The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
Energy Efficiency Programmes
1. How many jobs have been created by Welsh Government energy efficiency programmes such as Arbed? OAQ(4)0126(NRF)
The Welsh Government’s energy efficiency programme, which includes Arbed, has created over 400 jobs since 2012.
Minister, I think that that is very good news. It shows that that scheme, over the years since it was introduced, has been of major importance to the economy of south Wales, including the Valleys. I have seen the impact of it in my own constituency. We also have initiatives such as the British Gas Green Skills Centre in your own constituency, in Tredegar. Will you consider looking at the possibility, with your colleague, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, of holding a summit on green business skills in Wales?
I very much welcome the suggestion made by my very good friend, the Member for the Rhondda. As the Minister for regeneration, of course, he in many ways pioneered this work, in terms of his low-carbon ideas and concepts for the Heads of the Valleys region. May I say this? I would certainly be very happy to take forward that suggestion; it is something that this Government is committed to. We have already made a number of statements on how we see green growth powering the economy in the future, and, certainly, a summit on green skills would contribute towards that.
I understand that, to deliver energy efficiency, and to help tackle fuel poverty, the Arbed 2 scheme is currently working in areas identified by the Welsh Government in Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire and Gwynedd. What support has the Welsh Government given to local companies to acquire the accreditation levels needed to deliver energy efficiency, such as the micro-generation accreditation scheme, the Green Deal, and eco accreditation schemes?
I think that one of the great successes of the energy efficiency schemes—and the Member does make some very good points, because we do need now to look afresh at these schemes and at how we are going to develop them into the future and that is work that I have already embarked upon. However, the Member does make a very good point. I think that one of the great successes of these programmes is that they are being delivered by local businesses and local companies and are creating local work and ensuring that the profits that are made stay in the local community, so that we maximise the benefit not only to the people who see a benefit in terms of energy efficiency, but to communities as a whole. I very much endorse the approach proposed by the Member.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Of course, we all welcome the fact that the Arbed programme, established under the One Wales Government, is creating jobs, but also making a positive contribution to the fight against climate change and also to tackling fuel poverty, that is, this triple bottom line of the economic, the social, and the environmental. Therefore, obviously, we would be eager to see the Welsh Government turn over every stone in order to develop the programme and ensure that more and more homes benefit from it. May I ask you, therefore, what plans you have to perhaps use borrowing powers in future for upgrading programmes such as Arbed?
I agree once again with the points that the Member has made. When we consider the value of Arbed, I agree that it helps us to achieve a number of objectives at the same time, and it has been a success because it has succeeded in doing so over the past few years. However, now we have to consider where we are now, what the successes of Arbed are, how we wish to renew it for the future, what the relationship is between Arbed and Nest, and how we ensure, when we get new European programmes, that we integrate these into the new programmes, and ensure that we learn lessons and move forward. So, I will be starting on this work, and this work has already begun.
Thank you for that. Of course, as part of any energy policy, the starting point is to reduce usage in the first place, as we look towards perhaps meeting our own needs. Now, there is one element, when it comes to a programme such as Arbed, where we are doing that work in homes, but it does not always lead to reduced energy usage, because people are living in homes that are warmer, but do not necessarily turn the thermostat down. May I ask you, therefore, what assessment the Government has undertaken of the real impact of the programme in that regard, and what consideration have you given to perhaps installing such things as thermostats that will cut out at a particular temperature as part of that programme?
I published the assessments before Christmas in response to a question that your colleague, the Member for South East Wales, Jocelyn Davies, asked. If you wish me to add to that, I would be very happy to write to you. However, the point about the use of new technology is extremely important. When we come to renew these projects and programmes, I will emphasise how we should secure new schemes that ensure that we maximise the potential of the technology available to us—technology that connects people and technology that controls the use of fuel in the house. So, there will be brand-new projects and programmes.
Renewable Energy Projects
2. What plans does the Minister have to encourage new renewable energy projects? OAQ(4)0122(NRF)
‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ sets out what we are doing to encourage renewable energy projects. We are working in partnership with business and removing barriers to investment. Further details will be outlined in the energy Wales delivery plan, which is to be published later this week.
I thank the Minister for his response. As part of Cardiff Council’s aim and vision to be one planet Cardiff, there is a plan to start the first hydropower scheme in Cardiff, based at Radyr weir in Llandaff North ward. Will he congratulate Cardiff Council on its foresight in taking this forward and what can he do to increase the number of projects like this developed by local authorities?
I will join the Member for Cardiff North in welcoming the commitment from Cardiff Council. I think it has been tremendous and one of the great successes of the new authority and new administration in Cardiff has been the energy and creativity with which it has addressed the whole issue of energy both in terms of generation and efficiency and in terms of addressing issues around fuel poverty. I very much welcome the work that is going on in Radyr weir to bring this hydropower scheme to fruition. I hope that local authorities across Wales will work closely with Natural Resources Wales and will follow the example of Cardiff Council in developing and proactively searching for opportunities to ensure that local and community generation becomes a part of the life of people across Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Russell George.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, one of the barriers to the growth of community energy projects is the acquisition of appropriate funding to implement those projects. May I ask what the Government is doing to explore new funding models beyond public finance so that communities can access more sources of finance?
The Member does address a significant problem that is faced by communities, individuals and businesses across Wales. One of the issues that I have already said I want to address as part of the rural development plan is how we ensure that distributed generation and local community generation becomes the norm and not the exception. A part of that, of course, will be ensuring that there is private investment. That cannot be delivered entirely and completely by public bodies and public authorities. I will be making further announcements on how I intend to make this a reality later in the year.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. The Department of Energy and Climate Change published its community energy strategy in January and it was clear that the Welsh Government had input into that. So, may I ask whether the Welsh Government intends to develop its own community energy strategy, or will it be drawing on best practice schemes and initiatives from that strategy?
Well, we developed our own community strategy four years ago—it is called ‘Ynni’r Fro’ and I think it is fair to say that the UK Government drew on our strategy rather than the other way around.
Plaid Cymru has set a target of producing what amounts to 100% of the electricity that we use in Wales from renewable sources by 2035. Can we look forward to the Welsh Government setting a similar target in future?
Once we have the kind of the power that will enable us to deliver that, I am sure that that is exactly the direction we would wish to take. However, you know and we know and everybody in Wales knows that it is completely ridiculous to set a target if you cannot deliver on it.
The Rural Development Plan
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s Rural Development Plan? OAQ(4)0130(NRF)
On 17 February, I launched my consultation on final proposals for the Wales rural development programme 2014-20, which will be the biggest and most ambitious RDP in our history. This is part of my plans for reform and builds on earlier feedback from stakeholders. I will be in a position to make a further statement after the consultation closes.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Given the focus on long-term business resilience in the RDP, there are concerns in the agricultural sector that your RDP plans are full of strategic statements and light on the detailed information that businesses require to make key, long-term business decisions. You say that much of the transfer of funds from pillar 1 to pillar 2 will find its way back into farmers’ pockets. In that case, why is that, in England, 82% of pillar 2 funding been earmarked for agri-environment schemes, but, in Wales, only 60%?
The 60% figure is a floor and not a ceiling. We had this debate two years ago when I announced it. What I am anxious to do is to have a balanced RDP, one which delivers on our environmental responsibilities—and Glastir does that—and that delivers on our responsibilities to invest in the agricultural industry. There are no proposals at all to do that in England. It is silent on investment in agriculture in England. Farmers in England will have no support from the UK Government over the next few years. It should also balance our responsibilities to ensure the vibrancy of rural communities, and the new RDP will deliver on all of those.
Minister, you will be aware of the steps being taken in legislation in England to attempt to undermine the hunting ban. Will you be approaching your Westminster counterparts to ensure that, if the UK Government goes in this direction, it will not seek to impose amendments to legislation on the people of Wales that the people of Wales clearly do not want to see?
This is currently not a devolved subject. I have to say to my very good friend that, in the nearly three years that I have been in this post with responsibility for agriculture, nobody has come to me and asked me to change the law on hunting. Nobody has indicated to me anywhere at any time that they want to see the law changed. I think that on this matter the people of Wales and the people of England speak with one voice and do not want the law on hunting changed.
I have mentioned in the past the lack of investment, as I see it, in property for food industries in my constituency and in other parts of Wales. What sort of strategy would you like to see put in place under the rural development programme in order to ensure that small, successful companies that are currently succeeding as small companies have every opportunity to grow as businesses?
We have invested in a number of businesses, some in your constituency, and have collaborated with businesses in your constituency that have received and have benefitted from investment from Welsh Government to help them grow from farm business to businesses that have grown away from the farm and have been successful because of that. I have published the action plan for the food industry and I assume that you will be responding to that before the consultation closes in the middle of next month. You also have an opportunity to contribute to the RDP and how the RDP can respond to that. However, you will know that the marketing grant process has been extremely successful and has safeguarded jobs in the food industry across Wales.
Minister, the RDP does include changes to the moorland scheme. Those areas are currently based on the 1992 map, although that is about to change. The new areas will be defined on this year’s map. Can you tell us by when farmers will need to lodge an appeal if they are not content with the definitions on the new map?
For the pillar 1 payments for the moorlands, every farmer will receive a letter from the Government at the beginning of the summer explaining how exactly their land has been defined as regards the various designations. That letter and the information contained therein will explain exactly how each farmer can appeal against any kind of decision taken.
Minister, as you will be aware, the last chance to transfer single farm payment entitlements is 2 April 2014, but some people who are trying to take land back in hand and who have experienced delays through no fault of their own could be left in limbo. Do you have any plans to establish a scheme such as a contract clause that could allow for entitlements to be taken back after that date, or would you consider extending the entitlement window, as they have done in England, to October this year?
I and the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats may disagree on a large number of issues around pillar 1 and other matters, but one thing that we would both agree on absolutely is that the whole entitlement system is both bizarre and Byzantine. It is not something that I particularly think works extremely well. Can I say this? Where there are individual issues such as those, I presume, the Member is referring to, then I would ask all Members to write to me on those matters and I will take up those individual matters.
4. Will the Minister give an update on the progress of the Strategic Framework for Bovine TB Eradication in respect of wildlife? OAQ(4)0124(NRF)
I remain committed to dealing with all sources of infection. Preparations are under way for the third year of the badger vaccine in the intensive action area and applications to the badger vaccination grant are now being considered.
Minister, the UK Government set its own criteria to judge the success of its cull. It has failed on the humane test, with 18% of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die; it has failed on effectiveness, with kill targets being missed and the cost of each kill being up to £4,000 as opposed to £700 to vaccinate. Would the Minister agree with me that the UK Government should abandon its kill policy and instead follow the lead of the Welsh Government and introduce a robust vaccination programme?
I think that there are a number of aspects of policy where the UK Government would do very well to look across the border. I can say this: I was able to make a statement—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I was able to make a statement last week that demonstrated that the policy approach being taken by this Government has led to dramatic reductions in the incidence of bovine TB among herds affected and animals slaughtered. In fact, on every measure available to us, this Government is delivering reductions in bovine TB at twice the rate of the Government in England. I would invite Owen Paterson to come here to learn how it is done.
Minister, it is quite clear that the evidence from your chief vet is that this has got nothing to do with the vaccination programme. She said:
‘Looking at the figures within the intensive action area, and comparing the TB incidence and the number of reactors slaughtered to the broader picture across Wales, you will see that it is broadly the same. So, in no way are we able to attribute any of the effect of the reduction in incidence that we have reported in the past few days to the vaccination programme.’
Minister, do you agree with the scientific evidence from your chief vet or not? [Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Did the Minister hear the question, because I did not?
I heard it, but I did not think that it was a particularly good one. I can say this: a partial quotation is never a particularly good way of establishing your case.
I would like to—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
You have asked your question.
May I say that the point I made was very clear and, I think, very comprehensive? The suite of policies being supported and delivered by this Government has been responsible for the reductions in incidence of bovine TB at twice the rate being seen on the other side of the border. The whole range of policies being delivered by this Government is leading to that reduction, and if anybody in England wants to come here to see how it is done, I would very much be happy to take them up on that.
Of course, the Minister has experienced a conversion on the road to Damascus on this subject—or, in fact, he has experienced a conversion on the road from Damascus on this issue. The fact is, Minister, is that it is fine for you to refer to England, but if you were to look at significant evidence of what has been happening in Ireland as a result of the cull programme in Ireland, you would see that there has been a reduction of 29% in cases of TB. Do you accept that the cull programme in Ireland has contributed substantially to that? Will you accept also that the wages and incomes of farmers have reduced 44%, according to last year’s figures, and that the situation in terms of TB has made a significant contribution to that decline?
We must be cautious when looking at income figures for one year. If you were to look at the figures for last year, you would see that the situation has been transformed, and those figures have been published last week. I would advise you to look at those. I would like to say this: one of the problems that we have had when dealing with TB is this obsession with culling—the obsession that you have with culling. We have to move forward to get a holistic policy that responds to what is happening with wildlife—I have said this consistently since being elected here—but we must also do the other things. I say this to you: when Plaid Cymru left office here, levels of TB were increasing—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. This is not a conversation.
During this Government, the levels of TB have gone down, and that is the truth.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to protect sites of special scientific interest? OAQ(4)0129(NRF)
Our area-based approach to natural resource management recognises that protected sites are key to halting the decline in biodiversity and achieving more resilient ecosystems. This approach, underpinned by the environment Bill and initiatives such as the nature fund, will deliver multiple benefits for these sites and the wider environment.
The banks of Llanishen reservoir in my region are a site of special scientific interest for grassland fungi—[Interruption.]
Sorry, with people talking I cannot hear the question.
The banks of Llanishen reservoir in my region are a site of special scientific interest for grassland fungi. They are also a site of importance for nature conservation for toads and water plants. Of course, what makes that environment suitable for supporting these things is the water, and that reservoir has now been drained for more than three years. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the new owners of the reservoir with regard to protecting this particular site? What is the Welsh Government’s policy on engaging with new owners of sensitive sites of this nature?
I have had no discussions at all with any new owners of that particular site. I think that our overall approach to the protection of these special sites has to be important. One reason that I developed the nature fund—I will be making further announcements on that before the end of this month—is because I recognise that our current approach is not working, and we need to try different and new approaches.
We are, at the moment, seeing the protection of sites of special scientific interest being delivered in a reasonable fashion. I think that we need to do more, quite frankly, but we are not seeing a decline in the protection of those sites, as we have in the past. However, I think that we need to look at how we protect those sites, and I will be addressing that in the environment Bill.
Minister, as you will be aware, we have a range of sites, from SSSIs all the way through to those sites of local importance. What discussions might you be having with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration and the Minister for Local Government to ensure that county councils do not ride roughshod over some of our more protected areas, either in agreeing planning applications or levelling them for large housing developments?
I am not sure that I accept the characterisation that you have made, but the Minister for planning is in the Chamber and will have heard your question.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Thank you very much, Dame Presiding Officer. May I shift the question from the land to the sea? The Minister will welcome, as I do, certainly, the willingness of the commission on devolution, in chapter 8, to recommend that we should ensure powers for Welsh Ministers over the Welsh marine environment, including the open sea, which would enable conservation and the management of the oceans, including deep-sea fisheries, to occur in a co-ordinated way. How soon will the Minister ask for these powers from the Westminster Government?
I believe that the committee that the Member chairs and the evidence of the Welsh Government have been as one on this subject. I think that there has been consensus across the Chamber on these issues. It is obvious that the Silk process will be implemented by the Welsh Government and the United Kingdom Government jointly.
6. What lessons have been learnt from the recent severe storms in relation to sustaining coastal communities? OAQ(4)0132(NRF)
I have asked Natural Resources Wales to conduct a two-part review into the recent coastal flooding. The first part, an assessment of impacts, was published on 14 February. The second part, due in April, will include recommendations and lessons learnt.
Thank you, Minister, for that explanation. It is clear that our thanks are very great to everyone who assisted during these storms. However, in looking forward, it is clear that there are two approaches now. If you look at villages such as Borth, near Aberystwyth, you will see that storm and flood defences have worked extremely effectively, it would appear, and have been worth the investment. Then, if you look at a village such as Fairbourne in Gwynedd, you will see that there is a different approach to dealing with the impact of climate change and so on, and that is contained within the shoreline plan, of course. What is the Government’s view on these two kinds of approaches, and where do we protect villages and communities and where do we have to take a different approach and allow the sea to reclaim land possibly, and manage that? Does the Government have any intention to publish any sort of national strategy on these issues?
I agree with the analysis that the Member has just proposed. He is talking about the shoreline management plans, of course. I would advise the Member not to be misled by the BBC reports on these issues. We have not taken any decisions on the subject. My officials are assessing the shoreline management plans and I will make a decision and announce that decision later in the year.
Minister, severe storms have regularly affected the Ilan part of Rhydyfelin in my constituency, with regular flooding that has caused severe damage to housing. My predecessor secured some £3 million from the Welsh Government and from European funding in order to develop a flood prevention scheme. Despite the severest storms that we have had in a century, the measures that were taken have prevented flooding. Does the Minister agree that not only is this a good investment, but it is perhaps a model that can be looked at in terms of how it might assist other areas? Would the Minister be prepared to come to my constituency to see the success of the scheme and the impact that it has had on people’s homes?
I am always delighted to visit Pontypridd. I will be delighted to take up the Member’s invitation.
The Member raises a very significant point. We discussed this a month ago in relation to Swansea and the lower Swansea valley scheme, where very innovative schemes and new and different ways of developing flood prevention and flood protection work are delivering protection for tens of thousands of homes and businesses in communities up and down Wales. This is the real lesson, perhaps, of the last few months: when you invest in protecting people, their homes and their communities, you do not get the sort of chaos that you saw in England.
As the Minister is aware, there has been considerable damage to areas in my constituency, such as Newgale and Fishguard. I noticed from your statement a few weeks ago that you will support repairs to the Wales coast path. Given the importance of the route as a tourist attraction, particularly in my constituency, will the Minister indicate exactly how the Welsh Government will support the repair work, and whether he can tell us exactly how much money will be designated to the Wales coast path?
I am responsible for the work on the coastal defences, and I am not responsible for maintenance work on tourism infrastructure. This is led by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport and the Minister for Culture and Sport, jointly. I would suggest that you contact them.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on Wales’s contribution to tackling climate change? OAQ(4)0131(NRF)
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the level of CO2 emissions in Wales? OAQ(4)0128(NRF)
Presiding Officer, I understand that you have given your permission for questions 7 and 9 to be grouped.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Our annual report shows that good progress has made addressing climate change, but that further action is needed. I have committed to a policy refresh to focus on practical action that we can all take to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change to increase the resilience and prosperity of Wales.
Thank you, Minister for that answer. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, over half of people in the UK think that it is the main responsibility of the Governments of the member states to be tackling climate change, or that they should be leading the charge. How is the Welsh Government working to engage people on an individual level with climate change to change behaviours and attitudes? What hope is there at Westminster when there is a climate change denier leading the charge?
I think that the consequences are very difficult when you have UK Ministers who deny the obvious and deny the reality of what is happening in the world today. Then again, the Conservatives have never been particularly in touch with reality.
One of the reasons why the Welsh Government undertakes a great deal of work and investment in programmes like the eco-Schools programme is to engender that idea of citizenship and the idea that we, as people, can make changes that will have an impact on a global and world-wide scale. That is a very empowering thing to do, and it is what we will continue to invest in. In terms of empowerment, one of the innovative things that this Government is doing, and where it is being a leader internationally, is with the future generations Bill. The national conversation that was launched by my good friend the Minister for communities last month is seeking to engage people across the whole of Wales in what we can do to deliver sustainability in our communities and in our lives.
Carbon dioxide emissions are a significant contributor to climate change, but while I would support your point that we need to take personal responsibility for our own actions, gases respect no national boundaries. Would you, therefore, support Ed Davey’s calls to get statutory targets introduced at an EU level to make sure that we are all working together towards a consistent target? If so, what level of target would you hope to see adopted?
I attended the Environment Council of Ministers two weeks ago in Brussels with Ed Davey, and we spoke there about the UK position, and it is a UK position that is accepted and supported by the different administrations within the United Kingdom. We all signed up to that position and we are continuing to work alongside it. The key thing now, taking this forward, is that, within the United Kingdom, the four administrations work more closely together in order to deliver within our different areas of competence so that we do not simply have a UK position on paper, but that we have a UK position in reality as well.
The Government’s 2013 climate change report, published in December, highlighted that agricultural-based emissions have been on the rise in recent years. You responded to that by commissioning a review into land-based climate change. Now that the tender process has finished, can you provide an update on that review and how you intend to strengthen the evidence base to support decision makers in that sector to deliver emission reductions and improved climate change resilience?
I am beginning to regret that the Member has got his voice back. [Laughter.]
The Conservative spokesperson is right to identify agriculture as the one sector where we have seen significant increases in emissions. One of the things that I was anxious to do as a consequence of publishing the report in December, and looking back to the inter-governmental panel on climate change report in September, was to refresh the way we address these matters as a Government as a whole. I will be taking forward the sector plans for agriculture and land-based industries as a part of that refresh, and I will make further announcements on this later in the year.
The effects of climate change, as we know here in Wales, are very real, and we all know that we have had some areas particularly at risk of rising sea levels. The Gwent levels have a long-established system of flood control, including important wetlands and mudflats, providing natural sea defences. However, they are under threat from some major infrastructure projects, particularly roads and houses, and that will have an adverse effect on flooding. Bearing that in mind, how has that affected your view of the M4 relief road to the south of Newport, and do you agree that any major project that has a detrimental effect on long-established and, to a large extent, natural flood defences, will place those levels at greater risk in the future?
The Member is one of our greatest optimists, if he seriously expects me to answer that question with the Minister for transport sitting a few metres away from me. [Laughter.]
I disagree, actually, with the Member’s analysis. The Gwent levels are not a natural environment; it is a man-made environment and it has been man-made since Roman times. One of the great challenges facing us has been [Interruption.]—I know the history. The challenge has been to ensure that we have effective drainage and flood alleviation and protection policies in place now and in the future, and the Gwent levels are absolutely critical to that.
Minister, you partly addressed the answer to this question when you answered Russell George. I would like to ask you specifically how agriculture fits into the aspirations of this Government regarding zero carbon emissions. I note with interest reports such as ‘The Carbon Footprint of Sheep Farming in Wales’, which demonstrated the current data behind many assumptions of the carbon footprint of farms across Wales. Indeed, Wales is not, perhaps, as erudite as it could be. Results demonstrate the variation that occurs between farms producing the same product and, as such, they severally undermine the generality of any claims made about the carbon footprint of a farming enterprise for a whole country or region. Given that, could you explain how you look at the agriculture sector to either give it targets or to monitor them?
I think that we can look at this in a different way. I appreciate and understand why the Member is taking that approach, and it is a matter that is worthy of examination and discussion. However, agriculture can play a very positive part in these issues, not simply in managing the impact of livestock on emissions and other matters, but the way in which we farm and the way in which we manage the land. If we do that sustainably, then we would be able to have a much bigger impact on emissions, climate change and carbon than we would if we simply looked at the sector in a far more narrow sense. I will give the Member an example: if we were able to restore all of the blanket bogs in Wales through effective and sustainable land management, we would create not only a carbon sink—a means of storing carbon—but we would also be able to manage water better and release more land for grazing. We would win in a number of different areas. Therefore, I would like to see the role of agriculture in its wider sense recognised, supported and encouraged.
