Today’s Senedd roundup: “Action, not words” needed to address air pollution
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
The Motion (Final/Amended Version)
- Believes air pollution is a public health crisis, which contributes to an estimated 2,000 deaths a year in Wales and further notes that exacerbates existing lung conditions and that the long-term impacts of poor air quality are not yet fully understood.
- Calls for a new national air pollution monitoring network that complements Wales’ existing monitoring capabilities.
- Calls for a Clean Air Act and for Welsh Government and UK Government to take decisive action to strengthen all measures to give communities the right to have pollution-monitoring equipment outside schools and hospitals; create infrastructure that would enable local authorities to introduce pollution and congestion charges; reform the planning process to require the impact of a development on air pollution to be given greater weight; accelerate the transition to electric transport so that petrol and diesel cars are phased out by 2030.
Inadequate and complacent government response
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) described the Welsh Government’s response to air pollution to date as “completely inadequate”. He compared air pollution (somewhat topically) to a virus; in those circumstances we would be looking for a solution overnight, but there remains a conflict between economic demands and the environment.
The latter point was echoed by Shadow Environment Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), who was sure that in any other circumstances where 2,000 excess deaths a year were happening, politicians would get to work right away.
Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) pointed out that while the focus is on excess deaths, those with chronic diseases (caused at least in part by air pollution shouldn’t be forgotten either). Air pollution monitoring was lax; Kronospan in Chirk has had roughly one major fire a year for the last 18 years yet there’s hardly any air pollution monitoring nearby meaning local residents get late warnings.
Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) suggested vehicle exclusion zones around schools to prevent parents from taking children by car – which makes air pollution and congestion problems worse.
“….going back in history, we’ve had original clean air Acts before. They reflected the suffocating fatal smogs and pea soupers in London in 1952 and other large cities in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Legislation then followed to produce smokeless fuels. Obviously, the air cleaned, i.e. the air became clear, but there’s still pollution there; the difference now is that we can’t see it.”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West)
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) believed that while the Welsh Government’s lack of action was a damning indictment, councils had a poor track record too. At Hafodyrynys in Caerphilly, a terraced row on the most polluted road in Wales will be demolished, while Bridgend Council approved a new development next to an air quality management zone; “Clearly, the Welsh Government needs to take decisive action on this, rather than having yet more consultations.”
Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) warned that people who bought diesel vehicles due to a Labour UK government push have been later penalised with higher taxes.
Dr Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) focused on the practical issues, including the relatively high cost of ongoing pollution monitoring and the poor state of public transport – which goes far beyond a Clean Air Act and requires a whole suite of measures to address. Even banning idling cars outside schools wouldn’t help much as Public Health Wales told him the act of turning a car on produces as much pollution as idling.
Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central) blamed overdevelopment and the planning system, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) spoke of the need to increase walking and cycling, while Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) said the UK Government had to come forward with more concrete plans to phase-out petrol and diesel vehicles.
Work continues towards a Clean Air Act
Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), agreed with some things, but not with others. Pollution monitoring was due to increase over the next two years and preliminary work continues on a promised Clean Air Act.
There were several other pieces of work due to be published in the coming months too:
“I will shortly publish a clean air zone framework for Wales to set out how we believe clean air zones should be implemented in Wales. Later in the year, my colleague the Minister for Economy and Transport will also publish a separate report on the costs and benefits of introducing road-user charging on a regional basis to ensure we take a fair and consistent approach to reduce people’s exposure to air pollution from road traffic. And, in addition, we intend to publish a charging strategy for Wales in 2020, which sets out the steps we will take to increase the provision of electric vehicle charging infrastructure.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
The motion was carried by 42 votes to four.
Photo by Nation.Cymru
Wales “can’t stand by” and let council-owned farms be sold-off
This week’s short debate was on the topic of council-owned farms and was led by Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales).
“Significant sell-off” of land
Llyr Gruffydd said councils have sold over 1,000 hectares of land worth £28 million over the last seven years. Council-owned farms were there to enable people without farming connections to enter agriculture and with the average age of Welsh farmers being over 60, the industry needs new blood or risks dying out.
“We mustn’t stand idly by watching this drip-drip-drip of council farms disappearing without any thought being given to what we’re losing. We should be turning every stone to support local councils to be able to resist the fire sale of such an important social, economic, environmental and cultural asset….The very least we can do is bring all the players together and consider how we can not only stem the loss of our public farm estate but turn it into an asset that delivers for our rural communities and wider society across Wales.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM
Whilst being pragmatic enough to accept there may be instances where selling-off farms is the only viable option, there are incentives for councils to hold onto farms as, collectively, Welsh local authorities made a £2.7 million surplus from farm rent last year.
He believes Trecadwgan farm in Pembrokeshire should be an example councils can learn from – encouraging local communities to take over farms when the opportunity arises. He also supports establishing a community wealth fund to help buy farms for community ownership.
Number of council-owned smallholdings “hasn’t changed significantly”
Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said that the latest figures showed there were 963 council-owned smallholdings, compared to 967 in 2009-10 – so there hasn’t been a significant drop. The thing that has changed is the amount of land in hectares – which has fallen by 23%.
