Keeping Wales Moving: Sustain Wales Summit 2019

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The recent Sustain Wales Summit was both dynamic and solemn in equal measure. Changes to South Wales’ infrastructure is underway, driven by the need to counter the consequences of a contemporary Wales that relies far too heavily on privately owned, fossil fuelled cars. As a result, Sustain Wales’ Summit: Sustainable Transport and Mobility - Putting the Citizen at the Heart of Urban Travel last week revolved around a simple core message: our relationship with the car must change.

 Building upon the Future Generations Act, the Urban Mobility Partnership promotes a multi-modal, integrated transport system that will improve our health, environment and economy by changing the way we travel. The multibillion-pound initiative hopes to liberate isolated urban communities while establishing a travel infrastructure that is as inclusive and accessible as it is kind to our planet.

 Automotive transport was explored at length, but the main messages were that diesel taxis account for a high proportion of welsh air pollution, and that one of the most common causes of death in young children were road traffic accidents (this is worse in more deprived areas of the community).

Client Earth’s Kate Nield, AM Leigh Waters, Clean Air Cardiff’s Jason Bale and Public Health Wales’ Dr Tom Porter all brought new angles and fresh insight to the topic, covering everything from the effect of micro-particulates on the body, to the international environmental law’s that are not being up-held across Wales and the UK as a whole. This wealth of specialist knowledge encouraged interdisciplinary dialogue and new perspectives on the current plans for bike shares, buses, trams and the much-anticipated metro. But how well established are these plans? 

Leigh Waters AM, Minister for Transport and Economy emphasised the new found political urgency that the ‘climate emergency’ has inspired. Time to act was the generally accepted message, but some members of the audience wondered if this is nothing more than convincing rhetoric in light of a global media outcry? In response, Waters took time during his turn on stage to express his frustration with previous consultations, saying that the existing sustainable transport work that had been done was expedient. However, Waters emphasised the need for a much greater depth of insight and much greater level of creativity within future consultations and design processes, perhaps indicating things are not as concrete as some of the Summit’s rhetoric suggests.

 Through the Summit, it was clear to see that South Wales is working hard across the transport industry to establish a more connected and environmentally friendly community. But are the plans in place bold enough? With an environmentally conscious Mark Drakeford at the head of Welsh Government and no sign of an M4 Relief Road, South Walian people need action fast. Talk of retro-fitted busses and the rejuvenation of disused industrial railway lines are an achievable start, but is it enough to spark real change in the Welsh Capital and beyond?

Brexit or Bust: The Welsh Conservative Spring Conference

As Theresa May addressed the Welsh Conservative Party conference in the Llangollen Pavilion over the weekend, English Local Election results were still flooding in; by close of play the Conservatives had lost more than 1,300 seats. Amidst this quite staggering political upset, May’s time at the conference – which began with party member Stuart Davies’ now infamous heckle: ‘’why don’t you resign? We don’t want you’’ – was spent elaborating on the party’s poor performance in the local elections and emphasizing Brexit’s divisive nature on the doorsteps.

May focused on the ideas of party solidarity and internal cooperation as the key to facilitating a timely Brexit, but the atmosphere in the pavilion did not inspire either of these things. Party members described the event as down beat and even funerary, with many commenting on the internal friction that currently pervades the Tory party and mainstream politics at large and its chokehold on party progress.

In the face of a divided party operating in the shadow of a still unresolved Brexit, May’s focus turned to Welsh education and healthcare. Commenting on the children being let down by an education system that is trailing behind UK national standards and a Welsh NHS that can not provide the necessary standards of care to its patients, May looked to leverage Welsh governmental insufficiencies against Labour’s ongoing leadership, echoing Welsh Conservative Party Leader Paul Davies’s view that Labour, not devolution, is the issue with Welsh politics.

In his first conference address since election as party leader, Davies also focused on education and healthcare, as well as urging the Welsh Government to stop ‘’dithering’’ over the M4 relief road decision. Many crucial topics, however, could be seen languishing in Brexit’s pervasive uncertainty, and if May fails to address the issue with haste, we might be seeing a lot more heckling.

Although many important and impassioned messages were communicated at this Welsh Tory Party Conference, you can’t help feel that May, Davies and all senior members of the party are trying in earnest to both apologise for and distract from Brexit. Although the promises of establishing UK wide parity in education, healthcare, housing, social care and infrastructure could potentially attract lots of voters as the next Assembly elections begin to appear on the horizon, in the short term faith will continue to waver unless May can truly rally the party and address the European elephant in the room.

Not May’s Day: A very Liberal Local Election

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National view

Yesterday’s unfolding local election results painted a clear and immediate picture: Theresa May is fast running out of both time and popularity, and in the face of a languishing British democracy - the people have taken a serious second look at the alternative political options.