Minister, I am sure that the Welsh Government is aware of Tata Steel’s proposal to create a new internal energy system, which is being mentioned as part of its centre. If this is built, Tata says that it will reduce emissions substantially by using by-product gases as a primary source of power. Have you had any discussions with Tata Steel on this? Could this be used as a model of good practice in similar sectors in Wales?
I have not had discussions, but I agree with the point that the Member is making. Our collaboration with businesses demonstrates that climate change is not a threat to business but that there is a way of responding to climate change in a way that allows businesses to be more efficient and add to their profit. Therefore, I see collaboration with business as being important to ensure that we reach our targets in every sector. I am very happy to continue with that work.
Bees and Other Pollinators
8. What is the Welsh Government doing to halt the decline in the populations of bees and other pollinators in Wales? OAQ(4)0125(NRF)
Following my launch of the action plan for pollinators last year, a pollinators taskforce is taking forward actions on pollinators to reverse their decline through better roadside management, improving their health, creating habitats and raising awareness of their importance. This co-operative approach is an exemplar in the United Kingdom.
Thank you for that answer. I am aware of your recognition of the vital importance of bumble bees and of your launch of the action plan for pollinators. However, can you tell me what progress that taskforce has made in this area, and how we can make the public in general aware of the need to encourage diverse and connected flower-rich habitats—not just on farm land and in the countryside, but in our towns, cities and developed areas?
I very much agree with the points made by the Member. The taskforce has established web pages, which are hosted by the Wales Biodiversity Partnership, where further details of actions, resources and documents can be found. I will write to Members with details of that web page.
So far, the actions taken by the taskforce encompass a wide range of different activities, from roadside verges, Glastir, developing wildlife gardening and ensuring that we have the monitoring and evidence base that we need in order to take these matters forward. I very much agree with the general point being made by the Member that we need to look creatively at how we manage land within our urban areas—towns, cities and communities—to ensure that we have green areas and green spaces, where pollinators are allowed to live, but also where we can all breathe.
Minister, the Wild Weekend for Wales project occurred last week, from 7-9 March. The project provides funding of up to £150 for community groups, schools or businesses to enable them to create small, bee-friendly habitats in public areas, such as community gardens and allotments. How is the Minister proposing to measure the success of these projects in increasing the bee population?
Those projects and programmes are important in involving individuals and communities in these areas. You are absolutely right to say that the key thing is not simply to spend the money and run a project; it is absolutely essential that we set clear objectives for these projects, that we have clear ways of monitoring them, that we have clear targets and that we evaluate the projects afterwards and learn lessons from doing so. I ensure that that happens not only in this area of work, but across the whole of my portfolio.
Minister, the parasites that have attacked managed colonies have spread to our wild bee population and other mismanagement has resulted in decline. Therefore, is it time to adopt the precautionary principle or risk losing bees such as the large mason bee, which is Britain’s rarest bee, with just 250 females existing in two colonies, both of which are in Wales? What are the consequences for us all of not addressing bee decline? Will you publish the monitoring work that you mentioned earlier of wild bees, so that we have a full picture of the numbers and changes in the population of this very important insect?
I will publish all of the actions, all of the minutes, all of the reviews, all of the evaluation and all of the information from the taskforce so that you will be able to see the work in its totality, to judge the success from that and to hold us to account for the promises and commitments that we have made.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, William Powell.
Diolch, Lywydd. Minister, my discussions recently with beekeepers and their associations in mid and west Wales concur very much with the findings that Sandy Mewies mentioned earlier, in that there has been a strong welcome for the pollinator action plan across the sector. However, it has been raised with me that there is still a relatively low level of awareness out there among beekeepers, particularly small-scale beekeepers, of the plan and its scope. What further measures, in addition to what the Minister has already outlined, can the Welsh Government take to ensure that the excellent objectives within that plan are fully realised?
I am not sure that I accept the analysis that the Member has outlined; I think that there is general awareness of the plan that was launched at the Royal Welsh Show last year. The plan was drawn up after a significant amount of consultation, led by my predecessor. The main beekeeping associations in Wales are represented on the taskforce, and it has received a considerable amount of coverage in Wales and the United Kingdom. So, I would not necessarily accept that analysis.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Make it a shorter question this time.
Indeed. Thank you very much for that response. In association with the previous question, does the Minister believe that there would be benefit in engaging in a partnership with particular special purpose local authorities, such as the Welsh national park authorities, in taking forward specific actions with regard to the pollinator action plan? Will the Minister consider locating such a plan in the divisional office in Brecon, which is co-located with the headquarters of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, the future of which he was kind enough to confirm yesterday?
I am not sure that the plan exists in quite the physical way that the Member suggests. The plan is a series of actions that will be taken by people across the whole of Wales. We are not going to locate all these actions in the wonderful, magnificent town of Brecon—we are going to do it in every community up and down Wales from Amlwch to Porthcawl.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 9 was grouped with question 7, so we move on to question 10.
10. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of the January and February storms this year on fishing? OAQ(4)0134(NRF)
We are working collaboratively with the Welsh Fisherman’s Association to assess the impact of the recent storms on the Welsh fishing industry. I announced my intention to establish a support scheme for affected fishermen last week and I will publish full details very shortly.
Fishermen in my constituency, as you understand, I am sure, have failed to undertake any fishing for long periods during this winter. Also, the Ministry of Defence has recently announced that it will be closing the firing range in the Aberporth area for a few weeks in the not too distant future, and this will affect fishermen in a very practical way. Fishermen are therefore eager to know as soon as possible—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I am sorry to interrupt, but there is no translation at the moment.
The Minister and I are fine; we can carry on. [Laughter.] It is okay in Welsh now, is it?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Fine, carry on.
Minister, as you have just heard, fishermen have been affected very badly in my constituency and, in addition, the MOD has announced recently that it intends to close the firing range near Aberporth for a few weeks, which will also have a direct impact on fishermen. Fishermen are, therefore, very eager to know the details of your support programme so that they can decide what sort of additional investment they will be responsible for and what investment you will be able to support them with. They are eager to hear the details of that as soon as possible.
We are in discussions with them on that at present. We have been discussing this for a few weeks and I made a statement last week as I knew that people were discussing the kind of scheme that we will be announcing. I will be making an announcement before the end of the financial year on the kind of scheme that we will have. The scheme will look at what kind of equipment has been destroyed during the recent storms. There are other issues pertaining to the fishing industry. The Member will be aware that we have been investing generously in the future of the industry.
Minister, on 11 February, you would have heard the First Minister saying that Natural Resources Wales, when it undertook its assessment of coastal damage, would include the damage to fisheries. Are you able to confirm that you have received that report from Natural Resources Wales? I know that you are working closely with the Welsh Fisherman’s Association, but do you have an idea of the scale of the damage, not only to the equipment but to the fishing grounds, caused by the storms?
The statement that the First Minister made on 11 February referred to the two reports that I referred to earlier. The first-stage report is about the damage to coastal defences as a result of the storms. The second-stage report, which will look at the wider impacts of the storms, will be published next month.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on what guidance the Welsh Government gives to social landlords for dealing with anti-social behaviour? OAQ(4)0364(HR)
I thank the Member for Cynon Valley for her question. Our guidance is extensive and can be found on the Welsh Government website. It includes anti-social behaviour policies and procedures and the housing management standard for tackling anti-social behaviour.
You know that residents experiencing anti-social behaviour from neighbours often face the most difficult situations. Such incidents can affect their health and wellbeing. You have talked about guidance, but what guidance are you giving to social landlords so that they actually engage with the local communities around them effectively so that these matters can be resolved quickly?
I certainly recognise the issue the Member raises. Across Wales, there are pockets of anti-social behaviour occurring across estates. It is clearly unacceptable. There is a duty with the landlord. They have to take it seriously. I held a conference only two weeks ago, which brought local housing associations and authorities together to talk about these very issues. If the issue is not addressed by the landlord, individuals can take that organisation through the formal complaints procedure, which I would advise your constituents to do if they are not getting any joy through the actions they are taking currently.
Minister, I read with interest a recent piece of research entitled ‘How social landlords tackle anti-social behaviour’. It said:
‘Landlords identified a number of weaknesses in the Standard, in particular the fact that the Standard was voluntary, that the accreditation process was a desktop exercise only, and that there were no follow up assessments once a landlord had been accredited.’
Given this complete failure of the standard, what action are you taking, specifically? Are you minded to replace the current standard with something that is perhaps more meaningful?
I am reviewing the standard and how it will be implemented across the whole sector.
Minister, as a former housing manager for a social landlord in this city for 26 years, I would like to ask how closely the Welsh Government is working with the hate crime research project to alert social landlords to hate crime committed by some of their tenants against other tenants who are simply disabled.
We work across departments within Welsh Government. I know that the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty is looking at this very issue of hate crime. However, I am very committed to tackling the issue of anti-social behaviour, whatever form that takes, to make sure that landlords act responsibly and take this seriously.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson on housing, Peter Black.
Minister, one of the consequences of social landlords taking action against anti-social tenants is that they will often end up in private sector rented properties, where they continue to cause problems to their neighbours and the local community. What guidance will you give as part of the new registration process in the housing Bill to private landlords to try to help them to control this particular issue?
I think that the whole issue of ownership, whether that is in the private or public sector of housing, is about somebody taking responsibility. We are working with groups across the sector to ensure that they understand and recognise what anti-social behaviour is and that there is a pathway to deal with it, whether that is an agency, such as a landlord in particular, or a service for a law enforcement group, such as the police or otherwise. However, it is important and we all have to consider how we move forward on this.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. One of the problems with the private rented sector is, where you have large concentrations of rented properties, particularly houses in multiple occupation, anti-social behaviour can be amplified and cause particular problems for a community.
Will you consider, as part of the forthcoming planning Bill, introducing restrictions on planning in terms of houses in multiple occupation, so that local authorities have more control over the numbers in a particular community and can make sure that they have more balanced communities, to prevent these problems from taking place?
I believe that local authorities already have powers to control the mechanism of what their cities, towns or villages look like in terms of the planning process. I will look closer at the issues around HMOs and I have offered, following lobbying from other Members, to work around the consequences of having major developments of HMOs in a particular area. I will be making further inquiries around that in the next couple of months.
The Welsh Planning System
2. Will the Minister make a statement on his proposals for the future of the Welsh planning system? OAQ(4)0360(HR)
The consultation period on the draft planning Wales Bill and the supporting paper, ‘Positive Planning’, closed on 26 February. The responses to the consultation are currently being considered.
Minister, as you know, I take a great deal of interest in the heritage of our nation. I appreciate that your ministerial colleague will be bringing forward a heritage Bill, but what protections might local authorities be able to introduce with the support of your proposals to ensure that local buildings that are of importance locally and nationally to the heritage of Wales might have the proper protections that they deserve?
I am already in discussion with the Minister and his proposal around the heritage Bill to see how the two Bills—planning and heritage—interact, as well as the environment Bill. Again, there are synergies between the three around protection of the natural environment. It is an important part of the work that we are doing and it is being considered during the drafting stages.
Minister, could you indicate whether community councils will be given an enhanced role in the planning process following the implementation of larger local authorities, as recommended by the Williams report?
Thank you, Mick, for your question. Our proposals are to introduce locally relevant supplementary planning guidance in the form of place plans. I believe that community councils will feature heavily in the process in terms of pre-application consultations. So, there will be a role there for them.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the opposition spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Given that your forthcoming planning Bill, as you have indicated, intends to make it easier to encourage housing supply through greater flexibility, and given that we have too few homes, too many boarded up shops and that town centre development already has an infrastructure, what consideration will you give in the Bill to making it easier to convert excess retail property to residential use?
There is already a facility to convert properties from retail into housing provision in current legislation. We will consider that further in the drafting of this new Bill.
Thank you for that. You will be aware that there are professional bodies that are very keen to see this strengthened, so that local authorities are compliant. On a related matter, again, within the forthcoming planning Bill, what consideration will you give to the provision of independent training and refresher training for councillors and council officials on the planning process, so that they know where to access ministerial interim planning policies, statements and Welsh Government guidance, so that they can challenge, if need be, the advice that they are given and so that they know when they can speak out under the planning code of conduct?
I will be very clear, Presiding Officer: the new planning Bill will be a procedure-based Bill, not a policy Bill, and we will be looking at how delivery can be enhanced in terms of growing the economy in Wales. I share the Member’s concern around training and skill-based knowledge for both elected members and professionals in that process, and we are looking at a training package for delivery through the Bill process.
Minister, you decided not to include a statutory purpose for planning in Wales in the draft Bill that you have published, against the recommendations of the independent advisory group and others, of course. Would not making it a statutory purpose for planning in Wales to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development give the clearest possible signal in terms of the priorities of this Government?
I think that the Member is right to raise the issues about what we accept and what we do not accept within the Bill structure. We are still in a consideration phase of drafting, so who knows what might come in the more detailed approach to the final Bill? However, what I will say is that I believe that sustainable development is a core plank in terms of delivering all our policies, including the planning Bill, as well as the Bill on future generations that my colleague will be bringing forward later this year.
Minister, in a written response to me last week, you confirmed that, so far, the Welsh Government has made no assessment of the consequences of planning inspectors using Department for Communities and Local Government guidance during their examination of the community infrastructure levy aspect of local authority local development plans here in Wales. I understand that this is an issue that has particularly come to light in Carmarthenshire and in Caerphilly. Given the lack of assessment of the consequences of using English planning guidance in this way, how can the Welsh Government be assured that Welsh planning policy is not being inappropriately influenced by planning policy drafted for use across the border in England?
I think that your written question to me was had we had any discussions and the answer was that, clearly, we had not. Does that mean that we will not have in the future, or that we will not consider the implications of the English element of the Bill having an effect? That is something that I am considering
3. Will the Minister make a statement on town centre regeneration in west Wales? OAQ(4)0359(HR)
I thank the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. West Wales will benefit from ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’, support for business improvement districts, a new town-centre loans fund and other actions.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but, as he is aware, Pembrokeshire was unsuccessful in obtaining funding through the ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ scheme and, again, through the business improvement districts scheme. Given that areas such as Fishguard in my constituency were promised funding by the Welsh Government to regenerate their areas some 10 years ago, which never materialised, can the Minister tell us what funding opportunities will be available to Pembrokeshire in the near future to help support vital regeneration?
Of course, ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ is just one part of my department. There is cross-Government investment that is available for all areas of Wales, including Fishguard, and it is something that I know that my colleagues are looking at in terms of making the right investment in the right places.
Minister, in Llanelli town centre, there are many vacant units above shops. Using them as additional living spaces would bring many benefits in terms of creating a community that lives and shops locally on the high street and make use of the vacant units. What discussions have you had with stakeholders on the different types of action to regenerate town centres, such as increasing use of these units?
I am grateful to the Member for raising the issue, particularly around the Llanelli area, but this is prevalent in many areas across Wales. This type of scenario is what I intend my VVP investment funding to target. I will be announcing shortly details of the fund for those areas that were unsuccessful at stage 1 of VVP and that are eligible for further funding, for which Llanelli will be eligible.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on planning protections for recreational space in Wales? OAQ(4)0361(HR)
I thank the Member for Clwyd West for this question. National planning policy and guidance, together with local development plans, afford protection to recreational space in Wales.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, there is a great deal of concern in Abergele in my constituency regarding proposals for development on what has been traditionally used as recreational space adjacent to some playing fields in the town. Will you tell us what proposals you have for changing the way that village greens are registered in Wales and how that might impact upon this system? There is a lot of concern that the process for village green registration may become more bureaucratic, more cumbersome, and more difficult for locals in constituencies like mine in the future.
Again, I thank the Member for his question. If I may, I will not comment on the specific planning application within his constituency. However, the broader policy of village greens is an important point that the Member raises. It is our intention currently within the draft Bill process to give, still, the opportunity for people to register for village green status, provided that that is not complicated by a planning application that is current. A post-planning or pre-planning application for village green space can still be pursued, but not during a planning process when an application is taking place, because it does frustrate the planning system.
Minister, land that is designated for recreational use does attract development, because of the numbers of houses designated under the local development plan. For example, in Carmarthen, the Welsh dwelling survey says that we need another 11,000 houses over the next 25 years, but, in the local development plan, the intention is to build 10,000 houses in the next 10 years. Is there a need, Minister, for you to look once again at the number of houses that are included under the local development plans of our local authorities, in order to ensure that these areas that are designated for recreational use are protected?
Of course, I think that the whole issue about recreational space is part of the planning process that is considered by the local planning authority. Local development plans mean that they are created locally, and it is not for me to interfere with the process, whereby a local authority creates the plan, and designs the housing need and the recreational spaces that are developed within the plans that it creates. It is something that we are conscious of, which has a high impact on communities, but is something that, locally, should be considered by the local planning authority.
Minister, I accept that draft guidelines have been published on play areas at the end of February. However, there has been a great deal of coverage this week of childhood obesity, and the fact that Wales is now among the worst places in Europe. A Government official has said that this is an issue across all Government departments—a cross-cutting issue, if you like. May I ask you therefore—in the light of your previous response—whether there is scope for the Welsh Government to put specific guidance in place on planning, bearing in mind that so many playing fields are now under threat because of decisions taken by local authorities?
I think, again—and I am often criticised for micromanaging local planning authorities, or local authorities, in whatever guise—that the issue is that these are local developments, and that these are plans that are created by the democratically elected members and officers of an authority. I do not want to get involved in that process, in making sure that what is right for local determination is designed locally. In terms of the guidance and the opportunity that we offer for local authorities to make that consideration, there is TAN 12 around design, TAN 18 around transport opportunities, which could include walking and cycling routes, and on the issue around the Welsh Government’s TAN 16 on sports, recreation and open spaces, there is a raft of guidance already in place—it is how it is implemented on a local basis with the local planning department.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government policy in relation to the registration of private landlords? OAQ(4)0374(HR)
The proposals for private landlords form part of the housing Bill, which has recently been through Stage 1 committee scrutiny. I am currently awaiting a report from the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, which will precede a general debate on the Bill in the Chamber.
I welcome steps such as this to tackle anti-social behaviour. A crucial recommendation of the independent report on anti-social behaviour is on the importance of partnership. Llanelli is an excellent example. I set up the Station Road forum, which calls local stakeholders together to take action at a local level. The county council has just launched a selective licensing system for landlords in the area. Would you agree with me that this real partnership working, with all local stakeholders, including the police community support officers, is an excellent example of tackling the core issues of anti-social behaviour in private rented homes and across the housing sector more generally?
I commend the Member and his colleagues who work alongside him in the Station Road forum for that implementation. This is exactly what we need in terms of working in partnership to deliver against tackling the scourge of anti-social behaviour in our communities. That is a great example that the Member raises today that could be learnt from by many.
Given that the Housing Act 2004 introduced selective licensing to tackle anti-social behaviour and to control criminal and poor quality landlords, and that the housing health and safety rating system that the Minister indicated, which was also introduced in the 2004 Act, will be the repairing standard under the Housing (Wales) Bill, can you tell us how many enforcement actions there have been in Wales under selective licensing, under the housing health and safety rating system, since these were adopted in Wales under subordinate legislation in this Assembly?
I cannot give the Member the numbers, but I will look at them and write to him with the detail. However, what I can say is that he commented on two pieces of legislation that are designed to tackle anti-social behaviour, which are clearly still having a low impact in the communities that we all represent, where anti-social behaviour is still taking place. I am committed to making sure that we can make a difference, whether that is with that legislation or with new legislation that is required.
Minister, you plan to allow local authorities to place homeless families into the private rented sector. How will you ensure that those landlords will be equipped to deal with the difficulties homeless households often face, so that they will then not face repeated homelessness?
The Member is absolutely right to raise this issue and I am doing some more work in terms of the drafting of the legislation and how we look at the licensing criteria related to an individual landlord to see whether they deem themselves as suitable candidates to discharge the duty with the homeless element into the private rented sector.
Thank you; that is very good news, Minister. Your housing Bill also aims to drive up standards within the private rented sector. Why does it therefore set the acceptable standard as the current legal minimum?
There has to be a benchmark in terms of what the minimum standard is and it does not prohibit any landlord being above that. I am conscious of the Member’s interest in terms of raising standards across housing and I share her view, but I do not believe that the housing Bill is the vehicle to deliver on that. I think that there are other opportunities that we are pursuing in terms of standards across the private rented sector that we are looking at and will possibly implement at a later stage.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on escrow payments made between local planning authorities and opencast operators? OAQ(4)0362(HR)
I thank the Member for her qusetion. I am not able to comment on specific cases. However, national planning policy on securing restoration is contained in ‘Minerals Planning Policy Wales’ and ‘Minerals Technical Advice Note 2: Coal’.
I did not expect you to comment on any particular planning, Minister, but I am sure that you will agree with me that it is right and proper that particular operators should provide clear and transparent plans for ensuring that sites are left as they should be, as you indicated in the Varteg decision. I wonder what the Welsh Government can do with regard to existing sites. The escrow accounts for East Pit and Margam are woefully underfunded, to the point where planners now have to find other ways of filling the hole in the ground. People living near Ffos-y-fran in Merthyr also fear that the restoration is being pushed to the background as opposed to being done now. Does the Welsh Government have any ideas on how it can play a role in making sure that these companies fulfil their obligations in these particular communities?
The Member is right to raise the issue around restoration. It is an important part of the whole planning consent. I believe that there is further work to be done on this. I have asked my officials to look at current workings within Wales to see how the escrow payments process is working, and when we have the data available I will share those with Members at the appropriate time.
Home Adaptations in Islwyn
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of home adaptations carried out in Islwyn in the last year? OAQ(4)0369(HR)
We do not hold the data at Assembly constituency level. However, we have the information at local authority level. I can confirm that during the last financial year, 2012-13, Caerphilly County Borough Council provided 174 disabled facilities grants. In addition, the Welsh Government received 55 applications for physical adaptations grants.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. While it is always important to provide home adaptations, do you agree that the consequences of the bedroom tax could be people moving from homes that have already taken adaptations and so doubling the expense of putting them in again? That is, if they can find a place to go.
I thank the Member for his very prudent question. There is anecdotal evidence that disabled tenants living in adapted properties that are affected by the bedroom tax are not receiving discretionary housing payments. I wrote to Lord Freud, asking that money be ring-fenced for this client group so that they are not forced to move out of their properties. Sadly, Lord Freud rejected my request on this process.
College occupational therapists call for a thorough overhaul of the housing adaptation system in Wales. I quote from its comment. It said that it was,
‘bewildering, discriminatory and failing those in need’.
Your housing White Paper calls for a review of these aids and adaptation programme, with which we agree. What has been done in the interim to make further improvements to the current range of services?
I share some of the concerns that the Member raises about the way that the scheme operates. I have asked my team to conduct a review of services and how they will be delivered in the future. I will make further statements to the Assembly when that has concluded.
