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Politics

Committee disappointed with ’emergency’ response

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SIX MONTHS after the Welsh Government declared a climate emergency, the National Assembly for Wales’ Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has expressed disappointment that the action promised in the announcement has not materialised. Instead, it says it has been a continuation of “business as usual”.

The Committee has released its second annual report on the Welsh Government’s progress in addressing climate change. The focus of the Committee’s work in 2019 has been the Welsh Government’s decarbonisation plan, “Prosperity for All: A low carbon Wales”.

A LOW CARBON WALES
The Committee has raised concerns that many of the policies and proposals contained in the Welsh Government’s Plan, 76 in all, existed long before its climate emergency.The Welsh Government told the Committee that it is unable to be specific about the cost of those policies or their impact on delivering emissions reductions. In the absence of such information, the Committee found it difficult to see how the Welsh Government can assess the impact or value for money of its decarbonisation policies. Previously members had expressed disappointment with the lack of focus on decarbonisation by the Welsh Government while scrutinising its draft Budget.

NET-ZERO
The Welsh Government has said it wishes to go further than its new target of 95% emissions reduction and aspires to reach net-zero by 2050. However, the UK Climate Change Committee said: “On current understanding, it could not credibly reach net-zero greenhouse gasses by 2050.” The Committee is questioning how achievable this “aspiration” is. This is particularly the case given the volume of emissions in non-devolved areas.

LIMITS FOR WG
Responsibility for carbon emissions is divided between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. The UK Government is responsible for 60% of policy areas, such as energy, that result in Welsh emissions. The Committee believes the Welsh Government should be more upfront about the limits of its potential impact on Welsh emissions reductions.

This is not about avoiding accountability, but the opposite. The committee believes that the Welsh public should be able to understand more fully the Welsh Government’s successes and failures. It should also be able to hold the UK Government to account for its performance in non-devolved areas. Given that the Welsh Government is dependent on the effectiveness of UK Government policies to achieve its targets, it needs to explain what it will do if there is a change of UK Government policy that threatens its ability to meet its targets.

Also, the Committee’s report on the draft Welsh Government Budget expressed disappointment about the lack of emphasis on decarbonisation.
Mike Hedges, Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee said: “As a Committee, we’re concerned that a ‘climate change emergency’ could be seen as just words and has not resulted in urgent action. We don’t want things to continue as business as usual, it is an emergency and should be treated as one.

“We welcome the Welsh Government’s ambition for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 but we need to know a lot more about how this can be achieved, particularly as the policy for much of Wales’ emissions lies with the UK Government.

“We need urgent action and our Committee has provided a series of recommendations for the Welsh Government. Today we’re calling on the Welsh Government outline details of actions it has taken since the declaration of a climate emergency.”

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Community

Beach clean highlights tide of plastic pollution

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Preseli MP Stephen Crabb has praised the work of local volunteers after joining them for a beach clean in St Davids.

The clean at Porthlysgi Bay beach was organised jointly between environmental charity Keep Wales Tidy and EcoDewi as part of the Wales-wide Autumn Clean Cymru campaign, with over 15 volunteers litter picking while socially distancing.

EcoDewi is a new ecology and energy group on St David’s peninsula, working to increase the community’s capacity to produce its own, locally-owned sustainable energy.

Between Saturday’s beach clean and visitors piling litter in gateway, over 30 bags were collected. Rubbish included fishing wire, a steel toe cap shoe and plastic bottles, all of which will now be disposed of responsibly. While some litter is left behind on the beach by inconsiderate users, much of the rubbish now comes from the sea, as the tide washes in what has been thrown overboard by some sailing vessels.

Speaking following the clean, Stephen Crabb said: “Pembrokeshire’s beaches are some of the very best in the world, but litter remains a dangerous and unsightly problem. Beach cleans are a good way to protect and learn more about our natural environment and Saturday’s clean was a good example of many hands making light work.

“There have been positive steps by UK and Welsh Governments to reduce the volume of plastic pollution going into our waters, including a ban on microbeads, plastic straws and drink stirrers. But last weekend’s beach clean was a real eye opener and it is clear that more action is needed.

“My thanks to Keep Wales Tidy and EcoDewi for organising an excellent beach clean at one of Pembrokeshire’s hidden gem beaches. Anyone can volunteer for a beach clean and I look forward to taking part in another in the near future.”

