Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

22/06/2022

In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. 

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

The first item is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is from Laura Anne Jones.

Cladding Issues

1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support people that have been affected by cladding issues? OQ58217

I’m committed to looking beyond cladding, taking a holistic approach to building safety. This includes changing regulations that govern building control, legislation and addressing existing building safety issues through the Welsh building safety fund. Aluminium composite material cladding removal from the majority of high-rise buildings is completed, with plans in place for all the rest.

Thank you. Llywydd, I'd just like to declare an interest on this issue.

My question to you, Minister, is that I have constituents in buildings that are waiting for their properties to be made safe, as you've just outlined. At the moment, they're waiting for that process, and, in that time, they're not able to sell their properties, upsize—there are a whole host of issues obviously affected by that, and it's affecting the housing market. What are you doing and what active steps are you taking to ensure that that process is speeded up or resolved as soon as possible so that they are able to get those fire certificates so that they can sell their properties? Thank you.

So, I have got a statement just on this next week actually to go into it in more detail, but just to say that we're very committed to making sure that all of the defects in the buildings, not just the ACM cladding, are remedied. So, the ACM cladding, we've sorted that out. The private sector buildings have all got plans in place that are under construction and approved to do that particular bit of it.

In the meantime, we’ve been doing the surveys. We’ve completed all of the desktop exercise surveys and begun the intrusive surveys. Intrusive surveys have to be done, obviously, in conjunction with the people living in the buildings because they are intrusive and therefore we’ve got to be sure that people are happy and they can cope with it in their everyday lives. And as soon as the intrusive surveys are complete on the buildings, then we’ll be able to commission the work to put the buildings right. I will go into a lot more detail next week in my statement rather than pre-announce things today.

Good afternoon, Minister. Last week, I hosted a vigil to mark five years since 72 people lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire, and many more people lost their homes as well. I was grateful to all the Members of the Senedd and campaigners who joined us. I wonder if I could ask about an issue concerning the relationship between the Welsh Government and your colleagues in Westminster. It seems to me that there is a total breakdown in inter-governmental working that has led to Welsh homeowners missing out on key developments in the UK Building Safety Act 2022. And I wonder if you could just outline what these issues are so that Welsh homeowners can have the same access to the same recourse as those in England and that, crucially, developers are required and offer the finance to start urgent and immediate work to put right their failures. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Yes, as I say, I will go into a lot more detail on this next week, because I'll take up the whole of question time if I do it now. But, suffice it to say that, as a result of an inter-ministerial group meeting with Michael Gove, we've made some progress in making sure that we're included in the negotiations with the main developers. Next week, I'll be able to give some more detail of that. The issues that we were unhappy with were the last-minute additions to the Building Safety Act that we had no real time to consider. Although, we did not want to be involved in one aspect of that—that's where the leaseholders are the backstop payees, because we still take the view that leaseholders should not be made to pay for the remediation of the buildings even as a backstop, but I'll go into more detail in my statement next week.

The Value of Trees

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the value of trees to a healthy environment? OQ58230

Diolch. Trees provide a wide range of benefits, including carbon storage, biodiversity, flood alleviation and recreation. We have undertaken detailed evaluation of these benefits, including through the environmental and rural affairs modelling and monitoring programme's national forest evidence pack and work on natural capital accounts—sorry, that's hard to say: 'natural capital accounts'.

Thank you for that response.

I think we're all in principle in favour of planting a lot more trees, although, I must say, I have real concern about decisions taken by Welsh Government to buy good agricultural land to plant trees on. But that's not the focus of my question today; it's about protecting the trees we already have. In Holyhead, there's real anger about the plans that have been in place for a decade or so now to fell a large area of woodland at Penrhos, to make way for the construction of a leisure village. Now, the baseline area of outstanding natural beauty assessment report for that leisure development application itself tells us that Anglesey is one of the least wooded counties in the UK. But, at Penrhos, I think something like 27 acres of woodland is earmarked for felling, and it's in a much-loved area, a publicly used area, which will be lost. Does the Government consider it worth while to step in to protect trees, is it willing to take action to protect woodland, or is it just about buying up land to plant new ones?

13:35

So, that's quite a complicated set of issues, Rhun, although I appreciate the sentiment and agree with it. So, just on the criticism of land purchased by NRW, we do purchase small amounts of land across Wales, and have done for very many years, as substitute planting land, particularly where we have windfarm siting on the Welsh woodland estate, and so the acreage of trees that comes down for each of the pillars is replaced as part of that policy. If Members haven't had a chance to do so, I recently went up to Pen y Cymoedd, to have a look at what happened with the replanting around the turbines there, and the increase in biodiversity is quite startling. And it's great, because they had a baseline when they put the windfarm in, and what they've got now. So, over those five years, it's the first time we've actually had some proper baseline to see what's happened. You can see that the change in the planting, to biodiverse, broadleaf mixed woodland, away from monocultural Sitkas has made a really serious difference there. So, that's replacement land. It's been done for ages, it's not a binary issue of any sort. We make sure that we don't do it on the best agricultural land, of course, and it's a mixture of land that is often done in conjunction with some of the young farmers scheme, just to be clear. I did say in committee the other day that if any Member had evidence of a particular farm that they wanted us to look at that's been purchased by either the Welsh Government or NRW, to let us know, because I'm not aware of any. That doesn't mean to say we know everything, of course, so if you have information, please let us know.

Going back to Anglesey, two things have happened on Anglesey, Ynys Môn. The first is that we've commissioned work on the red squirrel issue, which I know has been brought up. I know that's not the issue you've just talked about, but we were discussing that not very long ago, and I think Darren Millar, amongst others, has also raised it. So, I've commissioned a piece of work to tell us how best to protect the habitat in the productive forests there. So, we've got that piece of work, which I'm expecting to have very shortly, to base it on. On Penrhos, that's rather more complicated, because it's a planning authority planning application issue. So, I can't comment on the individual aspects of that, because, obviously, I'm the planning Minister and I might end up with an appellate role there. But, generally, it's the local planning authority that has responsibility for both instituting its policies in its local development plan and then taking them forward. So, obviously, that's Ynys Môn council.

As we all know, trees are very important to tackling climate change. But with the Welsh Government's decision recently to purchase Gilestone Farm in my community, I think I just heard you, Minister, say you do not plant on productive land. So, I'd just like some assurances from yourself, and for the community in my constituency, that you do not intend to plant trees on Gilestone Farm, which is what you've just said.

Also, a second question: with big corporations buying up vast swathes of farmland in my constituency for carbon offsetting, there are big concerns that these corporations can access funding from the Welsh Government to plant these trees, so could I have some assurances from you that you're looking at this, to make sure that actual grants to plant trees are focused on genuine farm businesses that want to diversify and not to help big corporations meet their climate change targets? Diolch, Llywydd.

So, Gilestone Farm, as I know the Member knows perfectly well, has been bought as part of the economic development portfolio attempt to secure the future of the Green Man festival, one of the only independent festivals left in Europe. And it's nothing to do with NRW or tree creation. Of course, I cannot promise not to plant a single tree on the land of Gilestone Farm—that would be ridiculous.

In terms of directing the woodland creation schemes to active farmers, this is a matter that's been rehearsed in this Chamber a number of times. And, of course, we encourage applications from charities and third sector organisations, such as the Woodland Trust, some of whom have headquarters outside of Wales, to make applications to increase the coverage of our biodiverse forest. The people on the benches opposite go on at me a lot about climate change and biodiversity rescue. We cannot do that unless we change the way that we use our land. The climate change committee has been very clear what acreage of land needs to be covered by biodiverse forests in Wales, and we are following that balanced pathway. 

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, it is a fact that people on the lowest incomes in Wales are breathing in the most polluted air. Friends of the Earth have found that, in Wales, income-deprived areas disproportionately have the worst air pollution, and people of colour are 2.5 times more likely to live in an area with high particulate pollution, and five times more likely to live in a nitrogen oxide-polluted neighbourhood. Clearly, inaction by this Welsh Government is harming our black, our Asian, our minority ethnic communities and the poorest in society the most. Indeed, Joseph Carter, very well known to us here in the Chamber because of the work that he's done as chair of Healthy Air Cymru, was spot on when he said,

'This new research is shocking but not surprising.'

Even the First Minister knew of the seriousness of air pollution when he pledged in his 2018 Labour leadership manifesto to develop a new clean air Act. However, Minister, over three and a half years later, even you were unable to inform our climate change committee just last week whether the clean air legislation is drafted to the extent where it could be brought forward, if the First Minister decides. Now, whilst I would be pleased to understand whether or not you support the First Minister's delaying of clean air legislation, I would also be grateful if you could clarify why the consultation outcome of the White Paper on a clean air (Wales) Bill, which ended on 7 April, 2021—

You have three questions, Janet Finch-Saunders, and you're way over in your first question. So, please come to a question. 

Well, I think that was five questions, actually. [Laughter.]

No, just the one question. Tell us why the report's not been—

Well, which one would you like me to answer, Janet?

Okay, that's very straightforward. I'm pleased to say that we published on 7 June the engagement plan, which will help us with the information that we need in order to bring forward the clean air Act. 

Now that's an excellent way to do it—ask a short question, Janet, as you did towards the end and you get a short answer. 

That's the beauty of spokespersons' questions—we do have some leverage. 

The repeated delays by this Welsh Government are a mess, and if you don't believe me, listen to Haf Elgar, vice-chair of Healthy Air Cymru and director of Friends of the Earth Cymru, who states, 

'If Wales wants to be a fair and just nation, as well as a green one, we must clean up our act now.'

Wales Environment Link and Healthy Air Cymru have stated that Wales needs access to environmental justice. Their letter to the Welsh Government highlights that, in Wales, 1,600 people die each year due to air pollution, only a fraction of our best nature sites on land and sea are in good condition, and that continued delays in passing laws to protect and improve our environment undermines people's right to environmental justice. What greater warning do 20 organisations and all members of WEL need to give you before you listen to our calls for you to take environmental justice seriously, put robust legislation in place to drive nature recovery, as well as the tools to hold your own Government to account?

So, once again, it's very fine words and absolutely no action from you. So, we have done a number of things already on the clean air (Wales) Bill, which we'll introduce in this Senedd term. It's one of a number of actions set out in the clean air plan for Wales, 'Healthy Air, Healthy Wales', which we are taking to improve air quality. The action taken includes, of course, the Welsh transport strategy, 'Llwybr Newydd', and the roads review, and the stopping of building of roads all over Wales, which increases both the emissions and the particulates. And you don't like those bits. The robust action that we do take, you're unable to support in any way. So, fine words, no action, once again, from the Tory benches. 

It's fair to say that if the Welsh Conservatives were in Government and had your levers, then we'd actually be using them.

Now, despite England and Northern Ireland having the Office for Environmental Protection, Scotland having environmental standards, here in Wales we are still relying on temporary arrangements that WEL and Healthy Air Cymru have described as lacking legal powers, public strategy, and an easily navigable webiste. However, even more concerning is that the interim environmental protection assessor for Wales's annual report highlights, and I quote:

'One key issue identified during the review has been that demand for the service has been significantly higher than originally expected.'

Minister, in light of this, we have been working to put in place more robust processes to ensure that we are targeting our resources at issues where we can add the most value. In light of the high demand for assistance with environmental law, will you fast-track the process of establishing a permanent body?

13:45

So, Janet, again, once more, how many times have I got to say the same thing? We are absolutely committed to putting an environmental protection body in place. The interim environmental protection plan is working; it's actually highlighting how many people want their issues looked at, and in a much shorter timescale than was ever possible before. As you well know, we are working with the deep dive on biodiversity to put the standards in place that will have the targets that will hold our feet to the fire. Having a badge that says, 'I don't know what I want, but I want it now' is all very well, but it's actually important to have targets that mean something and that will actually push the thing forward, and not just, once more, a set of empty words.  

Thank you, Llywydd. I'd like to highlight the contribution of fibre broadband as we move towards net zero and a sustainable future. The Welsh Government has set a target of 30 per cent of the workforce working from home, or close to home, regularly by 2030. What's apparent is that we need a broadband network that provides simpler, more reliable working experiences from our homes, community hubs and so on. Recent research by the Institute of Welsh Affairs has highlighted exactly how upgrading the full fibre network would support decarbonisation, either by reusing existing ducts and telegraph poles, or because new technologies emit 80 per cent less carbon even before factoring in the use of zero-carbon energies. So, Minister, what is the role of effective fibre broadband in the Government's broader strategy to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner? 

Diolch, Delyth. I completely agree; a digital strategy is absolutely essential to doing that. You're absolutely right; we are committed to having at least 30 per cent of people working from home or near home—so, much less commuting time and hopefully much less polluting commuting type. In order to do that, of course, we have to provide them with facilities to be able to do that, both digitally and in an office environment. We are looking, as you know, at community hubs in various places in Wales to enable that to happen, and, actually, the social part of that is a big deal as well, because people can become isolated at home.

The Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters, recently outlined in the Chamber the fact that we've changed slightly our digital strategy for Wales, having had a very successful roll-out of Broadband Cymru, because actually this isn't a devolved area. We've intervened, because otherwise the UK Government would not have, and we would have had a large number of premises without any reliable broadband. But, recently, we've had another look at that, and we've had some success in getting the UK Government to look again at its strategy. They've just introduced a number of promises, which we hope will come to fruition, and we've been reusing some of our money. Very recently, in answer to a question from Rhun, I think it was, Lee Waters announced the work with Bangor University, for example, which is a really interesting new innovation that may well bring much better connectivity to people across Wales. 

