Photo by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
As AMs discussed the Communities Committee inquiry into empty properties it was claimed that the number of empty properties in Wales exceeded the number of affordable homes the Government had targeted over the next five years .
Chair of the Committee, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), was pleased that nearly all of the committee’s recommendations – a national action plan, improved data collection and collaboration with social landlords – had been accepted or accepted in principle by the government.
The only sour point was a rejection of their recommendation to ring-fence revenue from council tax premiums for measures to address empty properties.
Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), was critical of the government’s decision to only accept in principle recommendation on reviewing council enforcement powers. He called for Wales to consider the approach taken in England, where councils share empty property officers and also Scotland where communities have some say in how empty properties are renovated.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) believed councils weren’t doing enough with the enforcement powers at their disposal:
Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) praised Rhondda Cynon Taf’s home loans scheme – which was picked up in the inquiry report – as an example to follow. Empty properties in the authority have fallen by 671 since 2017-18. Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) later spoke in support of co-operative housing schemes and reviewing how compulsory purchase orders worked.
“We’ve heard the figures: around about 27,000 private sector homes are empty….When we compare it to the Welsh Government’s target for the whole five years of this Assembly to build 20,000 affordable homes, it puts it in perspective, just the scale of the challenge and the number of empty properties that are out there.”
– Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)
Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) noted that while empty properties might blight communities, there may be reasons why they’re left empty – such as difficult and lengthy probate procedures.
Extra training for local authorities
Deputy Minister for Housing & Local Government Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), believed the issue of empty properties was seen as being a “nice to have” when compared to key services like social care during a time of spending cuts.
The Welsh Government is developing a training programme to improve local empty property action plans – lack of expertise is one of the issues picked up by the Committee. She also believes local intelligence was “an untapped resource” which could be better put to use in the local action plans.
Government Should Have Trade Deal Negotiation Seat, But No Veto
- Notes that the UK is currently due to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 and informal trade negotiations between the UK and US have begun, reportedly including references to the marketisation of patents/NHS drug pricing.
- Notes that international treaties are outside the scope of powers of the Senedd and Section 82 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 allows Welsh Ministers to be directed by the UK to take actions to give effect to international obligations.
- Believes Wales’s future would be best served by continued EU membership (subject to a second referendum); the Welsh NHS should not be forced by the UK Government to open up its market for greater private provision, or have increased drug costs imposed upon it, as a result of future trade deals; the health care system in the US has failed to properly regulate opioids, contributing to over 70,000 deaths in the US in 2018; the UK Government shouldn’t be able to direct Welsh Ministers to take actions in devolved fields which have the potential to be detrimental to Welsh public services.
- Calls for the devolved parliaments of the UK to be given a veto over trade matters which affect devolved fields; Welsh MPs to support the NHS Protection Bill due to be introduced at Westminster in the new term and Section 82 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 to be repealed.
Cherry-picking vs scaremongering
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) told the chamber there was clear evidence the US is seeking to smooth over NHS access in a post-Brexit trade deal – not necessarily running services, but for drug sales, “cherry-picking the most lucrative parts of the market”.
Deregulation of medicines in the NHS could see costs rise to “obscene” US-style levels even for basic medicines like paracetamol, so it was important for the devolved legislatures to be able to have a veto on future trade deals to protect the NHS and to block any attempt by the UK Government to force any privatisation agenda on Wales.
Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) took the complete opposite view. This was Remainer denial, yet again. We could trust what Boris Johnson says as it was clear in the Tory manifesto says the NHS, drugs and services wouldn’t be on the table. Anything else what using fear tactics to prey on the sick and vulnerable and ironic considering private involvement in the NHS expanded more under Labour than the Conservatives.
Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) accepted that while current prescribing policy in the UK was less than perfect, the deregulation of opioids in the US has caused untold damage and those sort of practices should never be allowed to happen here. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) added that drug patents had been used in the US to push up the price of generic drugs.
Personal health data “a potential goldmine” for US drug firms
Chair of the External Affairs Committee, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon), agreed with some aspects of the motion, but believed instead of a veto and the end of the process, the Welsh Government should instead play an active role in negotiating trade deals from the start. We didn’t have the constitutional guarantees to enact a veto policy for sub-national legislatures here.
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) though the concerns were genuine but misconceived; the NHS wouldn’t be attractive to any private operator as it doesn’t bring in any revenues. Also, the medicines market in the US was heavily influenced by insurance companies which would pay drugs companies whatever they ask for as there are no cost controls.
Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said that clinical commissioning in England has resulted in over £2 billion worth of private healthcare contracts with Virgin, cherry-picked for the most profitable parts such as dementia care, immunisation and GP services. Personal health data was also “a potential goldmine” for US pharmaceutical firms.
Welsh NHS “not for sale”, but….
Counsel General & Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), said categorically that the NHS in Wales would remain publicly run and wasn’t for sale, but while Plaid Cymru had correctly identified the challenges, they didn’t identify the solutions.
Belgium was the only example where sub-national legislatures have a veto on trade deals, but health wasn’t devolved to Flanders and Wallonia – so we had to be careful when looking at international precedents. What the Welsh Government would like, as David Rees hinted, was a direct role in negotiations, particularly concerning devolved responsibilities.
An amended version of the motion which left it mostly unchanged, but reflected the Welsh Government’s preference for having a seat at the table in negotiations, was approved by 26 votes to 11 with abstentions.
Mass screening following Carmarthenshire TB outbreak
Public Health Wales launched a mass screening of children in Carmarthenshire following an outbreak of latent TB in the Llwynhendy area, which resulted in the death of a 64-year-old woman in September.
BBC Wales reports that 29 additional cases have been found after 1,400 screenings and 200 cases have been identified in total. Latent TB can be transmitted from person-to-person but is treatable.
Shadow UK Minister withdraws call for maternity service public inquiry
The (UK) Shadow Business Minister, Rebecca Long-Bailey, withdrew a call for a public inquiry into the Cwm Taf maternity scandal after originally expressing support for such an inquiry in a 2019 UK General Election debate last Friday.
She said she didn’t know the details of the scandal, which was picked up by Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price.
In a statement, she said: “As I said in answering the question, I was not aware of the circumstances or actions taken by the (Welsh) Health Minister (Vaughan Gething) to establish comprehensive and fully independent review and oversight arrangements.”
National Survey to be changed to properly record nationality
The Welsh Government’s National Survey will be changed to enable people from minority ethnic backgrounds to describe their nationality as “Welsh” following complaints from a number of prominent Welsh BME personalities relating to the 2021 Census in EnglandandWales.
Singer-songwriter Kizzy Crawford told BBC Wales’s Newyddion 9: “I haven’t seen anything that represents me. I’ve always put down mixed or mixed British but that’s not accurate. I consider myself to be Welsh. I’ve always felt that people don’t accept me as a Welsh woman because of the colour of my skin. Things like this just confirm that.”
Finance Minister & Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said she would raise the matter with the Office for National Statistics regarding the census, whilst confirming that the Welsh Government’s own survey will be changed to address the issue.