|Leanne Wood's "Greenprint" idea has been developed further into|
wider reforms of how our communities and neighbourhoods tick.
(Pic : Rhondda Plaid Cymru)
Earlier this week, Plaid Cymru unveiled the latest in a series of discussion and policy papers, this time a comprehensive report (pdf), which was jointly launched by Plaid Cymru's Shadow Cabinet member for the Environment & Energy, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) and Arfon MP, Hywel Williams.
It addresses, and provides an alternative to, the Future Generations Bill, parts of the Planning Bill and maybe even some aspects of the Williams Commission and "The Greenprint".
You could say it's Plaid Cymru's version of the "Big Society".
As regular readers will know, I'm not a fan of the word "sustainable" (in all its guises) and I'm going to do my best to avoid using it from here on in.
The broad aim of the policy paper is to draft new ways for our communities to work; but instead of being a top-down exercise where a central body or authority prescribes what communities should do, Plaid Cymru would much rather (in some aspects) it was the other way around, with communities taking more control over their own direction, whilst retaining a collective spirit – what Plaid have long called "decentralised socialism".
There are a number of challenges – depletion of resources & climate change, demographic change, increasing demand on public services. But there are also opportunities, like digital technologies, participatory democracy and a Basque-style collective economics, which can help meet these challenges in innovative ways.
The paper is split into three key themes : "empowering communities", alternative forms of investment and supporting infrastructure development.
|Plaid advocate stronger community councils and |
new forms of democratic participation.
(Pic : via todayinscocialsciences.blogspot.co.uk)
- A National Community Development Programme (Connected Communities) which would be based off existing third sector infrastructure and help develop local social networks and co-ordinate local schemes.
- A Strategy and Integration Unit within the Welsh Government, which would guide longer-term thinking across all government departments and would be directly responsible to the First Minister.
- A Social Innovation Hub which would bring together people from different sectors and with different experiences to come up with innovative new ideas for public service delivery.
- A review of at what level powers should reside in local government, including stronger community councils and the introduction of Single Transferable Vote (STV) in local elections.
- A pilot of participatory democracy – starting with local budgets – and a digital government programme/Digital Wales fund which would encourage the use of new technologies to improve democratic engagement, promote open government and improve public service delivery (there's a related piece on this from the National Assembly blog covering the recent GovCampCymru 2014).
Communities actively supporting each other is a vital part of well-being.
These "active community" projects do work. Plaid give an example of a "time bank" in the Ely area of Cardiff (where people volunteer in exchange for time credits they can "spend" locally) which has made people feel better about themselves, enabled people to get to know each other better and given people the impression that they're actively improving their communities.
Plaid call for a shift in public sector thinking, where the public sector will work with communities instead of imposing decisions on them unilaterally, perhaps even ceding some control too.
This would require a review of what powers should reside where (something the Williams Commission largely looked over). But it would also mean changing how communities are governed, and Plaid propose a limited form of participatory democracy where decisions are made collectively instead of by representatives or officials.
|Plaid would like to shift the focus of Communities First from |
whole communities towards individual families.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
- A Prevention Fund to ensure citizens don't go on to need more complicated and expensive public services.
- Promotion of alternative forms of finance, and the creation of a Community Investment Fund to underwrite or match fund alternative investments.
- Use public sector pension schemes to support long-term local investments (in particular housing), with a tax-relief scheme for social enterprises - if the powers are devolved (see : The Collective Entrepreneur).
- A Welsh "Green Book" which will "put sustainable development at its core".
- Legislative measures to improve the amount of domestic public procurement, with the aim of 75% of public contracts going to Welsh companies (currently 52%) (see : Public Procurement Reform & Plaid's "Plan C")
- Shift the focus of the £40million Communities First programme from deprived areas to deprived families.
The second theme focused on investment in light of "shrinking public finances". Although the paper says there's a lot happening already, Plaid believe things can go further. Alternative forms of finance which were discussed include crowd-sourcing, community banking/community bonds, credit unions, social impact bonds and the third sector's Community Investment Fund.
They cite the specific example of the Llangattock hydroelectricity scheme where 100 investors raised £270,000 in a co-operative scheme to generate energy, with a return of between 5-8% per year.
Examples were also given of public sector pension schemes being used to invest in the local community. Islington Council invested £20million of its £800million pension fund in housing, while there are talks about pooling the pension funds across all of London's local authorities. The Welsh local government pension scheme controls around £9billion in assets, and Plaid believes this could be used in a similar way.
