THAT was one of the questions posed at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Royal Statistical Society to consider whether we really are in a post-truth world of ‘alternative facts’, and if so what we can do about it.
These terms have become commonplace as people try to make sense of a global political landscape that looks and feels different to what many would have predicted a year ago. So it was refreshing to hear a more critical take on the concepts such as post-truth, fake news and echo-chambers.
That isn’t to say that the panellists thought all is well. It was accepted that misinformation, ‘fake news’, and a lack of regard for evidence in some quarters are issues worthy of addressing, and that it’s vital for the health of our democracy that we do so. What’s more, Helen Margetts (Oxford Internet Institute) presented a compelling case that the Internet and social media may be exacerbating the problem.
“Is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence?”
What was questioned was the notion that there is anything particularly new about the challenges we face in defending the importance of facts and evidence.
Or, to restate the earlier question – against what previous golden age of ‘truth’ are we implicitly comparing our modern era to when we use the phrase ‘post-truth’?
This sense of perspective is welcome. William Davies’ recent piece in the Guardian, which has generated much discussion in the statistical world, painted a gloomy picture of the supposedly waning power of statistics. But as the National Statistician pointed out in response, our supposedly ‘post-truth’ era is also characterised by both a yearning for more trustworthy analysis to make sense of the world and an abundance of data out there to help inform it, if only we can tap into and make sense of it.
And that is central to our mission here at the Office for National Statistics. We are constantly striving to produce better statistics to support better decisions. We have ambitious plans to harness big data and exploit its potential to help us understand the modern world. And we are always looking to better understand current and future user needs and respond to them where we can.
“We will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.”
It’s not just about producing better statistics, however. There are challenges in explaining to a wide audience what the evidence says about any given issue when the matter at hand is complex, the evidence is not always clear cut, and the methodological limitations of statistics need to be made clear in the name of transparency.
The difficulty with that, as panellist James Bell from Buzzfeed explained, is that when it comes to dealing with a mass audience and a controversial issue, a simple and clear message usually beats a complex one.
Those of us working in the field of official statistics always need to challenge ourselves to communicate better and in a way that is clear and accessible. But we cannot get away from the fact that by necessity we deal in complexity and nuance, which can make it tricky to get our message across where others may be peddling a simpler line and in a louder voice.
The answer, as argued by Full Fact’s Will Moy, lies in recognising that the ONS and UK Statistics Authority, along with other bodies such as new Office for Statistics Regulation, are part of a bigger picture including civil society groups, media outlets, businesses and ordinary citizens. Working together is crucial to help people make sense of the world around them, to continue to build the case for evidence, and to challenge those who wilfully misuse or disregard it.
That’s why, for example, the UK Statistics Authority is partnering with Full Fact, the House of Commons Library and the Economic and Social Research Council on the ‘Need to Know’ project. And it’s also why the work done by organisations such as the Royal Statistical Society to improve statistical literacy is so valuable, so we can all understand the importance of evidence and challenge its misuse.
Responding to Mr Davies’ Guardian piece, the National Statistician argued that “this is the moment when we can make our greatest contribution to society” by seizing the opportunities open to us to produce the statistics that Britain needs to answer the big questions of the day. That’s something we certainly intend to do. And working with others, we will continue to champion the value of evidence and statistics, even in our supposedly post-truth world.
WG consults on new planning process
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT has published proposals to change the way major infrastructure projects are consented.
A new approach is needed because more consenting powers are due to be devolved on April 1, 2019. The Welsh Government is also taking the opportunity to combine a number of existing processes into a single streamlined “one-stop shop” consenting process.
Two stages are being proposed:
- An interim solution requiring changes to existing processes; and
- A long-term solution requiring primary legislation to establish an entirely new form of consent.
The proposals only apply to areas where consenting is devolved.
So for example, in future, projects like the proposed M4 relief road around Newport and the 200 Megawatt (MW) Swansea Bay tidal lagoon would need to be consented through the new process, whereas the 2,700MW Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station would not, because consenting for generating stations with a capacity of over 350MW would remain with the UK Government.
Wales currently has three tiers of consenting processes for most infrastructure projects (there are some exceptions):
Smaller projects are decided by local planning authorities;
Larger projects, where consenting is devolved, are decided by the Welsh Government through the Developments of National Significance (DNS) process; and
Larger projects, where consenting is not devolved, are decided by the UK Government through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) process.
Consents by local planning authorities and the Welsh Government are given under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA) – this is often known as planning permission.
