Y Cyfarfod Llawn
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.
Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is from James Evans.
1. What plans does the Minister have to make national parks more accountable to local people? OQ58580
Local accountability is intrinsic to governance of our national parks. Two thirds of members are selected by local authorities, guaranteeing accountability back to local people and communities. We are improving accountability and governance, including a support package for Brecon Beacons National Park and a new strategic, pan-Wales post focused on diversity and governance.
Diolch, Minister. In our national parks, it is vital that local people feel that they are part of the decision-making process, and that the national parks actually stand up for them and that they have representation from that area. The Welsh Government appoints a number of people to national parks, but, unfortunately, some of those people aren't even from Wales. So, what I would like to see is a system where local people can feed into that appointments process to make sure that we have local people representing our national parks to make sure that our businesses and our communities feel that they are respected and listened to by our national parks in Wales. Diolch, Llywydd.
Yes, so, national parks absolutely do need to respond to local people and their concerns and they must, of course, be representative of the communities they serve, but national parks also serve all of the people of Wales—they are, obviously, our 'national' parks, and it's very important that the national park authorities respond to both local and national needs. And so, we must make sure that their governance and their accountability reflect the need to reflect that engaged community inside the national park and on the edges of the national park, but also that they're there for the future of all of the people of Wales.
So, we work very closely with the national parks to engage widely when we develop the management plans and the other priorities. We need to have specific expertise on the national parks, as well as the local councillors who contribute so much. So, I'm very keen to make sure that we have a range of expert voices as well from the Welsh Government appointments. So, I'm not entirely certain that I agree with you that they should be people who live in Wales, although, obviously, where we have the expertise in Wales, we would certainly seek to do that. What we're much more keen on is making sure that the national park has a range of expertise available to it, both on its board, if you like—because that's what the council itself actually is—and then in the range of experts that we engage with in order to get the best possible outcome for both the people in the community itself, but very importantly for all of the people of Wales and, actually, the UK and globally, because the national parks are, of course, part of our protected landscape.
I also believe that the views of local people are important. I more importantly believe that it is important to protect our national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and green belt—we all benefit from them. Does the Minister agree with me that it is important to protect these areas for future generations, as opposed to the Conservative leader in the Senedd, who said that development is okay, as long as the infrastructure is put in place, such as doctors' surgeries, schools and transport infrastructure?
Well, I wholeheartedly agree with you, Mike. I really would like to stress that we have no intention of following the UK Government in considering opening up development near national parks in our areas of outstanding natural beauty or our sites of special scientific interest. 'Future Wales' and 'Planning Policy Wales' provide a comprehensive framework of protection for our national parks and AONBs for inappropriate development, and I, for one, am very determined that it stays that way.
2. What is the Government doing to improve public transport in South Wales East? OQ58587
Thank you. 'Llwybr Newydd', the Wales transport strategy, sets out our plans for an accessible, sustainable and efficient transport system not just in South Wales East, but across the nation.
Thank you for that response.
A frequent complaint during street surgeries is the state of the bus network. This service is a lifeline for so many people and is particularly the case in Blaenau Gwent, where car ownership is low and there is a higher proportion of older people than in many other constituencies. Unfortunately, if you wanted to travel by bus between Aberbeeg and Cwm—a 10-minute journey by car—it would take one hour and 44 minutes, as it goes the long way around. Can you give an indication of the roll-out of a new bus timetable and the budget it will have? Can you also consult with bus travellers in the communities where routes are operating so that the service is designed with them in mind?
Well, I'm passionate about the role the bus plays in the sustainable transport system. It's been a neglected part of the debate for far too long. We are dealing with the legacy of privatisation, which makes taking a strategic approach very difficult, because private companies can essentially run the services they wish, and we know, after the years of austerity, councils don't have the funds to provide services for social need. So, it needs a wholesale reform. We're consulting on our bus White Paper. We've had a lot of positive responses and we'll be publishing a summary of them shortly, and then we're planning to bring legislation to the Senedd next year, to set out a franchising system. And the purpose of that is to allow us to set out, with TfW and local authorities, what a network of routes looks like, to enable bus to be a viable option for most people. We know that about half of people never get on the bus, and, if we're going to hit our climate change targets, that has to change. So, we need them to be reliable, we need them to be frequent, we need them to be affordable. To do that requires a lot of plumbing to the system, and we are setting out on that journey. Unfortunately, it is not a quick journey, but we are, I think, heading in the right direction.
Deputy Minister, in June last year I asked the First Minister about the possibility of him introducing an all-Wales travel card, to allow people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups to access public transport. The introduction of such a card would ensure more seamless travel for residents, commuters and students, as well as encouraging tourism, thereby driving improvements in public transport, by increasing passenger numbers and demand. In response, the First Minister said there was a great deal worth exploring in the idea, and he gave a commitment to exploring the possibility of a card, to improve transport connectivity all across Wales. However, Deputy Minister, when I tabled a written question asking for an update on plans, you replied on 11 October 2022, referring to various existing concessionary fare schemes and said you were exploring options for integrated ticketing with Transport for Wales. It sounds to me, Deputy Minister, that you are pouring cold water on the idea of an all-Wales travel card. So, please could you confirm what is your position on this, and do you in fact agree with the First Minister that this is a proposal worth exploring?
Well, it's very much part of our thinking, but, as I've just explained, because we have a fragmented and privatised system, it is not as simple as it sounds, because different operators have different systems, we have no ability to compel them, because they are commercial companies. And the whole point of going to a franchise system across Wales, with standards for workers and for passengers, is to allow a greater commonality of services. And that includes an interchangeable bus, train and active travel ticket, which Transport for Wales are working on. But until we get that plumbing right, we're not able to do it. And I'm afraid this is a legacy of privatisation that we are living with today, and one we are working hard to overcome.
I know we want to look forward not back, but it's worth noting that the reason we've got still a bus service at all is because of the bus emergency scheme, and its successor scheme, that was initiated during the coronavirus crisis. And that was Welsh Government stepping in to help a private service. Now, I think that this private service owes us something back, and I don't think we're getting that. What are we seeing in the Aber valley, for example? I've had many constituents complain to me about cancellation of services. And what we really need to see is some kind of public control over this. Now, I've noticed that the White Paper on bus governance reform that was out for consultation actually goes further than the bus Bill proposals, so it would be interesting to hear the responses to the consultation. Can you give us an indication when you will publish those? I know you've said that you're doing it imminently, but can you give us a clear idea of when you will publish those bus consultation responses, and when will we hear more about the progress of the White Paper?
Thank you. The intention is do that this month. There's an awful lot going on around the bus reform agenda. We're looking at the issue of fares, we're looking at the issue of programming—as I say, not just putting in place the legislative framework for allowing franchising, but working with TfW and local authorities on where those routes should go. So, TfW have done some detailed work in north Wales as a first step for that mapping of where an idealised bus route should exist, which then allows us to build that into the franchise, when we pass it and when we let it.
You're right that we have put a significant amount of money into the bus industry—it's something like £150 million of emergency funding. As you say, without that, there would be no bus industry in most of Wales. This June, we announced a further £48 million package of support, and it does come with conditions—it is a something-for-something deal. And it's been actually a very productive working relationship we've had with the industry, which I think prepares us for franchising. Because, for the first time, I think we've had the barriers come down, where the conversation used to be, sometimes, adversarial, with them asserting their rights as commercial operators. It's now far more of a partnership, and we have access to the real-time data of the routes they're running and the fare box that they're generating, and that allows us then to design a new system far better.
To be fair to the bus industry, they are facing significant pressures, from a workforce that has been shrinking, with older bus drivers not returning after the pandemic, the difficulty of recruiting, as well as rising costs because of inflation. So, there are a number of pressures on the industry. That's why we think putting them on a firmer footing, under an organised and transparent franchising system, is the way to make modal shift a reality.
Questions now from party spokespeople. First, the Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Thank you. Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, last Friday I joined an urgent meeting with a group of registered social landlords to discuss the future of social housing in Wales. Amongst their fears and their worries and concerns, there was this feeling that Welsh Government, in their opinion, has failed to create a strong foundation to drive social housing new builds. Only around 9,000 housing association and local authority homes were built between 2010 and 2019, an average of 1,000 annually. This is way below even your estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 new homes are required over the next five years. In fact, your own manifesto commitment that says you'd build
'20,000 new low carbon social homes for rent'
is hanging by a thread. RSLs have warned me that if they are unable to increase rents in line with inflation this year, serious cuts will have to be made to the services they provide. They provide debt advice. There are a lot of things that registered social landlords bring in providing quality accommodation. I would certainly like to put on record my thanks for the role they play in providing homes for people in Wales. But also, serious cuts would have an impact on their ability to continue with building projects. What steps will you take to ensure that the RSLs themselves do not have to in any way stall the building of new social housing?
Once again, Janet, asking me these questions in the complete absence of any understanding of the overall financial arrangements in the UK at the moment is just extraordinary. We are facing a cost-of-living crisis across the UK, entirely as a result of the idiotic decisions of the Conservative Government.
We have a very difficult decision to make on setting the rent caps for Wales for social housing—a very difficult decision indeed. You are absolutely right that that is a finely balanced decision based on making sure that we have the rental stream income to ensure that we have both repair and maintenance budgets and new-build budgets capable of meeting the increasing demand—the increasing demand caused by the number of people unable to keep a roof over their head because of the cost-of-living crisis. So, we have a lovely circular vicious circle going on here. That is a very difficult decision to make indeed.
We have around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of our tenants who are self-paying—it depends on which RSL and council you're talking to. It's obviously variant, but it's around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of tenants who are self-paying, who are amongst the lowest paid workers in our public services and in our gig economy who need to be able to keep a roof over their heads in social housing. Then, as we have rehearsed many times, the Conservative Government has seen fit to freeze the local housing allowance, an act of extreme stupidity given the volatility in the housing market. So, there are a number of macro-economic decisions here that are making the situation here considerably worse.
We also have, as you know, global supply chain problems. We have huge problems with getting construction firms to be able to have both the workers and the construction materials they need, because we can no longer recruit the workers from abroad that we used to have. We have a perfect storm of misery. So, of course we want to accelerate that. We work very hard with our RSLs and our social housing providers. I meet with them very regularly, both individually and with the overarching groups. The idea that there is some silver bullet to fix this that isn't related to the mess the economy is currently in is, I'm sorry, just complete pie in the sky.
So, it is hanging by a thread, our ability to build 20,000 low carbon homes. We are almost certainly facing the worst cuts that we have ever seen right across public services. Although, if your Government saw fit to actually announce it at the same time as they announced the mess that they had, we would know already. How you can ask me that question, divorced from the macro-economic situation, I just cannot imagine.
Minister, I am not here to scrutinise your performance over the last few weeks, but I am here to scrutinise and challenge the performance of a Welsh Labour Government over 23 years that has failed consistently, year on year, to build the right number of houses. You must now—. Stop looking to the UK Government to blame them. This is your mess. Devolution under a Welsh Labour Government over the last 23 years has denied many in my community a home and a roof above their head. You must use the levers at your disposal now to ensure that sufficient house building goes ahead. We do not want a repeat of the situation that saw the First Minister take a year and a half, from January 2021 to July 2022, to hold a summit to discuss the serious house building crisis, which has been called by Natural Resources Wales—and they are very close to you—. And their guidance on phosphorous—. In fact, I have been warned that the likely release of marine nutrient data by NRW could now potentially extend the areas impacted across Wales and result in coastal authorities now being unable to grant planning permission for houses. You stated last week—
You're going to need to come to your question.
I am. You said that this level of discussion about the release of marine nutrients is held at official level. You need to take a leadership role in this. And will you clarify, Minister, whether you are developing a strategy in case the release of marine nutrient data leads to yet more nutrient management issues that exacerbate the house building crisis?
Yet again, Janet, this is like trying to discuss the 1930s without reference to the depression. The idea that you can tell me that my target for phosphates is holding up house building, when you yourself go on about apparently believing in a climate and nature emergency, is just breathtaking, frankly. Our rivers are in a right mess. We need to do something about all of the people who are contributing to that, and that is across a large number of sectors. That is absolutely the water companies; it is absolutely the house builders; it is absolutely the agricultural sector. It is every single sector that is contributing to that. We had a summit over the summer, in which every sector agreed with the First Minister that they would step up to their own responsibility in doing that. NRW, of course, monitor that, and they are, of course, the enforcer, but it is far, far more complicated than that. And for you to tell me that you think the answer to that is for us to take off all limits on what can be built along our rivers and coasts and allow willy-nilly house building, because my phosphate levels are somehow preventing that, whilst simultaneously telling me constantly that you believe in a climate and nature emergency, is, frankly, hypocrisy such as I have seldom seen.
Thank you, Minister. I can honestly assure you that no-one has ever needed to put words in my mouth. We don't need to go back to the 1930s; 23 years is long enough for the people of Wales to have been failed by your lack of house building. Central to the house building process in Wales are planning and regulatory officers, but so overwhelmed are they with work that I know my own local authority is not able to check adherence to planning conditions, and are now only pursuing enforcement upon complaint. [Interruption.] Sh!
