businesses or plans for a solar farm in Mr Gething’s own constituency saying: “I never asked anything or expected anything of Vaughan.”

While not a Labour party member he said has been a lifelong supporter, citing his grandfather’s union involvement in Cardiff Docks.

Vaughan Gething stands with his arms in the air at a Labour party campaign event
First Minister of Wales Vaughan Gething on the General Election campaign trail in Abergavenny -Credit:PA

Mr Neal, 63, said: “Living in Wales my entire life, my family and I have been long-standing supporters of the Labour Party and trade union movements. Over the past decade, we have regularly donated to the Labour Party, its campaigns and general fundraising events.

“I believe that it has always been and remains crucial that businesses engage with political leaders, and as a business leader I want to ensure the Welsh economy, businesses, communities, and the environment continue to prosper. I have known Vaughan Gething for some time in his capacity as our constituency MS and have seen the support he provides local businesses and trade unions.

"Wales needs a prosperous economy and well-paid jobs, and I am fully supportive of his vision for greater collaboration between UK and Welsh Governments to achieve this. All donations made have come from a separate account to those used for the development of our business; we have never requested or expected anything in return.”

Between 2019 and 2023 the group, through a number of its companies, spent £280,000 on political spending. Most went to support Vaughan Gething with other sums going to support a campaign for a second EU referendum, the campaign for a Rhodri Morgan statue and tickets to Welsh Labour dinners.

Mr Neal gave the The People's Vote Wales two donations totalling £40,000 (£20,000 each) in February and March 2019, from Dauson Environmental Group company Atlantic Recycling. It also gave £500 towards a Welsh Labour Party fundraiser to build a statue in order of the late First Minister Rhodri Morgan. The company also paid more than £2,200 to attend a number of Welsh Labour dinner and gala events, including one in London, between 2019 and 2023.

David Neal
David Neal -Credit:Richard Swingler Photography

Speaking at Dauson Environmental’s offices, the quietly spoken Mr Neal said that he first met with the now First Minister following his conviction for environmental offences in 2014.

As his constituency AM (now MS) Mr Gething made representations to NRW on behalf of Mr Neal and his companies. This has drawn criticism that Mr Gething was in effect lobbying, but Mr Neal said his actions were consistent with any politician representing the interests of a constituency business. Dauson Environmental Group, which consists of seven companies, including Cardiff Demolition, Neal Soil Supplies and Atlantic Recycling, in its last financial year to end of June, 2023, grew group revenues from £38.4m to £56m, while seeing its pre-tax profit climbing from £4.8m to £8.4m. The group directly employs around 300.

Recalling his first meeting Mr Gething, Mr Neal said: “It was around 2014 when we contacted him with regards our relationship with Natural Resources Wales where we were going through some tricky technical times and I had just been prosecuted for a technical breach of our permits, although to be clear there was no environmental harm to the triple Si (site of special scientific interest) that surrounds our site.

“We shared with him everything in an accurate way about our relationship with NRW and we asked if he would act as mediator between the parties. He then had verbal conversations with NRW staff and also wrote letters on our behalf. Over the years I had found him as someone who is very bright and intelligent and can understand complex issues very quickly, He just struck me as someone who would be a very good as leader of Welsh Labour.”

On the £55,000 funding for Mr Gething’s 2018 leadership campaign to succeed Carwyn Jones, which was won by Mark Drakeford, he said: “The meetings and conversations that lead to the 2018 donations were a little bit ad hoc from memory and we shared it out between three of our companies.”

On the £200,000 provided for the 2023-24 campaign, Mr Neal said that was not approached by Mr Gething, or any member (s) of his campaign team or constituency office.

He said: “We contacted an intermediary in his office via a phone call. It was when Mark Drakeford had decided he was going to retire as First Minister and the question was is Vaughan considering going for the job. The answer was yes, so we arranged to meet over a cup of coffee with Vaughan in Cardiff, but not at our offices. At the time (middle of December 2023) he didn’t know how much money he was going to be able to raise, but I could see early doors that he was going to have a big mountain to climb with the Labour Party grassroot members. At that stage he didn’t know where he was with the trade unions, but I suspected he would get support. He was pro-business and I was aligned on that, but I felt that he would need to communicate and persuade and that takes staff, laptops and office accommodation etc to achieve all of that.

“It was all happening very quickly and Mark (Drakeford) had only just announced he was standing down. Vaughan has just brought his campaign team together with Stewart Owadally and David Costa, so it was all quite rushed to bring this together. So, that is why we made the initial £100,000 donation.”

He said in the first meeting no specific sums were discussed on either side.

-Credit:Richard Swingler Photography
-Credit:Richard Swingler Photography

He added: “It was quite vague as we didn’t quite know at that time what other donors were going to donate and where I would be needed. I was viewing myself more of a gap funder. We then made a second donation in January. However, in that first meeting with Vaughan we didn’t commit to anything.”

