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‘Deliver a better deal for rural areas’

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Kirsty Williams AM: ‘We’ll vote against Local Government settlement ‘

Kirsty Williams AM: ‘W e’ll
vote against Local Government
settlement ‘

KIRSTY WILLIAMS AM, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, has written to the First Minister stating that her party will vote against the Local Government Settlement unless a better deal for rural authorities is put forward. The Welsh Government published its draft settlement 2016-17 for local authorities last week. While the cuts to Local Government in the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget were less than feared, the Welsh Government’s formula to distribute the money to local authorities hasmeant that rural councils have been disproportionately hit. Last year the Welsh Government introduced a ‘funding floor’ which better protected rural councils, however this year it has not done so. Kirsty Williams AM, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats said: “There is absolutely no way we could support cuts that hit rural areas so badly.

“The Welsh Liberal Democrats are clear that we will vote against the Local Government Settlement unless action is taken to mitigate these cuts. We are calling on the Welsh Government to introduce a rural grant that would limit the reductions for the councils worst hit. “I have been discussing this issue with Government Ministers to persuade them to introduce a grant. The fight for a better deal in rural communities is not over, as the council settlement is still in draft form. The Welsh Liberal Democrats are leading the fight for a better funding deal for our communities. “In the longer term, we need a fairer funding formula that recognises the higher costs that rural authorities face in delivering key public services.” The letter to the First Minister said: ‘Dear First Minister.

There is an acceptance that the funding formula which underpins the distribution of the Revenue Support Grant (RSG) routinely disadvantages rural councils. Your government recognised this in last year’s Local Government Settlement, which is why you rightly introduced a floor to mitigate excessive cuts to rural communities. With this in mind, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are extremely alarmed that measures have not been taken in this year’s Provisional Local Government Settlement 2016- 17 to help mitigate cuts to rural communities. In particular, the rural counties of Powys and Ceredigion are facing substantial cuts in funding of up to 4.1%, which will have a significant impact on the delivery of public services, with costs often far higher than those in more urban areas.

I am writing to inform you that based on the current proposals, my party cannot vote in favour of the Local Government Settlement 2016- 17. We urge you to consider the introduction of a grant to limit the reductions in the local government revenue settlement for the councils worst hit, in recognition of the higher costs that rural authorities face in delivering key public services. Kind Regards Kirsty Williams AM’

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Politics

Manifesto Destiny #2: The Conservatives

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THE WELSH Conservatives have delayed their Manifesto’s launch for May 6’s elections to the Welsh Parliament.

After the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, the Conservatives delayed their Manifesto’s launch for a week.

The UK Government announced eight days of national mourning leading up to and including the day of Prince Philip’s funeral on Saturday, April 17.

The Manifesto will launch on Wednesday, April 21, in North Wales. In this area, the Conservatives hope to make significant gains at Labour’s expense.

Although political campaigning continued between Tuesday, April 13 and Friday, April 16, the Conservatives’ decision gives the Party the best chance to trail its Manifesto in the period after Saturday the 17th.

It will also give Labour and Plaid Cymru less time to take pot-shots at it before polling day.

WHAT’S IN IT SO FAR?

Before the announcement of the Manifesto’s delay, the Conservatives gave a good idea of some of the policies it is likely to contain.

An underlying thread of the Manifesto, and the Conservative campaign, will be the length of time Labour has been in power in Wales. Either on its own, in combination with others, or propped up by rag-tag and bobtail, Labour has held power in Cardiff Bay for twenty-two years.

Both the Conservatives and Plaid have homed in on Labour’s ever-presence in government. To date, both principal opposition parties suggest Labour is tired and warming over old pledges without any sense of direction.

On policy, the Conservatives’ most significant risk is allowing Labour and Plaid to box them in on the charge of ‘for Wales, see England’. Labour needs to tread carefully on that point. One of the criticisms both Plaid and the Conservatives have made is that the Party has cut and pasted Westminster legislation into its own proposals for the much-talked-about and constantly delayed Agriculture Bill. Agriculture is an area of policy on which both Plaid and the Conservatives call for bespoke Welsh legislation.

On Tuesday (April 13), the Conservatives placed even more clear blue water between their proposals for Wales and those pursued by the Westminster government.

A PLAN FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

The Conservatives’ plan for Wales’ young people includes a promise to deliver 150,000 apprenticeships by 2026 and scrapping the Welsh Baccalaureate. Those are long-term ambitions flagged previously; however, the Conservative proposals contain radical changes to higher education and access to training, education and employment.

Those changes include:

  • Helping young people access education, training and employment with free bus travel and discounted rail travel for 16-24-year-olds
  • Refunding tuition fees for those who choose to work for at least five years as doctors or nurses in the Welsh NHS, or as teachers in Welsh Schools after their studies; and
  • Cutting tuition fees in half for Welsh students studying STEM and modern foreign language subjects at Welsh universities in recognition of their value to the Welsh economy

Looking at the lessons learned throughout the pandemic, the Conservatives also plan to ensure all of Wales’ schools, colleges and universities have mental health services for learners to access.

