Today’s Senedd roundup: Call for windfall tax on developers to fix high-rise safety defects

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Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) raised the matter of high-rise safety – particularly in light of the Grenfell Disaster – saying some families were effectively stuck in buildings deemed unsafe as they can’t sell on and nobody has taken responsibility for fixing defects. She suggested a possible deterrent to avoid this in the future:

“Minister, I think one thing that could happen is that there could be a change in planning law, to ensure that, especially the big developers who’ve profited from these frauds – and I use that word deliberately – can have their previous records taken into account as material considerations within the planning system. You’ve been on record as saying that some of these new developments will be the slums of the future….Do you agree with me that it’s time for a windfall tax on these large firms, to pay for the restitution of the defects caused by poor development? “
– Leanne Wood AM

Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), said there was a difficult situation where private sector landlords have been unable to come forward to carry out works themselves.

The Minister didn’t believe Leanne Wood’s suggestion of a windfall tax was within the bounds of the Senedd’s powers. Building regulations are being looked at although, admittedly, that didn’t help people who were trapped in this situation.

Better leadership in local authorities

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), called back to a report on local government leadership published over the summer recess which revealed that while come councils had leadership development programmes, others were unable to do so.

The Minister said there has been some good work in this area:

“Academi Wales is actually an extremely good organisation, and has been praised, and indeed is praised in that report, for its ability to frame the leadership conversation in local government. We’ve also been working very hard with the WLGA, and indeed with some Welsh European Funding Office funding that we have, to fund leadership possibilities for third-tier and below officers, right across local authorities in Wales, so that they have career-enhancing leadership opportunities.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

The Welsh Government has encouraged local government officers to hold public events to properly understand how they deliver services on the ground.

No “one size fits all” for how councils are run

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) brought up the absolutely-not-discussed-at-all subject of the number of local authorities in Wales. He said the Welsh Government’s new position that there’s no evidence that larger councils are better than smaller ones was very different to their previous positions. Was there any analysis of the fixed costs of running a council?

“….what we say is that one size certainly does not fit all; it doesn’t fit all in any arrangement across Wales. Local authorities work hard to deliver services across a range of different mechanisms and different sizes, and, as I say, there is no evidence at all from anywhere that says that one size of a local authority is always more effective and more efficient than any other size. What we are doing is working very closely with the WLGA and local government leaders, through the local government sub-group of the partnership council, to develop a mechanism to support regional working and collaboration where that’s appropriate….”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James

She added that a forthcoming Local Government Bill will include provisions to allow councils to merge voluntarily if they want to do so as well as change their voting systems.

Royal Glamorgan Hospital. (© Copyright Jaggery and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-2.0)Increase reported in cases of poor maternity care investigated in Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board

Yesterday, the Welsh Government published the first quarterly update (pdf) from a panel sent in to oversee improvements to maternity services in the Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board – which were placed into special measures earlier this year. The former Chief Executive of the health board resigned over the summer.

The headline finding is that the number of cases of poor maternity care being looked at (in total) has increased to 150 from the original 43.

Early evidence of improvement

The Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), was pleased that the early indications are that improvements have been made in several areas. Originally, the panel was only going to consider cases from January 2016-September 2018, but they decided to expand this and as a result, the number of cases under review increased – but not all of them were “serious incidents”.

“I do want to assure all women and families, whose care is being identified for review, that they will be contacted by the panel and be given the opportunity to contribute to the review if they wish to do so and to pose any questions that they may have. They will be supported to do so as is needed. I also want to confirm again that any family who have concerns about their care can self-refer to the panel to seek a review. This process needs to be done thoroughly and robustly, but it will clearly take some time, so I’m not setting any deadlines for completion.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), wanted assurances that senior managers will be held accountable. She also asked what additional resources will be made available to ensure all recommendations for improvement are implemented as quickly as possible and verified – at the moment it’s based solely on the health board’s word.

The Minister said it wasn’t the panel’s job to go out and find the staff responsible and any clinical issues should be reported to the respective professional regulator for an official investigation.

