Today’s Senedd roundup: £90 million package to support town centre regeneration
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
The Welsh Government has announced a funding package to deliver £90 million worth of regeneration projects in smaller town centres. The £90 million is made up of:
- £36 million of capital grant funding for town centre regeneration projects, delivering projects worth £58 million
- £20.6 million to bring empty properties and land back into use, £10 million of which will be loans.
- £2 million specifically allocated for coastal towns, delivering projects worth £3 million.
- £5 million to fund green infrastructure in town centres.
40% of the Welsh population is said to live in towns with a population of 20,000 or less.
Deputy Minister for Local Government & Housing, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), said tackling empty properties which blight town centres is a particularly high priority. The Welsh Government was also seeking to take a “Town Centre First” policy alongside local authorities, ensuring that town centre locations are selected first for new public sector-led developments.
A feasibility study is also being undertaken to create a fund to unlock strategic development sites which have stalled in town centres and are “likely to yield significant numbers of housing”.
Having called for a coastal town fund a few weeks ago, Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), quipped that “imitation is the best form of flattery”. He warned that communities had to be at the heart of shaping policies that affect them and these new developments shouldn’t be imposed on communities.
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) noted with optimism the recent news that Treorchy (pictured) was named the best high street in the UK for 2019, with a “phenomenal” 96% business occupancy rate. Plaid Cymru supports the “Town Centre First” principle, but there had to be movement on policies to prevent buildings and land becoming derelict in the first place – particularly the business rates burden.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) later added he was in favour of opening new public services, such as primary care centres, in town centres.
Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) was one of several AMs who stressed the importance of decent public transport – particularly bus services – connecting to town centres. While everything the Deputy Minister said was laudable, it means nothing if local authorities don’t have the resources to deliver it.
Former retailer, Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West), was in no doubt that empty properties deter shoppers and asked for clarification on the “firm action” the Deputy Minister said would be taken against owners of empty properties who refuse to co-operate?
Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) said a north Wales metro would play a part in improving infrastructure to encourage town centre visits by methods other than the car; he also stressed the importance of banks in town centres, suggesting a community bank would be “huge” for towns like Buckley.
John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) mentioned difficulties in identifying ownership of shops which makes town centre regeneration efforts more difficult, while Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) cited Transport for Wales’ office in Pontypridd as a positive example of the “Town Centre First” principle in action.
Government accused of counting unaffordable homes within affordable homes target
A summary of this afternoon’s questions to Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West).
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked why the Welsh Government were still counting the 7,100 homes sold through the Help to Buy scheme as part of their 20,000 affordable homes by 2021 target.
“….a staggering 78% of homes, so that’s 5,564 that were sold through Help to Buy, were sold at a price of over £150,000. Over 1,000 homes that you count in the statistics as affordable were sold for over £250,000. I just can’t see how any reasonable person can count these homes as affordable. Is that not statistical manipulation on an industrial scale?”
– Delyth Jewell AM
If these homes were removed from the target, only 7,379 affordable homes will have been delivered to date, putting the Welsh Government well on course to fail to reach their target.
The Minister didn’t think this was manipulation as Help to Buy has assisted people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford a home purchase.
One point she agreed with is the relative flexibility of the term “affordable”, but the current definition of an “affordable home” is any home where the household has received government support to buy it.
Northern councils asked to prove they “face a bigger challenge” balancing budgets
Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said that earlier in January, the leaders of all six northern local authorities sent a letter to the Minister asking for a funding floor of a 4% budget increase, met from government reserves.
In the draft local government settlement, four of the bottom five councils are from the north and without such a funding floor, they faced a bigger challenge in terms of cuts and council tax increases. How would the Minister respond to their request?
The Minister told him that northern councils were asked for proof that they were facing hardships having seen the biggest local government settlement increase in years.
“….no council in Wales will have less than a 3% uplift (in their budget). Most of the councils that you’re talking about are somewhere in between 3-4%. And what we’re talking about is asking for a floor to bring them up to 4.7%, I think they said; it might be 6-8%….whilst I understand their argument that there’s an average – and that some should come down in order for others to go up – they’re not facing the kinds of service cuts that they were facing during the previous nine years of imposed austerity. So, it’s very difficult to understand quite what the reasoning for that is.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
Mismatches between population forecasts and housing plans
Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) asked what the relationship is between population forecasts and local development plans (LDP)? Wrexham’s LDP was rejected in 2013 for not allocating enough housing land respective to population forecasts, but the population growth has been far lower than the forecasts. Despite this, Wrexham Council is still being challenged by the Planning Inspectorate.
Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) added that LDPs and population forecasts don’t give enough weight to the public service requirements – schools, hospitals, GPs – a given area needs.
