WELSH Ministers have this week announced a funding boost of more than £260 million for local councils in Wales to provide them with the certainty they need to plan for the remainder of the year.
It will help cover increased costs, manage loss of income pressures, and will fund additional cleaning requirements for schools in response to the coronavirus crisis.
With the real possibility of further peaks during the autumn and winter months this investment will provide local authorities with the confidence to prepare their budgets for a potential second wave. The funds will be allocated on a claims basis.
Minister for Housing and Local Government Julie James said: “Our local authorities have done a fantastic job of rising to the challenges of Covid-19, but we recognise the financial impact this has had on them.
We have been working closely with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and local authority leaders to understand the pressures and challenges they are facing, and the support needed to continue delivering good quality, integrated public services to communities across Wales.”
Finance Minister Rebecca Evans added: “Local councils have been at the heart of our response to Covid-19. This new package of financial support recognises the scale of the unprecedented challenges being faced by authorities across Wales and provides them with the certainty they need to continue to respond to the crisis and prepare for the rest of the financial year.”
Cllr Anthony Hunt, WLGA Finance and Resources told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “Councils, and the vital local services we provide, are at the forefront of tackling this pandemic and have been under extreme financial pressure. This funding guarantee will give them the confidence to plan with greater certainty for the remainder of the financial year.
I want to thank Welsh Government for working closely with local government on this funding package, and for taking the time to understand the pressures facing local services.
Reacting to the announcement this week (Aug 17) Shadow Minister for Local Government and Housing – Mark Isherwood MS – said: “According to the Welsh Government, this brings the total in the pot to stave off the worst effects of the pandemic to almost half a billion pounds.
“However, Welsh Conservatives’ analysis earlier in the year indicated that local authorities were likely to lose tens of millions of pounds revenue each month because of the outbreak, with deficits in Q1 and Q2 already totalling almost a third of a billion pounds* by the end of September.
“These losses of revenue could take generations to recover from, and we need to see just what the long-term plan is to prevent local authorities finding themselves in an even worse position.
“The Welsh Local Government Association’s (WLGA) own modelling suggests that that there is the potential for budget shortfalls depending on several complex and inter-linked factors, and so flexibility is more key now than ever.
“The Minister and her Party must be willing to consider all options to ensure that Councils can continue running their services.
“We Welsh Conservatives have already proposed capitalisation, which would allow for specified revenue expenditure to be viewed as capital expenditure, and so can be funded from capital resources such as borrowing, to provide financial flexibility to meet unexpected one-off costs.
“The WLGA has also pressed the Welsh Government to allow local authorities to borrow and invest in several significant capital programmes.
“By doing so, these actions would contribute to a wider economic stimulus package whilst simultaneously helping to improve performance and outcomes in relation to a range of other important shared policy objectives. The proposal totals £762m and would also help to ‘lock in’ and build upon positive, transformational changes already introduced to services in response to Covid-19.
“We cannot afford to let the effect of this virus damage local authorities’ ability to run as effectively and efficiently as they can.”
Conservatives accused of contempt for devolution
THE WESTMINSTER Government is undermining the devolution settlements of each of the UK’s nations according to opposition parties.
Just before the parliamentary recess, the Conservative Government published a White Paper on the future of the UK’s internal market. The same day, July 16, it opened a brief consultation. The Consultation lasted 28 days and ended yesterday, Thursday, August 13.
White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation. White Papers are often published as Command Papers and may include a draft version of a Bill that is being planned. This provides a basis for further consultation and discussion with interested or affected groups and allows final changes to be made before a Bill is formally presented to Parliament.
The UK’s devolved administrations have reserved powers for a range of issues, including agricultural and animal welfare standards and building regulations.
The proposals advanced by Westminster would see powers of those two areas of policy removed from the devolved administrations’ control. Building regulations in England are both differently focused and of a lower standard than those in Wales. For example, harmonising building regulations around England’s lowest common denominator could scrap the Welsh Government’s regulation requiring sprinklers to be fitted in new homes.
