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Time for a new relationship with local government

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Asking local government leaders for their ideas: Alun Davies

I LIKE to think that I’m not often lost for words in the Chamber. But during my oral questions session the other week, Plaid’s spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian, asked me a question that momentarily left me like a goldfish gasping for breath.

Sian asked me what would be my style as a minister. I guess that she wanted to know whether I’d be more Leighton or Mark. Whether I would seek to impose a policy or seek a consensus. I have no idea whether my response pleased her or not. But it was a good question and it has led me to think again how I would answer the question.

Over the years successive ministers have tried several different approaches and styles. Local government leaders have been flattered, cajoled, persuaded and been drawn into temptation by a whole feast of ministerial offerings. This is certainly one area of policy where there have been an embarrassment of riches with a whole government full of green papers, white papers, commissions and strategies and speeches and statements.

What all of this earnest activity has in common is that it has all failed to deliver any meaningful reform of either the structures or ways of working in local government. It has failed to deliver change or reform and it has failed to create a consensus on the shape of what any reform may actually look like. Maps have come and gone. Footprints debated and heads nodded. Within a month of my own appointment I was told at the WLGA’s seminar in Cardiff in no uncertain terms to put away the Bill and the policy that I had inherited only a couple of weeks previously.

And no report from the WLGA seminar would be complete without mention of Newport’s Debbie Wilcox who has taken the organisation by the scruff of the neck. Her powerful speech set the tone for the day and impressed all of us with her emphasis on the value and importance of localism within the devolved context.

And it was this speech which first helped me to understand that times are changing.

As well as telling me that the inherited policy of mandated regional working wasn’t a runner I was also told that the current shape and structure of local government is not sustainable. And it is this latter point that has dominated my conversations with local government leaders since November.

In my initial conversations I see a generation of leaders committed to their communities and to local government as a powerful and dynamic shaper of those communities. These are people that understand only too well that the failure to agree on an approach to local government policy reflects poorly on everyone – local government and Welsh Government. Repeating the word ‘no’ during difficult times engenders neither confidence nor conviction.

Since taking office I have tried to spend time talking with people. From the wonderful Guildhall in Swansea to the marvellous civic centre in Newport and a former cell in Caernarfon I have discussed and enjoyed the creative force of leaders with drive and energy and a determination to lead change. And I am left with the absolute belief that local government has the vision and the ambition to transform our communities. And to deliver on this vision they need the powers and the freedoms to chart their own courses.

So what is the role for Welsh Government? Great efforts have been made recently to re-build and re-set the relationship and there is certainly a sense that things have improved significantly. We need to build on these firm foundations. For me it is time that Welsh Government joined the debate over the future of local government with a degree of humility rather than an over-large helping of hubris. Too often in the past the tone from Welsh Government has been hectoring, arrogant and policy expressed in intemperate language with criticism that has been unwarranted and unjustified.

Perhaps it’s time for the Government to say sorry and to start again.

So this brings me to answer Sian’s question.

In resetting the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government we need to root our approach firmly in the values of local democracy. A belief in not only civic pride but in local government and local decision-making rather than the local administration of national priorities. A belief that local government leaders and strong councils are better able to deliver excellent public services and to protect the interests of public service workers than a series of instructions from the Bay.

So I have written to all local government leaders asking them for their ideas for powers that should be provided to local government. What are the freedoms and flexibilities that they need to deliver on their mandates and ambitions? I will publish the answers and will publish a route map to deliver those new powers.

But I cannot travel on this journey alone.

The new powers alone will not provide all the answers to the question of sustainability that were so powerfully put back in November. The leader of a rural authority told me last week of the reductions they were making – hundreds of jobs lost over the last few years. And it is this erosion of the public workforce with its inevitable impact on services provided and the terms of service for those who keep their jobs that worries me most. No-one is a winner today. And no-one that I have met wants more of the same.