Minister, the Welsh Local Government Association, the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management Wales, Newport City Council, Flintshire County Council and Caerphilly have expressed concerns about a lack of resources and capacity within local authorities for enforcement. So, will you co-operate with us, with your officers across our planning authorities, to ensure that they do have the necessary resources to deal with planning more quickly—more planning applications allowed to go through—so that it helps towards your targets? And, also, we need to have an efficient enforcement process in Wales. Thank you.
Again, Janet, how do you think those people are paid for?
Just answer the question.
I am answering the question. Those people are paid for from the rates support grant. Right? That has been cut successively by Conservative Governments over the last 10 years. Planners are the back-room staff so beloved of Conservative Governments for pillorying for being wasteful. This is the direct result of your austerity policies, with apparently yet more to come. If you think that there is a magic money tree here in the Welsh Government, you are much mistaken. I have not yet found it; it does not exist. Your Government in Westminster is entirely, entirely responsible for the lack of investment in public services, which leads directly to the lack of growth. The anti-growth coalition, Janet, I'm afraid, is absolutely on your benches and in your Government.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. I want to start by mentioning something that's common across Wales, but by using an example from my own constituency. A constituent of mine is a single parent, who's had to move in with her sister, because her former partner evicted her from her home. She is now living in a three-bedroomed home, but there are nine people living in that property. She is on the council waiting list, but there's no social housing available, so she's looking for private rental accommodation. Unfortunately, she's been priced out of the private rental market. The cheapest she can find in the area is £700 per month, but she has to prove that she has an income of three times the rent for the agent and the landlord to let it to her. That's £25,000 per year, which is more than the average wage in my constituency. She has no hope of showing that she has an income of £2,100 a month, and apparently this practice of going for a salary three times the rent is very common in the sector. There is talk that she could find a guarantor, but, again, you need family with deep pockets to do that. Do you agree with me that this practice of putting barriers in the way of people on low incomes from accessing the rental sector should come to an end, and what steps are you taking in order to remove these barriers to low-income renters? Thank you.
Absolutely, Mabon, we have some practices growing up in the rental sector that are clearly putting barriers in place for people who want to get there. Obviously, what we'd really like to do is build social homes at pace and scale. I've just had a conversation with the benches opposite about the macroeconomic factors that are preventing us going as fast as we'd like, but I would like to just say that we have put absolutely record levels of investment into that, both through the social housing grant and with our councils. So, we are still building them, but the intervention rate that we are now having to put in is significantly increased for each individual house. The money that we've put aside, despite being at record levels, is, of course, eroded by inflation, which has gone into double figures, I understand, today. It's quite clear, isn't it, that that macroeconomic picture erodes the buying power that we have here in Wales with a fixed income, effectively.
But we are working with the local councils to make sure that they can put up guarantees and bonds for tenants who find themselves in that position in the private rented sector. We are working with our private sector landlords, who we can contact through Rent Smart Wales, to make sure that they know about that and they are willing and able to accept guarantees and bonds from the local authority. That's not open to absolutely everybody, but it sounds as if your constituent would be on the social housing list anyway and would be eligible.
Obviously, I'm constantly saying to the benches opposite that increasing the local housing allowance in line with inflation, as they ought to have done, would significantly help in the situation you find yourself in. We are working with private sector landlords as well to make sure that we get as many of them across into Leasing Scheme Wales as possible, and that's growing apace.
I know that we're having a conversation about rent levels and rent capping, and so on, but, genuinely, we are watching what's happening in Scotland and Ireland with great interest. You'll know that both Governments are currently threatened with legal action over what's happened. I would be really interested to have a conversation with private sector landlords in various areas of Wales to understand what their appetite for staying in the market is, especially if the rent was capped. So, if that landlord can't get that level of rent, what will they do with the house? The difficulty is that, in a volatile housing market and with this kind of interest rate, the likelihood is that that landlord may well sell that house, because they can get similar levels of income from investing the money in the markets, because high inflation obviously helps savers, it only disenfranchises borrowers.
So, genuinely, we are trying to hit again the sweet spot between helping people get into these houses so that they can have a roof over their head, with all the factors that we have about growing social homes as fast as we can, but I also want to incentivise the private sector to stay in the market, so working with them to know what would help. For example, Members very shortly will be hearing from us about things like how we can incentivise the PRS to bring their homes up to the Welsh housing quality standard so that tenants are paying much lower bills when they get into their homes. It's not only the high rent, it's the level of energy expenditure and so on that's really important.
My heart goes out to people all over Wales who find themselves in that situation. We really must go at scale and pace in building those new homes, but we really do need to work with our private rented sector as well to get stability into the market and a decent level of return, whilst providing those homes for people. I'm very happy to look at the specific example, though, if you want to write to me.
I thank the Minister for that response.
The next question, if I may, is on recent research that was commissioned by Back the Bill partners, including Tai Pawb, Shelter Cymru and the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru. They found that introducing a right to adequate housing would generate significant savings for the public purse. The benefits are significant. The research identified benefits to the public purse worth £11.5 billion over a 30-year period, with an initial 10-year cost of £5 billion. It goes without saying that investing in the improved quality and suitability of homes would lead to fewer hospital admissions. Equally, with a gradual increase in the number of suitable homes available, there'd be less reliance on council and other homelessness support services and so on. So, we welcome the upcoming White Paper, and the Green Paper announced last week in this area, and I very much look forward to co-operating with you to ensure the housing sector can provide for everyone's needs in Wales. However, after decades of chronic underfunding in social housing, does the Minister agree that now is the time to implement an invest-to-save model, as advocated for by Tai Pawb, Shelter Cymru and CIH Cymru, and to embed the right to adequate housing into legislation, as embedded in the United Nations convention on human rights?
I'm very interested indeed in trialling a right to adequate housing in this Senedd term, for sure. But one of the things we have to make sure is that we get the dominoes in a row first. Members will have heard me speak—my time sense is terrible—very recently in the Chamber about the homelessness legislation that we're about to bring forward. We see that as the first step in securing a continuum towards the right to adequate housing, because, frankly, if you don't have the right not to be homeless, then you're a long way off adequate housing. So, for us, it's about making sure that we line up the legislation so that it seamlessly fits into the ability of the local homelessness services to supply you with the adequate housing that you ought to be able to have.
The truth is that, after all the austerity that we faced—. And bear in mind that the right-to-buy scheme forbade local authorities to replace the social housing that was being sold off, absolutely forbade it, and that it was in my lifetime as a politician that the housing revenue accounts were finally uncapped by the Conservative Government, so that the councils could build again. This is always conveniently forgotten by people on the other benches. We need to wrap that up, we need to get the skills back into those organisations, and then we need to enshrine the right to adequate housing. I would like the right to adequate housing to be more than just an idea, but to be an enforceable individual right, and that's a big step from just enshrining it as a general principle in law. So, we are very pleased to work with Plaid Cymru on the co-operation agreement towards making sure that we do get there, because get there I'm sure we can.
3. How successful has the Welsh Government been at getting people out of their cars and onto public transport? OQ58553
Passenger numbers using public transport have not returned to pre-COVID levels, but we continue to work with partners to seek ways to get people out of their cars and using more sustainable modes.
Thank you, Minister. Minister, I have been campaigning for the restoration of bus services in parts of Bridgend and Pen-y-fai following the decision of the Easyway bus company to cease trading. People living in Pen-y-fai and the other affected areas who are without cars have no means of going shopping, visiting the hospital or accessing many other services unless they pay for a taxi, and there is also a complete lack of active travel routes. I'm also concerned about the loss of a service running past Glanrhyd Hospital. The affected routes were commercially viable, and Bridgend council shows little interest in addressing the problem. How can people be confident that public transport is an attractive offer when we are losing much-needed bus routes, and will the Minister intervene?
As we discussed earlier, we are introducing legislation to put into place a better, more coherent bus system. The challenges are multiple. As he pointed out, many people are reliant on the bus service. We know a quarter of all households don't own a car. Transport for Wales's research of its own passengers suggests that something like 80 per cent of people who travel on the bus don't have a car. So, we have a real sense of transport injustice here, social injustice, as reflected in the way people use modes of transport. There's a particular need to make sure there are good-quality bus services for young people and for people on lower incomes especially, but we want the bus to be something for everyone, not just for those who don't have a choice. We want it to be good enough that it's better to go by bus than it is by car. To do that needs a series of systemic reforms, and we've started that process.
I should point out to the Member that local authorities like Bridgend used to subsidise routes, but 10 years of austerity have meant that the discretionary funding that they had is no longer there. Now, I know that the Conservative benches don't like to be reminded of the financial facts, but when there are right-wing experiments being carried out in Westminster, they have consequences on real people's lives. And when there isn't money available in the budget, discretionary services—non-statutory services like bus routes—get cut. So, there is a consequence between the policies that you put forward, and then you complain when those consequences are played out in real life. I'm afraid that that is simply hypocrisy.
We are trying to address the systemic problems, but without the funding, we can't do it. We know, as the First Minister said yesterday, that the biggest cut that we have had to the Welsh Government's budget in over 20 years of devolution was by Chancellor George Osborne, when he cut our budget by 3 per cent, after a decade of growing budgets under Labour. Since then, we have had a decade of cutting budgets from austerity. And according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, because the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—whom many of the Members here voted for—have blown up our economy, we now face spending cuts of not 3 per cent, but 15 per cent. Under those sort of cuts, our ability to provide bus services for those who need them will simply not be there. So, you have to look at your own conscience, rather than standing here, telling me that I should intervene. You should intervene to reverse these idiotic policies in Westminster.
One of the most effective ways of getting people out of their cars is to persuade people to walk or cycle short journeys, as I know, Minister, you agree. Obviously, the quickest wins are going to be eliminating car use for travelling to work and travelling to school. This isn't just about creating a better cycling infrastructure on our roads. We also need loan schemes for families who can't afford to buy a bike for their child, and who are struggling to pay £3 a day on school transport.
One of the secondary schools serving my constituency is offering to incorporate safe cycling routes into their transition arrangements for 11-year-olds, but unfortunately, the local authority, at the moment, isn't able to provide us with a map of the safe cycling routes, for the areas from which their putative pupils are going to be coming. So, I just wondered what work you are doing with local authorities to ensure that we are not just seeing this as a roads problem, but that it's also a cultural problem—and working with both our schools and our employers on this.
Well, I couldn't agree more. We are living with the legacy of a culture where cars were put before people, and we had a whole highway network designed around making cars go faster, rather than thinking about how we encourage people to walk or cycle. As Jenny Rathbone knows, some 10 per cent of all journeys are under one mile. Now, these are journeys that could be walked or cycled in many cases but are, by habit, driven in most cases. So, we do have a cultural challenge, and then we have an infrastructure challenge, because people are reluctant when they don't feel safe or it's a novel experience for them to get out of their cars.
Cardiff Council has been doing some excellent work—probably one of the most progressive councils in Wales—on its active travel development. It has, as you know, a legal obligation under the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 to produce a map every three years, based on consultation with communities, of where future infrastructure should go. Cardiff Council has submitted its latest map to us, and it shows that a thorough approach has been taken to ensure that all schools are connected to the planned active travel network. Now, that network is going to take time to be put in place. In the meantime, Cardiff Council, partly through its own resources, is working with individual schools, with officer intervention, to try and do softer schemes, beyond the hard infrastructure, to encourage behaviour change. So, I think that there is really good work going on in Cardiff.
There is some work that they have also been doing around Safer Streets, and we've been piloting this with Sustrans in Newport. There is funding available now, as part of the Safe Routes in Communities project, to close streets outside of schools at pick-up and drop-off times. Where that's been tried, it has been hugely successful. That is there for all local authorities in Wales to take part in. Unfortunately, very few have come forward with bids, but it's open for them annually to do that. I am meeting council transport members in the next couple of weeks to constantly push this agenda. It's partly an issue of officer resource and capability, partly an issue of culture and willingness. But as part of our modal shift agenda, this is critical.
4. What assessment has the Minister made of the adequacy of permitted development rights in Wales? OQ58564
Permitted development rights are kept under review in consultation with local planning authorities, businesses and other organisations with an interest in development and the planning system. The latest changes help deliver flexibility to local authorities to manage second homes and short-term lets.
As you'll know, Minister, the roll-out of ultrafast broadband is going rather well in my Clwyd West constituency as a result of the work of the UK Government, including in the town of Abergele. But one of the concerns that has been expressed to me by local residents is that much of the current underground infrastructure that Openreach have available in the town is not being used, and much of it is going to be replaced with overhead cables on top of poles. That is a concern for local residents, who feel that there ought to have been an obligation on Openreach to maintain the existing infrastructure underground and to replace like with like.
Obviously, the current permitted development arrangements in Wales allow Openreach to do this without any planning consent whatsoever. What consideration will the Welsh Government give to changing the arrangements for utility companies such as Openreach to require them to replace like with like when they're going to upgrade infrastructure in the future?
Well, just to start off with, it's not a utility. It should be treated as one, but it isn't treated as one, and actually that brings a whole series of consequences. So one of the first things I'd suggest is that you actually ask the UK Government to make it a utility, which would solve quite a lot of why premises that are behind—[Interruption.]
You're responsible for planning.
Yes, but I'm just saying to you that you said it was a utility and it isn't.
It's an important utility. I was using the definition in a wider sense.
It makes quite a big difference to how the planning system works, Darren. I'm just telling you, it makes a difference, and it's not a utility.