So, we broadly agree. We continue to put pressure on the UK Government, and we are targeting our own money much more specifically at premises—the white premises, as they're called—with no connectivity at all, rather than upgrading people who have connectivity to full fibre with our money, because we think that the UK Government should step up to its responsibilities and do that. 

Thank you for that, Minister. For my second and final question, I'd like to turn to deforestation and supply chains. At COP26, you said that you were determined to change the Welsh Government procurement policy to ensure that we're promoting supply chains that are fair, that are ethical and that are sustainable. I welcome that. That would not only reduce Wales's global footprint, it would also support local economies. We have an opportunity to become a leader in this place, following, or rather joining, pioneers like France and the state of California, which have introduced procurement policies to end deforestation and tackle climate change. Minister, there is evidence as well that the public are supportive of these actions. A recent WWF Cymru survey of rural Welsh communities found that 84 per cent of respondents agreed that public services that provide and sell food, like schools and hospitals, should not buy food from sources where it can contribute to nature loss and climate change both in Wales and overseas. So, could you tell us, Minister, what progress has been made to introduce deforestation-free targets, risk assessments and due diligence processes in public sector procurement practices, please?

13:50

Yes, certainly, Delyth. Procurement is actually in Rebecca Evans's portfolio, but obviously I work very, very closely with Rebecca. She has recently announced a number of research issues into procurement, one of which is absolutely making sure that Wales does not use up more of the world's resources than is our fair share. Part of that is to make sure, when buying products or having supply chains here that rely on products that necessarily mean deforestation in other parts of the world, that we look to replace those products in the supply chain and assist the countries to come away from the practices that they have to reforestation. 

We're very proud of our work in Africa, in Uganda, in Mbale, with the trees that we plant—one tree there, one tree here, for every child born in Wales. It's always worth reminding people of that. We're very proud of the reforestation that we've been able to do. I've promised to work with Size of Wales on a project that allows both the public sector and, as far as possible, the private sector in Wales to understand what its supply chains look like and to make sure that products that necessarily incur deforestation across the world are removed from those supply chains as fast as possible.

Public Transport in the Vale of Clwyd

3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve public transport in the Vale of Clwyd? OQ58226

Our north Wales metro programme will transform rail, bus and active travel services across north Wales. The metros offer some of the best opportunities to meet our target of 45 per cent of journeys being made by public transport or active travel by 2040, helping reduce road congestion, carbon emissions and air pollution.

I appreciate your response, Minister. My inbox has been flooded with correspondence from gravely concerned constituents regarding local transport matters. Transport-related problems now total the second highest category of my casework. The problems that my constituents have to endure range from inadequate and infrequent bus timetabling, especially in more rural areas of the constituency, to overcrowded trains and a lack of forward planning by the rail services, with too few carriages being put on during known busy events such as Chester races and local sporting events. Given your Government has set ambitious aims to tackle climate change, it isn't rocket science that the problems I've outlined will need rectifying, especially if you want to attract more passengers onto public transport. So, Minister, what are you going to do to reassure my concerned constituents on these issues and enhance their experience of utilising public transport within the Vale of Clwyd?

Thank you. I understand you've raised concerns with Transport for Wales regarding the poor performance of trains in your constituency, and I think you've had a response from them. There have been occasions where TfW have had to make last-minute cancellations, and incidents where we needed to operate rail replacement services to ensure there are alternative journey options. Some 68 per cent of those cancelled services are related to Network Rail issues where they needed to investigate various incidents on the infrastructure. The track and signalling of the north Wales coast main line is managed and operated by Network Rail and this limits TfW's ability to operate when an incident arises. Unfortunately, some incidents, such as a trespasser on the line or a fatality, require sensitive attention and involve the British Transport Police.

Where possible, Transport for Wales attempt to replace the service to make sure that people can travel. Sometimes, the alternative would be to cancel it altogether. And although, of course, we are very sorry for the crowded conditions, it's sometimes better to have the service in crowded conditions than not to have it at all, which might be the other option. And of course we're working to improve the network overall. Recent strikes—yesterday's and tomorrow's—and today's disruption are caused by the way that Network Rail interacts with the rail operating companies. So, having a proper conversation with the UK Government about why that system put in place by the Conservatives really has been shown to fail in every single regard is one of the things that's top of our list.

Community Allotments

4. What is the Welsh Government doing to increase the number of community allotments in south-east Wales? OQ58237

Our allotment support grant is now in its second year and will allocate £750,000 across all of Wales's local authorities to help improve and increase allotment provision. In addition to this dedicated fund, a range of other programmes, such as Local Places for Nature, also help support the development of allotments.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. The pandemic has shone a light on many inequalities in society, and access to green space was, for me, one of the greatest lessons we need to learn and address. For many in the most densely populated areas, stepping into the garden is not possible, and in city centre wards, such as those in my constituency, green spaces are often limited. Therefore, allotments and community gardens are a vital lifeline to nature and the social interactions that come with them. The benefits are far-reaching. On the most basic level, they help with food production, especially when the cost of living is biting, and they also help to address isolation and improve mental well-being. Community allotments are needed where people are most densely populated, however this is also where land is often at its most premium. How can the Welsh Government help to ease the process where disused land can be transformed into places that benefit the community, and what support can we give local authorities and housing associations to scope out those ignored pockets so that they can better support local people?

13:55

I completely agree, Jayne; the pandemic certainly highlighted the need for people to have an outside space that was usable and actually connect back to nature, which is good for not just physical health but also very good for mental health, of course. We have Welsh Government guidance available that provides community groups with the knowledge and tools to take ownership of green spaces—actually, including wasteland spaces; they wouldn't necessarily be green right now. A variety of organisations provide expert advice and support the transfer of green spaces to community organisations. We fund the community land advisory service to provide support for local groups and identify and take ownership or control of green spaces for recreation and food growing. We've worked with over 200 groups since 2018 to help negotiate transfers of land to community groups, including, I'm pleased to say, two in Newport. I know that you're familiar with the Local Places for Nature programme, which has created over 300 green spaces across Wales in the last year alone, with 22 in Newport, including work I know you're familiar with at Pill community allotment.

I'd like to thank my colleague Jayne Bryant for bringing this question to the forefront. Some schools in my region and elsewhere in Wales have surplus land available as part of their school grounds. Some such as, and pardon my pronunciation, Olchfa Comprehensive School in your constituency—[Interruption.] That's it, yes—are selling off their land for housing. However, some schools have surplus land that, although may not be large enough for housing development, may be suitable for allotments, thereby increasing the engagement of schools with the communities they serve and teaching pupils about where their food comes from and the importance of fresh vegetables for a healthy diet. What discussions have you had, Minister, with ministerial colleagues and others about potentially encouraging schools to turn over parts of their grounds for farming and growing in partnership with community organisations? 

We already do that. It's part of the curriculum, apart from anything else. We of course encourage schools to encourage community use. I've had not only conversations but visits with my colleague Jeremy Miles to schools doing just that. We're very keen to get schools on board with that project, so if you know of any who aren't yet doing it who would like to, then we'd be very pleased to help.

Land Use

5. What work is the Minister doing on land use planning to ensure the best use is made of land in the context of Net Zero Wales? OQ58229

Thank you, Jenny. To meet our net-zero ambitions will require land use change. The majority of land in Wales is used for agriculture. The sustainable farming scheme will incentivise farmers to make best use of their land to deliver economic, social and environmental outcomes through a land sharing approach.

I want to follow up on the questions that both Jayne Bryant and Natasha Asghar have asked, but in relation to growing food for sale. We obviously have to reduce our carbon emissions from food, including the miles that food has to travel. The Sustain report on fringe farming, published earlier this year, highlights the importance of protecting peri-urban land with grade 1 and grade 2 soils for growing food. I'm looking forward to the work that Food Cardiff is doing with Cardiff Council to map exactly who owns which pieces of land on the fringes of Cardiff as well as Newport. I particularly have my eye on the floodplain between Cardiff and Newport, which seems an ideal place for growing food. So, what action will the Welsh Government take to protect fertile peri-urban land on the edge of towns and cities for growing food as part of your ambition for sustainable urban communities? 

I'm very much on board with that, Jenny. We have a national plan system in Wales—a planned system that allows us to have a robust framework for ensuring agricultural land is protected for productive use through 'Planning Policy Wales' and 'Future Wales: the national plan 2040'. 'Planning Policy Wales' seeks to ensure the best use is made for land. For example, it has a clear preference for the use of suitable and sustainable previously developed land for development within existing settlements, it has a strong policy to protect peri-urban areas against development, including urban sprawl, and seeks to conserve the best and most versatile agricultural land as a finite resource for the future. It requires local planning authorities to undertake a search sequence when preparing local development plans to prioritise the allocation of suitable and sustainable sites. Best and most versatile agricultural land, grades 1, 2 and 3A, should only be developed if there is what's called 'an overriding need'. That's a legal term; it's a very high bar. It doesn't mean 'just because you can't think of anywhere better'; they have to show that no other suitable land is available before that's permitted to that overriding need.

We've also got a long-term strategy to promote a dietary shift and encourage Welsh consumers to eat a healthier, more sustainable food source. While we want to encourage people to buy high-quality, local Welsh produce, we can work with our food production sector to ensure it's produced in a truly sustainable manner and avoid simply offshoring emissions to other countries. I had a very good meeting with the Country Land and Business Association very recently where we discussed the various ways, for example, that you could produce Welsh breed cattle without importing any kind of soy produce, reducing not only the food miles if you buy and eat that meat, but the food miles to produce it in the first place. So, we're doing a very good piece of work with my colleague Lesley Griffiths on that while protecting the peri-urban land. And then, in conjunction with a conversation with Jayne and with Natasha, making sure that all available land is used to bring particularly urban populations back into touch with how food is grown and where it's best produced.

14:00

Minister, the 'Net Zero Wales Carbon Budget 2' states that:

'Meeting net zero will require using more timber in sectors such as construction to replace currently high energy manufacture materials such as steel and concrete.'

and also that this Government intends to develop a new timber industrial strategy

'to develop a wood economy and encourage greater use of timber in construction.'

But my concern is none of this is particularly transparent in terms of how the carbon footprint of timber is calculated. It suggests that timber use in construction is somehow carbon free, when, in fact, it is manufactured product that needs energy inputs for harvesting and transportation, and then there is the carbon released from soil disturbance. It then needs to be processed using energy-intensive chemical preservatives and glues. And none of this takes account of the life cycle of carbon during the in-use phase of the building. Minister, I was disappointed in your response to my written question regarding carbon emissions from soil, because it highlighted the insufficient evidence there is to support this Government's plan going forward. Indeed, by the time your timber industry strategy even begins to come to fruition in 40 to 50 years' time, the concrete industry will already be completely decarbonised. With this in mind, Minister, what consideration has this Government given to measuring the potential of the concrete industry in the carbon sequestration process? And will the Minister agree to meet with me and representatives of the industry to discuss how concrete can play an important part in the decarbonisation of Wales? Thank you.

So, obviously, there's a complex series of calculations around carbon and carbon sequestration for a variety of different products. I can't pretend to be an expert in that, but we have a number of people advising us, including on the deep-dive panels and so on, who are. One of the things that we want to do is come, especially for soil, to an agreement with farmers for how they measure carbon on their land, for example, and their carbon emissions. So, we have a piece of work going on across the Government on agreeing a set of standards and standard measurement tools in order to do just that. We're very pleased to work with any industry in Wales that wants to decarbonise, and we're more than happy to meet you with any industry that wants to do that. For example, we've had a number of beneficial conversations with the steel industry about their decarbonisation journey, and I'm more than happy to do that for any industry in Wales that wants to go on that journey.   

With over three quarters of all Welsh land being comprised of farmland, it's important that we utilise the products from this land on our journey to net zero. There is no product more natural than sheep's wool. Unfortunately, the price of a fleece of wool sits at around 20p—a price that is dwarfed by the £1.40 it costs to shear. I know that the Welsh Government pledged to use more wool in public buildings back in 2020, but we need to do more. The Irish Farmers Association called on the Irish Government to create incentives to ensure that domestic wool became the insulation of choice across their country. Would the Welsh Government be supportive of a scheme like this in Wales? And with the potential mammoth task of retrofitting the Welsh housing stock to be more energy efficient, will the Welsh Government explore the use of domestic wool as insulation in such a retrofitting programme to support our farmers and continue our journey to net zero?

Yes. The very short answer to that is 'yes'. It's very much part of the optimised retrofit programme and the innovative housing programme. What those programmes do is they take a whole series of products and we build housing—new housing for the IHP and retrofitted housing for the ORP programme—and then we test out what the product has claimed against what it actually performs like. As I’ve said a number of times in this Chamber, we’re two years into the ORP, whereas five, I think I’m right in saying—maybe six—into the IHP programme, and that means we’ve got quite a lot of very good empirical data about how various types of things perform in conjunction with others. So, for example, for sheep’s wool, does that perform well sandwiched between two plasterboard walls, or two straw walls, or—? All that kind of thing. So, the programme is quite exhaustive. I’d encourage any Member who hasn’t visited one of the sites to do so. You’ll be given a comprehensive tour of the various types of tech. I visited one down in my colleague Mike Hedges’s constituency only yesterday, and it’s completely fascinating to see the data coming back. As a result of that, of course we will use that to increase the supply chains, help commercialise the product, develop a marketing strategy and get it into the main stream, as that’s the whole purpose of the programme.

