Today’s Senedd roundup: Committee sets sights on breaking out of a low-skills trap

Photo by Mike Flynn from Pixabay

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
Regional Skills Partnerships (pdf)
Published: 10th October 2019

“Our recommendations are designed to give the partnerships a clear, strategic mission that has a strong focus on identifying and breaking low-skill traps. This means a stronger role in demand-side interventions and stimulating employer demand for higher-level skills.”
– Committee Chair, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery)

Regional skills partnerships are voluntary boards made up of employers, education providers and others to advise the Welsh Government on further education courses and apprenticeships. There are currently three partnerships covering north Wales, south-west & mid-Wales and the Cardiff City Region. They’re funding via the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

  1. Wales is trapped in a cycle of reinforcing low skill levels (low-skill traps) and Regional Skills Partnerships might be accidentally encouraging it

Wales faces a productivity gap and this isn’t helped by being stuck in what’s called a “low-skill trap” (above); there’s low demand for highly-skilled workers, which leads to a low-skilled workforce, which limits innovation and productivity which perpetuates the low demand for high-skill workers and so on. It’s one of the main causes of Wales’ relatively low economic productivity compared to the rest of the UK and the “Brain Drain”.

In 2017, 27% of vacancies in Wales were hard to fill because of skills shortages and under-utilisation of staff was at 9.5%.

The report says some economic sectors simply can’t provide many highly-skilled jobs as they produce what is described as “low specification goods” – even if this work is profitable. The Committee concluded that Regional Skills Partnerships might be reinforcing all of this because they try to supply skills based on local/regional demand in established sectors that don’t require highly-skilled workers.

  1. The Welsh workforce holds more higher-level qualifications than ever before, but future skills requirements need to be properly planned for

In 2001, there were near enough equal proportions of the working-age population with no qualifications (21%) and qualifications equivalent to the first year of university/Level 4 (22.1%). By 2018, that’s changed to 7.9% with no qualifications and 38% at Level 4.

Some sectors are expected to grow and increase their share of economic output (particularly IT and construction), while others are expected to shrink (manufacturing, administration and utilities). This is before factoring in the impact of the fourth industrial revolution (automation, big data etc.).

The Committee believes the skills and qualifications system needs to be flexible enough to be changed at short notice to ensure they keep pace with technological and industrial changes. There was also a potential conflict of interest in terms of careers advice, where learners might be nudged towards areas with skills shortages instead of fully developing their individual potential.

  1. Regional Skills Partnerships need an overhaul

Based on the evidence they received the Committee set out several actions the Welsh Government and skills partnerships should take, summarised as:

  • Giving (re-branded partnerships) Regional Skills Advisory Boards a clear role in advising the Welsh Government on current and future skills demand, responding to economic shocks and both identifying and dealing with skills shortages.
  • The boards should publish 3-year regional skills and employment reports presenting in-depth analysis to assist further education colleges and alike to make their own decisions and not have priorities set by the Welsh Government (i.e. learner numbers). The boards also have to have their performance properly measured to ensure employers can have confidence that the boards are actually having an impact.
  • General data gathering needs to be improved, drawing on expertise in Welsh universities.
  • Engagement with small and medium businesses needs to be improved.

 

Terraced housing in the Rhondda Valley. Picture by Ian James (CC BY 2.0)

Call for action plan to bring empty homes back into use

Communities Committee
Empty Properties (pdf)
Published: 10th October 2019

“Tackling the problem of empty properties can make a significant contribution to wider community regeneration; it can make an area more attractive and increase available housing stock. It is important though, to take account of individual communities’ needs and to ensure action is tailored appropriately.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)

  1. Empty properties are a drag on communities and a new national action plan is needed

There was widespread agreement that empty properties were a sign that a community was in decline and – at the risk of stating the obvious – they become a magnet for anti-social behaviour and become an environmental health hazard.

There were a number of reasons given as to why properties may be left empty including owners being unable to cover the cost of making a property habitable, inheriting a property they don’t know what to do with, being deliberately left empty (i.e a flat above a shop) or unrealistic expectations regarding how much a property is worth (making owners reluctant to sell).

The response to empty properties by local authorities is described as “fragmented”; some (like Swansea) may have a long-term housing strategy that factors in empty properties, while others might deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee recommended a national action plan on empty properties is developed and published by October 2020. They also recommended that the Welsh Government provide resources to enable councils to appoint an empty properties officer – a post shared between multiple councils if necessary.