So the Welsh Government needs to change its approach and to provide for a new relationship. And that also means a new tone. A tone rooted in the respect for local mandates and the pressures faced by local councillors and public service workers. A tone and an approach which seeks to build together a joint venture to provide local authorities with the new powers they need. And then we need to build together the structures that will enable authorities to deliver on those new powers.

It may well be the case that after nearly two decades of devolved government that our democracy is maturing and that the relationship between a more powerful Welsh parliament and more powerful local authorities will be one where we can learn to govern together as a single Welsh public service and leave the arguments and negative debates in the past.

I certainly hope so.

This article appeared originally on the personal blog of Alun Davies AM and is reproduced with his kind permission.

Alun Davies is the AM for Blaenau Gwent and the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

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Politics

Senedd praise for Llanelli Youth Voluntary Group.

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Plaid Cymru’s Helen Mary Jones MS praised the work of Llanelli-based CYCA, Connecting Youth, Children and Adults in the Senedd.

The Mid and West MS took the opportunity of a 90 second statement in the Senedd to congratulate the organisation on 40 years of working in Carmarthenshire.

Plaid Cymru Shadow Economy, Transport and Tackling Poverty Minister Helen Mary Jones Mid and West MS said:

“It was my privilege last week to visit, with my colleague Adam Price, a wonderful Llanelli-based organisation, CYCA—formerly the Carmarthenshire Youth and Children’s Association, now Connecting Youth, Children and Adults.

“I have known of and supported CYCA’s work for almost 20 years, and it was really inspiring to see how they’ve gone from strength to strength supporting children, young people and families in these challenging times, and this year, they celebrate their fortieth birthday.

“It would be easier to list what CYCA doesn’t do in the field than what they do, such is the breadth of their work. They run nurseries and youth groups, education and training courses, they provide counselling and individual support, and support for families. We were particularly impressed with the stories of two young mothers who, through CYCA, had not only received support with the challenges of isolation and family life, but had also been able to get back into education; one starts her training as a midwife this week.

“And we were struck, too, by an innovative social prescribing scheme where GPs refer children and young people experiencing distress to CYCA. The team then work with the whole family, identifying support needs and providing whatever is needed—counselling, parenting support, support at school—and this support lasts as long as the children and family need it.

“It’s already proving very successful, with young people’s well-being greatly enhanced. One service user said to me many years ago, ‘The thing about CYCA is that they never give up on you’. And they don’t. CYCA never gives up on a child, a young person, a vulnerable adult or a family. We are lucky to have them in our town, our county and our community. Pen-blwydd hapus iawn, CYCA. I’m looking forward to seeing what you get up to in the next 40 years.”

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Llanelli thanked for all their efforts to help control the spread of Covid-19

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RESIDENTS in Llanelli are being thanked for all their efforts to help control the spread of Covid-19 – almost a week after new local restrictions were introduced.

A large part of Llanelli has been designated a ‘health protection zone’ following a large increase in Covid-19 cases in the area.

The temporary restrictions were introduced on Saturday, September 26 in a bid to halt the spread of the virus and to protect people’s health.

Council Leader Emlyn Dole has praised locals for changing their behaviour and adhering to the new restrictions.

However, it is still very early days and residents, not only in Llanelli, but across Carmarthenshire are being urged to please continue to follow the advice around social distancing, washing hands, face coverings, self-isolation and testing.

Anyone who has a positive Covid-19 result or has been in contact with someone with confirmed Covid-19 will receive a call from the Test, Trace Protect team on this number 02921 961133.  Residents are being urged to please answer the phone. If you do miss a call, the team will continue to try and reach you. Calls from this number are outbound only, so you will need to wait for a call back.

In the last week, the council’s enforcement team, with support from Dyfed-Powys Police, has visited more than 100 business premises to offer advice and support. The majority of businesses are compliant, however, there is a small minority of licensed premises who have failed to put appropriate measures in place. As a result, a total of seven closure notices and five improvement notices have been issued for breaches of coronavirus regulations.

