Tom Giffard: Tourism is vital to the Welsh economy – so why is Drakeford so relentlessly hostile to visitors?

29 Jul

Tom Giffard is the Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for South Wales West and Shadow Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sport.

In December 2018, after 52 years, the tolls on the two Severn bridges were scrapped by Alun Cairns, the then-Secretary of State, delivering on Welsh Conservative pledge to ensure we open up Wales to the rest of the UK.

In fact, tolls on the Severn estuary had been in place for nearly 800 years in various forms!

The impact on the Welsh economy is huge, with reports at the time predicting that the boost would be worth well over £100 million a year.

But I fear that once again Labour in Wales are finding new ways to hold back our economy and put jobs under threat.

The other week the Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, insisted that Labour and Plaid’s tourism tax should be called a ‘visitor levy’. He went on to say that: “it isn’t just people coming to Wales for tourism purposes; the levy will apply to visitors for other reasons as well.”

What on earth does this mean? Charging people to visit their aunt in Rhyl, perhaps? Or paying an extra tenner at the border when people are coming to watch rugby at Principality Stadium?

Urgent clarity is needed from the First Minister on what this means. Is he about to restore a 800-year-old tax that we Welsh Conservatives did away with? Labour already have plans to introduce extra charges for driving on Welsh roads or for parking at your workplace. Where does it end?

Wales is a proud nation and a brilliant place for tourism. Yet it is under constant assault from the Labour government here in Wales.

Not to do the job of Visit Wales, but we have a fantastic range of locations and attractions for all types of holidaymakers, from our national parks and AONBs in Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, and the Gower peninsula to our historic castles – more per square mile than any other part of the world.

There is no doubt that the pandemic was extremely difficult for tourism businesses. It would have been even worse if not for the national Conservative Government’s furlough scheme, which was hugely significant and kept many livelihoods and businesses going.

But with the ending of restrictions and the summer coming, there should have been huge reasons for optimism.

Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed. Thanks to Labour, people who run holiday lets, B&Bs, and other businesses are left worrying about the future instead of being able to focus on the present.

So, why are they worried? It’s not just the threat of Labour’s ‘visitor levy’; it’s the attack on self-catering accommodation as well. If premises do not reach an 182-day threshold, then council tax premiums will be set at a whopping 300 per cent from April 2023.

This will lead to the destruction of many businesses, many of which are family-run and based in those same communities. It will likely see huge job losses – especially devastating when around one in seven Welsh jobs relies on the tourism industry.

Lots of the talk at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show recently (the largest in Europe and another event under threat from Labour’s tax crazed ideas) was about how this is an acute betrayal of rural communities.

Farmers have been told by Cardiff Bay to diversify by using their smallholdings to generate revenue such by renting them as holiday lets – and now they’re being punished for doing it!

It is only the Welsh Conservatives standing up for our tourism and rural communities. Last month I fought to annul these reckless and ill-thought out regulations. Unsurprisingly, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems continued to betray the rural communities they claim to represent.

That seventh of Welsh jobs that rely on tourism are a huge part of our economy. The consequences of a decline in visitor numbers and the closing down of tourism businesses will be felt right across Wales.

A UK-wide survey of the sector in April 2021 by organisations including the Professional Association of Self-Caterers UK found that over 46 per cent of respondents have either had signs of problems with their mental health or are experiencing some form of anxiety or depression.

Keep in mind that would have been before Covid restrictions were fully ended and before these tourism policies were announced; I can’t imagine what that bleak picture looks like today.

The reasons cited for these measures are the issue of second homes in communities where there aren’t enough houses. Frankly, these anti-tourist measures won’t solve the issue and will actually drive investment and jobs away from the areas where holidaymakers go, especially our rural and coastal communities.

I do have a novel idea for Labour and their Plaid allies: if you want to solve the housebuilding crisis, then crack on and actually build some houses.

But instead, they’re currently building around a third of the number necessary. And our tourism sector is now having to pay the price for the Welsh Government’s failures.

I want people to visit Wales and enjoy everything that we have to offer, and I encourage readers to visit.

But do so while you can, because Labour in Wales are doing everything in their power to keep visitors away from the green, green grass of home.

The post Tom Giffard: Tourism is vital to the Welsh economy – so why is Drakeford so relentlessly hostile to visitors? appeared first on Conservative Home.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon abandons her flagship schools pledge as she touts separation in the US

19 May

At the end of last month, we stopped by to take an overview of the many and varied scandals and failures besetting the Scottish Government.

Unfortunately, none of this was sufficient to prevent the SNP winning a record haul in this month’s local elections. Devolution seems to have created an unhappy dynamic where electoral success and quality of governance have decoupled.

Still, amidst acres of Protocol discourse let’s check in and see how the Nationalists are faring now the elections are out of the way.

The Daily Telegraph reports that the Scottish Government has formally abandoned its mission to close the attainment gap between rich school pupils and poor by 2026.

In a move which has been described as “a betrayal of Scotland’s children”, the Nationalists’ education secretary announced that the “arbitrary date” could no longer be met.

Bear in mind, Nicola Sturgeon first made her grand promise on school outcomes in 2016. By 2026, the SNP will have had a full decade to deliver on it – and that’s only if you exclude the five years they had a majority after the 2011 election and the four years they led a minority government before that.

Yet a party which claims it could set up an independent Scottish state in a matter of years, it turns out, has decided it won’t be able to deliver better school outcomes after almost 20 years in power.