14:05
New Housing Developments

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure adequate infrastructure is in place where new housing developments are proposed? OQ58232

Thank you, Darren. Placemaking principles underpin national planning policy. They require the provision of adequate infrastructure to support housing development and the promotion of quality places. Local planning authorities must take a strategic approach to the provision of infrastructure when planning for new housing, and the Government offers ongoing support to achieve this.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. I do appreciate the position of the Welsh Government on this matter. I’ve been contacted by many residents in Colwyn Bay regarding a potential development in the Pwllycrochan area in the town, and, unfortunately, as you will appreciate, many of the schools in the town are bursting at the seams, there’s a lack of dentists, our healthcare facilities are struggling as well to cope with the demands that are placed upon them, and we’ve got drainage problems in and around this site too. I appreciate you can’t comment on individual planning cases, but would you consider strengthening the guidance that you issue to local authorities to make sure that they do take these things into account fully and properly as part of the planning process, so that, when new developments are proposed, and people do move into an area, they can enjoy the facilities that they expect to be able to enjoy, and shouldn’t have a situation where flooding is a particular challenge too?

Yes, so, I write to planning authorities all the time reinforcing various parts of ‘Planning Policy Wales’. We also have a planning officers forum and I’m very shortly to meet—I’m afraid I just can’t remember off the top of my head when—with the new cabinet members who are responsible for planning right across local government, as all authorities have now formed their new cabinets. I’ll be meeting with the leaders and the relevant cabinet members to reinforce how we work and what they should do. We’ve also asked all of our planning authorities to look again at their local development plan process, and you’ll be aware that my colleague Rebecca Evans is bringing forth the regulations to enable the new corporate joint committees to do the regional strategic planning arrangements, which will allow us to put the infrastructure in place at that regional level. So, the local authority will have to work regionally to ensure that across the region there are sufficient—well, all of the issues that you just raised.

So, the policy is strong already; they need to have regard to it. Obviously, if they don’t have regard to it, then they’re subject to challenge. But obviously I can’t comment on the individual application.

Floods

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to support communities hit by recurring floods? OQ58208

Thank you. Our funding objectives to reduce flood risk to communities are set out in our national flood strategy and the programme for government. This year, we announced a record level of investment of more than £214 million over the next three years to help protect at least 45,000 homes from flood risk.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. I’ve heard accounts from many of my constituents really struggling to get insurance in subsequent years after flooding events. Some of these properties have not even been flooded, but they fall within the postcode area, and therefore are classed as high flood risk. These people have significantly less choice of insurance providers, often paying a lot higher for premiums, as there are few options for them to shop around. Those people are very fearful of even making very small insurance claims, for fear of actually losing their insurance altogether. So, what support can the Welsh Government give to these residents who are facing this impossible situation? Diolch, Llywydd.

Yes, there is a specialist insurance scheme, which I’m sure the Member is aware of, called Flood Re, which allows people who have properties in flood-risk areas—and I appreciate that it’s even more frustrating if they haven't actually been flooded—to obtain insurance through the Flood Re programme. That's a programme in which a number of insurers come together to spread the risk, effectively, of that. We also assist local authorities to assist people who really struggle to get the insurance as well. And, of course, we have a number of income support projects to do that. So, there is a programme for that in place. I appreciate it can be more expensive, then, to insure your house, and that's a matter I'm afraid that we have no power to intervene in, as the insurance industry is not devolved. But we work closely with the UK authorities and we've had a number of summits in the past, where we've got the insurance companies to the table—a number of my colleagues have been involved in those summits—to make sure that the Flood Re programme is fit for purpose and isn't just completely unaffordable for those people who are affected.

14:10
Town-centre Regeneration

8. What is the Government doing to regenerate town centres in South Wales East? OQ58220

Diolch. We have invested over £53.7 million in more than 100 projects that support the delivery of broader town-centre placemaking plans. We continue to invest and work in partnership with all sectors to make our towns and cities even better places to live, work and visit.

Diolch, Minister. Many of the town centres within my region are struggling. A perfect storm of high business rates, the rise of online shopping and the cost-of-living crisis has made prospects look bleak for many traders. Despite investment of £900 million in Wales in the last eight years, one in seven shops on a high street remain empty, according to Audit Wales. They also say that:

'Powers that can help stimulate town-centre regeneration are not utilised effectively nor consistently.'

What plans has the Welsh Government to learn lessons from previous strategies to address this downward trend? Do future plans include any ideas to repurpose parts of town centres to provide more leisure accommodation and hot-desking opportunities for start-up businesses or people who may now be working from home permanently?

Yes, absolutely, and this is a very difficult problem as the world changes around us. And so it's quite clear, isn't it, that many of us no longer shop in or go to town centres in the way that we used to in order to get ordinary goods and services. So, our 'town centre first' policy, which is embedded in the national planning framework, 'Future Wales', says that town centres should be the first consideration for all decisions on the location of workplaces and services, not just retail, so that we don't have out-of-town decisions made for everything you can think of, really, from the local college to entertainment venues and so on. That's to get the footfall and make the town a destination for people, which isn't just about retail.

You read out the list of challenges that we wrestle with every day. The town absolutely has to reinvent and reinvigorate itself into a place where people want to go, whether they want to go for an event or they want to go to socialise or to meet up with friends. So, it has to be a place that's welcoming and that has space that's family friendly and so on. During the pandemic, you'll know that we repurposed some road space for cafes and restaurants to make them more pleasant places to sit. It's a mystery, I think, to many of us why we don't do that in a more widespread way in Britain. We seem to feel that our weather is terrible, but anybody who has been to France in the winter will know that their weather is just as bad and they're still happily taking part in their outdoor spaces in their town squares and so on. So, we need to think again.

We've got a number of programmes across the Government designed to help local authorities do that thinking and to make sure that, when they make their decisions, as well as when we make our decisions, they think 'town centre first', to make sure that you get a concentration of services and people-pulls, if you like, into the town centre and you don't have this urban sprawl issue that, of course, knocks on to some of the other things we've discussed today about the use of peri-urban land and so on.  

Flooding in the Monmouth Constituency

9. What action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the risk of flooding in the Monmouth constituency? OQ58200

Thank you, Peter. The programme for government commits us to reducing flood risk for over 45,000 homes over the lifetime of this administration. This year we are investing over £71 million through local authorities and Natural Resources Wales. This is the most funding ever provided in Wales in a single year.

Thanks very much, Minister, for that response. It seems funny, on a beautiful sunny day, to be thinking about flooding, but, Minister, you'll know very well that, over the past few years, communities across Monmouthshire have experienced some devastating flooding, particularly during those winter months, with the examples of Skenfrith constantly being flooded, and Monmouth, where mobile homes were washed away—indeed, the Welsh Water plant flooded and there was no water to the town for several days, which we managed to overcome—and, of course, Llanwenarth, the area there, where the Usk broke its banks, but we know Natural Resources Wales won't adopt those assets going forward. I know how committed you are to this area, Minister, but how is the Welsh Government working with risk management authorities, local authorities and communities to prepare for this autumn/winter to help reduce the impact of potential flooding events on life, business and property? And with climate change increasingly influencing the weather, what action are you taking to futureproof defences in the likes of Monmouthshire against these serious concerns? 

14:15

Thank you, Peter. The national flood strategy sets out how we will manage the risk over the next decade, and underlines the importance we place on tackling flood risk and the growing impacts of climate change. This year, in conjunction with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement, we announced a record level of investment of more than £240 million over the next three years to help us meet the programme for government commitments. We publish the annual flood and coastal programme online, and it features the list of schemes being funded and an accompanying map. We've also got an interactive map on DataMapWales, where the public can use the map to find out more detail about the schemes included within the programme for this year. 

Monmouthshire County Council itself has had £360,000 to deliver eight different schemes benefiting 140 properties, which were some of the ones that you just mentioned as being impacted over the last couple of winter storms. And in co-operation with Plaid Cymru, again, we've commissioned an independent review of the local government section 19 and Natural Resources Wales reports into extreme flooding in the winters of 2020-21.

As you identified yourself, Peter, it's the responsibility of risk management authorities to identify the areas that require the flood alleviation works. The flood strategy makes that clear, and the decisions taken by NRW with regards to adopting privately owned defences has to consider the future funding implications. But we expect the RMAs and NRW to work together to put the plan in place, and then work towards protecting the communities at highest risk, obviously, in a descending hierarchy. 

2. Questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language

The next item is questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and the first question today is from Ken Skates.

Investment in Clwyd South

1. Will the Minister make a statement on investment in Clwyd South through the twenty-first century schools programme? OQ58198

The education estate in the area of Clwyd South benefited from an investment of over £20 million during the first wave of funding through the sustainable communities for learning programme, and will continue to benefit with a further £22 million through the current wave of investment. This includes Welsh-medium capital grant funding.

Minister, thank you for your answer. That's superb news, and that £20 million has gone a long way in enhancing not just school estates, but also communities as a whole. I'd be extremely grateful if you could update Members and my constituents in Clwyd South on progress being made specifically in the community of Brymbo, in the north of the constituency, where a new twenty-first century school would be valued by all citizens, and particularly by learners.

I thank the Member for that supplementary question, and also I'm aware that he has recently written to me in relation to this, and to confirm to him that a letter is about to be sent back in reply to that enquiry. Welsh Government officials are continuing to work with the local authority and the developers of the Brymbo site generally. As the Member is obviously very, very well aware, it's a site with a number of dimensions and a number of plans. In different ways, the school plan is one of those proposed developments, and officials are working to secure that comprehensive development of the site. My understanding is that good progress has been made on certain aspects of the land management, which are necessary in order for things to be able to move forward. So, that is progress, and I'll be reporting back in more detail to him in the letter that I'll send to him shortly. 

I thank the Member for Clwyd South for submitting this important and very timely question, because just last week I welcomed pupils from St Mary's Brymbo primary school to the Senedd here, and they took quite an interest in a lively, perhaps difficult Q&A at times, especially when I was asked about age restrictions on blades. But one of the specific questions, actually, was about the twenty-first century schools programme, which I was quite impressed that they had knowledge of. Obviously, it's important for them and their school. It became clear to me in the Q&A with those children from the school that more needs to be done to accelerate and see progress in the programme, especially at Brymbo. So, in light of this, Minister, I'd like to join the calls of the Member for Clwyd South and ask what assurances you can give me that this school is a priority for the programme, and what discussions you are having personally with Wrexham County Borough Council to facilitate progress of the programme there. Thank you.

14:20

I thank Sam Rowlands for that. As I said in my answer to Ken Skates, my officials are working with the authority on this site. It has a number of dimensions. School development is one aspect of that. But, there has been good progress on a number of the key elements required for that to progress, which I'm happy to report. I congratulate him on engaging the pupils in his region on the potential of the school build programme. I think that there are good opportunities, in particular in relation to the net-zero schools of the future, to embed that learning in the curriculum itself, and to use the construction of the school as a teaching tool in its own terms.

Medical Training through the medium of Welsh

2. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Health and Social Services about training prospective doctors through the medium of Welsh at Bangor medical school? OQ58233

I have had discussions with the Minister for Health and Social Services and I know, through those conversations, that she, in conversation with Bangor, has set out our expectations around the Welsh language provision. The Welsh language is a core consideration for Bangor, who are actively engaging on increasing Welsh-medium provision as they look to develop and implement the new curriculum.

I asked the health Minister here in the Siambr recently how the new medical school in Bangor could help to achieve the excellent 'More than just words' policy, but I do have to say that I was disappointed by the response that I received. That's why I am continuing with this theme with you today. From what I understand, there are very few Welsh speakers training at the medical school in Bangor at present, and that is also disappointing.

Do you believe that adequate targets have been set to recruit Welsh speakers for the medical training programme in Bangor? Will you come back to me, please, with a full explanation about how you intend to improve the situation if what I understand is correct? We have an excellent opportunity with the establishment of the new medical school to set targets to support the principle that we need an appropriate Welsh-medium workforce to meet the principles of 'More than just words', and of course the 'Cymraeg 2050' strategy.

I'd be more than happy to write to the Member with more details on the further question that she has asked. As she will know, an evaluation has taken place of the 'More than just words' plan, and the Minister intends to make a further statement over the next few weeks on the next steps that will result from the work that the Marian Wyn Jones committee carried out on our behalf recently.

So, without going into detail on that, it is clear that a bilingual workforce is one of the priorities for the future in terms of 'More than just words' and that we need to move away, perhaps, from a framework to using policy as something that is more proactive and can drive progress, in a way that I'm sure the Member would welcome. Supporting and developing the Welsh language skills of the current workforce and the future workforce is a core part of that, and there will certainly be a role for the medical school in Bangor to play in that.FootnoteLink

I absolutely concur with the points that have been made by Siân Gwenllian about the need to make sure that we've got doctors coming through the system who are proficient in the Welsh language.

It's also really important, of course, that those who are in the education workforce, teaching, who do have Welsh language skills are able to continue to use them. I raised in the Senedd yesterday a situation in a further education institution, where there are courses currently delivered through the medium of Welsh, in a largely Welsh-speaking community and area in southern Denbighshire, and those are going to be relocated to the coast, where there are fewer Welsh speakers, and where the demand for those courses will be different. It's going to severely disadvantage those young people who want to take advantage of the opportunity to continue to learn through the medium of Welsh when they go into post-16 education.

What are you doing to make sure that, where we do have tutors, teachers and others in the education workforce who are able to currently deliver in Welsh, that those opportunities aren't diminished as a result of silly decisions, frankly, by further education institutions and, indeed, some schools too?

