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Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau

Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee

07/12/2017

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Adam Price AM
David J. Rowlands AM
Hefin David AM
Joyce Watson AM
Lee Waters AM
Mark Isherwood AM
Russell George AM Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Vikki Howells AM

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Neil Hemington Pennaeth Cynllunio, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Planning, Welsh Government
Rebecca Evans AM Y Gweinidog Tai ac Adfywio
Minister for Housing and Regeneration
Steffan Roberts Pennaeth Strategaeth a Chyllid, Yr Is-adran Cartrefi a Lleoedd, Llywodraeth Cymru
Head of Strategy and Finance, Homes and Places Division, Welsh Government

Swyddogion Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru a oedd yn bresennol

National Assembly for Wales Officials in Attendance

Andrew Minnis Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Ben Stokes Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Gareth Price Clerc
Clerk
Robert Lloyd-Williams Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle y mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 11:30.

The meeting began at 11.30. 

2. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
2. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso, pawb. Welcome to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee. I'd like to welcome Members to the committee this morning. We've had an interesting stakeholder event this morning with various stakeholders in regard to feedback on town-centre regeneration. 

3. Craffu ar waith y Gweinidog Tai ac Adfywio—Adfywio canol trefi: Pum mlynedd yn ddiweddarach
3. Scrutiny of the Minister for Housing and Regeneration—Town centre regeneration: Five years on

I'd like to welcome the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, who's with us this morning. I'd be grateful if you could introduce your officials.

I have Steffan Roberts, homes and places head of policy and finance, and Neil Hemington, chief planner.

Lovely. Minister, we've taken some feedback this morning from various stakeholders in regard to our predecessor committee—the Enterprise and Business Committee—report on town-centre regeneration in 2012. Can you tell me what you think the main achievements have been for Welsh Government in the last five years since that report was published by our predecessor committee?

Well, in the last five years, I think it's fair to say that the Government has responded positively to all of those recommendations that were in the report, as you saw in my written evidence, which I presented to the committee. I think there are a couple of areas where I would highlight that I think we've made good progress and that we can certainly build on in future as well.

One of those would be tackling empty properties. Vacancy rates in Wales over the last three years have decreased at a faster level than in England or Scotland, although I completely recognise that it does remain a big challenge in many of our communities, especially our Valleys communities, which is one of the reasons why I think that the Valleys taskforce is going to be particularly useful in tackling that. 

We have used several of our schemes over the past five years to tackle empty properties—Vibrant and Viable Places, our town-centre loans scheme and the building for the future scheme. They all have the aim of bringing back empty properties into use and bringing them into sustainable use. There are good examples—for example, in Grangetown, not far from here, we've invested £500,000 in the Tramshed, which has now become not only an events space but also a cinema, a live-work residential unit and has also created a digital media incubator unit with a cafe. The development has included 250 jobs either created or safeguarded, and 25 enterprises have been assisted as a result of that. So, that's one example as to where I think we've made real progress over the last few years.

The second of the two key areas that I would like to highlight to you would be the link between regeneration and housing. It's great to have these two things within the same portfolio, because I think that regeneration has a huge role to play in terms of meeting our quite severe housing needs in some parts of Wales.

So, again, we've used our Vibrant and Viable Places funding to deliver 914 affordable homes and 961 market housing units in various communities across Wales, but doing so in a way that regenerates the area. So, in Port Talbot you'll see Aberafan House, which was a disused office block. That's been turned into 41 affordable flats. The former police station, also in Port Talbot, has been redeveloped as a housing space with 30 affordable flats and three new shops as well. So, a combination of tackling empty properties—still lots more there to do—and creating housing, particularly affordable housing, and again, lots more still there to do as well.

I'd agree, Minister, that the Welsh Government has responded well to the committee's recommendations five years ago and, I think, has achieved on those recommendations as well. It feels to me that we're still seeing town centres struggle, despite the fact that the committee made recommendations and the Government's achieved well on all of those recommendations. Do you agree that the town centre—the high street—is, perhaps, in a worse place than it was five years ago?

11:35

I wouldn't say that town centres are in a worse place; some have improved and others have seen increased challenges. I think the picture across Wales does vary a great deal, depending on the town centre. Some of the challenges that we had five years ago remain—so, falling footfall in our town centres. The issues that people talked about five years ago, still some of them are being talked about now. So, things like business rates, the Welsh Government has taken action on that. Car parking spaces in town centres, people talk about that. People talk about eyesores having an impact—a kind of domino impact—on their communities.

What do you think are the new challenges that weren't there five years ago that are there now?

I think, as we heard in the Chamber yesterday, closure of high-street banks has become a challenge, perhaps, on a scale now that we wouldn't have envisaged five years ago. All of us, I'm assuming, as Assembly Members, will be more than familiar with having e-mails from banks on a very, very frequent basis informing us that they've taken the decision to close a high-street bank. They come at such a rate that we are, in places, now—. In my own communities, there are no banks left in Pontarddulais, for example, or Clydach. The latest announcement now is of a bank closure in Mumbles, and my story is no different from other stories of other Assembly Members as well.

So, the challenge of high-street bank closures is very real, and it's one, as the Minister explained yesterday—it's a commercial decision for the bank. Nonetheless, I think there's a corporate social responsibility on banks. I think that they need to work much more closely with post offices to ensure that the services do remain there, and to have a more coherent set of expectations from the post offices in future.

A couple of Members want to come in. Hefin David first.

I'd like to go back to the start of what you said. You talked about a regeneration project, which I think was in Cardiff.