Doubtless the First Minister is now rather less keen on voters taking her up on her call for pupil performance to be the yardstick by which voters measured her success. Not that they seem inclined to do so.

In the meantime, Sturgeon has been getting down to her actual priority: independence. On a trip to the United States to drum up support for separation, the First Minister claimed the war in Ukraine strengthened her conviction that an independent Scotland would join NATO.

This question continues to divide the separatist movement. The Greens came out against it immediately, and even the more pragmatic Nationalists have yet to overcome their party’s historic antipathy to nuclear weapons. Potential NATO partner are unlikely to be impressed by a prospective member seeking to shelter under the allied nuclear umbrella whilst shuttering Faslane.

Dissent in the ranks?

This morning, the News Letter reported on a fiery meeting of the Northern Irish Conservatives in which both Boris Johnson and Brandon Lewis were criticised for the lack of any central support by local activists.

Although the national leadership was defended by Matthew Robinson, who was the sole Tory candidate in this month’s Assembly elections, other members of the Ulster party have got in touch to set out their case against CCHQ:

“Apparently when the local Party has appealed for support from the leadership the Party centrally has demanded that they activists raise £100,000 of funding before even an article can appear from the Prime Minister in the local media supporting their endeavours.

“Likewise, it is apparently not possible for the PM or the Chancellor to appear at a Party event in NI to help raise profile and funds until the local party guarantees funds to the Party centrally. This is surely somewhat of a chicken and egg situation?”

Furthermore, members in Wales report “unconfirmed “rumours that Andrew RT Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, “may be about to try and separate the Welsh party from the UK one”, launching the process at this weekend’s Welsh Conference. So that’s something to keep an eye on.

Live Blog: With most councils declared, Welsh Conservative losses exceed those in Scotland

6 May

19.00

  • With 18 out of 22 councils declared, the Welsh Conservatives have now lost 67 seats whilst Labour have picked up 63. It’s a brutal result: they actually lost more councillors than their counterparts in Scotland, which is not what one might have expected reading the pre-election predictions.
  • Meanwhile the recriminations have already started north of the border, with Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record suggesting that these results might finish off Douglas Ross’s leadership of the Scottish Conservatives.
  • His defenders (see Ruth Davidson) below can point to the national picture, but his critics can rightly argue that he needs to own his decision to u-turn on demanding Boris Johnson resign over Partygate. As I noted in January, his ability to send a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady was a good advertisement for a united, national party. Why the change of course?
  • Behind that, the grim reality that the scandal-ridden SNP has just posted its best-ever local government performance.
  • Meanwhile results from Northern Ireland are continuing to trickle in (SF 16, UUP 3, DUP 2, APNI 2, SDLP 1, Oth 1), but we’re going to call it a day on this live blog. Thank you for following along!

18.00

  • Not only have the Conservatives lost control of Monmouthshire, their only Welsh council, but Labour are now the largest party for the first time since 1995. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, falling to 18.
  • Counting in Scotland is complete: the Tories lost 62 councillors in total, and were overtaken by Labour. Both Labour and the Nationalists gained one council each.
  • In Northern Ireland, Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, has told reporters that he will continue in post “until his colleagues say otherwise”. Currently the results reflect Sinn Fein’s position as the strongest single party even more strongly than before: they have elected 15 MLAs, and no other party has yet more than two.

17.30

  • Douglas Ross isn’t actually having the worst day of the Scottish leaders: not a single candidate for Alba, the separatist group launched by Alex Salmond after his split from the SNP, has been elected.
  • It looks as if the Nationalists will be able to cling on to Glasgow Council, after edging out Labour by a single seat.
  • However, the bad news for the Tories keeps coming: they’ve apparently lost half their seats on Edinburgh Council, and been overtaken by the Greens in the process.
  • Meanwhile in Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up Anglesey. The corresponding Westminster constituency, Ynys Môn, is currently held by the Conservatives.

17.00

  • In Wales, the Conservatives are now down 28 seats on last time, and Labour up 30. Plaid’s early surge has evened out a little, and they’re only up five seats – although both they and Labour have picked up a council.
  • Scotland has the Tories down 60 seats. Labour are up 17, the Lib Dems 21, the SNP 24, and the Greens 15. This has been a very tough day for Douglas Ross, just one year after he defied expectations to hold every Conservative seat at Holyrood and deny Sturgeon a majority. Ruth Davidson, like my sources in Wales, pins the blame on the national picture.
  • Northern Ireland currently has the following MLA totals: Sinn Fein ten, DUP two, Alliance two, UUP one, Others one. We can only hope that ratio is an artefact of the declarations!

16.30

  • Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, has been elected to the Assembly. However, he apparently won’t commit to resigning his seat at Westminster in order to sit there. Apparently he will meet with DUP officers to decide the ‘best way forward’.
  • Meanwhile the Welsh Conservatives I’m speaking two are giving mixed signals on whether or not they expected things to be this bad (outwith Monmouthshire, which all agree is a surprise). Sources say that events at Westminster have “dominated” the campaign.
  • The latest scores from the BBC have the Conservatives down 22 seats in Wales and 53 in Scotland, with Labour up 28 and 16 respectively.
  • Depressingly, the SNP are up 22 councillors on last time. Whatever one’s stance on the constitutional question, it is extraordinary to see a government performing so badly secure such a result.