I also don't know what the UK Government's contract with Openreach to do this piece of work looks like, but why on earth doesn't it involve them in having to utilise existing infrastructure? Ours did. Their's ought to have done. So again, I'm not in charge of that. It's about time they stepped up to their responsibilities. We've had to put economic development money into expanding broadband in Wales for a long time, because the UK Government have been absolutely dead asleep on the job.
However, I wasn't aware of the particular problem. If you want to write to me, I will certainly look into it, but I would imagine that it's to do with the contract provision, so I will probably want to ask you to write and ask the UK Government Minister whether they're prepared to discuss with me what the contract arrangements for Openreach are for that particular contract. But just bear in mind that, if it was a utility, the planning rules would be very different.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on building safety further to her written statement on 7 October? OQ58566
Certainly. On 7 October, I announced that 11 developers have signed up to the Welsh Government’s developers pact. Work is now under way to create the formal legal documentation that will underpin the pact, and I anticipate that a draft of the documentation will be shared with developers by the end of this month.
Many thanks for that, Minister. I'm glad to hear about the legal pact. I'm sure that you'll agree with me that it's not satisfactory that leaseholders are taking developers to court at the moment. That shouldn't happen, and one example is Celestia nearby. You mentioned in your statement timescales with developers; could you give us an update on those timescales?
It's very difficult to give you an update on each developer's timescale, for obvious reasons, Rhys, but we are working with them to understand what the schedule is for their buildings. Some buildings are in remediation now, I'm very pleased to say, and I'm hoping to visit a number of them over the next few weeks. We're delighted that buildings have gone into the remediation phase as the survey work is complete. I've recently written out to all the management companies and various building owners' structures, because trying to figure out who's responsible for what, as you know, under the system is complicated. But we've just written out to all of them making sure that they are aware that they need to give us permission to go in and do the intrusive survey work. We're in touch with a number of residents to try and facilitate that to go a bit faster.
We are looking to make sure that we have a proper pipeline of work for the remediation phase so that we are not competing with one another for skills, supplies and so on, so that we don't inadvertently drive the price up, obviously. And one of the reasons that the Welsh Government has intervened in the way that it has in the surveys is to make sure that that doesn't happen, as in England there's actually been a spiralling cost to the surveys as people complete. So, we always work with our construction firms. Lee Waters and I have a regular meeting with the construction forum and the house builders forum, so we like to work with them to ensure that we have a pipeline, and our SMEs get the work where that's appropriate, and that we have the right skill mix and so on. So, we're working with the developers very closely to make sure that they step up to the responsibility on pay. Here in Wales, leaseholders will not have to pay large legal costs, like they do under the building safety fund, to be able to take that, because we will step in for them. But there's no pretending that we can remediate the number of buildings that we have in a month or so; this is a long-term project. We're also looking to make sure that we do the worst first and we make sure that people are able to live in, and that's why we've got the rescue scheme, and so on, to go with it. As we are aware of the buildings that are into the remediation, I will be sharing as much as I can, for commercial confidentiality reasons for the contract process, with Members, where that is. Llywydd, I'll probably do that by written statement as that becomes available.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of local councils in helping the Welsh Government meet its recycling targets? OQ58561
With the greatest of pleasure. Our municipal recycling rate was a record 65.4 per cent in 2020-21, exceeding the 64 per cent target. This achievement, despite all the challenges that the pandemic brought, is testament to the hard work of our local authorities and particularly their front-line staff, who ensured that the people of Wales could continue to recycle, as they have become very accustomed to doing.
Thank you, Minister. The pleasure is all mine. While we're all urged to do our bit to recycle at home, I want to draw your attention, Minister, to the policy of Swansea council of preventing the recycling of wood at Clyne in Gorseinion recycling centre. That policy results in thousands of people from right across Swansea—from the tip of Gower and places like Mumbles, and areas like Gorseinon in Loughor—having to travel up to 20 miles to Llansamlet, which is the only site that allows people to deposit recyclable wood. Given that people are obviously physically unable to carry heavy loads of wood on public transport, this now causes far higher levels of congestion and emissions on our roads because, obviously, a car is the only means that people have to get to these locations.
When the council, however, were asked about it, they replied that that policy was as a result of the Welsh Government changing the rules when it comes to recycling wood. So, a number of people, it's being reported to me, are now burning wood and sometimes dumping it around Swansea as well. So, Minister, will you work with Swansea council to help them to revise that plan to allow residents to recycle wood at alternative locations across the city, which hopefully will improve recycling rates and reduce pressures on our roads, at a time when Welsh Government and Swansea council have declared a climate emergency?
Yes, certainly, Tom. One of the issues there is, actually, the interaction of the planning system with the recycling system, as it happens. So, we are looking to see what we can do to ensure that that doesn't happen. We're also, as you know, about to go to a target of 70 per cent across Wales, and just in the Swansea area, we have three very high-performing councils, but Bridgend County Borough Council, I have to say, is singled out for a mention as they're at 69 per cent. So, I'm very pleased indeed that they've been able to do that. We are always looking for source-segregated recycling as well, because we're able to attract reprocessors to Wales in increasing numbers, and they bring with them the green jobs that we so badly need. And also, of course, they reduce the need for virgin materials to be used in the manufacturing of various commonly used items. So, one of the things that we are looking to do in getting to that 70 per cent is having more source-segregated recycling picked up by the local authority as part of the rounding. We will be announcing some stuff with that.
There have been some specific issues that I am aware of, of course, in Swansea; you're aware that my constituency is a third of what you just mentioned there. We will be working with Swansea to make sure that we can redress that situation. There is a small issue around what is classed as waste wood, which I won't bother the Llywydd with as she will be looking at me patting her watch. But, I'm more than happy to have a separate discussion with you about it.
7. How does the Welsh Government ensure a sustainable supply of housing? OQ58556
We are supporting the housing sector to continue to supply new homes in the context of current challenges. Our new local housing market assessment approach assists local authorities to plan a sustainable housing supply that will meet local need.
Thanks for your response. Up-to-date Stats Wales figures show that 7,492 new social homes were delivered in Wales during the first 12 years of devolved Labour Government, 11 of which coincided with a UK Labour Government—a 73.45 per cent fall on the 28,215 new social homes delivered in Wales during the 12 years of a UK Conservative Government up to 1997. The 2012 UK housing review stated that it was the Welsh Government itself that gave housing lower priority in its overall budgets, so that by 2009-10, it had by far the lowest proportional level of housing expenditure of any of the four countries. In 2019, the highest year for UK new home registration since 2007, the numbers in Wales fell by over 12 per cent. Even the latest published figures for quarter 2 of this year show that Wales was the only nation or region of 12 in the UK to see new home completions reduce. If you dispute any of these official figures, I can send them to you.
So, if you don't dispute these, when will you stop telling and start asking the whole housing sector, including cross-sector housing providers, how to tackle Labour's long-standing affordable housing supply crisis in Wales, which I and the whole sector—and Plaid Cymru at the time—began warning Labour Welsh Government about 18 years ago?
Well, you know, Mark, what I would say is, again, the Conservatives' ability to quote statistics outside of the macroeconomic situation just beggars belief. So, this Government has set record levels of social housing grant funding through the budget, so that's £300 million, and indicative draft budget allocations of £330 million for next year and £325 million for the year after that, subject, of course, to the absolute chaos that we see at Westminster. In north Wales, the social housing grant has increased from £48,533,745 spent in 2021-22 to £65,750,153 allocated in 2022-23. So, very significant increases—very nearly doubling, actually.
We have become the first nation to mandate that all new-build social housing grant funded homes are designed to EPC A rating, through the Welsh development quality requirements that were launched in July 2021. This is about more than just building any old house, chucking it up and making sure that you can call that a new build. Your own Government has had to put a new homes ombudsman in place because of the absolutely appalling state of many of the new homes you were so happily reading out the statistics on, Mark. They are absolutely appalling. They are badly built, they are draughty, they are hard to live in, and they've literally had to put an ombudsman in place to control the market. It is far, far better to have the proper local market housing assessment, the right level of mixed tenure, and the right level of insulation and carbon neutrality than to chuck up any old thing any old place and give yourself a tick.
8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to enhance energy security in Islwyn? OQ58589
Diolch, Rhianon. Our policies of supporting households, businesses and the public sector to reduce energy demand together with positive action to scale up the production of domestically produced renewable energy will enhance energy security in all areas of Wales.
Thank you, Minister. As the cost-of-living crisis deepens and anxiety levels rise for residents across Islwyn due to the ever-increasing energy bills, it is vital now more than ever that the UK grips the issue of energy security. Minister, you issued a written statement earlier this year in April, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that stated that the Welsh Government continued to oppose the extraction of fossil fuels in Wales, and continues to oppose fracking. Minister, what assessment, then, has the Welsh Government made, in the months since the written statement, of the UK Government's partnership working with devolved administrations to both safeguard and secure energy supplies for all the nations of the United Kingdom?
Thank you, Rhianon. The answer to this energy crisis is not to expand new extraction of fossil fuels. We do not support the UK Government's plans to expand new oil and gas licences in the North sea and open new fracking in England. Our policies will continue to oppose new extraction in Wales. Years—years—of regressive energy policy at UK level have left us really exposed to global price surges, highlighted by recent events, with energy prices already at record highs subject to further upward pressure due to Russia's war on Ukraine. Despite the welcomed energy price freeze—although, again, that's fluctuating all over the place as we speak, and goodness knows who the Chancellor is by the end of these remarks, with the volatility. We welcome an energy price freeze, but they are still considerably higher than they were last winter, even with this energy freeze—still unaffordable, despite the energy freeze, for many, many households.
We also have higher interest rates and a weaker pound, which fuels inflation to levels not seen since the 1980s when, let me think now, oh, a Conservative Government was in charge, and that is really sapping people's ability to pay these ridiculous prices, and, of course, it's making the energy more expensive anyway. We have an energy market that is pegged to the price of gas that takes no account of the different market in renewables, where the capital expenditure to build the facility is far more important than the supply of energy, because that's free, obviously, for a renewable resource. So, reforming the energy market in a way that gives stability to the industry and certainty for consumers, is much, much needed and long, long overdue. So, we're really working on progressing the recommendations of our renewable energy deep-dive, which Lee Waters undertook, as soon as we came into Government, actually, in order to be able to accelerate renewable deployment and secure economic and social benefit for Wales, and our local area energy planning will help identify for the people of Islwyn and across Wales the right energy solutions for the right facility in the right place.
Finally, question 9. Luke Fletcher.
9. Will the Deputy Minister provide an update on any work being done to address the inconsistency across local authorities in the mileage thresholds being used in the provision of free school transport, following the publication of the Learner Travel Measure review in March 2022? OQ58584
Yes. A more detailed review of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 will take place shortly.
Thank you for that response, Minister.
I receive frequent correspondence from constituents about the daily hindrances they face due to the mileage thresholds. It cannot be that in 2022 there are still these fundamental barriers being placed on some of the most disadvantaged communities in Wales—barriers well within Welsh Government's and local authorities' powers to remove. Back in March, I drew specific attention to Caerau, a community that sits just north of Maesteg in the Llynfi valley. As we head into the winter months, children in Caerau will be forced to walk 45 minutes to an hour to and from school in all weathers. They will be forced to walk along routes that are not safe, and many children with asthma will be forced to walk along roads that are heavily congested. Local authorities have discretionary powers here, and in circumstances such as these could reduce the mileage threshold to include deprived areas like Caerau, but they haven't, so will the Government step in?
Well, thank you for the question. As you know, there's a legal requirement under the learner travel Measure to provide transport based on a threshold of three miles, and I appreciate the point made by Luke Fletcher that that is sometimes too far for many children. I myself walked with children from Ysgol y Gwendraeth from Tumble to their school before the lockdown, a three-mile journey. They kindly asked me to carry their music bags, and, by the time I got to the school, my back was pretty tired, I must say. So, I'm sympathetic to the argument.
You rightly point out that there are discretionary powers for local authorities to alter that, and Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, for example, provide transport over a two-mile threshold. Though it's possible to do it, there clearly needs to be funding to do it. School transport accounts for something like a £100 million annual bill; it's one of the biggest items of spending by local authorities next to social services, and the funding simply hasn't been there. And given the cuts we're facing, it's going to get even more difficult to sustain the services they already provide. I think that's something we need to soberly consider: the reality of spending cuts of the order of 15 per cent mean that the basic services we've come to take for granted may not be sustainable.
We have set out a review, as Luke Fletcher mentioned, into the learner travel Measure. We've done the first part of that, and we're now in the second part of that, and we'll be consulting with stakeholders to look at the detail of the very complex arrangements that may need to change and will need legislation.
I'm also quite keen to bind this into the broader bus system. So, instead of putting just £100 million into school transport and then a separate amount of money into bus services that may not, therefore, exist, we need to bring that together. I had a very exciting conversation with the new administration in Monmouthshire last week who are looking to see if they can look across the services and bring those together. It's not straightforward; there are things that need to be worked through, but I think it's a far more strategic approach. So, as I mentioned to Hefin David earlier, as we look at the density of the bus networks we're going to need, we need to include school transport as well as broader public transport in one look.