14:25

Well, I'm not going to comment on the particular decision, because obviously I'm not in a position to do that, but as he knows from the First Minister's answer yesterday, I will follow that up. We passed the third stage of a piece of legislation yesterday, which, in the particular context—the FE context—in which he frames the question, certainly yesterday and I think he was making the same point today, will, I think, see a step change in the provision of further education through the medium of Welsh. Obviously, one of the challenges has been making sure we have a workforce that is able to do that, and he will be aware, of course, of the plan that we brought forward to increase the educational workforce generally in Wales for those who are able to teach through the medium of Welsh.

In my discussions with further education colleges in all parts of Wales, there is absolutely a recognition that we need to do more and an enthusiasm to work together to do that, and so I look forward to doing that with them and I'll take up the point that he's raised specifically. Thank you.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.

Thank you, Llywydd, and first of all I'd like to thank our local authorities for their efforts to find educational placements for children from Ukraine. Every local authority has ensured that all Ukrainian children have access to education. This includes, according to the latest information, 73 Ukrainian children in Welsh-medium schools or bilingual schools here in Wales.

What's excellent about our language is that it belongs to everyone. It can be learnt and loved by anyone from any background, as is the case here. But learning our language can be difficult, not least for those who have been displaced by war. So, Minister, can you outline what additional support you have provided to Welsh-medium teachers providing excellent education to these children whilst they are guests in our country?

Well, it has been a priority for us to ensure that Welsh-medium education is available to those who want to take advantage of it from Ukraine, and we've ensured, in terms of children and adults, that there is access to Welsh language lessons, and we've worked with Parents for Welsh Medium Education to ensure that that is possible, and the resources that are available bilingually ensure that that is accessible to them. I'd like to see more and more children from Ukraine choosing Welsh-medium education if that's what they want to do, and we need to ensure that there is support for schools to be able to provide that.

Thank you for that, Minister, and I'm sure that Ukrainians the length and breadth of Wales will appreciate that answer and your support.

In terms of Welsh-medium education, I'd like to thank you for answering a letter I wrote to you about what appears to be the prioritisation of Welsh-medium education over English-medium education. You will know of offers of free transport to pupils from Welsh-medium schools but not English-medium schools. In your response, you note that local authorities have the responsibility for making their own education arrangements. However, Government guidance on the Welsh language, in the context of the Welsh in education strategic plans, encourage local authorities to discuss their individual needs with the Welsh Government. If the guidance is correct, why then is the Welsh Government approving Welsh in education strategic plans that create an imbalance in the support available?

Okay. Thank you. But from the response in the correspondence from the Minister, I do think that we need to look at this again. I'm more than happy to bring further questions on the issue.

Minister, I'm sure you will be aware of my long and and gratifying membership of the federation of young farmers clubs, and I'd like to declare an interest here. The organisation is immersed in the traditions of rural communities in Wales, and has a huge impact on the development of many young people across our country. Youth organisations such as young farmers are important in delivering the ambitious objectives of 'Cymraeg 2050'. They encourage the learning and development of language skills in the community, and add to the hard work of our schools. Although I am aware of the Welsh Government's support for young farmers clubs, through funding for a Welsh language officer working on a full-time basis, I'm eager to know whether other organisations, such as the Scouts or the army cadets, are offered similar resources. Thank you.

I don't know what the specific budget for the other organisations that the Member mentions is, but of course we do have a scheme of financial support for various voluntary organisations, third sector organisations, and other youth organisations. We are currently looking to review grants to promote the Welsh language in general. An external organisation has been appointed to look at that particular review. One of my priorities, as you know, as a Minister, is to ensure that we do all we can to increase not just the number of people learning Welsh, but also opportunities to use the Welsh language and to ask our partners to look at ways of empowering people to use the Welsh language in our communities. So, that work will conclude in due course. It will be an opportunity for us to look again at the grant scheme in general, but certainly the work done by various organisations, of the kind that the Member mentioned in his questions, is very important.

14:30

Diolch, Llywydd. Prynhawn da, Weinidog. Wales's level of research and innovation investment is significantly below that of the UK and EU averages, and this picture will get worse as Welsh universities are disproportionately disadvantaged by the losses of EU structural funding given the high level of historical dependency on that funding. By now, gross expenditure on research and innovation in Wales is one of the lowest of 12 UK regions. So, given this, the Welsh Government needs to address this huge gap in funding that will endanger our research and innovation capability. So, why has the Welsh Government abandoned the strategy suggested by Professor Graeme Reid’s reivew to address this very situation? Can the Minister tell me why the Welsh Government has abandoned this strategy aimed at the long-term transformation and support of the research and innovation landscape in Welsh higher education institutions? Diolch.

Well, this policy area is not mine; it's my colleague Vaughan Gething's, who's made a statement recently in relation to the Government's response to the Reid review. Part of that is about the implementation of a number of the points that Professor Reid recommended for us to take in that review, including in relation to opening an office specifically in London to access some of the other opportunities that arise there and the increase in quality research funding, which we have increased in excess, as I recall, of that which Professor Reid recommended. But there are a number of other contexts to the Government's response to the Reid review, which my colleague Vaughan Gething outlined in a recent statement. So, I refer the Member to that.

Thank you. School reorganisation in the Pontypridd area has been a contentious issue for years now. One of the main concerns is the closure of Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Pont Siôn Norton in Cilfynydd, which will mean that the children living in Ynysybwl, Coedycwm, Glyncoch, Trallwng and Cilfynydd will have to travel miles further to receive Welsh-medium education. Campaigners presented evidence to Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council of how damaging this is to Welsh-medium education, encouraging the council to open a new Welsh-medium school on a site in Glyncoch. This afternoon, the council's cabinet has approved a new English-medium school on this very site and refuses to introduce a Welsh-medium stream in that school.

To rub salt into the wound, the report that went to cabinet said that this new school would improve the provision of English-medium education in the area and increase capacity. From where will these new pupils come if not from Welsh-medium education? The Welsh Government will fund 81 per cent of the cost of the new school. What steps are being taken by you to ensure that the Government doesn't continue to fund such schemes that undermine Welsh-medium education in areas where there is great need for progress, if we are to reach the target of a million Welsh speakers? Do you share my concern about this situation?

In terms of the strategic plans and every local authority in Wales, I'll be making a statement as to where they are, following the reviews that will happen within the next few weeks, before the end of term, and that includes the plans of RCT council. What I've said in the past is that it's important that we ensure that not just the number of those learning Welsh increases, but that geography—the language distribution and access to Welsh education—is also important in light of those plans in the future. And I'll want to see an increase in Welsh-language provision when looking jointly at increases in the English-medium schools estate.

Question 3 [OQ58207] has been withdrawn. Question 4, Joel James.

The Consortia Model

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of the consortia model in schools? OQ58228

Yes. Regional consortia support schools to improve, including through professional learning, direct engagement and facilitating school-to-school working. I'll be publishing school improvement guidance next week, setting out how the Welsh Government expects regional consortia to support school improvement under the Curriculum for Wales.

Thank  you, Minister. I was recently following the events of the National Association of Headteachers Conference in Telford, and my interest was peaked by a motion put forward by NAHT Cymru, which remarked that the quality of service provided by the consortium model has been, to date, inequitable, and for many schools it has been entirely inadequate. The motion by NAHT Cymru went further, and wanted to see the development of an accountability structure for Wales that supports the reformed curriculum and twenty-first century learning, and also that there was no further expansion, additional layers, or extra bodies created that could take away already limited funding and resources, away from the core purpose of schools and front-line education. With this in mind, Minister, what consideration have you given to reforming the consortia model, in light of these criticisms, and to develop a fit-for-purpose accountability structure in Wales that supports twenty-first century learning? Thank you.

14:35

I thank the Member for that question. I don't accept the funding takes money away from the school system; the funding is there in order to support the school improvement programme that we have right across Wales. And the majority of the funding that is made available to the regional consortia is delegated directly to schools, rather than being retained by the consortia themselves.

On the broader point that the Member makes, I think he's basing, or perhaps NAHT were basing some of their reflections on the thematic report from Estyn recently into the regional consortia and local authority support for curriculum design, which described the consortia as demonstrating the curriculum design progress and stages of curriculum development, developing stronger approaches to supporting collaboration between primary and secondary schools, and generally targeting support for schools that are causing concern, but also indicating that more work needed to be done in relation to maintaining consistency across the understanding of the quality of teaching and learning, for example.

So, I think that report was helpful, in that it identified a number of measures that we can take to further support our collective ambition for curriculum reform. My officials are working closely both with the consortia and, in those areas where there isn't a consortium, with the local authorities, to ensure that schools have the support that they need to prepare for the curriculum, and working also to develop a clearer model for capturing and understanding some of the information that is available in the system, in response to a specific recommendation that Estyn has made. And my officials have also ensured that the terms and conditions for grants to regional consortia for the coming financial year are clear and closely align to the priorities and requirements to support schools to implement the new curriculum.

Welsh Language Education in Alyn and Deeside

5. How is the Welsh Government expanding Welsh language education in Alyn and Deeside? OQ58227

Thank you, Jack. To support their plans to grow Welsh-medium education, the council has received approval in principle to establish a new primary school, through Welsh Government capital funding.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Weinidog. And I think it's clear that you agree that investing in Welsh-medium school buildings is going to be key if we really are truly to deliver and give all parents and children the chance of Welsh-medium education in Wales. Flintshire County Council have published an ambitious strategic plan to increase the number of Welsh speakers in Flintshire. I wonder if you could comment further, Minister, on how you will support this plan and this council's ambitions, and how you would invest in schools like Ysgol Croes Atti in Shotton, in my own constituency.

Can I thank the Member for that supplementary question and for his use of the Welsh language in his initial question? Flintshire local authority have committed in their draft Welsh in education strategic plan to increase the percentage of learners in Welsh-medium education from the current 6.3 per cent to 15 per cent within the next 10 years. I recently announced, in March, 11 projects that will benefit from the Welsh-medium capital grant—a fund of about £30 million—and Flintshire will be one of the nine local authorities that will benefit from that funding. An element has already been allocated to establish a new Welsh-medium school, and the Buckley area is one of the locations being considered for that. And Flintshire will also put forward a business case to invest in Ysgol Croes Atti, to support the increasing demand for Welsh-medium education in the area, and I look forward to seeing that plan.

Can I thank also the Member for Alyn and Deeside for submitting this question, as well, because I too have a keen interest in Welsh language education in Alyn and Deeside? And as stated by the Member, it is important that we enable Welsh language education and encourage more people to speak and learn Welsh.

And since becoming a Senedd Member, I’ve had the pleasure of joining the Senedd’s Welsh language tuition scheme, and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. 
 

But, as we do know, Minister, much of the provision and delivery of Welsh language education is largely down to our local authorities working with schools, working with regional consortia, such as GwE in north Wales. So, in light of this, what assessment have you made of the collaboration between local authorities in north Wales working with GwE, working with schools, so that they can work as a team to deliver ambitions around Welsh language education in my region? Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

14:40

Can I just say how good it is to hear more Members speaking Welsh in the Chamber? Congratulations to Sam, and to Jack too. 

Yes, it is very important, in order for us to see the progress that we want to see in Welsh-medium provision, and that there is equal access for all children in Wales to Welsh-medium education in any part of Wales, that the WESPs are ambitious, but also that there is good work happening between schools and local authorities and the consortia. And I'm sure that's happening in north Wales, as it is in all parts of Wales. 

Support to Pupils after COVID

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support pupils taking their exams this year given the impact of COVID? OQ58231

A comprehensive package of support totalling £24 million is in place, which prioritises exam-year learners. Along with this, practical steps have also been taken, including adapting exam content, providing advanced information for learners and mid-point grade boundaries to make the return to exams as fair as possible. 

Thank you very much for that response. I declare an interest as the father of one pupil who's studying A-levels, but I know that I speak on behalf of many other pupils and parents who are very concerned about the A-level exams this year in the context of COVID. These are students who've never sat an external exam before because their GCSEs and AS-levels were cancelled. Yet, a greater proportion than usual of their grade, and the entire grade for many, is wholly based on their exam performance this year. And some have missed one out of two exams due to be taken this summer because of COVID, which means that their grade will be decided on the basis of the one paper that they've managed to sit. It feels very unfair to many. So, what certainty can the Minister give that the appeals process will be strengthened in order to be able to deal swiftly and fairly with cases where there is a sense that the circumstances this year have led to pupils being treated unfairly?

Well, it's been difficult for those pupils who haven't sat an external exam in the past, and that's understandable. And then concerns arising from exam papers that perhaps pupils hadn't expected, of course, also have an impact on them. And I am aware that, with few exam papers, including A-level maths, there were complaints and concerns about the content of some of those papers. The Member will certainly have seen the response of the WJEC on that, and any complaint made to them will be subject to a thorough inquiry and a review of that paper. 

There is one example of an English paper where content was missing, and clearly that was an error, and specific steps will be taken as a result of that, but it is possible to grade in a way that reflects the fact the content was missing, or reflecting the fact that some questions were more difficult than expected.

So, I will give the Member an assurance that the grading scheme can be looked at as those papers are marked. But, also, appeal arrangements will be able to deal with some of the other questions that arise, and, this year, we will also ensure that the cost of appeal won't be a barrier to those who might struggle to pay for that appeal, so that there is fairness within the system. 

Joyce Watson took the Chair.

Minister, this is an issue I know I've raised with you previously as well, in terms of the extra support that students need to be supported due to missing education over the course of the pandemic. But I would ask you to what extent the mechanisms that you've developed to offer that additional support will remain in place after the pandemic, for perhaps other means where students need additional support. I'm particularly thinking of the new curriculum with that in mind as well.