15.30

  • The Democratic Unionists have said that “the door is open” to Alex Easton, the Independent Unionist MLA who has topped the poll in North Down. He previously quit the party over a lack of “respect, discipline or decency” in its conduct. This will be significant if the DUP runs Sinn Fein close on the seat count; if Easton would make the different on a Unionist First Minister, the pressure would be immense.
  • Meanwhile early reports of pressure on the smaller parties seem to be holding up, according to the News Letter it looks as if Roy Beggs, a UUP veteran who has served in the Assembly since 1998, may not retain his seat. Mike Nesbitt, their former leader, is also apparently fighting to stay in Stormont in the face of a “TUV surge”.

15.00

  • In yesterday’s column, I reported predictions that Plaid Cymru might have a disappointing day today. It isn’t the case so far – the nationalists are up on seats and have taken overall control of a council.
  • Meanwhile the BBC reports that Vale of Glamorgan, which the Conservatives controlled from 2017 to 2019, is “too close to call”. If they take it, it will make the poor outcome in usually-solid Monmouthshire all the stranger. However, the Tories are apparently facing an uphill battle in the north-east, where they won big in 2019 and have been running several councils in coalition.
  • In Northern Ireland, the Alliance surge continues as the party tops the poll in Strangford, a solidly unionist seat in the east of the Province. They have thus returned the first MLA of 2022.

14.00

  • So far the Scottish results seem good for everyone except the Conservatives (and Independents), with the Nationalists, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Greens all up on the last election whilst the Tories have lost 21 seats.
  • In Wales, Plaid Cymru have picked up a seat to take overall control of Gwynedd, whilst the Conservatives are now apparently braced for a “convincing defeat” in Monmouthshire.
  • Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, it looks as if Alex Easton, an Independent Unionist and former DUP MLA, is set to top the poll, continuing that constituency’s decades-long habit of returning independent or minor-party representatives.

13.30

  • Yesterday, I mentioned in my column that the forecasts didn’t seem too bad for the Conservatives in Wales. That may have been too optimistic: the BBC reports that David RT Davies fears that Monmouthshire Council – the only one under overall Tory control – is too close to call.
  • More bad news for the Party in Scotland too, where it has so far returned only one of the councillors it returned in Glasgow last time, whilst three have lost their seats.
  • But Wales hasn’t been too kind to Labour either: the leader of Caerphilly Council was unseated in what the BBC has called a “massive defeat”.
  • Scotland continues to be kinder: the party has managed to scoop West Dunbartonshire council from No Overall Control. This is the stomping ground of Jackie Baillie, their combative deputy leader, who’s holding her marginal seat at last year’s Holyrood elections stymied Nicola Sturgeon’s push for an overall majority.

13.00

  • We’re starting to get results in from Scotland, and so far they do seem to bear out the predictions that Labour will come second across the country (every local authority is getting elected today). There has also been good news for the (pro-independence) Scottish Greens, who have posted a couple of “absolutely astonishing” results.
  • Also, a reminder that the implications of the Northern Irish result may be more complex than at first glance: it’s perfectly possible that Sinn Fein could edge out the DUP whilst the overall pro-UK vote holds up better than the nationalist one. Under the original rules of the Belfast Agreement, this would have meant a Unionist would be nominated as First Minister.

12.30

  • So far, the main chatter out of Northern Ireland is about the surge in support for the Alliance Party. This is the party which doesn’t formally designate as either nationalist or unionist and, despite its origins as a ‘liberal unionist’ option, has no official stance on the question of the Province’s sovereignty.
  • This seems to have come not just at the expense of the DUP, who risk getting pipped to second place, but also the smaller Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP; the latter’s deputy leader is reportedly in trouble, and some analysts are suggesting one or both may not even qualify for a post in the next executive.
  • By contrast, the harder-line Traditional Unionist Voice seem to be optimistic about expanding their presence in the Assembly. At present only Jim Allister, their leader and a former DUP MEP, holds a seat.

12.00

Henry Hill reporting.

Good afternoon! The local elections in England are well underway, but there are also local contests in Scotland and Wales and a pivotal election for the Northern Ireland Assembly being counted today. We’ll be bringing you the results as they come in!

  • I did a run-down of what is expected to happen in each nation in yesterday’s Red, White, and Blue column. In sum, it looks as if Labour are going to do well in Scotland and Wales, and the Tories badly in Scotland but OK in Wales. (Recriminations in Scotland are underway, see tweet.)
  • Should the polls be right, Sinn Fein are heading for a historic first-placed win in Northern Ireland, which – thanks to rules changes the DUP agitated for – will give them the right to nominate the strictly titular but symbolically important post of First Minister. I wrote a bit about what this means for Unionism this morning.
  • As for the timings, we’re apparently expecting the first Welsh councils to declare around 2pm (Wales Online has a full list of the timings) and the first Scottish ones at about 12.30 (ditto the Daily Record). Northern Irish results will also start coming in this afternoon.

Henry Hill: As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland, the DUP is fighting for second

5 May

As voters go to the polls in Northern Ireland today, the last round of projections makes grim reading for the capital-U unionist parties.

The News Letter reports that Sinn Fein is on 26.6 per cent, according to a University of Liverpool survey, with the Democratic Unionists languishing neck-and-neck with the Alliance Party on 18 per cent.

If borne out, this would not only see the republicans comfortably the largest party at Stormont – and thus entitled to nominate the symbolically-important post of First Minister – but could see the border-neutral Alliance as the second-largest party.