Some of the discussion that we've had is on the harder-to-reach areas. One of the benefits of Cardiff is that it's concentric and a circular area that you can develop, whereas the Valleys tend to be much more linear. The northern reaches of any community are much harder to reach, but particularly those areas that are geographically shaped in that way. What is your view on what the Welsh Government can do to create flexible working spaces in town centres in the northern reaches of those kinds of communities?

This is something that could certainly form part of the targeted regeneration investment programme, which was launched just in October. That's going to be a fund worth £100 million over the next three years, and it will be allocated to local authorities, but on the basis of five regions. It's going to be different to Vibrant and Viable Places, because we will be asking local authorities to take a more regional approach and a more strategic approach—so, looking at larger projects than they've looked at before in terms of what can make the real difference in communities. So, it will be for those local authorities to choose the areas.

Let's take an example where you've got the town centre of Bargoed, and you'd love to see a flexible working space in the middle of the town centre that's used every day to grow the kind of businesses that you would see in the creative industries, which then might feed into the rest of the town centre. How would that programme, if it's got to be regionally based, help somewhere like Bargoed, which isn't really connected, because of topography, to any other area?

Again, it has to be driven, I believe, by local authorities, in terms of identifying the particular areas where they need to invest—so, it will be the Caerphilly local authority establishing its priorities within its area. We have a wide variety of schemes—so, the recently announced targeted regeneration investment programme, but also Building for the Future; I know that's been successful in other communities. I mentioned Cardiff because it was so local, but—

The targeted regeneration investment—the council could do that in Bargoed, then, could they?

Yes. The targeted regeneration investment programme is entirely at the choice of local authorities as to where they see their priorities being in future. It's a different programme to Vibrant and Viable Places, as I said, and part of the reason is because we've learned from Vibrant and Viable Places. It did make a difference in communities, but perhaps not in the kind of strategic way we wanted it to.

Yes, but this is capital funding. All of this is capital funding. It's £10 million [correction: £100 million] of capital funding. One of the reasons that we've broken the funding up, now, into five areas is because some of the areas found it difficult to compete with some more urban areas previously, because in Vibrant and Viable Places, more urban areas found it easier to lever in additional private finance to support their projects, for example. So, this is why we're taking a much more regional approach on this occasion. Also, we had 22 local authorities coming up with 22 different plans for their areas last time. Now, we're doing it on a regional basis, which will avoid unnecessary work and give more focus where it's needed.

11:40

And how does that fit into the context of the city deal and 'Our Valleys, Our Future'? How does it all fit together? Is there a way that it fits together?

Yes. The targeted regeneration investment programme is entirely coherent with the Valleys taskforce work, sharing some of the same objectives in terms of promoting economic development within the most deprived areas and amongst the most deprived groups of people. It's also coherent with the city deals and takes into account, for example, the metro work, and all of that exciting project there. But it also is very much—. It fits like a jigsaw, really, with the economic plan that Ken Skates will be launching very imminently as well, so all of these things do fit coherently together.

There we are. I'll come to Vikki Howells, then Adam, then I'll come to David. Vikki Howells first.

Thank you, Chair. On a similar vein, Minister, talking about the Vibrant and Viable Places programme, Aberdare is the main town in my constituency and it's benefited substantially from that programme to date, with some works completed and some still ongoing, taking buildings that have been disused for sometimes one or two decades and revitalising them with retail space on the ground floor and housing above. And that's got a huge impact in regenerating town centres, and I'm pleased to see the targeted regeneration investment programme will be continuing in a similar line. But the main problem that RCT council has had in trying to utilise that is often that these are buildings that are owned by absentee landlords who don't have a vested interest in the community and can be very difficult to persuade to actually participate in programmes such as that. Is there more room for the Welsh Government to do some work around compulsory purchase orders to make it easier for local authorities to take eyesore buildings like this and regenerate them for the benefit of the community?

I'll ask Neil to give us some of the detail on that answer.

There are powers at the moment in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 that allow compulsory purchase in certain circumstances. We also have increased powers as a result of the Wales Act in relation to compulsory purchase as well, and we are looking at whether there are things we need to do in relation to compulsory purchase. So, there are opportunities there. I think quite a lot of the problems are around the skills that local authorities and others have, actually, to use compulsory purchase. It's not something that many authorities use very often, so there aren't many people who have those skills. There are examples under the Vibrant and Viable Places, for example in Rhyl, where I'm aware compulsory purchase was used quite extensively to bring together some of those areas as well. So, where there's the expertise and the will, I think the tools are there, but there's probably more we need to do in terms of supporting those skills locally.

I think if representatives from RCT council were here to speak for themselves, they would roughly say to you that it's not so much about skills; it's about the cost involved. And that's my interest, really, how we can overcome that, because you could be held to ransom by people who own these buildings who want a price that is way above market value, and in times of austerity, it's very, very difficult—nigh on impossible—for councils to justify paying above market value for buildings such as that, despite the wider benefits that would accrue to the community if compulsory purchase orders were used. So, really, my question is: is there room for the Welsh Government to have some sort of initiative that could fill that gap?

Can I just ask—? Joyce, can you come in quickly with your question now?

Very quickly. It's the same theme. I'm sure you're aware of Harlech and the problems with St David's Hotel there—the biggest eyesore, probably, in Wales, at the moment—but within a heritage site. That's the point here. So, anything that you can do to help or enlighten me to help people in that area, or any policies that we can bring forward, would be more than welcome, because this is a heritage site, and it's the biggest eyesore in Wales.

11:45

There are also powers under, obviously, the heritage legislation to undertake works for some of those buildings, but they do come at a cost to the local authority, so quite often it's the—

Yes, it's the cost rather than the tools not being there. 

