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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Senedd Watch - June 2011

  • The Welsh Government declined to "bail out" a struggling care home provider. Southern Cross, which runs 34 homes in Wales, looked to reduce rent bills across the UK after a £311million half-year loss. The Welsh Government said there needed to be a "commercial solution to a commercial problem."
  • Capital expenditure forecasts for 2011-12 showed that Welsh Police Authorities are reporting a 35% decrease in their capital budgets to £39million. Overall, there's a 2% decrease in capital spending by local authorities to just over £1.06billion, which include local councils, national parks, police and fire authorities.
  • Office of National Statistics data showed that 1.3% of Welsh households have nobody who has ever worked - the lowest rate of all the home nations. England had 1.7%, Scotland 1.9% and Northern Ireland 2.1%.
  • Huw Jones was appointed S4C chair by UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He was previously chief executive of S4C between 1994 and 2005.
  • Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. West & South Pembs.), said that finding the cause of an explosion at the Chevron Oil Refinery in Pembroke Dock was "crucial" and that she was "very uncomfortable" with some of the rumours about the incident. 4 people were killed in the explosion, with a fifth person in a critical but stable condition.
  • The Queen officially opened the 4th National Assembly of Wales on June 7th, saying that the institution had "coped admirably" with the growth in its powers. Carwyn Jones said his government would work "night and day" to improve public services and make Wales "healthier and more prosperous".
  • Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones has been criticised for not attending the opening of the 4th Assembly due to a pre-planned holiday. He responded by saying that he "put his family first".
  • Figures obtained by BBC Wales, show that hospitals in Wales are becoming routinely overcrowded, leading to concerns about patient safety and cancelled operations. At some hospitals - such as University Hospital, Cardiff - the bed occupancy rate was 93%, while the Royal College of Surgeons suggests a maximum occupancy rate of 82%.
  • A former Lib Dem AM, Elenor Burnham, described leader Kirsty Williams' handling of the disqualification of two list AMs as a "shambles" and that it "looks like a farce". On June 23rd it was announced that they would not face criminal charges.
  • The First Minister refused to say whether a planned badger cull will go ahead. The previous Welsh Government pledged to carry out a cull, that was subsequently put on hold. Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) is a supporter of a cull. On June 21st the cull was put on hold, pending an independent review of the science.
  • The Welsh Government temporarily reopened the ProAct scheme to companies affected by the Tohoku earthquake, which  disrupted production in Japan. £4million has been made available.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 9,000 in the three months to April, to stand at 7.9%, slightly above the UK average of 7.7%. There was also a fall of 10,000 in the number of people categorised as economically inactive.
  • The value of exports from Wales rose sharply by 30% in the first quarter of 2011 to £3.18billion. During the 12 month period, Wales experienced the largest increase in exports of all the nations and regions of the UK.
  • The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) rejected plans by Welsh universities to charge the maximum £9000 a year tuition fees, because they failed to meet certain requirements such as equal access and improving student experience.
  • The Welsh Government announced that in future, planning guidelines for wind farms will be regarded as an "upper limit". This comes in response to a protest by Montgomeryshire residents against wind farms in their area. Carwyn Jones also called for the devolution of large energy projects to the Welsh Assembly. The UK Government has denied that there were any moves to devolve the powers, a situation described as a "slap in the face for Wales".
  • Plaid Cymru have appointed former Welsh Government special advisor Rhuanedd Richards as their new chief executive. She said that Plaid needed to "broaden its appeal" but that there was "no sense of crisis" in the party.
  • Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales)  said that the "stigma" of receiving free schools meals should be ended by a system of cashless payments.
  • From the end of this month, all payments over £25,000 will be listed on a monthly basis by the Welsh Government. The First Minister said "we are constantly looking to publish information that is of most use to the people of Wales to whom we are accountable".
  • A new National Literacy & Numeracy Framework for 5-14 year old was announced by Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda). It will help inform teachers of how to apply literacy and numeracy across the curriculum and monitor pupil progress. It is due to be rolled out across Wales by 2013.
  • ONS mid-year population estimates for Wales in 2010 show that the resident population crossed the 3million mark for the first time to stand at 3,006,400.
  • Projects announced this month include £21.5million to reduce orthopaedic waiting times, the £150million Gilwern-Brynmawr phase of A465 duelling (due to start in 2014), the granting of a licence for a £1billion gas-fired power station in Pembrokeshire and a £36million reorganisation of primary schools in Powys.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

UK Government puts Charley to sleep

"Charley says his P45 is in the post"
The Central Office of Information (COI) is to close next year, with the loss of up to 400 jobs.

In the grand scheme of things, I guess such a move can be expected as it's low-hanging fruit for spending cuts. But believe it or not, this brings to close a long relationship between government and the public. A relationship that most of us don't know is there but certainly remember.

What I'm referring to of course, are public information films.

"Nanny state" to some. Life savers to others.

How many lives have been saved by Charley the cat's "advice" down the years? Or the Green Cross Code man? Perhaps Donald Pleasance's most important career role was to warn children to stay away from stagnant bodies of water.

