Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Time to abandon austerity

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 8th November 2017

Securing economic growth in Llanelli, when we are living through such unpredictable times, is one of the greatest challenges facing me as an Assembly Member.

One of the things I’ve argued for is something called the ‘Foundational Economy’, or put another way, looking after what we’ve got on our doorstep: the industries and businesses that are there because people are there. The food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive.

This isn’t a small part of our economy. It accounts for four in ten jobs, and £1 in every three that we spend.

With that in mind, it makes sense to me that to stimulate our economy, we need to strengthen our public services and make smart investments in our communities.

But this isn’t happening. Instead of investment, we have had seven years of austerity - the longest period of sustained cut-backs that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. And despite the hardship this has inflicted - often on the most vulnerable people in our society - there’s little to show for it.

We have schools here in Llanelli that have had to cut their staff, increase their class sizes and have been reduced to asking parents for money to provide essential equipment.

Many of our community centres are having to close their doors because of a near-constant cycle of cuts.

Essential public services - our fire service, police and health - have been guilty of not paying their own staff enough to put food on their family dinner tables.

When I speak to the people bearing the brunt of this unfair and unnecessary policy, it is clear to me that it needs to be abandoned. But the UK Government disagree. Instead of abandoning austerity, they’re planning on extending it even further. And the UK Treasury is apparently gearing up to inflict a further £3.5 billion of unallocated cuts in 2019-20. This could mean Wales is faced with another £175 million budget hole.

The threat of yet more cuts makes it increasingly difficult for the Welsh Government to mitigate the worst effects. I don’t know how our public services will cope if the hammer of £175 million does fall. And I don’t know how anyone can justify asking them to do so.

The UK Tory party needs to abandon its obsession with cut-backs. There is an alternative to austerity - looking for opportunities for growth and developing an investment strategy that will work for our communities.

Working together to tackle litter

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 3rd November 2017

It’s said that the two red lines which run the length of Westminster’s debating chamber are exactly two sword-lengths apart, to prevent spontaneous duels breaking out between opposing frontbench MPs. The physically-drawn ‘battle’ lines must act as a constant reminder of the need for a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach. And sometimes it shows - the circus that is Prime Minster’s Questions lacks any genuine debate, and is all the poorer for it.

As a new politician - only elected for the first time last year - I find this perpetually combative approach limiting. True, there are big differences between the ideologies of the main parties and - personally - I’d only ever want to stand for election on a Labour ticket. But there are a number of times when politicians from different political backgrounds agree, and too often a stubborn allegiance to party politics can get in the way of working together and achieving change.

So, since standing for election I’ve tried to do things a little differently. I’ve tried not to get drawn into making personal attacks on people who choose to stand for a different party at the ballot box. And where there are common problems to tackle, or ideas to explore, I’ve attempted to work across political lines.

For example, I was delighted to see the unanimous backing of Councillors from across Carmarthenshire for the Swansea Bay Metro idea. And I’ve invited every member of the Council to join the business event I’m holding in December, that will explore the potential for this innovative public transport scheme in our area.

I’ve also set up a joint litter taskforce with the Plaid-led Carmarthenshire Council. An issue we both wanted to address, in which we recognised that we’d achieve more working together. At the latest meeting - held every three months - we’ve agreed to work together on big campaign to tackle the issue of dog fouling. And there are a number of other initiatives in the pipeline that wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t taken this collaborative approach.

Working across political divisions doesn’t always work. It’s a difficult juggling act working in tandem on some issues, whilst retaining critical independence on others. I haven't hesitated to criticise the council on the lack of consultation on Park Howard or on bulldozing Llanerch field, for example. And sometimes I find myself sat round the table with people whose decisions I’ve publicly criticised the week before - or who’ve publicly criticised me. Which isn’t easy. But it’s much more reflective of the real world where sometimes we all have to put aside personal differences and just get on with the job.

Politics too often drives us to focus on the divides between us instead of the things we have in common; I stood for election wanting to try and do things a little differently. Perhaps I’m naive, and perhaps my fingers will be burnt in the end, but I think it’s worth a shot.

Pop money

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 27th October 2017

I fondly remember looking for empty bottles of Corona to claim back the 10p from the pop man. Well, it seems this kind of scheme could be coming back. It’s now called a Deposit Return Scheme and its one of the ideas for reducing rubbish on our streets that I’ll be discussing at the joint Litter Taskforce I’ve set up with the Council.
The benefits of this sort of scheme hit home when, following one of my Big Clean-Up events in Bigyn, I was told that - of the 40 black bags of litter we collected - half was recyclable.  Almost all of these recyclables were plastic bottles or tin cans. That these were found on streets, kerbs and in hedges, suggests that they are viewed by many people as throwaway objects and it’s a massive waste. Plastic is particularly harmful. It doesn’t break down or decompose - when thrown on land it makes the soil less fertile and when thrown in water it chokes our ponds, rivers and oceans and harms sea life.  

