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Saturday, 30 November 2013

Senedd Watch - November 2013

  • The UK Government announced - as their response to the first part of the Silk Commission - that financial powers would be devolved to the National Assembly, including : stamp duty, non-domestic rates, landfill tax, the ability to create new taxes (with Westminster agreement) and limited borrowing powers. Subject to a referendum, income tax varying powers could be devolved in future. However, the First Minister said there shouldn't be a vote until a fair funding formula is in place, drawing criticism from opposition leaders.
  • The UK Government also announced the first NATO summit to be held in the UK since 1990 will be hosted at Newport's Celtic Manor resort from September 4-5 2014. The First Minister welcomed the announcement, saying he looked forward to receiving world leaders.
  • In the second of a two-part review into business finance on behalf of the Welsh Government, Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans recommended that the government's investment arm, Finance Wales, be replaced with a Development Bank of Wales due to concerns about excessive interest rates and charges.
  • Senior executives from Cardiff & Vale LHB warned the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee that, due to austerity, hospitals had become the only place to offer 24/7 care to the elderly. It was also said job losses were “inevitable” after concerns from AMs about a reported 400 job losses within the LHB.
  • Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) said it was “unrealistic” to expect PISA results to improve compared to 2010 when the latest figures are revealed in December, despite previous assurances from the First Minister that he himself expected “an improvement.” Opposition AMs questioned the contradictory positions, saying parents now had a right to ask questions about school standards.
  • A University of London study revealed 37% of Welsh people were overweight by age 42, and a further 26-27% obese, with men more likely that women to be so. Although overall overweight and obese rates were similar to England and Scotland, obesity levels in isolation were highest in Wales.
  • News UK director, Guto Harri, said at a Royal Television Society lecture in Cardiff that the UK press didn't give Wales a “rough deal”, and political differences were no reason for extra coverage in itself. Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) also outlined the Assembly's response to the “Democratic Deficit” in media coverage, proposing more support for trainee journalists and AMs, regional press days and more open and accessible data.
  • Despite cuts to EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding, both the Minister for Food & Natural Resources, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), and the Welsh Secretary believed the overall budget was “fair”, as cuts were shared equally across the UK, with an equal 1.6% cut in Pillar 1 funding.
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee believed the draft budget for 2014-15, which was originally said to “prioritise jobs and growth”, instead prioritised the NHS. This was a “disconnect with the Welsh Government's stated priorities” according to committee chair, Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East).
  • The First Minister announced a decision to relocate high-dependency neonatal services from north Wales will be part-reversed. Services will instead to be centralised on one site, with only very seriously ill babies transferred to Arrowe Park Hospital in The Wirral. The decision received a mixed response, with Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) saying all services should be retained in north Wales.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats outlined a three-point plan for the revival of the rural economy, including : a community bank structure, overcoming barriers to low numbers of rural apprenticeships and making universal access to broadband an obligation to service providers.
  • Unemployment fell in Wales by 4,000 in the three months to September 2013 to stand at 7.8% (UK 7.6%). Employment rates were also said to have reached a “record high”. Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said the figures are “very encouraging”, but there were still concerns about youth unemployment and unemployment amongst women.
  • A joint report from Natural Resources Wales, WLGA and National Parks Wales revealed up to £1billion was spent in Wales' three national parks - attracting 12 million visitors - with total value added to the Welsh economy of £577million. Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), described the parks as an “asset to Wales.”
  • The Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee report into Youth Entrepreneurship recommended : key business skills should be taught in primary school, one-stop-shops for entrepreneurs and ways be found to close the gap between those desiring to start a business and those who follow through with it.
  • The Welsh Conservatives launched a new housing policy, with the aims of “rejuvenating” the Right to Buy scheme - via a commitment to replace every social home sold on a one-for-one basis – planning deregulation and bringing more empty homes into use. Welsh Labour attacked the proposals, saying they were un-costed.
  • Faith leaders expressed concerns about local authority cutbacks to free school transport, saying faith schools should receive the same levels of statutory protection as Welsh-medium schools. Local authorities were urged not to be “short-sighted in the decisions they make now.”
  • A Western Mail investigation found 221 children had gone missing from local authority care over the last two years. Children's Commissioner, Keith Towler, said he was “alarmed” by the figures, while chair of the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Human Trafficking, Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales), pressed for an Assembly debate on the issue.
  • PCC Christopher Salmon (Con, Dyfed-Powys) said policing powers had already been devolved to Wales as a result of the creation of Police & Crime Commissioners, and that devolution of policing to the National Assembly would cause confusion. Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor-Meironnydd) disagreed, saying he believed administration of justice would be devolved before 2020. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) later rejected the idea of devolution of policing.
  • Education Minister Huw Lewis announced a two-year cross-party review into higher education funding, with the minister telling the Assembly he wanted an “enduring settlement”, timed to avoid the 2016 Welsh General Election. Plaid Cymru said they would participate, but would consider their own policies, while other opposition politicians described the timing as “cynical”.
  • In relation, former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM (Lab, Rhondda) defended current tuition fee policies, after a Wales Audit Office report revealed it was based on a £7,000p.a. Assumed maximum tuition fee in England, not the eventual £9,000p.a maximum fees, resulting in an extra £156million being spent.
  • Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), introduced the Housing Bill, which proposes a mandatory licence system for private landlords, improve homelessness provision, abolition of the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy and statutory reviews of gypsy and traveller site provision in local authorities.
  • The National Assembly passed the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases Bill on November 20th by 38 votes to 10. The Act will enable the Welsh NHS to recover the costs of treating asbestos-related diseases (estimated to be ~£1million), and enable the employment of up to 20 cancer nurses. The member who introduced the Bill, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd), said that the law  “can make a significant improvement to the quality of life” of those blighted by the diseases.
  • The National Assembly passed two sets Council Tax Reduction Scheme regulations, despite concerns from the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs committee they were “completely impenetrable” and could cause interpretation difficulties.
  • The Wales Ambulance Service Trust met its targets for the first time in 12 months, with 65.2% of life-threatening emergencies responded to within 8 minutes, compared to a national target of 65%.
  • Mandatory displays of food hygiene certificates as part of the Food Hygiene Rating Act 2013 came into force on November 28th, and will be phased in for all outlets serving food over the next 18 months. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said consumers could now make an “informed choice” about where they eat out.

Projects announced in November include : a new £30million round of the Economic Growth Fund, a £2.7million investment in cardiac services in Cardiff & Vale LHB, direct funding to prevent withdrawal of some bus services in Ceredigion, extra ferry services between Anglesey and the Republic of Ireland, the launch of a Procurement Academy at the University of South Wales, an extension of the latest round of Communities First funding into 2016, the announcement of the format of two city region boards, and the launch of the £170million Help to Buy Wales scheme for first-time buyers.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Assembly committee smacks minister's Arsenal

It's perhaps the biggest story of the week you haven't noticed, but could be a sign of an increasingly irritable relationship between the Assembly (as a legislature) and the Welsh Government.

The National Assembly's Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee have the unenviable task of sifting through the labyrinthine secondary legislation (order, regulations, rules etc.) introduced by the Welsh Government - which is how they run the country in practice.

Most secondary legislation is made up of fairly short documents and is relatively uncontroversial. The Committee's job is to – in shorthand – point out any details/errors that need to be flagged up for AMs and the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Government had trouble drafting and passing regulations relating to the replacement for Council Tax Benefit (Council Tax Reduction Scheme) last year, which resulted in a recall of the Assembly during the Christmas recess.