Jeremy Wadia of EcoDewi said: “Community collaboration is key to fighting the current ecological and climate crisis, and it’s always great to see people coming together to clean our local beaches which benefits both our marine & land wildlife and of course residents and visitors. Seeing local and regional leaders out on the ground inspiring others to get involved is really important, so we are very grateful to Stephen for joining us at Porthlysgi.”

Mari Williams, Keep Wales Tidy Pembrokeshire officer said:

“It was a brilliant event and great to have so many people turn up to volunteer. We’re all responsible for the health of our oceans, that’s why clean-ups like this are so important and do make a real and lasting difference to our marine environment. Our campaign Autumn Clean Cymru was a chance for us to take a stand and declare that litter is not acceptable.”

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Politics

Plaid proposes second home restrictions

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THE TIME has come for the Welsh Government to take firm actions to protect communities and first time buyers against the economic oppression of runaway second home purchases, according to Plaid Cymru.
On Wednesday (September 23) the party published a 16-page report containing five main recommendations ahead of a debate in the Senedd the same afternoon.
The proposed measures include:
• Changing planning laws to allow councils to impose a cap on the number of second homes, refuse permission for changing a dwelling from being from a primary to a secondary residence and disallow new properties from being purchased in areas where second homes make up to 20% of the local market
• Allowing council to charge council tax premiums of up to 200% on second homes and having the Welsh Government bring forward regulations to treble the LTT (Land Transaction Tax) charge on the purchase of second properties.
• Close the loophole that allows second home owners to register their property as “businesses” in order to avoid paying the council tax premium.
• Look at bringing in a licencing scheme for renting properties through companies such as AirBnB to control the amount of properties that can be used as a cash cow in popular holiday destinations where house prices are high.
• Proposals to empower councils to build houses with a local conditions on them, make it easier to bring empty properties back into use and redefine the term ‘affordable home’ (which currently includes properties worth over £250,000).
There were 4,000 in Pembrokeshire in 2018 (source PCC). In 2016 in Tenby, 35% of all homes were second homes/holiday lets (source PCC).
Lexden Terrace off St Julien Street, Tenby has six dwellings, five of which are second homes; in Harding Street, eight of eleven houses are second homes; in yet another street in central Tenby, 22 out of 31 houses are second homes.
Across West Wales, there are considerable fears that one of thecoronavirus pandemic has fuelled a housing ‘bubble’ due to the disease’s relatively low rate of infection and transmission in the locality.
“The proliferation of second homes in seaside towns and villages has been driving up property prices and driving away our young people for some time,” said Pembrokeshire County Councillor Mike Williams of Tenby.
“Unless action is taken to regulate the second home market, out coastal communities will become a playground for people who are rich enough to own more than one home. What use is the Future Generations Act if young people have no chance of having a future in their communities?”
Speaking to another local councillor last week, The Herald was told of one house which went on the market on a Friday this month and was sold to buyers from outside Pembrokeshire by the following Monday for £70,000 over its asking price.
When we spoke to a county councillor in Ceredigion, we were told a similar story: properties going onto the market are being snapped up over their asking price as second homes by outsiders attracted by the county’s excellent record handling the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking about the publication of the report and ahead of the Senedd debate, Plaid Cymru’s shadow housing minister Delyth Jewell MS said: “People all over Wales have heard the cry of pain coming from the North West over the past few months, as the already unsustainable holiday homes situation spirals further out of control.
“The main purpose of devolution was so that we in Wales would have the powers to fix our problems ourselves, but the situation isn’t improving with over a third of homes sold in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn in the last financial year being purchased as second properties.
“12% of Gwynedd’s housing stock consists of second homes owned by people outside the county, this is among the highest in Europe and the subsequent price inflation in a low-wage area means that people are simply unable to buy a home within their own community.
“The series of measures proposed by Plaid Cymru today are designed to bring the situation under control and empower communities through targeted, proportional interventions and I hope the Welsh Government will consider them seriously.”
Ms Jewell added: “Countries all over the world have taken action in the face of similar circumstances, for example New Zealand and Denmark have simply banned property sales for non-citizens, and the Bolzano region is Italy has restricted the sales of holiday homes to people outside the region.
“We can’t go on like this, it’s not fair that people who are living in areas already disadvantaged in terms of a lack of work opportunities have to see their communities slowly being transformed as locals have to move away in order to find a house to live in.
“I am deeply concerned about the effect this will have on the Welsh language, it will be a stain on the conscience of the nation if the language is allowed to wither away in its heartlands simply because the Welsh Government doesn’t want to act.
“But this is an issue that affects the whole of Wales as house prices keep inflating – the measures on affordable housing, LTT rates and the localism clause would benefit first-time buyers all around the country.”