In response to the issue that Vikki first raised, we do have the town-centre loans scheme, and that's a £20 million pot of funding to local authorities over a 15-year period, and they're able to recycle that loan and then pay it back to us in full at the end of that 15-year period. And that particular fund, I believe, can be used as a kind of incentive in order to bring empty properties and underused buildings back into use in town centres for activities that generate footfall, tackling empty sites and also helping businesses in the area to grow and prosper. I don't know if Steffan wants to provide us with some more information about the town-centre loans scheme. 

Well, it's just a variation of the tools available, really. That's more of the incentive side of things rather than the CPO powers highlighted by Neil. So, we have a different range of programmes that we have to support regeneration, and it's a positive, I think, to move from some of the grant programmes to more loan funding where, obviously, the loan funding is recycled and can be reinvested in other, different schemes. 

And just briefly, in terms of the heritage issue that Joyce mentioned: the sense of belonging and sense of identity of towns was something that was identified as the crucial point in the Carnegie report, which was just recently launched, and Harlech would be an ideal place to have a kind of sense of itself, given all of its history and heritage. So, I know that Cadw's been working on several of the historic environments to try and develop that sense of identity and work to promote the area, but also with a view to regeneration. I know that in Harlech there has been some collaborative public sector and community partnership work done by Cadw, and they've identified an exciting strategic regeneration framework that's just been completed for the town now. So, hopefully that will identify or address some of those issues that you've talked about. 

You talked a little bit about the need for a kind of strategic, regional understanding of how town centres relate to each other and relate to their region. Wasn't that what the Wales spatial plan—I think one of the best things the Welsh Government has ever done—. It was updated in 2008, and it's been quietly—well, I mean, you know, certainly in the last five years—absolutely forgotten about. You're now doing it again with a national development framework. Do you think that has hindered—the fact that it's basically been invisible in terms of Government policy in the last five years—town-centre regeneration because here we haven't got a clear idea about regional centres, sub-regional centres and their particular—you know, the spatial division of labour that was set out very, very well in that original plan?

If you don't mind, I'll ask Neil to talk about where we are with that plan and how it's informed where we are currently with the targeted regeneration investment programme. 

Okay. So, I can talk about the Wales spatial plan as well because I was involved at the time. We've now moved on to a national development framework. I think you're right, I think there are issues about how we think locally about centres. What we have seen in the past and where the spatial plan tried to address some of the issues was competition between centres where everyone thought they were at the same point in the hierarchy, and perhaps they weren't. So, the national development framework is moving into that sort of space, but also we have empowered local authorities to prepare strategic development plans as well. So, the powers to prepare the strategic plan has been in place since 2015. We are working with local authorities to try and encourage those plans to come forward, so we've had a number of discussions with the south Wales authorities, for example. Alongside that, we are promoting more joint local development plans because I think one of the lessons from the first round of plans was that every authority tried to meet its own needs within its own boundary, and in many cases there were better opportunities just across the boundary. So, trying to get authorities to work together in that way is something else we are pursuing at this point in time. So, there are a number of planning tools you can use to support that.

11:50

Just a purely factual question—and well done for the original work on the spatial plan—but what happened? Basically, we are going through a wheel-reinvention scenario now. Why was it forgotten about? Why has it been on the backburner, when all that work—? It was meant to be there for 20 years, a lot of people were involved in it, and it actually was very good.

I think one of the issues that was identified was that it didn't actually have a great deal of—it didn't have many teeth associated with it. It wasn't part of the formal planning system; it wasn't a development plan. So, that's the main difference between the Wales spatial plan and the national development framework. The national development framework will be a pure planning document, so that will mean that it will have a greater impact in terms of decision making. So, that's one of the reasons we've moved from the Wales spatial plan into a slightly different space.

It also was one of those documents that, to be honest, followed around a number of Ministers at the time. So, it started off as a planning document, became a sort of finance-type document and lost its way little bit. So, it has been recast now much more as a planning/infrastructure-type plan, and we are working on that, as you say, at the moment.

Yes. It strikes me that the spatial plan was an attempt to try and create some unorthodox approach to this very traditional area and the orthodox has reasserted itself. In terms of the new fund that you've set out, the targeted regeneration and investment programme—did you say that was £10 million?

It's £100 million, okay. But that's entirely physical regeneration funding, is it?

It's a capital fund.

So, again, this is the orthodox approach reasserting itself—a very conventional approach to regeneration, capital-based. Is there any non-traditional, non-physical regeneration work going on, or is this it?

I think it's worth reflecting on the principle on the point of the regional plan. I think that principle of the spatial plan is something we are quite keen to retain as a precursor to identifying priority projects for regeneration as part of the new programme. It is a capital programme, but the delivery of projects means that we will rely on other organisations and local authorities bringing their resources, particularly the revenue side, the funding of that will ensure that projects are sustainable into the future so there's more of a complete project. So, it's a capital fund, in essence, from Government, but it will also mean pulling together other resources from further afield as well.

Yes, but that doesn't quite answer my point. It's a property regeneration programme, is it? 

It's a capital fund, so traditionally the types of activities we would be supporting are in the redevelopment and regeneration of physical buildings, land—

I understand. So, my question was: what beyond physical regen are we doing, or is that the only show in town?

Well, I think, if you look at the assessment criteria by which we'll be assessing the programmes that come forward from each of the five regions, we will be asking them to obviously align widely with Welsh Government priorities, to evidence the five ways of working in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and to contribute more widely to the economic regeneration of the area, but also to show strongly that they're also contributing to well-being objectives as well. So, the objectives and the outcomes that we would expect to see from this programme go far beyond just building and refurbishing and regeneration in a very physical sense.

The funding is all allied to the capital, physical regen, which is the same old thing over and over again.