This year, Local Government Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) introduced two sets of regulations relating to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme:
  • Council Tax Reduction Schemes and Prescribed Requirements Regulations 2013 (pdf)
  • Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Default Scheme) Regulations 2013 (pdf)

Both have been introduced so that all Welsh local authorities continue to provide some sort of Council Tax relief from next April. That's because a "sunset clause" was inserted last year – with agreement from opposition parties - in order to get 2012's regulations passed.

The Committee were, however, somewhat annoyed with what was presented to them.

The documents themselves are lengthy tomes, with both sets coming in at over 550 pages combined.  As you can imagine it's not exactly bedtime reading, and those who digest such things as part of their job have my condolences.

The Committee flagged up 18 errors in the first (pdf) and 20 errors in the second (pdf). Most of them were simple drafting mistakes, but the following was picked out for special scrutiny in both sets of regulations, and I suspect wasn't the only "delight" :

“The capital of an applicant who is a pensioner, calculated in accordance with this Schedule, is to be treated as if it were a weekly income of—
(a) £1 for each £500 in excess of £10,000 but not exceeding £16,000; and
(b) £1 for any excess which is not a complete £500.”

That's Numberwang!

This apparently relates to the means test used to determine how big a council tax reduction a person's entitled to. The committee are said to have wanted means testing simplified into a separate 8-page order, but the minister rejected that as the rules - as they currently are - were too complicated and wide-ranging.

Apparently though, the 1999 equivalent of these regulations really were just 8 pages long. It shows you how much these things can snowball.

The committee described the regulations in less than flattering terms, such as :
"completely impenetrable....even to lawyers with a background in statutory interpretation"
"impossible to fathom the policy intentions"
"the user (reader of the regulations) is sent on a ridiculous hunt for a simple definition of 'quarter'"

The Pythonesque references to Montserrat :

"Quite what relevance a 'person in Great Britain who left the island of Montserrat after 1 November 1995 due to the volcanic eruption' has to council tax in Wales in 2013 in anyone's guess."

Then there's :
"The Welsh Government has, quite rightly, advocated accessible legislation. These Regulations show how not to achieve that."

In Assembly terms, that's quite a tongue-lashing. I don't think I've come across such strong rebukes in a committee report before.

More seriously, the committee said local authorities and organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) could find it difficult to determine if they're applying the rules correctly, and it'll be even harder for members of the public to determine if they're receiving the right council tax deduction.

Lesley Griffiths and her department shouldn't be criticised too much, and she has plenty of valid justifications for the "impenetrability" of the regulations.

Regulations relating to welfare and council tax generally are this complicated. That's down to decades of chopping and changing by different governments, as well as the micromanagement of deciding precisely who is entitled to what and on what terms - described as "accretions" by Committee chair, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) at the final meeting to approve the reports.

In the minister's formal response (pdf) she points out that the 2013 regulations are, in fact, a significantly simplified version!

In addition, she believes the likes of the CAB will have no difficulties in interpreting the regulations as they helped prepare them in the first place. Though she concedes that members of the public could have problems understanding it, it's likely members of the public will seek help from someone who does understand the regulations anyway.

The minister also said her department offered to give the committee's legal officers "technical briefings", which were refused. It's a fairly damning indictment of the regulations if technical briefings are required for trained and experienced lawyers to understand them.

I imagine such meetings would've resembled a game of Mornington Crescent.

AMs were effectively backed into a corner on this, and had no option but to approve the regulations as they are, otherwise it could've put the Council Tax Reduction Scheme at risk next year.

Coincidentally, Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) - who's a member of the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee - has written an important article on Click on Wales.

She raises concerns that Welsh Government are manipulating procedures relating to secondary legislation, effectively turning - on paper - sensible and uncontroversial laws into "enabling acts" in terms of policy, increasingly concentrating powers with the executive.

That sounds a bit....Carmarthenshire.

As I said, it's perhaps the biggest story of the week you haven't noticed.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Welsh tuition fee policy under scrutiny

The Welsh Government's tuition fee policy was recently revealed by
the Wales Audit Office to have cost more than expected.
But does that headline tell the whole story?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Last week, serious questions were raised about the Welsh Government's tuition fees policy, whereby they subsidise tuition fees for Welsh-domiciled students regardless of where in the UK they choose to study.

The Wales Audit Office (WAO) revealed the policy's cost – to date - ~£150million more than expected. That's because - in shorthand terms - the tuition fee cap was higher than the financial assumptions the Welsh Government used to base its final policy on.

In a related matter, Education Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) recently ordered a two year, cross-party review into higher education funding.

The opposition have welcomed the review, albeit with reservations. Plaid Cymru have agreed to participate but would prefer to draw up their own long-term plans. The Lib Dems and Conservatives questioned its timing, as it was confirmed the review won't report back until after the 2016 Assembly elections, which could impact individual party's ability to draft alternative policies. However, the policy is effectively locked in until 2017 anyway.

The Assembly's Finance Committee are currently undertaking their own inquiry into Higher Education Finance. So this is likely to be a key education issue through 2014.

It's worth looking into the WAO's report closely, because - as I read it - it's perhaps not quite as serious a situation as it's been made out to be.

The Key Findings of the WAO report

You can read the report yourself here (pdf).

1. Policy appraisal concerns.

At the time the policy was being drawn up, 51% of students studying at Welsh universities were Welsh-domiciled, while 47% were English-domiciled. Around a third (34%) of all Welsh-domiciled students study in England too, making cross-border movement more important in terms of planning to the (then Labour-Plaid) Welsh Government than elsewhere in the UK.

The WAO say the Welsh Government wanted to "respond quickly" to Westminster's decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year. As a result, WAO say there was "limited engagement" between the Welsh Government and funding body, HEFCW, in terms of formulating a response.

Officials drew up six scenarios, each of them – except one – based on £9,000 tuition fees in Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

The Welsh Government only expected "elite" universities to charge the maximum £9,000; or universities to charge £9,000 for high-cost courses (like sciences), and £6,000 for low-cost courses (like liberal arts).

Officials decided a financial model based on a £7,000 average fee would, therefore, be appropriate. The Welsh Government's chief economist agreed, albeit with some concerns about the strength of the evidence.

However, HEFCW weren't given the opportunity to challenge the figures, and believed the £7,000 assumption was "too optimistic". They were proven right.

So there was a mismatch between the financial models originally drawn up (based on a £9,000 fee) and the £7,000 average fee assumption the Welsh Government decided its final policy with. Subsequently, the WAO claim the "appraisal (of the six options on the table) failed to conform to best practice."

The Welsh Government have since updated their models, meaning the policy will cost £809million between 2012-13 and 2016-17 - £156million more than originally forecast.

2. Issues with tuition fee policy implementation

WAO say both the Welsh Government and HEFCW have implemented the tuition fee policy "effectively", but they have concerns about :
  • Changes to part-time tuition fees – These haven't progressed "as the Welsh Government intended", but there was wide support to put decisions on hold. WAO say there needs to be longer-term certainty as part-time tuition fees are currently unregulated.
  • Processing student finance applications – Welsh Government plans to centralise student finance through the Student Loans Company (currently on hold due to problems in England) need to address weaknesses in the system. It was investigated as part of the Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill (due to pass next week), and there are concerns about possible fraud depending on how "ordinarily resident in Wales" will be defined and enforced.
  • The role of HEFCW – WAO say HEFCW handled the tuition fee policy well, but some of their work – like keeping a limit on non-Welsh UK and EU-domiciled students, and cuts to postgraduate course funding – has led to criticism from universities.