My question is almost along the lines of William Graham’s question. We know that one Welsh local authority actually employees two occupational therapists, and another has 21 and they are of similar size. Occupational therapists play a part in the process of delivering grants and home adaptations. What proposals will you be putting in place to help to increase the number of OTs employed in certain underperforming local authorities?
The elements of OTs do not come under my remit in terms of employment, but I am concerned about underperforming authorities. We are seeing an increase in delivery. It probably is not fast enough. However, I have committed to review the whole system to make sure that we are actually passporting the money in the right direction and through to the right people who can deliver on time and effectively across the communities that we represent.
The Housing Association Sector
8. What action is the Minister taking to support the improvement of governance within the housing association sector? OAQ(4)0373(HR)
I thank the Member for Mid and West Wales for her question. I have asked associations to adopt a code of governance and my officials are helping to develop it. I have published a paper on the risks facing associations and set out my expectations on governance as part of the risk-based approach to regulation.
I thank you for that answer, Minister. Last Saturday was International Women’s Day. As well as celebrating achievements from progress, it was a chance to reflect on where we are in terms of realising equality. The latest ‘Who runs Wales?’ report makes for disappointing reading, as does the Welsh Government’s governance of the housing association study that reports that women are consistently under-represented on housing association boards. What can the Government do to help to address this imbalance?
The Member is absolutely right to raise this issue. I joined many people in celebrating International Women’s Day on Saturday. I have made a commitment through my department that I expect all of my boards, for which I have responsibility, to be, at the very least, gender balanced if not gender biased to women. The ministerial advisory group that I launched last week has a membership that is gender biased towards women, which I believe is absolutely appropriate for good governance. I will continue to drive that process and I have written, as I said, to boards and am working with Community Housing Cymru across Wales to develop a better understanding about how we can achieve gender balance and equality being deployed, hopefully, before Christmas this year, in terms of the detail about what that will mean for boards in the future in Wales.
To what extent will the code of governance that you referred to, being developed by you and Community Housing Cymru, impact on the housing pact for supply with Community Housing Cymru, and to what extent, under the code, is the Welsh Government willing to give housing associations in Wales the same freedom as those available to housing associations in England and Scotland to manage increased levels of risk?
We are in discussion with CHC and interested stakeholders in terms of what that pact will consist of. I am very flexible on my approach to risk-based assessment. We have changed the way that that is operating, and there is still a little bit of improvement to go. However, it works both ways. There is an expectation that I will release risk in terms of giving autonomy to RSLs in the way that they operate, providing that they can show to me that there is good governance in place. Good governance means equity across board membership, not just male-dominated boards.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
9. What powers does the Government have to limit the number of HMOs in a community? OAQ(4)0370(HR)
11. Will the Minister provide an update on progress in establishing a commission to look at areas of high density HMOs? OAQ(4)0368(HR)
I thank the Member for her question. Presiding Officer, I understand that you have given permission for questions 9 and 11 to be grouped. There are currently limited powers that would enable the Welsh Government or local authorities to limit the number of HMOs in a given area.
Thank you, Minister. Cathays in my constituency has one of the highest concentrations of HMOs anywhere in Wales and, indeed, in the UK. It is a ghost town during university holidays. The result, for those who remain, is that it is a very lonely place to be and hardly a vibrant and viable place. You have referred in the Chamber in the past to a working party that you have set up that is going to look at this issue. Could you tell us what the time frame is for that work, and how you will obtain the input of local authorities that have something to say on this matter, and, indeed, of local communities that are affected by the preponderance of HMOs in their areas?
I thank the Member for her question. As other Members have done, she has alluded to the difficulties and problems that a concentration of HMOs in a specific area causes for the community. I came through the Member’s constituency the other day, and I was shocked to see the amount of ‘To Let’ signs that are still littered across the community. This is something that, again, we need to consider in the whole, in terms of how HMOs operate. I will be setting up the working group shortly. I hope that that will be in April. I am still looking for membership of that. Again, if the Member and other Members wish to give some advice or thoughts around that process, in terms of who is best placed to give me advice on this particular issue, I would welcome some of that intervention.
I am delighted to hear that answer to my colleague Jenny Rathbone. The Minister will know, as does everyone else in this Chamber, that I am one of the people who has a major problem with HMOs in my constituency. The Minister has recently received a copy of a major report from the City and County of Swansea Council on HMO densities.
Minister, would you pay particular attention to paragraphs 7.2 and 7.3 of that report? Paragraph 7.2 says that some of the highest densities in my constituency are reaching 71% of houses in single streets. Paragraph 7.3 talks about community cohesion and sustainability issues that are now beyond control in those areas. Minister, I would urge you to set up that working group or commission as soon as possible. I have already furnished you with some names for it, and I am happy to furnish you with more. Minister, could we be assured that that group will work as speedily as possible before this gets completely out of control in most of our university towns?
It would not be right for me, Presiding Officer, to say that I try to avoid Julie James sometimes because she raises this with me on every occasion in terms of HMOs. The fact of the matter is that she is very passionate about the issue and recognises, as I do, the difficulty that it causes within her constituency. I have committed to setting up this working group, and I am very grateful to Julie for recommending names for membership of that group. I will take this very seriously in terms of how we deal with the issues that affect not only Julie James’s community and Jenny Rathbone’s, but many other communities across Wales.
Minister, in reply to my question of 5 February, you indicated that your working group will be considering the implications of the existing planning and licensing regime for HMOs and that you will look across the range of legislative tools available to you, including the Housing (Wales) Bill, to see what would add advantage in terms of licensing and so on. That suggests to me that you may simply be looking at the housing Bill as a possibility for dealing with our recently expressed concerns about the overconcentration of HMOs, including in my own ward. Could you confirm whether I have drawn the right inference from your answer? If so, what are your plans for consultation beyond your working group for what may be material changes to this Bill?
What we have tried to do is to see, within the scope of the Housing (Wales) Bill, whether there is anything that we can do now to make a real difference within the HMO sector. What we have discovered is that there will be more legislative tools that we will need to apply that would not be appropriate for the housing Bill. So, I do not believe that the changes for that will take place. However, my commitment to looking across the raft of opportunities that we have in legislation—secondary legislation or guidance that will be issued to local authorities—will be informed by the working group as it moves forward. If we need to create legislation through that process, there is an opportunity through the renting homes Bill that we may be able to scope within the competency and scope of the Bill. That may be an opportunity for us to take forward at that appropriate time.
Minister, I would like to raise another aspect of this problem. I am very aware of landlords in places such as Aberystwyth and Swansea that continue to exploit students within these HMOs, particularly by not returning deposits or charging rent over the summer when the accommodation is not available, which adds to the problem as the place is vacant over the summer. Bearing that context in mind and the fact that students exploited in this way will not treat the HMO in the best way possible and will not view it as home because they are being exploited, is there anything further that you can do as a Government to encourage good and better practice among landlords in order to create communities that are far more sustainable and welcoming all round?
I recognise the problem that the Member raised and it is something that we need to look at in terms of a suite of things that we can do to ensure that people, wherever they live, whether they are students or otherwise, in the HMO setting or the private-rented sector, have a fair deal. That is part of the issue that we are delivering on the private rented sector in the Housing (Wales) Bill. We are looking at opportunities in the renting homes Bill and this working group will look at the selection of tools that we have available or could need to make sure that we can give more security to people who are sometimes in a vulnerable position because of the way that an unscrupulous landlord operates their activity.
Minister, landlords can avoid getting planning permission for an HMO if fewer than eight people live there, but many of the HMOs in my region—in Cathays in Cardiff or in Llantrisant, for example—while still very densely populated, are conversions of much smaller properties with fewer people in them. Would you consider reducing that trigger for planning consent to five or six so that councils can tackle a greater proportion of the HMOs in their regions?
I am not ruling that out but I will be better informed by the working group that is being set up in the next few weeks.
The Regeneration of High Streets
10. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress being made to regenerate Welsh high streets? OAQ(4)0363(HR)
I thank the Member for Monmouth for his question. Our ‘Vibrant and Viable Places—A New Regeneration Framework’ sets the policy for the regeneration of town centres in Wales.
Thank you for that succinct answer, Minister. As you will know, there was a commitment last March by the Welsh Government to supporting a long-awaited Welsh high-street campaign, which was originally scheduled to be introduced last June. The First Minister has now signalled that it will not be launched until this autumn, 18 months after originally planned and a whole three years after the Enterprise and Business Committee issued our report—an excellent report, I might say—called ‘Regeneration of town centres’, which is well worth refreshing yourself with.
In the meantime, the Welsh Conservatives have published our own vision for Welsh high streets, which is, again, well worth looking at. Minister, I am all for that old adage ‘more haste, less speed’ but do you think that you could possibly pick up the pace a little bit so there are at least some high streets left in Wales to regenerate?
Well, I have seen the vision of the Conservative Party and that is why we see people trailing down to the job centre on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is that we have made a £100 million investment in our ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ programme across Wales. We are making sure that there are business improvement districts across Wales, one of which is in the Member’s constituency and I am sure that he welcomes that, despite his harsh exterior. We are making a difference in communities. There is more work to be done and the report, as the First Minister mentioned, will be launched in the autumn.
Have the figures regarding vacant shops on our high streets increased or decreased over the past three years?
I do not have those data available to respond to the Member but I will seek to clarify that with him by letter.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 11 was grouped with question 9, so we now move to question 12.
12. Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of the Planning Bill? OAQ(4)0366(HR)
The consultation period on the draft planning (Wales) Bill closed on 26 February. The responses to the consultation are currently being considered and the final planning (Wales) Bill will be introduced to the National Assembly later this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. One of the proposals in the planning Bill is to put in an intermediate, more regional tier to make planning decisions. Has the Minister considered how that will fit in with the proposals for city regions? In this area, there is the proposal for a metro and there are proposals from the Williams commission. There may be a danger that there will be a lot of different levels. How would these all fit together?
I thank the Member for her supplementary question. The evidence that we are seeking through the ‘Positive Planning’ consultation process was to understand better the concerns of constituents and constituency representatives. The issue around city regions is something that we have taken into consideration in terms of the strategic planning areas. We think the Bill is futureproofed, whether that be Williams-proof or otherwise. On city region status, we can deal with that in terms of tiers of determination. It is something that I know the Member has a view on. Of course, the LDP process is for local authorities, and the information provided for city regions when they have strategic planning control will be something that the Bill will deal with in its passage through this Assembly.
Minister, you talk about futureproofing the Bill; there is a huge discussion going on at the moment as to exactly how local government will work and how the regional consortia will work in developing economic activity across Wales. Can you give us an example of what you are thinking about when you talk about futureproofing the Bill so that we have something tangible to think about in terms of what your officials and you as Minister are looking to introduce with that Bill?
The current situation is that the draft planning Bill is very clear in terms of what is expected within a planning function of an authority across Wales. I have been very clear that 25 planning authorities are far too many for Wales. It is something that I am considering through the consultation responses currently, and I will make an announcement about what the shape of a planning authority may look like in the future. However, should Williams come along and change the focus on how a local planning authority would operate in size or scale, we believe that the drafting of the Bill will allow enough flexibility to make those subtle changes in terms of what a planning authority would look like. I do not think that it is helpful that Williams is being used as a smokescreen by some authorities not to change the way we operate in a planning function across Wales for the betterment of economic growth in Wales.
13. How does the Minister intend to use his responsibility for planning policy to advance the Welsh Government’s priorities? OAQ(4)0375(HR)
I thank the Member for her question. Planning policy is regularly updated based upon relevant evidence for change or improvement reflecting commitments made in the programme for government.
The Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 places a duty on local authorities to make more accessible routes for pedestrians and cyclists, yet in my constituency there is a rash of gating of the lanes going on, which is actually going to be deterring their use by people who are walking or cycling. What action do you think is required to ensure that local authorities are clear about their planning duties in implementing the active travel Act actively in order to promote vibrant communities, where people, as a default, are walking or cycling?
As a powerful advocate of the active travel Act—and I know that many in this Chamber were too—I am very keen to make sure that that works collectively across Government, and Ministers have discussions about implementation and the effects of that on their portfolios. I do not think that local authorities need any more guidance in terms of the way that they operate the planning process; it is the way that they interpret that, and the planning Bill will give better training opportunities for people who are interpreting the Bill, and also recognising the democratic process in which this operates. Of course, the gating of some areas is for community safety, and I am sure that the Member would support that in many areas, but it has to be taken in conjunction with how the active travel Act operates, and activity levels between A and B in a particular area.
New Homes for North Wales
14. Will the Minister make a statement on the proposed number of new homes planned for North Wales? OAQ(4)0371(HR)
The number of new homes planned in north Wales is a matter for each local planning authority when preparing its local development plan.
Thank you for your answer. Household numbers for Wales were projected to increase in the period 2011 to 2033. According to the 2008-based projections, the increase would be 284,000. However, the updated 2011-based projections now show an increase of just 175,000. Can you please explain why there is a 38% reduction in the household projections, and will you therefore allow local development plans to be revised to reflect this considerable decrease?
The household projection figures that have been issued are only part of the proposal, in terms of making a creative plan for the future. I think that what we have to do is look at what the household need is, but also at what the household ambition is for the future. That is something that I would expect all local planning authorities to consider. I will not be issuing a directive for household projection figures to be modified in any LDP.
Properties on Registered Floodplains
15. Will the Minister outline how many properties have been built on registered floodplains in Wales over the past 10 years? OAQ(4)0367(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. The most relevant data are from Natural Resource Wales, which has identified that, between 2007 and 2012, 188 dwellings in Wales have been approved in flood-risk areas contrary to its advice. I should say that not all have been built.
I thank the Minister for that response. A number of developments have taken place in areas that are prone to flooding. We also know that, as the developments take place, the trees and bushes that are there, which currently suck up the water, are also chopped down, to make matters worse. Do you think that stronger guidelines are necessary to stop houses and other dwellings being built in these areas that are so liable to flooding?
I think that we have very strong guidance already, in terms of technical advice note 15 and C2 provision around flood areas. When a local authority is minded to approve a site in a C2 flood area, it has to be referred to the Welsh Government to have a backstop position in terms of whether it believes that it is acceptable in terms of development. As I said, we already have an increased support mechanism to deal with flooding and development, and I know that the Member is acutely aware of how important dealing with these issues at the first point of action is for his constituents and for many people across Wales, too.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1 and 2 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendment 3 in the name of Lesley Griffiths.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Byron Davies to move the motion.
Motion NDM5448 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of bus services to the people of Wales.
2. Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure stability for the bus industry and passengers.
3. Further calls on the Welsh Government to protect bus services in Wales.
I move the motion.
I am delighted to move today’s motion on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives in this debate. We have tried to ensure that the motion receives broad support around the Chamber; indeed, we welcome the Government’s amendment on this.
In our debate today, I hope that we can pose, and the Government can respond to, some of the fears and very real dangers currently facing our bus industry in Wales. It is not my intention to get too bogged down in the semantics of the devolved settlement, and I will address Plaid Cymru’s amendments in a moment. Today is really about scrutinising Welsh Government delivery and protecting our local bus services, and that will be the focus of my contribution on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives.
I want to start with some context. Over the last two years, the bus industry has seen an £8 million reduction through the local transport service grant, the bus service operators grant and regional transport services grant funding. This is the primary reason for the reduction in services and, indeed, the withdrawal of some routes.
The real pressure is now coming in the form of an 11% cut in the concessionary fare reimbursement budget; this scheme is a blow to bus operators and passengers. It is interesting to note that this cut was not announced in the Chamber or through a written statement on a Friday before recess, but through a letter to local authorities in Wales.
This cut comes after months of uncertainty over this important issue. While bus operators should have been forward-planning, they were left second-guessing what the Welsh Government would offer them. In fact, a key bus industry monitor in the UK described bus policy in Wales as one of indecision and hesitation. Of that there can be no doubt, and there is ample evidence to substantiate that this is the case.
To see the context of this cut, I would recommend that all Assembly Members look at the TAS Partnership Limited’s bus monitoring report. It is a much-respected observer in the UK, and the report contains financial information for all of the large bus companies in the UK over the last decades. It includes Cardiff Bus, Newport Bus and the Welsh subsidiaries of First Group, Arriva and Stagecoach.
One interesting statistic is that profitability in Wales is lower than in England—outside of London, that is. Concerning concessionary fares, the data show that there has been no increase in profitability since the introduction of the Welsh Government’s free concessionary fares scheme. In other words, every additional penny that went into the industry has led to additional investment and vehicles. Conversely, any penny taken out of it will lead to fare increases and service reductions.
So, even if the Welsh Government is technically correct that operators will be no worse or no better off after the cut in funding, passengers, for sure, will be worse off. I believe that the Welsh Government is wrong and I would be surprised if operators do not challenge the Minister’s decision through the courts.
On that note, I would like at this point to refer to the Confederation of Passenger Transport Cymru reaction to the concessionary fares reduction. It stated that:
‘The Welsh Government’s damaging cuts will have far-reaching implications right across daily life in Wales, not just on direct bus provision.’
It went on to warn that
‘businesses, local authorities, charities and support groups should all be hugely concerned by the Welsh Government’s poorly thought-out plans.’
The effects of these Labour Government cuts have already started. It was reported in February that 100 subsidised bus routes have already been scrapped in Wales in the past three years. Nearly one in seven routes across 19 council areas has been axed.
So, I would say to the Chamber that among the confusion, delay and hesitation by the Welsh Government, the Minister has also announced a public transport users advisory panel. This is being established to replace the public transport users committee. There is at the moment little information about the structure, remit and full membership of these groups and any further changes to the Welsh Government’s approach to the bus industry will result in more uncertainty and instability. We, on this side of the Chamber, have great unease at the amount of change that the Minister has undertaken in this area, without any kind of vision or guarantee to the people of Wales about the level of bus service that they can expect.
It is important to highlight that there are almost 800,000 people aged 60 and over in Wales, a quarter of the population, in fact, and in the next twenty years, this is expected to exceed 1 million people. Transport is vital to the aging population of rural Wales as it helps older people maintain their independence. Without sufficient transport links older people can become isolated, lonely and are often unable to take care of themselves due to poor access to services. The Age Cymru report ‘Buses—A Lifeline for Older People’ concluded that
‘Without steps to improve the frequency, reliability and accessibility of bus services throughout Wales, more and more older people will be unable to reach essential services. Not only will their wellbeing suffer but there are significant consequences for other services, notably health and social care services, which will have to cope with older people’s isolation.’
I would say to Members that in opening this debate I highlighted the dangers in the Government’s current approach, predicted the complete breakdown in our bus network if the current funding cuts are not reversed and highlighted the ageing demographics of our nation and the importance of free bus travel for senior citizens, but more importantly the need for an actual bus service.
I promised to deal with the Plaid Cymru amendments; we will be abstaining on the two amendments. It is not my intention to jump the gun on Silk part 2; there is much to be considered here. It is time to reflect and not rush into judgments, so, as I said, we will be abstaining on those amendments.
Financial settlements for the bus industry are an issue that affects and threatens the very infrastructure of our delicate transport system here in Wales. I urge the Welsh Government to reconsider the funding arrangements and to consult properly and meaningfully with the bus industry. The message that I am receiving is that the industry is very much out of the loop at present and in a complete dilemma as to the future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have selected three amendments to the motion. I call on Dafydd Elis-Thomas to move amendments 1 and 2, tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add new point after point 1 and renumber accordingly:
Welcomes the recommendation of the Commission on Devolution in Wales to devolve regulatory power over buses to the Welsh Government.
Add new point after point 1 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the need for a dedicated Traffic Commissioner for Wales.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I move amendments 1 and 2.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
It is a great pleasure that, today, we have three debates on transport, particularly the very important debate in the short debate. As a former passenger on the train between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, getting off at Pencader to go to Newcastle Emlyn, I am looking forward to seeing how my colleague Simon Thomas is going to re-establish that rail link here.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
It is my opportunity today to state that it is extremely important that we should support the motion before us today, but also the amendment that I moved in the name of Plaid Cymru, namely the amendment that highlights the recommendation of the commission on the constitution in Wales.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I will not argue that I know that my colleague in another Parliament, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth—an excellent title—is entirely supportive of these recommendations and that he has a very close link, of course, with the Welsh Conservative group. However, perhaps the group could consider this between now and voting time. However, what is crucial to me is that the substantial recommendations in chapter 7 of the commission’s report sets a new and appropriate framework for public transport in Wales, including, particularly, bus transport. The regulation of bus services, including the relevant functions of the traffic commissioner, would, at last, create a means for the Welsh Government to create an integrated transport regime. Without these two pillars for integrated transport, mainly the railway franchises of the Marches and the rest of Wales and the opportunity to regulate bus services, integrated transport is not possible.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I well recall—bless you, Dame Presiding Officer, for sneezing—going to the square in Dollgellau to see the impact of the deregulation of bus services in 1985 and seeing three or four huge buses trying to occupy a space in front of Neuadd Idris in Dolgellau. It was complete madness. To me, the regime of deregulating buses has failed to create a rational relationship between the market and the needs of business and the needs of the public, and that is the secret. I am not an ideological socialist, and neither am I, obviously, a free-market conservative, but I do believe that there is a constructive relationship between the market, particularly the market in terms of local companies, and the provision of reasonable public services. I would recommend that the Conservatives look at the transport model for London, which is a model of regulation that uses private sector companies but also a model that contributes to more efficient planning.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
What are the current difficulties? Well, services that are subsidised are unable to compete—
Will you give way?
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Of course I will give way.
Thank you. Just on that point that the Member has made, I understand what you are saying about the importance of bus services relating to the local environment. London is a capital city of 10 million people, which is quite a different situation to Wales. You could not simply replicate that model across Wales, could you?
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I think that you could replicate the structure of the model, which is that relationship between public procurement and the operation of private transport, and that is what, in my view, in the present circumstance, we have not done, and cannot do because we do not have the power to do it.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
The other element, of course, is that commercial services tend to take advantage of those parts of the service that are most profitable for them. So, there is often unfair competition. The most important thing here, perhaps, is that we have enabled a structure of major companies to develop at the expense of smaller companies. I think, therefore, that the time has come for us to proceed quickly to regulate buses in Wales, and I hope that we will not have to wait too long for the coalition Government, the two sides in the Chamber, to respond to the excellent report produced by Paul Silk and his fellow members, because one of the problems, Dame Presiding Officer, with devolution is that things take a very long time because the United Kingdom is so slow.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister to move amendment 3, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.
Amendment 3—Lesley Griffiths
In point 3, after ‘Welsh Government’ insert ‘to work with the bus industry and other partners’.
I move amendment 3.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Nick Ramsay.
I would not have intervened earlier on if I had known that I was about to be called, Presiding Officer.
I want to pick up on some of the comments made by Byron Davies in his opening remarks relating to the financial concerns around the settlement for buses within Wales. I share Byron Davies’s concerns about the uncertainty that has been created over the last two years surrounding concessionary fare reimbursement and the 11% cut to the budget for this scheme.