Wales leads the way for recycling in the UK – and globally.  Only two countries in the world recycle more than we do and the 5p charge for carrier bags has meant usage has dropped to a third of what it used to be. Introducing a deposit return scheme could help us do more. In Norway, 96% of all plastic bottles are returned thanks to these schemes - and I think it’s great news that the Welsh Government will be looking into the potential for them here in Wales.

This will be the third meeting of the Joint Litter Taskforce and I’m committed to to put politics to one side to work with the Plaid-run Council to try and make the streets of the whole Llanelli constituency cleaner. It’s an issue I stood for election on, and something I think really needs to change if we’re to rebuild pride in our communities.

At the meeting, we’ll discuss a wide-range of issues - from dog-fouling, to the difficulties accessing the dump, and from fly-tipping, to the lack of litter-bins and how complaints are handled.

Every time someone rings my office to discuss litter, or gets in touch via Facebook, I make a note of the concern and - with the help and support of the Council - I’ve pulled together this taskforce to come up with solutions to the issues that’ve been raised.
Right now I’m running a public poll on my Facebook page on how best we can reduce dog waste in our communities. I’ve been researching how other communities have tried to tackle this (quite literally) foul behaviour, and I’m asking people to vote on which schemes they think would work, as well as to add their suggestions. There’s still time to join the debate - please do visit my facebook page ( if you’d like to share your ideas.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

We should pass a law to prevent fracking in Wales

Speech in National Assembly on 25th October 2017

For me this isn’t an issue about fire coming out of my taps or earthquakes

These are clearly issues that would need to be sorted out before fracking could be permitted. But I want to make the broader point on what this debate is about

Our whole way of life, since the second industrial revolution has been built upon access to energy derived from fossil fuels. We have built a materially-prosperous society on that

However, as a matter of logic, if it is based on a finite natural resource, there is surely going to come a time when that reaches it limit.

I’m not anti technology, far from it, I’m very open to the idea that through innovation we can find ways of improving our life that is consistent with respecting the planet's boundaries.

However, I do worry that most of us are in denial about the impact that human behaviour has had on the environment and impacted its ability to sustain us in the way of life we have come to assume is our right.

My problem with fracking is that instead of taking the hint that we’re reaching the limits of our reliance on fossil fuels, we’re trying to blast the last bit of gas out of the earth to sustain an industrial lifestyle - instead of confronting the fact that we need to find a new way of doing things.

The gas produced through fracking may emit only half as much carbon dioxide as coal, but this doesn’t take into account the leakage of methane and other greenhouse gases during the process. When these are added in, studies show, shale gas can create even more pollution than coal.

I do not see how releasing highly damaging gases into the air, which contribute significantly to greenhouse gases and rising temperatures is consistent with our stated policy of cutting emissions year on year.

Given that, I don’t see how we can countenance sanctioning fracking in Wales. And for that reason, I support this Bill.

Let’s stop trying to find a way round this to please corporate interests and let’s focus on developing our economy in a way which respects the needs and wellbeing of future generations.

Our focus should be on reducing the amount of energy we need through innovation, and building up our renewables capacity so that it not only meets all our energy needs but can provide us with our green energy that we can sell and export.

Let's end Wales’ association with dirty energy and make us leaders in clean energy.

Out of hours GPs

Llanelli Star column published on October 18th 2017

I was very impressed by my visit to the chemists in Burry Port last week where Rachel Davies is pioneering new services in the community. There are now eight different services - including flu-jabs and warfarin tests - being delivered in Burry Port that elsewhere are only available from a doctor.

Very many services can be delivered more conveniently and efficiently in a local setting. We need to be doing more things like this to take pressure off GPs and hospitals. 

From the number of Doctor’s surgeries in this area that are closed to new patients, we know that GPs are under great pressure, and it is set to get worse. Health board managers are gearing up for further difficulties in Llanelli as Doctors get closer to retirement and they struggle to attract new GPs into the area.

We are training more Doctors and are having successes in creating new types of surgeries, like in Kidwelly, where GPs and pharmacists work alongside physios to offer a better service to patients. But it's hard. 

This week rumours spread that the Health Board are going to 'pull the plug' on out-of-hours GP services in Llanelli.

