News in brief: Calls for Wales to get ‘fair share’ of £3.5bn cladding removal fund
The Welsh Government is urgently requesting full details of the £3.5 billion funding package announced last week by Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing Communities and Local Government, to replace unsafe cladding on buildings in England.
The new money will be used to pay for work removing unsafe cladding for blocks of 18 metres (59ft) and higher and covers England only.
Julie James MS, Minister for Housing and Local Government, has written to Mr Jenrick to complain about a lack of engagement with the Welsh Government prior to the announcement and to call for a fair share of the funding to enable unsafe cladding to be replaced on buildings in Wales.
In the three and half years after the devastating Grenfell Tower fire in London, when 72 people died, thousands of leaseholders in Wales have been trapped in buildings at risk of burning down as they are unable to sell them or move away.
“Resolving the cladding crisis will require significant investment and I expect Wales to receive its fair share of funding as a result of new spending commitments in England,” Ms James said in a written statement.
“The amount of any consequential budget allocation is based on how much new money is being released to a UK Government department. That is why we need clarity from our colleagues in Westminster.
“We have been clear that building safety is a priority for this government and once we have clarity on how much additional funding Wales will receive, Ministers collectively will decide on how that funding is used,” she added.
“In Wales we are investing an initial £42.5m in remediation of high-rise buildings. I have already announced £10.5m available in this financial year to the social sector to fund remediation, this funding will see 12 buildings accessing support. The draft budget has also set aside £32m for further remediation of buildings next year.
When Westminster spends money in England, a proportion based on population size is usually given to devolved governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. But the devolved governments can decide to spend that money elsewhere.
Following last week’s announcement, campaigners called on the Welsh Government to commit to spend any new consequential funding on helping victims of the cladding scandal.
New Covid variant detected in Wales
Scientists from Edinburgh University have detected another new variant of coronavirus in Wales.
The B.1.525 mutation appears to be similar to the variant that originated in South African over the autumn and has been identified in two cases in Wales so far.
There have been 13 cases of the South African variant identified in Wales and widespread testing for the strain has taken place in England due to concerns that is resistant to some of the vaccines currently being deployed against Covid-19.
Researchers from Edinburgh University have found 38 cases of the B.1.525 strain so far – 2 in Wales and 36 in England – in samples dating back to December.
Prof Yvonne Doyle from Public Health England (PHE) told the BBC: “PHE is monitoring data about emerging variants very closely and where necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, such as extra testing and enhanced contact tracing.
“There is currently no evidence that this set of mutations causes more severe illness or increased transmissibility.”
Meanwhile, the number of people that have tested positive for Covid-19 in Wales has topped 200,000, according to the latest figures from Public Health Wales.
Over the last 24 hours 374 people have been diagnosed with the virus, taking the total since the start of the pandemic in March to 200,166.
PHW also reports 30 people have died due to coronavirus since yesterday’s update.
Of the newly reported deaths, 15 were in the Betsi Cadwaladr health board area. Cardiff and Vale and Hywel Dda both recorded four deaths and three were recorded in both Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Swansea Bay. There was also one further death in Powys.
The weekly case rate across Wales is down from 88.2 per 100,000 people to 85.8.
Wrexham has the highest rate in the country at 125.8, down from 137.5 yesterday.
Just under 11,500 people received their first dose of a Covid vaccine yesterday, taking the total number since the start of the rollout to 807,351.
Dr Robin Howe, Incident Director for the Covi-19 outbreak response at Public Health Wales, said:
“Over 200,000 cases of Coronavirus have now been reported in Wales. Some people with the virus have had no symptoms. Others have sadly passed away.
“The vaccines are bringing hope for the future. But for now it’s more important than ever to stick to the rules and keep Wales safe.”
Swansea records spike in crimes during Covid lockdown
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
Recorded crime in Swansea rose during the first nine months of coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions compared to the same period in 2019, according to police data.
