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Today’s Senedd Roundup: Government criticised over homelessness inaction

15 May 2019 18 minute read
The makeshift bed of a homeless person in Cardiff. Picture by Ben Salter (CC BY 2.0)

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Government criticised over homelessness inaction

Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s Local Government & Communities questions.

“Is this what 21st Century Socialism is all about?”

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) asked whether it was acceptable for rough sleepers to have their possessions taken from them and thrown in a van? While this was happening, there’s been criticism of the Welsh Government’s lacklustre approach to solving homelessness through the introduction of a “Housing First” system.

“Minister, time and time again, we see your Government delaying and dragging its heels on even basic social justice issues, whether that’s homelessness, air pollution or banning unfair letting agent fees. We only see action several years after the issue comes to your attention: endless task and finish groups, which don’t end up finishing anything; reviews that tell us what we already know, and finding ‘balances’ that have to be struck between the rights of vulnerable individuals and large organisations….Is this what 21st Century Socialism is all about?”
– Leanne Wood AM

Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), thoroughly rejected the assertion that nothing was happening, accusing Leanne Wood of hyperbole. Task and finish groups included hard-working experts who help develop policy. The issue with “Housing First” isn’t the housing as such but making sure people can sustain living there – including access to specialist services and employment.

The Minister refused to be bounced into doing something quickly; she prefers to do it properly.

Supporting and celebrating veterans

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), recently helped launch the first Welsh veterans’ awards to celebrate ex-forces personnel who’ve made the transition to civilian life and “gone above and beyond” in their relevant fields. Nevertheless, there remain issues, particularly in terms of housing veterans and their families after leaving service.

The Minister told AMs there was a programme specifically for veterans so they can live close to where they have roots:

“….what we want to have is a seamless pathway so that we can hand people on to the right agencies in the area. We’re very keen to make sure that we maintain local connections so people can go back to any community that they feel they have a local connection with, or indeed if they’ve made a life as part of being in the armed forces quarters somewhere else, that they’re able to maintain a connection with family and friends.”
– Minister for Housing & Local Government, Julie James

Louder local voices in the planning system

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) asked about community involvement in the planning system, with some of her constituents worried about whether their views were properly considered as part of an appeal against a development at “The Canyons” near Pontypool.

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) called for a similar system as Scotland, where people are engaged from the start of the planning process on what their respective communities actually need. Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) wanted to give communities a right to appeal planning applications.

The Minister couldn’t comment on live planning applications, but the Welsh planning system requires the views of local communities to be taken into account and for Local Development Plans to be approved democratically by councils.

Andrew RT Davies

AMs concerned over Future Generations Act criticism

The Governments flagship Future Generations Act has come under scrutiny by AMs following criticism by Rhodri Williams QC.

The legislation was described as “deliberately vague, general and aspirational” at the High Court following a legal challenge against the closure of Cymmer Afan Comprehensive in the Afan Valley.

Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) asked whether the Welsh Government believed they deliberately introduced a vague law to the Senedd?

Deputy Minister without Portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), said the interpretation of the law was a matter for the courts, but the Act was well-regarded and seen as something Wales was leading the way in. The Act was “standing up to the test”.

Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central) asked why money was being diverted from front-line services which would really make a difference to future generations?

Still a work in progress?

“For me, the main thrust of the Act was to affect that wider cultural change, which was about putting sustainable development as the central organising principle….of the whole public sector. I’m waiting to see the evidence that I’d like to see in terms of that being achieved still, although I think it’s work in process.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales)

Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said that while it was the court’s role to interpret the law, it was incumbent on the legislature to make its intentions clear. Even now it’s unclear how and what action can be taken against public bodies if they fail to comply with the future generations goals.

However, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) told the chamber the High Court comments were based on a preliminary application for a judicial appeal and aren’t binding. The judge clearly said, in essence, that “the law’s the law” and as long as Neath Port Talbot Council complied with the Act, then they satisfied it and the Act has worked as intended.

“I don’t believe the legislation is toothless….This legislation has made us a world leader in thinking differently, so would the Deputy Minister agree with me that we do need to keep flying the flag for this piece of legislation, because it’s why countries right now, as you’ve rightly said, Deputy Minister, are looking to Wales and are interested in this piece of legislation, and they want to follow Wales’ lead?”
– Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)

Not everyone on the Labour benches was singing from the same hymn sheet.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) didn’t want the government to blindly defend the legislation, but review it if necessary. He found declaratory statements were often “pious hopes” unless they were backed by real action.

“We need to look hard: does this achieve the ambitions set for it? Does it achieve the visions set for it? Is it the legislation today that we hoped it would have been when we voted for it? Is it achieving the objectives set for it? And, were we to do that, I’m less confident than the Minister that we would give ourselves 10 out of 10.”
– Alun Davies AM

Nuclear waste barrels. Picture by János Korom (CC BY-SA 2.0)

No communities in Wales shortlisted for nuclear waste burial.

Environment Questions.

Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) asked for clarity over what Wales’ responsibilites for nuclear waste were within the devolution settlement.

