Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Planning free-for-all in Carmarthenshire?

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on November 20th 2015

Planning sagas are nothing new in Carmarthenshire, but the spate of bizarre cases recently will only add grist to the mill of those who want the Council abolished and wound up into a bigger regional body.

Even though he seems unable to see what the fuss is about, the fact that Plaid’s Emlyn Dole, the Leader of the Carmarthenshire, broke his own Council’s planning rules proves the fact there’s a problem at County Hall.

Emlyn Dole knocked down a very old barn without planning permission. To be fair to them the planning officers recommended that he be forced to pull down the brand new building he and his wife had built in place of the charming barn. He ignored them and decided to take his chance with the planning committee.

Now of course, members of the planning committee act independently - party politics isn’t meant to come into play, they are “strictly non-political” according to the Chair of the Planning Committee, Cllr Alun Lenny (Plaid Cymru).

In the event the Planning Committee decided to overlook the fact that Emlyn Dole breeched planning guidelines, and they overlooked the advice of professional officers that ripping out hundred of years of local history in favour of concrete block work wasn’t on.

You can see why Emlyn Dole decided to chance it with the Planning Committee.

But it sent out a clear message - do as you please.

Days later a major housebuilding firm started tearing up hedgerows, removing kerbs and cutting down trees in Hendy to start work on a new estate - even before the Planning Committee had met to consider it.

The local Plaid Councillor, Gareth Thomas, had not objected to the application to develop land near the Llwynbedw estate, and Persimmon felt so confident that they’d be nodded through that they even started advertising the houses for sale!

It makes a mockery of the planning system in Carmarthenshire, and what hope is there of restoring faith in it when the Leader of the County Council shows such casual regard for his own planning policies?

Any fair minded observer can see how bad this looks, but Emlyn Dole and the Chair of the Planning Committee, Cllr Alun Lenny, cannot. Rev’s Dole and Lenny instead give lectures on integrity.

There is a need for integrity: integrity in the planning system. Much more of this and the case for the Welsh Government to step in and strip the Council of its planning powers will become irresistible. 

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour Assembly candidate for Llanelli

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Out, or In?

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on November 13th 2015

How can a referendum on Britain staying in European Union be won? 

The opinion polls look evenly split, and if David Cameron gets his way with EU leaders we could be facing a vote whether to stay in or pull our as soon as next June – a month after the Assembly elections.

The campaign to pull Britain out of Europe is out in front. It has plenty of money behind it and a highly motivated band of followers who are obsessed about withdrawal.

The campaign to keep Britain in is a mess. It doesn’t have a clear message to say why we should stay in, and they’ve opted for the former Chief Executive of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose, as their leader.

I’m nervous about making the case for staying all about the interests of business and the economy.

I’m instinctively in favour of staying in Europe. It is not perfect, but we are better off overall within an alliance of countries to be able to tackle the big challenges that face us.

But having run the referendum campaign for devolution in 2011 I’ve got some experience about how these arguments play out, and I’m not confident that the Yes campaign is in a good position for the fight ahead. To win you need a positive case that connects with people’s everyday lives.

The pro-EU campaign is obsessed with scare tactics about how many jobs will be lost if we pull out. It’s got to do better than that.

There is no doubt that being part of a large trading partnership is good for jobs. But a Europe centred around the need of business alone is not one that is going to be mobilise the people in a referendum.

As we in Wales know too well, one of the centrepieces of the EU over the last 20 years has been the idea of solidarity. That the wealthiest parts of Europe help the poorest become stronger – a European version of ‘we’re all in it together’.

We’ve been beneficiaries of that. As a result of EU policy money has been directed to Llanelli and other parts of west Wales. So called Objective One money has helped shore up our economy and has brought much needed investment – though it could have been spent better in some circumstances.

But without Europe requiring investment in poorer areas there’s no doubt that London Government’s would have failed to step in. The same can be said on a whole host of other areas – for example, we wouldn’t be recycling so much of our waste without the encouragement of the EU.

David Cameron is making a big play about renegotiating Britain’s membership to get us a ‘better deal’. But what he doesn’t mention is that his idea of a better deal is less emphasis on projects that boost ‘solidarity’, and a greater focus on things that benefit the city traders that bankroll the Tories.

A bankers Europe will fail areas like Llanelli, it will be hard to sell in a referendum.

