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Today’s Senedd Roundup: Plans confirmed for £100 million Rail Technology Centre

22 May 2019 13 minute read
Image by Robert-Owen-Wahl from Pixabay

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Proposed £100 million Rail Technology Centre “could be the best in the world”

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) has updated AMs on a proposed £100million Global Rail Centre of Excellence – which would be built on a former opencast mine at Onllwyn, near Ystradgynlais on the Powys-Neath Port Talbot border.

Planning application “by 2020”

The proposal came forward due to demand from within the rail industry, as discussions on developing a rail test centre have been ongoing in the UK for at least 15 years. The Minister told AMs it has been delayed due to lack of leadership, lack of suitable sites and a complex business case. Over the last 12 months, the business case has developed to an advanced stage and the project was now “deliverable”.

Subject to detailed work, the proposals include:

“…..7 km of electrified test oval, providing a maximum line speed of 110 mph; a separate and unique infrastructure test track facility; a large, well-equipped maintenance facility; secure storage for 400 rail carriages; a decommissioning facility; and a research and development and education centre, which will include labs, office space and training facilities in a dynamic environment away from the operational network.”
– Minister for Economy & Transport, Ken Skates

The Minister said the facility – which Network Rail has taken a keen interest in – could employ up to 400 people during construction and 150 people full-time once complete; though that could be an under-estimate as a similar facility in Germany employs 500 people. He later suggested this could become one of the best rail research facilities in the world.

A formal planning application could be ready by the end of 2019 or early 2020.

The rail industry “will foot the bill”

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), was very supportive but wanted the ambition to become much broader – such as the creation of a university-level rail engineering innovation chair. As you might also expect, he asked where the money was coming from?

The Minister revealed that £1million has been spent developing the proposals and it’s anticipated that the cost of building the facility would come from the rail industry (rather than government). He also confirmed a university chair of rail engineering would be created.

While Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) argued that this could be used as leverage to secure a greater share of UK-wide rail infrastructure investment, he also wanted more financial detail:

“We are talking about a potential investment that is huge here….because we are talking about Onllwyn….where investment is greatly needed and the jobs are desperately needed. So, in terms of scrutiny….could you set out more financial detail? That is how much financial risk will the Welsh Government shoulder here?”
– Dr Dai Lloyd AM

The Minister repeated that he didn’t expect taxpayers to contribute anything towards the facility – an assessment based on soft market testing exercises.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) highlighted the importance of building up skills in local communities to take full advantage of this and also that the facility needed to be flexible by offering different rail gauges to attract European investment after Brexit.

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) wanted further details on who precisely was behind the proposal.

The Minister said this has been Welsh Government-driven, though Powys and Neath Port Talbot councils are now on board as well as the landowner, Celtic Energy. He also cited support from UK train operating companies and manufacturing companies like Newport-based CAF.

Picture by Chris Brown (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Call for Wales to boost its profile in Japan ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup

With the 2019 Rugby World Cup just a few months away, Shadow External Affairs Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), asked about Wales-Japan ties – offering his congratulations to the recently-enthroned Emperor Naruhito. An estimated 6,500 jobs in Wales are dependent on Japanese investment and he asked what could be done to build upon the already good Wales-Japan relations – even suggesting inviting the Emperor to Wales.

The Minister said the Japanese ambassador to the UK will be visiting Wales for two days in June and a lot was already happening elsewhere:

“We’re not waiting until the World Cup; we are already bouncing into those markets now. I know that (Environment Minister) Lesley Griffiths is doing a huge amount of work in terms of promoting food and drink in Japan. So….what we’ll be doing now is to really work out exactly what we are trying to achieve during the World Cup, because this is a launch pad, not just for Japan, but for the broader Asian community as well.”
– Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan

What the Minister didn’t want to do was to go around signing “memorandums of understanding” with every single nation for friendship reasons; she actually wants real outcomes.

Thinking Global

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked about the Welsh Government’s international strategy and, in particular, reaching out to the Welsh diaspora – with an estimated 10 million people of Welsh descent in the United States alone. Did these activities need to be government-led? Would the Welsh Government consider building a presence at UK Foreign Office facilities and/or bidding for events to boost our global profile – such as the Commonwealth Games?

Although the Minister was reluctant to “step on the toes” of organisations already doing this work she broadly agreed but, as usual, it comes down to resources:

“What is clear is that we are recognised in different markets very differently. So, areas where there is a big rugby tradition, we’re pretty well known, but there are other areas and parts of the world where we have very little in terms of common historical background. Those are the areas that are much more difficult to access, which is why, I think, we do need to go back to the diaspora. But I think we need to recognise we will not be able to do everything with a limited budget.”
– Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales)

The Minister mentioned the Welsh Government’s 20 overseas offices, many of which were said to be co-located with the UK Foreign Office. Again, whether Wales bids for a Commonwealth Games or alike would come down to money.

Discussions ongoing on National Football Museum location

Following a recent announcement that the proposed National Football Museum will be based in Wrexham, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) continued to make the case for The Racecourse; at the moment, the desired location is Wrexham Museum. He also asked whether it would become part of the National Museum umbrella?