  1. Taking enforcement action is “complex and costly” and financial support to owners is integral to bringing properties back into use

Local authorities do have many tools at their disposal to discourage or prosecute absent property owners, including Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO) or historic powers of compulsory purchase/forced sale (in specific circumstances). The powers are, however, underused due to a lack of knowledge or lack of specialist support – the Economy & Infrastructure Committee published a report on compulsory purchase in June 2019.

Some witnesses – including housing charity, Shelter – argued that the enforcement process needed to be simplified or consolidated, but it always comes at a price; Carmarthenshire Council said enforcement action can cost £40,000.

Scotland is considering introducing a Compulsory Sale Order (CSO) which would require empty homes to be sold (after a set period of being derelict) by public auction. This obviously raised human rights issues and it wouldn’t be appropriate in all cases, but it could be used where all other avenues have failed.

There are many financial grant schemes made available by local authorities and the Welsh Government to help owners bring empty homes up to scratch; Swansea Council said they’ve issued around £2.4million in interest-free loans which have resulted in 123 housing units being brought back into use. Rhondda Cynon Taf is considering introducing a similar £10 million scheme, which could fund up to 500 individual projects.

  1. The effectiveness of council tax premiums needs to be properly monitored

Councils can apply a 100% premium on unoccupied homes – though some authorities still provide a discount. The councils which have introduced premiums tend to be rural and coastal local authorities (where there’s an acute housing shortage) rather than the Valleys (where there’s plenty of housing supply but in the wrong places or not up to scratch).

The premium was also said to have had little effect where it’s been introduced and some people have tried to get around it by claiming a largely empty second home is self-catering accommodation (and therefore subject to business rates), or that a single family member has moved in to the empty property making them eligible for a single person council tax discount.

The Welsh Government is monitoring developments in England where empty properties will be charged three times the standard council tax rate after being empty for 5 years or more (from 2020) and four times if empty for 10 years or more (from 2021).

The Committee recommended ring-fencing any additional money raised from empty home premiums for housing-related purposes and also to try to close loopholes used to avoid paying a premium.

 

Review of senior council officer conduct rules

The Welsh Government has announced its intention to review rules around the conduct of senior council officers, after the Chief Executive of Caerphilly Council, Anthony O’Sullivan, was finally dismissed after six years of “gardening leave”.

In 2012, Mr O’Sullivan and other senior officers were present during a meeting which resulted in them being awarded a large salary increase, which the Wales Audit Office deemed unlawful. A criminal investigation was dropped in 2015.

The review will be undertaken by Peter Oldham QC.

New service launched to understand Welsh places

The Institute of Welsh Affairs launched a collaborative project with WISERD and the Carnegie Trust to provide detailed information about more than 300 towns, villages and cities in Wales.

Understanding Welsh Places includes demographic and economic information and places Welsh towns, villages and cities into seven different categories ranging from independent (economically self-sustaining and not reliant on services in different areas) to dependent (reliant on services elsewhere).

Welsh Government launches business park vision for St Athan

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), formally launched the Bro Tathan business park in the Vale of Glamorgan on October 2nd. The business park includes MOD St Athan and access to its runway.

The Minister said: “The area has a strong aerospace and defence heritage, along with access to the skills that businesses need to thrive. Bro Tathan has already proven its worth to a number of companies and I look forward to seeing it attract more in the future.”

Greens see Wales as “the last frontier”

The Green Party of EnglandandWales held their autumn conference in Newport, with Deputy Leader, Amelia Womack, saying Wales remained “the last frontier” for the party – which already has senior representation in the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and London Assembly.

In Wales, the party only has a single elected local authority councillor and has consistently failed to win seats in the Senedd.

Party priorities include a Green New Deal, addressing inequality and measures to tackle the climate emergency.

Cutting teaching assistants has had “heartbreaking impact”

A headteacher at a Cardiff primary school told BBC Wales that cutbacks to teaching assistances have had what’s described as a “heartbreaking impact” on pupils. Figures revealed a 7.5% decline in teaching support staff since 2014-15.

The loss of teaching assistance meant fewer opportunities for one-on-one support. The National Union of Headteachers Cymru said: “It is obvious that until we address this combination of factors, and return to a situation where taking a job in a school is an enjoyable, manageable and decently paid career choice, the young people of Wales will always be losing out on their right to a decent education.”

 

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