We need a positive case for Europe that emphasises how we help each other out; how the prosperity flowing from free trade is spread beyond the wealthiest parts of the EU. But that’s not a case David Cameron is interested in.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The enemies list

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on November 6th 2015

Nobody likes strikes. For people who use public services in particular they can be a pain. I know on the rare occasions my children’s teachers have been on strike my wife and I have cursed as we’ve struggled to re-jig our childcare arrangements.

But that’s not really the point, is it.

The right to take strike action has been a hard fought battle over generations. From the Chartists, to the Llanelli railway strikers of 1911, working men and women have made huge sacrifices to win protections at work.

And it’s not just a matter of history or sentiment; safeguards for people in their workplace form a key protection against harm and exploitation in the modern economy. The best employers recognise that, the worst don’t – and that’s why we have laws.

Now the Conservatives want to weaken those protections. David Cameron has introduced a new Trade Union Bill into Parliament that can only be described as extraordinary. But it seems to be passing largely without comment: a shrug of the shoulders, ‘what do you expect, they’re Tories’. But we cannot be so casual as crucial safeguards are chipped away.

Under the new law strike action will only be allowed to go ahead in key public services if the vote passes two tests: at least 50% of a union’s membership must take part, and over 40% of a union’s entire membership must vote in favour. So in effect, on a 50% turnout, a strike would need the support of 80% of those voting.  There wouldn’t be a single MP in the House of Commons if that rule was applied consistently.

The Conservatives formed a Government on the basis of 37% of the vote but are demanding that ordinary workers get the support of 80% before being allowed to protest if they are being endangered.

This would have the practical effect of stopping strikes in the public sector – at a time when the number of strikes called is at a historically low level.

But they don’t stop there.

If there was a strike the new law says the organiser must give the police the name and address of everyone who plans to demonstrate.

Unions would be legally required to tell an employer two weeks in advance whether the strikers intend to carry a banner or loudspeaker.    

In fact, the leader of the strike action would – by law – have to war an arm band or a badge to identify themselves to the authorities.

There’s an old line that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Requiring people you don’t approve to wear badges or arm bands in public has been tried before. In fact the whole episode for me evokes the words of Father Martin Niemöller, the German pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. After the War he said:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Strikes may be a pain when they are called. But the right to strike is a fundamental one in a democracy, and we mustn’t stand by as these rights are eroded.
Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour Assembly candidate for Llanelli

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Politics doesn’t make any difference?

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on October 30 2015
What’s the difference between Labour and the Tories, Neil Kinnock was once asked. “We are the builders, they are the destroyers”, he replied; “”we build, they destroy”.
That quote came to mind as I was showing the Welsh Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews, around Station Road in Llanelli this week. We visited a number of projects that have benefited from reforms brought in by Welsh Labour, but now face decimation from the cuts being enthusiastically pursued by the Tories in Westminster.
Llanelli Women’s Aid were full of praise for the groundbreaking Violence Against Women Act that the Assembly passed this year. I worked closely with Leighton Andrews on the 2011 referendum to give the Assembly the power to make laws for Wales, and I shared his pride that amongst the first laws passed was this law to help tackle domestic violence.
Llanelli Women’s Aid are rightly held up as pioneers in their efforts to tackle gender-based violence. Their impressive Director, Vicky Pedicni, explained how they had helped 44 women escape violent partners in the last year by giving them a safe place to stay. They have just succeeded in getting Comic Relief funding to help younger women with mental health problems as a result of experiencing abusive situations.  They have even successfully fundraised to enable them to work with violent men to break their cycle of behavior.
Seeing the passion of the whole team at Llanelli Women’s Aid gives you hope. But they are fearful of the consequence of a 20% cut in funding from Carmarthenshire Council.
Their great advances could be undone in the name of austerity – a political project to cut back the size of Government under the cloak of paying off debt. It's a political con-trick, but the casualties will be victims of domestic violence in Llanelli.
Leighton Andrews and I also spent time with Police discussing some of the challenges they face in Station Road. The Minister was keen to see the difference that Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) make on the front line. Even though the Assembly doesn’t have power over the police, Welsh Labour have prioritized funding 500 PCSOs across Wales over the last five years. The Police Officer covering the area described the PCSOs as her ‘eyes and ears’ – crucial in picking up intelligence which helps keep the town safe.