This spike was driven by a doubling of anti-social behaviour reports, with the new crime of breaching coronavirus regulations part of the anti-social behaviour category.
From the beginning of April to the end of December there were 20,909 recorded crimes in Swansea, according the website www.police.uk – a 7% increase compared to the same nine months in 2019.
Anti-social behaviour accounted for 7,487 of this figure in 2020, with figures in April and May – the first full two months of the lockdown – particularly high.
Anti-social behaviour offences were higher for all of the nine months in question, and South Wales Police has confirmed they included coronavirus breaches.
Some other crime types fell, others rose.
Drug crime in Swansea was higher in 2020 in seven of the nine months between April and December, compared to the previous year.
Shop-lifting crime, perhaps unsurprisingly, dropped sharply. For example there were 94 recorded shop-lifting incidents in May last year, compared to 246 in May 2019 when all shops were open.
And burglaries were down in 2020, except during July when they just eclipsed the corresponding figure for July 2019.
Violence and sexual offence crimes were more of a close-run thing. They began lower in April 2020 than April 2019 but had caught up by the summer – with July, August and September surpassing the previous figures – before falling behind once more.
According to the charity Victim Support, people on the receiving end of crime have felt it more intensely during the restrictions, while problematic neighbours have been a sizeable source of anti-social behaviour complaints.
Alex Hayes, Victim Support’s external affairs manager, said the evidence from police forces in England and Wales was that inquisitive crime – such as burglary and thefts – had dropped since last March.
Other crime types, he said, had risen.
“In terms of anti-social behaviour we have seen quite a significant rise in the number of people coming for support, and that won’t be for Covid breaches,” he said.
“It’s being driven by cases where neighbours are suspects.
“People have been confined to their homes and essentially trapped with neighbours who have been harassing or abusing them, or whatever it is.”
Mr Hayes said domestic abuse cases had also risen in England and Wales, especially as last summer wore on, while fraud – driven by a surge in online shopping – also increased.
He added: “We have also seen a rise in the the intensity of how victims have experienced crime.
“During the lockdowns, people have been cut off from their support networks. They may feel a bit more alone.”
Crime statistics are produced in different ways in the UK. They include the Crime Survey for England and Wales, and in the case of fraud, data from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau.
A Swansea Council fraud investigator told councillors at a meeting last June that the criminal element “decided to take three weeks off” during the first lockdown before resuming their ways.
“The police have never been so busy,” he said.
A South Wales Police spokesman said it had recorded more than 12,000 incidents of Covid breaches across the force last April and May.
“These incidents are included in the anti-social behaviour statistics and account for the significant rise,” he said.
“We thank the vast majority of the public who complied with the restrictions during this time.”
£15 million boost for education technology in schools next year
The Welsh Government will invest a further £15 million in educational technology for schools in the next financial year.
The funding is a continuation of the Hwb EdTech programme, which has already seen an investment of over £92 million by the Welsh Government over the last two years, and will further support the transformation of digital infrastructure of all maintained schools in Wales.
Funding will also be used to ensure ongoing MiFi connectivity for digitally excluded learners, to the end of the current school year in July.
So far, the Hwb EdTech programme has:
- provided over 128,000 devices since the start of the pandemic, with another 54,000 being delivered in the coming weeks
- funded software which has allowed around 10,000 re-purposed devices to be issued to ‘digitally excluded’ learners
- provided 10,848 MiFi devices for learners without internet access at home;
- enabled local authorities to purchase over 300,000 digital infrastructure products, including cabling, switches and WiFi devices
Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, said: “This last year has brought into sharp focus how important technology is to our schools and our learners.
“I’m really pleased that, following significant investment in preceding years, including the development of our world-leading Hwb platform, we’ve been in a strong position to continue learning remotely this year.
“The improvements we’ve made to digital infrastructure in schools will help our learners prepare for the new curriculum for Wales over the coming years.”