Modern public information films are a far more polished, expensive and audience-savvy exercise and I doubt they will disappear all together. However, in a climate where attacking the "big state" is a popular thing to do - and sometimes the right thing - we should remember that even though it's not very glamorous sounding, the COI might've helped us all at some point.

Whether it's taking extra care with chip pans, or making sure you don't accidentally on purpose get hit by a train. It was comforting to know that the state actually cared enough about you to warn you of these things - even if it came across as incessant nagging.

I don't think anyone will believe me when I say we owe the COI a debt of gratitude, but younger versions of ourselves probably do.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

NIMBYs - Holding Wales back?

First things first. We're all NIMBYs at heart. The only thing that differs is how we approach and argue against developments.

Take for example, a theoretical "second Tryweryn" somewhere in a remote part of Wales.

As a civic nationalist, I would oppose it from the standpoint of Wales taking an unfair burden of undesirable development to suit the needs of a distant, foreign government over which we have no sway.

Environmentalists, nearby residents, the "good-lifers" and all the other assorted groups will no doubt come up with other reasons. There would probably be people who support it as well. Those people supporting it could also be NIMBYs. Well they wouldn't want it near them would they?

Does this attitude hold Wales back, economically and socially? Should planning be approached in an entirely utilitarian view, or should other factors take priority, such as sustainability?

Do local communities, contrary to popular belief, have far too much sway over the planning system?

Here's my (tongue-in-cheek) guide to Welsh Nimbyism:

1. Those opposed to all development
AKA – "BANANA" (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything)

Miserable gits one and all. Found in urban areas, but seem to be particularly prominent in the Cardiff and south Wales Valley areas.

Admiral Group, one of Wales' private sector success stories, recently won planning permission for a new HQ for 3,000 people. The Western Mail comments section was immediately set upon by people who though this was, somehow, "bad news."

Any planning decision that doesn't have "rejected" stamped all over it "tramples on the wishes of the silent majority". Why cairn't Kairdeff be likes the good old days?

They'll be quite happy for large swathes of post-industrial Wales to resemble a Smiths album cover, as long as it doesn't interrupt their pint of Daiiirk over a copy of the Echo.

2. Drawbridge Mentality
AKA "Good-lifers"

They're middle class and probably retired. They move to Wales' quieter parts, with "quaint" names they can't really pronounce and not a dark-haired person in sight.

What's that? You were expecting that open countryside with livestock, farm equipment, silage storage and maintained woodland to remain like that until just after you sell your cottage on the market and move to the south of France?

Tough titty. Here come the wind turbines, slapping Wales quite hard in the face. Not satisfied with getting tea-bagged by the Chuckle Brothers in Westminster?

To the Senedd!

Wait. Didn't you say the Welsh Assembly was useless? And that you voted "no" in March?

3. Build it - just not near me....

AKA – "PIBBY" (Put In Black's Back Yard)

This species reside in Wales' leafier suburbs....oh for example.....North Cardiff and the commuter belt villages along the M4 and A55.

They support building homeless hostels (they need somewhere to go), new housing developments (my kids are priced out) or new supermarkets (more jobs for the unemployed). Just not around here. It's not "that sort of area".

It's about twitching curtains and twitchier sphincters as they realise their home equity is going to be affected by the proposed drug rehabilitation centre down the road. They'll make sure that the councillors know that they won't have their vote next time.

4. Organised Opposition

AKA "Citizens Against Virtually Anything"

Retirement getting you down? Feeling a bit lonely? Bored?

Break out the placards and photo shopped images! They've been "fighting for the community" for nigh on two score and twain. There'll be no skate park for teenagers on their watch! No new superstore while the "town" dies on it's feet.

Hyperbole is the name of the game. Everything is a disgrace. Everything will have a "catastrophic" impact on the "community". The community consisting of people they know and their dogs. They'll protest, they'll march, they'll be photographed handing over petitions.

Then, when that new supermarket is built, they'll be shopping there with everyone else and tutting about how it's ruined the town they pile the trolley with some reasonably priced organic lasagna.

5. The "Enlightened" Objectors

They just know more than you do. This development is about a much bigger issue. It's about global capitalism running roughshod over the proletariat - and there will be some obtuse reference to a socialist pamphlet of which only 50 copies were printed. Civic Trusts, environmental groups, the Welsh language intelligentsia and socialist sects fall into this category.

Long editorials in the national papers, using nice big words. The detail is certainly there but ultimately sending the same message.

"Don't build it near me, guv."

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Is that it!? - Labour's legislative programme aims low

I've always believed - to a certain extent - in the mantra "aim low and you'll never be disappointed". Some might say this is pessimistic, others might say realistic. When governments do this though, it takes on a whole new meaning.

Considering the high turnover in AMs, it's perfectly sensible to slow down the pace of the Assembly in the first few months when it comes to legislation. The Assembly shouldn't rush into making laws for the sake of it, Geraint Talfan Davies explores that in more detail here.