But we've seen some fantastic—as we noted at the start of the meeting—results as a result of physical improvements to communities, because when you physically improve the community it does have knock-on impacts in terms of well-being, aspiration and so on, so I think—

Well, it makes it look a bit better, doesn't it? You know, it's smartens it up a bit, but there's also an opportunity cost in that because we're putting all the money in the physical pot and we're not exploring other approaches.

Well, we are exploring other approaches. For example, there are the business improvement districts. They're funded by Welsh Government in order for businesses to have a vote within their local area as to whether they would like to set up a business improvement district and then pay a levy. Welsh Government's original investment in that, I think, was in the region of £250,000, but, as a result, those business improvement districts—and there are 12 of them now across Wales—have been able to demonstrate over £2 million of worth to their communities as well. So, there are things that we're doing that aren't purely physical. The town-centre partnerships are another example of that as well.

11:55

If I may, the balance of the intervention—that's £2 million, you said, in non-physical regen, versus £100 million in physical regen, so, still, the heavy emphasis is on that very traditional approach to regeneration.

But regeneration brings with it jobs and opportunity, skills growth and so on within communities. And creating jobs and making jobs secure for the longer term I think is an absolute priority.

I've got David, Mark and Joyce who've been waiting for a while. I'll come to David and then I'll allow further supplementaries after Joyce. David.

Okay. We've mentioned the Vibrant and Viable Places programme—could we probe that programme just a little bit deeper? I will start with a positive observation, following on from Vikki Howells, which is that I have seen a positive impact in the town of Pontypool, where I live, so it is working, but can you give me some specific examples where you feel that it's had that sort of positive impact? And I'd like you, if you can, to concentrate on the Valleys towns, rather than this city.

Yes, we do have—. I can certainly send an e-mail to committee with more details about the different schemes that have been supported across Wales. I'm sure that Steffan will have some off the top of his head that he can share with us at the moment.

Yes. Just looking at VVP, VVP was obviously focused in 11 main areas—the Valleys towns, Pontypridd, Merthyr Tydfil and Pontypool. I think Pontypridd town centre has highlighted some positive examples, and some of the issues raised this morning were the challenges of empty spaces on the high street, particularly above retail units, and there have been some examples there where homes above shops—a property improvement scheme has brought back additional housing units into the high street. And similar schemes have been replicated elsewhere—in Swansea, for example. That obviously has a positive spin-off—if you can assist town centres to diversify and get more people living in town centres, then that has a positive spin-off on other activities, other services and other uses.

Yes, it is nice to be moving away from prettying-up towns, where that doesn't seem to have had any impact, truthfully. I know they spent fortunes in Pontypool itself—I'll mention that again—which didn't seem to do anything for the town at all. And now actually regenerating the two buildings they're doing at the moment does seem to have a positive impact, and a positive impact on the people coming into the town as well—to see something actually happening there. So, there is that side to it as well. Because building vibrant town centres is all about building people's confidence in looking around that town and feeling comfortable in it and seeing things going on. 

With this, do you see it progressing in exactly the same way? Are you putting emphasis on this side of it?

In terms of—. Would you like me—? Is that okay?

I think historically, there has been some focus more on public realm, streetscape et cetera, which probably doesn't generate as much impact as some of the activities we've seen more recently, and VVP was quite instrumental in changing the types of projects and activities we'd be supporting. I think with the new programme—the targeted regeneration investment programme—the focus is going to be even more on economic regeneration and really driving forward the need for greater impact to be achieved from projects that we see coming forward.

The one thing that worries me about these pots of £100 million, £20 million et cetera is the ability of the people who you're targeting to actually access that money and their knowledge about what's out there and what's available. For instance, if you have a shop in a town centre, how can you get the outside of the building in and inside, or whatever it is? How do they know about this? Are you disseminating the knowledge to them as to what's available? That's an important factor.

12:00

Yes, we have regional partnerships now set up in each of the five areas that will be given money on a regional basis, and those regional partnerships will include the local authorities, very importantly, of those areas, as well, so that they can identify, using their local knowledge, the areas that they believe will have the—

But are they proactively contacting the people, rather than waiting for the people to come to them and say to them, 'This is available'? It's that proactive angle that's important, I think.

And they will have their own mechanisms in terms of being in touch, on a regular basis, with local businesses. But this isn't really a fund that small, individual businesses will be bidding into. This is a fund for the partnerships to develop a programme that is much more focused, so, looking at larger projects, rather than small, individual loans and grants.

Thank you. You said at the beginning of your presentation that Wales had seen the biggest percentage fall in vacant properties, if I heard correctly. A year ago, research was published showing that that was because of issues such as demolition of properties, and that Wales actually had the highest retail shop vacancy rate in the UK. Why is that? Why was that four years after the last report was published?

Following Vikki Howells's question, another example from Mold, there's a key shopping arcade that has got several empty properties, residential property above—issues with that. The town council, working with the business forum, is struggling to engage with the owners based in London. Is there a role the Welsh Government could play in that, where instances such as that happen, to try and unblock the logjam before more direct action might be taken?

My final question, following and supporting Lee Waters's comments about regeneration investment: I look, in my area, for example, at the Pontcysyllte world heritage site. We've had successive regional working bodies, the first one announced by the Minister at the time in 2009, looking at this, with a token non-statutory member involved. Yet, we've got areas like Cefn Mawr, which is a post-industrial area with huge heritage potential, but needing support, and it has had great investment of Welsh Government money in premises on the high streets and wonderful regeneration—civic-award-winning regeneration, but the wider regeneration potential hasn't happened, despite the local community identifying the opportunities that arise. So, seven years—or eight years, in that case, after the huge gold mine or potential of a world heritage site, how can you ensure that the community voice and the social enterprise voice, because there are some huge projects in the area, are actually engaged in driving forward that, so you're not just putting capital money into buildings on a high street?

