Monday, 19 December 2011

Two years of Carwyn Jones - little to celebrate, much to lament...

On December 10th the First Minister marked two years in office. Despite our pronounced political differences, I am not beyond congratulating him on the occasion. Reaching the leadership of a major political party is no mean feat, and with it he assumed the highest elected office in Wales; admittedly leading a minority Labour government in partnership with Plaid Cymru, but the senior partner in that nonetheless. The Assembly election results of 2011 may not have granted him a full majority, but Labour certainly has the numbers to pursue their agenda, if only with the co-operation of other parties at certain times. Given the position in which he finds himself then, it is all the more disappointing to observe the marked failures of the Welsh Labour government under the First Minister’s leadership.
It may be expected of me as Leader of the Opposition to find fault with Welsh Labour’s record in government, but the evidence alone does this well enough without any additional help from me. Starting with the economy, during the First Minister’s time in office the percentage of people economically inactive who want a job has risen from 23.5% to 25.2%; the employment rate for ethnic minorities from 16-64 years old has fallen by 1,700; business turnover of small and medium sized businesses (10-249 employees) dropped by 6.4%; there are 3% fewer small businesses (10-49 employees) currently operating, and Wales remains in second place in the league table for out-of-work benefits claimants. These figures simply scratch the surface of Wales’ current economic malaise and, alongside Labour’s foot-dragging over enterprise zones and failure to reduce business rates, reflect badly on a Labour government that supposedly prioritises jobs and the economy. The uncertain economic climate is buffeting the UK and Wales as much as anywhere else, but the First Minister and Labour are failing to do all they can to provide at least some protection from the storm.

The health figures for September 2011 as compared with January 2010 are equally, if not more damning. The number of patients waiting for treatment increased by nearly 42%, and the numbers waiting over 36 weeks for treatment (a Welsh Government target remember) increased from 35 to 7,389. There has been a 27% increase in the number of patients waiting for General Surgery, while those waiting over 36 weeks increased from zero to 620. There has been an increase of nearly 35% in patients waiting for Trauma and Orthopaedic treatment, and the number waiting over 36 weeks increased from 11 to 5,344. Labour has also failed to meet its target of 95% of new patients spending no longer than 4 hours in major A&E departments from arrival until admission, transfer or discharge in every single month since Carwyn Jones became First Minister. Staff morale in the Welsh NHS has also plummeted during the First Minister’s time in office. The Royal College of Nursing’s staff survey found that almost half of nurses have considered leaving their job in the last year and two-thirds said they were under stress; a third of members were seeking a change in employment, up from 29% in 2009, and just 37% now believe nursing is a secure career compared to 72% in 2009, with fewer see nursing as a rewarding career. While a flow of statistics such as these can risk clouding the human element of this issue, it must always be remembered that each one of those numbers represents either a patient who is potentially suffering or a disillusioned staff member, both being failed by the health system in Wales just when Labour have slashed health spending in their latest budget.

Meanwhile, educational attainment has fallen in some areas under Carwyn Jones’s rule, and at no point do we exceed England, especially in A-Level and GCSE A*-C grade results. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results released early in 2011, Wales ranked bottom of the four home nations of the UK for educational attainment and our performance in Science, Maths and Reading has declined alarmingly, to the extent that Wales now matches (or even falls below) the attainment levels of some under-developed Eastern European, Baltic and Mediterranean countries. Additionally, during the 2006-2010 period the number of full time equivalent qualified teachers working in primary and secondary schools dropped from 25,668 to 24,586; a decrease of 1,082, or just over 4%. Are declining standards and lower teacher numbers under Welsh Labour’s watch a coincidence? Somehow, I doubt it, and with Carwyn Jones having previously served for a time as Minister for Education, he too is not beyond blame.
The economy, health and education are three of the main devolved areas, but regarding transport Wales has a higher proportion of people using a car, van or minibus to travel to work (79% in 2010) than England (69%) or Scotland (71%), which likely speaks volumes about the efficiency of, or the public’s faith in, our public transport or cycle route provision, and environmentally there are only 25,251 people living in Air Quality Managements Areas in Wales in 2011, representing only 0.8% of the total population.