I think that's a very good question. The Power Up campaign, as he knows from our previous exchanges and, I'm sure, his own experience, provides a package of revision support, but signposting for other support as well, as well as, in the case of this year, the adaptations to content for the exams specifically. It's a sort of comprehensive, if you like, one-stop shop. I think there are approaches from that that might be beneficial into the future, in particular some of the well-being approaches, because what we obviously know is that the pressures that exist for learners this year will not simply disappear for learners next year. So, we will be looking creatively at how we can maintain some of those resources. Some of them obviously lend themselves to being available into the future in any case; some are more specific to the exams for this summer. But, just to assure the Member, we are looking at what we can do with that to make it more widely available into the future as well. 

14:45
Vocational Education in Pembrokeshire

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the delivery of vocational education in Pembrokeshire? OQ58214

A range of vocational education opportunities are available at all levels to suit our learners in Pembrokeshire. Vocational qualifications play a vital role in delivering the skills and training that our learners need to address the demands of our economy.

Thank you for that response. Minister, I recently visited Haverfordwest County AFC with my colleague Laura Anne Jones to learn more about their pre-apprenticeship programme, which is delivered by Achieve More Training. The programme provides local opportunities for young people in Pembrokeshire who want a career in education, sport or leisure, and helps to meet the skills gap in those sectors. So, Minister, will you join me in applauding Haverfordwest County AFC on their work to support and nurture young people by delivering apprenticeships in Pembrokeshire? And can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to support such initiatives? 

Yes, I'd be very happy to join the Member in his congratulations to the college, and I'm looking forward to being with him tomorrow in Pembrokeshire College, where we'll have an opportunity to talk to many of the young learners there—and the advantages they're able to take of the range of opportunities that are available there as well. As he will know, in terms of our approach to apprenticeships, we are fully committed to increasing our  apprenticeship opportunities across Wales, including obviously in Pembrokeshire. And, over the next three years, we'll be investing £366 million to deliver 125,000 apprenticeships across Wales, and we are working with Business Wales, the Skills Gateway for Business team and a range of others, to make sure that there's an efficient service available to employers looking to recruit an apprentice, so we'll make that process as smooth and as accessible to as many of our young learners as possible.  

GCSE Examinations

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the preparation for summer GCSE examinations? OQ58218

In addition to the announced adaptations to exam content and grade boundaries, a £24 million support package was put in place, including the Lefel Nesa/Power Up campaign. This investment has provided learners with information, exam resources, hints and tips to help them prepare for the 2022 exam season.

Thank you, Minister. It's following on from a question that you had earier from Rhun, actually, about preparations for the exams this summer, considering that there were very concerning multiple reports that set texts had been missing off A-level English literature, as you've outlined already, and that pupils had unexpected content—that was in maths, with the difficulty, as you've already outlined, so I won't go over it. But what assurances can you give learners today that those lessons have been learnt by the examination board, and that we won't have repeat mistakes from the exam board this time for GCSE learners? Thank you. 

I've obviously met with the exam board and with Qualifications Wales, as I do regularly, and have discussed this summer's exam season as part of our discussions generally. Learners this year have faced a particular set of challenges, being the first cohort perhaps not to have sat any external exams, but facing them for the first time this year. Clearly, as I was saying in the earlier answer, learners will feel very anxious as a consequence of that. You will have seen the response that the WJEC has given specifically on the question of examined content. Just to repeat the point, alongside the overall system-wide adjustment to the grades, which is the mid point between 2019 and 2021—that sort of overall adjustment—it is also possible to adjust grade boundaries on papers to reflect the content and the overall performance on that paper, which obviously captures some of the points that you were making. So, just to give that assurance. That set of decisions is made when the marking of the paper itself happens, so it can take into account the sorts of issues which the Member has raised. I do understand that learners are anxious, but I want to give them that assurance that there is a mechanism in the system that can respond to that. 

14:50
Further Education

9. How is the Government encouraging children in South Wales East to embark on further education? OQ58221

The 2022-23 settlement sees the highest level of investment in further education in recent history. We recognise that more learners are choosing to stay in post-16 education. Through the budget, we will ensure that learners in post-16 education are offered the best possible support, in particular following the impact of the pandemic.

Thank you very much for that response.

The vast majority of my region is made up of working-class communities where the cost-of-living crisis is being felt most acutely. The announcement last week that interest rates on student loans would be capped at 7.3 per cent to prevent them rising to 12 per cent was a mercy, but a very small one at that. An interest rate of 7.3 per cent is still extortionate and off-putting. I fear this huge interest rise on student loans will deter many young people from working-class families from fulfilling their potential and attending university. This may only serve to increase the attainment gap between the haves and the have nots, something NUS Cymru has already spoken out about. How is the Welsh Government reacting to the latest developments in student loan interest rates, combined with the added pressure brought on by the cost-of-living crisis, to ensure that kids from working class families are not discouraged from entering higher education?

I thank the Member for his point. It's a really important question. He might have seen some of the remarks I made last week in particular about access to all kinds of education for young people from perhaps some of our most disadvantaged backgrounds. For the first time this year, and in each subsequent year, we will be able to provide—obviously, subject to the consent of the individual—for example, data through UCAS on the free school meals eligibility of individual learners to enable contextualised offers to be made.

He's making a slightly different point about the costs of going to university. I agree with him; the measures that we see the UK Government taking are a great concern, as well as some of the changes they are mooting in relation to requiring different grade thresholds for GCSE, which I think are regressive and have no place in any policy that is based on widening access to university.

As he may know, although the ability to fund student finance is devolved to Wales, some of the choices we make are constrained by our ability to be able to liaise with HMRC and the Student Loans Company, which are not, obviously, devolved. We continue to have in Wales the most progressive student finance support package of any part of the UK in terms of the mix between loans and grants, but also—which is not very often remarked upon—in Wales, as soon as you start to repay your debt, you immediately get a £1,500 discount on your repayment, which is the only part of the UK in which that happens.

But, I take very seriously the point that he's made. Whatever we can do, we will do. Obviously, we are committed to our progressive system here in Wales. On the point of interest rates in particular, what I would say is that that doesn't affect the monthly outgoing, it's the length of the loan that that affects. I don't diminish for a second that it's a very important point, but in terms of the immediate affordability, it won't have that immediate increase on the monthly outgoing. But, it's an important point, as it does extend the cost of tuition overall.

Volunteering Opportunities

10. How is the Welsh Government supporting learners who have missed vital volunteering opportunities as a result of the pandemic? OQ58219

Education-based volunteering is a critical component in helping create a volunteering society engendering volunteering habits in young people. We continue to support third sector infrastructure organisations and national grant schemes in order to improve access to volunteering opportunities for young people.

Thank you, Minister. You will be aware that, in 2021, ColegauCymru commissioned a report that noted that many learners who volunteer since 2020 have missed out on practical opportunities to apply their learning, with the majority coming from sports courses. Given that Volunteers Week happened at the beginning of this month, do you agree, Minister, that we must ensure that these opportunities are more broadly available to learners—I understand that there is work ongoing—and that it's important not only to achieve educational aims and to contribute to communities, but also to support mental health and well-being of learners? If so, how can we ensure that more of these opportunities are available to them?

14:55

Thank you to Heledd Fychan for asking that question. We saw during the pandemic an increase of almost 4,500 young people, representing more than 20 per cent of new registrations, on the Volunteering Wales platform, which is very encouraging, I think. Volunteering is an important way of demonstrating the values of citizenship, and it's an important part of the community democratic process, too. I meet regularly with third sector voluntary organisations through the WCVA, to discuss volunteering opportunities and how they are available to young people. Welsh Government has made it a priority to support the volunteering sector with a package of significant financial support, and my colleague the Minister for Social Justice has established a cross-sectoral group to lead and to look at what more could be done to explain the value of volunteering, including to our young people.

3. Topical Questions

We move on to item 3, topical questions. There were no topical questions accepted.

4. 90-second Statements

We'll go on to item 4, 90-second statements. I call on Elin Jones.

A number of you may not have noticed this week’s most important event, but on Monday, A Repertory of Welsh Manuscripts and Scribes c.800-c.1800 was launched by Dr Daniel Huws and presented to the First Minister. Dr Huws has been working on this project since his retirement from the national library 30 years ago. This month, Daniel Huws will turn 90. He was supported by a joint project between the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales and the national library, and specifically by Professor Ann Parry Owen, Dr Maredudd ap Huw, Glenys Howells and Gruffudd Antur.

The three volumes weigh 5 kg and contain over 1,500 pages. The first volume of the repertory contains concise descriptions of approximately 3,300 Welsh manuscripts. Volume 2 features biographical information on approximately 1,500 scribes. Volume 3 contains around 900 images of the handiwork of some of the most important scribes. 

These volumes are a masterpiece. They were researched, designed, edited and published mainly in Ceredigion, but they now belong to scholarship worldwide. Some might say that few people will leaf through these pages, but I can say that of the approximately 60 Members in the Chamber yesterday afternoon as we voted on legislation, at least one Member was reading through volume 2 by Daniel Huws. I’ll leave it to you to guess who.

I thank Daniel for this magnum opus that will tell the story of Wales and Welsh people to the world for centuries to come and forever.

This week marks Armed Forces Week across the United Kingdom, a week that brings together our armed forces community, including servicepeople, their families and the organisations that support them. It provides an opportunity for people across the country to show our appreciation for the work that they do. As part of the week, we held Wales's Armed Forces Day in the city of Wrexham on Saturday, and Scarborough will be hosting the UK Armed Forces Day, which will take place this coming Saturday.

Wales, of course, has a proud association with our armed forces. In mid Wales, we have the headquarters of the army, the base of 160th (Welsh) Brigade, and a secure base now, thanks to a decision by the UK Government. And in north Wales, at RAF Valley, every single Royal Air Force pilot, jet pilot, is trained. Here in Cardiff, just down the road, we have HMS Cambria, Wales's only Royal Navy reservist unit. But today, we mark Reserves Day, an opportunity to show our appreciation for armed forces reservists who play a vital but often underappreciated role. There are more than 2,000 reservists in Wales who volunteer to balance their day jobs and a family life with a military career. And as the recent pandemic has shown us all, they are ready to serve when they're called upon.

So, as we mark this Armed Forces Week, and today as Reserves Day, let's renew our commitment to all those who are serving, or who have served, and work with the UK and Welsh Governments, our veterans commissioner, and others to give them the support that they so richly deserve.

15:00

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Yesterday marked Global Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Day, and I'd like to thank the many Members of the Senedd who yesterday joined with me in meeting people living with and affected by MND on the steps of the Senedd to raise awareness of this cruel disease. And those there very much appreciated you being there.

It's pleasing that significant changes have happened in Wales over the past two years, but more needs to be done quickly. MND sufferers desperately need more investment in areas that will better their quality of life. They need to see more investment in MND research in Wales, improvements to care and services, and there's the need for an all-Wales lead consultant neurologist for MND. And it's also important that local authorities need to find ways to fast-track home adaptations to enable those with MND to live with dignity and not suffer in what is already a terrible time in their lives. MND is truly devastating for both those living with it and their families, but this is where we, the Welsh Parliament, can make a difference by ensuring that their lives are not made even more difficult. In fact, each and every one of us in this Chamber, as Welsh parliamentarians, has a moral obligation to ensure that the voices of those with MND are heard and listened to. After all, MND sufferers do not have time to waste and desperately need more support now. 

5. Debate on the Standards of Conduct Committee Report—Fourth Report to the Sixth Senedd under Standing Order 22.9

The next item is a debate on the Standards of Conduct Committee report, the fourth report to the sixth Senedd under Standing Order 22.9. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Vikki Howells.

Motion NDM8034 Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Considers the Report of the Standards of Conduct Committee— Fourth Report to the Sixth Senedd laid before the Senedd on 15 June 2022 in accordance with Standing Order 22.9.

2. Endorses the recommendation in the report.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. As the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, I formally move the motion.

The committee considered the report from the commissioner for standards in relation to a complaint made against Eluned Morgan MS regarding her conviction for speeding offences. The Standards of Conduct Committee gave the commissioner's report careful consideration, and our report sets out the committee's judgment as to the sanction that is appropriate in this case.

The facts relating to the complaint and the committee's reasons for its recommendation are set out in full in the committee's report. A number of other matters arose during the consideration of this complaint, which the committee thinks appropriate to note as matters of principle relating to the conduct of Members generally, and I draw Members' attention to those. In particular, I draw Members' attention to the commissioner's comments about Members informing him of convictions for any offence. The committee would like to reiterate that this is not only good practice, but also in line with the transparency principle in the code of conduct and helps to maintain the high standards that we have set for ourselves. The motion tabled invites the Senedd to endorse the committee's recommendation.

I'd like to thank the standards committee for their work and for their consideration of the standards commissioner's report. I'm aware that the role of elected representatives is to lead by example. There's an expectation on all of us to uphold the highest standards, and, throughout this process, I've accepted that I failed to do so through my actions in this case. I'd like to place on record in the Chamber my sincere remorse and deep regret for my actions and I confirm that I pleaded guilty and accepted the court's judgment. I apologise unreservedly and wholeheartedly to you, my fellow Senedd Members, and to the people of Wales for the embarrassing position that I've put myself and this respected institution in, and I want to say sorry to anyone who has been affected by my actions.