OLDER PEOPLE

At the other end of the age spectrum, Welsh Conservatives will introduce an Older People’s Bill in the next Senedd. That proposal includes a legal requirement for public sector bodies to consult with older people when making decisions that affect their lives.

The Party’s pledges of support for older people in Wales include:

  • Maintaining free prescriptions.
  • Keeping Free bus travel.
  • Promote Free entry to CADW sites for the over 75s.
  • Pilot free rail travel for over 75s.
  • Run annual national awareness campaigns against elder abuse, age discrimination and scams and swindles; and
  • Ensuring older people can access Welsh Government-funded work programmes.

THE WELSH NHS

On the Welsh NHS, the Conservatives announced plans to put into law fundamental guarantees through an NHS Covenant.  

The Covenant would ensure that Welsh NHS staff and volunteers are treated with fairness and respect by future Welsh Governments.

The Conservatives say the NHS Covenant would provide guaranteed support in several ways, including:

  • Increased investment in the NHS, with at least an extra 2% uplift in the NHS budget each year
  • Staff receive the pay as recommended by the independent NHS Pay Review Body
  • Guaranteeing the NHS remains in public hands and is free at the point of use
  • Improved staff well-being with more flexible working hours, increased holiday, greater access to childcare and mental health provision
  • Stamping out abuse of NHS staff

The NHS Covenant Bill would also put an NHS Reservists programme in place to enable public and former healthcare professionals to volunteer at their local NHS team during periods of high demand.

The NHS Reservists would operate on a part-time basis and create a structured environment for people to give back to the NHS, enabling the NHS to call up reservist skills when needed, including non-clinical roles such as drivers, electricians and people to be there to ensure no-one faces the end of their life alone.

COUNCIL TAX

The Conservatives – like Plaid Cymru – have promised to freeze Council Tax for the first two years of the next Senedd term. However, and like Plaid Cymru, the promise of tying Council funding to the headline rate of inflation ignores the fact that costs to Council increase at a compounding rate far beyond the Consumer Price Index.

Freezing Council Tax – unless the whole shortfall is made up by the Welsh Government (unlikely given the NHS spending pledge) – will mean cuts in Council services and a reduction in local authorities’ ability to bankroll the Conservatives’ other pledges.

THE CLEAREST OF BLUE WATER

The one element of any Conservative Manifesto upon which the clearest blue water will be evident relates to the Senedd, its powers, its make-up, and the question of further or total Welsh autonomy. In a speech delivered on April 7, the Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies could not have been clearer. He pledged, ‘no more powers, no more politicians, no more taxes, no more constitutional chaos’.

He continued: ‘Independence would put our recovery after coronavirus at risk.

‘A strong economic recovery is dependent on being part of one strong United Kingdom.

‘And home rule is just another excuse to mask Labour’s failings.

‘A referendum would plunge Wales into chaos at a time when we need to focus on recovery.

‘We already have the tools to change course and build a better Wales.

‘After the devastation of covid to our economy and people’s livelihoods we can’t afford to focus on the constitution’.

That’s not only turning his Party’s back on any change to the current constitutional arrangements; it hits at Labour’s windy wish to renegotiate Wales’ status within the UK and a rejection of a critical element of Plaid’s appeal to voters. As a proposition, it’s carefully calibrated to suggest that Cardiff Bay’s parties’ priorities don’t match voters’ needs. It’s an either/or line: concentrate on rebooting the Welsh economy or focus on Wales’ and the UK’s constitutional settlement.

The water couldn’t be clearer or bluer. The open question is how many voters are prepared to take the plunge and whether Labour – on the hottest political issue in Wales – will end up stranded on a shrinking and increasingly untenable middle ground between Plaid and the Conservatives.

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Politics

Dowson dissents on new CEO

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A PEMBROKESHIRE county councillor has come forward to oppose the appointment of the authority’s new Chief Executive despite not voting against it when an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council considered.

Controversial Pembroke Dock Central county councillor Paul Dowson issued a press release in which he said that the new CEO had ‘no track record’ in the role.
Last Wednesday (March 31) Pembrokeshire County Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of Major-General Will Bramble’s appointment.

Councillors voted 48 votes for with two abstentions and one against.

Milford Central councillor Stephen Joseph’s was the sole vote against the appointment.

Cllr Joseph is a noted booster of former CEO Ian Westley, whose departure with a £95,000 pay-off caused controversy.

An Audit Wales investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr Westley’s pay-off is due to report within a few weeks.

Major-General Bramble is currently the Senior British Officer in Italy and Deputy Commander of the NATO Corps in Italy.

His track record was not enough to impress Cllr Dowson, however.

Cllr Dowson said:  “He has no experience in a local authority having spent his career entirely in the military.

“I felt that the massive responsibility that comes with this role and the salary level requires more than just one candidate at final stages.

“Cllrs Josh Beynon and Di Clements both stated, ‘give him a chance”.