3. Financial health of Welsh universities

I think it's worth pointing out that the main headline finding from the WAO report seems to have flown over people's heads : the finances of Welsh universities are said to be "in good health" and "generally sound". That's the most important thing, and is perhaps good news for the Welsh Government. Good news is hard to sell though.

Income at Welsh universities is up year-on-year, mostly as a result of higher tuition fees. Although surpluses are said to be falling - which could put Welsh universities at a competitive disadvantage in the medium-term – Welsh universities are set to continue to have strong cash resources and reserves.

The Key Issues

Because the higher than expected costs have been absorbed by the Welsh Government - seemingly without any major problems - then this perhaps isn't as serious as it could've been.  It's fairly normal for government departments to run up unexpected cost overruns, even with the best plans and estimates in place.

As the - then - Education Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), said himself (and it's there in the WAO report) officials knew about the financial impact a £9,000 cap would have and planned for it. Though they rushed the process, you can see why they wanted to work with averages if time was running out to come up with a response.

Perhaps the most important issue - which doesn't seem to have been mentioned elsewhere - is the absence of key input from HEFCW, who were clearly concerned about the "optimistic" use of an average £7,000 tuition fee when finalising the policy. HEFCW are effectively in charge of distributing HE finance, so brushing them off seems a poor decision.

Another issue surrounds whether the whole cabinet knew of the potential financial risks of a £9,000 cap when the policy was decided, though the report says Leighton Andrews and other "certain cabinet members" knew. According to Toby Mason, that includes former Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn-Jones. It should've been made available to the whole cabinet though in order to them to make a properly informed decision.

Sticking with the policy as it was seems both commendably stubborn (Leighton Andrews trying to do good by Welsh students) yet regrettably short-sighted - to the tune of £156million.

So the heart was there, the head was not. It was clearly rushed policy, but not without some thought behind it. This isn't an AWEMA or a RIFW, though it's no doubt very embarrassing for Cathays Park.

The principle of the tuition fee policy is fine (if controversial), and in some respects quite commendable. However, in straightened time, such policies should perhaps only apply to Welsh-domiciled students studying at Welsh universities; though a reduced subsidy for Welsh domiciled students studying elsewhere might be appropriate (or a full subsidy applying to certain key courses, like medicine and nursing).

It's for the forthcoming review and Finance Committee inquiries to ultimately decide, I suppose.
UPDATE : 26/11/13 : BBC Wales report that the First Minister has published the cabinet papers and minutes from the day the tuition fee policy was decided in November 2010. It appears the final decision was based on a £7,000 average fee assumption, with passive references to the prospect of higher fees being set immediately.

That pretty much corroborates what Leighton Andrews has said and it doesn't really change anything. But you still have to ask whether the cabinet were able to make a fully informed decision based on the information that was presented to them?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Housing Bill introduced to the National Assembly

The Welsh Government's Housing Bill is a wide-ranging law that aims
to tackle "rogue landlords", address homelessness, improve social housing
standards and reduce the number of empty homes.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Continuing the housing theme, the Welsh Government's Housing Bill was introduced to the National Assembly on Tuesday by Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside).

It's fair to describe it as "flagship" legislation, and it's also a whopper, coming in at 85 pages.The Bill's available here (pdf) and the explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

It's been recently said elsewhere....apparently....that the Welsh blogosphere often "lacks thought and detail", is too safe and sanitised and has failed to "facilitate democratic engagement and scrutiny".

I'll admit it. I've let you, the Assembly, our AMs and the whole of Welsh society down.

It's a burden I carry every night, as I lie awake, wondering whether to cover gosspy, banal stories like the ongoing collapse of local democracy in Carmarthenshire, the impact of High Speed 2 on the Welsh economy or getting my chompers around the annual report of the Chief Dental Officer.

The blogosphere continuously fails to demand answers to the big questions. What does the Taxpayers' Alliance think about politicians eating and breathing at public expense? What does some chippy anonymous source think about press officers writing press releases at their place of work?

The blogosphere was supposed to open a window, casting light and transparency on Welsh democracy and those who claim to uphold it. Clearly, all opening that window ever did was let in a field's worth of beefy cow farts. It's a dereliction of duty. We need to return to fighting for what is right and cover the controversial.

I'll spend more time hanging around the Senedd, Eli Jenkins pub and Tŷ Hywel looking for receipts in bins. I'll use my extensive network of Assembly spies and media connections - because everyone outside the Bay Bubble establishment has them - more effectively; telling you if Assembly staff are using all those flatscreen TVs to watch Bargain Hunt, or what AMs really think of Peter Black's ties. The people have a right to know.

Instead of my typically concise, pithy blogs, I'm going to do something different today and go into a bit more detail than usual. There's nothing more worthy of democratic engagement and scrutiny than a new law; which could directly and indirectly affect tens of millions in public and private spending as well as thousands of households. The sort of thing I'd usually just gloss over.

Few of you are masochistic enough to delve through it yourselves, so I guess I'm going to have to try to cram more than 250 pages of text to as close to 2,000 words as possible. In my own time. By myself. For free.

What people think of that and whether people take time to acknowledge it is another matter.

Why does Wales need a Housing Bill?

It's claimed 14,000 new homes are required in Wales each year – up to 9,200 private new builds, and 5,100 from other providers like private landlords, housing associations and local authorities. They're all going to be of varying quality and owned/operated by many different companies and individuals.

One of the key aims is to create a mandatory licensing system for landlords and letting agents, as until now such schemes have been voluntary, with some landlords being bad news for both tenants and communities.

The Welsh Government say there are 22,000 empty properties, many of which can be brought up to a decent standard. Existing homes, especially older housing, also need upgrades. That's being carried out to social housing via the Wales Quality Housing Standard (WHQS), but not enough is being done in the private rented sector.

Homelessness is on an upward trend – some 5,800 households were accepted as homeless in 2012-13 - as housebuilding slows, social houses aren't built at a fast enough rate to keep up with demand, and welfare reforms impact households, like the infamous "bedroom tax".

In addition to that there's the perennial local campaign favourite of new gypsy and traveller sites, while the Bill could also lead to reforms in social housing standards and charges, and make an expansion of co-operative home ownership easier and more attractive to prospective tenants.

What does the Housing Bill propose?

The Bill itself is divided into 8 parts and 3 schedules. I'm clumping them together into broad themes instead.

Regulation of the Private Renting Sector

The Bill:
  • Makes it a legal requirement for private landlords and/or letting agents to register and be licenced with any local authority in which they let property.
  • Places statutory duties on local authorities to maintain a publicly accessible register of licenced landlords and agents.
  • Places a duty on licenced landlords or agents to notify local authorities of any change of circumstances within 28 days of the change occurring.
  • Disqualifies people from receiving a licence if they :
    • fail a "fit and proper persons test" – including committing fraud, acts of discrimination or harassment, firearms offences, sexual offences or failing to comply with other housing/landlord laws.
    • haven't been trained in managing rental properties to the local authority's satisfaction.
    • don't agree to abide by a Welsh Government Code of Practice.
  • Mandates that licences will be valid for 5 years from the date of issue and will allow licences to be renewed 3 months before they expire.
  • Grants local authorities the power to :
    • revoke licences if a landlord or agent breaches any rules (with a right to appeal).
    • issue "rent stopping orders" - where no rent is payable – if a landlord fails to comply with licencing requirements.
    • turn down a licence renewal (with a right to appeal).
  • Creates new offences, like :
    • failing to produce/display a licence - up to £1,000 fine.
    • advertising, letting or managing a rental property without a licence - up to £1,000 fine, barring a "reasonable excuse".
    • failing to provide documents to local authorities when required - up to £2,500 fine.
    • providing false information to the local authority - up to £2,500 fine.