This latter point has prompted some to speculate that Naomi Long could be nominated as ‘deputy’ (in reality co-) First Minister. But this is not the case: the right to nominate falls to the largest party in the second largest designation, and there are not many ‘Other’ MLAs outwith the APNI itself.

Indeed, it could yet be that the Unionists remain the largest designation overall, as their vote is divided between three significant parties (the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and Traditional Unionist Voice) versus just two (Sinn Fein and the SDLP) on the nationalist side.

Should this happen, it will see all of unionism paying the price for the DUP/Sinn Fein stitch up of Stormont which New Labour signed off on in 2007. This saw the right to nominate the FM/DFM transferred from the largest and second-largest designation (thus allowing voters to move between parties) to the largest party in each designation, encouraging voters to pile in behind the biggest to keep the other lot out.

This comes amidst the revelation that Sinn Fein has been reaching out to groups linked with dissident republicans in its efforts to secure a border poll. The party apparently wrote to Saoradh, which is allegedly connected to the New IRA – the group linked to the murder in 2019 of the journalist Lyra McKee.

Both the UUP and the TUV meanwhile will be hoping to benefit from a major DUP setback, with the latter’s leader, Jim Allister, apparently hopeful that he won’t be his party’s only MLA in the next assembly.

These polls will also be causing as much discomfort in Whitehall as in DUP headquarters; whilst the working relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP is not what it once was, the Northern Irish Office know that the outcome most likely to lead to the straightforward creation of a new executive is the latter holding on to the top spot and their claim to the First Minister’s fiction.

If not, it could be a long few months for Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland lurches through the extensive procedures it has for when its government isn’t functioning. These include weeks of delay whilst the previous executive holds on, then another election, and in the last resort direct rule – although this would require emergency legislation at Westminster.

A good night for Labour?

On the mainland, the situation in the local elections seems positive for Labour in both Scotland and Wales. According to Wales Online, the party is on track to pick up four councils in Wales today.

It doesn’t seem to be bad news for the Conservatives though, who are reportedly on track to hold on to the only council they have under overall control (Monmouthshire) and potentially retake control in Vale of Glamorgan too. (We covered in a previous column how the Party is running a record number of candidates.)

Plaid Cymru is predicted to have a bad night, losing 42 seats and control of Carmarthenshire council, where it governs with the help of independents.

In Scotland meanwhile, Labour look set to retake second place as the popularity of senior Conservatives “plummets” in the take of Partygate, the Scotsman reports. Their poll puts the Tories on 18 per cent, with Labour comfortably ahead on 25 per cent.

One expert interviewed by the Times suggests that this will not necessarily lead to many councils changing hands, but will allow Labour to take their claim to being once against Scotland’s second political force.

Meanwhile Douglas Ross seems to have run into difficulty over whether or not the British Government should release its legal advice on the question of another referendum on independence. This comes after the Scottish Government recently lost a transparency case over its own advice, as mentioned in last week’s column.

He has also stuck to his new, conciliatory line on Boris Johnson, insisting the Prime Minister is “fit for office”.

Unfortunately, despite the litany of failures we looked at last week, Scottish politics remains polarised around the constitutional question and the SNP look set to take about 45 per cent of the vote – their losing share in 2014.

The SNP bad news section

A lot to cover with the elections this week so we’ll do a whistle-stop tour: SNP MP apologises after breaking booze ban on ScotRail train; Nichola Sturgeon blames the war in Ukraine for the census fiasco (but insists it won’t delay independence because priorities); she refuses to apologise over the ferry scandal…

*breathe in*

…the Financial Reporting Council announced an investigation into an accountancy firm linked to a steelworks which got a potentially unlawful cash guarantee from the Scottish Government; and an ex-SNP MP accused of defrauding a separatist group of £25,000 has told a court she didn’t keep her receipts (which seems to be a common bad habit amongst the Nationalists).

Sam Rowlands: Welsh local councils need change, and only the Conservatives can deliver it

20 Apr

Saw Rowlands is the Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for North Wales and Shadow Minister for Local Government

Voters in Wales are facing a simple choice when they head to the polling stations to decide who they want to run their local authority on May 5th. They can choose to extend the ongoing record of failure from Labour and Plaid Cymru. Or they can vote  for meaningful change to build stronger and safer communities with the Welsh Conservatives.

When we launched our campaign in North Wales, we were proud to announce that we are fielding the largest ever number of candidates in the upcoming local election. With nearly 670 local Welsh Conservative champions campaigning to win seats up and down the country, more people than ever before will be able to vote Welsh Conservative – building on our record number of MPs and MSs.

For far too long, our hardworking councils have been neglected and starved of much-needed financial help by Labour – something I’ve seen first-hand as a former council leader. The Welsh Conservatives have a clear plan to empower local people, enable businesses to thrive, create a healthier Wales and deliver fair funding for local authorities.

We want to see local people take control of the future of their communities. We understand that they are the best placed to decide what their area needs – not the government. After more than two decades of devolution, many people – the Welsh Conservatives included – fear that power is being trapped in Cardiff Bay or undemocratic regional bodies, rather than being relinquished to councils.

That needs to change. We want to see communities come together and create Local Neighbourhood Plans so that local people can take the lead on where new housing and services should be built. A council controlled by the Welsh Conservatives would work hand-in-hand with communities to protect local services and give residents a chance to save their local pub, library, and shop from unwanted development through the Community Ownership Fund.

