Rhys ab Owen, Barrister
History shows us that crises and disasters create an opportunity for change. Often that can lead to a change for the better, but it can also be for the worse. The biggest risk for me is that we return to a Wales where the people who give the most are undervalued, and COVID-19 is used as another reason for a period of further austerity.
As things we considered ordinary a few months ago have suddenly become otherwise, we must take this opportunity to consider and discuss what appeared unthinkable at the beginning of 2020.
Wales has changed quickly and so have we. In many ways, our justice system has leapfrogged from the 19th century to the 21st century within a matter of days. I now regularly conduct full-day court hearings from my spare bedroom and, being used to driving 40,000 miles a year, have not been in a car since March.
An unintended consequence of the lockdown is the significant drop in air pollution – a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed to an asthmatic like me. This cannot be ignored given that air pollution is estimated to cause 40,000 deaths a year and is linked to serious illnesses such as dementia.
To many of us living in large towns and cities, this period has shown that we do not need to use our cars as often as we do. We should consider pedestrianising more of our roads, such as Castle Street in front of Cardiff Castle, to create more pleasant public spaces in our town centres and also encourage cycling, by having better cycling routes and ceasing to deal with active travel routes as an afterthought to town planning.
Another contributor to better air quality would be the greater use of public transport. Although the network is currently reserved to key workers, when restrictions are relaxed we need to think about how we develop a system that works for all. Nearly 50% of bus journeys in Wales are free. The Welsh Government already contributes over half of the budget for trains and buses. Why not follow Luxembourg, Tallin and Dunkirk and have free public transport? This would widely encourage the use of public transport by persuading people to leave their cars at home.
But we must also improve and expand our public transport network. Efficient and effective links to larger cities are crucial for our post-industrial and rural towns. I am glad that the work on electrifying the valley lines has started but this is unlikely to be completed until 2024 at the earliest, but we cannot focus solely on this improvement – we must look beyond and consider innovative ways of improving our public transport within Cardiff and further afield.
Many of us have seen that we can work from home, in a way we would never have imagined at the beginning of March 2020. In Germany, the Labour Minister is considering the introduction of legislation to allow employees to work from home when practical. Not only would the environment benefit, so would our work-life balance. I dread to think how many hours I have wasted being stuck in traffic jams on the way to and from work over recent years.
For such a change to work, we need to invest in our infrastructure now. At a time when 5G is being rolled out, parts of Wales lack even 4G coverage. Other countries with difficult terrain seem to manage it. In Iceland a few years ago I was amazed that I could receive emails and texts on top of a glacier but not at my in-laws’ house in Cricieth or indeed my brother’s house in Pontcanna.
If Wales is to thrive we cannot leave people and communities behind. Those who are self-employed, and especially those who work in the Gig economy have been hit hard by COVID-19. We must reconsider the way we value people’s contribution to society.
There has been much talk recently of a universal basic income. But what about a contribution-based income that takes into account the contributions people make to society such as caring for a loved one or volunteering in the community? Wales has the highest proportion of unpaid carers in the UK – 370,000 – and this figure is set to rise to over half a million by 2037. From personal experience, I know that these individuals cannot be forgotten and deserve our support and recognition.
It is remarkable how local authorities have been able to house those who are homeless during this crisis. We need to learn lessons from our brilliant housing associations, as an example, in Swansea, homes are being built off-site before being assembled on location. This saves time and money and the homes are built to high-quality eco standards. In Gower, the local development plan state that 50% of any development of more than five homes should be affordable housing.
As a barrister, an area I know well is the justice system. The current justice system does not work. Victims, their families and society are being let down. Wales has the highest prison population rate in Western Europe. Swansea is the most overcrowded prison in England and Wales and 56% of the Ministry of Justice budget is spent on prisons. We should be sending fewer people to prison and use the average cost per place of nearly £28,000 a year to have stronger and more effective community-based sentences.
Covid-19 has changed the way we live, it has forced us to press the pause button. Now is the time for us to start a national dialogue, to discuss the previously unthinkable and work together to create a better Wales.