The UK Government did not consult with any of the UK’s devolved administrations about its proposed legislation before publishing the White Paper and announcing an unusually brief consultation on such an important policy.
POWER GRAB? WHAT POWER GRAB? THAT POWER GRAB
When The Herald put the White Paper’s content to Conservative Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar, and asked about the change in powers over building regulations and animal welfare standards.
We received a furious response.
“To suggest that this is a power grab is utter nonsense,” fulminated Mr Millar.
We suggested no such thing. We asked only about two regulatory areas covered in a 104-page policy document.
Darren Millar continued: “As a result of the UK’s exit from the European Union scores of new powers are set to be transferred to the Welsh Parliament – so far from being a power grab, this is actually a significant power gain for Wales.
“These powers have never been held before by the Welsh Government and this legislation will give the Welsh Parliament additional levers which can be used to help ensure that economy of Wales recovers from the impact of Covid-19 while ensuring seamless trade across the UK.”
As Mr Millar said that ‘scores of new powers’ are heading the Welsh Parliament’s way, we invited him to identify some of them.
He did not answer in time for our deadline.
The problem for Mr Millar is Government line in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement set out that Westminster will take some powers from Wales, even as it provides additional powers over other areas of policy.
The position was set out by the current Minister of State at the Wales Office, David TC Davies.
In the Withdrawal Agreement debate, David TC Davies said the following: “The reality is that the change will be called a power grab. I did not hear the phrase used today, but it will be described as a power grab. Of course, it is a power grab, and what a wonderful power grab it is, too. We are grabbing powers from Brussels and bringing them back to London.”
He continued: “The Government’s whole purpose is to ensure there is a single market within the United Kingdom. We cannot have a situation where different nation-states within the United Kingdom go off and do their own thing.”
The powers being lost to Westminster over agriculture and building regulations are not examples of devolved administrations ‘going off to do their own thing’ in the future. They are examples of devolved administrations which had exercised their powers and face their policies roll-back.
WESTMINSTER CLAWINGBACK POWER FROM WALESOther Welsh parties are less impressed by the White Paper. Cllr William Powell, the Welsh Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and Rural Affairs, said: “In my view, the manner and content of this consultation demonstrate a lack of respect by the UK Government for the Welsh devolution settlement.
“Under the cloak of enabling Westminster to create a new UK internal market at the end of the Brexit transition period, this most ideological of governments is effectively putting to the sword decades of devolution, validated by the Welsh people in two referenda.”
William Powell continued: “The Bill would allow the UK Government to set out how the devolved administrations would interact with Westminster post-Brexit, compelling Scotland and Wales to accept whatever new standards – in the field of animal welfare, environment and food are built into trade agreements of the future.
“Whereas vital areas of policy, such as agriculture, food safety and the environment are currently overseen by the governments at Holyrood and Cardiff Bay, this UK government clearly wants to have ultimate control over issues previously determined by the EU. In other words, it represents a radical clawback of power, undermining Welsh democracy and giving Boris Johnson and his associates a free hand in post-Brexit negotiations with other countries.
“Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to respecting the devolution settlement & the principle of Welsh Home Rule. Therefore we roundly condemn the UK Government’s cavalier tactics in this consultation.”
‘THIS IS A POWER GRAB’
For Plaid Cymru, Liz Saville Roberts MP said: “Four weeks and a series of loaded questions over the summer whilst Parliament isn’t sitting is all this Westminster Government has given people in terms of a consultation on a fundamental shift in the constitution of the UK.
“It is as if the Westminster Government cannot even hide its contempt for devolution.
“This is a power grab, plain and simple. From nakedly taking back competencies already held in Wales, to the fact that this legislation was not proposed jointly with the devolved administrations, the Westminster Government is chipping away at two decades of devolution.
“People will not fall for the Westminster double-speak of adding to devolution, these changes will only diminish Wales’s ability to carve its own path.”