“Finding a way into farming….can be a daunting prospect if you or your partner don’t come from a farming family background or if the family farm isn’t of sufficient scale to support a newcomer. Supporting young people to enter the industry and develop their careers is essential and something I’ve taken a personal interest in since I came into post. If we are going to introduce innovation, energy and enthusiasm into the sector and respond to future challenges, local authority farms are an important and limited route into agriculture.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
£6 million has been spent on encouraging young farmers into the industry over the last two years – through a budget agreement with Plaid Cymru. The Venture programme was also set up to match farmers (particularly new entrants) with landowners who want to step back from full-time farming.
That said, the Minister believes it’s important to respect councils’ ability to develop their own policies without interference; collaboration, not compulsion, was key.
Photo by MikesPhotos from PixabayConsultation due this spring on regulations to increase electric vehicle charging points
Having already ruled out one proposed law on electric vehicles last May, another Member’s Bill proposal was debated in the Senedd yesterday – this time from David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central).
David Melding’s proposed Bill would seek to ensure that all new homes with a parking space, and every residential building with more than 10 parking spaces undergoing renovation, had an electric car charging point for single homes or at least half of parking spaces in larger developments.
It was quite clear Wales was lagging well behind on this:
There was a lot of support for the idea itself, with some tweaks.
Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.) supported introducing the Merton principle, whereby at least 10% of all energy needs for homes on a new development should come from renewable sources within the site itself. This could easily be expanded to include electric vehicles.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) – who introduced the proposal last year – didn’t think the market would reach most parts of Wales, so it has to be at least in part led by government, backed by legislation if needed. Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) felt the public sector should lead by example by converting their vehicle fleets to electric and using their procurement leverage.
Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) had an alternative take – car use, green energy or not, should be discouraged.
Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), said the infrastructure requirements for an electric switch-over were a major challenge – though charging at home is likely to be the most convenient and cost-effective way of meeting demand.
The Welsh Government didn’t support a law, but the Minister hinted at major changes to building regulations in the short-term:
“The Minister for Economy and Transport and I have recently agreed to issue a consultation paper on changes to require electric vehicle charging points for all new dwellings and in parking areas for non-residential buildings. Further detail on the specifics of these proposals will be set out in the consultation….We do expect that consultation to come out later this spring. So, while I support the objective of requiring new houses to have electric vehicle charging points, it’s not necessary to have a Bill as we will be developing our own proposals in our building regulations….”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
Treatment fund cuts waiting times by 85%
Three years after the launch of the New Treatment Fund – which aims to improve access to new medicines for Welsh patients – figures released by the Welsh Government shows the waiting time to access new medicines has dropped from 90 days to just 13 days.
The new medicines include those use to treat certain forms of cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and other conditions such as cystic fibrosis and hepatitis C.
Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S.& Penarth), said: “This fund is delivering precisely what we intended it to – much faster access to new treatments regardless of where in Wales you live. It is enabling us to transform the way healthcare is delivered. For some patients these medicines are life-saving, for others, they are bringing significant improvements to their lives.”
Rail powers should be devolved to stave off independence calls
Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) called for the UK Government to devolve rail infrastructure powers and budgets to Wales in line with Scotland to stave off what he described as growing support for Welsh independence.
Recent polling shows support for both independence and direct rule had increased and the Minister believes the current arrangements – where powers and budgets are mainly retained by the UK Government – cemented an “inferior” form of devolution and fueled perceptions that Welsh infrastructure was under-funded.
Ruthin School headteacher sacked
A week after the Education Minister threatened to suspend the private Ruthin School from providing full-time education, its headteacher, Toby Belfield, was sacked.
Estyn and Care Inspectorate Wales had raised serious concerns about pupil welfare at the school and the headteacher kept his job last year despite sending sexually suggestive social media messages to female students.
Round two of “mud dumping” row
Natural Resources Wales has received a second application to dump dredged mud from the under-construction Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset off the coast of Cardiff.
During 2017-18, there were lengthy arguments against the dredging in the Senedd and a petition against it over fears the mud is contaminated with radiation and hadn’t been tested appropriately.
NRW said: “We will only grant the licence if the company can demonstrate it complies with legal requirements and we’re confident the proposed activity will not harm people or the environment.”
AM memorial policy likely be reviewed
The Assembly Commission will review its policy regarding memorials to deceased former AMs on the Assembly estate after calls to change the current policy that memorials will only be allowed to AMs who died at least 10 years ago.
At present, only the former Labour AM, Val Feld (1947-2001), has a memorial in the form of a purple plaque with plans in place for a permanent memorial near the estate to former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan (1939-2017).
However, AMs across all parties have called for similar memorials to be put in place for recently-deceased AMs including former Minister, Carl Sargeant (1968-2017), and former Plaid Cymru AM, Steffan Lewis (1984-2019).
Llywydd, Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion), said it was up to AMs as a whole to decide whether the policy should change, saying AMs should, “make those views known to….the Commission, but I need to have the policy and the decisions expressed in the context of the majority feeling of this assembly.”