So, with regard to your first question on vacancy rates, it is still true to say that we have slightly higher vacancy rates, on average, than England and Scotland, but then it's not necessarily a true comparison with England, because areas in the north-east of England will have higher vacancy rates than we have in Wales. So, the picture isn't homogenous across nations, or even within nations, as well.

As to why we have higher vacancy rates, the Local Data Company did some research, and they offered the explanation that town centres in Wales are possibly more vulnerable than other parts of the UK because of its lower economic base, and CREW also suggested that Wales might be more vulnerable than the rest of the UK, given its lower economic base. We know that consumer spending and consumer confidence are lower in Wales than they are elsewhere in the UK. So, all of these things, I think, come into play together to have an impact on our high streets. If people have less disposable income, there's less opportunity for them to spend money on the high streets. We know that research shows, also, a correlation between deprivation and retail vacancies, and we see the higher rate of vacancies in the Valleys communities, as well, and that's something that we would want the Valleys taskforce work to address. So, in terms of providing an explanation, I think that the research has suggested that those are some of the key reasons as to why we have higher vacancy rates here in Wales. But, as I say, over the past three years they have been falling.89

On the second issue, I think I'll ask Neil to say something about the compulsory purchase.

12:05

I think that that's the point. Most of the powers in this area reside with the local authority, so depending on what they're looking to use the site for, there are powers under housing legislation, there are powers under planning legislation, to compulsorily acquire that site. Normally, that sort of process will bring a landowner to the table to discuss, and, as was mentioned previously in relation to Aberdare, quite often there is an incentive on both parties to settle slightly above the market value to avoid going through costly compulsory purchase proceedings. That's the way the process will normally work. 

We have a role as Welsh Government in terms of confirming compulsory purchase orders, as well. Certainly my team undertake that part of the process. There are other examples of the economy and infrastructure part of Welsh Government being involved in bringing together comprehensive proposals for large areas. So, there are a number of different routes you can take, but in that particular case it's probably an issue that the county council will follow in the first instance. 

And, in terms of hearing the community voice, there would be representatives of the community and the third sector on those regional boards as well, so they would be the boards that are working together to develop those programmes for investment through the targeted regeneration investment programme. 

Can I ask you how, then? Because the concern since inception has been the only representative has been Glandŵr Cymru—an excellent body, but it's only Glandŵr Cymru, and you've got huge organisations or third sector bodies like Llangollen Railway who aren't being asked, and then community initiatives such as those in Cefn Mawr I gave an example of, which keep coming to people like me trying to get meetings with others so that they can engage. Surely eight years after world heritage site status the system should be smoother than that.

If I may, Chair, you'll know I'm fairly new to this portfolio, but I'll happily give an undertaking to go away and consider this and explore this further to see what we can do to strengthen that community voice and engagement. 

I'm grateful. Do you have any further specific questions, Mark?

I have nobody waiting after Joyce. If you have got any further subject areas, please indicate. Joyce Watson.

Moving from now to the future, we had a round-table this morning and asked people what they thought town centres were for. Everybody agreed that they were meeting places, and they serve that function in some places better than others. Demographics play a huge role, and it seems that it's the older consumer that still goes to town centres. So, moving to what has changed, what has changed is the automation of the shopping experience. So, there are opportunities there for click and collect, and there are shops that do survive that way. Because it's all very well and good buying online, but, if you're not home to collect your goods, you might need an alternative to that. So, that was one way of developing it. 

But there has to be a link also in recognising who's using your town centre and what they're using it for, to serve their needs. So, I suppose the question is about bringing in the services that people will always want, like GP surgeries and other services, and linking that up with town centres. So, I'd like to hear about your thinking in that direction.

But also, again, keeping the demographic in mind, the air quality was another big, big issue that was being put on the table.

My final question, because I'm going to ask them all, is a planning one.

Shall we bring the Minister in and then come back on the planning issue?

It's going to link. It all links. Using 106 agreements for large-scale developments, instead of using them for car parking or whatever, how about using them for providing empty space within a big development for the local traders—co-operatives, whatever—to occupy by service-level agreement with the other occupants, so that you can actually build the skills locally, enhance the development of those skills and, at the same time, give them an outlet to sell those goods? 

12:10

I think you've got three separate questions or more there. 

Okay. So, I'll start off with the importance of, essentially, understanding town centres and understanding who uses them and why, and what's on offer and so on. That was very much one of the—or the key recommendation for Welsh Government in terms of regeneration, at least from the recent Carnegie report, and we've responded immediately to that by funding a piece of research called 'Understanding Welsh Places'. That will be taken forward by the Institute of Welsh Affairs directly in response to the issues that the Carnegie report found. 

So, we look forward to receiving that and it'll provide a new level of data that we haven't had before in terms of who's using town centres and why, and so on. That'll be able to help us identify what needs to be done, but also it will be useful then in future in terms of evidencing and giving an analysis of the kind of impact that our current interventions are having as well. So, that piece of work is ongoing. 

You mentioned that kind of both challenge and opportunity that the internet presents for shopping. Of course, there's challenge in the sense that more people are shopping online, so there's less interest for some people in terms of going to the high street. But, equally, there are things like click and collect. Some of our business improvement districts, for example, are developing apps and other online opportunities. And we have to remember that the high street will always offer an experience that you just can't get online, and they'll offer services that you can't get online as well. So, in that sense, those kind of opportunities will be there. We'll need to build on them. We also need to diversify and be resilient and responsive to changes as well in the future. So, I think the internet does offer some opportunities, as well as some of those challenges. 