Mr Neal, as with previous donations to Mr Gething, said he was aware that they would be declared and made public by the Senedd and the Electoral Commission. He said the amount of the funding, although not knowing at time how much rival Mr Miles had raised, didn’t set any alarm bells ringing that it could be perceived as being too much in context of a Welsh leadership campaign.

On his previous convictions he said there was awareness, but added: “I don’t remember it being discussed out loud, but Vaughan asked his campaign team to do the required checks and that everything that would be done was lawful.”

Mr Neal was asked what approvals were required within Dauson Environmental, including at board level, before making the two £100,000 donations, and whether it would have been better deployed supporting the company and its growth plans?

The chief executive and grandfather said: “I had been grateful to Vaughan’s intervention as a mediator back with NRW and then you get to know somebody and I saw him as being pro-business and could help Wales, so I guess those Labour roots (family) brought it back into play and that is why I did it. I saw an opportunity and you say you either do it or not. Everything was done correctly and disclosed with the company accounts and there wasn’t anything adverse about it. We had general discussions with managing directors of the different companies (within Dauson). I made them aware of the upsides and downsides. We hadn’t decided on day one what the total donation was going to be. When we decided on the first £100,000 I made everyone aware of that, including our auditors (Kilsby Williams).

What if an MD had raised a concern? Mr Neal said: “I did listen and I guess I am the main shareholder and it ultimately did come down to me, but I did weigh things up as a judgement call. We had done it before also in 2018.”

Was he surprised at the level of public, political and media scrutiny - and suggestions that the donations were driven by a desire to get preferential support - once his company’s donations to Mr Gething were made public?

The father of two, whose son Liam works in the business, said: “This has caught us out and we didn’t see this storm of negativity arising from it and the level of venom and vindictiveness within parts of the Labour Party and the media. So, I didn’t expect it to be the level it has been... It hasn’t been good. However, we are business people and we get used to the bumps of life and you deal with things and get up and get on with it.

"However, it does feel as if we have been used as a stick to beat Vaughan with and that stick has been made to look a whole lot worse than it actually is. So, we feel a little bit aggrieved about that and the lack of balance and context. It is just the headline that you are a convicted criminal and that’s it.”

-Credit:Matt Horwood/Senedd
-Credit:Matt Horwood/Senedd

On his convictions he added: "I acknowledge the 2013 and 2017 prosecutions, but contrary to media reports, these were for technical breaches of our permit surrounding the miscoding of some farm-type waste coming onto site and temporary incorrect storage of some fabric waste; both instances were promptly corrected.

“It was recognised by both NRW and Planning Inspectorate that there was no evidence of harm being caused to the SSSI, and NRW made no claims of any harm having actually occurred.”

NRW, later responded by saying: "David Neal as the director of Atlantic Recycling, and the majority shareholder of the Dauson group, was found guilty in the 2013 case of not complying with his environmental permit. Specifically how the company stored waste awaiting recycling or disposal in a manner that did not fully protect the environment, and subsequently the surrounding Rumney and Peterstone SSSI and its special features. Contaminated water/leachate from the poor storage of waste was then found to be entering a watercourse impacting the SSSI feature.

“An Environmental permitting Regulations (EPR) permit is issued by NRW with legal conditions to protect the environment, therefore any significant breeches has the potential to cause a detrimental impact to the surrounding area, which is why an enforcement case was taken in this scenario.

“In the context of “dumping of waste”, this wording is misleading. Mr Neal, and his company are permitted to accept waste for recycling at Atlantic Recycling plant in Cardiff, but there are specific conditions set out within the permit on the tonnages, waste acceptance types, the pending storage and treatment requirements. The manner in how the company stored and managed the waste formed the legal case in which NRW was deemed successful by the independent courts in 2017.”

Mr Neal was asked how he would feel if Mr Gething is forced to stand down as First Minister as a result of the political fallout from his donations? He said: “Annoyed, but you would have to accept it, as Vaughan would have to, as life goes on. My personal feeling would be that the system had got him. I think it would be an opportunity missed if he was to go. He wasn’t born in Wales, but I think he adds to and complements Wales and brings something more to the party.”

Shortly following the donations to Mr Gething’s campaign it was revealed by the Planning and Environment Decisions Wales (Pedw) that Dauson was at an early assessment stage for a potential major solar farm in the Gwent Levels located within Mr Gething’s constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth. This drew some accusations that the £200,000 was being used as a ‘sweetener’ for future preferential planning treatment, even though Mr Gething would not take the decision personally.

Mr Neal said he had first engaged with Pedw over a potential solar farm months earlier in the spring of 2023. Due to its planned scale it has to be determined by the Welsh Government as a development of national significance. He added that to suggest the donations were intended to influence any future planning outcome were “completely off track.”

