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Politics

Time for a new relationship with local government

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Asking local government leaders for their ideas: Alun Davies

I LIKE to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.

Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.

Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.

What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.

And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.

And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.

As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.

In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.

Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.

So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.

So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.

In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.

So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.

But I cannot travel on this journey alone.

The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.

So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.

It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.

I certainly hope so.

This article appeared originally on the personal blog of Alun Davies AM and is reproduced with his kind permission.

Alun Davies is the AM for Blaenau Gwent and the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

Politics

WG consults on new planning process

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Connecting communities: WG proposes two stage approach

THE WELSH G​OVERNMENT ​has published proposals to change the way major infrastructure projects are consented.

A new approach is needed because more consenting powers are due to be devolved on April​ 1,​ 2019. The Welsh Government is also taking the opportunity to combine a number of existing processes into a single streamlined “one-stop shop” consenting process.

Two stages are being proposed:

  • An interim solution requiring changes to existing processes; and
  • A long-term solution requiring primary legislation to establish an entirely new form of consent.

The proposals only apply to areas where consenting is devolved.

So for example, in future, projects like the proposed M4 relief road around Newport and the 200 Megawatt (MW) Swansea Bay tidal lagoon would need to be consented through the new process, whereas the 2,700MW Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station would not, because consenting for generating stations with a capacity of over 350MW would remain with the UK Government.

CURRENT SITUATION

Wales currently has three tiers of consenting processes for most infrastructure projects (there are some exceptions):
Smaller projects are decided by local planning authorities;

Larger projects, where consenting is devolved, are decided by the Welsh Government through the Developments of National Significance (DNS) process; and

Larger projects, where consenting is not devolved, are decided by the UK Government through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) process.

Consents by local planning authorities and the Welsh Government are given under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA) – this is often known as planning permission.

NSIPs require a different kind of consent called a Development Consent Order (DCO), which is given under the Planning Act 2008. DCOs can include consents on a range of associated matters – these are often called secondary consents.

NEW POWERS

The Wales Act 2017 devolves further consenting powers which are due to come into force on 1 April 2019:

Energy generating stations with a capacity of up to and including 350MW onshore and in Welsh waters (which is an inshore area out to approximately 12 nautical miles from Welsh shores). This doesn’t include onshore wind which is already devolved with no upper limit; and
Overhead electric lines of up to and including 132 Kilovolts (KV) that are associated with a devolved energy generating project.

In addition, the Wales Act has already devolved consenting for Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders, which are made under the Harbours Act 1964, for most Welsh ports. These new powers came into force on ​April 1​.

WHY A NEW PROCESS IS NEEDED

The way in which the Wales Act devolves the new powers creates some anomalies which need to be resolved to ensure an efficient and effective approach to consenting.

The consenting powers for energy generating stations and overhead electric lines mentioned above are currently consented by the UK Government through the DCO process.

In devolving these powers, the Wales Act takes consenting for these projects out of the DCO process and places consenting for devolved generating stations in Welsh waters back into the former Electricity Act 1989 process. On land, the consenting of devolved generating stations and associated overhead electric lines is placed into the TCPA process, instead of the Electricity Act. The TCPA has previously not been used to consent this scale of generation project.

For a number of reasons set out in the consultation document, this is seen as a backward step.

In addition, the Welsh Government favours taking a more integrated and streamlined approach to infrastructure consenting. It wants to establish a one- stop shop approach for major devolved projects, similar to the UK Government’s DCO process. This, it argues, would provide more consistent and transparent decision-making, and more certainty for communities and developers alike.

The alternative would be to continue with a number of different processes each with their own requirements, established under separate legislation (including the TCPA, Electricity Act and Harbours Act mentioned above).

The one-stop shop approach also allows a number of secondary consents to be included in the main consent, rather than having to be applied for separately.

Some associated changes to the compulsory purchase process are also proposed.

INTERIM SOLUTION

The Welsh Government says an interim solution is necessary because there isn’t enough time to set up an entirely new process before ​A​pril​ 1,​ 2019.

The interim solution involves amending secondary legislation to include the newly devolved onshore energy generating stations and electric lines within the existing DNS process.

Offshore energy generating stations will be consented under the Electricity Act, with a new fee structure based on full cost recovery. Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders will continue to be made under the Harbours Act.

Offshore energy generating stations and Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders can’t be brought into the DNS process because the TCPA, under which the DNS process was established, only extends to the low water mark.

The interim solution is due to come into force on ​April 1,​ 2019 and will remain in place until the new process is established. The consultation document suggests this will be after 2020.

LONG-TERM SOLUTION

The long-term solution is to establish a new one-stop shop consenting process that is bespoke to Wales.

The consent would be called Welsh Infrastructure Consent (WIC) and projects captured by it would be called Welsh Infrastructure Projects (WIPs). The Assembly would need to pass primary legislation to establish the new process.

The WIC would consolidate existing consents under the TCPA, Electricity Act, Harbours Act, and a number of other consents made under highways legislation, into one single type of consent. The WIC would also include a wide range of secondary consents, including Compulsory Purchase Orders, Marine Licences and Environmental Permits.

The consenting process would be accompanied by thresholds and policies against which the individual projects can be assessed. Key policies would include Planning Policy Wales, the National Development Framework and the Wales National Marine Plan. The fee structure would be based on full cost recovery.

The WIC process would be designed to be flexible to capture projects of varying types and sizes. It would take a “proportional approach”, enabling certain types of decisions to be made more quickly, and others, which are more complex, to receive greater scrutiny.