The other thing I'd say is we want also to make active travel more of an option for more young people. Three miles, for example, is a journey that most people could cycle in around 20 minutes or so, if there are suitable and safe facilities, and what we want through the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 is for local authorities to put those facilities in place, so not to focus on leisure routes, but to focus on how do we get people from where they live to where they go to school. So, for a number of pupils, that could be a viable option—not for everybody, but for more than currently.
I did meet recently, with Sarah Murphy, with the cabinet member from Bridgend, Councillor Jon-Paul Blundell, and Councillor John Spanswick to consider this item and the pressures in particular Bridgend are under, and the work that's going on to try to see what can be done. But I do fear that all the good work we're putting in place and all the aspirations we have could be washed away by the austerity that's about to hit us.
I thank the Deputy Minister and the Minister.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Economy. The first question today is from Natasha Asghar.
1. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the potential benefits of creating low-tax investment zones in Wales? OQ58563
We are in preliminary discussions with the current UK Government Minister to understand the investment zone proposals and potential implications for Wales in more detail. Any initiative that comes forward for Wales would need to align with our policies on fair work and the environment, for example, as well as generating genuinely additional growth, rather than simply displacing business activity.
Thanks, Minister. I recently met with the Federation of Small Businesses Wales to discuss the problems facing companies trying to grow and thrive in the current difficult economic climate. Against a backdrop of uncertainty, it was made clear that alleviating cost pressures for small and medium enterprise must be a priority for the Welsh Government. In that context, there was dismay and disappointment at the scepticism expressed by Welsh Ministers about the UK Government's policy of investment zones, which are designed to drive economic growth by a variety of tax, regulatory, innovative flexibilities and planning simplifications. These include 100 per cent relief from business rates on newly occupied business premises. Minister, given the UK Government's intention to establish investment zones, will you commit to engage constructively with Westminster to ensure Wales is not left behind so that Welsh businesses can capture the potential for increased economic activity and create the high-skilled jobs that we all want to see? Thank you.
Well, you're right, it is a difficult time for families and for businesses who are struggling to survive, with the uncertainty and unstable picture at a UK level. That has a real impact for all of us. The cost of business finance has increased, as well as individual costs for home owners as well. Of course, I've noticed inflation is just over 10 per cent in the updated figures today. I think trying to suggest that the Welsh Government taking a properly interested and constructive role in the investment zone proposal that has been made is leading to dismay and is the real cause for fear and uncertainty for the future of businesses simply doesn't reflect the reality of where we are. In my direct engagement with the Federation of Small Businesses they have never expressed anything approaching dismay at the approach that I am taking in engagement with UK Ministers. I need to understand properly what the proposals are, what the proposals mean for Wales, what they mean for devolved taxation, and what they mean for the revenue realities of this Government, bearing in mind the fact that we expect to face a tightening, a reduction, a cut in our budget when the Halloween budget is finally delivered. And we also again need to understand what will happen to investment zones near our border. Investment zones are proposed in the south-west and indeed there's a proposal to impose an investment zone in Cheshire West and Wirral, and these things will matter to us. I need to understand the policies, I need to understand what it really means, and I would ideally like to have a conversation that looks much more like the end of our free ports discussion, rather than the megaphone shouting in the year and more that preceded that agreement.
2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to promote faith-based heritage projects in North Wales? OQ58575
Our religious heritage has an important place at the heart of our communities. The Welsh Government provides funding and support to faith-based heritage projects in various ways. We actively support both buildings and organisations in this sector to conserve and promote this aspect of our shared history.
Thank you for that response, Minister, and I am grateful for the support that the Welsh Government has given to a number of projects across north Wales and indeed in other parts of the country. One project that is currently under way in north Wales is being organised by Nathan Abrams and his team from Bangor University, who've been researching the history of Jewish communities in north Wales. They've already undertaken research into the Jewish history of Anglesey, Gwynedd and the Llandudno areas, and they're now moving into north-east Wales to continue with their research. This is, obviously, very important, not just to the Jewish community, but to other people in north Wales who care deeply and passionately about our faith narrative as a country. What support is the Welsh Government giving to such research projects? And if little investment is going into the research of this sort of history, can I encourage the Welsh Government to take a good look at how it might be able to facilitate these sorts of things in the future?
Well, I'll certainly look at the issue together with the Deputy Minister, who normally leads in this area. Of course, she is well aware of Jewish heritage, given the work that has been done in her own constituency. And I'm particularly interested in not just Jewish heritage within the city of Cardiff, which I represent a good chunk of, but also the reality that it still plays an important role in the lives of many people, not just at festival time. So, I recognise that the history of faith communities is part of social history and what it means for the future. So, I'm more than happy to commit to having a discussion with the Deputy Minister to understand more about both the project and what the Welsh Government can do to be broadly supportive.
Questions from party spokespeople now. Conservative spokesperson, Tom Giffard.
Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister. This is my last opportunity to question you before Cymru begin their historic first world cup campaign in 64 years. I wanted to highlight though what Nasser Al Khater, the chief executive of Qatar 2022, recently said in a media interview. He suggested that Governments should focus on the football and leave it at that. We all know that Qatar has, at best, a patchy record when it comes to human rights and its treatment of the LGBT community. And we have a duty, I think, to highlight these issues to fans making the trip to Qatar and not prejudiced for just being themselves. They've even suggested that Welsh captain, Gareth Bale, doesn't wear the rainbow OneLove armband. I know that you, the First Minister and the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport all plan on going to Qatar to watch Wales's group games, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to those comments by the chief executive of Qatar 2022 world cup before you go. And can I also ask you whether you'll be raising the issues regarding LGBT rights and human rights more generally whilst you're out there?
I want to start by recognising, of course, that I am looking forward to the men’s team taking part in the finals of the football world cup. I want to start by recognising the achievement of the women’s team though. Albeit they’ve not qualified for the finals, the significant progress they’ve made has made everyone right across this Chamber and outside it tremendously proud and there should be real hope for the future. And I certainly hope the Football Association of Wales continues to invest in the women’s game at all levels, so that there are more Jess Fishlocks playing in our national team in the future, and I think it’s good for all of us to see our women’s team being generally competitive.
On the men’s world cup, I have already highlighted the issues that you’ve raised in my previous visit to Qatar. It was part of the engagement with the British Embassy and the organisers. I know that there are times when people say, ‘You should keep politics and sport separate’, and there’s a good reason why politicians in this Chamber don’t get to decide issues about the running of sports that are quite properly the remit of those governing bodies, but it is entirely appropriate for us to have conversations with governing bodies and international ones about our expectations for fans and for players. It is entirely appropriate to recognise the context in which games are being played.
So, yes, I have already raised those issues directly. I hope people do enjoy the football well beyond the group stage—I certainly hope so. But you can expect us to have constructive conversations, as I’ve outlined in my previous statement in this place, about being proud of the Wales that we are today and the values that we have, and engaging with the rest of the world on that basis. And I hope that there is an attack of common sense from FIFA’s point of view in not trying to prevent captains of teams from wearing the rainbow armband or others. I think it’s a mark of where we are that our football captains from across these islands think that’s a positive thing for them to do for the game and beyond.
Thank you, Minister. I'm grateful to you for making that clear and I think the Senedd stands united in distancing us from those comments as well. As you say, sport and politics are intertwined and it's very important that we make that very clear to those travelling Cymru fans who will be going out to Qatar as well.
It's my first opportunity also to question you as the Minister responsible for tourism since you took on the role 18 months ago. Since that time, the Minister for finance has made four statements here in the Senedd on tourism; you've made none. Why?
Well, actually, you have had opportunities to ask questions on tourism, and you simply directed them to the Deputy Minister. I'm glad you've rediscovered the ministerial responsibility sheet.[Laughter.] Look, when it comes to statements and work, the statements we make in the Chamber are about work as we're progressing it and I am working closely with the Minister for finance on some of the measures that we're looking at around our tourism sector, in particular on delivering our manifesto commitment around a visitor levy. I have regular engagement with the sector and it is an important sector for me.
In fact, yesterday, I was at the British tourist board's meeting in Wales at the International Convention Centre, making points to VisitBritain that it's important that, in their work, they promote all parts of the tourist offer we have within the United Kingdom. The merger between VisitBritain and VisitEngland is something that I still think is challenging and doesn't necessarily give all of the right messages. But we have a unique offer within Wales—the culture, the linguistic heritage, our own history, where we are today with smaller cities to visit than some parts of England, for example. There is lots and lots that we have to offer and lots that we do discuss, both with those strategic national bodies on how they're presenting Britain to the wider world as well as within Britain and indeed directly with the sector here itself, which I recognise is one of the largest private sector employers within the economy.
I'm afraid I have to disagree with you, Minister. The fact that you're the Minister responsible for tourism, but haven't really had anything proactive to say on the topic, whilst the finance Minister has been introducing tourism taxes and changes to self-catering holiday properties, tells us that this is a Government that doesn't see tourism as something to be promoted or enhanced—that you see it as something to tax instead. Frankly, I think that this is a Welsh Labour Government that has run out of ideas when it comes to tourism in Wales. So, Minister, how about committing to a Welsh Conservative idea instead? If the Welsh Government is going to implement a tourism tax—[Interruption.]
I can't hear the questioner. Can we hear Tom Giffard in a bit of silence, please? We need to hear what he has to say.
Diolch, Llywydd. If the Welsh Government is going to implement a tourism tax—and I sincerely hope you don't—what we're calling for is for the Welsh Government to exempt those with disabilities and armed forces personnel, at a minimum, from paying a tourism charge. Is this something you'll commit to today?
I think there are a couple of things I'd say in response to the Member. A range of the statements I've made about the economy has certainly had a direct impact on some of the choices we're looking to make on promoting the visitor economy, which is a significant sector of employment and a sector that is under real pressure. People's discretionary spend reducing, as it's likely to do, further, because of the well-advertised issues following the mini-budget less than four weeks ago, has a real impact on this sector in particular. And when I held the recent economic summit, we certainly did talk about the visitor economy and some of the challenges that it faces.
I think it's also worth pointing out that it may seem novel to Conservative politicians, but, actually, we stood on a manifesto that we intend to implement. We've published a programme for government and we've discussed additions to it with our co-operation agreement partners, and I'm not going to apologise for being a strong and stable Government acting in the national interest, as opposed to the coalition of chaos we see in Westminster. We're going to deliver on the pledges that we made. The big challenge in delivering on our pledges is the significant change in the economic picture and the spending to both support public services and the economy.
And when it comes to your final point, about members of the forces or disabled people, I think you need to reflect that not all of those people need special rates and special treatment. I just think that—. I'll give you an example. I visited tourist accommodation that we've helped the owners to improve, and they actually said that the rooms that they had the most consistent and busy bookings on—and this is a five-star offer—were actually the disabled-access rooms. And that's because the market has both shrunk, in terms of the number of rooms that are genuinely accessible—. And when I visited a four-star offer in Swansea, they also said they'd had lots of interest in their accessible rooms. So, actually, there's a challenge there about having enough access to the sector, not about saying those people need help with the costs. They actually want to be able to go and enjoy themselves as visitors, and have the ability to go to good-quality facilities to do so. And actually, our challenge is having an offer that is varied enough and is sustainable for everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy what Wales has to offer, right across the country.
We'll continue to take forward a consultation on delivering our manifesto pledges, and to do so in a way that balances the interests of the visitor economy and indeed those communities that host significant chunks of our visitor economy, in both rural, coastal, and city and town settings.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Luke Fletcher.
Diolch, Llywydd. Yesterday, I raised with the First Minister the crisis facing the energy-intensive industries. I asked about whether the Welsh Government are planning on introducing further support, specifically around helping to reduce energy bills, through supporting businesses like breweries in producing their own green energy, as well as looking at voltage optimisation. I'll put the same question to you, Minister, as it was unclear yesterday from the First Minister's answer. The reality is that current support isn't sufficient, and most energy-intensive businesses, especially breweries, have spent a lot of, if not all of, their reserves surviving COVID, and now find themselves in a position where many don't see themselves lasting beyond winter.
Interestingly, this is an area where I've already been considering what we might be able to do for some weeks, so it's not led by the question, but it is something that we're actively looking at—about how we can help people both to potentially decarbonise, as well as the potential to generate energy that isn't subject to the fluctuations and the upward rise in energy prices that we've seen.
It was actually part of the conversation I had at the recent cross-party group meeting on beer and the pub—and I see the Chair is with us; good to see you, Mr Sargeant. And in discussions with brewers who were there, it is one of their real concerns. Brewers, bakers, glass makers—there is a whole range of energy-intensive industries outside the big headline areas of the steel sector, for example, and we're really concerned that their needs are recognised in the UK Government scheme, not just the six months of some support that is available, but in the design of a future scheme that recognises their needs. Because you're right, for many of those people, they're concerned about making it through the Christmas period and then getting to the end of the six-month support and not having to make potentially business-ending choices before then. So, I recognise the real risk that exists in both the brewing sector and beyond.
The shame is that, actually, it's been a sector of real success for Wales with a growth in smaller brewers and indeed a broader growth in the food and drink industry. You may or may not know it, but Alun Davies is not just a supporter of the sector in his own personal conduct. When he was the Minister with responsibility for food and drink, he set stretching targets at the time for growth in the sector. At the time, there were people who derided him for setting those targets, saying that it would never be done. We've actually over-achieved on those targets.