Cllr Dole said: “I cannot thank residents enough for all they are doing to protect their loved ones, their families and friends. I can assure you that all your efforts and sacrifices will make a big difference.

“It is vital we keep on following the rules and do all we can to stop the spread, we all have a part to play in this, and together we will come through it.

“Please follow the advice on self-isolation and if you have any symptoms get a test; we are working closely with the health board and they have increased testing capacity in the town so there is no need to travel far. And those residents that do test positive, please work with our TTP teams so that we can trace anyone you may have come into contact with. This is now part of our ‘new normal’, and people should not be alarmed, but should listen carefully to their advice.

“As promised, we have increased our monitoring and enforcement and we are grateful to local businesses who, on the whole, are providing a safe environment for their customers. And where they have fallen short, action has been taken.

“We will continue to monitor the infection rates, the effectiveness of the measures that have been introduced and the compliance of residents and businesses, working closely with our key partners, Welsh Government and Public Health Wales.

“We know what we need to do to stop the spread, and together we will beat this and Keep Carmarthenshire safe.”

It will take some time before these restrictions have an impact on the number of cases in the area, so it is important residents do not become complacent.

They will be reviewed every two weeks. The main restrictions are:

  • people will not be allowed to enter or leave the defined area of Llanelli without a reasonable excuse
  • people will no longer be able to form, or be in, an extended household (sometimes called a “bubble”)
  • this means meeting indoors with anyone who is not part of your household (people you live with) is not allowed at the moment, unless you have a good reason, such as providing care to a vulnerable person
  • all licensed premises must stop serving alcohol at 10pm, and will have to close at 10.20pm
  • people must work from home wherever possible

Increased testing capacity for residents in Llanelli is available by appointment at the following locations:

  • Parc y Scarlets Car Park B, accessed via Trostre Retail Park, in Llanelli
  • The Ty’r Nant site (next to KFC), Trostre, Llanelli
  • The Carmarthen showground (signposted in both directions off the A40)

Tests should be booked via the UK Portal. Any Llanelli residents experiencing difficulty booking a test locally via the UK portal can instead email covidenquiries.hdd@wales.nhs.uk or by calling 0300 333 2222.

Visit carmarthenshire.gov.wales/localrestrictions for further information, including some Frequently Asked Questions and to find out if you live in the restricted area.

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The latest increase in coronavirus in Wales is ‘sobering’ says First Minister

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THE FIRST MINISTER, Mark Drakeford has criticised the lack of communication with the UK government as he gave a briefing on what he described as the “sobering” increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalisation in Wales.

The infection rate in Wales has risen to 23.6 infections for every 100k people as cases have spiked in areas including Merthyr, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Caerphilly and Newport.

Hospitalisations remain low but are rising, with five people currently in intensive care with Covid-19 and and 53 Covid patients on all hospital wards, according to the latest data from Public Health Wales from Sunday, September 13.

Mr Drakeford said that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus had risen to 41 with four people in intensive care.

He also said that the R number in Wales was almost certainly now above one – meaning the virus is spreading exponentially again. The latest estimate, he said, was between 0.7 and 1.2.

Mr Drakeford said: “In this most difficult week, there has been no meeting offered to First Ministers of any sort. Since the 28 May, there has been just one brief telephone call from the Prime Minister.

“This is simply unacceptable to anyone who believes that we ought to be facing the coronavirus crisis together.

“We need a regular, reliable, rhythm of engagement: a reliable meeting even once a week would be a start. I make this argument not because we should all do the same things, but because being round the same table allows each of us to make the best decisions for the nations we represent.

“There is a vacancy at the heart of the United Kingdom, and it needs urgently to be filled, so we can talk to each other, share information, pool ideas and demonstrate a determination that the whole of the country can face these challenges together at this most difficult time.”

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