When the economy is at a low ebb, it is the poor and vulnerable that suffer. Most independent commentators would not dispute that the UK ’˜s economy has been in the doldrums since the misdemeanour of the bankers destabilised the financial world and it in turn had a knock on effect on the real economy.
In Wales one of the consequences of the economic down turn has been the increase in those that are homeless and the number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation. Welsh Councils saw 6,255 households seek their help last year as opposed to 5,565 the year before. This staggering increase of 12 per cent between the two years in question should be a cause for real concern.
These figures have not gone unnoticed by our First Minister. In responding to the figures Carwyn Jones blamed Whitehall. Why? Because of the Coalition government’s welfare reform plans and their ‘spending cuts on vital public services.’
He acknowledges the role of the economic crisis on homelessness but said that ‘I believe the UK Government’s regressive economic and welfare reform policies are making the situation worse.’
But if the First Minister has ‘a responsibility to defend the interests of all the people of Wales, especially the most vulnerable, whose voice is often the quietest.’ Then what’s he to do?
Well, as Nick Bennett, Community Housing Cymru boss says when commenting on the homeless figures ‘These figures are distressing and frustrating. Homelessness has been falling over the previous period as we saw investment increase and better regulation from the Welsh Government increase housing associations’ ability to do more- that ’˜s how we met the 6500 One Wales target. We need to do even more during more austere times when grant funding is being cut. We have made the offer to the new Minister ’“ that Housing Associations are ready to invest £250m, and to build at least 1500 units with no grant- in return for continued good regulation, a sustainable rents policy and a renewed partnership approach to innovation, including possible bond finance and special purpose vehicles.’
But the social housing sector is still awaiting a response from the MInister. The situation is urgent and requires a swift response, so that the increased tide of homelessness can be halted and reversed. Prevarication should not be a policy option.
Housing supply has to be increased. In the One Wales coalition government a target for housing was set and exceeded, no new target has been set by this government.
Carwyn Jones has rightly pointed out that changes to housing benefit are causing serious problems, but he can insist that his Housing Minister take action to lower rents in the social housing sector by increasing the capital subsidy going into each new house built or renovated.
For years the Welsh Office budget has been able to get away with a high rent policy in the social sector, because it meant that another Whitehall department would might the costs through benefits. Now is the time to reverse this and make rents cheaper.
An increase supply of new houses built that are at a high rent will do nothing to help the vulnerable or decrease the levels of child poverty. Both high on this Government’s agenda.
As Carwyn Jones said in a recent conference ‘Decent housing is fundamental to life in Wales. Everyone in Wales should have a roof over their head, warmth, food and security. This, surely, is the minimum aspiration for a developed and civilised country.’ And who can disagree with him. But it is up to him to make it happen, not Whitehall.
Who ever coined the phrase that economics was the ‘dismal science’ is hardly likely to have Wales in mind but the word dismal would be apt in describing Wales’s economic performance.
It’s ironic that whilst Wales has taken control of its own governance it’s economy seems to be out of control. The country has gone backwards economically since devolution.
In 1989 the GVA, previously known as GDP, of Wales was 84.3 per cent of the UK average of 100, England was 102.3, Scotland, 96.0 and bottom of the league Northern Ireland was 73.1 per cent. When Wales started the road to devolution the figure had slipped back to 77.3 per cent, as too had the Scots to 94.5 per cent with Northern Ireland overtaking Wales for the first time with 79.4.
After ten years of devolution the Scots have steamed ahead nearly on the UK figure of 100, with 98.8 per cent to be precise, Northern Ireland have maintained their position as have England. But Wales has slipped even further back and has a GVA of only 74,3 percent. Not only is Wales bottom of the nation league it is also bottom of the league when compared to the regions of England. If it were a football club Wales would have been relegated to a minor league.
Not an inspiring story, me thinks. It is an especially depressing story when account is taken of all the help the Welsh economy has had from Europe. From 2007 to 2013 Wales either has received or will receive £2 billion from EU structural funds. Not an insignificant cash handout you’d agree. But where has all the money gone? Clearly, not spent on getting the economy up and running. It is has been used in various social engineering schemes. Worthy, but is it using this money wisely and to good effect?
Just to depress you further, dear reader, things are about to get worse.
Our lack of entrepreneurship has made us over dependent on the public sector for jobs. Cuts in this area will be 10 per cent in real terms over the next four years. This is likely to hit the Welsh economy particularly hard, as the proportion of the workforce employed in the sector is greater than most elsewhere in the UK.
If you’re a youngster in Wales your job prospects are bleak. They make up just under half of the 115,000 people of working age unemployed in Wales, despite being just a sixth of the total working age population.
Why has Scotland, and to a lesser extend Northern Ireland succeeded, when Wales has failed. Undoubtedly Scotland has succeeded because it has a greater control over fiscal matters and is likely to even have more such powers shortly. Wales in the form of Carwyn Jones seems reluctant to go down that particular road.
Scotland has Scottish Enterprise a quango that encourages economic development. Wales decided to scrap the WDA. Maybe Wales would have been better employed culling its badgers rather than its quangos.
Well, now the ball is in Edwina Hart’s court. It’s now up to her as the relevant minister to reverse the economic decline. European Funds have to be used to encourage enterprise. Wales needs to be a can do Nation. Control of Corporation tax and Income tax could help create such a culture. For that she needs to lobby the First Minister to give her the fiscal tools to do the job. Unless these things happen Wales will continue to be a basket case economy.
To cull or not to cull that is the question. It may be a question for the Welsh government but has not greatly concerned this commentator.
The merits of culling badger or not, is hardly a topic for polite company. Surely it should be left to the letters page of the Farmers Weekly and not of great concern to us townies.
Well, why are you writing about you may ask? Ah, a perfectly valid question and one that deserves an answer.
It is not because I’ve inherited a pair of wellies or that I’ve watched too many episodes of the Good Life on Comedy Gold. No, it’s because it gives us an insight into how things will be for the Welsh Government, now that they’ve decided to go it alone.
When John Griffith the Minister with responsibility for animal welfare announced to Assembly Members that he wasn’t minded to rush headlong into a badger cull. Oh! No, he wanted a review of the science on how to eradicate Bovine TB. Does one detect a rapid crash of the gear box as it is pushed into reverse.
As members of the Labour-Plaid coverage both John Griffith and Carwyn Jones backed the cull. What then has changed? Well, certainly not the science.
No, there hasn’t been a breakthrough in treating the disease. No one has shouted, ‘eureka, I have the cure’ , the science remains the same. Neither the scientific or rural landscape has changed since Elin Jones the previous Rural Affairs Minister took the decision to cull. The change that has occurred has been to that of the political landscape.
Having no majority but still deciding to govern alone Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, has now become a prisoner of his own backbench members.
There are many of his backbenchers that have little sympathy towards rural Wales and see badgers simply as cuddly animals. They would never have allowed their government to move towards a cull. In the light of this, Mr Jones and Mr Griffith have decided to appease them by prevaricating. They both live in hope that the Chief Scientist and inquiry will get them off the hook.
Now this about-turn may not cause a great loss of sleep to Carwyn Jones and his urban focused Cabinet, but it surely should. For now that his Labour backbench members have tasted blood they’ll want more. Where will it all end?
Carwyn Jones should worry if the centre of power moves away from the cabinet room to the Labour group. Or, does what caused yesterday’s statement and u-turn, move an early return to coalition government much higher up our First Minister’s agenda.