I am aware of the responsibility upon us all as Members to lead by example, and I accept that I haven't maintained the standards required of us as Members of the Senedd in this case. I want to make it clear in the Senedd today that I apologise to you all, my fellow Members, and to the people of Wales for the unfortunate situation that I have put myself in, and I wish to say that I am sorry for any embarrassment that I have caused to the institution and to anyone who has suffered as a result of my actions. I wish to confirm that I pleaded guilty to the charges of speeding and have accepted the court's decision. Thank you, Llywydd.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to thank Eluned Morgan MS for her words here today. I'd also like to thank my fellow members of the Standards of Conduct Committee for their work on this matter and the clerking team for all of their hard work and professionalism in supporting our inquiry.

The proposal, therefore, is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There is no objection. Therefore, the motion has been agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

15:05

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Empowering communities

The next item is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv), and this debate is on empowering communities. I call on Luke Fletcher to move the motion.

Motion NNDM8018 Mabon ap Gwynfor, Luke Fletcher, Buffy Williams

Supported by Adam Price, Carolyn Thomas, Heledd Fychan, Huw Irranca-Davies, Janet Finch-Saunders, Jenny Rathbone, Joel James, Llyr Gruffydd, Mark Isherwood, Paul Davies, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhys ab Owen, Sam Rowlands, Sarah Murphy, Sioned Williams

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that Wales is home to thousands of local community groups, with hundreds running significant assets that make their communities better places to live.

2. Recognises the huge contribution community groups have made in supporting local people through the challenges of the pandemic.

3. Notes that the previous Welsh Government agreed with the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's recommendation that it should 'develop a programme of empowering communities across Wales with the voluntary sector, acting as an enabling state for community action'.

4. Notes the important role that local authorities often play in ensuring community ownership of assets, and working in partnership with community groups and other organisations to ensure successful community venture.

5. Notes the recent IWA report, Our Land: Communities and Land Use, which finds that Welsh communities are the least empowered in Britain and calls for a major shake-up of community policy in Wales.

6. Further notes the Wales Cooperative Centre’s recently published report, Community ownership of land and assets: Enabling the delivery of community-led housing in Wales.

7. Notes that Wales, unlike Scotland and England, has no legislation giving communities the right to buy local assets of community value.

8. Believes that enabling community groups to retain local buildings and land as community facilities and supporting them to develop active and engaged communities is key to building a more prosperous, equal and greener Wales.

9. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) coproduce a communities strategy to develop an enabling state for community action;

b) explore the legal options for establishing a community right to buy in Wales.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. In a report published this year, the Bevan Foundation found that Wales has some of the weakest provisions for community rights of ownership and control in the UK. Another report found that communities face a now arduous and demoralising process, and that it was extremely likely that the situation in Wales has led to many assets being permanently lost to communities. Assets such as playing fields, historic buildings and areas of stunning natural beauty can end up in disrepair or disuse as a result of a poor and complicated system. As a country with a proud history of championing our communities, we cannot allow this to continue.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns meant that we all got to know a little bit more about our local respective towns, cities and villages. We were more aware of that nice little path around the corner, the new field down the road to take the dog to, or the playing fields that we hadn't visited since we were children. Despite the many wonderful sites across the country, we must be proactive in ensuring that they stay well maintained and well used within their communities. One of the best ways to ensure that the local park or whatever it may be is looked after is to place it in the hands of the community. After all, who is better placed to ensure a community asset is given the care and attention it needs and deserves than the community itself?

Following the pandemic, the latest 'Wellbeing of Wales' report showed a marked increase in the number of people who feel they can influence decisions in their local area. Across Wales, we saw a community-level response to COVID, which led to numerous examples of improved understanding, decision making and collaboration between communities and public bodies. We live in a nation where people are proud of their communities and want to be involved in their futures. But, despite being a country full of proud communities, we're yet to reach a position where the support is available to empower these communities. The recently published Institute of Welsh Affairs report, 'Our Land: Communities and Land Use' offers several recommendations that, if enacted, would allow residents to take control of their local area and ensure a strong and empowered future for their community, as well as the Wales Co-operative Centre report, 'Community ownership of land and assets: enabling the delivery of community-led housing in Wales'. However, the system that we currently find ourselves in is not fit for purpose. The community asset transfer system is one that is more suited to local authorities' cost cutting rather than community empowerment.

We don't need to look far for examples of community empowerment supported by Governments. The Scottish Land Fund has allowed a number of communities across Scotland to take control of local assets and mould them into something fit for local people. This is what we need in Wales. That's why we are calling on the Government to co-produce a community strategy, to develop an enabling state for community action, and for the Government to explore the legal options for establishing a community right to buy in Wales. For too long, our communities have been underpowered, at the mercy of outside interests. What we are proposing—Mabon, Buffy and I—is that we put the power back into the hands of the people. It's as simple as that.

I thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for submitting today's motion, also Buffy Williams and Luke Fletcher for co-submitting. In addition to this, of course, I was pleased to be able to record my support for today's motion, and, as I'm sure Members will be well aware, I never miss an opportunity to talk about our local communities, in particular empowering them, as is so, so important, as already outlined initially by Luke Fletcher just then. But, in contributing in today's debate, I'd like to focus on two key areas that I think are crucial in empowering our local communities before looking to address the two main action points in today's motion.

And the first point really is the importance and role of our councillors and councils in making this ambition a success. As I've stated time and time again in the Chamber, it's councillors who often know their communities best and often are true advocates of their communities, because they're democratically elected to do so. And it's councillors who need to be given the levers and power to deliver the change as needed in the community, to truly empower them and the residents that they represent.

15:10

Joyce Watson took the Chair.

It states in point 4 of today's motion that 'local authorities often play' an important role

'in ensuring community ownership of assets,'

whilst working with community groups. Now, Luke Fletcher's point was well made in terms of that some of the existing powers perhaps aren't as transparent or easy for community groups to engage with as they should be.

But also, as outlined in point 2, it's these community groups and councillors who really went above and beyond during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we can't lose that enthusiasm. We really should be harnessing that. It's crucial that our locally elected champions are trusted and fully supported, if we want to maximise that enthusiasm that we've seen over recent years.

Secondly, when talking about empowering communities, I just want to mention the importance of having pride of place, being proud of the place that we work and live in. As we sadly know, many of our communities are in desperate need of some very basic improvements and perhaps don't receive the service that they deserve to have that pride in the place that they live in. Again, through the pandemic, didn't we, we saw a renewed sense of community and pride in our local areas, as Luke Fletcher already outlined—many people using our local parks, appreciating natural scenery, often taken for granted for a long time, but suddenly coming to life as we all took our one-hour daily exercise down the local footpath. Seeing those small improvements in the place that we live in makes such a difference, and a real sense of ownership also makes such a difference. We see the improvements elsewhere by seeing the physical improvements in the environment that we live in. We see communities flourish, that pride restored in the place that we live, and it's often community champions, our local residents, who are right at the heart of all this.

But in terms of the action points, as it were, in today's motion, the motion

'Calls on the Welsh Government to:

'a) coproduce a communities strategy to develop an enabling state for community action;

'b) explore the legal options for establishing a community right to buy in Wales.'

As you'd expect from me, a right to buy is something I certainly support in many different aspects. That's also why we on this side of the Chamber today are really happy to support today's motion, because, as we've outlined in our recent manifesto as Conservatives, we think that empowering local communities is really important, and being able to support them in protecting their local services is important as well. We've explored and thought about ideas around things like a community ownership fund, which perhaps could be within the thinking of Governments in the future as well. A community ownership fund would help local communities to buy facilities, such as a local pub, shop or library that needs saving, that perhaps is closing down, and just really empower those communities or groups to get hold of those things that are very important to their village or their town.

As I'm sure Members across the Chamber would agree, again, it's those local people, it's our residents that we serve at a very local level, who often know best what is needed for their area, but they haven't got the right powers and the tools at the moment to quickly enable them to do that—

Thank you so much. Nobody would disagree with any of those sentiments—

—and comments, but my question, really, is: surely, empowering communities is about having the funding within those communities so that we have libraries and leisure centres and vibrant schools, and would you say that the austerity agenda, deliberate cuts to Wales, has diminished that capacity?

You're exactly right; as I said, funding is an important element of this, and local authorities have a role to play in that. I think what we're talking about here, though, today, is actually assets, the ownership of things, not just going through local authorities, but at an even more local level, with community groups, anybody who sees something that they think makes a big difference to their community getting hold of that and actually doing a good job of running that facility.

But thank you for your opening comments there, Rhianon; I always appreciate being supported by you over there. I can't remember where I was up to in terms of what I was saying there; you threw me there.

But, in addition to these points just made then, empowering local communities also looks like local neighbourhood plans as well. I think, at times, our planning system, with all the legal restraints that it has and has to have, sometimes can miss out on that very local involvement with people having decision making about how things look and feel within their locality, how things look and feel in terms of of what is built around them as well.

So, just in closing today, it is a great opportunity, I think, for us as Members across the Senedd, across the political Chamber, to come together to recognise the importance of our local communities and support the aspiration of empowering them, as Rhianon so eloquently said. In light of this, I'd like to again thank Mabon for submitting today's motion, and I look forward to hearing many more contributions and hopefully be able to contribute myself further as the debate goes on. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:15

I think this is a very important debate to make people feel that they have some control over their communities, when so much seems to be not in people's control. Therefore, it's really important that we equip communities with better tools to protect themselves from external interests with no stake in an area, who just want to monetise everything they can get their hands on.

Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira paid with their lives trying to highlight the galloping destruction of the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world. Tragically, the rule of law has been undermined or ignored, not least by the current Brazilian Government. Commercial interests—some commercial interests—know no bounds in the search for profit, untroubled by the impact on nature, the Amazonian Indians who have lived there for millennia, and the devastating impact that this is likely to have on the future of our planet collectively. It's an extreme example, but it's not an isolated incident, so I particularly want to focus on point 8 in the motion, about enabling communities to retain local buildings and land as community facilities.

I recently visited the site of the Llanishen and Lisvane reservoirs, which is on the border of Cardiff Central and Cardiff North, which will in a couple of years' time return to being a community asset open to the public. The amenity would have been completely lost were it not for the efforts of the community, spearheaded by the Reservoir Action Group, known as RAG, and a 10-year campaign to combat one of the largest American mulitinationals—Pennsylvania Power & Light—who wanted to turn it into housing because, obviously, that is much more profitable than being the custodian of a former water reservoir.

As soon as it was acquired from Welsh Water in 2004, Pennsylvania Power & Light set about kicking off the sailing club that was on the site, refusing permission to the fishing club and putting up huge barriers to prevent people getting on to the site to enjoy this very special site of special scientific interest, due to the presence of a wide variety of grassland fungi and the over-wintering birds that land on Lisvane reservoir.

So, Pennsylvania Power & Light, through its subsidiary, Western Power Distribution, were arguing that this amenity was no longer needed, and it was only the efforts of RAG that enabled it to become a listed building, and it took three public inquiries to defeat Pennsylvania Power & Light. They finally threw in the towel in 2010—no, I think a little bit later, in 2013, but not until they had already completely drained the Llanishen reservoir, which is a multimillion pound venture to refill and repair, given the strict restrictions around reservoirs, for good reasons. So, it is an irony that this asset is now back in the hands of Dŵr Cymru due to the efforts of the much-loved and long-lamented Carl Sargeant, who persuaded them to take back the site that they had sold off in the first place.

It will be a wonderful site, but if it wasn't for the real efforts of a very large-scale community campaign, we would simply not have this, and it's really been down to the community to protect it. So, it's really illustrating of just how determined people need to be and also the fact that the planning regime and the community asset regulations that exist in other parts of Britain are simply absent in Wales, and that needs to be rectified.

So, for current problems, there's a pub called the Roath Park in my constituency, on City Road. It is the last remaining Victorian-era pub on that road, and it's destined for demolition because it's cheaper to simply tear it down and put up some modern flats instead. I'm sure they'll be hideous. And instead, they could be amending this fine building to make dwellings for future use. So, there has to be an alternative to this. Cadw refuse to list it, and even had it been locally listed by Cardiff Council, that wouldn't have protected it.

So, we need to look again at how we can protect things in our communities that people value and want to preserve. And if people are there saying, 'We will take this on', then they shouldn't have people who just simply have the money and just want to make a quick buck to prevent them doing so. And if we don't do this, there's no way we're going to be able to develop the 15-minute city that's being developed in Paris and Nottingham and other places, which is the only way forward if we are going to meet our sustainability goals.

15:20

As we all know, community groups play an important and vital role in their communities and I'd like to begin by thanking, from the bottom of my heart, every community group that is active in the region that I represent. And although a number of community groups receive support from local authorities, a number of them face challenges too. What I would like to see personally as a result of this motion is to make it easier for communities to take ownership of local assets of community value.

From October 2021 to April of this year, my office received 11 enquiries from community groups specifically seeking support with regard to the process of community asset transfer. In one example, a community group wants to save local playing fields for community use, while their local council, which owns the land, wants to sell the land for the construction of social housing. In the community group's experience, the council officials, who are meant to support the transfer of community assets, were compromised as the council had a firm view on the future of that particular parcel of land. Where was the support, therefore, for this group?

Indeed, land is regularly sold by councils without communities being aware or being given the opportunity to protect the land as a community asset. Many of these are small plots of land in current communities that have difficulties with a multiplicity of issues such as parking, access to electric-vehicle charging points, and, of course, with the cost-of-living crisis, they don't have a parcel of land to grow food locally. A community right to buy would require estates departments to engage with local communities regarding proposals to sell parcels of land and to engage with the communities to establish their interest and to decide how assets like these can be used to meet local needs.