The Housing Bill aims to prevent people becoming homeless in the
first place by placing duties on housing authorities to intervene early.
(Pic :BBC)
The Bill:
  • Places a statutory duty on local authorities to carry out a homelessness review and publish a homelessness strategy every four years starting in 2018, which includes monitoring current and expected levels of homelessness, homelessness prevention activities and resources available to combat homelessness.
  • Defines a "homeless person" as someone who :
    • has no accommodation they can occupy legally.
    • cannot occupy a home in the UK they would otherwise be entitled to occupy.
    • cannot secure entry into a home they otherwise live in.
    • lives in a movable home with no permitted place to put it.
  • Defines someone as "threatened with homelessness" if they would become homeless (as defined above) within 56 days.
  • Outlines that when dealing with homelessness applications, local authorities must :
    • determine whether emergency accommodation is "suitable" for a person.
    • provide information and advice to someone who's homeless or threatened with homelessness.
    • prevent homelessness applicants from becoming homeless in the first place.
    • guarantee accommodation for "priority need applicants".
    • try and find accommodation within their area whenever they can. Though the Bill sets out the arrangements whereby they notify, in writing, any other local authority they intend house someone in.
  • Sets out guidelines for appeals, reviews, and protection of a homeless applicant's property (where applicable).
  • Makes it an offence to provide false, or knowingly withhold, information when making a homelessness application, punishable by a fine of up to £2,500.
  • Gives local authorities the power to refer homeless applicants to another local authority in Wales or England if they don't have a local connection - unless they're at risk of domestic abuse.
  • Defines "local connection" as a person who :
    • was normally resident in the local authority they've made a homelessness application in.
    • is employed in the local authority.
    • has family associations in the local authority.

Eligibility for Homelessness Assistance
  • "Priority need applicants" include :
    • pregnant women (and a person they would normally reside with).
    • people with dependant children, with disabilities, are elderly, have a serious illness or are subject to domestic abuse.
    • people affected by a natural or man-made disaster.
    • 16-21 year olds who've left care, fostering or are at risk of sexual or financial exploitation.
    • former military personnel who are homeless upon leaving the Armed Forces.
    • "vulnerable" released prisoners (or someone who's been held on remand) but only those with a "local connection" (as defined above).
  • People ineligible for help under this law are :
    • persons from abroad who are otherwise ineligible, including non-EU nationals.
    • subject to immigration controls or are excluded from benefit entitlements under the Asylum & Immigration Acts 1996 & 1999
  • Statutory homelessness duties on local authorities will end for people who:
    • turn down emergency accommodation that the local authority has deemed suitable.
    • become "intentionally homeless" (i.e. evicted due to anti-social behaviour) – though the Welsh Government will have the power to draw up who counts as "intentionally homeless".
    • accepts either an offer of a private sector tenancy that lasts at least 6 months or a social housing tenancy.

Gypsies & Travellers

The Housing Bill could lead to an increase in the number
of legal traveller sites in Wales.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Bill :
  • Defines a "gypsy or traveller" as
    • a person of a "nomadic lifestyle" regardless of race.
    • people who used to live a nomadic lifestyle but no longer do (i.e. health reasons).
    • travelling circuses and show people.
    • anyone who lives in a mobile home for cultural reasons.
  • Places a statutory duty on local authorities to :
    • carry out an assessment of, and publish a report into, gypsy and traveller site requirements every five years from the publication of their first report.
    • use their powers under the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to provide sites for travellers where there's an assessed need.
  • Gives Welsh Ministers the power to :
    • approve, amend or reject any gypsy and traveller needs assessment, and issue guidance to local authorities.
    • force local authorities to meet certain duties with regard gypsy and traveller sites as stipulated in the Mobile Homes Act 2013.

Social Housing Standards

The Bill :
  • Gives Welsh Ministers the power to set and revise standards for social housing, including :
    • rent levels and service charges (which will be charged separately).
    • rules relating to rent levels and service charges.
    • the quality of social housing itself.
  • Gives Welsh Ministers (or someone working on their behalf) the power to issue warnings, intervene, and the power of entry, if they believe housing authorities aren't complying with standards.
  • Removes a requirement in the Housing Act 1985 for housing authorities - when setting "reasonable rents" - to keep social rents broadly in line with private sector rents. Instead, they'll need to comply with any new guidance/limits Welsh Ministers introduce.

Finance, Tenancies and Council Tax on Empty Properties

Long-term empty and abandoned homes will be liable
to a 150% council tax rate.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Bill :
  • Abolishes the Housing Revenue Accounts Subsidy (HRAS), and gives Welsh Ministers the power to set a "settlement payment" for the eleven Welsh local authorities forced to leave the scheme as a result.
  • Amends the Housing Act 1988 to enable mutuals and co-operatives to provide assured tenancies, enabling co-operative/mutual tenants to benefit from the same legal protections as assured tenancies offered elsewhere.
  • Via amendments to the Local Government Finance Act 1992, gives local authorities the option to set an additional 50% rate of council tax (150%) on "long-term empty properties" (unoccupied and unfurnished for at least a year). It also gives Welsh Ministers the power to decided what properties this would apply to.

Now things start to get complicated.

Creating a mandatory landlord and agent register will cost £500,000, but would be self-financing because of fee income. Start-up costs for local authorities are estimated to be £250,000. Most of the burden falls on landlords and agents - upwards of £8million (between 2015-2017) - with costs falling to £265,000 per year once landlords/agents are registered and properly accredited as outlined in the Bill.

With regard the homelessness measures, the explanatory memorandum estimates ~32,100 applications for homelessness assistance will be made in 2015-16. The total cost, under existing laws, is estimated to be ~£21.3million. Under the preferred option in the new law, additional costs are estimated to be £5.9million, based on increases in homelessness assistance applications - an extra 3,200 - as a result of the Bill's provisions (for example, increasing the limit of "threatened with homelessness" from 28 to 56 days).

The total cost of the homelessness provisions is estimated to be in the region of £27.2-32.4million, based on expected homelessness figures, which themselves are dependant on multiple factors, including welfare reform and the state of the economy.

The gypsy and traveller measures will cost ~£1.6million per year until 2019-20, with most of that being the existing £1.5million grant to fund new traveller sites.

The preferred option for social housing standards sees a £15,000 per year cost fall on the Welsh Government, and £7,000 per year falling on social housing providers to collect and submit data. The preferred option for rent and service charge changes would initially cost £1.7million to set up – the vast bulk falling on local authorities – and £397,000 per year afterwards.

Abolishing HRAS has apparently been agreed with the Treasury, estimated to cost ~£990,000. However, an estimated £33million of rent income from Welsh local authority housing would then remain in Wales instead of being paid to Westminster.