NO DISCUSSIONS WITH WESTMINSTER
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We support having rules across the UK to regulate the internal market, but these rules must be agreed between the four Governments in the UK, each of which has their own responsibility for economic development. Any new system must have independent oversight and dispute resolution.
“Unfortunately, the UK Government did not manage to share the Paper with us, and Welsh Ministers have had no recent discussions with the UK Government on these issues. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a system will be deeply damaging.”
Extra funding to tackle homelessness
WALES’ Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James has confirmed up to £50m to support projects across Wales.
The funding aims to provide people with safe and secure homes to ensure they do not fall into homelessness.
The Welsh Government has reiterated their commitment to tackling homelessness, rehousing everyone who has been provided with emergency shelter during the coronavirus pandemic, and building on the initial £10m in funding announced in March by making additional £40m available for local authorities.
The initial phase of the homelessness response focused on ensuring everyone had accommodation where they could self-isolate if necessary and could follow public health advice on basic hygiene, hand washing and social distancing.
Phase 2 focuses on a longer term approach to transform services, innovate and build accommodation, with the ambition of ensuring everyone who was provided with emergency accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic has a clear route to permanent housing and providing high quality accommodation for those who are threatened with homelessness in the future.
The Welsh Government has also provided a package of support to make sure as many people as possible facing financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic remain in their private rented homes, sustaining tenancies and avoiding eviction due to rent arrears.
Last week a temporary increase in the notice period for eviction was announced, providing greater protection from homelessness for tenants in private rented and housing association accommodation.
In July, an extra £1.4m was announced to help tenants boost their household income and manage problem debt, through the Single Advice Fund. In addition, the new Tenant Saver Loan Scheme will provide an affordable way to cover rent arrears, or future months’ rent, reducing the risk of eviction and homelessness.
The loans will be paid directly to landlords and are available for tenants who were not in significant rent arrears prior to March 1 this year.
Julie James said: “The coronavirus has shone a light on housing in a way that few of us have seen before and reminded us all of the fundamental importance of good-quality affordable housing, a safe and secure home and strong and cohesive communities where people want to live and work. The best way we can tackle homelessness is by preventing it in the first place.
“I have been clear that I do not wish to see anyone forced to return to the streets. We have a unique opportunity to change the services and change lives for the better – and make homelessness rare, brief and unrepeated. We want to build on the success we have seen so far and change Wales’ approach to homelessness in the long term.
“To that end I have increased the overall homelessness phase 2 funding to up to £50m, which clearly demonstrates the level of commitment we have to ensuring we can make a truly significant and transformational step-change towards achieving our goal of ending homelessness in Wales.
“Local Authorities, working in partnership with third sector and other organisations have come forward with some highly ambitious, bold and innovative projects that not only draw on energy efficient, modern methods of construction but also join-up with other services, such as substance misuse, mental health, primary care and community safety. This reflects the fact that homelessness isn’t just a housing issue; it’s a public services issue and it’s about having access to those services where and when people need them.
“We’re not tinkering around the edges – this is about bold, long-lasting solutions.”
Plaid Cymru Shadow Housing minister Delyth Jewell MS said: “This announcement from the housing minister is a long overdue commitment to tackling both homelessness and the housing crisis. I look forward to working with the Welsh Government and local authorities to ensure money is targeted where it is needed.
“But there is always more to do. To truly address these long terms problems we need a housing first model, more affordable homes being built and ending no fault evictions for good.
“The Coronavirus has exposed the grim truth that homelessness is and remains a political choice that should have been tackled long ago. Access to housing should be a human right and Plaid Cymru will work to see this enshrined in Welsh law.”
Angela Burns: ‘I promised my family I’d step down’
WE’LL start this interview with an end and at the very end.
Three weeks ago, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MS Angela Burns announced she would step down at next May’s Welsh Parliamentary elections.
Angela Burns was first elected to the then Welsh Assembly in 2007, propelling her party from third to first place in Camarthen West and South Pembrokeshire as she unseated former Welsh Government minister Christine Gwyther by just over 100 votes in a three-way battle with Plaid Cymru’s John Dixon.