Another group that has contacted my office has just secured a lease on their community asset, five years after beginning their discussions with the local authority. This lengthy process can place huge pressure on the volunteers who are part of community groups and can place much-needed funding at risk, as well as putting the future of the assets that communities are working so hard to save at risk, because we know that these assets will decline if the funding is not made available whilst they await a decision by the local authority.

So, the experience of communities that have contacted me is that some local authorities treat them as though they are commercial entities rather than a key part of the community that the authority is committed to serving. We must put some measures in place. The current system as it currently stands isn't working, and I'm grateful to Mabon ap Gwynfor for raising this very important issue. After all, we all benefit if we empower our communities. We all benefit if historic buildings or parcels of land are used in a way that is beneficial to all of us. I'm very pleased to support this motion, but we also need to see action from Government on this. Thank you.

It's great to see so much support from across the Chamber. Community is, no doubt, important wherever you live in the world. I may be biased, but I think that community is extra special to people living in Wales. We are, by nature, an outgoing, kind and selfless people. Perhaps this is why we tend to seek common bonds through family, friends or place of birth, rather than profession, when we meet somebody for the first time. It is therefore jarring to hear from a much-respected think tank like the Institute of Welsh Affairs that communities in Wales are the least empowered in the UK. The pandemic shows just how much community spirit remains in our towns and villages, despite not having the conditions to thrive, like our counterparts in Scotland and England.

It's a strange anomaly that there is no community right to buy in Wales. Legislation was introduced by the Tories in England a decade ago. In Scotland, the protection for communities is even stronger. Here in Wales, nothing.

15:25

Thank you very much, Peredur. You’re quite right to outline that, 10 years ago, the UK Government brought in community asset transfers, community right to buy, and really, it was a very good piece of legislation that we wanted to see here in Wales. In fact, I myself raised it numerous times when I was shadow Cabinet Secretary, as they were called then, for local government. And it’s fair to say that, in those 10 years, my colleague Mark Isherwood has also raised it. So, we as a group have raised this time after time after time. Would you not agree that we've wasted 10 years? And you have been in with the Labour Government over this time. Do you not think we've wasted time and we really need to have a robust question posed to the Welsh Labour Government to get on with it?

I think it’s, as we’re calling it here today, time to do something about it, so it’s good to—[Interruption.]

Anyway. There will be many communities in Wales that have lost community assets over the last decade without the legislation. I can provide a recent example of somewhere that looks set to lose the only pub in a very small community. The people behind the campaign to save the pub have asked me not to identify them just because there’s a tiny glimmer of hope that things may go their way, and they do not want to jeopardise relations with the current owner of the pub. Despite having financial backing, a solid business plan and a heavy backing from the community, the efforts to save the pub have so far been unsuccessful, and the pub looks set to be sold on the private market. When told about Plaid Cymru’s effort to get community right to buy legislation in Wales, my contact from the campaign said, and I quote, ‘A community right to buy scheme? That would have been so helpful. We would own our pub by now and would be sitting outside it enjoying the sunshine.’ So, please, in the Government response to this debate, I hope I do not hear a line that says that there is no need for legislation, or at least, try telling that to the people I’m in contact with, who are fighting to save the pub and the only community hub for miles.

There are examples of buildings being rescued, restored and returned to community use. I had the pleasure of chairing a Finance Committee stakeholder event in Llanhilleth Miners Institute last week. This tremendous building, gifted to the people from the contributions of miners, is an amazing resource, and a venue for people in the local area and beyond. There are other examples, but some of these community assets have been saved for the benefit of the local residents despite the odds being stacked against them. Let’s make things easier for communities to preserve their heritage and retain facilities. They should get, at the very least, parity with their counterparts in Scotland and England.

I was reminded of the importance of this during a visit in my region a few months back. I’d gone to visit a constituent who was spearheading a campaign to restore a community asset that has great potential and could transform the area. She told me about her efforts to garner interest in the project with a stall in a nearby town centre. The apathy she found in the people she spoke to left her very upset. In her words, ‘So many people have given up.’ I fear that, unless we act soon and empower our communities, we will not only lose those people, but also the generations that follow. We cannot allow this to happen. Diolch.

I call on the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt.

Diolch yn fawr, acting Presiding Officer, and can I thank Members for tabling this important debate? Just also to say, in following on from many Members who’ve spoken today, that I’m also pleased to have the opportunity to recognise the thousands of community groups across Wales, and thank them for making such a difference to the life of their communities, which they support. And of course, many of these community groups are addressing inequality, tackling poverty, building confidence, self-esteem, and improving health and well-being. Many of these groups are already also managing community facilities, buildings and green spaces, which act as a focus for community action, and provide local access to vital services. And it's clear that community-owned and community-run assets can help to empower our communities, which is the headline of your debate today—empowering communities—but also to improve their resilience. Because it's quite clear that evidence is showing that communities with resources like community assets, strong partnerships and local advocates can actually be very resilient in terms of responding to the sorts of shocks that so many communities have experienced in recent years—not just the pandemic, but flooding, and now, of course, the cost-of-living crisis, a cost-of-living crisis that we have not seen for decades. And communities are responding to that.

15:30

Thank you. Sorry, I was too late to speak on this item. I just want to clarify something—that we are talking about community facilities, which are really important. Because I do have a bit of an issue about the Conservatives believing that public services could be run by volunteers, and that passing on community facilities to voluntary groups, rather than being run by public funding, to cut public service costs, is not really a desirable policy. And I find that projects are not often sustainable without someone to lead on them and the backing of central funding. So, this is about community facilities, isn't it? I'm just trying to get that clarification. Thank you.

This is a complex area in terms of developing community policy, and I want to go on to that, in terms of what this will mean in terms of delivering those services at the sharp end, and also, recognising that there are barriers, and also that this is about working relationships. I'm very interested, for example, just in terms of the role that Flintshire County Council has played in working with their town and community councils very proactively—you may have been involved in your former role as a councillor—on asset transfer. Because the local authority, Flintshire, the local county voluntary council, groups seeking transfers, worked together. That's what we would want to see across the whole of Wales, and that actually does improve the chance, for example, in terms of facilities, to achieve a successful transfer with the local authority, supported by the county voluntary council, which, of course, we fund to play this role. And also, Flintshire has got a list of all its transferable assets on its website. That's accessible, and it invites bids from groups interested in taking on those assets.

I just want to move on to the fact that volunteers and community groups, as I said, have played a hugely important role in responding to the pandemic, in particular, and the fact that there are also voluntary and community groups—we have them in all our constituencies—who are playing a significant role, for example, in achieving a fair and green recovery. They're working at every level, often under their own initiatives, but engaging with the local authorities, town and community councils, but other landowners as well, particularly in terms of the fact there are so many action for nature groups and environmental groups across Wales.

Just to say, in terms of part of Wales's recovery from the pandemic, we've been working in partnership with the third sector partnership council, which I chair. There's cross-sectoral representation there from across community and voluntary third sector groups. I think the recovery plan is important, and it helps us as I respond to this debate, because as a result of the recovery plan and our response now to the cost-of-living crisis, we are taking the first steps in developing a communities policy. I think Luke Fletcher actually asked me that question in his opening comments, about how we are actually developing new co-productive ways of working with communities. Our communities policy gives us the opportunity, and also this debate, I would say, is a clear guide to that.

Because what we've said, and I spoke at the Gofod conference this morning about this, is that we're aiming for Welsh communities to be thriving, empowered and connected, so that they can rise to meet new challenges. 'Thriving' means that our communities have strong, sustainable foundations, can build on their assets, have the tools they need to deal with adversity and respond to new opportunities. 'Empowered' means that our communities are hardwired into decision making at every level, that they have the capacity not just to influence but to develop ways of working to identify their own assets, needs and priorities, and to make decisions and deliver solutions. I see someone waving at me.

15:35

Minister, can I point out that—I'm sorry, I missed you, Huw—Huw wants to make an intervention?

Thank you very much for taking the intervention. I didn't want to speak in this debate, but I'm really pleased to support this debate today and to hear others speak, and it's great to hear the Minister talk about the engagement with the co-operative centre of Wales. Would she recognise that much of the motion here today, cross-party as it is, actually reflects very accurately the long-running campaigns by the Co-operative Party in Wales, and across the UK, in terms of empowerment, wealth building, ownership, and including the issue of exploring the potential for legislation? So, in her remarks, closing up, I wonder if she'd turn to that as well, in welcoming this debate today and the fantastic contributions we've had.

Thank you very much, Huw Irranca-Davies. I'm really pleased you've made that intervention and recognised the principles not just of the Co-operative Party, which are very much hardwired into Welsh Government values and principles as well, because my third point is about being connected. And what do we mean by that? That communities can work effectively in partnership to co-produce the services and manage assets and the support that they need. 

I will say, in coming to the conclusion of my response, that I welcome the recently published reports on community ownership from both the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the Wales Co-operative Centre, now Cwmpas. And I want to assure colleagues in the Senedd that communities, and community actions, and how we can support and empower them, are at the heart of the Welsh Government programme for government. 

I just want to mention the importance of resource. The community facilities programme is providing grants to help communities buy, develop and improve community assets. I think you will all know what that money can mean in your communities, and to some of these community assets, buildings and green spaces. We have provided over £41 million in capital grants to 295 projects. There are so many of those projects, with £19.5 million through the community facilities programme over the next three years, so please encourage proposals and developments. I visited a few recently, such as, on Saturday, Railway Gardens in Splott, operated by Green Squirrel, which is such an excellent example of this—a diverse community working together, very intergenerational, community action, local business, culture, music and food. But, also, you've only got to visit the Dusty Forge centre in Ely, the ACE project, but also, getting money out to sporting venues, community centres, mosques, temples, as well as churches and chapels. Not all the assets are community owned, but so many of them are run by the community and with the community, and we're now moving towards ensuring that we can help these projects with investment in energy efficiency. There's the Abergavenny Community Trust recently—they want net zero; they've got the solar panels, and we helped fund that. And we've also launched a £5 million community asset loan fund, delivered for us by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, complementing the CFP. 

I've come to the end of the time that I've got to speak to you today, but I want to just say that, in terms of our third sector support, the WCVA, 19 county voluntary councils in Wales, third sector organisations, Cwmpas and the Development Trusts Association Wales are all helping us and looking at ways in which we can strengthen our commitment. Local authorities have a crucial role to play in terms of community asset transfers, where the asset owners are involved in the process before, during and after the transfer. [Interruption.]

Finally, can I just reassure you that the Welsh Government is supporting this motion today? I think it's the first step to us looking at a co-productive route to our new communities policy. Diolch yn fawr. 

I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to reply to the debate. 

Thank you very much, temporary Presiding Officer. 

Can I just say at the beginning of my contribution that we've got a number of the young citizens of Wales here? Welcome all; you might well be sitting here at some point in the future. 

It's a pleasure to close this debate today, and I'd like to thank Luke Fletcher for opening the debate so eloquently, and I thank everyone else who has contributed to it. Before proceeding to the substance of the debate, I would also like to say that Buffy Williams would have liked to have been here today, and Buffy is central to the motion. She has a great deal of experience in this area, and she would have certainly enriched today’s debate. So, I thank her for her co-operation and support in reaching this point.

I don’t want to spend too much time criticising the Government. That's an easy thing to do in terms of the politics of the thing, but the truth is that I genuinely want to see delivery on these issues as soon as possible, and it is only the Government that can take action. So I don’t think I would have much success in convincing them by criticising them for the final minutes of this debate. 

But, it must be noted, before proceeding, that it is about time that the Government delivered on its promises. Yes, there are steps in place such as the community asset transfer, which, on paper, enables communities to take ownership of properties when a local authority or public body wants to dispose of them. But, and I speak from personal experience here, it is a very labour-intensive process that is very, very difficult to navigate, militating against community groups, with many giving up before achieving their ambition. I know this from experience. Heledd has spoken about the experiences in her contribution too. 

Over 10 years have passed since the Welsh Co-operatives and Mutuals Commission recommended that the Welsh Government should legislate to enable communities to register their community assets and to have first refusal when community assets go on the market. And seven years have passed since the then Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty announced a consultation on the idea of developing Welsh policy to empower communities, stating that there was strong support for the idea of establishing a scheme that would impose a moratorium on the sale of assets, whilst a local group is organising itself to make a bid. Indeed, a commitment was given that a legislative framework would be introduced to develop an assets of community value scheme here, and that this would happen following the 2016 elections. But, it is now 2022, and we are still waiting. 

Scotland has legislation that has been in place for over 20 years, as my colleague Peredur mentioned, and this legislation has been strengthened in that time. Communities across Scotland, be they rural or urban, have the right to bid for land and community assets, with a register of property and public land, and tens of millions of pounds are allocated to support community groups, with practical support also being given. That is what we need here. A great deal of this happens organically in Wales on the ground, but you need to understand the systems, and, above all, it takes resilience, time and commitment, which many people don’t have.

I want to take this opportunity, if I may, to pay tribute to one who did make the time and who came to understand the system, the father of the community action movement in modern Wales, if you will, namely the late Dr Carl Clowes, who worked so hard to revitalise the community in Llanaelhaearn, by establishing Antur Aelhaearn and then going on to establish Nant Gwrtheyrn. He also was one of the founders of Dolen Cymru, with that wonderful relationship between Lesotho and Wales. Carl passed away earlier this year, but what a legacy he left. He, along with the active Llanaelhaearn group, established the first community co-operative enterprise in the United Kingdom, having witnessed the damage and harm caused as the granite quarries in the area closed. He inspired the community to come together to launch an enterprise under local ownership that, at one point, sold clothes and other goods to major retailers in New York and Paris. I'm pleased to say that Antur Aelhaearn continues to operate in Llanaelhaearn to this day. 