It is very hard to disagree with the view of the Confederation of Passenger Transport Cymru, which stated that:
‘The Welsh Government's damaging cuts will have far-reaching implications right across daily life in Wales, not just on direct bus provision.’
Let us face it, if we cannot get the funding issues right, we cannot get anything right. Concession reimbursement, as we know, was introduced 12 years ago, with great fanfare—as is often the case; we hear lots of noises, but whether action follows is less obvious—as a way to enable pensioners and disabled people in Wales to have the opportunity to travel free of charge on all Welsh bus services. That law committed the Welsh Government to paying for each passenger at a rate that leaves the bus operator no better or worse off than if the free travel were unavailable. As we have heard, it is estimated that the cost of each pass equates to around £100 per pass holder per year.
The last funding settlement period saw a funding rise from the Welsh Government. However, as we know, the forthcoming settlement for the next three years sees funding being cut by £24.3 million, which is a reduction of over 11% and leaves savings to be found and, invariably—unless the Minister can tell us otherwise—services cut.
In some rural Welsh counties, such as Pembrokeshire, we have seen all subsidised Saturday and evening bus services removed, and other services have witnessed a reduction in frequency or a change in routes. These cuts have been seen not only in rural areas, although they are particularly concerning there, but in areas such as Cardiff, where Cardiff Bus has stated that it will have to make necessary changes to fares and services due to the 11% cut. This action seems to fly in the face of the Welsh Government’s sustainability agenda, and will surely see more people taking to their cars, putting more pressure on the already busy road network, especially if early-morning services are cut. This is the exact opposite of what the Welsh Government and the Assembly, with their sustainability remit, are supposed to be trying to safeguard. Their words say one thing, but they are doing quite the opposite.
The BBC reported last month that, already, 100 subsidised bus routes—and this was picked up by Byron Davies—have been scrapped in Wales over the last three years, and this is before the reduction in funding has even been introduced. It begs the question as to whether the statutory objective of being no better or worse off can be met if operators have to make significant changes to their services because of the Welsh Government. John Pockett of the Confederation of Passenger Transport Cymru stated last month that
‘These government cuts will cut connectivity in towns and cities, as well as rural areas and will close the door on access to employment for people on welfare looking to get into work; and they will hit the country's high streets, whose biggest customers are bus passengers.’
Cutting access to employment for people on welfare looking to work—where is the sense in that, Minister? So often, we hear from the Welsh Government about the need to safeguard people on welfare and many debates are brought forward in which we hear that. For goodness’ sake, make sure that people on welfare find it as easy as possible to get the work that they need and which we would want them to have.
The concerning thing, as identified by the Commissioner for Older People in Wales recently, is that although funding will be reduced, the number of people qualifying for concessionary fares is increasing, as nearly a quarter of the population are over the age of 60. The impact of the reduction in services may be exacerbated in this section of the community because over a third of older people do not possess a driving licence. This reduction in funding will have a serious impact on the independence that older people in Wales will be able to enjoy. Once again, we hear from the older people’s commissioner of the need to safeguard services for older people and, every year, we debate the annual report of the older people’s commissioner in the Chamber. We all use nice warm words about it and say how wonderful it is, but what is actually happening and what policies are being implemented on the ground to support older people? It seems to the people out there that, all too often, we are going backwards.
Advice provided to the Welsh Government in a technical paper clearly identifies that funding cuts will result in a material economic impact on Welsh bus operators and that the Welsh Government should provide reasonable timescales for the sector to adjust.
We have tabled this debate, and we look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to it and her telling us what efforts, if any, are being made to mitigate the impact of the reduction and whether a comprehensive impact assessment can be carried out to assess the effect of a reduction on services in Wales.
We know that those who rely on bus services are mostly the elderly, the disabled, children and people in our most deprived communities, where at least 50% of people simply do not have a car. Therefore, unless there is a bus available, they are unable to go any further than they can walk or cycle. We know that older people are twice as likely to travel by bus as younger people, and it is even more important for older women, who are twice as likely to use the bus as older men. When income is factored into the equation, we see that people on low incomes are two-and-a-half times more likely to use the bus than older people on higher incomes. However, it is an important service for all older people, because, inevitably, even if you are wealthy, once you start to lose your sight, it is obviously not safe for you to continue to drive.
So, older people rely on buses for simple things such as getting their food in, going to the doctor and going to the post office or the bank, and it is an essential part of ensuring that older people stay healthy and maintain connections with their communities.
Quite how the needs of older people interface with the Minister’s desire to make bus operators more commercially savvy is unclear, because all people over 60 travel for free, thanks to the Welsh Government’s ongoing commitment to the concessionary fares scheme. The difficult decisions that the Government has to make as a result of the reduction in the amount of money coming from the UK Government inevitably leads to bus operators having to look again at the amount of services that they can provide. It is not clear whether there is any financial disincentive or incentive for them to maintain services for the elderly, because it is not clear whether they get paid for the numbers of journeys that people make, or whether it is done simply on the basis of the numbers of people using that service. The difficulty is that the less that bus service is available, the more inevitable it is that there will be shrinking in the numbers of people who use that service.
A lot of attention is paid to the implications of the lack of public transport for older people, and not enough is paid to its implications for younger people. People simply cannot get to work unless they have the public transport available to enable them to do so. We do not question the idea that children who have to travel further than three miles to get to school should have school transport made available to them, and I think that we should have a similar attitude towards those who are unemployed to encourage them to get to work.
I would like to see a lot more co-production of bus services with other services; for example, I would like to see libraries being provided on buses in rural areas; I would like to see the Royal Mail providing bus services as it delivers and picks up the post; and I would like to see the possibility of other travellers using school transport in rural areas so that they can travel at those times, timed to ensure that children get to school on time. I cannot see how, with shrinking public subsidy, we can do anything other than engage with the rest of the community in terms of how we can co-produce our public transport services to ensure that they continue to provide the glue that keeps our communities together.
As Nick Ramsay has already said, many older people rely on bus services. Jenny Rathbone touched on this issue as well. With the number of over-60s in Wales already at 800,000 and expected to rise to over a million within the next 20 years, we have to recognise that this is a pressure on the system and that it brings unique challenges.
Transport is vitally important to older people. It helps to maintain independence, it helps to keep them connected with outside interests, it helps to keep them active and, often, it very much promotes walking as an exercise as well. Without sufficient transport links, older people can often become isolated, and it can contribute to poor health outcomes as people get less used to going out of their home and maintaining their independence. The ability to get around without extortionate cost for day-to-day life is extremely important.
Age Cymru has done a great deal of work in promoting the interests of older people in its report ‘Buses—a lifeline for older people’. It made a number of important conclusions in that report, not only that older people’s wellbeing could suffer if bus services deteriorate, but that there would be knock-on consequences for other parts of the public sector, most notably for health and social care. It is really important that we take on board some of the recommendations in that report, one of which, for example, was the call for local authorities to consult with older people as a condition of their funding arrangements when it comes to transport. So, whenever bus routes are being planned in a locality, there has to be some engagement with older people about the sorts of services they would like to see in their area. I appreciate that many people will have a shopping list of services they want and that it is not always possible out of the public purse to maintain some of those very un-economic services. However, at least this would go some way towards engaging with the very people we are hoping to attract to using the services that we can afford to pay for.
It also suggests in its report that the Welsh Government, along with local authorities and health boards, should explore developing links between the NHS, and social care in particular, and bus services because of the reconfiguration of health services in different parts of Wales. I think that there has perhaps not been enough thought given to the importance of the impact of the support given to local authorities to maintain bus routes for people’s access to health services. Perhaps that is something you would be able to touch on in your response to today’s debate, Minister.
We know that older people are more likely to use bus services. We know that they are less likely to have a driving licence. We know that they are also less likely to have a car. So, for them, a bus service is very often a lifeline. In terms of the Welsh population, while there are many people in Wales who have easy access to bus routes because they live in an urban centre, in rural parts of Wales, of course, the situation is very different. There are many people in my constituency who are served by very infrequent bus services. That makes their use much more difficult in terms of it being convenient for them. We know that the older people’s commissioner has looked at the growth in rail passenger numbers, for example, and at how that might help to link bus services to other parts of the public transport infrastructure, just to help older people to get out and about and maintain their independence. We know that older people, for example, feel very comfortable using buses but less comfortable using trains. So, we have got to make sure that there is an integrated transport system around Wales that people can feel familiar with, particularly as they get into their old age.
We know that, with the concessionary bus fares scheme, while it has been extremely useful in getting older people out and about, there is some anecdotal evidence of abuse in the system on the part of some operators that are requiring people to get on and off buses in order to clock a fair twice under the scheme. That is a cause for concern because, when you have limited budgets, you have to make sure that they can go as far as possible towards benefiting as many people as possible. So, Minister, I wonder whether this is something you are aware of and whether you will take an interest in putting that right so that we can get best value for the taxpayer from the limited resource we have to spend.
I welcome the debate today and I thank the Welsh Conservatives for bringing it forward. It is difficult to contest the basic premise of today’s motion, which is that buses are, of course, an incredibly important lifeline for communities across Wales. Many of those communities have access to no other form of public transport. That means that, when buses are affected by cuts or decisions to change routes, people who do not have access to private transport find themselves disconnected and cut off from vital services and others in their community. In recent months, Members across the Chamber have had cause to raise local concerns about the services in their areas across Wales. We all know how important it is to our constituents. We all see our mailbags fill up with representations when changes to bus routes are proposed.
As the Enterprise and Business Committee found when it investigated the issue, I would say that integration is the key to enabling and encouraging a wider use of public transport, to reduce the public’s dependency on cars and to encourage economic growth by encouraging people back into work. However, resources are limited and I think that we have to be efficient with what we are providing if we are to be sure that the support we are offering to people through public transport is hitting our priorities. However, efficient use of resources does not have to be a coded way of saying ‘cuts’ and, sometimes, it is a question of managing the services we are offering in a more effective way to give the public a better or more practical service that they are better able to access. I will give you one example of where that might be the case. For example, where buses and trains run along the same route, they should complement each other rather than compete against each other. However, very often, we find that bus routes are running on timetables that are directly competitive with the rail routes for the same area. For example, take an individual who lives in Newtown and wants to travel by public transport to Welshpool, 15 miles down the road; unlike many other towns in rural Wales, Newtown and Welshpool are both blessed with train and bus services, but trains and buses that leave Newtown do so within 20 minutes of each other and then there is a gap of almost one hour and 40 minutes before the next bus and train leave. It is a ridiculously wasteful use of a limited resource. Better co-ordination in this instance could give passengers a real improvement in services and make public transport a more viable option for many people, particularly those who travel every day for school or work. If it encourages more passengers to take up public transport, it increases the fare take, and helps make those services more sustainable in the future.
I also have concerns over the level of subsidy reported on the Cardiff Airport express service. The Minister will know that I very strongly advocated for the introduction of that service a year ago, but I was surprised by the detail of the implementation. The Minister might like to give us some indication of where we are going with this service now. I had anticipated that either a timetable would be integrated with the existing services in the area, such as the X91, to provide a frequency that was appropriate to the level of traffic at the airport, or that services would be timed to meet flights, as they are at other airports with infrequent or irregular flights times, like Oslo Torp, for example, with plans to grow the service and develop it more as flights increased. Instead, we have had a fully blown airport express service that seems to have been designed for a much busier airport. We have a service every 20 minutes from 4 a.m. until midnight, but many of the services are running empty. That is not an efficient use of resources. In the meantime, the X91 service, which serves many of my local communities, has been rerouted to avoid them because of the loss of business from the airport.
It is difficult to balance priorities between economic development and social inclusion. We expect transport to do a lot to deliver both for us, but I would say that we do not always get that balance right. When I originally looked at the south Wales metro consortium’s stated objectives, one of the things that it said that it would do was identify and target the region’s most disconnected communities. This is an aspiration that I would share, but the opposite is happening on the ground now. As we are talking, on the one hand, about what the metro can deliver, on the other hand, Cardiff Bus has announced plans to reduce the frequency of buses serving Fairwater, which is one of the No. 1 things that the metro will tackle, and Trowbridge, St Mellons, Penylan and areas to the east of the city—the largest area of disconnected communities in south-east Wales. So, we need to think more carefully about how we prioritise and what we expect our transport to deliver for us.
I am grateful for the opportunity this afternoon to speak on bus services in Wales. We know that the London red bus service is more popular than many heads of state across the world. We should have an iconic bus service in Wales—unanimity among all bus services giving not only a good service to the public, but also comfort and economy for Wales.
Labour cuts in funding for bus services will make it harder for people all over Wales to go about their daily lives and will lead to job losses. It is clear that those hit hardest will be the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly and disabled. Margaret Everson, senior officer of Bus Users UK Cymru, said recently that she was extremely concerned about warning from bus operators about funding cuts. She went on to say that cuts in services would make connection with other services more difficult, affecting accessibility in towns and cities without direct services, and that the impact would particularly fall on rural areas and reduce access to employment for people who do not have their own transport and who are looking for work.
It is on the effect on the disabled that I want to mainly concentrate my remarks today. Funding for the free bus scheme is to be cut by nearly £25 million over the next three years. This represents a huge threat to the policy of giving unlimited free bus travel to all disabled people, which has been in operation since 2002. Although no bus operator can refuse to carry a bus-pass holder for free, this reduction in payment threatens the profitability of many Welsh bus companies. Many routes could be put at risk, thereby increasing the isolation of disabled people and creating a major obstacle to their wish to live independently. Disabled people already travel a third less, on average, than other people. Nearly two-thirds of households containing a disabled person do not have access to a private car and 41% of disabled people in England and Wales say that they experience difficulty in travelling around their areas. A large proportion of them mention difficulty in travelling to and from the doctor and hospital, visiting friends or relatives or even travelling to and from their place of work.
Many disabled people are forced to use taxis for easier access, but the vice-chair of the National Taxi Association claimed recently that overcharging of disabled passengers who use taxis and private hire vehicles is rife. It is quite a widespread experience and these taxi drivers are using their own meters and robbing these disabled people. It is unacceptable in Wales. It was reported that some wheelchair users were being charged up to twice the fare of non-disabled passengers as a direct consequence of their disability. That is a sad fact. This is an absolute scandal, Minister, and we have to stop it in Wales.
Labour’s funding cuts also threaten jobs. Cardiff Bus has announced a programme of cuts from April, with an estimated loss of around 80 jobs. Across Wales, it is estimated that 10% of all buses on the road could be taken out of service and many rural lifelines could be lost altogether, maybe forever. Transport analyst Chris Cheek, of TAS Partnership Ltd, has suggested that some 1,500 jobs could disappear in this sector.
Presiding Officer, the proportion of older people making up the population of Wales is increasing and the number of people with disabilities is also growing. Improving bus services not only makes good economic sense by improving accessibility to goods and services, it makes good sense socially by allowing vulnerable people to live fuller and more satisfying lives. I support the motion.
We have heard already this afternoon about the importance of bus services to older people, to poorer people and to disabled people. I want to say as a first point how important the buses are to women. Most of us will have received the briefing from Chwarae Teg, which makes the very important points that fewer women own cars, more are more reliant on public transport, they are often in part-time, low-paid work and they are unable to benefit from season ticket savings. Chwarae Teg has worked with Sustrans to draw attention to the advantage of introducing part-time season tickets on rail services and it is currently working on a paper specifically about bus services and multi-use discounts. That is very important and I look forward to the result of that paper. My first point was about the impact on women.
The second point that I want to make is a point particular to Cardiff—it is very important because Cardiff is the capital city of Wales—which is the issue of the Cardiff bus station. We have often mentioned, particularly Cardiff Members in this Chamber, how important it is to develop the Cardiff bus station, so that when you arrive, you feel that you are arriving in a capital city where everything links together and that it is a perfect place of integration between bus and train and between all other forms of transport—for bikes, light rail and so on. I know that it is the intention to develop the bus station and to develop a transport hub. However, it seems that we have been discussing this issue for a very, very long time.
We have had lots of debates about whether the bus station should be in the front of the station, northwards, or south of the station. My view has always been that, since the majority of the population are coming into the centre of Cardiff from the north, it makes absolute sense to have the bus station to the north of the city. However, now, I think that we are talking about a wider concept of a transport hub, where the front of the station will not only be the front of the station as we see it, but the back of the station will also be the front of the station. These are the debates that are going on at the moment.
There have been numerous plans drawn up, but whatever form this takes, it must be somewhere that is welcoming, which has places to sit and wait, which is comfortable, safe and light, which has good toilets and live information. I think that it is absolutely essential that a transport hub has live transport information in every area. I think that it is so important that, when you get off a train in Cardiff, you immediately see where you go to get a bus, where the buses are going and what time they are running, and that it is all interlinked. As has already been said in this debate, transport is the key to so many things. If we can get people out of cars on to public transport, we not only make them walk more, as someone said earlier on, but we also improve their health and cut down emissions. It is such an important area that I think that we really need a strategic move forward on the bus station in the centre of Cardiff.
The last point that I want to make is about the effects that the changes to bus services are having in my constituency in particular, in Cardiff North. There are plans to restrict the bus services on a number of routes in Cardiff North. In particular, the protests that I have received are about the bus services in Rhiwbina and Lisvane. One of the key services that is being restricted is the service between Rhiwbina and Whitchurch village—the 21 and 23 bus services. Whitchurch village is a key destination for people from Rhiwbina, many of whom are elderly, and the withdrawal of a bus service can mean the withdrawal of a lifeline for them. I have had people coming to me who will no longer be able to travel from their homes to Whitchurch village, where they do all of their shopping.
The concessionary bus pass has, I think, opened up a whole new world to older people and it has been the badge of this Assembly since devolution. I think that that is what everybody thinks—‘Oh, devolution came and we had the concessionary bus pass’. So, I think that it is so important that, in very difficult financial times, when there are restrictions on spending, that this is done with the utmost sensitivity, because there is not a lot of point in having a concessionary bus pass if there is not a bus to get on.
I know that we in the Assembly are dealing with very difficult cuts from the coalition Government in Westminster, and it is very difficult for the Minister to work out the best way of using the money that is available. Therefore, I think that this must all be dealt with with the utmost sensitivity and in consultation with bus users.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to speak on behalf of the Government, Edwina Hart.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. All of our priorities are to ensure that we have a transport system that helps to improve the economic competitiveness of Wales, providing good access to jobs and services and boosting the prosperity of the people in Wales.
We certainly recognise the importance of bus services to communities and the challenges for service provision, particularly in rural areas. I am clear that this is an area on which Welsh Government should take a greater lead and this is reflected in my decision last autumn to step in to ensure the continuity of services for communities in west Wales where a major bus operator pulled out. I was very much taken by the point that Lord Elis-Thomas made in his contribution about the need to look at smaller local firms, sometimes, for them to provide services in certain strategic areas.
I thank the Welsh Conservatives very much for indicating their support for our amendment. I will also turn to the other amendments that have been tabled, which the Government will be supporting today. In terms of amendment 1, our evidence to the Silk commission asked for powers over bus regulation and we are pleased to see this reflected in the commission on devolution in Wales’s recent report and we will consider this recommendation and others in the commission’s report over the next few weeks.
In terms of amendment 2, one of our programme for government commitments was to seek to establish a traffic commissioner based in Wales. I note that the commission on devolution in Wales has recommended a Welsh traffic commissioner and we will consider the recommendation carefully, along with the other recommendations. We already provide support to the activities of the traffic commissioner in Wales while providing an office for the commissioner’s use in Brunel House. This is part of the overall leasing arrangements for the premises there, so there are no additional costs other than modest IT support. That lease expires later this year, and we are already reviewing with the commissioner and Bus Users UK Cymru, whose bus compliance officers also use the office, to secure alternative premises. Therefore, we are quite clear about what relationships we want in the future on those two particular issues.
If I may turn to some of the contributions in the debate, Jenny Rathbone, I think, quite rightly referred not just to the discussion that we have had an older people and people with disabilities, but also to young people and their need for good and accessible bus services. She also made a very important point about how we connect everything. I think that she used the phrase ‘corporate use’ and that leads very nicely on to Darren Millar’s contribution when he spoke about health. The important thing is that we have to have local government, health and all of them working together in terms of how they provide transport in various areas. That is why I am very pleased that, in the new group that I have established, there will be representation from the health boards, but also, importantly, there has been a large amount of work done in the health department, under Mark Drakeford, to come into the discussion about what transport is required.
Members, including Darren Millar and Eluned Parrott, also spoke about local government, and I do have concerns about what is going on in local government and how it is dealing with some of the bus agendas. I think that my group will have to start to have a look at some of these issues, because I have been particularly concerned because the metro, as far as I was concerned, was about disconnected communities having more access to the centre, in order to ensure that they could have jobs, be able to travel to work, be able to go out in the evening and all these types of issues. Certainly, some local decisions negate that whole concept and that is something that I think that we will have to clearly look at.
Also, we will have to look at the integration of bus and rail. We have been looking at some of the issues within mid Wales about timetabling, particularly, and the nonsense where you arrive on the bus and find that the train has gone. That is absolutely absurd when people are travelling for employment and they want to get into work and get out of work, or they want to go to education and come back from education. Therefore, those are certainly issues that we need to look at.
I think that it is also very important, as Darren Millar said, that we must once again look if further issues of abuse are being raised. This is something that my officials are quite hot on, in that we must ensure that there is no abuse of the system.
I appreciate that, in terms of the airport bus service, there is a lot of discussion. I saw this picture, if I may show it to you all in the Chamber, of a full line of people waiting to catch the airport bus. The service was introduced on 1 August 2013—[Interruption.] I would be delighted to circulate it to all Members for their enjoyment. The service provides faster, more frequent services, and we have been encouraged by the numbers. Stuart Cole has done a report on it and he has made a number of short-term and long-term recommendations, and we are currently working through these with the airport and the Vale of Glamorgan to implement them and look at what we can do. So, I will certainly be reporting back to the Chamber on that particular issue.
It has been interesting to hear the comments on older people, but the most important thing for older people is that I have not messed around with the criteria on concessionary fares. I am not thinking of putting the age up to 70, I am not withdrawing it for other services, and I think that that is to be applauded from the Government perspective.
I have, obviously, heard the remarks about the issues and what we are doing on funding, and these are difficult financial times, as Julie Morgan indicated. I do not think, however, Julie, that I particularly want to get involved in a discussion about what Cardiff Council might be doing about the bus station. I just have to say that, in Swansea, we have a nice new bus station, even though it is not co-located with the railway station. This is, effectively, a matter for Cardiff Council to look at in overall issues.
However, may I say in terms of the finance that it is going to be difficult for us to look at the financial arrangements, but, at the end of the day, it is important that we keep as much access to services as possible? The majority of bus services are provided commercially by operators in response to their assessment of the need for, and the profitability of, the services. I hope that bus operators will rise to the challenge that the financial outlook undoubtedly presents by using their commercial nous to retain their existing passengers and attract new paying passengers.
In terms of the bus advisory group, it is going to refresh policy on bus services. I have asked it to give its initial findings to me by the end of June 2014. The intention will be to identify and prioritise funding for measures that will support bus operators’ commercial performance, thereby reducing their reliance on public funding. I think that that is a correct aim for us to have within Government. This group is widely representative and it is anticipated that it will meet early in April. However, my focus is on ensuring that passengers throughout Wales can look forward to a stable and sustainable bus network that is better co-ordinated, looking at the points that others have raised, with other transport services.