And, as you say, older people are tending to rely on high streets more than younger people nowadays. That's why it's important that we have the right transport in place. I'm also, though, interested in what we can do in terms of the night time economy. We've talked about footfall falling generally on our high streets but, actually, footfall is increasing in terms of the night time economy. In my previous role, I launched the night time economy framework, and that's a framework for towns and cities to use to have all partners working together—from police, health services, local authorities, pubs, clubs, restaurants and so on—in order to give people a night time experience that feels safe but is also a real boost to the local economy as well. 

At the sharpest end, you see things like the Help Point in Swansea, but there's no reason why that framework couldn't be used in other towns as well to boost the night time economy. I was recently at a Valleys taskforce, and lots of people there were talking about what more they would like to see in their towns during the evening: so, talking about family-friendly restaurants, for example, opportunities to do indoor bowling—things like that and other entertainment. So, I think there is an appetite for these kind of things in town centres as well, which might give opportunities in the future. 

On the planning issue—. 

Okay. Yes, I think, where there is a clear strategy for the town centre and it identifies the sorts of things you're talking about, there are potentially opportunities to use section 106 in that way. Looking for some examples, I think an example, although I'm not sure whether it's actually secured by section 106, is probably the St David's Centre, with the Barrack Lane development alongside it; it's like an incubator-type unit for local businesses. So, it can be used in that way. 

What I would say is that, generally on the planning side, we're not seeing many large-scale developments coming through the system any more for the reasons we're talking about here—the market has changed. I think the more challenging thing now is what do we start to do with out-of-town retail parks, for example, which may no longer have a need or a purpose. So, the planning response is having to change from where it is now to where it might be in the future.  

And if I can, finally, the other big issue is linking up the unique selling point of every area, and every area has one. The problem is that too many areas focus on what they haven't got, and we need to change that mindset to what they have got, so that—you know, within every 20, 30 miles you'll see a USP somewhere of somebody doing really well. But you'll also see lots of other people not recognising it, and not taking full advantage of that. This is where I believe the Government really can come in, in helping people to see their USP, helping them to develop that, whether that's through service delivery and training of staff, because that's critical, but also, if they need it, making sure that they've got broadband, et cetera, to support their businesses to thrive in some of those pretty remote areas sometimes, but, nonetheless, they could do an awful lot better with keeping their local economy vibrant. 

12:15

I think the Carnegie report 'Turnaround Towns', or the research that they've done for us in Wales, specifically responds to that issue in terms of identifying—. I think the first thing they identify in the report is the importance of a sense of place, and of having a local story that local people identify with. And, so, that's one of their recommendations as well. And, actually, I like the report because there are three recommendations for Government, but equally, there are a number of recommendations for individuals, for communities, for the third sector, for local businesses, for local authorities. So, they definitely realise that this has to be a partnership approach.

I would say as well, in response to one of your previous points, we responded to the last committee's report positively by updating 'Planning Policy Wales' and also technical advice note 4, and as part of that, there is a 'town centre first' approach that has to be adopted when planning is considered. So, it has to be explored as to whether or not a town-centre place would be an appropriate place for a planning application or an applicant to be sited before looking at out of town as well. That doesn't mean that out of town isn't a huge challenge, because I know that we all know of areas where it is. But at least it does put it there as something that local authorities should be looking at in the first instance. 

I agree that there are places all across Wales that have their own unique selling points. Narberth in your patch, for example, has developed a name for itself as a really niche kind of shopping area. In my own area, Pontarddulais is becoming well known as a shopping area to go to for weddings, so you can get your wedding dress, your shoes, your bridesmaid things—everything—from independent retailers on the same high street. So, I think there are opportunities to develop there.

Do you want to come in now then, and then I'll come to Adam?

Certainly. You mentioned in terms of section 106 money that where strategies existed for town centres then money would be available. Where is the requirement and incentive for strategies to exist?

Okay. So, we've just described 'Planning Policy Wales' and the technical advice note, and they give reference to the need for local authorities to develop strategies for their town centres. It all relates back to the discussion that's been going on around this table. It's trying to identify what's unique about your particular centre as a way to help it grow and flourish and remain prosperous. I think what we've seen in the past is a lot of identikit town centres, and that was probably driven by a market at a particular point in time, but that's now changed, and it's that unique selling point. So, trying to identify what is a strategy for your town centre; how it differs from the neighbouring town centre, which you might be in competition with; and then potentially linking it through in that way.

And does the Welsh Government have a strategy for what it thinks its town centres are for, the purpose they serve?

Certainly, the planning policy reflects the regeneration town-centre policy. It is about the diversity of those centres. It is about trying to maintain them in a prosperous state. It is about trying to attract in complementary uses because planning policy doesn't just talk about them in terms of retail; in a sense, it talks about them being the most appropriate location for commercial activities as well.

It's not quite the same thing as having a strategy for the role of town centres, though, is it?

That's not quite the same thing, what you described there, as having a strategy for the future of town centres.

I'm describing what the planning policy says. It gives—

Yes, I know you are. My question is: is there a strategy? Your answer is this technical guidance—

We don't have a strategy. We encourage local authorities to prepare their own strategies.

There's a policy framework, set out in 'Planning Policy Wales' and the technical advice note, but there is not a framework that says, 'This is the strategy for all town centres in Wales, and they fit in this way.'

12:20

Okay, thank you. You also said that out-of-town retail parks may not have a purpose in the future—some of them—and that new thinking needed to happen around that. Can you give us some idea of the picture around that? Because we heard from the British Retail Consortium this morning that footfall is going up in town centres and going down in out-of-town retail parks. Can you just give us a little picture of what's going on?