The costs of the co-operative housing tenancy provisions will be around £130-140,000, mostly taking the form of continued funding to the Wales Co-operative Centre.

Additional council tax rate on empty homes would initially cost £359,000 to local authorities and Welsh Government to set up. From 2016-17, when the provisions come into force, it'll cost £527,000 per year in increased enforcement and tribunal costs. However, it's estimated a 150% council tax rate would raise somewhere between £11-14.4million for local authorities from the just over 24,200 homes left empty for more than a year.

What does this Bill mean?

Expect to see more of this.
This Bill is....wait for it....potentially quite controversial, and there
are more talking points than the media have let on.
(Pic : Wales Online)
There are many significant provisions in this Bill, notably the creation of a mandatory licensing system for private landlords, which should professionalise the industry further, helping to drive "slumlords" out – I'm thinking along the north Wales coast in particular.

Alongside that, other provisions – like those relating to mutual and co-operative housing and a fairer system of rents and charges for social housing tenants – seem sensible, even populist in some circumstances. It's for AMs to decide if that's truly the case though.

The extra council tax rate on empty properties might cause problems, especially if many are old holiday homes that haven't been used in a long time, though it's unrelated to the proposed general 200% rate on second homes.
It would also encourage owners either to sell, renovate or rent their properties, increasing housing supply.

The abolition of HRAS – one of the few ways Wales has subsidised England to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, perhaps more, for decades – will lead to rent being retained in Wales, and money that could be reinvested in social housing by housing authorities. If the Bill passes and HRAS is abolished, then the Bevan Foundation and Plaid Cymru can probably chalk up its abolition as a success for them as much as the Welsh Government.

The gypsy and traveller provisions could cause problems as many people have an "issue" with traveller sites. The prospect of more of them being required by law could lead to difficulties in some communities, and perhaps for individual AMs too. No AM will be able to campaign against extra traveller sites honestly if they back the provisions in the Bill as outlined.

Entrenched opposition to sites might be less if local residents knew travellers living on legal sites were paying their way (they pay council tax when living on local authority and private sites, and most - if not all - work), had a strict code of conduct, and had full access to local authority services like rubbish collection.

There needs to be a bit of common sense when deciding where they should go. They shouldn't be sited out in the sticks on busy main roads, but there's no point in siting them in built up areas either. I'm not sure if that's best left to any Welsh Government guidance/regulations to come from the Bill, or if it should be included as clauses within the Bill itself.

The homelessness provisions are extensive – perhaps to the point it should've been a stand alone Homelessness Bill. They could cause controversy, mainly due to the impact on recently-released prisoners and (as I understand it) the powers for Welsh local authorities to transfer any homeless applicants who don't have a local connection elsewhere - including back over the border where applicable. The only exceptions, it seems, would be those fleeing domestic violence.

The Bill maintains released prisoners as a priority homelessness group if they have a proven local connection. However, homelessness is often cited as a cause of re-offending. Like gypsies and travellers, sheltered accommodation for homeless and vulnerable young adults is often sited in unsuitable places and attracts local opposition.

It's a reasonable compromise, as is the general requirement for a "local connection" when receiving homelessness assistance. It's best people receive help where they have strong connections and are perhaps known to the authorities, instead of becoming vagrants. The same requirements should apply to social homes too.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Welsh Tory Housing Policies - Do they add up?

It's obvious we need more housing, but are recent Welsh Conservative proposals the
right way forward? Or at an even more basic level, do their numbers add up?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The Welsh Government's long awaited for Housing Bill was formally introduced to the National Assembly today (it's separate from the proposed Renting Homes Bill), and I'll take a closer look at that later this week.

Though last week, the Welsh Conservatives - via Shadow Housing Minister, Mark Isherwood (Con, North Wales) - launched their own outline policy proposals, entitled A Vision for Welsh Housing (pdf).

The Three Main Proposals

1. – Increase House Building

It's said every £1 spent on construction boosts the economy by £1.70.
The Welsh Conservatives want to increase the current ~4,900 homes built per year to 14,000 per year, based on (often controversial) local authority housing need assessments.

Local councils set quotas for affordable housing within each development, and the Welsh Conservatives believe these quotas hinder the viability of large developments. So, they propose viability assessments from house builders themselves should be the overriding consideration, with the number of affordable homes per development based on commercial viability, not a "catch-all target".

In addition, they propose the creation of a Welsh Housing Commission to develop "evidence-based ideas", with membership that includes private house builders, private landlords and housing associations. They also want to nurture more construction talent in schools and colleges for obvious reasons.

2. – "Right to Buy" reforms

The headline policy is to ring-fence funds raised from "Right to Buy" sales in order to build a replacement social home for every home sold – termed "one for one". They point to England, where £367million was raised from just under 6,000 sales in 2012-13.

The Welsh Conservatives also want to prevent "Right to Buy" homes being sold quickly or turned into buy-to-lets. They'll do that by forcing a repayment of some of the "Right to Buy" discount a seller receives depending on how long they lived in the property.

3. – Bring empty homes back into use

Any home left unoccupied for more than 6 months is legally classified as "empty".

It's long been Welsh Government policy to bring abandoned properties – estimates suggest between 22,000-33,500 of them in Wales – back into use. The Welsh Government currently aim to being 5,000 back into use by 2016 via their Houses into Homes scheme, which offers interest-free loans to renovate empty properties.

The Conservatives propose something similar to a UK Government scheme in England, where a proportion of empty homes funding is paid directly to social landlords and community housing groups.

Also, the Welsh Government currently intend to levy higher council tax rates on second and empty homes left vacant for up to one year (which is part of the Housing Bill) – the Welsh Conservatives would increase that to two years to give owners more breathing room.

The Reaction

It's fair to say the reaction to the proposals has been lukewarm.

On the positive side, it was partially welcomed by Community Housing Cymru (CHC), with BBC Wales reporting CHC agreed with a lot of the content, and the ambition to increase housing supply, but noted that UK Government policies (such as the "Bedroom Tax") have reduced rental income for housing associations and seen an increase in empty properties. It looks like house builders have also broadly welcomed the proposals too.

Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government haven't honoured it with a formal response yet (unless, in the case of the latter, you consider the Housing Bill itself a response), though the policy proposals are due to be debated in the Assembly tomorrow.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) described it as, "Big on ambition, short on detail and full of holes." Meanwhile, Welsh Labour's backbench spokesperson for Everything, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), is quoted as saying there were "not enough details in these proposal to take them seriously".

I'm inclined to agree with them.

Does it add up?

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with policies that encourage home-ownership and increase housing supply (both private and social), and I agree with it perhaps for the same reasons as the Welsh Conservatives - it promotes personal responsibility, is often a decent investment and facilitates an all around sense of prosperity and well-being.

Meanwhile, the creation of a Welsh Housing Commission is a step up from, or complement to, the existing construction sector panel.

However, policy approaches are beginning to sound like a stuck record, led by supply-side thinking (house builders, developers and landlords) while neglecting the demand-side (tenants, communities and buyers). Things like shared equity and mortgage guarantees, for example, seem a way to prop house prices up - a form of renting with a large down-payment - rather than a serious attempt to make homes more affordable.

Here's an idea. Why don't we start building cheaper homes, full stop? Here's some examples. Here's some more.

14,000 homes built per year seems a laughable number considering even – by the Welsh Conservatives' own figures (Annex A)– at peak strength the construction industry built 10-11,000 homes per year.