She increased that majority to 1,500 in 2011 and more than doubled it in 2016.
But, Angela Burns made clear, stepping down from the Senedd doesn’t mean she won’t continue her involvement in local life.
MISSING CARDIFF BAY
However, turning things on their head, at the end of the interview we asked her what she would miss most about life in the Welsh Parliament.
There was a long pause as Angela Burns looked reflective.
The interview had been refreshingly candid from the start and, for one moment, the thought occurred that she would say ‘nothing’.
But it turned out the Conservative MS had been gathering her thoughts.
“It may sound a bit niche,” she began, “but Committees.”
Committees. Hardly the most obvious answer.
Angela Burns continued: “A really good committee with a really good Chair can do a lot of good. Scrutinising specific areas of policy, getting to grips with how things work and how policies affect people’s lives is really rewarding.
“In this Senedd term, I can point out the work of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. It’s been brilliantly chaired by Lynne Neagle, the Labour MS for Torfaen. The Committee has done exceptional work, produced important reports, held the Welsh Government to account, and has given clear recommendations on what should be done.
“The Government can’t hide from Committee reports. That committee members work across party lines can give them more force. Whether they follow their recommendations or not, the time always comes when the Government is reminded of why and when a committee made a recommendation to address an issue which comes forward for debate.”
BEING ‘A DOER’
That answer gives an insight into what motivates Angela Burns.
In her own words, she’s ‘a doer’. She wants to be active, to influence decisions, to get things done.
It turns out that’s been one of the frustrations of being in opposition in the Welsh Parliament.
“If you’re in the opposition, there is not a lot you can do to influence the direction of government policy – especially in Wales, where Labour has been in power for so long. You’re always on the outside of making the really important choices, the decisions that matter to the people we’re elected to represent. You can point out what’s wrong with a decision, criticise if you have to criticise, but you have no input on the final decision.
In the last Senedd term, I was a Commissioner of the Assembly. I found that fulfilling. The ability to take decisions which had an effect matters to me. Coming from a business background, I’m used to getting things done and being a Commissioner allowed me to do that.”
With the Conservatives publicly confident of breaking through at next May’s elections, we wondered why this was the moment she chose to step down. With the prospect of being able to make the decisions that count, why step down now?
“Paul (Davies) made the same point to me. Several times over the last year, he asked me to stay on. He pointed out how well we were doing in polling and that there was a real prospect of forming a Conservative administration. But I made a promise to my family. When I stood for election in 2007, I said it would be only for two terms. I thought two terms was enough for any politician. When I got to what was then the Assembly, I realised it would take more time to learn enough to make the experience count. I stood again in 2016 but promised my family that’d be it. And it is.”
She reflected: “I watched a programme recently where they were talking to MPs. One MP, I can’t remember who it was, had been a Member of Parliament for forty years. I found myself wondering: how much he can know about his ordinary constituents’ lives after four decades in Westminster? I think term limits for politicians might be a good idea just for that reason alone. It’s not good that MPs – or any politicians – live in a bubble funded by the taxpayer which keeps them separate from peoples’ ordinary lives.”
A ONE-PARTY STATE
There was a pause, which might have been caused by our Zoom connection before Angela Burns continued: “That’s what’s wrong with the Senedd and the Welsh Government. Labour has been in power for too long. Wales is like a one-party state. And Labour has done everything it can to make sure it is a one-party state and to stifle proper scrutiny and accountability.
“Third sector bodies, health boards, quangos, advisory groups, organisations who depend on the Welsh Government for their budget: they either have Labour appointees on board or they know that the first peep out of them critical of the Welsh Government and they’ll lose money and support.
“I’ve been told by senior people working for charities that they dare not say a word out of turn for fear of losing their funding from the Welsh Government. That’s not good for Wales and it’s definitely not good for public accountability.
“The same names and faces go around and pop up on NGO boards and the boards of public bodies. Labour has created a system which rewards loyalty and the ability to keep your mouth shut and silences debate.