Thank you, Minister. Of course, you are right in saying that there's been great success in the breweries sector within Wales, especially the small independent ones. We're at risk right now of losing all of that great progress in a very short space of time. So, whilst it's good to hear that you're actively considering support, I would hope that the Government would bring forward a statement as soon as possible, because, as I said, winter has always been tough for hospitality, but especially in the last few years. It's where they make their money in order to be able to survive the January and February months, but this Christmas is looking like that's going to be impossible. So, I'd hope that support will be forthcoming as soon as possible.
We've talked about other energy-intensive sectors as well. You mentioned steel. I'd like to touch on steel in particular as another energy-intensive industry. I'm sure the Minister has read UK Steel's report on the future of UK steel. There are some startling figures within. UK steel makers pay 30 per cent more for electricity than their counterparts in Germany and up to 70 per cent more than their counterparts in France. The No.1 priority outlined in the report is competitive energy prices. Achieving this will be key to the longevity of the sector, especially, as the Financial Times reports, in the case of Tata Steel that are looking to move to electric arc furnaces.
In fairness to the Welsh Government, the level and scale of investment needs to come from UK Government. But, unfortunately, the show that has happened in Westminster has left a lot of uncertainty in the Welsh steel sector. The Minister did come to the recent CPG on steel and outlined the then troubles he was having with UK Government, but has the Minister had any recent engagement with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under this new regime, on the subject of Welsh steel, and what assurances can he provide the sector today?
I just want to return to the end point you made about hospitality. I'm very well aware that the summer has been reasonable but not bumper. So, actually, right across hospitality, there are real challenges going into the autumn and the winter. It makes the Halloween budget even more important for them about what that does in terms of our ability to support this sector, but also more broadly the economy moving forward. There are still challenges around staffing, but consumer confidence and discretionary spend is a very real issue that directly affects the business viability. A number of hospitality businesses do make a significant amount of their profits in the period leading up to the turn of the year, but I am very well aware that a number of those businesses are really struggling in the run up to it, and a number are running on shorter hours as a direct result of a combination of all those factors.
When it comes to steel, I met Kwasi Kwarteng when he was the Secretary of State for BEIS, as he then was, at a steel council that we hosted in Cardiff. We were, at that point, making the case for clarity from the UK Government about investment around Tata, and you'll have seen they've publicly surfaced their position, but also the perennial issue in every steel council of energy costs. Because there is a differential in the cost of energy as it's supplied to sectors in Germany and other parts of Europe too. That continues to be an ask. I have sought a meeting with both Simon Clarke and indeed with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is the new Secretary of State for BEIS. That's yet to happen.
In the initial meeting I had with Simon Clarke about investment zones—he requested a meeting—as I said in earlier answers, we were constructive but clear in our response. I made clear, and indeed in the follow up, that steel is one of the priority areas where I think we could actually do something of real use and value and we would be keen to have a purposeful conversation about how the sector can be supported. There are significant opportunities in the steel sector in Wales and beyond, particularly when we look at opportunities in the Celtic sea, for economic activity. I want that steel to be made in the UK and not imported from other parts of the world, to make sure we get the most out of the opportunities that exist. We'll continue to make the case for both constructive engagement with Ministers and then active budget choices to allow those opportunities to be realised.
3. What plans does the Welsh Government have to promote and enhance the historical heritage of Newport? OQ58579
Thank you. Newport boasts heritage sites of international importance, from the Roman period through to our recent industrial past. The Welsh Government will continue to promote and enhance Newport's unique heritage for its residents and visitors from around the globe.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you said, from the Chartists to Tredegar House, the transporter bridge to our medieval ship, Newport is a treasure trove of historical significance. One of our jewels in our crown is the village of Caerleon and the Roman architecture that remains there today. Many here will have visited it, and if not, Minister, you are very welcome to join me and the Deputy Minister on a visit. The amphitheatre is almost 2,000 years old, but the site also contains the finest remains of Roman barracks in Europe, along with a bath house and fortifications. This is a sizeable historical offer and dwarfs other Roman remains in the UK, including Bath. There is still more to discover, and I know that the national museum and Cadw are keen to work together with others, such as the local authority, to promote Caerleon both locally and nationally. But what more can the Welsh Government do to make the most of our historical offer and ensure that it is part of our future as well as our past?
I completely agree, and I have been to Caerleon. I visited the amphitheatre and the barracks with my son and in-laws visiting from Ireland. They were very impressed and they would happily go back again at a future point. I'm quite excited about the recent discoveries of more on that site, including what looked like the remains of a port there as well. So, there is much more to do in uncovering the history of that site and not just preserving it to tell a story, but what it means about our future as well. I definitely see heritage and history as a big part of the visitor economy, and you're right that Cadw, Newport council, and the national museum are already talking, and we're trying to get around that to make sure that we are talking about not just what we preserve, but what it means for the future. I think it's a key part of the offer of Newport and the surrounding area. The built and the ongoing heritage of the area is but a part of what makes Newport an attractive place to be, and I look forward to joining the Member on a future visit.
Minister, it's great to hear Jayne Bryant of course mentioning the medieval ship, and also great to hear your appreciation for the historical findings in Newport. The Newport medieval ship was discovered in the banks of the River Usk in June 2002, and is the most substantial late-medieval vessel excavated and recovered in Britain. The internationally important fifteenth-century ship would expect to attract an estimated 150,000 visitors to view the ship once it is displayed properly, boosting the south Wales and Newport economy by about £7 million per year. The Friends of the Newport Ship campaign volunteers are asking for the Welsh Government and Newport council to commit and finally deliver a more central, permanent home for the ship—as it was first proposed at the bottom of Newport Theatre, as you're aware, Minister—after investing £9 million so far of public money. It's something that has been promised, and is a Labour manifesto commitment, yet only £10,000 in capital funding has been earmarked since. The current site, which I visited—and the volunteers do a fantastic job of what they've got where they are—has now been a temporary home for them for 20 years. Would the Minister commit to working with Newport council to ensure that we make the most of this unique finding by ensuring that a central location is found as soon as possible, and that enough moneys will be ring-fenced to ensure that both Newport, my region of south-east Wales, and Wales, can maximise the financial and historical benefits of having such a historical artefact in Newport? As an archeologist said—
No, no, no—not as the archeologist said, at a minute and 40 seconds.
Just one sentence—one sentence.
I asked my question. That was just reiterating the question.
Oh, if you've asked your question it can be answered. It's going to be answered now. Okay.
Yes. We'll continue to work with both the Friends of the Newport Ship and also the council, as they are committed to trying to find a permanent home for the ship, and it's a significant enterprise in conserving all 2,000 of the ship's timbers. The challenge will be in identifying a budget for a permanent home at a time when there are very real challenges for our current budget, and we'll all have to reassess what we're able to deliver after the Halloween budget is delivered. But the commitment to find a permanent home for the Newport ship remains and I recognise the significant visitor potential that it has, as well as learning about our shared past.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the innovation strategy for Wales? OQ58571
Yes. The consultation closed at the end of September of this year, with over 150 written submissions being received. Analysis of consultation responses is now under way and we will continue to work with Plaid Cymru designated Members, in line with the co-operation agreement commitment, to jointly develop a new innovation strategy.
Diolch, Weinidog. Welsh universities are, of course, vital to the economy, generating over £5 billion and almost 50,000 jobs. I'd like to draw attention to some concerns raised regarding the draft strategy. In the STEM cross-party group meeting last month, it was suggested Welsh Government does not intend to earmark any new money for the strategy, with the Reid review recommendations off the table and science not seen as a priority. The Institute of Physics notes the draft strategy acknowledges Wales now needs to win more UK Research and Innovation funding to compensate for the loss of structural funds but does not include practical measures to help Welsh applicants win more money, with their research and development blueprint noting quality-related funding has not kept pace with inflation for a decade. The British Heart Foundation points to the current £18 million shortfall for funding R&D within our universities, which is drastically limiting their ability to apply for UK-wide funding streams, hampering Wales's ability to allow research to drive a thriving economy. And Cardiff University have said there is a lack of specific priorities and of vital financial commitments included in the current draft. Minister, do you agree that Welsh Government's innovation strategy should ensure Wales is able to additionally capture resources for the benefit of innovation in Wales, such as UKRI funding and charity funding for medical research? And how will this happen without an uplift in QR funding? Diolch.
Thank you. So, there has been an uplift in QR funding that the education Minister provided to higher education institutions. You're right that we have a real challenge in the removal of structural funds and identifying a replacement. It is absolutely essential that Wales is much more successful at gaining funds from UKRI. That's a case that is being made directly and has been made successively. Part of my frustration is that I felt that some progress had been made with a previous science Minister who is no longer in post; I've yet to meet the current science Minister, but I do look forward to doing so. This isn't just a point about geographic equity. Geographic equity is actually a big challenge outside the south-east of England. So, if you were having this conversation in northern England, you'd have the same problem about not actually having the quality of research being recognised in the way that funding is delivered. It is also then about, actually, not just the funders recognising the quality that exists, but actually us not just submitting bids but having good bids submitted. There's a regular challenge of needing to pass the test and the test not necessarily reflecting the quality of the work. We need to be better at both the quality of the work, at promoting that, and then at making sure that we get through the gates on making sure that we have successful applications. There is some work the Government can do around that, but actually it's about the whole sector getting behind that and recognising they've got to put some resources into getting more out of UK funding pots, which actually have been increased. There's more money available for research and innovation, and we need to do something about gaining additional funding. Yes, when the strategy comes out, I expect it will have a clearer view set out on how we expect to gain additional funding. We actually held a very useful and constructive round-table discussion, hosted by Cardiff University, with a range of people about how to piece together the new innovation strategy. I and the leader of Plaid Cymru attended, and I'm looking forward to having not just a summary of the consultation responses but actually being able to deliver a statement on the future of the strategic approach here in Wales.
According to your consultation document, between 2014 and 2020 there were over 450 corporate investments into Wales across a broad range of sectors and businesses, many of which involved R&D activity. They delivered over 21,200 new jobs, with a further 18,300 being safeguarded, representing a capital investment into Wales of £3.8 million. What does this tell us about the scope for further and future investment of this sort, and how do we ensure that those communities who have not benefited so far can do so in the future? Thank you.
We're optimistic in our ambitions about our ability to both attract new businesses to come to Wales as well as businesses that were already founded here to grow and expand. A good example of that is in the compound semiconductor cluster. I recently attended the groundbreaking ceremony with Jayne Bryant in her constituency for the KLA Corporation—750 new jobs being created with an expected average salary of £45,000. That includes manufacturing and R&D as well. I'm always interested in how we can have R&D functions located in Wales, and not simply those functions that aren't R&D specific. It definitely does add value, and we look for that in each of the projects that we seek to support, from small businesses as well as medium and larger enterprises.
5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of how many swimming pools may have to close this winter as a result of rising energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58557
Public swimming pools are an important health and leisure resource, and, equally, an important part of our nation’s well-being. We know that many face unprecedented challenges. We don't have an exact assessment of the number that may have to close. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and, where necessary, if we need to, to work with the UK Government to do everything possible to ensure that they remain open in the face of significant rises in energy and running costs.
Thank you, Minister. That's really reassuring to hear. I know that you're familiar with the story of Plas Madoc Leisure Centre in my constituency and the incredible work done by volunteers to keep it open through thick and thin. But they're really facing the wall this winter, partly as a result of Brexit, with chemical costs rising through the roof and delivery challenges, but also because of rising energy prices and they estimate that their energy bill could more than double. Minister, what exactly do you think could be done by Welsh Government and by UK Government to support those vital public swimming pools that do so much good for public health?
You're right, we have some really big challenges. I know that the Member in his private time, as a dad, enjoys swimming, and I too have taken advantage of the opportunity to go and spend time with my own son, but I recognise that that activity is really challenged because of the energy cost, and one of the things that isn't often talked about is the costs of chemical imports as a real issue in this and other sectors as well.
We actually gave local government a generous settlement at the start of last year, with an announcement of a 9.4 per cent increase in their budgets, and yet we've seen that overtaken by inflation. So, local authorities aren't full of lots of money to help these enterprises continue and succeed, and we know the damage that is done if they close, and I in particular pay tribute to all the people around Plas Madoc who have kept that running.
We're looking forward to not just understanding what's happening in the UK Government scheme for non-domestic energy users, but understanding how intensive energy users are to be treated as well, because, actually, I think swimming pools have a good case to be treated as an energy-intensive enterprise. So, we'll continue to make the case at UK level as well as trying to work constructively with our partners in local government, because I certainly want to see swimming pools continue for use for people of all ages.
It's an important point that Ken Skates makes, and, indeed, privately run swimming pools, and certainly local authority-run swimming pools and leisure facilities are in a really difficult situation. They're so fundamental, aren't they, to the well-being of our communities. So, for these facilities to become more sustainable, then, we need to look to help them utilise alternative and green sources of energy to help reduce their costs as well as helping them to meet our climate change commitments. Minister, I just wondered how you are working with your colleagues to consider that wider support that the Government can offer the private sector leisure facilities to move towards cheaper, greener forms of energy. And, as the Minister for Economy, what consideration have you given to helping businesses to access initiatives such as the local district heating networks?