8,000-9,000 per year might be a more realistic target, which would still be double the current housebuilding rate, though largely dependant on a significant Welsh economic recovery.

Please tell me the Welsh Conservatives don't believe property should drive economic growth? Haven't they learned anything from the last ten years?

Most demand will be for affordable housing (from first time buyers, people moving from the rental sector, and those priced out in rural Wales) and one and two bedroom homes for purchase and rent (for the increase in numbers of single people, people in social housing affected by the "Bedroom Tax" and down-sizing pensioners).

An affordable home is generally defined as being priced at three to four times household income. In Wales (average salary given as £24,076 p9), that would be around £72-96,000 for a single person, and £144-193,000 for a couple - presuming both earned the average salary or more.

Take a look at any planning application for a big housing development.
House builders seem keen to build three and four bedroom executive homes that sell for £180-200,000+ – even in the valleys.

There's a market mismatch. People who need a one or two bedroom home don't have any option but to buy a more expensive three or four bedroom one. And of course house builders will say, "We don't want a 40% affordable housing quota,"because it reduces space for the money-makers.Regulatory cuts will see more estates of stupidly-overpriced cuckoo clock houses built in places like Tonyrefail because it's cheaper to build there than Cardiff.

House builders know poorer local authorities will bend over backwards to get more higher-rate council taxpayers living within their borders. It's awful policy. It could cause an Irish-style housing bubble if house price optimism keeps trumping common sense, and that's before mentioning wider planning and "sustainability" issues like transport and overbuilding in unsuitable areas.

The Welsh Tory proposals - in the absence of a detailed assessment - hint at two
social houses needing to be sold under "Right to Buy"  to pay for one replacement.
(Pic : Gwalia Housing)
On the specifics of their "Right to Buy" proposals (or "Right to Acquire" for non-local authority social housing tenants), firstly, if there were a rush of "Right to Buy" sales, it would cause a reduction in social housing until replacements are built. So there would need to be significant numbers of social homes built before any "Right to Buy" reforms can come into effect to prevent making short-term housing shortages even worse.

On costings, the numbers given in this Welsh Government statement (£3.8million for 35 social houses), imply each "Right to Buy" home would need to raise between £100-110,000 to enable a one-for-one replacement. That presumably includes associated costs like land, access, S106 agreements and utilities (and we're talking one and two bedroom homes, larger homes would cost more).

Based on the English "Right to Buy" figures the Welsh Conservatives provided (£367million from 5,944 dwelling sales - p24), "Right to Buy" raised £61,742 per home - but remember discounts are larger and house prices are generally higher in England. And only 844 replacements have been bought or are under construction so far - "One for Seven".

Any funding gap would either need to be filled from the Welsh Government's housing budget (which I'd imagine wouldn't be ring-fenced or boosted by any Conservative government), from housing associations' own capital funds or borrowing.

Next, the maximum "Right to Buy" discount in Wales is up to £16,000.

The Welsh Conservatives would probably have to keep that £16,000 cap. They'll be unable to raise the discount to English levels (up to £75,000 in many areas outside London) otherwise sale income would be even less, and there would be even less money to build a one-for-one replacement.

So it's likely that at least two social homes would need to be sold to build one replacement. "One for Two" doesn't sound like a good deal. If the Welsh Tories have better figures to back up their policy, they need to produce them – as early as tomorrow's debate, I'd say - because the ship's sinking beneath the waves.

And what is it with Welsh parties not publishing details when announcing policies?

UPDATE : 22/11/2013 - During the debate, Mark Isherwood did provide general figures, but it appears nothing relating to the one-for-one policy. The only "concrete" figures came from Peter Black and Carl Sargeant, and they both concur that the sums for a one-for-one replacement of social homes simply don't add up. "Basic maths" in Carl's own words.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Tomorrow's Enterprise - Assembly Youth Entrepreneurship Report

Starting your own business is often daunting. A recent National Assembly committee
inquiry highlighted the good and bad in terms of support for entrepreneurship in Wales.
(Pic : BBC)

Entrepreneurship is one those "big issues"in the Welsh economy you always see mentioned, but never quite understand or look into in any great detail, as it seems very much about your own experiences of it. Where successful Welsh businesses of tomorrow come from - and how they're helped to get to the top - is an issue of vital importance though.

The Assembly's Business and Enterprise Committee report into Youth Entrepreneurship was launched at Caerphilly's Innovation Centre for Enterprise earlier this week (pdf).

In total there were ten recommendations, summarised as :
  • Better monitoring of entrepreneurship, and trying to bridge the gap between numbers of young people thinking of starting a business and those actually starting one.
  • Ensure entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship are part of the school curriculum from primary school through to further and higher education, possibly becoming part of the Welsh Baccalaureate.
  • Review the advice available to young entrepreneurs, with the idea of creating a single central body for entrepreneur support, with centres established around Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should explain precisely why funding for Young Enterprise was withdrawn.
  • More networking and mentoring between entrepreneurs themselves, and sharing good practice between the existing regional support hubs.

Welsh start-ups

Traditional barriers to entrepreneurship are breaking down, with a
majority of early-stage start ups in Wales led by young women.
(Pic : Wales Online)
The Welsh Government have numerous support schemes for business start-ups, mostly as part of its Youth Entrepreneurship Strategy 2010-15 (YES), which covers 5-25y.os. YES includes grants and bursaries (up to £6,000), six regional hubs, a network of 385 business role models and Big Ideas Wales - all backed by £4.4million in central funding.

There's plenty of good news
  • Early-stage entrepreneurship rates amongst 18-24s are the highest of the UK nations (10.2%).
  • 52% of 18-24s had an aspiration to "work for themselves".
  • 9.6% of all UK graduate start-ups, and 10% of those surviving for at least 3 years, are in Wales.
  • 53% of FE Colleges say they encourage students "to think about enterprise".
  • Female entrepreneurship rates are higher than the UK (6.1% v 5%) and a majority of early stage start-ups (60%) are from women.
In terms of the bad news, there's little conversion of business idea to business reality – Wales had just 42 start-ups per 10,000 people compared to 64 across the UK.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) said those studying business at university and college are "cautious" and "lack ideas and originality", spending too much time working on presentations. Their companies subsequently tend to play it safe. Alacrity Foundation's Steve Gibson said young people are more risk averse – choosing a safe career over entrepreneurshipprobably because of high student debts.

It was hard to determine the effectiveness of Welsh Government initiatives because it was unclear if positive outcomes came as a result of their interventions. Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said the Welsh Government were looking into ways to properly track the progress of young entrepreneurs.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Although profit is clearly important, it's believed that the idea of entrepreneurship
should be based around "well-rounded people helping their communities".
(Pic : Wales Online)

After taking evidence from organisations around the country - including a Flintshire Enterprise Group - the committee believed they needed to take a wide-view of "entrepreneurship", as many people often started successful businesses in areas like music and culture, not just high-tech industries. Entrepreneurship should be viewed as "well-rounded young people going out and making a difference in their communities".

Ken Skates agreed, but highlighted specific cultural barriers - such as attitudes towards business itself and gender.

However, having no family history of entrepreneurship was no longer the barrier it once was, with entrepreneurs coming from more diverse backgrounds, often "channelled into the entrepreneurial direction" by teachers and mentors. Gender was no longer cited as a significant barrier either, with Alacrity Foundation saying their schemes had a 50:50 gender split, though there were fewer women "high-tech graduates".