The list could go on, stretching into many other areas, but I think the picture painted is already bleak enough. Decline across the board is a clear and inexcusable mark against the record of Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, with our next generation seemingly destined to inherit poor educational provision, a stagnant economy and a broken health care system. I would end by saying that, if this is the state of Wales after two years of Labour under Carwyn Jones, then I am filled with trepidation as what damage will have been done after another full Assembly term of their rule.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Getting the regional economy back on track...

I wrote recently of the sad decline of Cardiff Airport. While there may be cause for optimism in the event that new and viable international routes are established, especially to the Americas, I also indicated that if we are aiming to attract visitors and business representatives from around the world, then we really should have a regional transportation system that matches our ambition.

Rapid, integrated and efficient transit systems are the arteries through which the lifeblood of modern, dynamic economies flows. Between 1998 and 2008, 40% of all private sector employment growth for the whole of Wales was in Cardiff and 100,000 people travel into the city and to Newport from within a 20 mile (32km) radius every day. Cardiff has transformed within a relatively short time to become a vibrant base for commerce, sport, history and culture, higher education and politics. The surrounding Vale of Glamorgan and coastal region are great for natural beauty and outdoor activities. Yet for a modern economy to take full advantage of these qualities, and in turn benefit smaller communities and the Valleys, a revolution in local transportation infrastructure is needed. In January 2011, the Cardiff Business Partnership, in partnership with the Institute of Welsh Affairs, published a report calling for a Metro system for the Capital City Region, encompassing Newport to the East, Bridgend to the West and Valley’s communities such as Merthyr and Ebbw Vale to the North. The full report can be viewed here .

Cardiff’s ability to act as a driver for the regional economy is highlighted by the planned £60m+ Central Business District. A modern transit system as envisioned by the report – including an enhanced and electrified heavy rail system, complemented by a new Light Rail/Tram and Bus rapid transit network - would be necessary to take full advantage of Cardiff’s economic potential and encourage investors that long-term growth prospects were positive. After all, many major cities outside London operate and benefit from integrated transit systems with a heavy reliance on tramways/light rail. These include Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham and Blackpool. Expansion is underway in Manchester to treble its size and a brand new 8.5-mile network is due to begin operating in Edinburgh in 2012. A similar system in Cardiff and the region would elevate it into the top-tier of UK cities.

The potential cost of such a scheme is, of course, an issue worthy of the highest scrutiny; as well it should be. The total costs for the establishment of a Cardiff metro system are estimated to reach between £2-2.5 billion over a 10-year period, which would equate to around £300 million a year. However, the economic benefits in the long-term would more than outweigh the short-term spending commitments. It would be a capital investment, and that is the key word: investment. By building for the future we would guarantee the region’s competitiveness, not only against other areas around the UK, but across Europe too. As part of the Single Market we cannot underestimate the challenges posed by other regions, especially in Eastern Europe, as they attempt to attract business their way. Besides, subsidies for Arriva Trains Wales and the North-South air-link alone total £171.2 million per year which could be put to far better use and, while it is no small figure, £2.5 billion is low in comparison to other rail-based infrastructure investments around the UK, such as Crossrail (£16 billion) and HS2 (£32 billion). Even Edinburgh’s new tramway is expected to cost £776 million for an 8.5 mile route.

Not only is Cardiff our capital, it is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. Once a positive tipping point is reached in a city and a region’s development, then expectations by outsiders need to correspond with the reality. For us to remain with the rail links we have which, at their worst, can be dirty and overcrowded, with services not as frequent as they should be and poor links to our nearest airport, would be unacceptable for the long-term. We are moving ever further into the Twenty-First Century, not the Twentieth.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The South’s economy risks being grounded

The importance of airports is increasingly in the news, most obviously the current debate concerning the establishment of a major new hub in the Thames Estuary. However there is an issue of concern far closer to home in the form of Cardiff International Airport, a facility with great economic potential but, like so much under Wales’ long-serving Labour governments, one that is undergoing notable decline and risks becoming a lost opportunity.

