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.