Actually, it goes back to some of the points I was making in response to earlier questions about what we're considering in terms of increasing our support for businesses to both decarbonise and also to de-risk their own energy supply with energy generation—that includes district heating schemes as well—and look at where we have different economic enterprises and how the heat that is potentially generated can be used to beneficial effect. So, it's a point that I think the Member will understand well from his previous time as a local authority leader, looking at the opportunities for district heating and power schemes, and looking to see how many of those we can introduce and where they are. But there is a much broader challenge about inflationary costs. Part of our challenge also is that in the way that our energy market is currently structured, we allowed gas to drive prices in a way that is disconnected from reality. So, we've got some really big challenges to try to work through. We need to understand in the next two weeks the financial levers we have available to us, and we need to understand what the scheme is going to be for non-domestic energy users. They all play into each other, but we'll certainly look to be as constructive as possible, and I'll be making a further statement in the coming weeks about some of that support.
6. What is the Welsh Government doing to address the workforce shortage and skills gap in North Wales? OQ58583
I've set out action within the employability and skills plan to help everyone, particularly those furthest from the labour market, to navigate and respond to any work-related challenges they may face, whether that is through training, upskilling or changing careers.
Thank you, Minister. Businesses and agencies are struggling to recruit due to leaving the EU, visa complications and the pandemic. The slogan 'Stop immigration now' drove a lot of the Brexit rhetoric, without any recognition of the huge contributions that those that move here make here in the UK. The pandemic made people over 50 rethink their lifestyle, not wanting to work the now normalised long hours and terrible shifts that are expected. Public service funding is dire, and private businesses can no longer fill the gap that would be left behind by the public sector. Minister, what are you doing to encourage those that are in their 50s back to work, to promote recruitment into the public as well as the private sector, and to tell UK Ministers that people from other countries are actually welcome here to work? Thank you.
Thank you for the questions. We are certainly looking to improve employment prospects for people who are economically inactive, particularly those aged over 50. We have seen, particularly pronounced at the end and post pandemic, a number of people who have made choices, some of those deliberate choices about wanting to get a different balance between work and life, but also a range of other people who have found themselves with a tale of long-term ill health, and other people who have acquired new and different caring responsibilities. There is a range of different reasons why people have left the labour market. Some of those people, anecdotally, are looking to come back, and that's largely driven by the cost-of-living crisis and the fact that people need to come back to work. What we want to do is to make sure that people are in the best place possible to return to the labour market and to give them the skills and the opportunity to enter the labour market for a job that they will find fulfilling and helpful with their financial challenges and opportunities.
When it comes to migration, actually, one of the few good things, I think, that were in Kwasi Kwarteng's growth plan was a different conversation about migration that would have upset lots of his own team. But, actually, we consistently made the case with the UK Government that we need a different approach to migration. For key sectors of our economy, including public services, the rhetoric and the image that the UK Government does not want people from other parts of the world to come here to work or to be part of our community—and you see this again in the current Home Secretary and the way she has spoken about people—is entirely self-defeating. We want a much more sensible approach that is driven by the needs of the economy, yes, but also driven by an approach that is decent and recognises other human beings in their basic humanity. I don't think that is always the case with the current UK Government.
Can I thank the Member for submitting today's question? As has already been outlined, there is clearly a challenge in recruitment of the workforce and the skills gap in north Wales. Indeed, at the start of this year, research in The Leader showed that nearly half of all businesses are struggling to recruit new workers, and this continues to be reiterated when meeting employers, as I'm sure you do, Minister, as well. But one of the key areas, I believe, we could be looking to focus more on is promoting the educational benefits and skills of apprenticeships. I'm sure you agree, Minister, that apprenticeships can be extremely successful career paths that, importantly, often see more skills progression and job retention than, perhaps, going to university. Of course, for north Wales, this is a great opportunity, because it's such a great place to live and to work as well. So, in light of this, Minister, what work are you undertaking with the Minister for education to ensure our future workforce are made aware of the fantastic benefits of apprenticeships that can lead to well-paid, long careers and, ultimately, help in addressing the future skills gap that we are facing?
Of course, I think this and our previous iterations of Welsh Labour-led Governments have a good record on promoting apprenticeships, not just on the numbers, but also on the quality and the completion stats. I remember Ken Skates, when he was an even younger man, as a skills Minister, and the work he was doing and the fact that our completion figures even then were much better than was being achieved by the UK Government in England, and that's a record we've continued.
Our challenge is about getting enough people to want to go into the apprenticeship route, and employers that will benefit from it as well. There is a real financial challenge in that as well. We've talked before in this Chamber about the fact that a third of our apprenticeship programme was funded by now former EU funds, and that gives us a really big challenge to get over. We've also seen rising inflation that's creating more and more pressure, also not just on apprenticeships, but on in-work training as well. A number of employers are now interested in what they can do to recognise that the future worker is largely here—your employees in 10 years' time are probably in your workforce already—and what you can do to upskill people in the workplace as well.
I attended this morning a Skills Cymru programme. They're expecting 5,000 people towards the end of their high school career to look at future choices, and apprenticeship options and options in future skills are very much part of what they're talking about. So, there is a deliberate and purposeful conversation we're having about all routes for the future—further education, apprenticeships, other skills, and not just the university route—to not just a rewarding career in terms of the people you'll meet, but in terms of the financial rewards that are on offer as well.
7. What assessment has the Minister made of how levels of UK Government investment in digital connectivity are impacting the north Wales economy? OQ58562
Thank you for the question. Telecommunications policy is not devolved to Wales, yet the economy of north Wales benefits directly from the £56 million broadband roll-out and our £4.2 million grant to the digital signal processing centre at Bangor University, as this Welsh Government continues to step in where the UK Government has not.
Can I thank the Minister for that answer? The Minister will be aware that this is a subject that is close to my heart. For the record, Llywydd, I'll place on record my involvement as an unpaid member of the consortium at Bangor University, as mentioned by the Minister. They are determined to improve the connectivity of north Wales. Despite the responsibility for broadband sitting with the UK Government, the Tories' failure to invest properly has let north Wales down. I don't just want to see investment in making north Wales digitally connected properly; I want to see us creating and developing the next generation of world-leading technologies that improve our north Wales economy. Minister, do you share my passion for improving connectivity in the region and developing the next set and stage of technologies for connectivity, and will you commit to making this one of your priorities?
Yes, I'm more than happy to say that. It comes on the back of consistent work done across this Government in different iterations. You may or may not have heard the Deputy Minister talking earlier, but we've invested £200 million of Welsh Government funding into Superfast Cymru. That's money in an area that isn't devolved. We recognise the significant benefits of enhancing, improving and filling in gaps in what are UK responsibilities. The key part of our digital future is with public services and, indeed, in the economy. I'm very pleased to have the lead ministerial responsibility for digital services across the Government, not just in the economy, and I'll be more than happy to have a further conversation with the Member on what I think we can achieve within the Government.
8. What support is the Welsh Government providing to businesses in light of inflation and rising energy costs? OQ58577
The main levers to tackle cost increases on businesses, interest rates for borrowing, the tax of windfall profits and regulation of the energy market lie squarely with the UK Government. Our priority is to support businesses to decarbonise and to save, as I've mentioned in response to previous questions today. We continue to identify opportunities to redirect resources to reduce burdens on business.
Thank you very much for that response. I asked yesterday for a statement following the news that 28 jobs are in the balance in AMG Alpoco in Holyead; I've written to the Minister about that issue again today. An increase in costs, and energy costs in particular, is driving this restructuring, but, of course, Alpoco are not alone on this. Plas Farm, an ice cream and frozen yoghurt company in Anglesey, are seeing inflation adding up to 50 per cent on their costs, and they, like Alpoco, can't pass on those costs to their customers. Now, Plas Farm are expecting an increase of almost £50,000 a month in their energy bills—£50,000 a month. That raises concerns about the future of the company and the 25 staff. They are investing in solar energy, for example, but while, of course, we need to see urgent action by the UK Government, may I ask again what support the Welsh Government can provide to energy-intensive companies such as Plas Farm? Also, may I ask for an assurance that every support is being provided for the workforce of Alpoco at present?
We are doing everything that we can with the levers that we have available to us to try to support businesses that find themselves in exactly this position. We know that there is a range of energy-intensive businesses, as I said earlier in response to your colleague Luke Fletcher, and our challenge is both wanting a settlement on UK Government support, but also what we can do to try to support those businesses as well. We don’t have the financial firepower to do everything that we’d want to with businesses that face a very difficult future.
We have got a number of resource efficiency advisers available through the Business Wales service, to try to help businesses to understand what their energy needs are and if there is help available. We are also, as I said, looking at what we can do in the near future, and I expect to be making a statement in the coming weeks about how we think that we can help more businesses to take advantage of the help that is available and expand that help, to try to make sure that we decarbonise and de-risk future energy supply.
But you can’t get away from the significant scale of the energy crisis and what it is doing to businesses. I’m sure that if every Member stood up, they could give, as you have done, a list of businesses—viable businesses that employ people on decent terms—that are facing the prospect of not being able to keep all of those people on board in the very near future, or indeed the potential of those businesses not existing at all. It sets out the scale of the crisis that we do face.
It’s why we’ll carry on doing what we can, in terms of wanting to make sure that viable businesses have a good future as well, but it’s also about reiterating our call for the UK Government to finally do something that will provide some stability in the market and will provide some stability for the future costs of people. And if that were to happen, we would be supportive of doing that. But, as I say, that is largely unfinished, and I look forward with some trepidation to the Halloween budget and what that will really deliver for businesses and households.
I thank the Minister.
The next item, first of all, is a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow the next item to be debated. I call on the Minister for Climate Change to move the motion formally.
Motion NNDM8111 Lesley Griffiths
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM8110 to be considered in Plenary on Wednesday 19 October.
The proposal therefore is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object to doing so? No, there is no objection. Therefore, the motion is agreed.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
That allows us to move on to item 3, which is the legislative consent motion on the Energy Prices Bill. I call on the Minister for Climate Change to move the motion—Julie James.
Motion NNDM8110 Julie James
To propose that the Senedd:
In accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Energy Prices Bill in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
Diolch, Llywydd. I move the motion. The majority of the provisions in the Energy Prices Bill are reserved. The provisions within devolved competence with which we are concerned today are about the powers of the Secretary of State to give support for meeting energy costs. The situation with the UK parliamentary timetable on this Bill is clearly out of our hands. This has meant that the Senedd has not been afforded the opportunity to carry out meaningful scrutiny of the memorandum laid yesterday, and of the Bill.
I am pleased, though, that we have had the opportunity to discuss what is a vital measure towards the cost-of-living crisis at a time of national crisis. The Welsh Government has long been calling for more to be done to support domestic and non-domestic customers with rising energy costs. We welcomed the announcement of a two-year package for households, and called for the same scale of support to be made available for non-domestic customers.
Rather than extending the support for non-domestic customers, the Chancellor limited the support for households to just six months. There is no justification for this decision, given the cost of energy is expecting to remain extremely high for a number of years to come. The credible fiscal step needed from the Chancellor was to fund this support through a windfall tax across the energy-producing sector. There is no justification for these windfall gains not to be targeted to fund the necessary measures of support for those that need it most across Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. I will continue to call on the UK Government to put in place a long-term package of support, funded in a progressive way, to help mitigate the impact of high energy prices.
The Bill before us today is important in that it establishes a legislative framework that allows for a scheme to reduce the price of electricity and gas across Great Britain. This is a positive step, as it will insulate customers from the factors pushing energy prices to such high levels. We agree with the principle in the Bill of energy suppliers delivering savings directly via the billing system. This is an efficient recourse to deliver a scheme, as the licensed suppliers have the expertise and systems to implement the policy as set out. We further welcome the requirement on licensed suppliers to become party to the scheme as soon as is practicable.
As mentioned earlier, the majority of the provisions in the Bill are reserved. The provisions within devolved competence with which we are concerned today are primarily about the powers of the Secretary of State to give support for meeting energy costs. Regarding the devolution of constitutional issues, the Bill intrudes upon devolved matters by conferring functions on the Secretary of State in devolved areas. As such, this approach is inconsistent with our principles for consenting to UK Government Bills. I have therefore called on the UK Government to consult on any measures that impact on devolved areas. While I acknowledge that taking action forward on energy prices is a matter of urgency, implementation must be done through effective consultation to ensure that the responsibilities of this Senedd are respected.
It is important to note that we are not transferring powers through this Bill, but the Bill does confer functions on the Secretary of State in devolved areas. As such—
Minister, will you take an intervention?
I’m grateful to you, and I’m grateful to you for bringing this forward so quickly. You said in your introduction that the Government hadn’t had sight of this. Just for clarity, because of the matters you’re discussing in terms of transfer of functions to the Secretary of State, can you confirm that the Welsh Government had no sight of this, and that Welsh Government officials had no sight of this legislation prior to it being received and published?
Yes, that’s right. The haste with which the Bill has appeared on the parliamentary timetable has meant that we had no foresight of it.
As I was just going to go on to say, our Cabinet principles do however set out situations where it may be appropriate to make provision in a UK Bill to enable pragmatic solutions to be reached in a timely fashion, while simultaneously respecting the legislative competence of the Senedd through the legislative consent process. These principles are clearly relevant in this case.