Most of the rest of the discussion was about financial incentives and alternative business models. The Basque co-operative conglomerate, Mondragon, are brought up again as a model worthy of consideration, while a co-operative investment fund is mooted as a way to tie existing co-ops together in Wales to eventually create something on the same scale.
There's backhanded praise for the Treasury's "Green Book", which is used to "provide guidance to UK Government departments on putting together a robust business case to support policy change". Plaid believe a Welsh equivalent, which would come with a Welsh Treasury, should take into account social and environmental costs and benefits.
|Plaid Cymru would extend the number of developments that wouldn't require planning permission,|
and would also like to see a simplified way for communities to financially benefit from developments.
(Pic : hip-consultant.co.uk)
- Using the reformed/stronger community councils to guide the development of neighbourhood-level infrastructure.
- Stronger standards on energy efficient and design, as well as mandatory Welsh language impact assessments for infrastructure projects.
- Simply the planning process and extend permitted development rights (i.e. changes to homes that don't require planning permission).
- Simplify Section 106 agreements so they're more transparent and create a new system of financial incentives/community benefit schemes.
- Possible legislative measures to give community bodies a right to purchase disused buildings, probably part of a wider-reaching Infrastructure Bill.
Infrastructure development is often led from "the top", so it was a real challenge to come up with ways in which this could be managed from "the bottom-up". The priorities might be different. An example's given where a community with a lot of older people might prioritise things like public toilets and seating – at relatively low cost – to create "age-friendly neighbourhoods".
Housing was picked out for special focus. At the moment, new housing developments are guided by centralised population estimates, meaning large numbers of houses are often built wherever the land is available with little thought given to how those communities would be planned, or what impact such developments have on the people already living there – including the Welsh language. Survey findings showed that higher-quality developments often endure less opposition. In terms of affordability, I've long supported things like modular/pre-fabricated homes.
Bringing old buildings back into community use was one of the key tenets of the Greenprint, and it returns again. The paper cites an example of community members in Llan Ffestiniog who received assistance to reopen a local pub; while there are other, more high-profile, examples like the Saith Seren in Wrexham.
|Unfortunately, Welsh politics is a bit tied up at the moment.|
The announcement has been overshadowed somewhat, with the Welsh political establishment and media sent into fits of existential despair and near paralysis by an awe-inspiring trolling masterclass from the Daily Mail. The funniest thing about the whole event is that It's not even about the Welsh Government, it's about Ed Miliband.
Anyway, it's nice to be Mr Positive for a change, while the title is in no way a reference to last week's post.
I'm pleased to say this is firmly grounded on Planet Earth, and – once again – there's a lot to like and take from one of these papers. Keep 'em coming.
The biggest omission is detailed costings, and without that information this hits a very big brick wall. That information could easily be provided if Plaid are in a position in government to see this through though, which is perhaps a much harder task.
Another bump in the road could be psychology. People "coming together" is very "jolly hockey sticks", but introverted people like myself (who make up at least a third of the population) are unlikely to be as enthusiastic in the absence of an incentive.
For example, I often find people who try to pester or guilt me into doing something – on a wider level this includes (often self-appointed) "community leaders" and chuggers - incredibly annoying, patronising and draining. So traditional campaigning and community "call to arms" usually don't work with people like me.
Therefore, the widespread use and normalisation of things like "time banking" is critical, and hopefully that would be something Plaid's "Connected Communities" proposal would be able to oversee at a national level.
That's not to fault what's in it. In fact, I agree with most of it in principle and I can't think of much in there I disagree with. I've long supported direct democracy for example (Local Sovereignty II :The Community), and what Plaid propose is a good start – though I believe representative democracy is a hindrance at the lowest level.
They key to this is, as Plaid have said themselves, a "culture shift" in the Welsh public sector and I'd question if they (the public sector) are really brave enough to do some of the things recommended in this report.
Alright, it's not exactly a riveting read, and is so full of public sector buzzwords it makes me want to leave thesauruses around the Assembly estate like those little bibles. However, it's a damned side more intellectually honest than the Future Generations Bill, and the vision is significantly more coherent, practical and innovative.
....and I've only used "sustainable/sustainability" three times, one of which is a direct quote and the other two being myself complaining about it. It appears in the report around 92 times.