No quick fixes

“I find your approach remarkably passive. You’ve sat on your hands, you did nothing about the Chief Executive – you waited for her to resign. You calmly now tell us that you think the board that was unable to oversee the performance of this health board and the services they provide is the one to get us out of trouble, and the only thing you’ve done about that side of the senior management is send David Jenkins in there to keep an eye on things. I think we need better than this, frankly.”
– David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) called for the Health Minister to “pull up his sleeves” and directly oversee the matter instead of expecting improvements to be made without him. The Minister told him Cwm Taf was his top priority and “one of the biggest calls on my time” – so there was no lack of effort on his part and he’ll do what he can but can’t promise miraculous turnarounds in a short space of time.

Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) reminded the chamber that a similar scandal at Morecambe Bay took six years to go from special measures to full resolution. She said the response so far has been encouraging, but there was still a lot to do to ensure the experiences of women and families are used to draw lessons from.

Following a question from Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West), the Minister reminded AMs that Bridgend’s maternity services aren’t in special measures after moving into the Cwm Taf health board in April. He also told Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) that any families with concerns dating after May this year (when the panel was set up) can refer them to the independent review process if they want to.

Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) believed one of the issues arising from this was a lack of confidence in challenging executives, both from within and from outside. The Minister told him there were already more challenges at board level at Cwm Taf Morgannwg and the board want more independent members involved in different parts of their work.

 

Health Minister says sanctions could lead to the NHS being less open and honest

Free bus pass scheme needs changes to remain sustainable

Yesterday, Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), provided AMs with an update on his plans for concessionary bus fares.

The Minister acknowledged that while free bus passes have been a huge success since they were introduced in 2002, the increase in the number of over-60s as a proportion of the population has resulted in the cost of the scheme rising. 47% of all bus journeys in Wales are made using free bus passes and there was a need to maintain a fair system that protects the independence of older people but at the same was sustainable.

Alongside an increase in the eligibility age, other proposed changes include restricting free bus pass eligibility to those permanently resident in a Welsh local authority.

“I appreciate that there will be concerns about these proposals, including what they mean for current pass holders. However, I would like to make it clear that any person who holds a concessionary pass at the time the changes to the law are made will not lose their entitlement to that pass in any circumstances….The changes….will not come into force before April 2022. Therefore, anyone who reaches the age of 60 before this date will not be affected by these changes.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

He also touched on bus pass renewal. Transport for Wales has received 210,000 online applications to date – though there was no apology for issues on the website within the first few days of applications opening as the issue has been revolved.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), was concerned about the potential unintended consequences of the changes – such as reduced bus use, which could threaten the viability of some routes or lead to many over-60s going back to driving cars. He also raised the possibility of extending concessionary fares to the under-25s.

The Minister said getting people out of buses was only part of the mix; the services themselves had to be reliable and that means using resources carefully. However, he then said something interesting:

“My view is that a flat, fair fare of a minimal amount – for example, £1 per journey anytime anywhere across Wales – would incentivise people sufficiently to leave their cars at home if they know that they’re going to get from A to B quicker than they would in a car.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Widespread concerns

“Transport for Wales messed up on this one, because they should’ve provided us with a briefing in advance and also to people who work in public services in our libraries, so that we knew that this change was coming, rather than having members of the public telling us what was going to happen, which certainly happened to me on 10th September.”
– Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central)

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said the website problems caused a great deal of distress. It was all well and good saying that people had until December to renew their passes, but that’s not how people worked. Constituents have been worried they would lose their pass and wanted to get it done quickly.

The Minister repeated that the Transport for Wales website is fixed. He was confident all applications will be processed by the end of the year.

“….(The Older People’s Commissioner) has put out quite robust opposition to you moving the age from 60 to 65. And just some of the reasons….it will have a significant impact on older people, it does run the risk of increasing loneliness and isolation, and also every pound spent on concessionary fares returns at least £2.87 in benefits for older people, their communities and local economies.”
– Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy)

Turning to the Minister’s suggestion of flat fares, Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East), called for a trial in a local authority area, but also questioned the “data protection” reasoning behind the change in smartcards.

The Minister said the new card would, in the future, enable them to be used anywhere in the UK if free travel schemes were introduced across the UK. He cited the ArrivaClick system in Liverpool as a fare structure he would like to emulate.

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