I think that, if you look at things like bulky white goods, which were probably one of the first things that went into out-of-town retail parks, and justified their existence, now, most people, or many people, buy those sorts of products online. So, we have some quite large spaces on edges of towns that, potentially, are looking for new, more beneficial uses. So, thinking about how the planning policy responds to that, I think, is something really important locally.

We've got, obviously, massive growth in online deliveries of supermarket goods. We had an era where we saw some very large supermarkets being built. We don't see that generally now. We see much more of the convenience-type retailing. People are buying what they need on the day that they want it, rather than doing the massive weekly shop. So, we might have large supermarkets that are looking for a different use in the future. So, the important thing for planning policy is trying to think of where we need to be in the future and perhaps not where we are now.

It's a new subject area. One of the things that we heard this morning was that local authorities are not, for example, using one of their key levers—the compulsory purchase powers—to reshape and reinvent their local economies at the kind of scale and speed that we would like to see. The urban development corporation was invented really as a solution to that problem. You have the power to create them in Wales. Are you open to doing so?

I'll certainly take on board any recommendations that this committee wants to make. Empty shops are a priority, as I said at the start. It is one of the areas where we have made progress, but, equally, I see that it is a huge challenge, so I'm open to considering the recommendations that you might want to make.

Can I come in on that point as well? I think what we're seeing, in relation to planning and a lot of technical areas, is that there isn't the existence of that knowledge and resource locally, as a result of a lot of money being lost from local government. Obviously, there is work ongoing, looking at local government reform and whether we can move towards bringing together some of those specialist skills—the skills around regeneration and around compulsory purchase. You probably need a few of those around Wales. Expecting the 22 local authorities to have those skills in the sort of financial situation that we have at the moment is challenging.

So, just to build on that, one of the suggestions that I think the original Cardiff capital region board made, and indeed, I think, the Confederation of British Industry have made as well, is that the regions—Cardiff capital region, to take one example—could create a regional development corporation, which would have all the advantages of the urban development corporation that had some successful impact here, but would also have the democratic accountability that, in the case of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, was obviously lacking. So, you'd be open to having a dialogue with the regions across Wales, if they thought that creating that sort of body, with the expertise that you just referred to, would be a useful, additional tool.

I'm open to ideas from the committee. As you know, I'm new in post, so I'm still getting to grips with the landscape and so on. But, in terms of compulsory purchases, which was the original question that you asked, I can see that that's been a big issue that has been brought to the attention of committee, and it is certainly something that I will look into further to see what we can do to ease that for local authorities.

But if this committee, or if someone else, were to suggest having a democratically accountable development corporation on a regional level, that's certainly an idea that you wouldn't dismiss immediately and it's something that you're open to having a conversation about.

I'll always consider any recommendations that committees make, but obviously on something of that kind of scale and with the reach that it does have across different departments, I'd obviously want to talk with colleagues about it as well.

I'd back that. I think there is a need to find a way of pooling resources. The exact vehicle you use for that is another debate.

12:25

Local development plans, as they are currently constituted, fail with regard to the six—at least five of the six—criteria for common factors across diverse places, which are vital for the transformation in the Carnegie report that you mentioned. One of the problems is that they don't deliver affordable housing at the bottom end of the demand curve in areas that are outside what might be seen as viable. Yet, town centres like Bargoed need a feed-in from affordable housing to deliver customers to the high street. How are you going to address that?

Just a couple of weeks ago, I went along to a new affordable housing unit, which was a number of houses and flats as well, which have been provided through the Vibrant and Viable Places scheme, and that was—.

Yes, I missed you. I was going to be there, and I missed you.

And I thought that was a really exciting development, actually. The houses and flats look great. I managed to speak to some of the residents, and they love their new homes. Some of the individuals were vulnerable people and being supported through Supporting People—

—so there are opportunities for that. I would say, also, that in terms of making sure that we have affordable housing in the places where we need it most, Welsh Government is looking across the land that it holds in order to try and identify land that we might be able to offer up for affordable housing. So, not just—. Mostly, actually, most of the land is held in the economy department, so they're looking to see if there are opportunities there. We've identified five parcels of land already that we can look to, to see if we could use as well. So, sometimes, the cost of land is a barrier in terms of developing affordable housing, so this might be a way we could address that in some areas.

Does that include remediation of land that might be linked to a town centre?

I'm currently doing some work and I hope to say more in the near future in terms of how we address some of the stalled land areas that we have at the moment—so, areas that do have planning permission but, for whatever reason, planning hasn't gone forward on them. It might be drainage issues or other issues, which make it less attractive—

Certainly. Within the south Wales Cardiff city deal area, the local authorities, as you probably know, are looking at this at the moment, and some have done more work than others. It's looking at the gap between what the market will provide and where, perhaps, we need to provide some houses as well. So, it's trying to bridge that gap.

The idea of a local development plan is it is supposed to do that, isn't it? And they don't. So, a strategic plan, how can that break the big four cartel, basically?

It's identifying and supporting other people to come into the market as well. So, going back to the planning policy side, we're looking at the planning policy at the moment. We are particularly looking at planning policy in relation to housing, seeing what we can do to incentivise the SME sector—whether we require, for example, a certain proportion of the sites to be quite small sites because, obviously, the bigger ones are only attractive to the big four or five that you mention. So, there are a number of things we can do on the planning side, but some of this, as you say, does come down to money.