Among those options the Liberal Democrats have come out as clear victors, making modest but extremely significant gains. Amidst the now tired rhetoric of a squabbling Tory government and their equally divided Labour opposition, many new Independent and Green party seats have been secured, alongside the cascade of more than 703 new Liberal Democrat seats taking control of an additional 10 councils (total of 18).

Now that all 248 English councils holding elections have announced their full results, the Conservative party faired even worse than initially predicted - being down by 1,334 seats and having lost control of 44 local councils (they now control a total of 93 councils). The Tories blame their party’s performance on voter anger over Brexit, emphasising that they have retained council majorities and leaderships in many Brexit voting councils: typically areas with fewer graduate voters and an aging demographic.

Tory losses have been heaviest in southern England. Many Lib-Dem led councils in the South were ousted by Tory leadership following the 2015 Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. Now, as the Liberal Democrats reclaim their historic place as the party of protest and shirk the criticisms of Tory coalition, the Pavement Politics of the Lib-Dems has secured their best Local Election result since 2004. Labour also sees its downfall as the plight of Brexit: in its 9th year as opposition party Labour has lost a total of 82 seats losing reducing the number of councils they control from 66 to 60.

In line with the current strong environmental movement at the moment, the Green Party has added 194 councillors, and the strong protest vote is evident by the number of independent councillors rising by 612. It is also worth noting, that having made significant gains in 2015, UKIP lost 145 seats.

The noticeable shift towards Lib-Dem support in this historic local election has prompted commentary that their new found relevance and popularity is fuelled by their support for a people’s vote in the absence of any decisive action from the Tory’s or the Labour Party.

However, both Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell have publicly responded to the election results, sending very similar messages regarding the frustration being demonstrated by the public: define and deliver the Brexit that was voted for. Although it may seem like Conservative and Labour Party decline in this local election could be used to leverage cross-party co-operation, and see Labour helping to deliver May’s Brexit, the picture is not yet clear.

The BBC’s lead election analyst Sir John Curtice has warned against conflating Lib-Dem popularity and the national outcry for a people’s vote: ‘when you actually look, is there any evidence that the Liberal Democrats are doing better in remain areas than in leave areas? The truth is that evidence seems to be lacking’’. It would therefore seem that the swing towards the Lib-Dems could be more than skin deep. Perhaps Brexit has been divisive and tumultuous enough to prompt a major shift in the landscape of English Local Politics and British Politics at large?

All in all the 2019 English local elections have shown that – in MP Sir Bernard Jenkins words – Theresa May has “Lost the Plot”, and that in the face of muddy British Politics the people of England are seriously considering less conventional options: Now is the chance for the Lib-Dems, the Independents and the Green Party to really make their mark as the British two-party system appears increasingly to be no longer fit for purpose.

Local insights

But what does this all mean when we look closer to home, at a local level?

Noticeably the Lib Dems have won leadership of Bath and North East Somerset County Council from the Conservative Party, gaining 23 new seats. Tim Warren, the previous Conservative leader of the Council commented that he knew this election would be ‘’bad, but not this bad’’, and that ‘’we couldn’t get [the voters] to differentiate between local politics and Brexit, and we got hammered for it’’. The Conservatives have lost 24 seats, leaving the Lib-Dems with a large majority.

In yet another story of Conservative defeat, Winchester County Council has been also taken by the Liberal Democrats. The previous Tory majority lost five crucial seats to the Lib-Dems, who have won back control of the authority for the first time since 2003. This is another story of Brexit frustration, with the Local Conservative Leader Caroline Horrill calling politicians nationally to ‘’come together and agree a deal’’.

Where Tory and Labour approaches to Brexit were overwhelming in a local arena, Lib-Dem Leader Lucille Thompson focused on the fact that these elections were not about Brexit but local services and local people. Given that Winchester voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum, this change of local leadership should not come as a surprise.

Other regional Councils gained by the Lib Dems include Cotswold, Somerset West, North Devon, and Taunton.

Swindon however has gone against national trends, strengthening its Conservative majority to five seats. Just one seat changed hands, the Labour ward of Penhill being won by the Conservatives. Many were surprised to see the Conservative control of Swindon CBC remain, let alone to see it bolstered. Many of the seats were closely fought, however, the Tories holding the ward of Old Town by just 15 votes.

Council leader David Renard seemed quietly confident prior to the vote, and will now be feeling extremely satisfied with his ability to stay the tide of Brexit rebellion in the form of both disenfranchised remainers and frustrated leavers.

In conclusion

Aside from the political uncertainty at a national level, large political shifts and uncertainty at a local level (there are now a total of 73 councils under no overall control) may present challenges over coming months for those working with local authorities, due to a significant change in key personalities as well as the potential for major shifts in policy. It will be crucial to understand these changes to local politics and key stakeholders (and  influencers), in conjunction with a need to reassess and potentially reposition communication and engagement strategies according to the new political landscape.