Mohammad Asghar also raised what I thought was an extremely serious issue about the taxi drivers. I will certainly be asking my officials to look at that matter because it is of concern. We only have to look at how licences are given, and what checks are made on this. I will certainly be instigating some work on that particular area. In response—and I do not want to sound churlish on this, because this has actually been quite a good debate—I do not intend to take any lectures off Byron Davies or Nick Ramsay about what is going on in terms of bus policy. I have quite a clear strategy in terms of bus policy. Also, I do not want apologists for the bus industry addressing comments to me in this Chamber. I protected the scheme in Wales. I want to ensure that people can utilise the scheme in Wales and I have a very transparent view. What I have done is correct: I have taken into account budgetary considerations. I think that they can manage on the money that is there, but I do have an open-door policy in terms of how I wish to take bus services forward. Therefore, thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies, to reply to the debate.
I thank everyone who has contributed in the debate this afternoon. I led a short debate here a couple of months ago—I think that it was in November—and at which point there were six Members who wished to contribute in that debate. I said in my opening remarks that we could clearly see what an important issue this was for constituents up and down the length and breadth of Wales. Since that time, I think that this issue has got bigger and bigger.
I know that in my electoral area, here in South Wales Central—and Julie Morgan touched on it, as did Eluned Parrott—there is the reduction in Cardiff Bus services that was just recently announced. It will have a dramatic impact on many of the people who are socially excluded from many other aspects of our society, if they cannot access the bus service. Jenny, from Cardiff Central, touched on that when she made the point that many of the people who are seeking jobs, the disabled and the socially excluded will not have that opportunity because, obviously, they do not have access to a car in any shape or form, and therefore that isolation in a big city like Cardiff, not to mention in a rural area, will actually become greater over the years.
I think that the sentiment of the motion before us today is unarguable. In fairness, the Minister did touch on that in her opening remarks about how the Welsh Government is working to try to address some of the shortcomings. However, I have to say to the Minister that the shortcomings are because there was a lack of engagement by your predecessor, I accept, in bringing forward these proposals on the reduction in funding in the first place, and literally dropping it in the lap of the local authorities that commission many of these services. I have seen that at first hand in my own electoral area of the Vale of Glamorgan where, overnight, services were just decimated. We had the example last summer of students—I was going to call them children, but perhaps it is not politically correct these days to call people who are 15 or 16-years-old ‘children’—who were taking GCSEs and A-levels having to change schools because the bus service from the village of Rhoose, for example, to the school in Cowbridge just went overnight and they could not get in to school to do their exams. That is how dramatic the impact of the reduction of service was.
In his opening remarks, Byron Davies touched on the process that led up to this, and indeed the lack, as I said earlier, of engagement from the Government in working with the bus operators to deliver a reduced service in some instances, with less money, but a sustainable service that could actually meet the requirements of the passengers who use that service. Darren Millar touched upon the older people who rely on the bus service for their everyday travel to access services, and some of the figures that are out there show that 30% to 40% of older people require the bus to fulfil their basic needs—that is, just to go to the shop, or some form of community engagement. Overnight, across Wales, those services disappeared. In England, that did not happen. There was a reduction in the service, and the money was transferred back to local authorities. In many instances, other programmes had been worked up to make sure that there were alternatives. We did not have that in Wales. We had all sorts of green initiatives talked about, but nothing really came forward for the green link operation, for example, that could have been brought forward. In terms of the exemplars in bus services to work with local authorities, to have pilot areas to support bus operations, it was just a cliff-edge mentality here in Wales that took away those services from communities the length and breadth of Wales.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair at 15:54.
The Plaid Cymru spokesman, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, touched on the commissioning process and referred to the example of Transport for London. Nick Ramsay pointed out that there are inconsistencies in that: you are obviously talking about a capital city of 10 million people in London whereas, in Wales, you are talking of a country with a lot of rural sparsity involved. However, there is a point there, I believe, in that the commissioning process can be looked at, and that model can be considered here in Wales. Nevertheless, there is obviously a complete disconnect in the level of service. Two million people, for example, use the tube every day in London, so there are alternatives.
What was encouraging to hear, coming from the floor, was the recognition that to have a sustainable transport system, we need to join it up and have an integrated transport system. Nothing deters people more than that hour’s wait at a bus station or an hour’s wait at a train station because the times are not linked. If you go on the continent, it just seems bizarre that we would have such a dislocated service here in Wales. However, I have to say that the actions that the Government has undertaken over the last 12 months have not encouraged a more sustainable model of public transport here in Wales.
Many contributors referred to the airport bus service that has been brought forward by the Welsh Government. It shows that when the will is there, the money can be found to provide some of these services. The last figure that I saw was that there is an £11 per passenger subsidy. The village of Rhoose, which the Liberal Democrat Member for South Wales Central is a resident of, has nearly £600,000 spent on its bus services, with the link from the railway station round to the airport and the direct service to Cardiff Central station. However, it does not have a commercially operated—
I thank the Member for giving way. Yes, I am a resident of the village of Rhoose. However, I would point out that, while the airport express service serves Cardiff Airport, it does not serve the village of Rhoose. Residents in the villages of Aberthaw and Rhoose have been very seriously affected by the loss of the X91 service, which was providing them with a public transport link to Cardiff.
That was the very point that I was going to make. That area benefits from a subsidy of £600,000, but it does not have the Cardiff Bus operation, the X91, that used to deliver a regular service that would take people from the village into the city of Cardiff and to Barry. This shows that if the Government has the will, it can overcome some of these problems and that there is resource, albeit in a very tight Welsh Government budget.
Mohammad Asghar touched on a very serious point about potential abuse of the system. When money is tight and limited, it is vital that every pound is used to the best effect. I hope that the Minister will take some of those points on board. Mohammad was not the only one; Darren Millar touched on the point as well. It is vital that abuse, if it exists, is stamped out. Where that abuse exists, it is diverting money from the people who require that service and into other people’s pockets.
The debate has been very beneficial today. Members from across Wales have contributed in a meaningful and substantive way to offer real examples of how the reduction in bus services has impacted on their electoral areas. I was a little disappointed that there was not a little more substance coming from the Government today. We have had some considerable time now for some of these proposals to be worked through and for replacement options to be put on the table to make up for the demise of many of these services. In the absence of those services, it looks as though it is going to be another bleak spring and summer, when communities are going to feel even more remote and isolated because the very service that they depended on was taken away from them. I urge the Minister and her Government colleagues to work with the bus operators, local authorities and service commissioners to make sure that there is a viable service put in place that does not exclude some of the most vulnerable in society and that joins up thinking across Government.
My colleague Byron Davies touched on how the withdrawal of bus services in many of our communities is running contrary to a lot of the Government initiatives that have been put forward about sustainable travel and about more environmentally friendly policies. Ultimately, you are driving those people back into their cars, if cars are an option, or you are placing a greater burden on the health service because of the health implications if people cannot get to their GP or hospital appointments. There are also mental health issues relating to isolation, especially rural isolation, that really have a devastating impact on individuals. I hope that Members will be able to support the motion before us this afternoon, and I look forward to the vote later on.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. I will defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Simon Thomas to move the motion.
Motion NDM5449 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises that the Welsh language is an economic driver and that its long term continuation as a community language depends on strong local and regional economic growth.
2. Recognises that expenditure by the Welsh Government and public bodies can have a real impact on the language.
3. Believes that the Welsh Government and its partners should develop area-based economic policies to support the language and maximise its economic benefit.
I move the motion.
I am pleased to open the debate on behalf of Plaid Cymru. The purpose of this afternoon’s debate is to look at the Welsh language and the economy. We are used to hearing the meme that the Welsh language is a bit of a sprag in the economy, that it is costly, that supporting the Welsh language costs this and that, and that we should be spending the money elsewhere. Plaid Cymru Members and I will speak very positively about the use of the Welsh language as a vehicle for economic development, and very positively about the Welsh language as one of the skills required in a bilingual society, which will lead, ultimately, to a modern bilingual economy where the Welsh language is treasured, but also where it can play its full role economically in tourism, in business, in public services and also across the economy.
There are already a number of sectors where there is a problem in terms Welsh-language skills within the workforce and there is demand for those skills. By promoting Welsh-language skills and ensuring that businesses and workplaces appreciate them, there will be more stimulus for young people to not only learn the language, but to use it once they leave school—which is one of the failings that we have in a Welsh education system that, otherwise, is excellent. There is also a need to ensure that businesses and workplaces can rely on a supply of young people leaving the education system with the appropriate skills to help to promote the language in business.
One priority, certainly, is that more Welsh speakers should take apprenticeships and FE courses through the medium of Welsh. I am pleased to confirm, of course, that our agreement on apprenticeships with the Welsh Government mentions supporting and promoting apprenticeships through the medium of Welsh. We cannot move immediately to a situation where all apprenticeships would be available through the medium of Welsh, or something similar, but we can certainly do some promotion work. Quite a bit of work, as ColegauCymru has confirmed, is being done to expand Welsh-medium skills in our FE colleges.
Another priority is to enable Welsh speakers to establish their own businesses by providing support, mentoring and training to them. We should also consider using European funding to develop entrepreneurial skills in areas where there are high numbers of Welsh speakers because those areas, such as Ceredigion and west Wales in general, are often areas where there are many self-employed people and small businesses. The proposed standards for the Welsh language could also create further opportunities in the workplace for Welsh speakers—specifically, of course, with the first standards covering the public sector, but also, in looking forward to other standards, in the transport sector, the telecommunications sector and so on, where there will be further development of bespoke skills. We should enable more local authorities to follow the good practice of Gwynedd Council and maintain their internal administrative work through the medium of Welsh. I am sure that there is a link between the fact that the Welsh language has not eroded in the same way in Gwynedd as it has in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire and Gwynedd Council’s innovative policy since 1974, with the old local authority and the development led by excellent people, starting with Dafydd Orwig, of course. The language policy of Gwynedd Council means that there is a purpose for pupils to learn and use the language and acquire qualifications and skills in the language and give them pride—and there is nothing wrong with pride in a nation or a language.
There are a number of reports commissioned by the Welsh Government that have been published recently on the Welsh language. I am pleased to see the First Minister in his seat. I know that there is to be a statement by the Government very soon on many of these issues, but we, in Plaid Cymru, are eager to put forward some of our ideas on the way forward before the First Minister today. Specifically, there is a report by the task and finish group on the Welsh language and economic development that was published back in January 2014. I am pleased to see that the Minister commissioned that. I recall Alun Ffred and me going to see the Minister to ask her to commission that sort of work. I am sure that she had already had the idea, to be fair.
The group recommends a strategy to encourage and facilitate the use of the Welsh language as a marketing tool and to promote the benefits of bilingualism to businesses; the development of a bilingual workforce to meet the demand from businesses and customers by developing language skills; and that there should be further resources to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and possible careers in business among students and young people who are Welsh speaking. This, to me, is a very important recommendation: that we see entrepreneurship as a means for Welsh speakers to remain in their communities and to play a full part in those communities. We have been far too slow to think about enterprise and business as a route for Welsh speakers.
The report goes on to say that we should proactively provide opportunities to businesses to choose Welsh-medium provision in the training and skills programmes currently funded by the Government for young people. We are talking about things as such Jobs Growth Wales, GO Wales, entrepreneurship hubs, and so on. I think this is very important, because, in looking at that, although the FE colleges are developing in this area, there are very few enterprise and business programmes available through the medium of Welsh. That sends a signal that the Welsh language is not the language of business. We want to reach a position, specifically in the communities where the Welsh language is the community language, of course, where the Welsh language is the language of business and is a tool that enhances your business and the economy.
In the report, there are a number of good case studies that are put forward that show a way forward in this area. There are things such as Ceir Cymru in Gwynedd and Conwy: a private company where aspects of the business are administered and managed through the medium of Welsh. There are exciting schemes such as the Language Broker at Peblig in Caernarfon, which improves the employability of local residents in a deprived area with a high number of Welsh speakers. It does so by developing their confidence and their skills, and giving them a better opportunity to compete in the jobs market. The evaluation of the Language Broker scheme shows that it is popular and that it works, and it recommends that the Peblig area should be used as a laboratory for the rest of Wales in this area.
Other areas that are popular are Coleg Menai, which is experimenting with a number of examples of Welsh-medium apprenticeships, and then we have Llwyddo’n Lleol, which is run by the local authorities of Anglesey, Conwy and Denbighshire, along with Gwynedd Council which is leading on it. The purpose of this programme is to increase the confidence of young people in their communities and their future and to show them what they could offer to those communities. There is national potential, I think, in this model, the Llwyddo’n Lleol model. It nurtures a can-do attitude among young people and encourages the younger generation to consider self-employment and entrepreneurship as a viable and exciting career choice, and through that, of course, it puts the Welsh language at the heart of it.
The report also mentions—I apologise, I was going to mention the Welsh Language Commissioner’s report that was published on the potential of the Welsh language to contribute to the realisation of the objectives of the European funding programmes from 2014 to 2020. The commissioner is of the opinion that there is huge potential to use the Welsh language in moving people away from economic inactivity towards work or self-employment.
One final thing that I want to emphasise, which emerges from these numerous reports—it appears that there are very many of them on occasion—but, specifically, from the report that I mentioned earlier, is how important it is that we look at the development and maintenance of this work on the basis of specific areas. We need growth areas in the Welsh-speaking areas as we have in the rest of Wales. We are talking about city regions as a medium of developing deprived areas of south Wales. It is quite appropriate that we talk about growth centres in towns such as Aberystwyth, Carmarthen, Bangor, Menai and so on as a means of developing and strengthening the language too. That is something I want to emphasise in particular.
I look forward very much to hearing more ideas in this debate on how we can use the Welsh language in a positive way for business and how businesses can also use the Welsh language in a positive way as they interact with their customers.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Aled Roberts to move amendment 1, tabled in his name.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to include an assessment of the impact of its policies on the Welsh language within its Equality Impact Assessment Guidance.
I move amendment 1.
May I begin by thanking Plaid Cymru for bringing this motion before us? I think that Simon Thomas is entirely correct. There was not one word of his speech, I think, that I would disagree with. I think it is important that we retain some sort of consensus in this Chamber on the importance of the Welsh language, and also on the fact that there is a need for us now, after all of the successes in relation to Welsh-medium education that have been seen during last 20 years, to take a step forward in order to create a Wales that is a bilingual Wales and where the Welsh language is seen as a language of business, not just as a language of the school or even of the farmyard at times.
I think, therefore, that there is a place for us to congratulate the Welsh Government on bringing forward a number of reports. I welcome the fact that a task and finish group established by the Minister for business has reported recently. However, after that, I think there is a need for us to ask the Welsh Government to move forward a little more quickly than it has so far.
I accept that there is a need, as the Minister said in her statement, for her to consult on a number of the 27 recommendations in the report. However, there are real questions in some areas of Wales about the way in which the Government has responded thus far. Also, I know, of course, that such things as the ‘cynhadledd fawr’ took place last year.
The purpose of our amendment, therefore, is to ask the Welsh Government from now on to assess the impact of its policies in terms of the Welsh language, because I am sure that we would not want to be here in about nine years’ time looking at a situation where the decline in the number of people speaking Welsh, especially in west Wales, continues. I think that the figures for Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire in particular were a massive shock to the system.
I think, as Simon Thomas said, that perhaps some of the policies that have been followed in Gwynedd, in terms of the fact that language has been seen as an official language within the council, where staff within the council operate through the medium of Welsh, mean that Gwynedd perhaps has been more successful than other areas in retaining some of the Welsh speakers. However, as in north-east Wales, there is still a problem in terms of young Welsh speakers being attracted to south-east Wales. I am sure that is also true of Carmarthenshire. There is a need for the Welsh Government, therefore, to look at the impact of its policies on every aspect of this.
May also make an appeal? I think that it is important that the Government shows leadership in this field. I was disappointed, to be honest, last week, when a group came to see me that said that even the Welsh language unit within the Government was operating through the medium of English. I think it is important, if the Government is sincere about operating through the medium of Welsh, that it shows that that is practically possible within the Government itself.
I also think that there quite a number of opportunities for it to look at its procurement policies, procurement within local government, and the way all the agencies within Government, including the health service, attract young Welsh speakers to work through the medium of Welsh in those fields.
I have an example. My son, at the moment, is taking a course in Cardiff University. The university attracts young Welsh people to study if that relates to the health service. What disappoints me is that the whole content and information from Cardiff University is bilingual, and, despite that, we have a health board in north Wales that writes to young people in our Welsh-medium schools trying to attract them back to north Wales to work through the medium of Welsh and yet corresponds with them in the medium of English. That does not show leadership in terms of the Government or the health service. So, a step forward, First Minister, please.
This is a very important debate. I want to focus my comments on two issues in this broad-ranging debate. First, there are many opportunities for businesses in Wales to provide services and materials to the public sector. Procurement policy has the potential to have a huge influence on small businesses. Everyone in the Chamber is agreed that businesses are the backbone of the Welsh economy.
The debate on public procurement provides us with a great opportunity to provide our public sector with goods and services that will also boost employment opportunities and inject money into local economies across our country.
Plaid Cymru has noted on numerous occasions how we can learn from the experiences of other European countries in this respect. Germany and France source over 98% of their public contracts domestically. Closer to home, our neighbours in Scotland source 75% of theirs domestically. If we in Wales could just match the Scottish levels as a starting point, then that could result in up to 48,000 new jobs and add half a percentage point to our national GVA. I think that Welsh businesses are capable of meeting that aspiration and we should do everything that we can to enable them to do so.
I also wanted to take the opportunity this afternoon to talk about maximising our national assets for the economic and social good of all of our communities. In this respect, let us not overlook the potential for the unique assets at our disposal to enable us to achieve this. In particular, the Welsh language has a great part to play. It is a feature that we have in Wales that is not widely available elsewhere. There are specific examples in the report of the Welsh Government’s own Welsh language and economic development task and finish group as to how this unique asset could be better used for economic development. I would draw Members’ attention to the group’s finding relating to the benefit of using the language as an effective marketing tool to boost a company’s reach and broaden its consumer base.
I welcome suggestions from the Welsh Language Commissioner to establish a specific project to support business clusters within target sectors to maximise the commercial benefit of the Welsh language. The Welsh Language Commissioner has also outlined how we can target public funds, including European funds, to provide people with a high standard of language skills and to broaden their opportunities. European regional development fund programmes have been highlighted especially and I would concur with suggestions aimed at ensuring that the Welsh language as an economic and cultural factor features in such programmes.
We are very fortunate and very proud that this country has a culture that is unique and a history that makes our nation a very special one.
We are not yet maximising our assets and we should include our unique linguistic assets so that they are utilised for the economic and cultural good of all in our country.
I, too, am proud to contribute to this debate today and to read the task and finish group report on the relationship between the Welsh language and economic development. It is always timely to consider means of promoting the language and I welcome the establishment of the group by the Minister, particularly given that the report is considering the relationship that exists between the language and the economy for the benefit of each other. It goes both ways and I am pleased to see the joint relationship appearing so often in the report. We could all admit that it is not a simple matter, so the cross-ministerial approach is to be welcomed. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the report, particularly to see how it works in conjunction with the attitudes in the workplace and services in ‘Iaith Pawb’ and the ‘cynhadledd fawr’.
I want to raise a point on the first recommendation to use bilingualism and culture as marketing tools. The .wales domain is a prime example of our presence on the international stage—it is an unique selling point, USP, to borrow the jargon. The task for companies to design and create a personal brand is something that millions of pounds has been spent on, I guess. Companies have been using Welsh names successfully in the food and drink industry in order to draw on the quality and origin of the product. An article over the weekend drew on the experience in Ireland. Foras na Gaeilge, the body responsible for promoting the language in Ireland, has identified several ways in which the language has been beneficial for businesses, primarily through branding and visual communication. Interestingly, the research talks about the positive attitude of customers in terms of buying produce that have bilingual labels.
The report occasionally mentions the broadcasting media and makes recommendations in terms of jobs in the sector. I have two points here. The first is about the number of creative industries that exist in Llanelli and Carmarthenshire. I am aware that the Minister has written to the chairs of the enterprise zones. So, I also want to make the point about the benefits of having an enterprise zone for the creative industries in the area.
My second point is that I support the call for S4C to relocate to Carmarthen and west Wales. At a meeting of the cross-party group on the Welsh language, ‘jobs’ was noted as a strategic factor to keep Welsh speakers in their communities. The presence of S4C in west Wales would be very beneficial for the economy and the sustainability of the language in the area. It would promote the language on the one hand and provide more Welsh jobs on the other.
In terms of collaborating with businesses, the Welsh Language Commissioner has talked about her work with the Federation of Small Businesses. Members of the FSB are very keen to use the Welsh language and welcome information and assistance in the field. She said in her evidence to the task and finish group that she always hears that businesses consider the language as being important in terms of customer care and in terms of identity.
In terms of businesses, the lack of demand from customers is often a reason that is offered for low linguistic provision, which makes the two-way relationship between the language and the economy even wider. According to many people, the best way is to increase the business case. The result of a successful campaign would be to increase the importance placed on Welsh skills in the workforce, which, in turn, would increase the use and the response among customers when a Welsh service is available. I am aware that the Welsh Language Commissioner is working with businesses to normalise the use of the Welsh language in the workplace and to underline the relationship between the language and turnover.
In terms of Welsh language skills in the workplace, the literature of careers departments in Welsh universities recognises the importance of bilingualism and that the language has been earmarked as a skill that will increase in demand. For example, as a result of the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, Cardiff University’s literature says this:
‘there has been a significant increase in the number of bi-lingual job opportunities in Wales, particularly within the Public Sector and the service industries. A growing number of private sector and charitable organisations in Wales are recognising the economic benefits of the Welsh Language and are offering more bilingual services thus generating further demand for bi-lingual skills amongst their workforce. This is also in line with the new Welsh language standards being introduced’.
To continue to pursue bilingual skills, I welcomed the additional focus on technology and new media in ‘Iaith Pawb’. That is, in using Welsh as the most familiar way of communicating, it is important that making use of the Welsh language skills of the workforce includes using social media to communicate in writing.
The census showed a decline in Welsh speakers, especially at a local level. The future of the language is highly dependent on our children and young people. Therefore, in the same way, Welsh in education strategic plans are contributing to increasing the demand. I look forward to more discussions and more policies to increase the sustainability of the language and the close relationship with the economy.
The prejudice that all of us here have heard, and it is a prejudice that all of us here are resisting, is that the Welsh language, somehow, can be a barrier to economic development. It is important that we have an opportunity like this to give attention to evidence that indicates otherwise and which demonstrates the role that the Welsh language can play in economic growth in Wales.
That tool is not being used to its full potential at present, but bilingualism as part of the Welsh brand is certainly something that can be used to our advantage. Certainly, the promotion of bilingualism and the appreciation of local culture more broadly is something that is used by other nations across the world, and I will talk for a few minutes on this issue of branding.