Statistics can often be interpreted in different ways, but it is hard not to conclude that figures associated with Cardiff Airport paint an increasingly gloomy picture. In the middle of the last decade, passenger numbers were 2 million; by 2010 they had fallen to 1.4 million. Between 2009 and 2010 alone the total freight handled at Cardiff Airport decreased by a staggering 84%. Bmibaby, one of the principal low-cost airlines, ceased operations in 2011, and Cardiff Airport’s direct routes are principally short-haul flights to Europe, with Paris and Amsterdam being the only European capitals visited. If we compare all this to Bristol Airport, the contrast (and Cardiff’s competitive disadvantage) is all the more glaring. Over the 2000-2010 period passenger numbers at Bristol grew from 2.1 million to 5.7 million, and its share of the UK passenger market grew from 1.2% to 2.7%. Bristol offers direct flights to Florida and Mexico and almost every European capital city and most major ones.
1.4 million people live within a 20-mile radius of Cardiff airport, and it is extremely disappointing to think that many would consider it easier to travel to Bristol or even to a London airport to catch a flight. Of course, a Catch-22 situation exists here: a limited choice of routes at Cardiff will deter increased passenger numbers, but low passenger levels will discourage airlines from opening new routes: a perpetual downward spiral. It is therefore tempting for the airport’s management to prefer tried-and-tested routes, many of which are to holiday destinations. Indeed, during 2010, Spain and the Canary Islands together accounted for 43% of all international air passenger traffic to and from Cardiff Airport. Of course there is nothing wrong with providing such routes, but the risk of relying on primarily recreationally focused air-traffic is that it likely to decrease during difficult economic times, as was Bmibaby’s reason for quitting Cardiff. We need to generate as many inbound passengers as outbound.
The First Minister has said that Wales should not simply expect foreign visitors and investment to come to us, but that we should reach out to them and encourage commercial relationships. No one would disagree with this aspiration, but we need to ask how exactly such foreign investment will get to Cardiff in the absence of suitable direct routes, and also what impression visitors will have of us when they arrive, especially the efficiency of any transport network that serves Cardiff and the wider region. Ultimately the airport’s management are responsible for relations with airlines, landing fees, and so on, but the Welsh Government can still play a role by making marketing money available to showcase Wales as an attractive business destination for foreign markets and airlines. Arguments may also exist for the provision of financial commitments from the Welsh Government to help underwrite any potential losses in the first few years while new direct routes seek to build up passenger numbers. However this would only be acceptable for routes with realistic long-term prospects and positive economic and investment impact for the region.
Discussions are apparently underway regarding a direct route between Cardiff and the municipality of Chongqing in China. China is predicted to become the world’s leading economy by 2050, perhaps even sooner, and so is a key growth economy and major foreign investor. However we should not completely focus our attention eastward.  By 2050, the US will be the next most prosperous world economy, with a healthier population demographic than China and a per capita income three times greater. With Bristol having lost its New York service in 2010, an opportunity exists for Cardiff to step in and attract two-way passenger traffic and commerce between Wales and North America, laying the foundations for a prosperous long-term air-link, as called for in our manifesto. Likewise, with Brazil, Mexico, Columbia, Argentina and Venezuela currently or soon to experience significant growth levels, the possibility exists for Cardiff to become a natural UK gateway to North, Central and South America. With new routes to our East and West, and improved commercial relationships as a result, so too can our local, regional and national economies take flight.