Many people explored areas of their towns and villages that they never knew existed throughout the pandemic. Previously neglected parks and beauty spots were bustling with people. People should be proud to live and work in their communities, but all too often our towns are blighted with anti-social behaviour. That’s why the Welsh Conservatives would work with the police to tackle problems such as fly-tipping, graffiti and dog mess – which would in turn attract more investment and entice more visitors.

Roads plagued by potholes and cracked pavements are major problems in many of our towns which leave people with damaged cars and sometimes serious injuries. Welsh Conservatives believe it’s high time we started investing in our roads and pedestrian areas to make sure they are up scratch.

Local businesses are at the centre of our communities. They boost the economy by providing jobs for people and giving residents somewhere to meet. But they have been persistently let down by Labour. Our high streets are being left to go to wrack and ruin under the pressure of the highest business rates in Great Britain.

We want to see businesses thrive – not just survive – and our essential tourism sector boom as we start to build back from the pandemic. We would look at scrapping car parking fees at weekends so those who cannot use Wales’ crumbling public transport network are supported and not ignored.

Over the last two decades, the cost of living has increased with council tax in Wales rising by nearly 200% – adding a huge £900 to the average household bill. At the same time, pay packets have only gone up by 78%, widening the gap with weekly pay packets for Welsh workers £60 lighter compared to other parts of the UK. Welsh Conservatives, both at a national and local level, have long campaigned for action for fairer funding across Wales to stop Labour from financially depriving communities.

There is no doubt that council staff and councillors went above and beyond throughout the pandemic to ensure vital services carried on running. Despite the unprecedented challenges, and against a backdrop of historic underfunding, our councils pulled out all the stops to help local communities. It’s only right that councils across Wales are properly financially equipped to deal with the ever-increasing pressures they are faced with.

In the Senedd, the Welsh Conservatives have made repeated calls for the current funding formula to be reviewed as it is simply not fit for purpose as it stands. Unfortunately our calls have been ignored, but that won’t stop us pushing for change. Welsh Conservative councillors would work with our colleagues in the Senedd to carry on the campaign while also ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

A Welsh Conservative council would deliver the essential services residents rely on and work with neighbouring authorities in a bid to cut costs and improve services. For far too long, Labour– and their nationalist pals in Plaid – have taken Wales for granted and think that they know best – rather than trust local people.

It’s crucial that voters remember these elections are about local issues. It’s about making sure bins are collected, potholes are filled, dangerous pavements are repaired, and people receive the education and social services they deserve. The Welsh Conservatives want to work with residents, businesses, community groups, and other partners to build stronger and safer communities across the country.

It’s time for change, and only by voting for local Welsh Conservative champions on May 5th can people take control of their communities’ future.

Richard John: Monmouthshire is leading the way in delivering high quality public services

18 Mar

Cllr Richard John is the Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and a councillor for the Mitchel Troy Ward.

In a quiet and largely rural corner of Wales, the flame of a compassionate Conservative vision for Wales burns brightly. At the last local elections in 2017, Monmouthshire went from no overall control to become the only Conservative controlled council in Wales with 25 Conservative members, 10 Labour, five independent and three Liberal Democrats.

We are the lowest funded council in Wales because the Welsh Government’s funding formula fails to adequately recognise the additional costs and challenges associated with delivering services in a large rural area. But we have not let this hold us back. Monmouthshire receives just £1,176 per head of population, yet some neighbouring urban councils receive as much as £1,881 per head. If we were funded at the Welsh average, we would receive an extra £40million every year.

Despite these challenges, we deliver high quality public services at the forefront of innovation. We set up an investment portfolio both as an income stream and a policy lever and despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, it continues to return a surplus which directly funds frontline services. We purchased Newport Leisure Park in Spytty with £21million of borrowing. The rental income minus interest payments has delivered up to £500,000 a year to help fund core services. We’ve also used our investment portfolio to secure benefits for our communities even in areas that aren’t the responsibility of local government. We agreed a £2million investment with broadband provider Broadway, which has enabled them to put in place a fibre rollout plan to 17,000 Monmouthshire properties, which would not otherwise have access to high-speed internet.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of individuals and councils taking greater responsibility for mental and physical wellbeing. We decided not to transfer our leisure services into a trust, but to reform in-house. While some Welsh councils have struggled with plans to close leisure centres, our approach has been more commercial – to modernise our sites so they’re more financially sustainable. Monmouth was the first leisure centre we refurbished with a brand new gym, dance and spin studios, new kit, a 25m pool with spa facilities, a three storey soft play area with an open plan café and a beauty salon. Until it was forced to close due to the pandemic, the site was returning a small surplus, which is unheard of for council-run leisure centres.

This commercial approach lends itself to a close working relationship with chambers of commerce in our towns. We have a business resilience forum to ensure a close working relationship between our Sara Jones, Deputy Leader and Economy Cabinet Member, her officers and business owners across the county. Through the pandemic, this close working relationship has enabled us to better respond to the challenges facing our high streets. During the pandemic we distributed £41million of Covid grants and got the money to businesses before we even received it ourselves because we recognised that cash flow was a more serious concern for businesses than for us.

In social care, we’ve won awards for the innovative approach we’ve taken to help older people retain their independence through community-based services, which are focussed on the individual rather than an institution. This approach has enabled hundreds of older people to have their care needs met in their own home, where they can continue to live independently. We’re also one of the very few councils in Wales to pay our carers a starting salary £1 above the real living wage.