“Are you proposing that this becomes part of the National Museum Wales or an arms-length organisation? And how will this impact on the physical provision within Wrexham Museum – a great museum, but quite small in size? So, are you considering relocation or enlargement or how might you address this?”
– Mark Isherwood AM

Deputy Minister for Culture, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd), said discussions were still ongoing with Wrexham Museum and Wrexham Council on where the football museum would precisely go. He added there was a broader vision that major local and regional museums are supported by the National Museum and also that places hosting national exhibitions are of sufficient quality to be able to receive them; this could mean further investment at the likes of Wrexham Museum.

Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

Rehabilitation at heart of blueprint for youth justice and women offenders

Yesterday, Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), outlined the Welsh Government’s blueprint for justice.

Early intervention and prevention

The Wales Governance Centre recently revealed Wales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. While criminal justice is non-devolved, the Thomas Commission is looking at this further and its report is due to be published in the autumn.

The Welsh Government welcomes the recent announcement that probation services are to be renationalised and the blueprint sets out how the Welsh Government will manage justice-related issues within devolved powers.

The two main areas of focus were youth justice and the management of women offenders.

“We need an urgent solution for female offending in Wales. There are around 250 Welsh women currently held in prison in England. The issues associated with being a long way from home facing Welsh women offenders and their families are considerable, and a very real concern in respect of the impact on children in particular, but also the rehabilitation of the offender.”
– Deputy Minister without portfolio, Jane Hutt

The focus with regard to youth justice will be prevention to stop young offenders entering the criminal justice system in the first place. On women offenders, the Welsh Government have appealed for a residential centre to be established somewhere in Wales, with options being explored as to where that might go.

Smaller units, closer to home

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), welcomed the recognition that it was important to work with the UK Government on this. While it was true that women offenders are detained in England, in some cases the women’s facilities are closer to certain parts of Wales than a Welsh facility would be if it were located in the south.

He also expressed support for smaller units to house young offenders following reports of gang violence at Bridgend’s Parc Prison.

“How do you respond to the statement in the Welsh Affairs Committee report that the Ministry of Justice should tackle gang-related problems in….Parc (Prison), including consideration of introducing smaller, custodial units to place younger people closer to home?”
– Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM

Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) has argued against privatisation of probation services for some time and was pleased it’s been reversed – though around 20% of probation service work will remain privately-operated. She added that there was a strong case for a women’s residential centre – though there should be at least two in Wales; one in the north, one in the south. This was echoed by Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) who believed children should be able to live with detained mothers where it’s deemed practical and safe to do so.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) described the justice system’s failure to take into regard devolution as “a scandal”.

“We’re in the absurd position today where the UK Government is unable to deliver its own policy in Wales, but neither is the Welsh Government able to deliver its policy. So, we have two Governments that are unable to deliver policy in a single field. It is time….that the people of Wales were well served by those elected to take decisions on these matters. The failure to address the devolution of the criminal justice system is a standing rebuke to parliamentarianism at present.”
– Alun Davies AM

He was sure everyone wants to see a return to decent public management of offenders. He hoped that any future women’s centre would be managed by the Welsh Government and that youth justice would continue to focus on training to enable young offenders to turn their lives around.

Paul Davies. Picture by the National Assembly (CC. 2.0)

Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s finance questions.

Economic Intelligence

Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), asked about the Development Bank’s Economic Intelligence Unit and could it play an important part in the development of tax policy in the future. In the present though, what work had the Welsh Government done to model the impact devolution of income tax will have on the Welsh economy?

Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said the unit didn’t fall under her direct responsibility but has had discussions about procurement. A “lot of work” has been done with the Chief Economist on mapping out current and future tax bases.

Preparing the ground of devolution of welfare administration

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) referred to recent Wales Governance Centre research which showed that devolving administration of welfare to Wales could (but not necessarily would) result in a £200million surplus. Isn’t it now right to pursue these powers as a matter of urgency?

“But really the thrust is that this is a no-brainer, especially when the report from the Wales Governance Centre made it clear that there are elements of welfare that you can safely predict, that there won’t be fluctuation, or too much fluctuation, in coming years, where we can very confidently say that there is no real risk to the public purse in Wales.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

The Minister said the report and its conclusions were being taken into consideration, but it was important to base any decision on a growing evidence base. It as right and reasonable to take a cautious and measured approach as the idea of welfare administration being devolved would cause trepidation. It’s not an issue that can be solved quickly.

Confusion over discretionary business rate relief

A number of AMs contributed to a discussion on the Welsh Government’s business rate relief scheme.

Michelle Brown AM (Ind, North Wales) argued for business rates to be reformed to encourage start-ups, while Mandy Jones AM (BXP, North Wales) argued for below inflation rate increases to help struggling high streets – though Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) argued that Labour was already doing a lot.

The most important contribution came from Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), who suggested Bridgend Council hasn’t properly engaged with businesses to tell them discretionary rate relief was available:

“….two of the councils within my region (are) proactively seeking out businesses that could benefit, advising them and then administering the mitigating monies straightforwardly. And, yet, another of them don’t seem to be telling very many people about it….as a result, in one particular council, only a third of those eligible for this relief are getting it.


“So, I wonder if you have any idea why Bridgend doesn’t seem to be following what I hear is good practice in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot….to ensure that people in Bridgend get the benefits in the way you intended them to get. And if you don’t have any idea why they’re doing that, can you explain why not?”
– Suzy Davies AM

The Minister didn’t have much to say on exactly why but promised to take up the matter with Bridgend Council’s leader, Cllr. Huw David, to understand what the situation was and whether rate relief has been properly promoted.

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