In terms of pitfalls, comparisons are made with the USA, where entrepreneurs are hailed as "champions" if they succeed only once after multiple failures. Here, if you fail once as an entrepreneur you rarely get a second chance. One entrepreneur said they were told to "get a proper job" when starting out, and when they made a success of themselves, were told "it's alright for some." Welcome to Wales.

Perhaps the most widely-publicised evidence came from Masterchef finalist, and director of Yolk Recruitment, Dale Williams, who highlighted how important it was to make connections with people and give a good impression in order to build up your own confidence.

In terms of the wider economy, Neath Port Talbot Council said "being your own boss" is a viable way out of youth unemployment – the figures of which in some parts of Wales, including Bridgend, are scandalous. FSB, however, note their sadness at people saying they were "forced into self-employment" as a result of the Great Recession as if it were a bad thing.

Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) noted the Prince's Trust work with the young unemployed and highlighted their role in both helping start-ups and reaching people the government often can't reach.

Enterprise in Education

The importance to teaching practical skills with regard entrepreneurship
was highlighted, along with general enterprise education in the curriculum.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Many witnesses laid out the importance of enterprise in the school curriculum, but provision was said to be mixed. The FSB argued that traditional "climb the career ladder" thinking often prevails in schools, while UnLtd said there's plenty of examples of good practice elsewhere. Dale Williams argued against working with primary-age children though, instead saying 14-18yos are best targeted as that's the period in life where career and university options at at the forefront of people's minds.

Many witnesses raised concerns about a "lack of practical training" – things like sales, marketing, intellectual property and managing taxes.

At university and college level, there's plenty of support, with University of South Wales saying 65% of their students received some form on entrepreneurial training as part of their studies. It was suggested that universities needed to do more to nurture on-campus businesses, including "business incubators" which could include empty high-street shops (I've suggested industrial estates in the past).

When it comes to social enterprises, witnesses said enterprise shouldn't be taught/seen as exclusively about profit, inspired by TV shows like Dragons' Den and The Apprentice. UnLtd and Young Enterprise say they instill a sense of social and community responsibility in the young people they work with, so they "reinvest in their communities" (for more ideas on this, see The Collective Entrepreneur).

It might also be worth visiting this as part of Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) proposed Financial Education law.

Confusion, Careers Advice & Young Enterprise

There were serious concerns about a "lack of clarity" on the options available, with suggestions there needed to be a single organisation people knew exactly where to to turn to for money and advice.

In those terms, could that form part of the functions of the Development Bank of Wales mooted by Prof. Jones-Evans earlier this week (and Plaid Cymru previously)?

Careers Wales are responsible for delivering the YES scheme, and since April have been absorbed into the Welsh Government itself. However, because of changes in its remit – and £6million cuts to its operating budget - Careers Wales no longer directly funds things like Young Enterprise, which Young Enterprise say in their own words "puts them at risk".

Ken Skates said it was down to Young Enterprise to "prove its value within the marketplace" because there were plenty of other providers. The committee questioned the rationale for this line of thinking, and want clarification of the assessments carried out to determine the decision.

Funding, Mentoring & Support

Once again, support is confusing, with a "menu of options". There are also problems with eligibility for various schemes, with an example given from the Prince's Trust where Work Programme participants couldn't transfer to their Enterprise Programme because they (Prince's Trust) lack a Work Programme sub-contractor agreement and, subsequently, couldn't receive funding.

It's said access to initial capital isn't much of an issue, but there were problems with continued/ongoing support. Cardiff University argued for a tiered system of support because requirements to access some start-up funding were "unrealistic" (£80,000 turnover in first year, with 20% year-on-year growth for the Graduate Start-up Bursary).

Witnesses couldn't decide if location was a big factor in entrepreneurship. The Welsh Government, however, did say there was "geographical inconsistency" in support.

YES established six
regional entrepreneurship hubs based at universities and colleges. Colleges/universities were said to be "enthusiastic" about the hubs, and despite a "steep learning curve", were eager to help young entrepreneurs. The committee were said to be "impressed by the potential", suggesting it could form a key part of the one-stop shop model mentioned throughout the inquiry.

Direct mentoring was said to be just as important as getting the right finance.
Alacrity Foundation has around 50 mentors, while school projects often invite successful alumni back to teach others. Dale Williams said personal support is often more difficult to find than financial support, suggesting that mentoring could be difficult for business people because of their own time commitments, and mentors could be unwilling to give their time for free.

Conclusion : Time for some joined-up thinking

They've done it again!

Business & Enterprise is fast becoming my favourite committee (if such a thing can possibly exist).

I've sometimes thought about starting my own business, and I've known people who've started their own business – including family members. The array of support out there is welcome, but confusing. I think it's correct to say that there's risk aversion amongst young people too, as the penalties for a business failure can be very harsh and sometimes stay with you for the rest of your life.

On the whole though, there's a lot to be optimistic about. So the Welsh Government – past and present – deserve some credit for actions they're taking or have previously taken.

The troubles seem to be the format. That could be rectified with a bit of thought and a bit of joined-up thinking so we don't end up coming back to this with the same problems again and again.

Some sort of one stop shop appears to be vital, and – as I said – any "Bank of Wales" could be perfect for that. I've also mentioned the Financial Education Bill, which could include provisions relating to enterprise education and business advice for children and young adults. I'm sure there are plenty of ways to streamline the sheer number of schemes available as well, or at least market them better.

Wales, perhaps contrary to stereotypes, has a very entrepreneurial mindset it seems. It's just not a country 100% suitable for entrepreneurs at present. The goodwill is there, and I'm confident with the right sorts of policies enacted at the right age, that can change and rather quickly too.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Carwyn's Big Convo on the future of Welsh

The first findings of the First Minister's Cynhadledd Fawr have been published. Has the
big issue - demographic shifts - been acknowledged but largely overlooked in favour of easy options?
(Pic :

Over several months, First Minister Carwyn Jones led a "Big Conversation/Conference" (Y Gynhadledd Fawr) on the future of the Welsh language following the disappointing 2011 census figures. The process included open meetings and online surveys. In total, Y Gynhadledd Fawr resulted in almost 2,400 responses to the online survey alone and around 400 people attended the meetings.

On Tuesday, he updated AMs, highlighting the key issues raised, and outlining policies the Welsh Government have already enacted, like £200k for digital projects.

Labour and Opposition AMs broadly welcomed the initiative itself, albeit with concerns about financing future measures. There were discussions on teaching Welsh as a second language, and opportunities for young people "to have fun" through the medium of Welsh – in particular sport. Though when mentioning the Urdd, Carwyn was reluctant to display his dancing prowess, the Earth's crust breathing a sigh of relief.

A report on the initial findings of Y Gynhadledd Fawr was published by Cwmni Iaith towards the end of October (pdf), and the First Minister said a follow-up statement will be made next spring.

The report itself reads like good PR, saying participants appreciated their chance to have their say, and that Welsh Government language policies (like its five year strategy) were "on the right track" etc. It also summarised, from those surveyed, thoughts and ideas to help the language thrive.

The Report's Conclusions

Demographic Mobility

This was said to be the biggest challenge facing the Welsh language, which I presume refers to the churning of Welsh-speaking populations in Y Fro. Young Welsh-speaking people leave and are replaced with older monoglots from within Wales - and, yes, England - in addition to natural wastage through mortality.