“I want to refer, if I may, to the consultation document of your own Government on disposing of radioactive waste –geological disposal. Now, I will quote from that document, and it says, ‘Radioactive waste disposal is a devolved matter – the Welsh Government is responsible for determining the policy for this within Wales’.

 “But, looking at….the Government of Wales Act 2006, that states that powers the nuclear energy and nuclear stations are reserved…..There are no exceptions, no carve-outs, as there are in the Scottish context…..Can you therefore confirm that legislating on disposal of radioactive material is beyond the competence of this Assembly, which is contrary to what you claim in your own consultation document?”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM

No clarity was forthcoming:

“The radioactive waste management disposal, which I think is what you’re referring to, is not the same as nuclear waste. The higher activity radioactive waste is being created in Wales, and that’s why the Welsh Government agreed to take part in the UK Government programme for its disposal.”
– Energy, Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths

The Minister reiterated that no communities in Wales have been shortlisted for nuclear waste burial. Neither the Welsh or UK governments will decide where the burial facility could go – it’ll be down to individual communities to come forward.

Anti-nesting netting “should be used sparingly”

There were a number of questions on species decline and biodiversity, with Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) and Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) raising a recent UN report that states a million species are at threat of extinction. Within Wales 1-in-14 species are under threat. With the “climate emergency” in mind and the First Minister’s assertion that it didn’t require a big shift in policy, was that nothing more than a PR stunt?

Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) asked about improvements to water quality and Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) asked what actions would be taken to stop people from preventing birds from nesting – an issue in the news recently.

To the Minister, the climate emergency wasn’t just window dressing. It’s resulted in serious advice being sought from relevant bodies and “emergency” isn’t a word that can be bandied about.

On the other two questions, conservation will form part of marine policies going forward and she’ll write to council planning departments to remind them that “netting” is only to be used “sparingly and very specifically”.

Farmers “need to dispose of plastic waste responsibly”

Shadow Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), said that while disposal of farm-related plastics was ultimately a commercial decision, the market has dried up and created a log jam – which he believed could be partly down to government regulations.

While the Minister said there’s an opportunity for a UK-wide solution:

“I think farmers also recognise it’s important to collect and treat the waste, and all other businesses have to pay for their recycling here in Wales. Having said that, officials have been in discussions with DEFRA. DEFRA didn’t include farm plastic fill on the list of candidate products for extended producer responsibility. We thought that was something that perhaps should be covered in a UK- wide scheme, and I’ve asked officials to continue to look at that.”
– Energy, Environment & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham)

Recognising the rights of people with dementia

The Welsh Government’s Dementia Action Plan launched last February, and the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), has committed £10 million a year towards it. As a result, diagnosis rates and the number of trained support workers have increased, though the Minister picked out the expanded Dementia Friends initiative as a particular success:

“We now have an extra 19 dementia-friendly communities, making up 72 dementia-friendly communities here in Wales, and an additional 38,000 dementia friends trained over the last year as part of the Alzheimer’s Society initiative. And the Welsh Government continues to provide funding to help support that Dementia Friends initiative.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

The Minister went on to say that Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor has become one of only two hospitals in the UK to attain “dementia-friendly” status. The Welsh Government itself has also committed to lead by example and become a dementia-friendly organisation, with 200 staff receiving training.

The main principle going forward is flexibility in care as a person with dementia’s needs change. Additional training is being provided to the ambulance service and a task and finish group has been set up to study the needs of first language Welsh-speakers living with dementia.

Plea for patience

Shadow Social Services Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy), was pleased the Minister has recognised that diagnosis was a problem; only around 53% of people living with dementia symptoms in Wales have received a formal diagnosis. She asked whether the Welsh Government would set targets to increase diagnosis rates? To which the Minister said he expected year-on-year increases but didn’t commit to a formal target.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said care for people with dementia was often done on a voluntary basis by family members. Stigmas remain about dementia too, with people seeing it more like a mental health problem that one with physical causes. He repeated long-standing calls for the creation of a National Care Service, but there was something we could all do to help: be more patient.

“It’s the need for patience. When you are in the queue, paying for something, or waiting to pay for something, behind someone who has dementia, we need patience. We shouldn’t be putting pressure on people and hastening them. We need patience and we need to give people time.”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) raised concerns about transparency around how the additional £10million was being spent – issues raised by the cross-party group on dementia and the Health Committee. Following her suggestion of creating a national-level dementia champion, the Minister told her he was “open-minded” about it.

Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) told AMs that after tagging along on a home visit by an occupational therapist supporting people recently diagnosed with dementia; the person receiving the visit was very positive saying it’s “really changed his life”. Technology such as iPads was also being used to engage people with dementia with old hobbies and memories.

The Minister believes it’s important that a wide range of different activities is available, but also that there’s a better understanding of which activities are the most beneficial – some people might like singing, for example, others not so much.

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

Additional £30 million to be invested in walking and cycling

Last week, the Welsh Government announced an additional £30million towards active travel projects across Wales, while the First Minister said work has started on introducing a blanket 20mph speed limit in residential areas. Yesterday, AMs were given the opportunity to ask questions.