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Politics

Home Office wings it on immigration

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A KEY House of Commons Select Committee’s report has savaged the Home Office’s inability to provide information about immigration.
The Public Accounts Committee says the Department’s policy is informed less by hard evidence than by anecdote.
In its report, the Committee acknowledges that immigration ‘has always been a cause of public and political debate’. However, it expresses concern that, after many years of addressing the issue the Home Office can provide little evidence to inform that debate.
Despite previous enquiries and reports into the Home Office’s handling of immigration, the Committee says: ‘[T]he Department is still not sufficiently curious about the impact of its actions and the underlying reasons for the challenges it faces’.
The report criticises the Home Office for having no idea what impact it has achieved for the £400 million spent each year by its Immigration Enforcement directorate.
It continues: ‘There are major holes in the Department’s understanding of the size and scale of illegal immigration and the extent and nature of any resulting harm. It does not understand the support people need to navigate its systems effectively and humanely, or how its actions affect them’.

HOME OFFICE POLICY NOT BASED ON EVIDENCE

The Committee flays the Department for appearing to formulate policy on “anecdote, assumption and prejudice” and criticises it for showing ‘far too little concern’ over the consequences of its failures on both the illegal and legitimate migrant populations.
Despite years of public and political debate and concern, the Department still does not know the size of the illegal population in the UK.
It does not know what harm the illegal population causes.
It does not know how many people come to the UK legally and do not renew their visa, or how many deliberately come illegally.
The Home Office has not estimated the illegal population in the UK since 2005. It had no answer to the Committee’s concerns that potentially exaggerated figures calculated by unofficial sources could inflame hostility towards immigrants.
The Home Office does not know whether policies introduced to create what the then Home Secretary dubbed a hostile environment to deter illegal migration.
The lack of evidence base and “significant lack of diversity” at senior levels has created organisational “blind spots”, with the Windrush scandal a damning indictment of “the damage such a culture creates”.
In 2019, 62% of immigration detainees were released from detention because the Department could not return them as planned to their country of origin – up from 58% the year before. The Department doesn’t know why this figure is so high, or what it can do to ensure these returns are completed as planned.

‘INSUFFICIENTLY PREPARED’

The Home Office is unprepared for the challenges the UK’s exit from the EU presents to its immigration enforcement operations. In evidence to the Committee in mid-July it could provide no evidence that it had even begun discussions with the EU partners it relies on to support its international operations, including the return of foreign national offenders and illegal migrants.
The Home Office has belatedly accepted a previous Committee recommendation that it must extend its “lessons learned” review of Windrush Department beyond Caribbean Commonwealth nationals to include nationals from other Commonwealth countries.
The Committee is not convinced that the Department is sufficiently prepared to properly safeguard the existing, legal immigrant population in the UK, while also implementing a new immigration system and managing its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CHAIR’S COMMENTS

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “The Home Office has frighteningly little grasp of the impact of its activities in managing immigration. It shows no inclination to learn from its numerous mistakes across a swathe of immigration activities – even when it fully accepts that it has made serious errors.
“It accepts the wreckage that its ignorance and the culture it has fostered caused in the Windrush scandal – but the evidence we saw shows too little intent to change, and inspires no confidence that the next such scandal isn’t right around the corner.
“15 years after the then Home Secretary declared the UK’s immigration system “not fit for purpose” it is time for transformation of the Immigration Enforcement into a data-led organisation. Within six months of this report we expect a detailed plan, with set priorities and deadlines, for how the Home Office is going to make this transformation.”
A Home Office spokesperson responded to the report, saying: “We have developed a balanced and evidence-based approach to maintaining a fair immigration system. Since 2010, we have removed more than 53,000 foreign national offenders and more than 133,000 people as enforced removals.
“On a daily basis we continue to tackle those who fail to comply with our immigration laws and abuse our hospitality by committing serious, violent and persistent crimes, with immigration enforcement continually becoming more efficient.”
Why the Home Office could not provide proof of that ‘balanced and evidence-based approach’ to the Public Accounts Committee remains a mystery.

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