“Labour doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t want to make Wales better. It doesn’t think it needs to after being able to depend on the electoral system to return them as the largest party.”
And that, of course, is something Angela Burns wants to change.
A NEW ROLE
We asked her about her new role in the Conservative set-up in Cardiff Bay.
‘Shadow Minister for Government Resilience and Efficiency’ is the job title. But what does that actually mean?
“The way the Welsh Government is set-up is inefficient and wasteful. There are too many outside bodies implementing Welsh Government decisions which overlap with each other. There is no one centre of accountability. The Ministers don’t take responsibility, the Welsh Government says that so-called independent bodies make their own decisions, those bodies say they are only implementing decisions made by another body. You only have to look at what’s happened to hospitals in West Wales to see where that ends up!
“The people involved in policy-making think in silos. Let’s look at the new hospital Hywel Dda Health Board wants to build.
“There’s no committed funding for it. Where will the money come from to build it?
“It’s a good idea. West Wales needs a new hospital. But then we’ll have four principal hospitals and a fifth ‘super hospital’, as well. The Board can’t staff four hospitals. How will five be staffed? Where will the staff come from? How will they be paid?
“And then there are the other questions: if you build a new hospital somewhere near Whitland, say, what transport infrastructure is needed? How do you make sure patients can get there from Llanelli or Aberystwyth to get treatment? Building roads and providing transport links costs money. Where will the money for that come from?
“Most importantly, how do you coordinate all of that across so many parties and stakeholders involved in making sure the hospital is built, functions properly, and patients can get to it?
“Nobody takes responsibility for those decisions. Nobody takes responsibility for making sure that those decisions are taken at the right time and that funding is joined up. Nothing connects in the way the Welsh Government works at the moment. And that’s just one example of how it doesn’t work.”
She paused a moment before continuing: “Look at Communities First. It received almost half a billion pounds of funding from the Welsh Government over a long period. But when Carl Sargeant said he was going to end it (in 2016) it had been obvious that it wasn’t delivering what it set out to deliver. Why did it take so long to make a decision to stop something which wasn’t working? There’s only so much tinkering around the edges of something before realising the whole mechanism is flawed. That shouldn’t have taken fifteen years and all that money to realise Communities First was not delivering what it set out to do. It was the Labour Party’s big idea and they didn’t want to admit it wasn’t working.”
“Paul has said he wants a tighter and smaller group of Cabinet Ministers if we form a government after next May. One of the reasons he wants that is he wants ministers to be in charge of their departmental briefs, not bits of it spread here and other bits spread there. Civil servants advise, Ministers decide.
The way the civil service works around the Welsh Government needs a big shakeup. There’s too much cosy thinking going on. We need new ways of thinking, new ways of acting swiftly.
“Decisions have to be made quickly, not endlessly subject to a consultation here and another consultation there. Before you know it, a whole term has passed by and nothing’s been done about an issue apart from a few announcements to the media about how well it’s all going.
“Look at the M4 relief road. Millions spent on a project the Welsh Government was not going to approve because its approval would clash with its environmental goals. Millions wasted. Time wasted. The Welsh Government delayed announcing a decision for as long as possible when it was obvious it would reject the scheme.
“And in its place? Labour’s still thinking about it. All those years wasted. It should never happen and mustn’t happen again. And my job is to find ways it doesn’t. And I’ll make mistakes along the way. And, as a government, we’ll make mistakes along the way. Governments do.
“When it comes to discussions with colleagues about the way forward: sometimes I’ll win them round to my way of thinking, sometimes they’ll win me round to theirs. Sometimes we’ll agree to disagree and have to look at it again. But we all want the same thing: to do things better for the people of Wales who put us there in the first place.
“It’s not devolution that’s failed Wales. I’m a big believer in devolution and in the Welsh Parliament having more powers. It’s not devolution that’s failed Wales, it’s the Labour Party in Wales that’s failed.”
PART TWO NEXT WEEK
The media, Brexit, the future for Angela Burns, and the future of the United Kingdom.
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