NSIPs require a different kind of consent called a Development Consent Order (DCO), which is given under the Planning Act 2008. DCOs can include consents on a range of associated matters – these are often called secondary consents.
The Wales Act 2017 devolves further consenting powers which are due to come into force on 1 April 2019:
Energy generating stations with a capacity of up to and including 350MW onshore and in Welsh waters (which is an inshore area out to approximately 12 nautical miles from Welsh shores). This doesn’t include onshore wind which is already devolved with no upper limit; and
Overhead electric lines of up to and including 132 Kilovolts (KV) that are associated with a devolved energy generating project.
In addition, the Wales Act has already devolved consenting for Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders, which are made under the Harbours Act 1964, for most Welsh ports. These new powers came into force on April 1.
WHY A NEW PROCESS IS NEEDED
The way in which the Wales Act devolves the new powers creates some anomalies which need to be resolved to ensure an efficient and effective approach to consenting.
The consenting powers for energy generating stations and overhead electric lines mentioned above are currently consented by the UK Government through the DCO process.
In devolving these powers, the Wales Act takes consenting for these projects out of the DCO process and places consenting for devolved generating stations in Welsh waters back into the former Electricity Act 1989 process. On land, the consenting of devolved generating stations and associated overhead electric lines is placed into the TCPA process, instead of the Electricity Act. The TCPA has previously not been used to consent this scale of generation project.
For a number of reasons set out in the consultation document, this is seen as a backward step.
In addition, the Welsh Government favours taking a more integrated and streamlined approach to infrastructure consenting. It wants to establish a one- stop shop approach for major devolved projects, similar to the UK Government’s DCO process. This, it argues, would provide more consistent and transparent decision-making, and more certainty for communities and developers alike.
The alternative would be to continue with a number of different processes each with their own requirements, established under separate legislation (including the TCPA, Electricity Act and Harbours Act mentioned above).
The one-stop shop approach also allows a number of secondary consents to be included in the main consent, rather than having to be applied for separately.
Some associated changes to the compulsory purchase process are also proposed.
The Welsh Government says an interim solution is necessary because there isn’t enough time to set up an entirely new process before April 1, 2019.
The interim solution involves amending secondary legislation to include the newly devolved onshore energy generating stations and electric lines within the existing DNS process.
Offshore energy generating stations will be consented under the Electricity Act, with a new fee structure based on full cost recovery. Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders will continue to be made under the Harbours Act.
Offshore energy generating stations and Harbour Revision and Empowerment Orders can’t be brought into the DNS process because the TCPA, under which the DNS process was established, only extends to the low water mark.
The interim solution is due to come into force on April 1, 2019 and will remain in place until the new process is established. The consultation document suggests this will be after 2020.
The long-term solution is to establish a new one-stop shop consenting process that is bespoke to Wales.
The consent would be called Welsh Infrastructure Consent (WIC) and projects captured by it would be called Welsh Infrastructure Projects (WIPs). The Assembly would need to pass primary legislation to establish the new process.
The WIC would consolidate existing consents under the TCPA, Electricity Act, Harbours Act, and a number of other consents made under highways legislation, into one single type of consent. The WIC would also include a wide range of secondary consents, including Compulsory Purchase Orders, Marine Licences and Environmental Permits.
The consenting process would be accompanied by thresholds and policies against which the individual projects can be assessed. Key policies would include Planning Policy Wales, the National Development Framework and the Wales National Marine Plan. The fee structure would be based on full cost recovery.
The WIC process would be designed to be flexible to capture projects of varying types and sizes. It would take a “proportional approach”, enabling certain types of decisions to be made more quickly, and others, which are more complex, to receive greater scrutiny.
This includes introducing a category of optional WIPs that the developer could choose to submit either via the WIC process or to the local planning authority. In the case of offshore projects, where there is no local planning authority, the alternative route for optional WIPs would be via the marine licencing process.
The WIC process would also require developers to engage with local communities before submitting their applications and provide greater opportunity for the public to participate during the examination process. There would also be a specific role for local planning authorities in documenting impact in their areas.
However, the consultation does not address the transfer of regional infrastructure projects away from elected councils and into the hands of unelected so-called ‘City Deal’ boards or their rural counterpart in Mid Wales. The complication of creating a national structure without accounting for looming changes in the delivery of infrastructure services is – as it stands – both unresolved and a likely source of future confusion.
‘Sort finances before service changes’
ONE of west Wales’ Labour Constituency Parties has called for the Health Board not to proceed with its plans for major health service change until its long-standing financial crisis has been resolved.