I've been in touch with the Health Board Chief Executive and he assures me that is not the case, but there is a problem as a result of new tax rules which mean that GPs who work for themselves (which is most of them) will have to pay more national insurance contributions from November 1st. 

If enough of the GPs decide not to carry on providing cover, there will be big problems with out-of-hours services across the country.

In the event of a shortage the Health Board have had to come up with contingency plans which would see cover from Carmarthen, and that is what started the concern. But after speaking to him the Chief Executive has intervened. He told me “there are no plans to shift the service to Glangwili. We expect the service to continue to run from Llanelli without change”. 

Clearly this needs to be sorted immediately and I spoke to Health Secretary Vaughan Gething this week to press the Welsh Government to ensure that it is. It's not a problem of their making, but it is one they have to solve.

Holding people to account

Column in the Llanelli Herald on October 13th

As a member of the Assembly’s powerful Public Accounts Committee I get to put Wales’ leading decision-makers on the spot.

This week I got a chance to scrutinise the Chief Executive of Sports Wales. Wales being a small country, I know her a little from my last job and I hold her in high regard. But she was before me to account for her organisation’s performance over the last year and this wasn’t personal

In the last 12 months Sports Wales has seen its Chair and Vice-Chair sacked after a boardroom revolt, and a critical internal audit report warning the Chief Executive that she risked damaging the reputation of the organisation over the handling of contracts. There were tough questions to be asked. You can watch the encounter online the Senedd TV website.

But as well as the obvious questions one issue that has had a direct consequence here in Llanelli occupied my mind.

Over the last couple of years the future of our local football pitches has been in the headlines. Under pressure to make cuts the Council (when Labour was in charge) sought to put up the fees clubs pay to use the fields, and now (under Plaid) they are being hived-off to anyone who’ll have them to spare the Council the costs of maintenance.

Local clubs say they can’t afford the upkeep and warn clubs will fold, and say the fields will fall into disrepair, making them prime targets for house builders.  Meanwhile, as we’re seeing in Llanerch, the loss of green space is being compensated for by new all-weather 3G pitches - better when it's raining, but they are very expensive to maintain and there’s a real risk they’ll be out of reach to the local clubs: and of no use for informal kick-abouts.

I asked the Chief Executive of Sports Wales whether she was concerned about this and whether fewer people would have access to facilities as a result. Yes, she said, she was concerned. Will Sports Wales be monitoring the situation to test whether it will result in fewer people having opportunities to take part, I asked? Well, we could, she said. I know you could, I said, but are you planning to? No, she said.

I think that may change as a result of the hearing.

The Welsh Government is giving the Council a lot of money for sport development but it goes into staff who work on the 5x60 and Dragon Sports initiatives. Surely this money is being evaluated to see whether this is an effective approach, I asked. Erm, no, she said.

For 15 years, I was told, Millions have been spent on these projects and there is no independent evaluation of whether this is the most effective way to spend the money. I think that may change as a result of the hearing too.

I’ll be coming back to the issue. But this work on Assembly committees - largely hidden from the public eye, can make a difference. And I’ll keep on asking awkward questions.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The old roadbuilding approach isn’t working

Column in Llanelli Star on 27th September 2017

People say that the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

So it must be madness to spend £1.1 billion on 15 miles of new motorway just south of Newport when we already know the outcome: traffic will go up, the motorway will clog up, and the same voices will be calling for yet more money to build yet more road. The Road Haulage Lobby are already saying it needs another lane - before it is even built!

We can’t keep building our way out of the problem of congestion when we know that roads simply fill up again before too long. Our society is dominated by the car and I think it’s time we changed that.

Instead, we need to spend the small amount of money we have, doing things that will enable and encourage us to make journeys using other means. Our public transport system is in dire need of an overhaul and our local roads are jammed with people driving very short distances.  

Two thirds of car journeys are less than five miles and one in ten trips is less than a mile. These are journeys that could easily be done by bus, bike or on foot - as they were a generation ago. Freeing up our roads for when we really do need the car. This is where I think our money should be invested.  

More teachers face being laid off in the next year, and more bus routes will be cut and leisure centres closed. Yet in this ‘age of austerity’ we are on course to spend a colossal £1.1 billion (and that’s without ongoing maintenance costs) on one project in one part of Wales which the UK Treasury regards as low value for money.

Imagine if we spent this money on a Swansea Bay Metro system instead? A cheap and reliable bus and rail system that would link up communities across Llanelli, Neath, Port Talbot and Swansea. And a network of walking and cycling routes that would knit our streets together to tackle the school run.

But we’ll never have the money to invest in an ambitious plan like this as long as we keep ploughing money into roads. It’s time to admit the old approach isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.