Monday, 26 September 2011

On the need for transparency

For much of the last year we have tried everything possible to get the Welsh Government to release the details of consultation work carried out again on their behalf into efficiencies within the Welsh NHS: letter after letter, Written Questions, plenary contributions and Freedom of Information requests – then, finally, a complaint to the Information Commissioner.
Last week I asked the First Minister why his government felt it appropriate to withhold this information, despite a legal obligation to do so. Ultimately it took direction from the Information Commissioner, following our complaint, to force his hand on this.
I don’t think we have to stretch the imagination too far to understand why… The documents were a damning indictment of his Government’s management of the NHS in Wales.
When we finally received the information, some 7 months late, the email trail revealed that McKinsey consultants had met with NHS officials to discuss potential ‘efficiency savings’ in the Hilton Hotel of all places; which rather brings to mind a G8 summit on food shortages, where delegates (including Gordon Brown) thought it appropriate to take a 6 course lunch followed by an 8 course dinner.
At this meeting, in the Hilton, several items were put on the agenda:
·         Cutting 1200 nurses;
·         Cutting the number of hospital beds and wards;
·         Closing NHS facilities – and delaying opening new facilities;
·         Freezing promotions for NHS staff;
·         Reducing the number of training places;
·         Leaving NHS vacancies unfilled.
That’s why we need to know whether it is labour’s policy now, or indeed in the future, to cut the number of nurses and hospital beds.
One of the more revealing issues which emerged from the files, and was identified by McKinsey, was a breakdown in trust between the Welsh Government and local health boards. The documents painted a picture of an NHS dictated to from the centre, with health boards afraid to speak out against the financial challenges they were being forced to endure.
A transcript with NHS Directors warned:
LHBs cannot “state the extent of the financial challenges they face or the extent of the cuts necessary… without receiving an unfavourable response from the centre”.
At the very least, if it must be Labour’s policy to cut health spending in Wales, surely this should be done in consultation with, not isolation from, healthcare professionals?
This breakdown in trust between the Welsh Government and health professionals has had wider ramifications too, leading to mixed messages over the provision of frontline NHS care; with patients getting caught in the middle.
The First Minister repeatedly claims to have eliminated the use of private sector hospitals, whilst at least one LHB has been busy drawing up provisional plans for the use of the local independent sector.
That’s why we need clarity from Carwyn over Welsh Government policy on the use of the independent sector in the Welsh NHS. We need clarity from Carwyn over possible cuts to nurses and hospital beds. And most of all we need to see a culture of transparency and trust restored to the heart of the Welsh Government.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Enterprise Zones - just what exactly are we waiting for?

Some time ago the UK Government announced decisive plans to try and boost economic growth in the UK through the creation of ‘Enterprise Zones’, where businesses will benefit from reduced business rates, faster broadband speeds and relaxed planning rules. I have, alongside Welsh Conservative colleagues in the National Assembly, been urging the Minister for Business , Enterprise & Technology to implement a similar scheme here in Wales that would put in place the necessary conditions to establish Wales as a place to set up and develop businesses.
Last week there appeared, at long last, to be some movement from the Welsh Government on this; with a back-bench AM indicating that these will be implemented ‘soon’ here in Wales. Far be it from me to complain, having called consistently for these to be implemented in recent months, but confusion does appear to be rife within the Welsh Government on this – with a Government spokesperson having said earlier this week that they were still awaiting a decision on capital funding from the UK Government…
But it also raises a broader point, which I discussed HERE last Thursday about the disclosure of major announcements during recess. This is not the way to run a government, with back-benchers announcing policy whilst giving evidence to a select committee. One can only assume that they were as frustrated by the WG’s slow movement on this as the rest of us?
In my own region, here in South Wales Central, there are a number of potential sites who will face direct competition from the zones set to be established just across the border – in Bristol, the West of England and even Birmingham. Which is why the inaction on the Welsh Government’s part has been so concerning. If we are going to have zones just across the border then we clearly need something similar here in Wales; even if they don’t operate according to an English model.
And the dithering from the Welsh Government on this cannot be put down to a lack of resources either – the Welsh Government has been the beneficiary of a Barnett Consequential following the investment in England of around £10,000,000. It rather begs the question, what have they they waiting for? Is Wales open for business or not?
One thing that is certain, as we seek to address the debt that was bequeathed to us by the Labour Government, is that we have to take decisive action to restore the balance that exists between the number of jobs that reside in both the public and private sectors here in Wales. The public sector plays a vital role in the provision of services – and jobs – however, given that around 70% of Welsh GDP output is from the public sector, there is a clear need to give consideration to creating a more balanced economy.
In the Vale of Glamorgan there isn’t currently a single Welsh Government sponsored body located with 10 or more employees. Despite the fact that they hold a brownfield land bank of over 10 acres which could act as a springboard for a localised recovery. Naturally across Wales there are any number of potential sites that would make a strong case to be considered for Enterprise Zone status, but closer to home – in my own constituency of SWC – there is a persuasive case to be made to look at Barry as a perfect location to forge ahead with a localised recovery.
As I said in a press release on the subject last week, Barry is after all the largest town in Wales and it would offer a large potential workforce with a broad skill base. It is disappointing that after 12 years of devolution it hasn’t received greater recognition from the Welsh Government with the location of some of its many sponsored bodies there (there are none). What’s more, at a value £40,000 an acre in brownfield land that is already owned by the government surely it would make financial sense to show a tangible commitment to the area - particularly given the exceptional value for money to the taxpayer.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Speaking From Experience...