However, when looking at Labour's legislative proposals, one thing stands out and is becoming depressingly familiar - a complete lack of ambition.
  • Two proposed Bills could easily be described as "tidying up" previous measures: Children's Rights and Social Care Regulations.
  • One is important, but should've been largely unnecessary : the Education Bill. A funding body for Higher Education already exists!
  • Four proposed bills are structural changes and about "efficiency". These could just as easily be dealt with through policy delivery and don't need to be on the statute book. This includes the Cycling Bill and Heritage Protection Bill.
  • Three are what I would personally consider "proper" laws, including the Sustainable Development Bill, (long overdue) changes to planning laws and the Organ Donation Bill.

Please excuse me while I try to contain my excitement.

One of the valid criticisms of the Assembly and Welsh Government since devolution is an obsession with procedure, managerialism and micro-management. I don't want to see this creep into our laws. I'd rather have five good bills than ten mediocre ones.

I hope the opposition parties push hard to ensure these "tinkering, tidying up and efficiency bills" are given a lot more meat.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

How can we solve the housing crisis?

The Home Builders Federation estimated earlier in the year that there are 100,000 Welsh families on waiting lists for housing, and that as much as £30,000 was required as deposit for a home.

People without adequate housing will become people without families who will eventually live in a society where dependents outnumber the working age population (Andrew Rawnsley going into more depth in The Observer today). The impact of artificially high house prices, limited social housing supply and the subsequent lack of workforce mobility because of it will become demographic, social, health and economic problems in the future unless the matter is addressed.

In March 2011, ONS statistics showed that the Welsh average house price was £155,393. This is near 6 times the Welsh average salary of £26,832. It illustrates the herculean task first time buyers (FTBs) have to get a foot on the property ladder. Your average Welsh 25-35 year old is unlikely to be earning anywhere near £26,832, and all things point towards as downward trend here as higher-paying roles in the public sector are cut back and inflation - combined with moribund saving rates - eat away at wages regardless of where they are earned.

The housing market is a pyramid scheme to a certain extent. It needs people entering at the bottom to enable those above to move towards the top. No first time buyers, no housing market (in theory). In Wales we have the added complication of second home owners and "good lifers" willing to buy expensive rural properties which keeps a housing market alive that would otherwise be dead.

If the housing market becomes a closed shop between the property owning middle age, middle classes and downsizers then it will be a generational betrayal of epic proportions. Sustained house price falls are a good thing.

So how can Wales ease the pressure?

Build houses in sustainable locations.

Despite the good intentions of Cardiff Council's desire to build exclusively on brownfield sites, people should be pulled from the Valleys not pushed there. Likewise, large towns and cities elsewhere in Wales should be the focus of development - not small villages like Bodelwyddan. People should live as close to transport links or jobs themselves as possible. Wales lacks agglomeration, and that holds back our economy and probably stunts us socially and culturally too.

As an example of the latter, if Welsh is to survive as a first language it needs to be spoken by the young and young families. That means more starter homes in the larger Welsh-speaking towns of Y Fro. What better deterrent to second home ownership than towns full of rowdy young Welsh- speakers doing the sort of things young people enjoy?

Prefabricated, modular and self-build housing.

A popular solution to housing problems post World War II. The technology has changed however and the pre-fab housing of the 21st Century is a lot easier on the eye than back then. If the supply chain is local or regional - and if the major house builders can come up with imaginative designs - then it could be one way to increase supply, reduce cost and boost manufacturing in one swoop.

How about laying the utilities and roads on patches of land, and selling plots off for self build or to a cooperative group of individuals? Ashley Vale in Bristol is an example of such a development.

Self-build houses don't always have to be cock-sure, grandiose (and presumably expensive) architectural statements of course.

A national points system for social housing allocation.

It makes sense that while supply of social housing is limited, it's rationed accordingly.

Those prioritised for social housing should be : smaller families in low paid employment, those with a strong local connection, carers and their dependents, Armed Forces families and those moving for employment purposes.

Those at the back of the list could include : workless households, people with dependency issues who are not actively seeking treatment and the unemployed with no local connection.

Longer term private tenancies.

It's been brought up in the media recently and long-term rent agreements are common on mainland Europe. Private landlords should be legally obliged to offer long-term rent arrangements to tenants who have been living in the same home, with no problems/arrears, for a probationary period i.e 6 months.

Some sort of "rent stabiliser", a formula/guide to how much someone should ideally be paying in rent in an area, to ensure tenants are not being ripped off by their landlords might be also an idea.

Bring abandoned housing stock back into use

Instead of endless houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), those sturdy Victorian stone terraces Wales is famous for, should once again become family homes or 1-2 bed apartments. Incentives by local and national government to encourage developers and housing associations to regenerate abandoned or under-utilised housing should be encouraged.

New home building is a messy and mostly environmentally costly process, so using old and abandoned housing and retrofitting them to modern environmental standards is one small contribution to reducing our carbon footprint.