Our overriding priority has been to offer children and young people the best possible start in life and accordingly, education has been our top budgetary priority for both revenue and capital spend. We’re working with Welsh Government to build new state of the art new schools, having recently completed two new secondary schools in Monmouth and Caldicot and a new school in development in Abergavenny. Although an anglicised part of Wales, we’re ensuring parents have a meaningful choice in education between English and Welsh-medium schools by doubling capacity over the next decade. Our school system is in a strong place as one of the few authorities in Wales with no schools under monitoring by the schools inspectorate Estyn and no schools in a red category under the Welsh Government’s most recent categorisation of schools. We’ve also set up an innovative scheme with the Compass for Life Foundation to mentor primary school pupils from more deprived backgrounds to focus on their dreams and aspirations because there’s nothing as powerful as ambition for the future.

We’re also at the forefront of the green agenda with bold ambitions to improve the connectivity between our towns and villages for cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists. Working with Welsh Government, this year we’re rolling out more 20mph zones than anywhere else in Wales to improve air quality and road safety. We have one of the highest recycling rates in Wales and we’re decarbonising our fleet with investment in electric and hydrogen vehicles.

Monmouthshire is strategically the best placed county in Wales for growth and our local economy performs second only to Wales’ capital city. Our towns are often considered some of the best places to live in Wales and ranked amongst the best in the UK.  We play a full role in the Cardiff Capital Region and the Western Gateway, keen to secure the economic benefits of partnership working for our residents. We still have challenges of inequality both within and between our communities and we welcome the decision of UK Government to work directly with councils on levelling up and shared prosperity funding to continue to tackle this because nothing is as strong as local knowledge and trusted relationships.

We are doing well, but we are ambitious for more. With continued Conservative leadership, a shared vision and a sense of urgency to deliver for our residents, we can make our county an even better place to live, work and visit.

Henry Hill: Energy policy is reserved for a reason, and the SNP should not be able to block new nuclear power plants

17 Feb

Scottish Tories attack SNP over anti-nuclear stance…

The SNP is, for some reason, a resolutely anti-nuclear party. Yet as the UK sails into the teeth of a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by surging energy prices, the Conservatives claim that the Scottish Government has not actually modelled the impact of shuttering Scotland’s nuclear power stations

Once again, this row highlights a bizarre consequence of our chaotic devolution ‘settlement’. Energy policy is, rightly, reserved to Westminster. In a world where countries such as Russia are increasingly prepared to exploit their influence on global markets to further their geopolitical ambitions, it is a national security issue.

Yet because planning policy is devolved, the SNP and the Greens are able to block the construction of any new nuclear power plants in Scotland, even though a new generation of such plants (albeit not using next-generation technology) forms an important part of the Government’s plan for reaching Net Zero – not to mention offering security of supply and thus less exposure to volatile energy markets for the consumer.

This artefact of Westminster’s chaotic retreat from Scotland is out-of-step with modern unionist thinking, which increasingly recognises that the British State has an essential role to play in national infrastructure. Perhaps it is time to follow the Union Connectivity Review with a Union Energy Review, and create a separate, national planning framework for qualifying projects.

(Of course, this would also involve reversing the recent mind-boggling decision to devolve the Crown Estate, which means it is now the Scottish Government leasing a vast chunk of the seabed of the UK’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone. It’s as if a big section of unionism’s official leadership just want to lose. Thankfully, Simon Hart is holding the line in Wales.)

…as Greens attack Nationalists over freeports

The Scottish Greens have attacked the SNP after the latter signed an agreement with the Government to establish two low-tax freeports in Scotland. Ross Greer MSP, their finance spokesman, derided the Nationalists’ assurances that the projects would fulfil their environmental criteria as a “greenwash”.

In truth, the SNP have been spinning hard, with one MSP claiming that the ‘greenports’ were going ahead “with all our red lines intact”. According to Whitehall sources, this isn’t true, at least on the ‘greenports’ name and the ‘real living wage’ demand.

This split probably won’t have much of an impact on the two separatist parties’ cooperation deal at Holyrood, which excluded freeports. But if the bid to whip up renewed public enthusiasm for independence continues to go nowhere, it will be interesting to see how their alliance fairs if they are forced to focus on the day-to-day governance of Scotland.

Legal challenge to UKIMA fails, for now

A bit of good news this week: a court as thrown out the Welsh Government’s challenge to the UK Internal Market Act, the vital legislation that helps to protect the integrity of the British internal market outside the EU.

Mark Drakeford and his ministers are angry that the legislation restricts their ability to make regulations which could fracture it and create trade barriers inside the United Kingdom, on the basis that these are ‘devolved powers’.

However, prior to Brexit they were exercised by the EU. This row is therefore simply the latest clash in the long-running battle over whether powers exercised by Brussels were somehow ‘devolved’ under New Labour. Devocrats say yes, those who want a coherent UK say no.

In this instance, the court has rejected the Welsh Government’s case on the grounds that it is ‘premature’. This leaves Drakeford scope to try again as and when he can identify a specific instance of UKIMA doing its job. Suffice to say, the Government should commit to whatever subsequent legislation is necessary to maintain our common market, rather than allowing this essential legislation to be unpicked by the courts.

Peter Fox: Welsh Labour’s spanner in the country’s economy should be wrenched out

16 Feb

Peter Fox is the Member of the Senedd for Monmouth and the Welsh Conservatives’ Shadow Minister for Finance.