We also met Vanessa Marsh, a community activist who could not speak highly enough about the difference the PCSOs had made in tackling anti-social behavior and the so-called ‘petty crime’ which can make people's lives a misery.
But the ability to keep funding PCSOs in threatened by the relentless Tory cuts.
Neil Kinnock was right, more than a decade of careful building by Labour is being gradually destroyed by the Tories.
We built, they’re destroying.
Don’t let anyone tell you that voting doesn’t make a difference.
Lee Waters is Welsh Labour’s Assembly candidate for Llanelli.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Hitting striving Llanelli families

This column was published in the Llanelli Herald on 23 October 2015

I remember the tension in the house when money was tight.
I still can still remember the stress in my parents’ voices as they poured over the family budget trying to stretch their pay. Both worked hard, my father often putting in double shifts at Abernant colliery to make ends meet; My mother juggling three kids with hairdressing.
It was tough, and the Family Allowance made all the difference.
It was to help families like mine that the Labour Government came up with the Minimum Wage and the Working Families Tax credit. The idea of making work pay was central to Labour’s agenda in power.
I immediately identified with the mother on BBC’s Question Time who challenged the Tory Cabinet Minister for cutting Working Families Tax credits when David Cameron promised in the election he wouldn’t.  
Michelle Dorrell's voice was crackling, and her eyes filled with tears as she said “I voted Conservative originally because I thought you would be the better chance for me and my children. You're about to cut tax credits after promising you wouldn't. I work bloody hard for my money to provide for my children, to give them everything they've got. And you're going to take it away from me and them. Shame on you!"
60% of families in the Llanelli constituency receive tax credits.
The Tories are planning to make it harder for them to claim support. The amount a household can earn before the benefit starts to be taken away is being almost HALVED, from £6,420 a year to £3,850 a year.
We want people to work and not fall back on benefits unless there’s no alternative, and yet David Cameron is going to penalise 4,100 families with children in work in Llanelli by a cutting 10% of their monthly income at a time when their finances are already stretched.
And why? To send a "cultural signal" to low paid workers that they need to work even harder – that’s what Jeremy Hunt, the richest member of the Tory Cabinet said.
They just don’t get it.
There’s no point squeezing hard working low paid families when they don’t have the option of higher paid work. The risk is they’ll take away the incentive for work and people will calculate it’s not worth having a job.
There’s no point raising the Minimum Wage with one hand, and taking away Tax Credits with another. Even after the so-called Living Wage the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies says any rise will be wiped out by the cuts in tax credits.
Families who are trying their best to make a descent life for their kids are being hammered, while the rich are getting tax cuts.
Unless you’ve known what it is to struggle you’ll never understand the strain. And once you’ve understood it, you won’t sit by and let the lowest paid take the strain.
Lee Waters is Welsh Labour's candidate for Llanelli in May's Assembly elections.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Imagine if Wales had voted No to devolution in 1997