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He added: “We have engaged with our planning and environmental consultants to look at the possibility of obtaining planning for a solar farm. We believe we can meet the criteria laid down by the Welsh Government, so we decided to proceed with all the background ecological surveys on the site and beyond to understand the potential impact of a solar farm in that environment. All we have done is register it with Pedw, which was made around the spring of 2023. We are still in the process of all the ecological assessments. If we are going to lodge a planning application it will be just before Christmas.”

A planning decision could then potentially not be taken until 2026. The company has identified a 75-acre location for the potential solar farm, near to its existing site, with a capacity to produce 15 megawatt of clean energy.

He said Mr Gething had no knowledge of the solar farm plans. He added: “Vaughan was not aware that we were doing all the background work. It is a private company matter and we had not even got to the point of whether we were going to actually make an application. We didn’t even know at that time whether we had the grounds to, so the donations are irrelevant.

“I never asked or expected anything from Vaughan. Anything we might do regarding planning then the complexities and the hurdles are huge. No one person can have that influence, it is impossible. We did it for the right reasons at the time and we live with that decision.”

In the summer of 2022, group company Neal Soil Suppliers, secured approval for a £400,000 loan from the Development Bank of Wales - which is wholly-owned by the Welsh Government - to acquire an existing solar farm in the west of Cardiff. The funding was drawn down in the spring of 2023. Operating at arm’s length, Welsh Government ministers don’t have a remit to direct the development bank on its equity and debt investments. At the time of the loan approval, Mr Gething was Economy Minister in Mr Drakeford’s cabinet with responsibility for the development bank.

Mr Neal said the entire loan, which is repayable over five years, alongside matchfunding from company cash reserves, was utilised for the sole purpose of the acquiring solar farm site. The panels are currently operated by a German company. However, at the end of the lease Mr Neal’s group will take over the operation of the panels.

He said at the time of his initial meeting with Mr Gething, and subsequent meetings with his campaign team, he didn’t believe it was relevant to mention the fact that his company was already in receipt of a loan from the development bank. It has a relationship with the development bank, and its predecessor Finance Wales, going back nearly a decade. Two previous loans with Finance Wales, were repaid in full with interest. As with more than 1,000 firms in Wales, the group is also in receipt of a pandemic recovery loan from the development bank, which is half way through a longer-term repayment schedule.

Asked why he didn’t go to a high street bank to finance the solar farm acquisition - its main lender is HSBC - Mr Neal said: “It is just a relationship thing with the development bank of Wales and we use them on specific projects and we may use where main stream funders may not want to.”

A spokesperson for the Development Bank of Wales said: “The assessment of the loan to Neal Soil Suppliers in 2023 included an ESG (environmental social and governance) review.The review noted that the group is engaged in highly regulated waste processing activities and had the necessary permits in place. We also considered the company’s commitments to recycle over 75% of materials handled, and to increase the use of solar to power its operations. The purchase of the solar park funded by the loan was part of this long-term strategy.”

On his last meeting with the now First Minister Mr Neal: “Face to face it would have been December and from then on was through intermediaries.”

Whether he received a personal thank you from Mr Gething following the two £100,000 donations he said: “It was only really coming through the campaign team which I was absolutely fine with. We didn’t want to contact Vaughan directly and just wanted to let him do his campaigning.”

He said the scrutiny following the donations has impacted his business. Mr Neal said: “Initially all our customers were quite shocked as it is a big story, but as time has gone what we are seeing in the private sector ‘this is not about you, this is a witch hunt against Vaughan’. That has made it easier for us with the private sector. The public sector is still a little bit different and they are feeling the heat. It is okay at the moment, but the heat is there and we have to be careful with that.”

Dauson also operates a landfill site in Pembrokeshire which is the subject of an ongoing investigation by NRW relating to odious smells.

The waste to energy plant was acquired by Dauson group in October 2022 and operates under company Resources Management UK Ltd. Mr Neal said he has invested £5m seeking to address the issue. He added: “We are confident that the odour issues experienced at the Withyhedge landfill site have now been resolved. We are continuing to monitor the site and surrounding communities in collaboration with the NRW and other stakeholders, and we will ensure that this continues for the foreseeable future.”

Asked if Mr Gething was aware of NRW's investigation, Mr Neal said: "While we regularly engages with NRW, we were unaware that they were carrying out an investigation when we made our donations. We have not spoken with Vaughan Gething since December 2023.”

In a statement NRW said: “Significant work has been undertaken at Withyhedge Landfill by the operator to contain and control landfill gas which has been the source of offsite odour. The majority of this work has been required through Natural Resources Wales’ use of Regulation 36 Enforcement Notices. Assessing if the actions set out in these notices have been completed in their entirety is complex and ongoing.

“There are issues identified at Withyhedge Landfill which are under investigation and as such, we are unable to go into further detail at this time. If breaches to permit conditions are considered to have taken place, then they may be subject to criminal sanctions. The resulting evidence from these enquiries will be reviewed to decide upon the appropriate enforcement response.”