To unleash success in Wales, we need to nurture aspiration and promote ambition. We can do this by investing in a new generation of people and industries.

One project that is already delivering on that cause is the £1.3 billion Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, of which I had the pleasure of playing an instrumental role in securing.

The city deal, which was the biggest in Britain, is set to deliver 20,000 jobs – through creating the much-anticipated Metro, investing in technologies such as the compound semi-conductors, as well as much more – and will subsequently lift GVA by five per cent. This is important because it’ll flood the region with high-end job vacancies by generating the right conditions for businesses to flourish financially across South Wales.

This initiative has laid crucial foundations, but we need to go further by unblocking the huge spanner that’s currently stuck in the Welsh economy’s cogs.

Very soon, the Welsh Labour Government will have a choice to either remove or retain the self-made blockages to our economy through its draft Budget.

What is also crucial is that our businesses need to be able to prosper, not be financially punished.

Therefore, it’s absolute madness to think businesses can be hammered into the ground, then suddenly be expected to pick up again to where they once were.

That isn’t the way business operates.

Yet, absurdly, this matter of fact appears to have eluded the ears of ministers so far. To date, Welsh Labour ministers have refused to rectify huge obstacles damaging our economy, including a business still only being entitled to additional financial support if it’s lost more than 60 per cent of its revenue from the pandemic; no plans to work constructively with UK Government colleagues to beef-up job-seeker support schemes; and no implementation of a Covid Support Fund to further aid businesses improve mitigation measures to keep staff and customers safe, such as having improved ventilation.

The draft Budget should also strive to secure more research and development monies which is something the Welsh labour Government have been wilfully poor at to date.

Neither is there any plan to desperately fill in an ever-increasing black hole in education, where the decline of the number of teachers in Wales continues to increase. To be precise, between 2011—21, according to the Education Workforce Council, the number of teachers registered in Wales has declined by 10.3 per cent – this is simply unsustainable.

It’s clear to anyone that what I’ve listed above reveals that there are huge problems facing Wales, but these can be overcome.

The driving wheel needs to be seized and steered away from the never-ending destination to nowhere, and instead go in the opposite direction towards opportunity and success.

We have all the ingredients of being a great country—inside our cherished United Kingdom—but we’re currently rudderless in driving forward for future generations. Our international footprint is nowhere near where it should be.

Welsh Labour Ministers can alter the Budget, if they want to, and I urge them to do so. We need to invest in the younger generation and improve the current economic conditions to secure our future successes.

It’s time that Welsh Labour ministers put our country’s future success, ahead of narrow political beliefs.

Henry Hill: Johnson talks tough on the Protocol, but does he mean it?

10 Feb

Johnson talks tough on the Northern Irish Protocol

Earlier this week, I explained that the now-or-never moment for triggering Article 16 is coming, whether the Government likes it or not. The Democratic Unionists’ decision to walk out of Stormont has increased the pressure on Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič to find a solution, but there still doesn’t seem to be a realistic landing zone for a deal.

If terms can’t be reached, with the devolved institutions on their knees and the Ulster elections looming, even a strategy based on being seen to bend over backwards to try and find a solution will run out of road. Either the Government will avail itself of the dispute mechanism in the treaty, or it will be clear to all it never will.

As ever, the crucial factor here is Boris Johnson’s position. One question hanging over Lord Frost’s departure is the extent to which it was driven by the Prime Minister not giving him sufficient support to make triggering Article 16, and facing down the backlash from the European Union.

Yesterday, in a response to a question in the Commons from Ian Paisley Jr, Johnson reiterated his willingness to do to so, saying: “I believe we can fix it but if our friends don’t show the requisite common sense then of course we will trigger Article 16.”

He also said that the Province’s peace settlement is “being upset” by the Protocol. This point is surely increasingly difficult to dispute; in addition to the DUP walking out of the Executive, this week also saw the news that street rallies and direct protests against the Sea Border are set to resume. This will only further amp up the pressure on unionist politicians in the run-up to May’s elections.

But actually triggering Article 16, and winning the subsequent dispute, means the UK needs a comprehensive contingency plan in place for weathering Brussels’ retaliation. It is difficult to believe that sort of detailed work, requiring the Prime Minister’s imprimatur, has been ticking along over the past few weeks whilst he has been fighting for his political life.

As England plans to scrap restrictions, Drakeford catches Covid

This morning’s Daily Mail reports that Johnson has urged Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon to join him in setting aside coronavirus restrictions early. Yet in Scotland the First Minister has announced her plans to keep the measures on the books for months yet, whilst in Wales the master of the absurd regulation has contracted the virus himself, which seems unlikely to push him towards a more relaxed approach.

Such enthusiasm on the part of the devolved administrations is, alas, par for the course. In fact, true to the adage that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary solution at the start of the month the SNP came in for fierce criticism over ‘power grab’ proposals which would seen the Scottish Government hold on to its emergency powers indefinitely.

Legacy Bill could create pathway to prosecuting terrorists who refuse to cooperate

According to the Daily Telegraph, Brandon Lewis is considering modifications to the upcoming Legacy Bill to create more scope for prosecuting terrorists for crimes committed during the Troubles if they don’t cooperate with the authorities.

The Bill has been stalled following fierce objections from military veterans and victims’ organisations; unionist commentators believe that the legacy arrangements are being systematically stacked against British forces, with the actions of terrorist groups receiving much less scrutiny.