Three weeks after the General Election and the implications of a five-year term for a radical Conservative majority Government are beginning to sink in.
The left are dejected; Labour in particular is discombobulated. Of course this has happened before. Conservative victories through the 1980s provoked the question to be asked after 1992, ‘can Labour win?’  It is being asked again, but this time there’s a big difference – devolution.
Even though there’s a considerable feeling that devolution has not achieved its promise on the economy and public services, few people mention that it has achieved its primary political objective: it has made Offa’s Dyke the line between right and left.
To prove my point, consider what would have happened over the last decade and a half had 6,721 people voted differently in the 1997 referendum.  Radical Conservative policies on health, education and a raft of other domestic issues would have been implemented, even though the Tories won just 27% of the vote in the most recent vote in Wales.  An NHS shake-up introducing competition and GP Commissioning of services; the spread of Free Schools and Academies, outside local authority supervision, free to hire unqualified teachers and rip up the curriculum; and the abolition of GCSEs, would all have been rolled out across Wales.
Policies that had been endorsed by voters in England, but had been opposed in Wales by parties that won the majority of votes, would nonetheless have been applied here too. The fact they haven’t been is perhaps one of the most unremarked upon features of Welsh politics since the establishment of the National Assembly.
This isn’t a partisan point, you may well think Welsh public services would have been better off introducing these reforms – indeed had the 1997 referendum been lost it is likely that some of these reforms would have been implemented in Wales by new Labour; the point is they would have been imposed against the grain of Welsh political consensus, and opponents would have been powerless to stop it.  Whereas now power over many domestic policies has been passed down, many of the most contentious policies in the manifesto of the winning party at Westminster won’t apply to Wales.
It may not be the best time to make this point – at a time when devolution is being criticised for failing to improve public services – but the 2015 General Election result marks the achievement of a Key Performance Indicator for Welsh devolution.
The reason I say this is because the principal political driver behind the establishment of the Assembly was as much a desire to stop changes being applied to Wales, as it was to implement a pre-designed alternative.
Support for devolution began to build after the 1987 General Election. Rhodri Morgan, one the intake of new Members of Parliament in 1987, felt that Welsh MPs were powerless to protect Wales from “the ravages of a Tory Government which, although totally rejected by the people of Wales, was completely rampant”, as he put it to me: “You had this huge, massive, rush of hard-line Conservative legislation – the Poll Tax, Electricity privatisation, Water privatisation …the fury of legislation which was put through in the first two years of that Government really was pretty astonishing and we could do absolutely nothing to stop it”.
Throughout the 80s and 90s Labour always performed better in Wales than it did in the UK as a whole, but remained in Opposition.  After the party’s fourth successive defeat in 1992 (and, critically, the removal of Neil Kinnock as Party leader), the left began to think that despite their strength Conservative majorities at Westminster risked rendering them powerless to prevent right-wing policies being implemented in Wales. “To put it very crudely” Kim Howells told me,  “in a lot of people’s minds they said ‘look, if we can never ever win Britain then we have got to change the rules’”.
The reason I bring up this history lesson is to note that the dejection of the left in Wales after this month’s General Election has echoes in the recent past. But the difference now is that devolution affords some protection from “the ravages of a Tory Government” – to use Rhodri Morgan’s phrase.  Had Wales voted No in 1997 left-of-centre parties in Wales would now be railing about David Cameron’s plans to extend the Right To Buy to Housing Association tenants, or to ‘turn every failing and coasting school into an academy, and deliver free schools if parents…want them’. But because of devolution those policies won’t apply in Wales.
Some may see this ability to defy a radical Westminster Government on at least some domestic fronts as the chief achievement of devolution – and it does provide a marked contrast to situation Wales faced in the 80s & 90s. But the real advantage devolution offers is the platform it provides to fashion an alternative political narrative. And that’s an advantage that has yet to be fully explored.
None of what I’ve argued lets the Welsh Government off the hook for its performance on policies and their implementation. But it does remind us that the devolution project was primarily about where power lies. The challenge now facing devolutionists is that unless the way those powers are used is sharpened up there is a risk that support for giving some powers back to Westminster may grow.