In the coming weeks I shall be making the case for why I believe that I am the strongest candidate in the race to become Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group here in the Assembly.

My campaign poster, below, details three key strengths that I would bring to the role:

I have the communication skills and strength to take the fight to Labour in the Senedd and across Wales; it is vital for Welsh democracy that we have an effective opposition in the Assembly that can hold the Welsh Government to account.

I would encourage greater engagement with Conservatives at all levels of government in Wales, including the party membership, in policy development; the leader of the Assembly group is 'YOUR VOICE' in the Assembly.

The Welsh Assembly needs to reach out beyond the Cardiff Bay Bubble to the wider communities across the country; we have the tools to do the job now, it's time to focus on delivery - that has to mean results for the whole of Wales.

I shall be launching my campaign officially very soon - details to follow.

(Please click on the picture to see in full size)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Welsh Labour Government must bring greater balance to its economic strategy

It’s been a busy week back at the Assembly, during which I have been getting my teeth stuck in to my new brief as Shadow Minister for Business, Enterprise & Technology.
I am very pleased to have taken on this role. During the election campaign there appeared to be a clear consensus amongst the voters that I met on the doorstep that the Welsh economy needs to start making money!
I was rather disappointed that the First Minister chose, in announcing his cabinet, to spread the levers of business and the economy across different portfolios; in spite of the vocal protestations of many business leaders in their election manifestos. However, it will be my duty to work with the brief as it stands and provide constructive, albeit robust, scrutiny of the Minister’s performance.
I will be seeking to engage with all sectors in my endeavour to help build a prosperous Wales and ensure that during the 4th Assembly we do not see a continuation of previous years of Labour-led neglect.
In figures we released yesterday, I was particularly concerned to see that the Welsh Labour Government has been using the lion’s share of its European Funded Convergence grants to subsidise its own projects; giving just 1% of grants awarded to private sector sponsors. This reliance upon public sector projects in part explains the failure of the economy in Wales to grow.
Wales needs a balanced approach to delivering its economic strategies and this must include a greater involvement of business in developing projects such as these; at the expense of civil servants who, with the greatest will in the world, are the last people who will fully understand the needs of the private sector.
On a more positive not, it was excellent to see that the UK Government’s strategy is starting to pay dividends – with a drop in the number of unemployed people in Wales. A simultaneous decline in the number of economically inactive people is also encouraging, not least for those who have found employment. It is a personal tragedy for anyone who loses their job and it is heartening to observe this upward trend.
It is incumbent upon the Welsh Labour Government to make this area an absolute priority and to ensure that, in spite of having scattered the critical levers of economic growth across the cabinet table, they are able to work with efficiency.
They could start by publishing their manufacturing strategy at the earliest opportunity!