“I’m afraid at this level you don’t give someone a chance,especially one with no track record in the job.

“He was a very good candidate but I’m not prepared to make a decision on an option already chosen by the senior staff committee and presented to the full council for approval.

“The candidate was strong but the post should have been readvertised and he should have been put forward for the final round when others were competing for the job too.”

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Politics

Manifesto Destiny

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BY the time you read this article, each of the main parties contesting the Welsh Parliamentary election will have published their manifestos.

Virtually nobody will read them.

Instead, the public will be drip-fed press releases by the respective parties. Then the parties will take it in turns to take pot-shots at each other’s proposals.

That predictable back-and-forth means voters will hardly be one jot wiser when they cast their ballots than they were before the manifestos’ publication.

As Labour has been in power in Wales for twenty-two years, there is only its track record to assess.

Predictably, and as with every government anywhere, Labour’s record on actual delivery is mixed.

In the last few months of the last Welsh Parliamentary session, Labour appeared to realise pointing to banning two circuses from Wales was not much of a legislative record. 

In response, it took to promising to deliver in the future what it promised in the past.

Labour’s totemic Wellbeing of Future Generations Act is a monumental piece of legislation. It cuts across government policy, but it’s become more of a Christmas tree the Welsh Government has placed ill-matched baubles on since its inception.

The Act’s aims are praiseworthy. Its execution – in practice – is a shambolic mess of box-ticking compliance and aspirational thought in place of solid leadership and rigorous decision-making.

Wales’ Future Generations Commissioner (no, nor me) recently outlined the problems following the Act’s aims. 
Sophie Howe said: “Welsh Government must stop introducing new policy, legislation, guidance and reviews that overlook the Act and create new layers of complexity and governance.”

Sophie Howe continued: “There is a lack of clarity over how they interact with each other and a tendency to bypass existing boards that have already been set up.

“For example, to deliver on a wellbeing objective to ‘give every child the best start in life’ a public body would need alignment between Public Services Boards (PSBs), Regional Partnership Boards, Area Planning Boards, Community Safety Partnerships, Regional Skills Partnerships and City/Regional Growth deals.

“The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill potentially adds to an already complex and crowded partnership environment by creating statutory regional Corporate Joint Committees and proposes they will also be subject to the wellbeing duties of the Act.”

It all sounds a bit like having a working group of a sub-committee to advise a committee to inform a management team to consider the conclusions before setting up a working group to report to another committee where a decision might be taken or sent back to another sub-committee to view.

What it is not is democratic decision-making intended to address problems swiftly or with any sense of urgency.

The Act means well, but its aims are lost in a morass of bureaucracy.

The first policy priorities for any incoming Welsh Government must be to stabilise the economy and health service before moving on to longer-term objectives. 

Its first administrative priorities must be to unpick bureaucracy-for-the-sake-of-it. Decision-making must be streamlined, so manifesto commitments materialise as policies to be voted on during a Senedd term and not as White Papers produced at its end.

The last Labour Government had lamentable form for doing that. 

Promises made in 2016 emerged only as White Papers for consultation just before the end of the Senedd term.

In the ten years since the Welsh Government gained the power to pass Acts of the Assembly as primary legislation, it passed 49 Acts. Its most significant pieces of legislation were passed between 2013 and 2015.

Even accepting the pandemic’s disruption to everyday politics, the legislative return from the last five years of government is sparse.

After 2016, Welsh Government ministers frequently popped up to trumpet one initiative or another. It is no wonder that the Welsh Cabinet apparently consists of the First Minister and a dozen or so deputy Ministers for Announcements.

That is not to doubt the previous Welsh Government’s commitment to put flesh on the bones of their predecessors’ legislation and set about making it work. 

Lee Waters, for example, has tirelessly worked on the Active Travel Act. But the Act was passed in 2013, three years before he joined the Welsh Parliament and almost six years before he became a Minister in the Labour Government.

Only now are ‘active travel zones’, which encourage commuters to ditch their cars, coming into play across Wales.

You can tell.

There are consultations taking place about them. Eight years after the primary legislation passed.

As for Labour’s last manifesto:

  • It didn’t deliver the M4 relief road it promised.
  • It barely scratched the surface of resolving Wales’ long-term transport infrastructure problems.
  • It didn’t reach its own child poverty targets.
  • It hasn’t improved health service.
  • It failed to introduce either an Agriculture Bill or Clean Air Act.

The education system’s results are improving. The Minister in charge was a Liberal Democrat.

You can’t say that’s all down to a failure of political willpower. It’s an oversupply of hot air: over-promising and underdelivering. For the first three years of the last Senedd term, the Welsh Government spent time firefighting problems hanging over from the previous Welsh Government. Itself.

Less talking about doing and more doing would be a fresh start – indeed, a novel approach – for the next Welsh Government.

It’s a chance for the Senedd to dispel the notion it’s just a talking shop for politicians’ pet peeves and crack on with delivering for Wales.

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