Under the proposals, a new South Africa-style independent body would be established to investigate deaths without an actual police inquiry. But as originally drafted, ex-servicemen would be compelled to testify whilst paramilitaries could simply not turn up.

So the Secretary of State is “is considering strengthening powers in the Bill to force terror suspects to participate in hearings into hundreds of unsolved murders during the Troubles”, the paper reports.

In related news, several retired officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are hinting at legal action against the Police Ombudsman over its claims that elements of the force actively collaborated in several loyalist attacks.

Sturgeon admits Scotland would pay its own pensions

In a sign that the SNP are still nowhere close to delivering a realistic and attractive prospectus for breaking up the UK, Ian Blackford this week tried to sell Scottish pensioners on the idea that the rest of the UK would continue to pay their state pensions in the event of independence.

Sturgeon tried to muddy the waters by saying that it would be up for negotiation along with other “historic assets and liabilities”. Except there is no National Insurance fund to serve as an asset over which a new Scottish state could stake a claim; it’s a fiction.

However, whilst throwing out that chaff the First Minister did admit that responsibility for paying out on Scottish pensions would fall to the Scottish state, in what the Spectator dubbed “a tacit rebuke” of the man who leads her MPs at Westminster. A poor showing for a once-formidable operation.

Does England really need more mayors?

4 Feb

On Wednesday, the Government unveiled its Levelling Up white paper, a 332-page document, which aims to address major economic imbalances across the UK. 

One of the ways the Government intends to achieve greater regional parity is by enhancing local leadership throughout the country. “We will extend, deepen and simplify devolution across England”, reads the report, whose authors want every part of England to be entitled to “London style” powers and a mayor.

This idea is not new to the Conservative Party. As Chancellor, George Osborne famously championed a “cities devolution bill”, and encouraged England’s big cities to follow Greater Manchester, in bidding for devolved powers. Since then, he has urged the Government to go further on localism. “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it”, he said in an interview last year for ConservativeHome.

Moreover, the Conservative Party is proud of its record on mayors, seeing Andy Street and Ben Houchen, representing the West Midlands and Tees Valley, respectively, as success stories. There are clearly a number of advantages to having a mayor, namely that they know their area – and can fight for it – much better than those in Whitehall, helping locals feeling connected to government.

Perhaps this is why localism has had the nation’s backing in the past. It was a clear pledge in the Conservatives’ manifesto, which read “We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK… building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors”, and people voted for in huge numbers. We are, of course, not the first country to see the benefits of devolved powers (see Germany, with its 16 federal states).

Even so…. Even with all these benefits, and a democratic mandate, I have a feeling that the mood has changed significantly since 2019, and that the public may – instead – be increasingly sceptical about mayors, and the power of devolution.

Why? Well, something very big happened between the time the manifesto was published and now, which is, of course, the Coronavirus crisis. Among many things, it showed many of the practical problems that can come about the more that a government devolves power. “One nation”, we certainly were not.

At times it felt as though the devolved administrations (Scotland and Wales, in particular) were engaged in a competition of “who cares the most” about Coronavirus. Care, as far as leaders were concerned, could be demonstrated by which of them would lock down their own citizens the longest, or create the most inconvenient set of rules, or address people in the most sombre of tones. 

The result was an incredibly divided UK, with contradictory messaging, depending on one’s postcode, about how to fend off the virus. Never mind that parts of the country were also given different “tiers”, so as to determine how careful they should be about Coronavirus.

The contradictory messaging was not just limited to the devolved nations. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, is, to this day, still making announcements about the need for masks on transport, while the Government has scrapped this rule. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, too, famously held a press conference after his “talks” with the Government over Tier 3 restrictions collapsed. Do we really want more of this? A “splintered” Britain in tense negotiations with each other?

Perhaps the Government thinks, with its extension of mayoral powers, that it will get more Houchens and Streets in the future, rather than Burnhams and Khans. But one highly doubts this will be the case, as a result of demographic shifts brought about by the housing crisis. Vast swathes of young people, who are mainly left-leaning, are being priced out of the South East, bringing their politics into new areas. In other words, the Left can look forward to more of a mandate.

One argument for localism is that people, especially the Brexit-backing public, want to “take back control” of their areas, away from bureaucrats in Whitehall (or otherwise). But localism can equally leave people feeling like they have less democratic say. Khan, for example, seems to endlessly introduce anti-car measures (which are hardly going to “level up” workers, should they be delivery drivers), while rarely asking voters for their say.

And, as the public felt about Brussels bureaucrats, some bureaucrats appear to be getting a lot out of the taxpayer, such as Police and Crime Commissioners (paid between £70,000 – £100,000 per year), without much obvious impact. When we have a cost of living crisis, and a pandemic bill to pay, the public may be more in favour of cutting the number of taxpayer-funded roles, rather than going on a mayoral spending spree.

Generally, I tend to think the Government may have already ticked off “levelling up” in many voters’ minds when it decided to move the Treasury to Darlington, and promised huge investment for the North, among other things. Although the Westminster bubble gets terribly excited about white papers, maybe voters are looking for “simple wins”; energy bills coming down, a cut in council tax, or even a pint being a bit more affordable. 

Clearly Levelling Up, as a general strategy, has a huge amount of thought behind it. It shouldn’t be written off, as Lisa Nandy did in the Commons on the day of its release (“is this it?” she asked Gove repeatedly). But the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes about many things. Whether they want multiple face mask rules up and down the country ever again, I’m not convinced.