We do have a £30 million fund for SMEs to bid into, and that's able, then, to provide them with affordable loans in order to start up some of the projects, because we appreciate that SMEs in construction, over recent years, have had a really tough time. We are looking, as well, at what we can do in terms of larger housing developments, so not giving it to the big players in the field, but actually looking at, 'We want a large housing development, but can we split it up?' so that SMEs can take on a smaller part of that larger project each.

That's very encouraging. One of the problems that we've got, which was revealed by the FSB self-employment report, was that the level of self-employment, particularly in my patch north of Ystrad Mynach, is very low, and therefore you haven't got the self-employment base on which to build, and particularly build a network of social capital around the town centre. So, what are you going to do to foster that social capital and encourage the growth of self-employment in areas where it's been lacking thus far?

I know that this is a—. I'm assuming you're not talking just within house building now.

Well, construction has already started. That's a good base to begin from, but it's quite male dominated and you want to expand beyond that, I would imagine, but in both those areas.

12:30

In terms of support for self-employment beyond the housing area, perhaps it would be best if I ask Ken Skates to write to you, because it's not an area that I have a huge amount of knowledge on.

But it's connected to the town-centre development issue, isn't it, as in you don't grow town centres if you don't have a vibrant network of self-employment outside those town centres.

No, I absolutely take that on board, and some of the—. Well, I'll give you an example. There was an event in the Assembly just this week and it was on the economic value of hairdressing and beauty to the high street particularly, and it was incredible to hear the number of small businesses and small enterprises that are being set up. This is a field that is dominated, on the whole, by women as well, so that was really encouraging, to see the support that there is for women to become entrepreneurs in that kind of field.

Do you think the Welsh Government takes that kind of self-employment seriously?

I think we have to. I think self-employment should be something that's encouraged and supported. I think the Welsh Government takes it seriously. I think some of the issues that I'm dealing with in another part of my portfolio, which relate to universal credit, for example, suggest that the UK Government doesn't take it quite so seriously because they've suggested that people shouldn't be paid for people's hobbies—so, if they are running a microbusiness, for example.

Does that mean that the Welsh Government economic plan will contain a significant set of strategies for that purpose?

Mark Isherwood. And be very brief—we're just over time.

Yes. When I visited—I visited a jobcentre, a jobcentre plus recently, and I met the new work coach supporting people into self-employment, so I'd urge you to engage with that. 

In the third Assembly, the Welsh Government announced land it held for housing development. They were all in remote places without infrastructure and it went nowhere, so I hope we don't get a repeat of that.

But specific questions—Adam highlighted the potential for a regional approach to the issues we're discussing, including compulsory purchase and lack of expertise. Rather than create new bodies, we've got things like the North Wales Economic Ambition Board that could drive that. But also, to give an example, the Gwrych Castle—you might know it, you might not—north Wales coast, a wonderful but derelict castle that you'll drive past, was owned by an American investor—better not say much more on the record—. The preservation trust, third sector, which had massive built heritage expertise, supported and worked with Conwy council to eventually take action through this route successfully, and the regeneration has begun. So, it's not just working with the local authorities; it's enabling, supporting and encouraging local authorities to access the wider expertise that is available, so I wonder how you respond to that.

My final issue—it came up in this morning's stakeholder session—is, in terms of supporting or enabling community enterprise to be part of the solution, how we could introduce into Wales a community right to bid, so that we're not simply reliant on community asset transfer.

Thank you. I'll certainly take a look at that final point that you raised. I know that the importance of the third sector, again, was something that came through strongly in the Carnegie report, which was actually published in partnership with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and they very much see the important role of the third sector in terms of economic development. 

As you'll be aware, I'm really very keen on community social enterprises, on mutuals and so on, so I think there are opportunities there, certainly, for the high street, in terms of what they could offer there. 

I'm not familiar with the Gwrych Castle case that you've described, but I do agree that it is important that local authorities reach out to expertise beyond the local authority, and also to search out funding beyond the local authority as well. Because part of the success of our programmes thus far has been giving the local authorities the ability to lever in private finance, as well, because we very much rely on that in terms of regeneration as well.

I hope I've answered your questions.

In terms of better supporting town-centre regeneration, is there anything that the Welsh Government can do that it's not doing now?

I think the targeted regeneration investment programme—that will go live in April of next year, so that's something we're not doing now; it's an approach that we haven't taken thus far in terms of taking that regional view of things. But I know that you've had excellent opportunities to engage with a whole range of stakeholders working at all levels on the high street, and, as I say, I'd be keen to hear your recommendations as to what more we can do.

12:35

As a Minister new to post, is there anything, in your couple of weeks in your new position, that you feel that you could address that is an issue that previous Ministers haven't addressed?

I think, really, it's about building on some of the work the previous Ministers have done. The empty shops issue does concern me, because once you start getting one or two empty shops than that almost has a domino effect on the high street, and we know that. I'm also keen to support independent retailers, as well, because I think that, when you do have small independent businesses, they do have longevity in a way that some other businesses don't, and I also think that they're able to attract personal loyalty from consumers, as well, in a way that some of the larger stores aren't able to do. So, I'm keen to see what we can do to support our small business owners.

I'm very grateful, Minister, to you and your officials this morning for your time, and can I say, as a new Minister to post, we look forward to working with you as a committee and being a critical friend?

4. Papurau i'w nodi
4. Papers to note

Moving to item 4, and I'll just ask Members if they're happy to note a letter, under 4.1. Members are content.

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod a'r cyfarfod ar 13 Rhagfyr yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting and the meeting on 13 December in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

I move to item 5. Under Standing Order 17.42, could I ask if Members are happy to exclude members of the public from the remainder of the meeting and next week's meeting on 13 December? I'm grateful, thank you.

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:36.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 12:36.

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