Media & Society

In order to bring Welsh into the 21st century and maintain it, TV and radio are said to make a valuable contribution, while Welsh needs to be a standard operating language on computer programmes (as Irish and Catalan often are) and available/seen on more digital platforms.

Do S4C and Radio Cymru need to do more to
promote the Welsh language to non-Welsh speakers?
(Pic : S4C)

One key recommendation is widening choice of Welsh-language media. I've suggested a Welsh language children's channel, and a competitor to Radio Cymru before, but I don't see the point of increasing Welsh use in English language programming (as suggested) unless the shows themselves are bilingual. Of course, there's the Papurau Bro and Welsh-language blogosphere on top of that.

Both Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys M
ôn) and Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) suggested - at the most recent meeting of the Assembly's Cross-party group for Welsh - that S4C and BBC need to be "ambassadors of the language" and "promote the language to non-Welsh speakers and abroad". I noted in September that S4C should have statutory PSB responsibilities towards Welsh-learners, for example.

None of that is within the Assembly's remit as broadcasting isn't devolved, however.

Things like increasing Welsh on social media are simple to do, and it appears there's a wide choice of Welsh-language literature – recently added to by Amazon e-books - and contemporary music out there that perhaps needs better promotion.


Promoting WM education is an obvious solution, but more importantly – and it pops up in the responses – improving the overall teaching of Welsh as both a first and second language.

Having had an EM education, I remember far more Welsh from primary school. The teachers seemed more engaged and it was more exciting to learn a second language. Secondary teachers tried their best, but seemed frustrated at having to teach "illiterates" (from their perspective), instead concentrating their efforts on those sitting GCSEs and A-Levels.

I was part of the last year group not to sit a compulsory Welsh GCSE, and was taught French, German and Welsh as second languages. When it came down to choosing GCSEs, I chose German – because the teachers were enthusiastic, the syllabus seemed relevant and it was taught brilliantly. I'm not a fluent German speaker as a result, but I know enough to get by. Guess which language would be more useful to me now? Ich halte es ist wahrscheinlich nicht Deutsch.

Teaching Welsh as a second language should focus at primary level as that's perhaps the best time to learn a second language, cognitively speaking. A compulsory Welsh GCSE in EM secondaries (especially the short course) is utterly pointless, but the idea of a compulsory second (or third) language isn't - and that could indeed include Welsh by choice in EM schools.

Use of Welsh

This is as important as education to the survival of the language, with not enough opportunities – or a reluctance – to use Welsh socially, within families, at work and when receiving public services.

Measures proposed here include maintaining and expanding things like Twf (0-18months) and Mudiad Meithrin (voluntary Welsh-speaking nurseries), both of which count as practical support towards teaching pre-school children Welsh. Young people in particular would prefer to do more recreational activities in Welsh – like sports and arts – in addition to Welsh on social media and Welsh language computer games (like Enaid Coll).

I think a particular problem there is – outside of Y Fro and WM schools – no critical mass of people to support regular, structured WM activities. Also, activities for Welsh-learners usually fall under arts and culture and are - more often than not - at the top of the list when it comes to local authority cuts.

Economy & Services

Not only do general economic issues in rural parts of Wales need to be addressed, but the Welsh language needs to be tied to economic development. That includes seeing Welsh as a sometimes necessary skill when taking into account the influence of bilingual labour markets and workplaces.

Do Welsh-speakers themselves, especially outside Y Fro, need to
make better use of available schemes like Iaith Gwaith?
(Pic : Golwg360)

Many of the proposed measures include marketing Welsh as a USP for tourists, more support for Welsh-speaking entrepreneurs and mainstreaming the use of Welsh in the workplace.

Signs and badges that show that Welsh language services are offered – like the Iaith Gwaith scheme – are also highlighted, along with support for maintaining a visual "official bilingualism" on signs etc.

Next, there's ensuring public services meet obligations to Welsh-speakers, and that's – in part – the responsibility of the Welsh Language Commissioner.

The sorts of services people said needed special focus were essential and statutory public services like : emergency services, health, and local authority services like libraries and leisure. Respondents also include some private companies like banks and high street shops.

Planning, Housing & Policy

It's said the Welsh language as a planning consideration (TAN 20) needs to be strengthened, while there's also a critical lack of affordable housing in many parts of rural Wales. In wider terms it also includes more support for young first times buyers in general, limiting residential rights in caravan parks and taxing second homes.

There were additional concerns not only in terms of maintaining investment – currently £8.8million is said (in the report) to be spent on the Welsh language by the Welsh Government - but government policy. It was also acknowledged that "a small minority of people" opposed any and all state support for the language, but they were said to have failed to understand the point of the exercise. Well, there's a shock.

What can we take from Y Gynhadledd Fawr?

The Welsh language shouldn't be seen as a subject in itself, but closely tied to other areas -
like the economy and housing - perhaps stimulating creative solutions for problems that
affect everyone as a result. Low cost, modular housing for example.
(Pic : Coed Cymru)
I'm sure many people actively concerned about the future of the language will see Y Gynhadledd Fawr as a load of hot air.

I doubt there's any grounds to complain on those terms. It was called a "big conversation" and it's exactly that – a massive public consultation exercise. I doubt it was ever envisaged to lead to dramatic policy shifts. Though now, the First Minister has the perspective of ordinary Welsh-speakers to help guide future policy.

A big problem with the findings (duly acknowledged) was that few Y Fro residents - who are more likely to encounter/use Welsh in their daily lives - filled out the surveys. 21% of responses came from Cardiff. Another problem was that a lot of the things respondents said should be done are being done - and it's not making a difference, is it?

I worry we're heading down the Irish route of creating an equivalent of the Gaeltacht (technically we already do by using terms like Y Fro Gymraeg), where the language becomes ghettoised, slowly squeezed to death as the country changes around it. Measures have to be taken across Wales, otherwise there's no point.

We've repeated many mistakes the Irish have made. Irish is a hobby horse for committed activists, seen as something for isolated rural communities and the urbane middle classes (including busing pupils to bilingual schools because they perform better), and self-referential about itself. Also, like Welsh, the Irish language is still in relative decline.

It's best to look further afield to the Basque Country to draw inspiration – especially in education, the arts/media and the use of a minority language in public life.

The language is as old as the people who speak it. I've said it a few times, but rural Wales needs to become noisier and dirtier to retain young Welsh-speaking families, not a quaint chocolate box cover fit for granny farming.

The challenges are systemic. Welsh isn't in flux because there aren't enough Welsh tweets. It's because of demographic changes in Welsh-speaking Wales prompted by migration (in both directions), economic problems and affordable housing shortages. If you can match the solutions to strategic aims like tourism and the green economy – even better.

But the solutions are going to be hard to swallow, especially for those who hate wind turbines, oppose new road schemes and don't like housing developments.

You don't solve it by taking a knee-jerk, veiled anti-English, "drawbridge mentality".

You solve it by taking away the reasons people move to, and away from, Y Fro in the first place – the romanticised preservation of a "precious landscape", and the "peace and quiet" caused by a weak economy and no major urban centres.

Don't take Y Fro to Cardiff, take some of Cardiff to Y Fro. Unleash the diggers. Make sure Welsh-speakers are the ones wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets, and moving into new communities, businesses and homes they built and designed for their own ends.