We could argue for many hours about the successes and failures of the Welsh Development Agency. This is not the place for that argument. However, without doubt, one of the successes of the WDA was the development of the Welsh brand. In that regard, there was a loss when that body was abolished. Considerable attention has been given to some of Plaid Cymru’s solutions in that regard recently.
Never mind, it strikes me, and this has struck the task and finish Group on the Welsh language and economic development as well, that the Welsh language offers opportunities as we develop that Welsh brand again.
The use of the language as a positive marketing tool has certainly become apparent recently in a number of markets, and one of the most obvious, as we have heard, is the food and drink industry. There are many examples in that industry of companies that use the language to promote their produce—there are almost too many to name: Caws Cenarth, Penderyn, Tŷ Nant and, of course, I cannot ignore Halen Môn from my constituency, which is available in delicatessen and the kitchens of chefs across the world. While companies in the private sector are seeing the benefit of using the Welsh language as a branding tool, it is disappointing that the Welsh Government does not refer to the language at any point in its consultation document on a plan to grow the food and drink sector.
Tourism is another obvious sector that we can consider as well. There is so much that is part of the strong Welsh brand, including natural beauty, tranquillity, sports, outdoor pursuits, and so on, but, if we are looking for a USP, the language clearly gives us that ‘U’—the ‘unique’. The appeal of having a holiday, very often, is to go somewhere different to home. The Welsh language is offering that to the rest of the British market.
I would like to mention the media, too, which is an area that I have some experience in. We have a creative industry in Wales that I am very proud of.
You have given me the perfect opportunity to come back about my old bugbear of the old brown tourist signs on our roads. I quite agree with you that the Welsh language is a great advert for Welsh tourism. Can we make sure that we have an overhaul of those outdated tourism signs so that the Welsh language, as well as the English language, is prominently displayed?
I am sure that your message has been heard loud and clear by the relevant Ministers.
We have a creative industry that we are very proud of. I am sure that the audiences who recently enjoyed the ‘Hinterland’ by BBC Wales and S4C will tell you that reflecting the bilingualism of that part of Ceredigion added to their enjoyment of that programme. It must be remembered that this programme is being sold internationally to nations where bilingualism, subtitling and so on are the norm. This could be part of our economic development in this area.
It is not only for the export market that the use of language as a branding tool can be useful, but, at home, proving that local connections through bilingualism can therefore work in terms of making products more relevant to the audience and local customers.
I would like to say a brief word on the importance of educating young entrepreneurs, for example through Llwyddo’n Lleol, in terms of the possibility of using the Welsh language as this kind of local marketing tool. I would also like to make an appeal to consider expanding something like Llwyddo’n Lleol. We have not seen the growth that we want to see in all parts of Wales, but there has been growth in traditionally non-Welsh-speaking areas, and there is a potential to use the Welsh language in those places as well.
Finally, I would like to say one thing that is certainly of no disrespect to you, First Minister, or to Simon Thomas: I very much hope that we can have these debates about the language in the economy in the Assembly in the future and to have the spokespeople on the economy and the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport participating in those debates. That would be a sign of the normalisation of the place of the Welsh language in all parts of Welsh life, including economic growth.
I thank Plaid Cymru for the opportunity to discuss this from a positive perspective today, because it was disappointing that residents in my area had responded to a survey by the council on how to save money by suggesting cuts in spending on the Welsh language. So, how can the case be made to Swansea residents that public spending on the Welsh language is an investment, rather than a waste of money?
The Welsh language has survived because it is a language of education—as Aled Roberts said—public administration and, to an extent, current affairs. It will not prosper unless it develops into a language of commerce and a language of the street.
Hearing that we support the motion and the amendment today will be of no surprise to Members. I have mentioned in debates in the past the potential of the Welsh language to be an economic driver, particularly by ensuring that young people in deprived areas acquire skills in the Welsh language. Perhaps Plaid Cymru’s focus in today’s debate is a little different, but it is not a competition, of course.
We hear a great deal about non-Welsh speakers being supportive of the language, and that is crucially important, but the census demonstrated that Welsh speakers themselves may be losing sight of the value of the skill that they have, a skill that is a cause of envy for many within this Chamber perhaps.
Therefore, if culture and decades of political campaigning are not enough, what is missing? We have academic reports that date back 20 years and more that include evidence that Welsh speakers, particularly Welsh-speaking women, tend to earn more economically and are active for longer periods of time, and are more confident that they can gain employment compared to their non-Welsh speaking peers in the part of Wales where they live, wherever that may be. Although Welsh speakers tend to have better qualifications also, that alone does not explain the difference in their success in the workplace. Although there is no easy solution, it does appear that linguistic ability is considered an asset.
We as Welsh Conservatives recognise this, as you will remember from our policy on a trilingual Wales, but this is also noted by the task and finish group that the Minister for the economy established, which has been mentioned a number of times today.
The success of Welsh speakers may manifest itself primarily in the public sector, but the private sector is beginning to catch up. It needs to do that if the broadcasting and media industry, as suggested by the task and finish group, is in decline. However, with £1 of S4C spending generating £2 to the economy, that may be an overstatement. The report of the group recognises the need to maximise the potential of branding, namely the USP that other people have mentioned. We had the ‘Cwtsh’ campaign in Swansea—I am sure that everyone remembers that—and we should ensure that we promote the Welsh language among our entrepreneurs, our innovators and the businesspeople of the future, making the Welsh language a true asset.
The Welsh language can pay dividends. What better way of persuading the Swansea bay city region board, serving those residents who want the council to cut the budget for the Welsh language, that it should be promoting the Welsh language and spending money on up-skilling the workforce? We can do this by demonstrating that it is worthwhile economically, by demonstrating that the Welsh language is not a burden on businesses, and that it is more than exam papers that have been derided.
I would like to know more about Plaid Cymru’s plans in relation to its area-based economic policies. For example, I hope that the second point of the motion considers the importance of better local access to finance, as the Welsh Conservatives suggest in their document ‘A Vision for Welsh Investment’. The task and finish group was interested in an area-based policy too. However, while I can accept the argument that the economy and the stability of the language are interdependent, I am also very conscious that our workforce cannot adapt to what is a good idea overnight.
Despite the fact that a generation of young people receive Welsh-medium education on a compulsory level, the vast majority of them have no language skills. They should not miss out on opportunities, simply because the ambition of the whole Assembly, not just the Government, in relation to the Welsh language as a second language, has, generally speaking, failed.
This is a positive motion from Plaid Cymru today, but we have to see it in its context, of course. There is no doubt that there has been a substantial change in the linguistic pattern over the past 50 years. People’s mobility is crucial to understanding the weakening of the position of the Welsh language as a social language. This was one of the main conclusions of the ‘cynhadledd fawr’ convened by the First Minister in Aberystwyth some time ago.
It is a fact that, during my lifetime, the linguistic landscape has changed quite considerably. There have been gains in terms of Welsh-medium education, in terms of public usage of the language and in terms of its status, but we have seen losses in terms of areas where the Welsh language is spoken widely and continues to be a social language. I believe that that undermines the confidence of Welsh speakers in the future of the language and the future of their own communities. Certainly, there is a need to change gear quite firmly in our efforts to turn the tide. Mobility works both ways, of course—you have young people moving out, usually to look for work or for training and education; and there is immigration, mostly by people who do not speak Welsh. To respond to that, we need some defensive measures and some proactive measures, and we have heard quite a bit about the proactive measures today. One area where there is certainly a need to see action from the Government is planning, and, in the proposed Bill from the Government, there is a need for the Welsh language to be recognised as a factor in the planning of homes and employment for the future. That is the view of experts in the field, namely that it will not be possible to operate positively without that being recognised in primary legislation.
I was very pleased that there was a reference to Llwyddo’n Lleol. The Llwyddo’n Lleol scheme developed from a conference I held when I was a member of Gwynedd Council at the beginning of the last decade. This is the programme that came out of that conference to promote entrepreneurship opportunities. That is an absolutely crucial and central aspect if we are to see the Welsh language and Welsh-speaking communities prosper in future.
Rhun talked about something interesting when he spoke about branding. One successful company in rural Wales is Llaeth y Llan. It changed its name to Village Dairies for some time, but it has returned to Llaeth yn Llan because it believes that the Welsh name gives it that unique selling point. That is good news and heartening news, not only for the company but for the use of the Welsh language in the business world. Therefore, I would urge the Government to look in detail at the recommendations of the task and finish group, and particularly at the recommendation to create growth centres. It talks about three main growth centres, and I think that there is strength in its arguments, but there is also a need for smaller centres that offer a variety of employment and economic viability to keep and attract young families in the west of Wales. That is why I was so pleased to see the development in Blaenau Ffestiniog with, mostly local, young people coming together and creating the mountain bike centre. There is a need for more of that sort of development and activity in our communities.
I welcome very much S4C’s intention to devolve some of its activity outside Cardiff, and I hope to see more public bodies following suit shortly. The impact of companies working for S4C in north-west Wales is massive. There was a report last year on ‘Rownd a Rownd’, which is celebrating 20 years of programme-making for S4C. The report noted the large contribution it has made in terms of local employment, with more than 100 people working there regularly, and its contribution to the local community of Menai Bridge and Caernarfon. However, we need more of these economic boosts in our rural areas and rural towns if we are serious about seeing the Welsh language prosper in the next century.
I am very pleased to contribute to this debate. It is very important indeed.
I want to start by picking up some of the points that have already been made, particularly about the benefits to Wales of economic development, reinforcing the importance and unique aspect of being a bilingual country. This is a key part of brand Wales. It increases our attractiveness to tourists. It gives us something unique. However, I want to pick up what Suzy Davies said about the survey in Swansea and the fact that the first response to cuts was to ask, ‘Why don’t we reduce the spending on the Welsh language?’ I have had some responses like that in Cardiff North. I had someone who came in last week and asked, ‘Why does everything have to be translated into Welsh when we all speak English?’ I have noticed that, over the years, those sorts of comments, which have been very common in Cardiff North, have actually decreased quite a lot. I think that the importance of the Welsh language, its uniqueness and its selling point for Wales, is beginning to be accepted much more widely in the community. In fact, I think that the rise of Welsh-medium schools in English-speaking areas has been very important in doing that.
In Cardiff, where we have an increasing number of young people who speak Welsh, but whose families do not use Welsh in the home, it is very important that we make sure that there are opportunities for them to move into employment, as has been mentioned, and that there are apprenticeships available where they can go on learning through the medium of Welsh.
I also wanted to pick up the S4C point, because I thoroughly understand the benefits that S4C might bring to other parts of Wales. I know that, this week, Gwynedd and the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David are making their pitch to attract S4C, and I think that the decision is likely to be on Friday. However, there is a unique place for S4C in Cardiff North in Llanishen, and, in some ways, I think that having it in an area that is mainly English speaking, means that it does have an asset. However, the important point that I wanted to make about that, really, was that, around S4C in Llanishen, a hub of small media businesses has built up, and I think that there are about 10 of them now. That has happened generally with broadcasting units, and it is very important that any decision that is made to move ensures that those businesses are allowed to prosper and to continue in Cardiff North. So, I do have some reservations about what my colleague, Keith Davies, said on that point.
I wanted to make an opportunity to commend Cardiff Council for its efforts in this field. I know that it held a conference in Cardiff, called, ‘Cardiff: A Bilingual City’ last week, at which I believe the First Minister spoke. The purpose of this conference was to try to explore ways of promoting and protecting the Welsh language in the city, where the language is growing. The conference emphasised things like the history of the language; the services that you can obtain in Welsh in Cardiff; businesses’ use of language and how it can be used to promote businesses, entertainment and technology; and the importance of the language to children.
I think that 400 suggestions came out of this conference and they have been whittled down to, I think, 200 suggestions. A huge range of things were suggested, many of which were linked to business. They were around brand names for all of those working under the ‘bilingual Cardiff’ umbrella and it is going to have a bilingual action plan. This is not an end in itself. It was a conference that produced an action plan and it is intended to carry on into the future to promote bilingualism in Cardiff. It certainly was not a one-off event. I think that such events where a local authority brings forward a long-term plan to promote bilingualism in its own area is something very much to be commended. I wanted to use this opportunity to congratulate it today and hope that that will happen in other areas like Cardiff.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the First Minister.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. May I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate? As a Government, we will be supporting the motion as it has been tabled. We will oppose the amendment, but not because we disagree with the principle of assessing the impact of our policies on the Welsh language, but because we are currently considering the best way of assessing impact on the Welsh language as part of our internal action plan. We cannot agree, therefore, with the amendment. What we will be looking at is ensuring that we have individual guidelines for the Welsh language, not that we have guidance in terms of any other area in the field of equality.
The impact assessment on the Welsh language has existed for a number of years and with the new language standards that will come into force, officials are developing a new tool to that end. The tool will be piloted internally over the next six months with the aim of strengthening policy and grant decisions and ensuring that the Welsh language is considered early in the development of policies and legislation.
Of course, it is very important that we remember that one of the things that came across strongly during the ‘cynhadledd fawr’ was that people speak Welsh when they see that it has an economic and social use. Therefore, people become used to speaking Welsh when they see that value. We also know that a strong economy leads to prosperous and sustainable communities where there is a good quality of life. It is very important, therefore, to create an economy that takes into account the value of the language, not just in the traditional Welsh areas but also in the more anglicised areas.
What, then, has happened? Recently, for example, the report of the task and finish group on the Teifi valley local growth zone has been published. The group, chaired by Delyth Humphreys, has made a number of recommendations on policy options that will encourage and support jobs and economic growth in the Teifi valley. It is worth noting that many of the responses have mentioned the importance of the Welsh language to the economic and social prosperity of the area and we will look carefully at these when considering our response to that report.
In other areas, perhaps the mentrau iaith could help to drive the Welsh language in economic terms, which is extremely important. One of the things that we are considering at the moment is how we can strengthen the mentrau iaith in order to ensure that they are able to take action to do so.
However, in many areas and among some groups of people, it is true to say that there is a perception that there is no economic value to the Welsh language. That disappoints me. I still hear some people, although they are very small in number, saying that the language holds people back and that the language holds Wales back. I do not support that view at all. It is clear to me that there are major benefits of having a society and a country that are bilingual and that offer something different, culturally, from the rest of the world. We want to ensure that we change that perception among some people and, of course, we must ensure that people see the Welsh language as a valuable skill.
Our proposed standards will have a role, of course, in placing a duty on the national parks, the local authorities and us as Welsh Ministers in the first place, and the private sector at a later stage. This will make the language more prominent as a language of business and the economy and increase the demand for Welsh speakers to work in those organisations. I would think that businesses would see the commercial value of using the Welsh language. In my opinion, it would ensure that more people used the business. We know that Welsh speakers are keen to use businesses and shops where the Welsh language is evident in the shop, on signs, but it is important, of course, that the language is used in the shop or business on a day-to-day basis.
The Welsh Language Commissioner is currently consulting on the first set of standards and the process of creating the Welsh language tribunal, which will be so important in terms of implementing the standards, is also ongoing. The tribunal will be in place by the end of November this year.
As mentioned by several Members, the Welsh language and the economy is a complex issue, of course, as is acknowledged in the report of the task and finish group on the Welsh language and economic development commissioned by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. That report made 27 recommendations, on which the Minister is currently consulting. That consultation will end on 16 April and the responses will steer the next steps in this area.
To answer some of the points made by some speakers, I heard what Simon Thomas said. It is very important that we listen to good ideas from all parts of Wales and from every political party in order to ensure that the response in terms of strengthening the language in respect of the economy is effective. We are extremely keen, of course, once we have responded to the task and finish group, that that happens.
In terms of what Aled Roberts said, I would argue that more Welsh is now being used within Government than ever before. It is true to say, in my view, that the old Welsh Office was not somewhere that was considered by Welsh-speakers as a place to work. The percentage of Welsh speakers in Cathays park was 5% when devolution began. That has increased over the years. Of course, we now have offices in Llandudno Junction, Aberystwyth, Carmarthen and Llandrindod Wells, providing opportunities for Welsh speakers to work in the areas where they want to live. They were not there years ago, when everything, more or less, was in Cardiff. So, that has changed.
In terms of what Keith said, once again, you would think that businesses saw commercial value to the language and saw that it could benefit them if they offered a Welsh-language service so that people could use the language on a daily basis. This is happening in some parts of Wales. For example, on Pontardawe square, there is a carpet shop called Viv Dates Carpets. It advertises in English, without irony, ‘Welsh-speaking members of staff’—in English only. It shows that, in the Pontardawe area, where the Welsh language has been in decline over recent years, there is value in that business advertising the fact that it has Welsh-speaking members of staff in order to provide a service to local people.
In closing, I will turn to Rhun’s comments. Once again, it was extremely interesting to hear about the ways in which we use the language to show that Wales is a different place to visit, in order to ensure, for example, that when Americans come to Europe, they come to Wales, and understand that there is a different culture here. Historically, that has not happened. He mentioned the WDA, but I will not talk too much about the WDA. I will say two things. The irony is that the WDA’s brand was in English only. It was not very supportive of the Welsh language, to put it kindly. I understand that it is important to ensure that the Welsh brand, and Welsh-language brand, is strong enough in the future. The Minister for economy is here and I am sure that, in future, she will respond to debates like this, but had she done so today, she would have had three debates and the short debate. I wanted to give her a bit of a break.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Simon Thomas to reply to the debate.
I wish to thank the nine Members who have contributed to this debate. I am pleased to have had such a positive debate, and a debate that is so open to new ideas. In responding, I would like to look at this debate. I think that there were four main areas covered, starting with creating workforces where the Welsh language is used. The First Minister has just closed his speech by referring to this, and Aled Roberts also mentioned it. I see that there is scope for standards to assist in this process, further to the excellent work that has been done in Gwynedd, for example. I accept, of course, that more use is made of the Welsh language within Government now, but in thinking of the Government taking a lead role, I think that we need to see Government departments and locations—Llandudno Junction or Aberystwyth—working internally through the medium of Welsh as well as having a Welsh interface. We want to see the staff themselves drawing up reports through the medium of Welsh and so forth. It is true that we also need to see that happening within the Assembly Commission, rather than work being translated for us who make use of the language. This sends a very clear message.
Likewise, Llwyddo’n Lleol has been mentioned a number of times as a scheme that assisted with mentoring and encouraging entrepreneurship through the medium of Welsh. It was started by Alun Ffred and administered, apparently, by Llyr Gruffydd. So, there are very definite links to Llwyddo’n Lleol on these benches.
The second area that was important to Members was procurement and contracting. Leanne Wood specifically mentioned this: that we should follow the example of Scotland, increasing local contracting and procurement, using more local services and placing an emphasis on the private workforce at a local level. We tend to think of the Welsh language as something that exists within the context of the public sector. I think that it is extremely important that we give status and emphasis to the Welsh language in the private sector as well. The European programmes that I have mentioned have a role to play in that process. We must look for opportunities now, in drawing up the new European programmes, to ensure that procurement and contracting reflect things that are for the benefit of the public. That includes such things as apprenticeship, skills and how employees are treated. It also includes the Welsh lanuage.
The third area that people were eager to talk about—a very interesting one—was marketing and the Welsh language. Alun Ffred, Keith Davies, Rhun and Julie Morgan mentioned this. I believe that that growth is very interesting in Wales. It is not happening yet as it is in other bilingual nations. If you go to a Lidl in Spain, even a tin of beans has four languages on it. There is some way to go before we see Welsh on a tin of beans in Wales. However, having said that, there are some interesting, enterprising and creative ways of using of the language. Alun Ffred mentioned Llaeth y Llan. I can think of three organic dairy farms that came together and formed ‘Trioni’. They then produced milk and called it ‘Daioni’. I tasted something that had vodka in it once, and that was called ‘drygioni’. [Laughter.] Therefore, the use of the Welsh language is sometimes very positive.
Rhun mentioned Halen Môn, and water. It is true, is it not, that salt tastes the same wherever you are in the world, and water is not supposed to have any taste at all? Again, the names and the cachet and the way that these things are marketed make a world of difference. I have a pot of Halen Môn in my kitchen, next to my hob. That is the secret of marketing, and the secret of using the Welsh language to give some kind of cachet and the idea that you buy into something too. That is very important, as we market the language in this context.
The last area that people focused on in particular was the concept of where we can locate jobs, namely growth areas.
I am afraid that I do not have time, Nick. The point was about job placement and management of new jobs. In this context, Rhun, Alun Ffred, Julie Morgan and the First Minister contributed. I think that it is important that we refer to the fact that S4C is considering relocation at presdent. I very much hope that it will relocate. I cannot say, given the people who are behind me, where it should relocate to, but people know where my support has gone. S4C expenditure is something like £64 million per annum at present. In turn, that leads to an additional spend of £60 million. So, you have a total of £120 million of value in the creative industries in Wales, maintaining 2,000 jobs. All I will say is that I believe that relocating S4C would have a greater impact, wherever it goes—Carmarthen or Caernarfon—than the hole that would be left behind in Cardiff. Of course, I respect the fact that Julie Morgan wants to speak up for her constituents and wants to see the good work that has been done by S4C continue in Cardiff. However, S4C and the strong economic impact that revolves around the language—I am talking about the skills, for example; S4C invests over £300,000 a year in skills and apprenticeships in the creative industries—would make a world of difference to Carmarthen or Caernarfon. I very much hope that we will see a decision by the authority that is positive in that sense.
Once again, thank you to everyone who has contributed to this debate. I think that it has been a very positive debate. As the First Minister said, the Welsh language is not something that holds Wales back. Poverty is perhaps something that does that. The Welsh language is one of the tools that we use to improve our economy.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that we agree the motion without amendment. Are there any objections? There is objection, so I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies.
Motion NDM5450 Aled Roberts
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes that safe and affordable public transport is key to enabling young people to access work, education, training and apprenticeships.
2. Regrets that the affordability of public transport acts as a significant barrier for part-time workers and to the post-16 choices of young people.
3. Welcomes the steps taken by some local authorities in Wales to introduce a concessionary fare scheme for young people but regrets that significant variability in concessions leads to a postcode lottery of affordable transport for young travellers.
4. Recognises the achievements of community transport schemes including Bwcabus and Grass Routes in providing accessible and flexible transport for local communities.
5. Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) work with bus operators to introduce a national concessionary fare scheme for young people through a new ‘young travellers’ rate for 16-18 year olds and students;
b) examine the feasibility of a season ticket for part-time workers;
c) explore the potential for extending community transport schemes such as Bwcabus and Grass Routes in rural areas; and
d) examine ways to develop a low carbon network of public transport in Wales.
I move the motion.