If you would like some assistance reviewing your political and communication strategy, then please get in touch: clare@grasshopper-comms.co.uk.

Welsh Labour Spring Conference: Brexit, austerity, and social partnerships

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Held amidst the stifling political uncertainty of a postponed Brexit and the divisive talk of a people’s vote, the recent Welsh Labour Party Conference was quietly fraught with discordance, meaning it is no surprise that there weren’t too many headline grabbing policy announcements.  

The focus of party leader Jeremy Corbyn was to differentiate Wales by insisting that ‘Welsh Government is doing its best’ despite widespread austerity and extraordinary levels of political volatility within the UK, and  he took the opportunity to sympathise with fellow party members regarding the severity and impact of central government cuts. Corbyn maintained that a UK wide approach is needed to remedy Welsh funding issues: ‘The answer is an end to austerity and the answer is a Labour Government for the whole of the UK which will properly fund Wales’.

Corbyn’s closing remarks focused on climate change, stating that a Labour Government would reverse the decision of the Tidal Lagoon and strive to instigate a ‘green industrial revolution’ that would bring clean energy and a host of new jobs nationwide.

Mark Drakeford, speaking at conference for the first time as First Minister, stated his regret for the challenges facing Wales’s youth in the form of Brexit and widespread austerity and avoided mentioning a potential second referendum entirely. Instead, Drakeford took the opportunity to hammer home the importance of the proposed Social Partnership Bill for Wales, which aims to put ethical standards of employment at the core of Welsh Government economic and social policy and public service delivery.  Specifically, this would be done by enforcing standards (such as living wage and employment contracts) through government supply chains.

Drakeford sees the proposed Social Partnership Bill as an opportunity to bring the strength of a statutory foundation – building on the Equality Act of the last Labour Government – to demand the highest standards of training, education and skills within Wales. The Bill would also look to reassert the importance and centrality of workers as ‘the country’s greatest asset’.

Although Drakeford did not comment at length on housing, he stated that Welsh Government would set Councils to building council houses, providing affordable housing for the people.  Drakeford also raised the renewable energy agenda stating that he regretted the decision on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, and stressed that he wished for Wales to be at the forefront of renewable technology.

There was little else to report in terms of infrastructure and regeneration announcements - so now we turn our attention and wait with bated breath for the key infrastructure  announcement that everybody has been waiting for – the verdict on the M4 relief road.

To keep up with politics, planning and the built environment in Wales, please follow us on Twitter @Grasshopper_UK or get in touch.

Plaid Cymru Spring Conference: Looking Towards the 2021 Election?

While a large number of Plaid members made the trip to Bangor’s Pontio Arts Centre this weekend for the Party’s Spring Conference, many also ventured to Cardiff to watch Wales begin their Euro 2020 qualification campaign (with a win against Independent Slovakia). YesCymru and Welsh Football Fans for Independence banners could be seen throughout the capital as the ‘Red Wall’ made the short trip from St Mary’s Street to the Cardiff City Stadium.

At the same time, Adam Price AM was busy giving his first Spring Conference Speech as leader of Plaid Cymru, as the Party look towards the next Assembly election in 2021. Price made clear that his Party would be seeking a referendum on independence if Wales loses out on the £2.5bn in EU structural funds that would be due in the funding round post-Brexit. Reaffirming the Party’s support for a second referendum on exiting the EU, the Plaid Cymru leader said Wales could join the EU as an independent member state.

In light of the recent discussions and publications with regards to climate change, energy and Wales’ renewable future, Llyr Gruffydd AM, the Party’s allocated spokesman on environment, energy, rural affairs and planning, was quick to criticise the lack of action being taken by the Welsh Government.

Gruffydd claimed that Plaid Cymru would establish a publicly owned non-profit energy company, and that the Party has created a policy development group to look again at the challenges of climate change. Additionally, a cut to VAT for the construction industry was highlighted as a commitment if the Party is elected to govern.

Speaking on planning, Gruffydd warned that the system is working against communities, with thousands of homes being built on the basis of “faulty” estimates from the Government.

Other headlines from the weekend included Plaid’s commitment, if in Government, to training 1000 more doctors and 5000 more nurses, call for the devolution of air passenger duty and a cut to VAT for tourism, to raise spending on education from 4% to 6% of GDP and the introduction of a Welsh Language Act to restore the national language.

While it will remain to be seen whether Plaid can now challenge Labour’s longstanding hegemony in Wales, recent times have seen them undoubtedly garnering support under the leadership of Adam Price. With Price ruling out a coalition with either of the other two main parties, it will be interesting to see how the Welsh National Party approach the first election under their new leader.

Please follow us on Twitter @Grasshopper_UK or visit www.grasshopper-comms.co.uk to keep up with the Spring Party Conference news and all things planning and the built environment in Wales.