Everybody, hopefully, knows about the astonishing history of Nant Gwrtheyrn, as Carl and the gang repurposed that isolated village, and turned it into a successful centre for learning Welsh, not only breathing new life into the buildings, but into the community, into people and into a language. Carl’s legacy and the Antur’s work can be seen to this day, from the co-operative pubs Y Fic in Llithfaen, Pengwern Cymunedol in Llan Ffestiniog, Y Plu in Llanystumdwy and Yr Heliwr in Nefyn, to the work of Cwmni Bro in Blaenau Ffestiniog and the dozens of co-operative enterprises scattered across Gwynedd.

This is the spirit that we need to harness: the spirit of community co-operatives, as Peredur mentioned. The appetite, the enthusiasm and the love for communities are there. We only need to look at the excellent work done in communities across Wales over the past two years, as communities identified where there were vulnerabilities and came together to care for each other, as Sam mentioned in his contribution.

How many times have we heard conversations in the pub or at the school gate, with people talking about a pub, old cinema, garage, old hotel, old chapel or an empty plot of land standing idle, and saying, 'I'm sure that something useful could be done with those properties'?

How many times have we seen buildings of local historical importance being demolished to build blocks of offices or luxury flats, as Jenny spoke about in her contribution? One only has to go to central Cardiff to see the architectural and cultural damage following the loss of so many of our historic buildings.

It is an all too familiar story, and unfortunately it’s a situation that has deteriorated over the past 10 years, as Janet mentioned in her contribution, as local authorities have had to sell assets to compensate for financial losses as a result of cuts. But the Government here can act and can ensure that communities are empowered to take ownership of these assets and develop them to be of community benefit.

What is of interest to me specifically is the exciting possibility that communities can begin developing affordable housing to meet the need in their own communities. Imagine that. As we face a housing crisis and a cost-of-living crisis—both interrelated, by the way—imagine if communities could identify local need and be given a parcel of land to develop homes of an appropriate size for their residents. They wouldn’t be driven by profit, but by the need to ensure that their families and neighbours had a roof over their heads. This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s a genuine possibility.

Think too about the possibility, through Ynni Cymru, of enabling communities to generate their own energy, and the economic benefit that the community would derive from this, or imagine a Wales with thriving co-operative shops, cinemas, allotments, leisure centres, creating quality jobs, with profits locked into the community.

I do welcome the contribution made by the Minister, and I'm pleased to hear that the Minister won't be opposing the motion. The Minister spoke about and praised Flintshire, with its register of assets. Well, why not follow that example and ensure that there is a national register of community assets available? Why don't you follow the leadership of Flintshire?

I also thank Huw Irranca-Davies for emphasising the need for legislation. I haven't heard today from the Minister what the intentions of the Government are in terms of legislation in this area, but I hope that there is scope for us to work on this going forward. So, Minister, and Government, do grasp this opportunity—an opportunity to develop policy and, hopefully, legislation that has the potential to transform the fortunes of our communities and their residents in Wales.

It would be good to see legislation introduced on this matter, of course—community empowerment legislation, including a register of community assets and giving communities first refusal on assets, legislation co-produced with our communities, which would ensure that it's possible to transfer assets simply to structured community groups, and, yes, with clauses to ensure that that property isn’t lost to public control. Do ensure that the funding is there, but also the practical support to guide communities on the journey, ensuring that they are in control. Thank you very much.

15:45

The motion—. Wait a minute, that's the next bit. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does anyone object? So, the motion is, therefore, agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Debate on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee Report: Annual Report on Natural Resources Wales

We move on now to item 7, debate on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee's report, 'Annual Report on Natural Resources Wales'.

Motion NDM8032 Llyr Gruffydd

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report: 'Annual Report on Natural Resources Wales', laid in Table Office on 23 March 2022.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd—or, acting Dirprwy Lywydd, I should say. Thank you for the opportunity to present this report. This is the first report on NRW that the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee has published during this Senedd term, and it is something that we do intend to publish on an annual basis. And that will be followed up, as today, with a debate, and there will be an opportunity for Members to raise any issues with the Minister here in the Chamber in relation to NRW.

In our report this year we talk, among other things, about the incident in 2020 on the River Llynfi. The Llynfi is a tributary to the River Wye, and we heard in First Minister's questions yesterday about concerns about the state of that river. But the Llynfi is a site of special scientific interest, located in a special area of conservation. And, in July 2020, 45,000 fish and other river life were killed in a pollution incident on the river.

Now, there was a 13-hour delay before NRW officials attended the scene after the alarm was raised. NRW said that the delay was due to officers attending to other high-priority pollution incidents and health and safety concerns for the one available officer. Now, an NRW investigation found that there was no realistic prospect of conviction against any company or individual for the event, and we'll never know what evidence might have been found if it weren't for the delay in investigating the incident. Now, I'm not repeating this story just to be critical of NRW and its staff. I know that NRW staff were heartbroken that the polluters got away with this destruction. But, of course, it is an important example of the real-world impact of a lack of resources and capacity.

Between its creation in 2013 and 2020, NRW’s budget reduced by over a third. And as its budget went in one direction, the scale of the job that was asked of the organisation to do went in the other direction. Over the years, the Welsh Government has piled additional responsibilities and duties upon NRW. Now, I and others here have repeatedly made the case in the Chamber and in various committees that NRW’s funding needs to be looked at seriously. The committee is therefore pleased that the Minister has at last decided to undertake a baseline review to map NRW’s duties and statutory functions against its funding. And I'm pleased that the Minister has finally recognised that there has been a gradual expansion in what NRW is being asked to deliver.

Now, the committee is of the view that this review is much needed. There has been a growing call from stakeholders for a review over recent years. Some have told us they are losing confidence in NRW's ability to fulfil its duties and responsibilities. And this wasn't criticism of staff, but a question of a lack of capacity and resources. We hope therefore that the baseline review, once completed, will provide clarity about what the Welsh Government expects from NRW and the type of organisation it is willing to pay for.

So, this is a very positive development, but it was a little disappointing, in looking at the small print in the Minister’s response, that the review won’t be concluded until the end of the 2022-23 financial year. I can understand the logic for the timing, but the progress that we're seeing is painfully slow, and we really need to see more urgency here, particularly as Members have been raising these concerns over many years now.

Of course, the baseline review doesn’t necessarily mean that there’ll be any more funding available at the end of the process. We as a committee have recommended that the Welsh Government must ensure that funding for NRW is commensurate with its roles and responsibilities, and we expect to see an appropriate increase in NRW funding following the baseline review. The Minister has accepted this recommendation in principle—of course she has, who wouldn't? It’s entirely reasonable to expect any organisation to be properly funded for the work it’s asked to do, isn’t it? But that hasn't been NRW’s story up to this point. I am pleased that the Minister has told us she is open to looking at funding levels and models as part of the baseline review, but, without funding commitments, well, I’m afraid the question remains as to whether this is an academic exercise or will we really see change.

There are a few points raised in the report on the governance of NRW. We welcomed the introduction of the full term of Government remit letter. It's a positive step, and it will give more certainty in medium-term planning, which is to be welcomed. The next iterations of NRW’s corporate and business plans have been delayed, however. But, as we now know that the baseline review won’t be concluded until the end of that financial year, I think this needs to be addressed, and, of course, I’ll be discussing this with NRW in due time.

We were told that staffing will be considered as a result of the baseline review, and we understand that this is a necessary part of the process. But NRW only recently undertook its own organisational redesign. So, we are concerned that another cycle of restructuring will make it even harder for NRW to focus on its core work.

Now, I hope I've covered the main themes of our report in the time available to me, given that it's only a half-hour debate this afternoon. But the question now is: where does this leave us as we near the end of NRW’s first decade? I can't believe that I'm saying that—it's been almost a decade since NRW was established. Well, there is some good news. The Welsh Government seems at long last to accept that a gap has developed between what NRW is being asked to do and the funding that it receives. That's positive. There are also positive steps being taken around governance arrangements, as I said, particularly with the full term of Government remit letter.

But, as I said earlier, if you look at the small print, it's not perhaps quite so positive, in the sense that the baseline review won't be completed until the end of the financial year, and there might not be an increase in funding even at the end of that process. And if there is no additional funding, of course, then, at the very minimum, I would hope that the Government would be willing to tell NRW what they no longer need to prioritise in delivering their functions.

But, a year from now, I do hope that I’ll be telling you about a very different outlook for NRW. But I am concerned that, despite the positive noises that we continue to hear, NRW's bumpy journey will continue. And if that is the case, then the question that I and the committee ask is: who knows how many more incidents we will see like the one on the River Llynfi? Thank you.

15:55

Thank you very much indeed, and my thanks to Llyr for chairing the evidence that we heard in this inquiry into NRW and bringing forward this report, and also our clerking team and those who gave evidence to us as well. At the same time as we face this double whammy of a climate crisis and a nature and biodiversity crisis, our report pointedly says that NRW needs a much-needed reset in funding and strategy to meet these crises. So, we believe, in bringing forward this report, that we do indeed have a much-needed opportunity now for a reset of the funding arrangements for NRW to put it on a stable footing now and for the future and to enable NRW to do its job properly, albeit being lean and mean and very, very green. 

Just short of a decade after the merger in 2013 of the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and Forestry Commission Wales—itself, of course, at the time courted some controversy—our report now picks up widespread current concern among stakeholders regarding, and I quote,

'its ability to monitor and enforce environmental protection laws; respond to incidents of environmental pollution and flooding; monitor and assess the condition of terrestrial and marine sites; and support land use and marine planning.' 

Yet an effective, dynamic, purposeful and adequately resourced NRW is crucial to the success of responding to the nature and biodiversity crises that we face, as well as protecting people. 

During scrutiny of the draft budget, the Minister for Climate Change told the committee that the question of whether NRW is able to effectively exercise its massive breadth of duties and responsibilities would be addressed through a fundamental baseline review, looking at the allocation of NRW resources against its statutory functions and the programme for government commitments. That'll conclude before April 2023. As the Chair says, that's a while off, but, if the time needs to be taken, reluctantly, then do it properly and then reset it, but do it really, really well; we can't waste any more time. The Minister's written response to our report has added more detail to that, and we're grateful for it. But we also note that NRW has told us that updates to its corporate and business plan and its remit letter have been delayed due to this baseline review. So, we simply cannot delay any further beyond the timelines the Minister has described. 

Minister, can I ask you: how does NRW and its broad remit and responsibilities ensure that protecting and enhancing the natural environment and ecosystem services is advanced, alongside its commercial interests in timber and renewables and so on, and that nature isn't compromised against the balance-sheet approach?

On the workforce, NRW told the Senedd's Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee—and we noted this—that enforcing the recent agricultural pollution regulations would be a massive workload requirement, needing 60 extra staff to deliver the minimum viable product, and well over 200 to deliver the full role. NRW's review of flooding in February 2020 found that it would require an additional 60 to 70 staff to ensure long-term sustainable improvements in flood management. More generally, Minister, are the concerns that we regularly pick up about staff overstretch across the piste with NRW. So, Minister, a very straightforward question: do we have enough staff and expertise in the right place and at the right time with NRW?

The state of our rivers and the cumulative attack of sewage and agricultural and developmental and industrial pollution has had plenty of Senedd airtime this week already, and it's good to hear this week of some of the work that the Minister has commissioned already, and of the grabbing by the Welsh Government of new opportunities in the regulatory regime to strengthen duties on water companies, and that the First Minister himself is going to chair a phosphate summit at the Royal Welsh Show this year, but timely intervention, as we heard from the Chair, Minister, is crucial. So, what timescales has she set herself and NRW and other bodies for reversing the decline in our rivers—and I say this as the salmon champion in this Senedd, of course—and for seeing improvements in our rivers?

Finally, Minister, next year will indeed be 10 years since NRW was created, when those three distinct organisations were brought together. Will this be the year when—after the baseline review and the reset that we see is desperately needed is done—we can celebrate an NRW that is newly renewed, revived, fit for purpose now and for the future? Diolch yn fawr.

16:00

I'd like to thank the Chair of the committee once again, and I thank my fellow members of the committee and the clerking team for their work on this topic. It became clear to us as a committee, as has already been set out, that NRW is facing a number of barriers and complexities that make it difficult for the body to do its work. NRW is an important regulator, but as Llyr Gruffydd, the Chair, has said, the budget has decreased by more than a third between the time of its creation and 2020.

But, at the same time as the budget has been decreased, the number of responsibilities given to the body has increased. That's not sustainable and it doesn't allow NRW to work in an efficient manner. This issue is evident in so many of the debates that we have had here at the Senedd. A whole host of problems have arisen over recent months and years related to flooding, to environmental pollution and to land use. And, yes, there is a tendency to think, ‘Well, this is just technical stuff.’ But no, actually, it has an impact on people's lives. It impacts on quality of life in our communities, on the safety of our environment, and it also impacts on the connection that we feel with the natural world around us. This isn't something far removed from us and something isolated. Rather, it's crucially important.

Stakeholders feel a lack of confidence, perhaps, in NRW's ability to do what is expected of it. And I would say, as the Chair has said, that this is in no way a criticism of the members of staff who work for NRW. We heard that there is a dashboard in NRW’s business plan; that is, a dashboard to measure progress made by the body in fulfilling work. That dashboard uses a traffic-light system, and of the 35 measures on the dashboard, two are red. We need to see movement on these, particularly, as Huw Irranca-Davies has been setting out, the inspections related to water. 

When the Minister replies to the debate, I would like to hear more about the Government’s view on