A MEETING of Carmarthenshire County Council scheduled for Wednesday (Oct 13) was abandoned after a number of councillors complained they were unable to access information relating to an item due for discussion.
The Council meeting was due to discuss the local authority’s much-delayed, controversial, and very expensive plans to construct a Wellness facility on a bog in Llanelli.
The Wellness Village scheme came within an ace of derailing the whole of the Swansea Bay City Deal, after it became engulfed in bribery allegations and a scandal involving the City Deal’s governance under the leadership of former Carmarthenshire CEO Mark James.
Mr James’ home was raided by Police from the regional fraud squad who were investigating the Council’s former development partner and bribery allegations relating to that company’s involvement in the scheme through Swansea University.
The project, rebranded Pentre Awel in an attempt to dispel the stench of corruption and sharp dealing surrounding it, has remained shrouded in secrecy as the County Council continues to try and drum up interest in the project with commercial and academic partners.
To date, no commercial partner has come forward. Attempts to get an academic partner on board are now focussed on universities outside Wales. In the current higher education market’s climate, with many universities claiming poverty, any financial input from an academic partner is likely to come on much-reduced terms.
As is usual with discussions surrounding the development, the Executive Board and officers sought to carry out any discussions behind closed doors and without public scrutiny. The extent of their secrecy appears to have extended to sharing information with councillors before the meeting was due to take place.
Around a fifth of councillors were unable to access the information the Council wanted to restrict from public examination. The meeting adjourned to see if a technical work-around could be found. When that failed, comedy descended into farce as the whole of the business scheduled for discussion on Wednesday was abandoned to make sure councillors could actually see documents upon which they were supposed to make an informed decision.
The rescheduled meeting will take place on October 22. At which point the Council will have managed to be as open and transparent as it claims to be.
At least as far as providing information to members goes.
Welsh legislation will restrict those travelling from hotspot areas
MARK Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, has today announced legislation which will restrict those coming from coronavirus hotspot’s from travelling to Wales.
The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has refused to impose rules which prohibit those from areas where the infection rate is high from entering low virus rate areas’s.
Mr Drakeford has made two requests to the Prime Minister requesting to impose rules which will mean those from high virus areas in England be prohibited from travelling to Wales, a request which has been denied by Mr Johnson.
The powers set by Mr Drakeford will come into force by the end of the week, unless Boris Johnson takes action sooner.
Speaking at the Plenary today, Mr Drakeford made the announcement, stating if Mr Johnson does not reply to his request by Friday then The Welsh Government will bring in legislation to restrict travel from those in English lockdown areas travelling to Wales.
Mr Drakeford said this was not a case of all those from England being restricted travel to Wales, just hotspot areas.
He said: “Evidence from public health professionals suggests coronavirus is moving from east to west across the UK and across Wales. As a general rule, it is concentrating in urban areas and then spreading to more sparsely populated areas as a result of people travelling.
“Much of Wales in now subject to local restriction measures because levels of the virus have risen and people living in those areas are not able to travel beyond their county boundary without a reasonable excuse. This is designed to prevent the spread of infection within Wales and to other areas of the UK.
“We are preparing to take this action to prevent people who live in areas where there are higher Covid infection rates across the UK from travelling to Wales and bringing the virus with them.
“I am determined to keep Wales safe.”
The legislation, which is understood to come into force Friday, October 16 at 6pm, will mean those travelling to Wales from areas of England which are classed as virus hotspot’s will be restricted.
The new legislation also restricts those travelling into Wales from high virus prevalence areas from Northern Ireland and Scotland.
The Leader of the Opposition in the Welsh Parliament – Paul Davies MS – has rounded on the First Minister over a ban on people entering Wales from England, and the Labour Party’s inability or unwillingness to publish comprehensive data proving that transmission rates are accelerating due to travel.
Mr Davies took the First Minister to task during Plenary today (October 14), and referred to a statement made by the leader of the Labour Party on September 23 when he said that the Welsh Government was not seeing any spikes at all in infection due to travel and tourism.
Mr Davies said that the people of Wales deserve to have sight of the data that underpins the Welsh Labour-led Government’s position on this matter, so that they can be confident that the Government’s actions are proportionate to the threat of the virus in their area.
Mr Davies also referred to a paper that accompanied the First Minister’s letter to the Prime Minister yesterday, a paper – that was not peer-reviewed – that confirms the data “…does not constitute definitive proof” in favour of a travel ban.
Mr Davies said: “The First Minister and his Government have acted rashly and without examining a range of other factors before a conclusion on whether to impose a travel ban or not is reached, while at the same time seemingly ignoring the fact that transmission rates in relation to travel had already peaked in August and September.
“It is incumbent on the First Minister to explain just why he has chosen to act in this way, and what supporting evidence he and his Ministers have seen to justify a ban and then publish it so it can be properly scrutinised.
“If he cannot or will not, then he must review and rescind this ban immediately.”
Local governments plug hole with £260m from Welsh Government
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.”
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