Extra resources to meet challenges and underperformance

Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), said the Senedd’s recent declaration of a “climate emergency” three transport’s contributions towards carbon emissions into sharper focus (13% of emissions in Wales), with over half of all car journeys being five miles or less.

Despite the Active Travel Act, he accepted that the goals that piece of legislation set simply haven’t been met yet so for the first time ever, the Welsh Government will be spending £30 million on active travel in a single financial year.

“Resources will always be scarce….We can’t afford to spread the jam so thinly that communities get a bit of path but not enough to get them anywhere. We have to concentrate our resources on building routes that will allow people to make whole journeys to places they need to get to, in safety and comfort from their home to work, or school to the shops.”

– Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters

Some of the money would be set aside for extra training (presumably for planning officers and alike), while the bulk of it would be spent on new walking and cycling infrastructure. He didn’t want councils to look solely at long stretches of segregated paths, but to consider smaller, more localised, measures to remove barriers facing the disabled, pedestrians and cyclists.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), wasn’t too impressed by Welsh Government actions (or lack of) to date. As chair of the Economy & Infrastructure Committee, he was pleased to see some of their recent recommendations taken on board. One of their recommendations was that spending on active travel reaches £20-per-head; how far does this announcement go?

The Deputy Minister said it was closer to £10-a-head; while it’s lower than he would like it’s a good place to start. Money wasn’t necessarily the issue. He wanted councils to focus on enhancing routes people will actually use, not pump money into under-used and badly-designed projects which undermine the whole active travel agenda.

An important milestone

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) described the £30million investment was “an important milestone”, but he too would like to see further progress to a £20-per-head figure (which would be closer to £60million). Scotland invests £80million annually for want of comparison. Rhun also noted the difference between talking at the top and action on the ground.

While the Deputy Minister wanted to be kind he said there was a lack of ambition by some councils, mainly due to capacity and skills issues than laziness.

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) – who’s often criticised home-school transport by car – asked how many schools have developed active travel plans?

The Deputy Minister picked out YGG Hamadryad in Cardiff as an example of good practice; they have a planning condition that no cars are allowed.

“….if we get this right, it is a complete win across all those agendas, and healthy living, and healthier lifestyles, and dealing with things like, in the Llynfi valley, where there’s a 20-year lifespan difference between the top of the Llynfi valley and the bottom of the Llynfi valley. That’s incredible, and part of this is what we’re looking to deal with.”

– Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore)

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) raised a key point about the cost of traffic orders to change speed limits and that a default 20mph limit with orders subsequently required to raise the limit to 30mph would be the most cost-effective way of doing it and the Deputy Minister broadly agreed.

Picture by Nation.Cymru

Augmented reality app being developed for the Wales Coastal Path

Deputy Minister for the Environment, Hannah Blythyn (Lab, Delyn), told AMs that since it was established in 2012, the Wales Coastal Path has become “a beacon of our nation’s natural beauty”, supporting 1,000 jobs and generating £84million in visitor spending.

£1million-a-year is invested in the path’s upkeep through Natural Resources Wales and alongside more recent initiatives – such as new circular routes and publicity material – the coastal path will soon exploit emerging technologies:

“A revamped website is in development. It will provide up-to-date information and a new interactive mapping tool. Natural Resources Wales is also working on a new augmented reality app, which will include engaging visuals, informative stories and interactive games.”
– Deputy Minister for the Environment, Hannah Blythyn

The Deputy Minister also hinted at introducing an incentive system to reward people for completing sections of the path – but there were no further details.

Improving accessibility; encouraging innovation

Government and opposition AMs alike were upbeat.

Shadow Tourism Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), was pleased by how the government was encouraging innovation, whilst also taking time to praise the work undertaken by Ramblers Cymru to promote events on the path.

His main concern was about access for the disabled and problems with off-road bikers – said to be a particular issue in Flintshire. He also believed the Welsh Government should use marketing efforts for the coastal path to fund a general walking strategy across Wales as well as an international promotion strategy.

Both David Melding and Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) made the case for encouraging the development of high-end tourist facilities along the route, as the people using the path tend to be high-end tourists with money to spend but who currently perhaps don’t spend as much as they could.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) stressed the need for responsible tourism. While the benefits of physical activity were well known, the coastal path can play a vital role in conservation – both in terms of nature and culture; too many places along the path and elsewhere have lost their historic Welsh names.

Following a paean to the Gower coastline, Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) said he was someone who will spend money locally after walking in the area. He thought there was potential to get more people to the path by tying it into TrawsCymru:

“I wonder if the Deputy Minister could speak to her colleague dealing with public transport, to have a look….at the TrawsCymru buses, because a lot of people I know have made really good use of the free weekend TrawsCymru transport….But the number of people I speak to who are walking sections of the coastal path using the free bus pass or the TrawsCymru weekend bus and then walking sections back and then catching it again – it’s really opened it up. In terms of social inclusion and healthy lifestyles and so on, it’s a major innovation.”
– Huw Irranca-Davies AM

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