The Minister accepted that local authorities face a balance between projections and reality, but population forecasts were just one piece of information councils use to develop their LDPs. There’s a goal that, in the future, developers and the public sector know what infrastructure will be expected when plans are put forward.
“….if you set out a flat plan of Wales, you ought to be able to say, ‘Well, here are the trunk roads, here are the hospitals, here are the existing schools, here is where the housing is, here’s where the new school should be’, and so on, and then when the council is negotiating with the housebuilder about their contribution to local infrastructure, there would be much better certainty about what that infrastructure should look like in advance so that when somebody’s planning to come forward with a piece of land, they know that they’re likely to have to contribute to the school or the hospital or whatever it is that’s nearby.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
Lucy’s Law is coming….sometime
Here are some of the highlights from this afternoon’s questions to the Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham).
Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) and Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) both asked for updates on proposals to introduce a Lucy’s Law in Wales, which would ban or restrict third-party sales of puppies and kittens.
The Minister said a statement on animal health was due after the half-term recess in February following a report.
Alun Davies didn’t think that reading a report would fill AMs with confidence that this was progressing at the necessary speed, while Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) noted the significant national interest in this as England gets set to introduce the law.
However, the Minister said legislation can’t be rushed and there have been – and will be – several meetings to consider how to properly enforce such a law.
“This is a major piece of work, and I know how many campaigners are certainly very concerned about that because my inbox shows me that – both as an AM and as the Minister….What I want to make sure is, I’ve said we will bring in a Lucy’s Law – I’m not in a position at the moment to give you the timetable, but I certainly hope to do so within the next couple of months.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
Advice with the Minister on the regulation of farm runoff
Shadow Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), pressed for a further update on an issue he’s brought up several times – proposals to deal with farm runoff, which he’s claimed in the past would have a negative impact on businesses.
“….as I understand it, when pollution incidents actually declined in 2019, and between 2001 and 2018, there’s no discernible difference between the years on agricultural pollution, you believe it necessary to bring such draconian measures forward, when obviously….the working group that the Welsh Government set up talked and looked at bringing forward a voluntary proposal that the regulator and the sector agreed would be of benefit to reducing pollution in the agricultural sector?”
– Shadow Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies
The Minister rejected the suggestion the proposed measures were “draconian”. She also rejected the suggestion agricultural pollution incidents have decreased; the 157 incidents recorded in 2019 is the highest number for 17 years.
Extra capital funding is likely to be available. Detailed advice was given to the Minister on Monday and she hopes to make an announcement by the middle of February.
Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) asked questions on the same issue.
“Now, farms with 20 or 30 suckler cows: they’re not going to invest tens of thousands of pounds in new infrastructure to meet the requirements of these new regulations, because they are wholly disproportionate to the low levels of stock that they keep. They are telling me that the choice for them, therefore, is to go out (sic) cattle farming, and that would bring with it….the subsequent consequences to upland habitats and biodiversity, but also to the wider beef sector here in Wales.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM
He went on to say that the government has failed to present any clear evidence to justify the approach they want to take. One study he quoted suggested that 69% of pollution control zones didn’t improve surface water quality, even after 15 years.
The Minister believes he was pre-empting the regulations:
“….every farm is different, so it’s really not possible to specify exactly which measures would apply to an upland farm, for example. You’re talking about thousands and thousands of pounds when we don’t know what each farm will need.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
Wales joins Scotland in outlawing smacking (from 2022)
Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), said this wasn’t about judging the parenting decisions of the past, but helping raise children without resorting to physical violence, bringing Wales in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
She said a public awareness campaign will start this spring and will continue “for a number of years” and later added that public opinion was increasingly on the government’s side.
“I think it’s an interesting point that 58% of the Welsh public already think that this is the law….81% of young parents with young children think that it is not necessary to physically punish a child….All the research that the Welsh Government has done has shown a distinct change in mood.”
– Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan
Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) believed the law was stepping into the private lives of families and could potentially have far-reaching consequences if parents are criminally liable for smacking their children. It also may not work.
“13 years after (New Zealand’s) smacking ban, a survey found that almost 40% of mothers would still smack their child, and 70% would not report a parent if they witnessed a parent smacking their child on the backside or the hand. So, this may not even have as much of an impact as you had intended.”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM
Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) believed the Welsh Government bent over backwards to accommodate amendments from the Conservatives. She didn’t accept the argument that family lives would be intruded as they’re intruded regularly; it used to be legal for a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb.
Despite dropping more than a few hints that he opposes corporal punishment, Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) appealed to public opinion, saying that for as long as there’s a large dissenting group opposed to a ban, it should be an issue decided by parents alone.
The Tories had a free vote and David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) and Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) both voted in favour of the Bill.
The bill was approved by 36 votes to 15.
Lack Of Confidence And Fear Of Being Corrected Putting People Off Speaking Welsh