Today’s Senedd Roundup: M4 bypass scrapped on cost grounds

Gwent Wildlife Trust’s Magor Marsh reserve – a corner of this reserve faced a Compulsory Purchase Order to allow construction of the motorway. Picture by Richard Bakere.

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

The latest attempt to build a Newport bypass has failed after the First Minister announced this afternoon that the Welsh Government won’t give it the go ahead.

The First Minister’s written decision is available here (pdf) alongside the inspector’s report (pdf).

Bypass couldn’t be implemented for the foreseeable future

There are obvious environmental concerns, which the First Minister said he placed greater weight on than the Planning Inspector.

However, the primary reason the project has been rejected is that the Cabinet decided on April 29th 2019 that the Welsh capital budget doesn’t go far enough to cover the projected costs (estimated at anything between £1.3-1.7billion) and could have lead to lengthy delays in starting construction and associated problems with compulsory purchase orders.

The First Minister acknowledged there was a consensus that issues in and around Newport need to be addressed and (as the Welsh solution to a problem is to form a committee) a Commission of transport experts will look at alternative solutions in detail.

In the meantime, a number of measures will be introduced to improve traffic flow around Newport including faster vehicle recovery, extra traffic officer patrols, live journey time information and a public information campaign to change driver behaviour.

Sold a pup?

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said £31million was being lost to the Welsh economy every year because of the Newport M4 and – while the problem should’ve been dealt with decades ago – successive Labour governments have failed since despite £44million being spent on it.

“First Minister, you are saying that this project is now not affordable. However, last year (as Finance Minister) you wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury…. asking for more money…. In this letter, you clearly thought this scheme was achievable, because….you said: ‘I will be seeking an increase in the Welsh Government’s annual and aggregate borrowing limits….. in order that we can deliver our investment priorities for Wales, including the M4 project’.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM

He suggested a number of pledges have been broken, including a 2016 Labour manifesto commitment to deliver the bypass, a pledge for a binding vote amongst AMs and pledges made during Labour’s Newport West by-election campaign.

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), accused the Welsh Government of using the Commission to “go back to square one” when the inquiry has already examined all the alternatives in great detail.

Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) described it as a sad day for those who want barriers to economic growth removed, haulage companies, commuters, tourists and anyone benefiting from the removal of Severn Crossing tolls. Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) asked what would happen to land purchased as part of pre-construction work – to which the First Minister said it was now a Welsh Government asset.

Disappointment on the Labour benches.

Jayne Bryant AM (Lab, Newport West) described the decision as a “bitter blow” that would condemn Newport to congestion, idle traffic and air pollution. Improving public transport in Newport wouldn’t work as only 6% of M4 traffic would be removed, while accidents force more traffic through the city itself. Any money saved from this decision had to be spent in the Newport area.

Praise the repentant sinner

Although critical of the length of time taken to reach this point, Plaid Cymru backed the decision:

“I think the proper response in the first instance is to praise the repentant for seeing the error of their ways. ….We repeatedly said….that the black route was both environmentally destructive and financially unjustifiable. I think both points have borne out in the statement….It’s financially unjustifiable because, as the First Minister said, it would have siphoned such a large proportion of the limited borrowing powers that we have, and of the overstretched capital funds available to the Welsh Government.”
– Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr)

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) agreed with the decision. The recently-declared climate emergency and the importance of the Gwent Levels requires new thinking. Nonetheless, he repeated Jayne Bryant’s call for the earmarked budget to be spent solving transport issues around Newport.

Meanwhile, Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) would prefer to see it spent on economic development across Gwent, while Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) made the case for it to be spent on a range of projects around the country.

 

Picture by Tiocfaidh (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Brexit deal “can no longer be credibly pursued”

First Minister’s Questions

Following the First Minister’s recent conversion to supporting a second Brexit referendum, Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) said the First Minister was now leading a Remain establishment that tells people they’re ignorant; “When did you stop believing in democracy?”

Unsurprisingly, the First Minister rejected the assertion. The Welsh Government had worked on the basis that a deal could be done without harming the Welsh economy, but:

“It is clear to me that the Conservative leadership contest means that it is now impossible a deal can be struck, because the contest is between candidates who seek to outvie each other by declaring harder and harder forms of Brexit, and that means that those efforts which we made – we made in absolute good faith, we made them for as long as we possibly could – have reached the point where they no longer can be credibly pursued.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

Teacher recruitment targets missed

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said teacher training targets have been continuously missed for several years.

“First Minister, these figures are very, very worrying, because the number of those training to teach at secondary level was 40% below the target, while the number of students taking primary level courses was 11% below the target. This means 370 fewer students gained qualified teacher status in 2017-18 compared to four years ago, and we’ve also seen the number of trained teacher entrants from Wales on secondary school courses in Wales drop by 37% over the last four years….”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM

Paul Davies added that in order to meet the 2050 target of a million Welsh-speakers, more Welsh-speaking teachers will need to be recruited and trained – yet only 10% of trainee teachers are able to teach through the medium of Welsh.