On Friday, May 25, Ceredigion Constituency Labour Party passed a motion calling on the Board to think again.
In the last financial year the health board overspent its £760m budget by £70m, or 9%, and the board itself describes its regular overspends as ’growing year on year’.
Ceredigion Labour Party points out that although the changes in service provision which are being proposed may provide better patient care, they cannot also be expected to deliver savings if standards of care are intended to be maintained.
Dinah Mulholland, spokesperson for CCLP, said: ”We welcome all attempts to improve local health services. But acceptable proposals must be based on sound financial projections and dependable financial commitments.
“For instance, all three of the board’s alternative proposals for the delivery of clinical services involve the building of a new major urgent and planned care hospital `between Narberth and St Clears’, to replace other hospitals that would be closed or downgraded. Yet the Welsh Government has offered no commitment to provide capital funding for this scheme.
“We are calling for a `Stop and Fix’ approach because unless the financial arrangements are stabilised we see a very real threat that at some point during the next few years progress with major changes in service provision could be overtaken and overwhelmed by a sudden financial collapse.
“And if the board is preoccupied with delivering major changes in service provision it will be paying less attention to managing its ongoing financial problems.
“We would welcome a commitment from Hywel Dda not to proceed with any major reconfiguration of clinical services until it has secured resources to remedy the chronic and ingrained underfunding of health services in mid and west Wales. This proposed reconfiguration cannot and should not be expected to solve Hywel Dda’s long-standing problem with underfunding.”
Last week (May 23) the Welsh Health Secretary announced an annual increase of £27m in Hywel Dda’s revenue funding, but CCLP describes this as “sticking plaster” as it represents only 39% of the deficit in the last financial year.
The Health Secretary has said that this new funding puts Hywel Dda on a “fair funding basis”, but CCLP points out that if the board’s funding has only just become “fair” this raises additional questions about how much the local NHS budget has been “short-changed” in every year since the National Assembly began.
A review by the Welsh Government, as part of the Targeted Intervention support provided to Hywel Dda Health Board, found that two factors, demographics and scale, generated excess costs that were unavoidable to the Board.
The review, undertaken by Deloitte LLP, confirms the view held by many people in Ceredigion and mid and west Wales that Hywel Dda faces a unique set of healthcare challenges.
Hywel Dda is consulting the public on three alternative proposals for providing clinical care, closing and/or downgrading Withybush Hospital, Prince Philip hospital in Llanelli and Glangwili hospital in Carmarthen. In all three proposals community care would be strengthened so that more people can be treated and supported closer to home. In all versions Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth would remain as a District General Hospital.
The 12-week public consultation began on 19 April and will end on 12 July. Ceredigion CLP is also critical of the board’s plans for obtaining the views of the public, which it points out do not include any meetings with platform speakers open to the general public. CCLP says this is unacceptable.
WG to miss climate change targets
THE WELSH GOVERNMENT will miss its own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says a National Assembly committee.
The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee examines the issue in its first ever climate change annual report.
In its Climate Change Strategy published in 2010 the Welsh Government set out its target of reducing greenhouse gases in Wales by three per cent year-on-year, and at least a 40% reduction by 2020.
The Committee was given three reasons for the failure – the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the economic make-up of Wales and weather patterns.
But the Committee concluded that these variables should have been taken into account when the policies were developed and targets set.
The Welsh Government is being advised on its new approach, framed by the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, by the UK Committee on Climate Change, which has recommended it set new, lower targets in the short term.
The Assembly committee believes this is regrettable but necessary given the lack of progress by the Welsh Government.
Members also learned that the level of engagement in the Welsh Government’s Cabinet on climate change was insufficient, with a lack of joint-working across different departments.
Even though the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme may be a reason for missing emissions targets, the Committee notes there is still no sign of a new scheme to take its place after the UK leaves the EU. The Committee concludes there needs to be a greater sense of urgency on addressing this matter.
“The Welsh Government’s targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Wales were ambitious, but attainable,” said Mike Hedges AM, Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.
“That the Government will miss these targets by some margin is deeply disappointing, and the Committee is not convinced by some of the reasoning behind the failure.
“We believe there needs to be a much more co-ordinated approach across government departments if Wales is to truly become a greener, more sustainable nation.
“In the short term we accept the view of the Committee on Climate Change that the Welsh Government revise down its targets.
“We have made a number of recommendations in our report around agriculture, forestry, housing and transport which we believe will ensure ministers will deliver on their climate change commitments and obligations.”
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