I am very pleased to introduce today’s second debate on buses and, Dirprwy Lywydd, you will be pleased to hear that I have successfully forced myself not to make the obvious joke on this occasion. We want to focus on the cost of transport and the practical steps that we can take to overcome the barrier that this presents to specific groups, particularly young people and part-time workers. We have brought forward this motion today because we believe that safe and affordable public transport is key to enabling young people to access work, education, training and apprenticeships. At this point, I would like to pay tribute to members of Ieuenctid Rhyddfrydol Cymru and Liberal Youth Wales, who have been very active in campaigning on this subject and who were instrumental in bringing this policy to the Liberal Democrats. It is a huge issue for young people. A report by the Campaign for Better Transport in 2012 highlighted that transport costs are the biggest single piece of expenditure in relation to post-16 education. Nearly half of 16 to 18-year-old students find their transport costs hard to meet. However, the cost of public transport for young people is not a new concern. Under the last Labour UK Government, the cost of transport rose by 24%, leaving many young people isolated and unable to take advantage of education and training opportunities.
In Wales, the quarterly bus statistics released yesterday revealed that the cost of bus fares has risen by 3.2% in Wales in the last year alone. While this was lower than some parts of the UK, the cost of public transport has been steadily rising, which has had a disproportionate impact on young people who are heavily reliant on public transport to access education, employment and training because they often do not have private transport to fall back on.
According to the British Youth Council, children and young people are among the largest user groups of public services, particularly public transport, yet the cost of travelling by bus, rail or tram can pose a barrier to young people getting around. Many young people are either in full-time education or have just left education and are looking for a job, so paying a full bus fare can be a significant cost. The affordability of public transport, therefore, is a significant barrier to the post-16 choices of young people and we need to break that barrier down.
Yesterday, I was proud to launch a report on the options for introducing a concessionary fare scheme for young travellers in Wales, which was adopted as party policy after being brought to our conference by our youth wing, as I have said. We welcome that some local authorities and bus operators in Wales have taken steps to introduce concessionary fares for young people. For example, Cardiff Bus offers a young person fare for five to 18-year-olds, but there is significant variability in concessionary schemes, which leads to confusion and difficulty when travelling across local authority boundaries. This report explores different mechanisms for operating a national concessionary fare scheme for young travellers that will be more easily accessible, help to reduce the cost of public transport and improve access to education, employment and training.
On the basis of this report, we are calling today for a national concessionary fare scheme in the form of a blanket reduced fare rate for 16 to 18-year-olds and for students. Our policy proposals would extend the reduced rate on public transport to establish a new young travellers rate, which would be funded in a similar way to the over-60s bus pass, through a concessionary subsidy to bus companies to guarantee that a reduced rate is available for young travellers. The discount would be uniform across Wales and separate from the under-16 rate that most bus companies already offer, and eligibility might be determined through the use of official proof-of-age cards already in operation, such as pass cards, driving licences and student identification cards, in addition to visual verification where possible. We accept that our policy proposal will incur a cost, although it is perhaps a cost that could be offset, as I will explain in a moment. However, we have sought to identify the most cost-efficient scheme to provide affordable and accessible public transport for young people.
A concessionary fare scheme may need to be introduced in stages as the economy develops and public finances improve, but an initial roll-out to 16 to 18-year-olds of a one-third discount price would cost in the region of £2.4 million. For those local authorities that already operate such a scheme, there are potential savings to be redirected into other services that they support. Administration costs could be kept to a minimum by using existing forms of identification for eligibility, removing the need to create a new card to prove eligibility. We recognise that the administrative costs of things like the over-60s bus pass are a significant proportion of that cost and we would wish to defer that, if we possibly could, and direct the money that is available into savings for young people.
I believe that there would be a return on the investment that we are making. To the public purse, that return is through enabling young people to have better access to education, employment and training opportunities, which would help them to make a greater contribution to their local economies. It will also benefit communities: it will help to sustain bus services by increasing the use of public transport, particularly in rural areas and at off-peak times. There is also a benefit to bus operators as this is a discount, not a free travel scheme, so there is the opportunity to increase passenger numbers and, through that, increase fare revenue in the long term.
We need to look at others that have successfully implemented concessionary schemes elsewhere. One example that I want to bring to your attention is the example of Staffordshire County Council’s ‘Your Staffordshire’ card, which allows 11 to 19-year-olds to pay £1 for travel between any two points in the county, regardless of the journey length or the number of changes required. It calculated, when it initially designed the scheme, that after 50,000 users were signed up to the card, the scheme would become cost-neutral because, as I say, this was a discount rather than a free bus travel scheme. Not only has it reached this aim, but the scheme is actually now making a profit for the bus companies involved in it. Bus operators in that area have reported that young people are travelling more, changing their travel patterns, and one company has even put on additional services to meet the demand driven by this particular scheme. So, I do believe that schemes along these lines could show us ways in which we could tackle this issue in Wales. Not only was the Staffordshire scheme well received by local people, it actually won ‘The Guardian’ public service award for transport and mobility in 2011.
I believe that we need some vision and ambition here from the Welsh Government if we are to help overcome the barriers that face young people in accessing education, employment, training and apprenticeships, and to give young people the best possible opportunities. However, we have to be practical about it in difficult times. We have to make sure that any new scheme that we introduce is cost-effective and cost-efficient. Whilst we hope that today’s debate will give Members the opportunity to discuss ways in which we might achieve an aim that we would all believe is right, it is now time to introduce a national scheme to show young travellers across Wales that we are listening to them, and that we want them to have access to the world through public transport.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion and I call on Byron Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the fact that bus operators are actively pursuing concessionary fare schemes for young people and students.
I move amendment 1.
Unlike Eluned Parrott, I am happy to say that, as with buses, you wait for a chance to speak about the future of our transport network and then two come at once. It does give me great pleasure to move our amendment today and I commend the Liberal Democrats for the debate on enabling young people and part-time workers to use public transport more readily, and ensuring that it is affordable. Many of the essential points were of course raised in the earlier Welsh Conservative debate, so I am conscious that we have already had a debate on bus services in Wales, and many of the issues, as I say, will be common across both debates, but they are worth reiterating. That does not in any way diminish the importance of the debate. I will add that our local train services are also very intertwined with this motion.
In tabling our Welsh Conservative amendment, we wanted to recognise that, despite the cuts to the transport service grant, or the bus service operators grant, or regional transport service grant, or indeed the uncertainty surrounding the funding of bus services in Wales, bus operators recognise the need to support young people and are already working on support mechanisms despite no funding allocated to date. I mentioned in the previous debate that many in the bus industry are nervous about the future, with key members of the industry describing bus policy in Wales as one of indecision and hesitation. This certainly directly affects passengers through increasing fares because of the need to plan financially according to the worst-case scenario. We also see operators reducing or withdrawing services due to operators trying to minimise financial exposure and reducing workforces.
So, I agree with the Liberal Democrats. I also regret that the affordability of public transport acts as a significant barrier for part-time workers and to the post-16 choices of young people. It is something that we must address, but we cannot expect the industry to do it in isolation. The Government really must support it.
If I may, I would like to reiterate the two most important points of this motion, namely that the Welsh Government works with bus operators to introduce a national concessionary fare scheme for young people through a new young travellers rate for 16 to 18-year-olds and students. It is something that I have had quite a bit of correspondence on over the past year or so. So, additionally, I would like to see the Government examining the feasibility of a season ticket for part-time workers. We really do need to get Wales moving on this and provide affordable travel for passengers, no matter what their situation financially. So, concessionary fares are important, but, again, I want to remind Members that the actual bus service is essential. We do not want young and senior citizens to end up with concessionary cards but be unable to use them because the bus does not run again.
Affordability and accessibility of public transport is especially critical in our rural communities. It is without doubt one of the biggest challenges that faces rural Wales. Not only do people in rural areas face higher fuel costs, but the percentage of younger people aged between 17 and 20 who own a driving licence has fallen in recent years from 43% to some 36%. According to the national transport survey, this fall is largely due to the cost of driving lessons, increasing insurance premiums and the cost of purchasing a car and keeping it on the road. Combined with a sparse public transport system, this often leaves young people in rural areas facing real isolation and exclusion—unable to access opportunities for work or education. It serves to disconnect vulnerable people from vital community services such as healthcare, and even leads to social exclusion if people are unable to travel to visit friends or family.
Demand-led services, such as Bwcabus or Grass Roots in Monmouthshire and Carmarthenshire, are vital in providing affordable and flexible transport options for our rural communities. However, at a time when we should be prioritising access to employment and local services, support for community transport is being reduced. While 10% of the regional transport services grant was previously ring-fenced for community transport, the draft guidance for the new bus services support grant suggests that this may be reduced to some 5%, and this is a matter of concern.
Sustrans’ ‘Access Denied’ report highlights that community and demand-responsive transport schemes enable local authorities to use resources more effectively where demand is dispersed. It calls for a more secure and longer term funding programme, and for further exploration of informal taxi-bus industry models that offer better coverage and are appropriate for rural areas.
Our report on a concessionary fares scheme highlights, as has been said, the important role that schemes like Bwcabus play in improving connectivity for young people in our rural areas. We strongly agree with the Sustrans report that these schemes must be protected and expanded.
In 2013, the Enterprise and Business Committee report on integrated public transport recommended that the Bwcabus network should be further expanded into other areas of rural Wales, as,
‘the integration of community transport with the wider transport network “is patchy at best at the moment.”’
That was a direct quote from the committee report.
However, the Welsh Government only accepted expansion in principle, and suggested that stakeholders visit and learn from the Bwcabus experience. We would further encourage the Welsh Government to commence a roll-out of the Bwcabus network, engaging with local stakeholders to improve rural connectivity. This would not only serve to assist young people accessing key career opportunities but would improve the mobility of people from a range of backgrounds, such as the elderly, to access services and facilities in nearby towns.
We also need to do more to develop a low-carbon network of public transport in Wales. The UK Government’s green bus fund, launched by the Liberal Democrat Minister Norman Baker, along with the clean bus technology fund, has been hugely successful in supporting local authorities and bus companies on the English side of the border in investing in new low-carbon buses. The scheme was launched in 2011 with an initial £90 million to help to make bus services greener and more efficient. This is supporting jobs and manufacturing, and is helping the UK to establish itself as a world leader in low-carbon technology.
In January, for example, Milton Keynes announced a fleet of eight new electric vehicles that operate via a wireless booster charge that they receive from plates in the road at the start and the end of the route. Scotland, too, has been investing in greener public transport, with some £7.7 million since 2010 to support low-carbon buses. While some local authorities in Wales, such as Cardiff and Newport, have been trialling low-carbon options for buses, cuts to funding have not been balanced by any Welsh Government investment to support green technologies.
So, in conclusion, we need to see more ambition and support from the Welsh Government, as Wales is falling behind currently in terms of low-carbon transport.
I am also pleased to contribute this afternoon. Transport, to us here, has always been more than just a means of transportation. The link between transport and work, education and tackling poverty is always one of our priorities. I welcome the fact that the Silk report has recommended the devolution of powers over bus regulation in accordance with the evidence of the Welsh Government to the commission.
According to the latest census, the percentage of households in my constituency, Llanelli, who do not have a car is between 28% and 40%. Particularly in those areas where the percentage is more than 50%, public transport is crucial to work and daily life. On the doorstep in Llanelli, free buses are often used by pensioners—one of Welsh Labour’s electoral commitments, which will be retained. They describe the benefit to them in terms of being able to be independent and the social benefits of that.
Of course, the programme has always included disabled people and their carers. The programme was expanded to the armed forces and former soldiers in 2011, even in light of the cuts imposed by the Westminster Government. I am pleased that we have been able to retain this in Wales. Now, over 700,000 bus passes are in circulation, which demonstrates the success.
As has been said already, Bwcabus is an excellent programme in rural west Wales. It helps people to access work, training and crucial services through a system that meets demand. It is an example of an alternative scheme drawn up specifically to respond to the local demand to provide a high-quality service in rural areas. It gives its users control, in a sense, in that they can book their own journey.
To me, as Llanelli is part of the Swansea bay city region, transport is one of the most important factors to consider in drawing up the model. In comparison with the city region in the east, that in the west will be more dependent upon buses, and will have to make greater use of them. The importance of transport was highlighted by representatives in the city region workshop event held in Parc y Scarlets recently. Local businesses talked about the importance of transport for access to work and services. We will need to give careful consideration to infrastructure and co-ordination between different modes, with all of this central to the needs of users and to removing barriers. The economic regeneration strategy of the city region points to the need to shape transport so that more disadvantaged areas can take advantage of job opportunities and to ensure that they are not excluded from growth areas because of a lack of transport.
It is not unexpected that research has shown that transport can be a barrier to work. The work of Lancaster University is interesting in discussing the barriers of cost and availability for young unemployed people and the benefit of concessionary fares. Young people across the UK name transport as a barrier to work, as, on average, they are more dependent on public transport and on lower wages.
I am pleased that the Welsh Government has been working with bus companies to discuss concessionary fares for young people. I know that this has happened with a bus company in south Wales, where there is a reduction of 33% for those aged between 16 and 18. I hope that this can be a model that is adopted across Wales. After all, young person’s railcards for those aged 16 to 25 have been extremely popular, even among young people who have access to cars. They say that the railcards increase their use of the railways. I would want to see this scheme expanded to buses too.
Research by Chwarae Teg and Sustrans looks at the impact of season tickets on part-time workers. Often, they cannot take advantage of such tickets. If the same level of reduction were available to them, someone travelling from Llanelli for part-time work could save £540 per annum.
The Minister’s action in November last year to make train travel cheaper is to be welcomed, with an increase in season ticket prices being held below inflation in Wales. Specifically, the introduction of a multi-ticket reduction that would benefit part-time workers is crucial. I would like to see this expanded too.
As well as for young people, our motion notes that the affordability of public transport often acts as a significant barrier for part-time workers. A recent paper by Sustrans and Chwarae Teg has looked at the issue of season tickets for part-time workers using rail services. Just over a quarter—26%—of workers in Wales currently work part time. This is higher than in any other part of the UK. However, the hourly wage is lower, at an average of £7.62, while full-time workers in Wales earn, on average, £11.63 per hour.
It highlights that, while we have an array of season tickets, such as seven-day tickets, monthly, three-monthly and annual tickets, there is no discount for part-time workers who would not enjoy the benefits of a full seven-day ticket. In fact, they may lose money if they are only working two or three days a week. This means that they end up buying return tickets each day at a peak rate, which means it costs them more to travel to work than it does those who work full time and can enjoy the savings offered by a seven-day or monthly ticket.
The Sustrans and Chwarae Teg report highlighted that a part-time season ticket for rail users in Wales could save someone £640 a year if they had the same discount as those who buy a monthly ticket, or £300 compared to a seven-day season ticket. A part-time season ticket for travelling between Llanelli and Swansea, for example, will provide an annual saving of £540.
At the Lib Dem annual conference last year, Norman Baker MP announced that the UK Government will be trialling a flexible or part-time season ticket in London this year, which is welcome news. The UK Government has recognised the disadvantage that many part-time workers face in being forced to make the choice between buying a season ticket that they cannot make full use of and paying peak-time fares each day to get to work, and the Government is taking steps to address that. That will put money back in the pockets of the lowest-paid workers and will help people to access work and training opportunities. It will also help to support women back into work, as figures show that only 61% of women have a driving licence, compared to 79% of men. So, they are more likely to be reliant on public transport to access work or local services. It will also support women who are looking to balance childcare needs with returning to work by reducing the cost of travel if they return to work on a part-time basis.
I urge the Welsh Government to examine the feasibility of introducing a part-time season ticket for bus and rail services in Wales in order to end the unfair disadvantage that part-time workers currently face in paying for public transport.
A part-time season ticket would not only help those in part-time work or those seeking employment or training, it would also help to sustain our bus services by encouraging more people to use public transport services. While we have yet to see the final guidance on the new bus services support grant, which will be allocated directly to local authorities, draft guidance indicates that funding for the grant will be £25 million in 2014-15, which is a real-terms cut in funding on last year. That will cause difficulties for many bus operators, which may need to withdraw fleets. Introducing a part-time season ticket will help to sustain bus services and ensure that we continue to have an affordable and accessible public transport service across Wales. That is important not just for young people, part-time workers or those in rural areas, but for the many disabled people in Wales.
The RNIB highlights that there are nearly 100,000 people in Wales living with sight loss, and that this figure will increase over the next 25 years with an ageing population. Blind and partially sighted people rely heavily on public transport for most of their everyday journeys to travel to work or to access local services. It is a critical enabler for their independence.
In a survey conducted by the RNIB, nearly half of blind and partially sighted people said that they feel moderately or completely cut off from people and things around them, and 43% would like to leave their homes more often. However, for this to happen, we need to maintain a reliable public transport service so that, when catching a bus, a blind or partially sighted person can be sure that, when a vehicle arrives, it is a the right one. We also need to roll out on buses and trains announcements when the relevant stop is reached in order to help people in that particular situation.
Investment in community transport is also key in rural areas to ensure that, where public transport is limited, disabled people still have access to a service that enables them to get into the local community, supporting their wellbeing. Cuts to bus services have wide impacts, and the Welsh Government must consider the need to have a wide range of users in planning services. I hope that our motion today offers some constructive ideas to help to sustain our public transport services, which are so vital to so many people in Wales.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
As you know, I am no great fan of these Wednesday afternoon debates, but have enjoyed today because I have had the opportunity to speak twice, obviously, but also because we have had a series of debates on transport. I do think that these debates demonstrate the consensus on a cross-party basis but also the importance of connectivity as a way of life, a way of socialising, a way of travelling to work, and for the north-south and east-west connections. This whole way of thinking about transport is something that we must adopt. Any such way of thinking about transport in Wales must always concentrate on the word ‘integrated’, because the weakness of the system that we have inherited in terms of the railways—and we will hear later what Simon Thomas has to say about the journey over Ceredig falls, or whatever the name of that place is in Tregaron; I cannot quite recall—is that rail connection is inadequate because of what has happened in the past. Any transport development has to be integrated development because of that.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
This is particularly important in the case of young people, because they need to travel safely, and travel safely at different times of the day and night. I warmly welcome what has been proposed today by the Liberal Democrats. However, limiting that to buses alone is not going to be effective. We have an example: those of us who are older users, and holders of concessionary tickets, can travel free of charge on the railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno and back—and what else could one desire? However, I can also travel in the same way on buses throughout Wales. In looking at proposals for young people, I think that we should look at a principle such as that.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I would like to hear from the Minister where we are in terms of the Go Cymru card technology and everything that was originally developed, of course, by the that famous Minister for transport, Ieuan Wyn Jones, as part of the One Wales Government.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I also think that it is very important that we also look at the link between any proposal for concessionary travel and an attempt to create a system and journeys that can be commercially viable at certain times of the day. I think that this is one of the weakness in the way in which the transport system currently works. Clearly, concessionary travel cards for those working part time could have a contribution to make there. I think also that we need to look towards the new rail franchise and think about how a similar franchise system for buses could dovetail with it. If we are planning these separately, we will never achieve an integrated system. That is what I was seeking to suggest when I made the mistake, clearly, in the earlier debate of referring to transport in London. It is not a matter of scale, that is not what I was addressing, but the regime where there is a link between transport regulation and specific franchises for bus companies on specific routes. I do think that once we get a signal that we will have a devolved regime in terms of bus regulation we should be able to plan for this alongside planning the rail franchise. The outcome of all that would be that we could create a situation whereby there is public control and designation of services with private operation—much of it, hopefully, by new small companies that could compete with each other, but on the supply side, rather than on the side of provision for passengers.
I agree with the last speaker very much that these debates are showing a remarkable amount of consensus across the Chamber, and I want to agree with a number of Members in my first remarks. First, I welcome the Silk commission’s proposals for increased devolution and allowing us the possibility of reregulation of at least some bus services in Wales, which would allow us to achieve the kind of integration that we know is absolutely necessary in order to achieve modal shift. People will not leave their car at home or, even better, not buy a car, unless they are absolutely certain that those services will continue to be available and will not suddenly disappear because there is a change in the commercial viability of a route. So, I think that is the first point that it is very important to make, before we even discuss fares.
I also want to highlight the Chwarae Teg manifesto, which was mentioned by Julie Morgan among many others, and commend that to the Government in terms of it being a good exposition of the issues facing many women and part-time workers in their transport lives and of the enormous economic impact we could have if we implemented some of those proposals.
Multi-use discounts are another area where there is near consensus across the Chamber. We have to be a little careful with the commercial operators. For example, a season ticket with First Cymru in my area is only £1 cheaper over five days than just buying a ticket every day. It is £9 cheaper if you extend that to seven days, but most workers do not use it for seven days—they only use it for five days, so, in fact, it is only £1 cheaper. That is worth bearing in mind when we are talking about these discounts; I do not think that that would make very much difference to most part-time workers, for example.
The issue about youth transport concessions is a very important one, but, again, we need to have some power to make sure that the services on which we have concessionary fares link up with some of the events and schemes that we want young people to go to. There is very little point in having concessionary fares, as you often see in my area—the Minister is very familiar with this—which are for services that are very under-used and do not get you anywhere on time to partake, for example, in a youth festival or play scheme that is starting elsewhere in the city. So, those commercial decisions can undermine the whole purpose of the scheme.
The last point that I want to make is a new one in the Chamber, namely that we now have a very good Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 that we are very proud of, and which we worked very hard to achieve as a Chamber. However, we do not have any bus companies that I am aware of that will allow you to take a bike on the bus. Some bus carriers will allow you to take a folding bike on the bus, but when you live in a constituency such as mine—as will be the case in many rural areas of Wales, but mine is a city constituency—the trip away from your home down to the event is a very pleasant one on a bike because it is all downhill. However, the trip home is very unpleasant and extremely steep, therefore people simply do not take their bike. If they were allowed to stick that bike on a bus to go back up the hill, a lot more people would do that, which would be commended. I have not been able to find any bus company in the UK that carries bikes, but the Minister will be aware that enormous numbers of bus companies in continental Europe and in places such as California carry full-size bikes all the time, with bike carriers on the front or back of the bus that you pop your bike onto if you want to travel a slightly further distance, or, indeed, back up Constitution Hill in my constituency. I commend that point in particular to the Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister, for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
I now have this vision of Julie James, Peter Black, Byron Davies and all of them all cycling up Constitution Hill after an evening out in Swansea. I think that the leader of the local authority does not live far from there, so perhaps we could encourage regular activity for him as well.
Our public transport system plays a vital part in supporting the economic competitiveness of Wales by providing good access to jobs and services, including in our more rural communities where community transport also plays a very important role. I totally agree with Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas that our approach should be to have an integrated system, which is key to all of the discussions on these particular issues. He mentioned the new rail franchise and how that will link to bus routes. In an earlier discussion, we had all the problems highlighted about where the train goes in mid Wales and when there is no bus, because the bus has gone just before the train. So, it is very important that we look at that.
The key to this is the commercial viability of services and to encourage greater use of services, so that we do not have to put the level of subsidies in that we currently do to maintain services. It means that we can get a better balance in terms of resources. When Eluned Parrott moved the motion, she said that things have to be cost-effective and that we have to look at how we deal with issues. That is an important caveat in these discussions. We recognise that safe and affordable public transport is the key to enabling young people to access work, education, training and apprenticeships. It is also important for us to recognise that this is a group that really needs help and assistance, particularly in terms of finding employment. Our funding support for bus and community services is likely to be under considerable pressure for the foreseeable future, therefore it needs to be targeted to achieve more of the outcomes that passengers wish to see.