I consider the support that this Bill provides as important and we cannot afford to delay energy support to people who desperately need it this winter. Clauses 13 and 14 concentrate on giving the Secretary of State powers to give support to people in meeting energy costs. These clauses also enable the Government to support households and non-domestic customers. While the UK Government intends to deliver most of its support through licensed suppliers of electricity and gas, it has made provision through clause 15 enabling the making of regulations about the role of other bodies, including local authorities, in giving support for energy costs. This is an important provision as it gives a role for other designated bodies to provide support for meeting energy costs. We should not be expected to cover the costs of local authorities in providing this support. I have sought assurances from the Secretary of State that the cost of delivery will be provided in full by the UK Government to implement this in Wales. Secondary legislation will set out the details for these arrangements. I’ve called on the UK Government to ensure that any organisation administering the scheme, including those carrying out this function on behalf of local authorities, will receive all the funding required to carry out the duty.
Clause 19 provides for the Secretary of State to have enabling powers to impose requirements on persons to whom energy price support is provided so that they pass through to benefit the end user. This is crucial in protecting energy consumers from intermediaries who might otherwise fail to pass on this support. Some local authorities may need to contract this work, and this needs to be explicitly permitted to ensure effective delivery of the scheme in Wales. Finally, clause 22 gives the Secretary of State powers to give directions to holders of energy licences in response to the energy crisis or in connection with the Bill or things done under it.
So, Llywydd, in drawing to a conclusion, I do recommend that Members support the legislative consent motion in respect of the energy prices Bill so that the people of Wales can effectively receive financial support with the high energy costs this winter. Diolch.
Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words on this latest LCM. This is the twenty-seventh LCM during the sixth Senedd. Contrast that with the fourth Senedd, when we received just eight LCMs during the whole of that Senedd term.
This is an LCM on a very important Bill, but it was laid just yesterday before the Senedd and we are being asked to vote on it today. Now, this isn’t just a constitutional matter. The constitutional issue is very important, of course—that the Senedd legislates within devolved powers. But it’s more important than that. I don’t trust the Government in Westminster to look after those people who are in need. I don’t trust the Conservatives to do what is right in the long term. This Bill doesn’t include a windfall tax. It doesn’t mean that the energy companies are taking responsibility. What it does is it pushes back onto energy users the responsibility in the long term. Yesterday, it was laid. Today, we are being asked to vote on this matter without any scrutiny at all; no opportunity for committees to scrutinise the LCM, no opportunity to table amendments, no opportunities to raise issues—and there are issues with this Bill—no scrutiny at all, if truth be told. A debate lasting three quarters of an hour—and it doesn't appear as if many Members will take part in this debate—on a Wednesday afternoon. And we know, regardless—perhaps this is the reason why many people aren't contributing—that this LCM will pass, because Labour and the Conservatives always vote hand in hand on the majority of these LCMs.
What I would say is that this is not the way to legislate. We need time for scrutiny if we are to pass good legislation that is fit for purpose—
Of course, if the Government came forward with legislation, you and the Conservatives would vote against it, and it would go down. I think that this is a means by which to achieve, meaning that it will happen. If you and the Conservatives could start voting for Government legislation, it might be easier to do it.
The purpose of a legislative Senedd is to pass legislation, Mike. There's no point in us otherwise, and we have to, in the set-up of the Senedd—. The Government has to discuss and debate with the opposition parties if they want their legislation to pass. That is the very purpose of a Senedd, a Parliament, that works in collaboration.
There are problems with this Bill. A House of Lords committee has raised issues with this Bill; regarding one of the clauses we are being asked to consent to, clause 22, they are firmly of the view that it's inappropriate to give that power to the Secretary of State. It will give the Secretary of State power to override primary legislation, and to overrule the regulator, Ofgem. I’m concerned, Llywydd, that the Senedd today is being asked to consent to an LCM that we know little about, that we have not properly scrutinised, and yet it will be passed on a nod.
As I said, this isn't just a constitutional issue. It is important that we get legislation like this right to help the people of our nation through a situation that is so appallingly difficult. Thank you.
Now, this LCM relates to landmark legislation, and it's legislation that needs to be enacted quickly. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has, without doubt, led to the price of oil and gas surging around the world. Thanks to the UK Government, consumers now will be having help with their bills. These new emergency powers will ensure that consumers across the country, from Anglesey to Aberdeen, Conwy to Cornwall, receive help with their energy bills this winter. Without this legislation, businesses and consumers will be left facing increasing financial turmoil. Energy bills were estimated to increase around £6,500 before the UK Government stepped in, and now they're capped at a lower figure of £2,500. This, obviously, will help.
For businesses, this would be a catastrophe. In Aberconwy, I am seeing my hoteliers facing up to a 532 per cent increase in energy bills, and a local butcher—you'll all have had Edwards sausages of Conwy; I hope you have—were confronted with a devastating rise from £129,000 to the latest £782,000, and I understand it's gone significantly up since that, when looking at new tariffs. Thanks to the UK Government, prices for businesses will be capped at £211 per megawatt hour for electricity, and £75 per megawatt for gas. This has reduced the price per megawatt hour for non-domestic customers by nearly 65 per cent for electricity, and 147 per cent for gas.
Our businesses have faced a turbulent last two years as a result of the pandemic, with many businesses now having to pay off pandemic-era loans and some of them had fallen behind with rent arrears. The UK Government's support will be fundamental in supporting our businesses to continue operating during the forthcoming winter months, and provide much-needed financial relief. And, as business and energy Secretary, the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg said:
'Businesses and consumers across the UK should pay a fair price for energy.... That is why we have stepped in today with exceptional powers that will not only ensure vital support reaches households and businesses this winter but will transform the United Kingdom into a nation that offers secure, affordable and fairly-priced home-grown energy for all.'
By supporting clauses 13 and 14, yes, we will be giving power to the Secretary of State, the go-ahead to, for example, provide support for meeting costs related to the use of energy; provide support for meeting costs related to the supply of energy; and enable or encourage the efficient use of energy. So, I see no reason why there needs to be a fuss on this particular LCM. Even Alan Brown MP, SNP, stated on Monday, and I quote:
'I agree that those measures and principles are required for energy security and to be part of net zero transition.'
The Right Honourable Graham Stuart:
'Clause 19 ensures that the support schemes...reach their intended beneficiaries. The requirement to pass on energy price support will help to ensure that tenants and other end users receive the support they need.'
We are facing a global energy crisis that has been exacerbated by Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine. By supporting this LCM, we will be helping people, businesses, charities and the public sector across the UK with their energy bills, with a secure legislative footing. The Minister for climate change, the Right Honourable Graham Stuart has rightly thanked His Majesty's opposition, and other parties, for their constructive engagement so far. So, like yourself, Minister—
Would you take an intervention?
Yes, of course.
Thank you. You and your party colleagues and ourselves, have been very critical of the Welsh Government when it comes to condensing the scrutiny period for the single-use plastics Bill. You were quite rightly vocal that we weren't given enough time; we were only given three, four, five, six weeks to scrutinise that piece of legislation. Why is it therefore that you're happy with no scrutiny at all on this particular piece of legislation and just a matter of hours to read it?
With all due respect, this is emergency legislation. We have a war situation, and that is really, really—. We don't even know what's going to happen now, where things may get even worse than what we're facing at the moment. When faced with a warlike situation that we have, when faced with such an emergency, it is vital that this institution plays a responsible part, and so I have no hesitation whatsoever in supporting the Minister, in saying, 'We need this to go ahead, and we need it to go ahead ASAP'. Diolch.
I can't understand Janet Finch-Saunders's argument that this is emergency legislation; we've known about the spike in energy prices since the end of February, so this is not an emergency.
Now, nobody would argue against the proposal to give immediate relief for the massive spike in energy prices for both households and businesses, but the legislative framework proposed by the UK Government is not a sustainable solution. The idea that this is a landmark piece of legislation is really laughable. We really have to see this through the lens of the net-zero obligations that we have and the climate emergency that is going to descend on all of us. I don't see anything tangible in this proposal to encourage energy generators to invest in more renewable energy, to accelerate the transition away from gas. In fact, I see an attack on renewable energy generators, ensuring that they have to contribute more and don't benefit so much from the contracts that they have entered into. But, as the Minister has said in her explanatory memorandum, we do indeed need energy market reform, including on the way we fund renewables. So, I recognise that you have acknowledged that, but the problem here is that there's nothing to de-couple the cost to consumers of energy from the latest most expensive spot price of gas, which is how Ofgem sets these prices. And there's nothing to encourage people to invest their profits, including the oil and gas companies' profits, into the renewable transition that we all need to make.
So, I wondered if the Minister, in her reply, could tell us what discussions, if any, you've had with the UK Government—clearly, not about this specific piece of legislation, which just landed on your lap—which are aligned to both our and their net-zero obligations. And I thank the Member Rhys ab Owen for highlighting the concern of the House of Lords about section 22, which is the power to overrule Ofgem. The whole thing is really great cause for concern. I'm not planning to vote against it, because I know that households and businesses rely on this, but we've got to have something of a plan for the future, and we can't go on like this. This is a real pull-together just at the final minute—perhaps to distract from other things going on.
The Minister for Climate Change to respond, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm very grateful to Members who've contributed to the debate. I share the Member's concerns about the process that's led us to where we are now, and I do share—as I shared, in fact, for the single-use plastics Bill—the concern about the lack of scrutiny. And that's not something that I welcome either here or at the UK level. But we knew about this the night before. It was introduced on 12 October, so this really isn't any scrutiny at all. We certainly didn't have a draft Bill or anything else.
We do understand the urgency. I don't agree with Janet's summation of the level of urgency, but we do understand that there is a level of urgency in getting support for customers that can be rolled out from November. We would much prefer, though, the United Kingdom Government, as Jenny and others have pointed out, to have realised that this was happening considerably earlier in the year, when everybody else realised it, and have done something, rather than having a ridiculous leadership competition all summer, with the current Prime Minister doing God knows what, instead of stepping up to his responsibilities.
Nevertheless, we are where we are, and if we do not consent to this, then there is a real danger that the people of Wales will be left out from being able to benefit from the scheme. So, I am recommending that we consent to the legislation, although there is considerable reluctance because of the way that the Bill is organised. But, nevertheless, we're not prepared to put ourselves in a position where the people of Wales could not receive the support that the UK Government is proposing; it's very important that they do so.
I just want to correct something that Janet said. There is not a cap of £2,500 on energy. I think it's really important that people don't think that, no matter how much they use, there is somehow a cap. It's actually an average cost, it is not a cap, and it's very important that people understand that. Many people will face bills of more than £2,500 over the winter.
Will you take an intervention?
NHS Wales, despite having the funding from UK Government, will still have an energy gap to fill of £100 million, nearly—£90 million to £100 million, I heard last week. Is that true?
Yes, it is indeed true. So, this is a sticking plaster over an enormous wound, and it will cause real problems across public services, as well as for domestic customers. Nevertheless, it's important that what help there is available does get to the people and businesses of Wales, and so we are recommending consent.
I am however—I just want to reiterate, because I think it's very important—calling on the UK Government to consult on any measures that impact on devolved areas. There is a fundamental failure in the current energy market, which this Bill does not fix; the UK Government really must step up to that plate. But, nevertheless, Llywydd, and with a degree of reluctance that you can hear, I do recommend to the Senedd that we agree the LCM, because of the urgent need to get the help to the people of Wales. Diolch.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? Yes, there are objections. And therefore, voting will be deferred until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
No topical questions were received today.
And we now move to the 90-second statements, and the first of those is from Jack Sargeant.
Diolch, Llywydd. My community is built on manufacturing, and we are proud of the products we produce and the skills of our working people who make them. Last month marked an important birthday for manufacturing in Deeside—we celebrated 30 happy years of Toyota engine manufacture on Deeside industrial estate. Toyota Manufacturing UK's Deeside site directly employs more than 600 people and supports many more jobs in its network of local and national suppliers. Llywydd, I'm extremely grateful that the First Minister was able to visit to mark this very special birthday, and we look forward to many more years of high-tech engine manufacture at this important site.
To finish, we must build on the success of our manufacturing excellence in Alyn and Deeside and we must commit to investing in the skills and technology required for the future alongside our industrial partners. And finally, a very happy birthday—pen-blwydd hapus, Toyota. Diolch.
This week marks the fifth year of Love Our Colleges Week, a campaign which highlights the amazing and transformational work further education colleges do day in and day out. The celebrations this year will focus on staff, students and skills. Keeping this in mind, I'd like to draw your attention today to the life-changing opportunities on offer at our colleges to international exchange programmes, both for learners and staff.
For learners, overseas experiences will broaden their horizons and raise their aspirations, making a positive contribution to their progress through education and on to future employment. One of the most important aspects of these international exchanges is that they offer equal access to all young people within our colleges, regardless of their background. Further education staff have opportunities to share best practice with colleagues overseas, participate in training or job shadowing, as well as sharing lessons learned with their organisations in Wales.
I am pleased to say my local college, Coleg Gwent, are actively involved in several of the programmes. ColegauCymru leads on the development of these exciting overseas opportunities, and their consortium projects for international mobility would have enabled over 3,000 learners and 490 staff to work, train and volunteer overseas while gaining insights into different cultures and languages that they may not otherwise have had the chance to explore.