This includes introducing a category of optional WIPs that the developer could choose to submit either via the WIC process or to the local planning authority. In the case of offshore projects, where there is no local planning authority, the alternative route for optional WIPs would be via the marine licencing process.

The WIC process would also require developers to engage with local communities before submitting their applications and provide greater opportunity for the public to participate during the examination process. There would also be a specific role for local planning authorities in documenting impact in their areas.

However, the consultation does not address the transfer of regional infrastructure projects away from elected councils and into the hands of unelected so-called ‘City Deal’ boards or their rural counterpart in Mid Wales. The complication of creating a national structure without accounting for looming changes in the delivery of infrastructure services is – as it stands – both unresolved and a likely source of future confusion.

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Politics

‘Sort finances before service changes’

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Proposals must be financially sound: Dinah Mulholland, Ceredigion CLP

ONE ​of​ ​w​est Wales’ Labour Constituency Parties has called for the Health Board not to proceed with its plans for major health service change until its long-standing financial crisis has been resolved.

On Friday, May 25, Ceredigion Constituency Labour Party passed a motion calling on the Board to think again.

In the last financial year the health board overspent its £760m budget by £70m, or ​9%​, and the board itself describes its regular overspends as ​’​growing year on year​’​.

Ceredigion Labour Party points out that although the changes in service provision which are being proposed may provide better patient care, they cannot also be expected to deliver savings if standards of care are intended to be maintained.

Dinah Mulholland, spokesperson for CCLP, said: ​”​We welcome all attempts to improve local health services. But acceptable proposals must be based on sound financial projections and dependable financial commitments.

“For instance, all three of the board’s alternative proposals for the delivery of clinical services involve the building of a new major urgent and planned care hospital `between Narberth and St Clears’, to replace other hospitals that would be closed or downgraded. Yet the Welsh Government has offered no commitment to provide capital funding for this scheme.

“We are calling for a `Stop and Fix’ approach because unless the financial arrangements are stabilised we see a very real threat that at some point during the next few years progress with major changes in service provision could be overtaken and overwhelmed by a sudden financial collapse.

“And if the board is preoccupied with delivering major changes in service provision it will be paying less attention to managing its ongoing financial problems.

“We would welcome a commitment from Hywel Dda not to proceed with any major reconfiguration of clinical services until it has secured resources to remedy the chronic and ingrained underfunding of health services in mid and west Wales. This proposed reconfiguration cannot and should not be expected to solve Hywel Dda’s long-standing problem with underfunding.”

Last week (May 23) the Welsh Health Secretary announced an annual increase of £27m in Hywel Dda’s revenue funding, but CCLP describes this as “sticking plaster” as it represents only 39% of the deficit in the last financial year.

The Health Secretary has said that this new funding puts Hywel Dda on a “fair funding basis”, but CCLP points out that if the board’s funding has only just become “fair” this raises additional questions about how much the local NHS budget has been “short-changed” in every year since the National Assembly began.

A review by the Welsh Government, as part of the Targeted Intervention support provided to Hywel Dda Health Board, found that two factors, demographics and scale, generated excess costs that were unavoidable to the Board.

The review, undertaken by Deloitte LLP, confirms the view held by many people in Ceredigion and mid and west Wales that Hywel Dda faces a unique set of healthcare challenges.

Hywel Dda is consulting the public on three alternative proposals for providing clinical care, closing and/or downgrading Withybush Hospital, Prince Philip hospital in Llanelli and Glangwili hospital in Carmarthen. In all three proposals community care would be strengthened so that more people can be treated and supported closer to home. In all versions Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth would remain as a District General Hospital.

The 12-week public consultation began on 19 April and will end on 12 July. Ceredigion CLP is also critical of the board’s plans for obtaining the views of the public, which it points out do not include any meetings with platform speakers open to the general public. CCLP says this is unacceptable.

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Politics

WG to miss climate change targets

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Changing climate: NASA chart shows 'Global Temperature Anomalies'

THE WELSH G​OVERNMENT​ will miss its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says a National Assembly committee.

The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee examines the issue in its first ever climate change annual report.

In its Climate Change Strategy published in 2010 the Welsh Government set out its target of reducing greenhouse gases in Wales by three per cent year-on-year, and at least a 40​% reduction by 2020.

The Committee was given three reasons for the failure – the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the economic make-up of Wales and weather patterns.

But the Committee concluded that these variables should have been taken into account when the policies were developed and targets set.

The Welsh Government is being advised on its new approach, framed by the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, by the UK Committee on Climate Change, which has recommended it set new, lower targets in the short term.

The Assembly committee believes this is regrettable but necessary given the lack of progress by the Welsh Government.

Members also learned that the level of engagement in the Welsh Government’s Cabinet on climate change was insufficient, with a lack of joint-working across different departments.

Even though the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme may be a reason for missing emissions targets, the Committee notes there is still no sign of a new scheme to take its place after the UK leaves the EU. The Committee concludes there needs to be a greater sense of urgency on addressing this matter.

“The Welsh Government’s targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Wales were ambitious, but attainable,” said Mike Hedges AM, Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.

“That the Government will miss these targets by some margin is deeply disappointing, and the Committee is not convinced by some of the reasoning behind the failure.

“We believe there needs to be a much more co-ordinated approach across government departments if Wales is to truly become a greener, more sustainable nation.

“In the short term we accept the view of the Committee on Climate Change that the Welsh Government revise down its targets.

“We have made a number of recommendations in our report around agriculture, forestry, housing and transport which we believe will ensure ministers will deliver on their climate change commitments and obligations.”

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