William Powell particularly concentrated on the Green Bus fund. I am aware that the Green Bus fund has supported the introduction of alternative-fuel buses that have been operating in England and Scotland for some time. We have to recognise in the discussion in Wales that the Wales rate of financial support for bus operators is much higher than elsewhere in the UK, so that was the balance that we struck on funding. However, one of the issues that I will want my bus policy advisory group to look at is the issue that you have raised on green buses and how we can deal with that agenda. Within the limits of funding, that is something it will certainly have to focus on.
In his contribution, Peter Black also looked at some of the issues that I think are particularly important, and notably disability issues. There is an issue of the accessibility of public transport and how people can have another life if they can access public transport if they have disabilities. It raises very interesting points about how things are dealt with currently, not just in terms of bus services but with regard to how the current Arriva franchise runs. I have heard some horror stories about what has happened to people with hearing difficulties and other disabilities on the service and what is happening with the arrangements that we have in the current franchise. We have to explore that.
The affordability issue, particularly for part-time workers, was illustrated by Peter Black in the discussion and by the points that Julie James made. They both referred to the Chwarae Teg report. It is really quite important that we recognise that about part-time workers. However, I think that Julie’s further point was about the fares mechanisms that exist. If you are going to go for discount arrangements because you are having a pass for more than three or four days, you have got to be able to see that it is a financial benefit. So, these are some of the funding issues that we will have to have a look at. I also have to say that a lot of comment has been made about the Bwcabus by a number of speakers. I think that Keith Davies alluded to it. We have continued our financial support for the Bwcabus services in rural south-west Wales until March 2015. I am particularly keen that local authorities look at the experience around the Bwcabus, because it has had a very positive impact in the areas where it has operated. Another very good example is the Grassroots project in Monmouthshire, which has also been very positive in terms of how it has delivered services. So, there are some good areas and I hope that the bus policy advisory group will look at how we review our policy in all the areas and strands that have been discussed today. It is also got to look at best practice throughout the UK. I was very interested in the comments about what is going on elsewhere in the UK. That is why I think it is very important that some of the projects I am initiating with Ceredigion and the Vale will help to develop integrated transport units and integrated transport solutions in their areas. These trials will include robust evaluation criteria to establish the success and potential for adoption elsewhere in Wales.
There is an option to focus on discounted travel for young people and those who are not in education, employment or training. That may well be investigated as part of these pilot schemes. We also need to find improved ways for people to access healthcare, which is a point that was made in the debate, because that is one of the priorities of the work that I jointly commissioned with the Minister for Health and Social Services. So, we need to explore all of these issues.
On young people’s concessionary fares, I think that the points have been well made, and I am more than happy for that the Government to support this motion today, because I think that it is important in terms of how we develop this particular agenda. We have to recognise that this is an agenda that we have to get right. I am not saying that this is something that will be undertaken overnight, but we will have the initial work from my group and it can then flesh out the areas it needs to do further work on. If I am able to, I will keep the Assembly apprised to make sure that we have the united response we have at the moment with regard to the essential nature of some of the services that we need to develop.
At the end of the day, it is important for us all to recognise that this will have to be a partnership. Local government will have to be our partner in this. There must be an understanding that you cannot, because you have problems within your budget, just start to unthinkingly cut services, which then has an impact on lots of other issues, such as people’s ability to travel to work, socialise, access education, and so on. You have got to think outside the box and ask, ‘If I’m doing this, what other unintended consequences do I have? I might be saving £50,000 or £100,000, but what extra pressure am I putting on other budget areas and on other individuals by taking those decisions?’ In addition, the bus operators have looked very innovatively at some of the services that they provide, but I am very keen to get a good mix of bus operators and I need to recognise in particular that, in some rural areas and in some urban deprived areas, there are small operators that also have a part to play and a role and a function—it is not just the big operators. It is important that we have diversity in this agenda, that we have a common understanding and that we understand the financial position that we are in. However, at the end of the day, there is nothing more important than getting people out of their homes if they need to get out of their homes to socialise and especially for economic activity and to support those who are seeking employment who find, currently, that some of the rises in fares are almost unacceptable. However, key to this is to have an integrated approach and I am very pleased that, as a Government, we will be supporting this motion. We have had an excellent discussion on this motion this afternoon and I hope that we can make good progress. I will certainly keep the Chamber updated on the progress of my group, because I think that there is very little that divides us in terms of the outcomes that we all require.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Kirsty Williams to reply to the debate.
I begin by thanking colleagues across the Chamber for their very positive responses and their contributions to this debate this afternoon. I was particularly glad to hear the contribution from Dafydd Elis-Thomas behind me—
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I am always behind you; do not worry. [Laughter.]
I am glad that we have been able to cheer up his Wednesday afternoon. As you know, Deputy Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas rarely bestows his good opinions on people, therefore, it is particularly valuable when he does so.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
How very helpful. [Laughter.]
As for Constitution Hill, well, may I tell the Chamber that, in all of the years that I have known Peter Black, I have never ever seen him on a bicycle? [Laughter.] I would, therefore, be very frightened indeed to see him attempt to go down Constitution Hill on a bicycle, let alone watch him try to climb back up it. It could add to the not insignificant challenges at Morriston accident and emergency department, I suspect. [Laughter.]
Could I thank the Minister for her very positive response to the debate? I look forward to being kept informed as the work of her task and finish group—or her review group—goes forward. The Minister, it seems to me, understood the need to develop a green strategy for public transport here in Wales to help her to meet her colleagues’ Government goals of making Wales a truly green economy. So, that is very welcome. I think that she was right, Deputy Presiding Officer, to stress the need for good quality, accessible buses.
Let us be clear, accessible transport is beneficial to all users, not just to those who have a disability. It is a very positive experience to ensure that people with young children, for instance—. Who has not seen young mothers struggling with buggies, babies and shopping trying to get on to an inaccessible bus? Being able to have clear information on a bus, both in written and audible forms is not just good for those who, perhaps, have a visual or sensory impairment, but it is vital for tourists who want to travel around our country using our public transport.
We heard many examples this afternoon of good practice from within Wales. Individual local authorities and community groups are trying to respond to situations in their communities to provide a service. We need to spread that good practice. We are a small enough nation not to have that good practice existing in isolation. We need to do more to spread that across Wales and to ensure that we have a more equitable service. There are parts of Wales that are well serviced. Bwcabus, which was talked about again today, is a very good service, but there is simply not enough of those kinds of services across the rest of Wales. As we heard, and as the Minister acknowledged, we need to look at examples beyond Wales’s borders as well to see what we can learn from those and incorporate those into our response.
A number of people talked about the inclusion in the Silk part 2 report of the devolution of powers over bus regulation and the opportunities presented by re-regulation. This is something that I feel very, very strongly about. It would give us more powers to ensure that we have the kind of bus routes that Julie James talked about, making sure that they go to the right kinds of places and acknowledge that, perhaps, some communities and user groups are ignored by the market. So, that is very welcome indeed.
We believe very strongly that a young person’s concessionary scheme in Wales would bring significant benefits. It would be crucial for those looking to pursue educational opportunities. We know that there is no statutory responsibility on local education authorities to provide transport for education post-16 and many local authorities that currently provide that are looking to scale back on that, and that has a potentially huge impact on those who want to continue their studies post-16, but may be prevented from doing so because of the costs associated with that transport. More and more pupils are going to have to pay for that transport.
It is crucial for people accessing the world of work. It is also crucial in developing the habit of using public transport. Why would we expect young people who have been driven around all their lives suddenly to develop the habit of using public transport later in life? It develops good, sustainable travel habits early on. It is vital for increasing young people’s wellbeing and their life skills, developing their independence and allowing them to pursue extracurricular activities—engaging in voluntary sector services, volunteering, as well as many other activities that are equally as important as formal educational qualifications.
I remember how important it was to be able to catch the 110 or the 111 service, which I was pleased to see, when I checked the website today, still exists in my village. It allowed me to travel to Swansea to pursue volunteering opportunities and—I am sure, to some people’s regret—it allowed me to travel into Llanelli to attend local Liberal Democrat party meetings. [Laughter.] It has a lot to answer for. However, without that bus service, those opportunities simply would not have been available to me. I had a mother who did not drive and I had a father who worked full time some distance away from home and so simply was not there to be able to be the mum and dad taxi service.
These opportunities are vital, and that is why we are proposing this particular policy initiative today. I am glad that the Minister will be supporting the motion. I look forward to hearing about progress on work in this area. My only question is: when? When will we be able to move forward on this agenda and give young people the opportunity of accessing good-quality public transport at a rate that they can afford?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that the motion be agreed without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection, therefore I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the first vote, are the three Members who wish the bell to be rung? There are not.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5448.
Motion not agreed: For 18, Against 36, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5448.
Amendment agreed: For 42, Against 0, Abstain 13.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5448.
Amendment agreed: For 42, Against 0, Abstain 13.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5448.
Amendment agreed: For 55, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5448 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of bus services to the people of Wales.
2. Recognises the need for a dedicated Traffic Commissioner for Wales.
3. Welcomes the recommendation of the Commission on Devolution in Wales to devolve regulatory power over buses to the Welsh Government.
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with the bus industry and other partners to ensure stability for the bus industry and passengers.
5. Further calls on the Welsh Government to protect bus services in Wales.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5448 as amended.
Motion NDM5448 as amended agreed: For 42, Against 0, Abstain 13.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5449.
Motion agreed: For 50, Against 5, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5450.
Motion agreed: For 43, Against 12, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Will those Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly? That includes me.
Peter Black took the Chair at 17:50.
I am pleased to open the debate on re-opening the railway between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. I wish to give a minute of my time to Rebecca Evans, Elin Jones, William Powell and Byron Davies.
Today’s debate is very timely. Indeed, it comes after a number of debates on transport in this place, but, from what I understand, it also comes after the Minister met today with a number of groups involved with the railways in mid Wales, around the Heart of Wales and the Cambrian lines, to see what we can do to develop our railways in Wales. This is the line that we have left after the Beeching closures, of course, but I want to look at what we can do to re-open what was once a very important line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth. I do so because it is entirely within my region, but also by putting it in the context of improvements and re-establishing connections that would create a figure of eight of railways across Wales, including re-opening the Afonwen to Bangor railway and improvements around the line in the Swansea area.
The Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line is still in living memory. It was finally closed to freight, namely milk transportation, in 1973, almost a century after it was first opened. For those interested, the track ran from Carmarthen, through Bronwydd and Cynwyl Elfed, to Pencader through a long tunnell, to Llanybydder and Lampeter, and then along the Teifi valley through Tregaron and Strata Florida before crossing to the Ystwyth valley and Trawsgoed and then on to Aberystwyth—following the old Roman way. These days, much of the line from Aberystwyth is the Taith Ystwyth cycle path, which is very pleasant indeed, although I have not cycled its length yet.
Over the years, many have tried to restore the line as a heritage railway, but, since 2000, the debate and the call for re-opening the line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth have intensified. Recently, a campaign group called Traws Link Cymru was established to work for the re-opening of this connection, and the auxiliary connection to Bangor. I am no civil engineer and I take no great interest in trains in particular, so my only interest here is to identify the possibilities of opening rural west Wales to modern transportation and to see exciting developments that could strengthen the economy considerably. The same arguments were made for the re-opening of the Ebbw Vale line and for a Metro service for Cardiff and the Valleys.
Therefore, I will not specify a route that this line should take, but it is worth discussing the options. Those promoting Traws Link Cymru suggest using much of the old line, which is still in place, with a new section from Alltwalis to Carmarthen and purposeful re-location in other areas. We could then have stations for Llandysul/Pencader, Llanybydder, Lampeter, Tregaron, Llanilar and Llanfarian, then commuting into Aberystwyth. That would involve a journey of approximately an hour and a half between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, which compares favourably with the hour and a quarter that it takes by car, and the two hours—as I well know—by bus. Others would favour re-looking at the engineering in its entirety, proposing a light rail system—the kind that allows trains to go off the tracks and run on wheels rather than on a traditional track. That would possibly mean less engineering work. What we now have, certainly, is the technology and engineering that was not available to the Victorians, therefore, actually opening such a line would not create an engineering problem.
The other question, of course is the usage and the cost. I am in no doubt that people would use this line. It would become a crucial link between north and south Wales, and from west Wales to Swansea and Cardiff. 55,000 people live along the proposed route between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, which compares with the 50,000—a little less—who live on the route from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury. Not only is that line still open, but it is increasing in terms of its usage. With the growth of Carmarthen and Aberystwyth as work and economic centres—and Plaid Cymru wants to see more focus on that—there is no doubt that the line would attract people in their hundreds of thousands. Many people would use it to commute, to go to hospitals, to go shopping and as part of the north-south network. Many others would use it for tourism purposes, I am sure. It would even provide an opportunity to move a few Mansel Davies lorries from our roads to our rails.
The cost, it is true to say, would be a challenge. A new line has been built for the Borders region in Scotland—actually, it is being built at present—which is 31 miles long and will cost something like £11 million per mile. That would mean that the cost of constructing a similar line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth would be £650 million at most. That is, of course, a significant amount of money, but different engineering proposals could bring the cost down. If you look at this in the context of closing the gap between Cricieth and Bangor, improvements to the Cambrian line—and hourly service, please, Minister—and the Heart of Wales line, and in the context of bus links, what you have is a truly national network that would offer real options to travel without a car across most of Wales. In addition to that, you would have a scheme that will create jobs and skills in west Wales, in one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Europe. It would provide opportunities for local apprenticeships, skills in colleges and local procurement for businesses over a long period. Therefore, investment of more than £0.5 billion to link these two important towns would do more to keep the Welsh language alive in the counties of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion than any language strategy or any taskforce, however excellent they may be.
We should also fight for this money. At present, according to Network Rail’s projections, Wales will have 3% of Network Rail’s infrastructure expenditure over the ensuing period, which is far less than Barnett. If we had 5%, in line with Barnett, that would give us an additional £135 million a year. If we had a Barnett consequential for HS2 expenditure, that would give us an additional £1.9 billion, which would be more than enough to not only build this line, but to address the issue in terms of Bangor. Even with the electrification of the line to Swansea and the Metro, we would still be spending less than our fair share of railway expenditure here in Wales. It is about time that this changed, and what better scheme than a railway that opens up the west of Wales.
What I am looking for is a sense of imagination and vision that west Wales could again have a proper rail service. The first task of any Government that takes public transport seriously must be to ensure that the route between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth is treated as a transport corridor of national importance, with regular coach services. However, for the medium term, it means committing to a proper feasibility study on the reinstatement of a rail link between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, which is a piece of work that is well suited to the next round of EU structural funds.
When the line was taken up the Teifi valley and across Cors Caron, or Tregaron bog, it was a kind of echo of the folk stories of the devil pulling down overnight new churches being built. The navies found that they could not get across the bog without their day’s work sinking and disappearing. Some bright spark had an idea, inspired perhaps by the landscape around and some considerable native ingenuity. The line was built, resting on tons and tons of sheep fleeces, packed tightly together. It floats, if you will, across the bog. It certainly trod more lightly than any road. It is that kind of ingenuity, vision, character and determination that we will need if we are ever to see a rail link between these two vital Welsh towns again. I believe that we have that vision and capability. I believe that we have the determination to see it through. What we need now is for the Minister to at least take seriously the work on building a feasibility study and case for funding.
Speaking against the closure of this line in 1966, Lord Elystan Morgan—who, unlike the line, is thankfully still with us—said that reversing the closure would be
‘an opportunity to indulge in a bold social, and Socialist experiment’.
I can almost hear his voice in my head now. I am sure that that vision appeals to the present Minister. I am very grateful for the huge amount of support and encouragement that I have had in preparing for this debate. I would like to see this debate lead, in time, to what they have had in Scotland, which would be a national Bill to build a new line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. I particularly want to thank Rob Phillips of the Traws Link Cymru group. In less than a week, I have received scores of e-mails, tweets and Facebook messages. All of them have been individual; none have been produced by a computer or bots. I want to end by quoting just one, from Mr Clive Thomas, which, for me, sums up the huge potential of this project:
‘I fully endorse the campaign to re-open the railway line from Aberystwyth to Carmarthen. My reasons are personal; when they closed the line my dad lost his work and we all had to relocate to England. Luckily I never lost my roots and came home to Wales. I want to see that mistake put right.’
I say to you, Minister: build it, and they will come home.
I am grateful to Simon Thomas for giving me a minute in his debate today. Like other Members, I have had a deluge of correspondence from constituents expressing enthusiastic support for this proposal and I am keen to reflect at least some of those arguments in this debate. I cannot do them all justice in such a short time, so I have made representations to the UK Government on this, because, ultimately, this is still a matter that is reserved to Westminster.
Some of the arguments that have been shared with me include that the line would offer better business and commuter links. It would benefit tourism and promote jobs and growth. It would provide better links to the three university colleges that sit on the line, benefiting students, staff and the universities themselves. It would improve community links and social inclusivity. I have also heard how reopening the line could help to address the limitations of the road network and help to alleviate transport poverty, which I have spoken about many times in this Chamber. Travelling by train remains one of the most green and environmentally friendly ways of getting around.
Simon has referred to some examples where lines are being reopened elsewhere in the UK and I know that it is also happening beyond the UK. Communities benefit from that. In this one minute, that was my snapshot of the very passionate support that has been shared with me. I am pleased to be able to make those arguments on their behalf today.
I thank Simon Thomas for proposing this debate this afternoon. I am sure that the inspiration for the debate is the campaign work of the new group, Traws Link Cymru, to reopen the train service between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen and through Lampeter. I have been meeting with that group and the members’ enthusiasm is infectious and has reached the Assembly today.
It must be remembered that this railway, if developed, will bring together three university towns. We have heard this afternoon about the importance of public transport in the context of students and university development. It is a big scheme and it is exciting as well. It is a plan for the twenty-first century for the rural west. We often discuss links from south to north Wales in the context of the corridor to the east—by rail or by the A470. It is important that we discuss the links from north to south Wales in the context of west Wales. This debate relates to the realistic idea that we must look seriously at the feasibility of the infrastructure and the funding for this rail link. I am very supportive of what Simon has presented this afternoon.
I would like to thank Simon Thomas for bringing forward this important debate today and I endorse what has been said by colleagues around the Chamber. The level of support that we have seen is entirely on a non-partisan basis. There is real enthusiasm for this project and Simon was right to set it in the context of a wider approach to sustainable transport, which also looks at the enhancement of the potential of the Heart of Wales line, along the lines that have previously been discussed in this Chamber. I also agree with the proposal that this should be looked at in the context of potential European structural funding. However, if a feasibility study and a convincing business case can be worked up, particularly given the connectivity between Swansea, Carmarthen and Aberystwyth via Lampeter, we could be looking at something that could attract funding from the European Investment Bank, which is looking for innovative projects of this kind. I would urge that approach and look forward to further meetings with the campaign group on this issue following the petition in 2012, which also enjoyed considerable support across the region.
Thank you very much, Simon Thomas, for allowing me a moment. It is a personal contribution: I would like to say that I can remember travelling from the Gower area to the Carmarthenshire-Ceredigion border by train at a very young age. It was easier to get there by public transport then than it is now. This is a serious point and it is a serious debate. It is a real issue and worthy of support. I wish that we could turn the clocks back. There are those that are disadvantaged, in particular the young people of west Wales and mid Wales. I believe that we should have this connection, and it should connect, perhaps one day, to an electrified line west of Swansea, so that young people can travel to Cardiff and Swansea, be involved with the law et cetera, on a daily basis, and get home—without having to leave home. Who knows, we might even see more young people staying in Wales as opposed to crossing the border and never coming back again.
I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to reply to the debate, Edwina Hart.
I have certainly had a day of transport discussion. Simon, in his opening remarks, indicated that I was having discussions on the Cambrian main line and the Heart of Wales line today. Earlier today, I did meet the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury rail liaison group to discuss the next steps about a possibly more frequent train service on the Cambrian main line. I hope very much to be making an announcement on that within the next two weeks. Also, in terms of the Heart of Wales line, we are currently looking at the forum’s proposals to improve services. This work will also feed into consideration for the next franchise, which is due to start in 2018, and possibly earlier improvements to that area, if I can look at my transport budget. The only thing that stymies my ambition in terms of what we want to do with the rail network, is the cash. I think that those are relevant issues to this particular discussion. We all recognise that rail provides an important means of connectivity to serve the needs of businesses, people and communities.
However, as Rebecca said, management of the rail infrastructure is not devolved to the Welsh Government, and the funding provided for new rail infrastructure is provided by the UK Government, currently. We are committed to continue working with Network Rail and others to investigate opportunities for reopening railway lines in Wales. Like Byron Davies, I am old enough to remember the whole history of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line, which was entirely closed to passengers in 1965. There was freight transport, I think, from the creamery, was there not, up to Aberaeron? That ended in about 1970. The Newcastle Emlyn to Carmarthen branch ended in 1973.
In October 2008, an alternative rail route between north-west Wales and the south-central area was considered by Taith, TRAC and Network Rail, and an outline plan was considered at that time. The target delivery was estimated to be 2025, and involved 49 miles of standard-gauge single track to be built between Llanfair and Aberystwyth. In fact, there is a full plan still available on this. However, I have to say that the recent activity between the transport partnership organisations, such as TRAC, has been to maximise the benefits of the existing routes on the Heart of Wales and Cambrian lines. Of course, in October 2013, the National Assembly’s Committee for Enterprise and Business made some recommendations on the Wales and Border franchise. It looked at some of the issues around that, because it had evidence about the future of a service like this, and about the restoration then of some 80 miles or 128 km of abandoned infrastructure. It was argued that, if there was expenditure on rail, it would mitigate some expenditure on roads and other transport arrangements. The committee concluded that:
‘the Welsh Government’s aim should be to secure improvements to the infrastructure across the whole franchise area to encourage further growth and ensure the rail network delivers Welsh aspirations’.
So, there has been a discussion, particularly on some of these issues. There was an initial look at the site between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth back in 2009, and a significant portion of the track bed has been built on, while other sections are no longer visible at all. For example, the line into Lampeter is now home to a supermarket and a car park, the station site is a business development park, with all trace of its former rail use removed, and in the villages of Pencader and Llanfihangel ar Arth, a number of houses have been constructed directly on the railway foundation. So, there are challenges in terms of the discussion that we are having. The indication is that ensuring that the track bed is suitable for modern railway operations is likely to be expensive, so that is a consideration that we look at in terms of transport.
We have tried to be instrumental in delivering a package of measures to improve transport links around the Aberystwyth and Lampeter to Carmarthen corridor. We have dealt with some issues around bus services. However, I understand the passion that has been expressed today, and I will of course discuss with my officials further whether there is any further work that could be undertaken, or whether any further representations could be made. Of course, people might choose to make appropriate representations to the committee for further discussion of these matters. That could then be referred to me, in Government terms.
I am very mindful of Lord Elystan Morgan, who is still as alert today as he ever was. It is a real pleasure when you see him in the House of Lords and can still have dealings with somebody who has been so eminent in public life in Wales. However, if only we had the money.
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:10.