Joyce Watson AM’s ‘Politically Speaking’ column for the Powys County Times
To Y Plas, Machynlleth, last weekend for a get-together of Labour Party members from across Mid and West Wales. The region is the largest of the Assembly’s five areas, stretching from Crickhowell to Welshpool, the Llŷn Peninsula and down to St David’s – lots of driving but what scenery!
We were joined by Nia Griffith, Member of Parliament for Llanelli and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence. Top of the agenda was the upcoming local government elections. Conversations centred on the manifestos, the promises candidates will make to voters.
Manifestos have been in the headlines recently. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon says her party’s 2016 election pledge – to press for a new independence vote if “a significant or material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position occurs – gives her a mandate for a second independence referendum. At Westminster, meanwhile, the Chancellor’s tax grab on self-employed workers breaches the Tories’ 2015 election promise to “not increase the rates of VAT, income tax or national insurance”. The lesson: politicians should be held accountable for the promises they make – and voters should always read the small print.
The Welsh Government is getting on with fulfilling its manifesto, including the top six pledges it made at last year’s Assembly election. One of those was an extra £100m to improve school standards. Last week it awarded Powys County Council £11.8 million, under the 21st Century Schools policy, for five new primary schools: Hay-on-Wye Community Primary School; Clyro Church in Wales Voluntary Controlled School; Bronllys/Talgarth Community Primary School; Llangors Church in Wales Voluntary Controlled School; and Archdeacon Griffiths Church in Wales Voluntary Aided School, Llyswen. This is wonderful news for the Gwernyfed area. 21st Century Schools is more than a building programme, it is about updating and improving education for a modern country.
For the record, the other five pledges were: free childcare for working parents (30 hours and 48 weeks’ worth of free childcare for working parents); tax cuts to all small businesses; 100,000 quality apprenticeships for all ages; a new treatment fund for life threatening illnesses; and to double the capital limit (the amount people can keep) for those going into residential care from £24,000 to £50,000. We have four years to deliver.
Our manifesto also promised to end the right of social housing tenants to buy their homes. On Monday the Welsh Government published The Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill. In a debate on Tuesday, I argued that ending the right to buy would encourage home-owning councils like Powys to resume their historic role as major house builders. Two years ago, Welsh authorities left what was known as the Housing Revenue Account scheme, meaning rent revenues now go to the council rather than into UK Treasury coffers, as used to happen. The hope was that councils would re-invest that money in new housing stock. But if people can buy the houses, how can the council protect its investment for future generations? Building new council houses under Right to Buy is like running a bath with the plug pulled out; if we’re serious about delivering affordable housing for our young people, we have to put the plug back in.