As yesterday was World Menopause Day, I'd like to take this opportunity—and I thank you, Llywydd, for accepting the 90-second statement—to talk about menopause; something that, as women, we are going or will go through at some point in our lives. Looking at the men in this Chamber, you're very lucky that it's not something that you're going to go through, but it's incredibly important that everyone understands the issues and struggles that women, some more than others, will face when it comes to dealing with menopause.
It is important that more awareness of what women are going through, and the struggles they face and the struggles they get in receiving treatment, is known and that this Government and the UK Government make strides towards ensuring that awareness and understanding of what half the population go through, an awareness of menopause, becomes the norm and commonplace in our workplaces across Wales.
There are over 10 million over-50s at work in the UK today, a third of the workforce, including 4.4 million aged 50 to 64. The average age for reaching menopause is 51; although, in my family, it's the early 40s, and, I'm sure, for others. So, many of us, 4.4 million and more, will be women transitioning through the menopause, making this a key issue for the modern workplace. This is why it's so crucial that we see the promotion of the menopause in the workplace toolkit. The toolkit can provide an insight into the way menopause impacts women in the workplace, what is menopause, how menopause impacts women in the workplace, why it's important for employers, and what they can do to help.
So, I hope that, with World Menopause Day being yesterday, it'll be the last one where women suffer in silence, and, instead, we can create an open conversation on the issue in Wales. And, as a Senedd, I hope that we can lead the way on this.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.
Thank you, all.
Item 6 this afternoon is the debate on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report, 'Renewable energy in Wales'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Llyr Gruffydd.
Motion NDM8102 Llyr Gruffydd
To propose that the Senedd:
Notes the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report: 'Renewable energy in Wales', laid on 26 May 2022.
Thank you, Diprwy Lywydd. It's an honour to present this report of the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee, because at the beginning of the sixth Senedd the committee agreed to undertake a short inquiry into renewable energy, recognising the crucial role of renewables in tackling the climate emergency. Now, we looked at what the Welsh Government is doing and what more needs to be done in order to ramp up renewable energy development in Wales, and when we started our inquiry at the beginning of the year, we could never have predicted the severity of the current global energy crisis or the impact that that would have not only on Wales, but also further afield.
So, as the domestic response to the crisis continues to unfold, we know it could, of course, set us on course to either make or break our commitment to reach net zero by 2050. The package of measures announced by the UK Government last month may provide some reprieve for businesses and households, although, following Monday's announcement, this reprieve may actually be very short lived. But the decision to lift the fracking ban and to accelerate North sea oil and gas production fills those of us who are committed to tackling climate change with dread. These decisions less than a year—less than a year—after the pledges made at COP26 are, quite frankly, shameful.
Action to address the energy crisis and improve domestic energy security must not come at the expense of the planet. Time is rapidly running out to avert a climate catastrophe. The energy and climate crises share a common root: fossil fuels. They also share a common solution: renewable energy. And the case to accelerate renewable energy development, in my view, has never been stronger.
So, our inquiry took place not long after the Welsh Government published the outcome of its deep-dive. The purpose, of course, of the deep-dive was to identify the current barriers to accelerating development and the steps needed to address them. The deep-dive’s recommendations were well received by stakeholders. But there was also a sense that, in some areas, they only scrape the surface.
Many of the barriers identified by the deep-dive are not new, nor are the Welsh Government’s promises of action to address them. The Welsh Government’s 2012 energy strategy set out a range of actions to improve the planning and consenting process and grid infrastructure in Wales as well—key barriers to development. A decade later, it’s making the same promises. As we enter a critical time in the fight against climate change, now more than ever the Welsh Government really needs to knuckle down and deliver on these.
In our report, we made 17 recommendations, all of which the Welsh Government accepted, or at least accepted in principle. At a glance, that's a seemingly positive response. But, on further analysis, of course, it leaves us questioning whether the Welsh Government has truly grasped the urgency with which it needs to act. The response is peppered with terms like 'continuing to work on', 'continuing to consider options', 'ongoing discussions' and 'exploring potential'. Now, of course, we understand that breaking down long-standing barriers won’t happen overnight. But, with development in Wales slowing down, we need to see results from the deep-dive, and we need to see those quickly.
In our report, we called for the Welsh Government to publish a detailed action plan setting out how it intends to take forward the deep-dive’s recommendations, including timelines for delivery. The thinking behind this was to ensure full transparency, and to facilitate and support scrutiny. In response, the Welsh Government committed to reporting to the Senedd biannually on progress towards implementation, which we very much welcome. The first of these reports was published earlier this month, and, as a committee, we’ll be keeping a close eye on progress throughout the remainder of this Senedd.
As I’ve already mentioned, one of the key barriers to development in Wales is, of course, the grid. For over a decade, there have been loud and persistent calls for action from Governments to address grid constraints. Despite this, limited progress has been made, and Wales is a long way off from a grid that's ready and able to support a rapid transition to renewables. We know the Welsh Government has limited levers at its disposal to ensure grid improvements. Control over the regulatory regime governing the grid and access to funding remain, of course, with the UK Government. In its recent report on renewable energy in Wales, the Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee raised concerns that the UK Government hasn’t yet grasped the severity of grid constraints on this side of the border, and, really, this is nothing short of alarming. The challenges grid constraints pose for development and for Wales’s wider decarbonisation ambitions means this mustn’t be allowed to continue.
Recommendations 6 and 7 reflect our view that the Welsh Government must step up and do more to ensure that Westminster fully understand Wales's current and future grid infrastructure needs. So, Minister, your response to our report refers to your meeting with UK Ministers in June, when you raised issues around the grid. Maybe you can tell us in your response whether you think the penny has dropped and are they actually taking these issues seriously.
We're encouraged by the Welsh Government's future energy grid project, which seeks to proactively influence future grid investment in Wales. The Welsh Government has told us that the action plan produced by the project will set out actions for networks, for Ofgem and the Welsh Government,
'to enable optimal, long-term whole system network planning and operation.'
Now, this all sounds very positive. But, of course, and here's a potential stumbling block, there will also be actions for the UK Government. So, Minister, how confident are you that the UK Government be willing to deliver on those actions? And what happens if it simply refuses to play ball?
Finally on the grid, Minister, you've set up a grid working group to consider whether your initial proposal for a Wales energy systems architect is feasible. Maybe you could tell us when you're expecting to have a definitive answer on this.
Moving on to another key barrier to development: the consenting and licensing regime. Stakeholders told us that a well-resourced, streamlined and efficient consenting regime is essential to support the growth of the renewable energy sector. The current regime, of course, falls short of this. We hear about massive cuts in local planning authorities' budgets, and inadequate resources for NRW, causing long and sometimes costly delays to projects. Of course, concerns over funding for planning authorities and NRW are not new, but if the Welsh Government is to achieve its ambition for renewables, it cannot brush aside these concerns any longer, and recommendation 9 in our report seeks to address this. So, in your recent report, Minister, on implementation of the deep dive's recommendations, you say that further work is needed to review Natural Resources Wales's future resource needs. How long will we have to wait for the outcome of that work, and can we expect to see any increase in NRW's budget next year as a result?
Specifically on planning authorities—two straight questions here. Do they have the necessary resources to cope with demand on their services? And if not, then what are we doing about it? Stakeholders told us that bolstering capacity and resource will only go so far to improve the consenting process. Ultimately, legislative changes are needed. And we are pleased, therefore, that the First Minister announced a Welsh infrastructure consenting Bill in his July legislative statement. In scrutinising the Bill, we'll no doubt be looking to ensure it strikes the right balance between furthering Wales's renewable energy ambitions and also protecting our increasingly fragile environment.
Finally on consenting, the Welsh Government has made clear its position that there should be full devolution of energy consents. So, Minister, is this something that you're actively pursuing with the UK Government? And if so, have there been any glimmers of hope? Maybe you could tell us.
The final part of our report focuses on opportunities to scale up community and local energy. The growth in renewables we are calling for must benefit communities across Wales. Communities mustn't just have a say in projects, they must be active stakeholders, reaping the social and economic benefits from the transition to renewables. Stakeholders told us, to achieve this, the Welsh Government must do more to incentivise and encourage shared ownership, and recommendations 12 and 13 in our report aim to address this. The Welsh Government has responded positively to these recommendations and, since the publication of our report, has issued guidance on shared ownership. It's also committed to routine monitoring and reporting on the uptake of shared ownership for energy projects, which, of course, again, is something that the committee welcomes.
Finally, I'd like to pick up on recommendation 17. This called for an update on Ynni Cymru, recognising its role in helping to support the expansion of community-owned renewable energy particularly. We had hoped that that recommendation would help answer some questions surrounding Ynni Cymru, but that wasn't the case. Although the Welsh Government accepted our recommendation, the response was simply, 'Watch this space'. So, Minister, we understand that you've established a renewable energy developer interim board to consider proposals for a development company. Are we right in thinking that this company and Ynni Cymru would be one and the same? It would be helpful if you could clarify that for the committee. And is there anything more that you can tell us today about progress towards the creation of Ynni Cymru?
Llywydd, the committee's conclusions are clear. We have to seize the plentiful opportunities that we have here in Wales for renewable energy development. We have to break down the long-standing barriers that are holding back development. And we must do so whilst of course bringing our communities with us in the knowledge that they will reap the benefits. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on the future and not the past, and I hope it's a future of secure and affordable renewable energy, and not destructive fossil fuels.
I thank my committee Chair—our committee Chair—for leading off this debate. The following quote from our cross-party committee report does actually rightly highlight the Welsh Labour Government failure to unleash the renewable energy potential of Wales:
'The Welsh Government’s 2012 energy strategy promised a range of actions to improve the planning and consenting process, and grid infrastructure in Wales, amongst other things. A decade later, the same promises are being made. Now is the time for the Welsh Government to deliver on its promises, and urgently.'
In 2012, Minister, your Government promised to review and improve the planning and consenting regimes associated with development. Yet 10 years later, the Welsh Government should be more—. Oh, sorry. In your deep-dive recommendations, you make the exact same promise, which you refer to in your response to recommendation 2. So, I suppose the question is: if it didn't happen then, what confidence can we have that it's going to happen and you're not just dragging your feet?
Similarly, whilst I welcomed the Welsh Government's consideration of recommendation 3 and implementing the committee report's call for more stretching targets, this should not be a distraction from the direction of travel we must take. We need to reverse the serious decline that we've all seen, and we know it's happening, over recent years. As the Institute for Wales Affairs told us, 'The Welsh Government should be more concerned with delivery and avoid tinkering with targets just for the sake of it.'
I know I stand here too often and hear blame directed at the UK Government. In your response to recommendation 1 in particular, we have to remember it was your Welsh Government that decided to scrap the vital business rate grants for small hydropower schemes, risking the decimation of a viable local industry, and this has affected a number of my farmers in Aberconwy who, in all good faith, took on these schemes, only to find then that they were penalised for doing so. This has left companied like North Wales Hydro Power with a more than 8,000 per cent increase in business rates, described by the industry as being very short-sighted of this Government. Once again, I reiterate my call for the Welsh Government to reverse this hugely damaging decision, and I would welcome, Minister, if you would respond to that particular point, whether you have considered it, and that you may actually look to support those trying to do their bit to help us with renewable energy.
Of course, one area where major change could be enacted at a much faster pace is out at sea. According to RWE Renewables UK, marine energy developments in Welsh waters
'face increased consenting risk and a competitive disadvantage'
compared to those elsewhere in the UK. The Crown Estate and Joint Nature Conservation Committee referred to the need to balance accelerating and expanding offshore renewables to achieve net zero, whilst also protecting the marine environment and halting biodiversity decline, alongside the IWA calls for a clearer and more defined consenting process to ensure the timely deployment of marine renewables. I note that you have explained that the identification of marine strategic resource areas should be completed in 2023. So, as RSPB, the Marine Conservation Society and a number of others have made clear here, it is time now to create an even better platform for marine developments and nature, by creating a national marine development plan.
Another key issue—
Will you take an intervention?
I'm glad to hear you making this case—I think it's an important case to be made—but, of course, what those organisations also have in common is that they support the devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, which would provide a financial boost for those developments. I presume you will also support that now.
Yes, of course.
Another key issue stifling the expansion of renewable energy is the lack of adequate grid infrastructure, and I have to say, every time I've met with members of the industry, they actually cite this as being a really big issue, a big barrier. You've accepted recommendation 7 only in principle, and at a time when the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee suggests that the UK Government might be unaware of the severity of grid-capacity issues, the Welsh Government must demonstrate greater leadership and proactively engage with UK Government at the very highest level to ensure that Wales's current and future grid infrastructure requirements are fully understood and met. As such, there can be no harm in you raising the crisis—and will you do so, Minister—at the next inter-ministerial group for net zero, energy and climate change.
Similarly, I believe you should heed the calls from the 'North Wales Energy Strategy' to look at establishing microgrid trials, and a good place to start those would be in north Wales. This would be a far better use of taxpayers' money than setting up Government-owned energy companies, which I believe is a misguided idea. It has already been tried in Bristol and it then succeeded in having dire consequences for local taxpayers.
Can you conclude now, please, Janet?
With the Russian war in Ukraine having made almost all constituents realise the need for Wales and the UK to produce more renewable energy, now is the time for the Welsh Government to supercharge some action. I am confident that there are more areas upon which we agree to enable the whole Senedd to co-operate to see Wales achieve its energy potential. Diolch.