The First Minister said the “generous” offer made to trainee teachers was being continuously reformed and there had been successes in recruiting primary school teachers to. Teacher training offers will be extended to include part-time university students in order to attract people from different parts of the workforce into teaching.

Off the buses?

Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) raised the matter of First Group are considering divesting themselves of bus services across the UK – including services in southern and western Wales. While there’s a white paper out on re-regulating bus services, Adam Price saw this as an opportunity to return bus services to public ownership and operation:

“I was wondering if the First Minister would care to say whether the acquisition of First Cymru could be a great opportunity for Swansea to follow the Cardiff Bus and Newport Bus models, and indeed you could say there are similarities with the situation in Cardiff Airport, in demonstrating how good public service provision can produce returns for the taxpayer, rather than profits for the shareholder.”
– Adam Price AM

The First Minister said the white paper was one way to reverse an ideologically-driven trend for local authorities to outsource public services to private companies. Ultimately, it’ll be for Swansea Council and other local authorities to decide whether they want to take over from First Cymru should the time come, or whether they want to wait for any future legislation resulting from the white paper.

 

Nick Ramsay AM. Photo The National Assembly for Wales.

Betsi Cadwaladr health board needs extra help to leave special measures

Public Accounts Committee

Lessons Learnt at Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board (pdf)
“We have heard time and time again that many changes have been made to the leadership team at Betsi Cadwaladr (BCUHB), that plans are in place for improvement and there is a renewed sense of confidence and determination to take the Health Board out of special measures.

 “However, it is the end results that determines success or failure and substantial progress at BCUHB remains to be seen. It is simply unacceptable that BCUHB, as the largest NHS body in Wales, has been in special measures for nearly four years to date.”
– Committee Chair, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth)

  1. Welsh Government intervention “has had little practical impact”

Betsi Cadwaladr health board (which provides health services to all of northern Wales) was placed into special measures by the Welsh Government in June 2015 after spending two years in various states of close monitoring due to a number of high-profile services failures – most notably the Tawel Fan scandal.

Numerous changes have been made at leadership level, with new executives for mental health, medicine, nursing, workforce planning and public health. New plans for the future have been put in place, but the board had told the Committee that “a sense of realism was required” and that while improvements may be seen, it could be a long time before every issue is properly addressed.

The Committee concluded that the support offered by the Welsh Government isn’t enough and although they were pleased that the new leadership were willing to address long-standing issues, it’s too early to judge whether any of it has actually made an impact. They were concerned that special measures was becoming seen as being “a normal state of affairs” at the health board

  1. The board hasn’t made enough progress in stabilising its finances

The Welsh Government commissioned Deloite to review the board’s financial arrangements after it went into special measures and they concluded that the board took a “simplistic and underdeveloped” approach to financial planning, financial forecasting and risk management.

During the 2018-19 financial year, the Welsh Government sent its own officials to work alongside the board to stabilise its finances, but little progress has been made. The deficit for 2018-19 was expected to be £42million – an increase of £3.2million on the year earlier and despite a cash injection of £31million from the government.

In a bit of good news, spending on agency staff was cut by £15million between 2016-17 and 20189-19.

  1. Waiting times generally haven’t improved

While the national target is for 95% of patients to start treatment within 26 weeks of a GP referral, in Betsi Cadwaladr the rate is around 85%. While the national target is for no patients to wait longer than 36 weeks for treatment, in Betsi Cadwaladr between 6,000-7,000 are waiting longer. Additionally only 65-75% of patients were seen within 4 hours at A&E – with high-profile problems at Wrexham Maelor Hospital and Ysbyty Glan Clwyd.

Some progress was said to have been made in orthopaedics and ophthalmology waiting times, but demand and capacity for the services was said to be out of line. The Welsh Government have also committed £6.8million to improve unscheduled/emergency care, while out of hours GP services were said to have improved to such an extent they could be removed from special measures – though concerns remain over GP recruitment.

North Wales Community Health Council raised concerns about whether enough progress was being made on implementing the recommendations of the Ockenden and other reviews into mental health services following the Tawel Fan scandal. However, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales had identified areas of improvement in terms of patient safety and quality of care.

Photo by Baylee Gramling on Unsplash

Government response to physical activity report criticised

The director of the Wales Institute for Physical Literacy, Dr Nalda Wainwright, has written to the Senedd’s Health Committee criticising the Welsh Government’s response to a damning report into the state of physical activity amongst Welsh children (pdf).

“It is extremely disappointing that in Wales, where we have the highest childhood obesity in Europe and a third of children living in poverty, Welsh Government feels an appropriate response to the recommendations of the report is to quote the Foundation Phase curriculum, which published research shows does not develop the necessary motor skills.

 “They also suggest that resources with no evidence base are a pedagogical model for physical education. By ignoring the evidence Welsh Government are in danger of failing the young children and families of Wales in particular in areas of deprivation where they are faced with a growing crisis of inactivity, poor motor development and rising obesity.”
– Dr Nalda Wainwright

She added that teachers and teaching assistants require specialist training to deliver lessons and activities that improve motor skills and also that there was little evidence of a positive impact from various in-school physical activity programmes focused on motor skills development.

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