Yes, we can

IWA Director Lee Waters outlines the think-tank’s latest report on closing the wealth gap between Wales and England
“An outsider observing our economic policies and the national debate, such as it is, would conclude the Welsh were either content with their relative position or did not believe there was anything to be done about it” – Gerald Holtham, Chair IWA Economy group.
We mustn’t accept that Wales will always be the poor relation of the UK. That’s the core message of the IWA’s latest report, An Economic Strategy for Wales?
Our expert group of economists, business leaders and academics have spent the last five months analysing data and debating its recommendations for reversing Wales’ economic decline. Its conclusion is that Wales has been a ‘middling performer’ since devolution but the wealth gap with England can be closed if there is determined political leadership behind an ambitious and detailed delivery plan for growth.  We recommend a bold £25 Billion programme for investment over the next 15 years, funded by public sector borrowing and private sector investment.
Whilst Welsh wealth (GVA) per head remains at 72% of the UK average – the same level it was at in 1999 when the Assembly was established – the North East of England has climbed to 75% GVA per head. By growing 2% every year the English region has outpaced Wales over the same period even though it lacks the tools devolution has given the Welsh Government.
2% annual economic growth is achievable, and if we could sustain it for 10 years we could reach 75% of the UK average; over 20 years we’d stand at 79% of the UK’s GVA per head by 2035. That is surely do-able, but it would still leave us a fifth poorer than the UK average in a generation’s time.
True catch-up growth with England would require growth of 4% a year for 20 years – unprecedented in the UK, and in-line with the leaps made by the former Soviet republics after the Iron Curtain fell.
The additional economic activity we’d need to generate would be the equivalent of the annual turnover of Admiral Insurance every year, for two decades.
These are sobering figures. We’ve laid them out because it’s important we confront the severity of the position we are in, and our failure to make any progress out of it since devolution.
As Gerald Holtham writes in his chapter of the report, “there is an undercurrent of grumbling in Welsh public life about the relatively poor economy, as if there is an expectation that the government should do something about it. Rather than vague grumbling or vaguer aspirations, surely it is time for the country to take a clear-eyed look at how ambitious it wants to be for its economic future and what sort of changes would be required to achieve its ambitions”.
The IWA’s Economy Group, chaired by Gerry Holtham, is firmly of the view that closing the gap with England is achievable, but the political debate in Wales is nowhere near acknowledging the scale of the actions that are necessary.  Our report says “The growth policies of Welsh governments up to now have sometimes fallen down in implementation owing to a lack of commercial nous but they have also generally been on a scale implying acceptance of only modest narrowing of the gap with the rest of the UK”.
Our report highlights examples of good policies or projects taken forward by the Welsh Government – the Arbed housing energy saving scheme or the WG’s policy on procurement for example, but even these are too modest in scale – in the case of Arbed – or are not being implemented effectively, in the case of procurement.
In a telling passage Gerry Holtham – who recently left his role inside the Welsh Government advising on accessing finance for investment in infrastructure writes:
“The Welsh Government broke new ground with a National Infrastructure Investment Plan, but with no underlying economic strategy it is a list of projects that will happen as Departmental budgets permit. In the absence of a strategy and priorities resources will not be moved between capital budgets to reflect those priorities”.
The risk aversion of Ministers and their senior officials needs to be overcome if we are to obtain true catch-up growth. That, the report says, “requires taking risks because investments may not pay off to the extent hoped or expected. It also requires sacrifices. Money spent on investment cannot be spent on goods and services – including public services – in the here and now. Even if financed by borrowing, the investment would require debts to be serviced in the near future at the expense of other sorts of spending”.
The capacity and competence to deliver well was a recurring theme in the IWA’s Constitutional Convention project, and is also woven through our economy report.  The civil service is not a delivery body and it is time for the First Minister to reconsider his aversion to arms length delivery bodies. An early test of this will be the delivery of the Metro project, which currently seems to be stuck in the system.
These are the principles we espouse in our report – ambitious targets, a detailed plan to deliver a clear strategy, willingness to take calculated risks and a robust approach to implementation. We set out the type of projects we believe would contribute towards narrowing the wealth gap. These are not definitive, nor exhaustive. There needs to be a wide debate on the best approach but we put these forward as examples of interventions, if taken together, could propel the Welsh economy:
—   Implementation of City Region projects with full roll-out of south Wales ‘Metro’ project.
—   Challenging investment targets for Research and Development need to be set and much more needs to be done to encourage companies to invest in R&D in Wales.
—   New build housing: an investment of approximately £500 – £750 million over and above existing programmes could enable an additional 10,000 affordable homes to be built.
—   Housing retrofit: doubling existing investment in improving energy efficiency of homes to £250 million over the next Assembly term would support nearly 9,000 jobs.
—   Large scale programme of multiple low carbon and energy savings projects to make Wales ‘renewable energy’ self-sufficient.
—   Firms should be encouraged to develop more linkages to the local economy through their supplier choices and bringing more of their own activities to Wales.
—   A “succession fund” to keep businesses in Wales by enabling owner managers to get retirement money out without selling the business or by facilitating management buyouts.
Devising and implementing a new energy model for Wales involving a more energy-efficient housing and vehicle stock, distributed micro-generation and smart networks would require massive investment but could spawn a new industry of locally-grounded firms. Concentrating and accelerating infrastructure investment in growth-pole areas with schemes like the Cardiff metro could also give the economy a boost, especially if a firm eye was kept on local content and local apprenticeships. A renewed commitment to financing higher education at an appropriate level and pursuing initiatives like the software university, and the generation of medical spin-outs is also a promising area. All of these things will require heavy investment, necessitating a programme of borrowing.
They also require new public institutions working at arm’s length from government and employing people with the requisite skills, experience and drive. Each of them involves considerable risk and perhaps some stringency in current spending on other public services.
Ultimately it is a political question for the people of Wales. Do we want to purse modest sensible policies that will change our situation only very gradually? Or are we ready to venture something bolder with no certainty of success but some hope of making a faster change in Wales’ circumstances?
The IWA believes Wales can do better, and its time for all parties to get behind an ambitious long-term to grow the economy sustainably and spread prosperity