Efail-Wen in Carmarthenshire and an agenda item amending Standing Orders in the Welsh Assembly at a glance don’t seem to have a lot in common. But they do. Why?
It’s because next week sees again the onwards march of devolution. The Assembly is set to change its rules to allow for Private bills. Now what are these? Well, they’re not the same as Private Member Bills which are for back benchers to make laws.
No, these bills are for outsiders to use. Individuals or bodies outside the National Assembly can attempt to use the Private bill to give themselves powers beyond or that which conflicts with the general law.
Such measures usually attract a fair amount of objections and take a great deal of time before they’re passed.
In fact the whole of the proceedings are of a quasi-judicial nature. For the benefit of Jeremy Hunt that means, careful and balanced as if in a court of law.
Such bills are expensive and are time consuming to pass. Very time consuming indeed. That’s why in Westminster, MPs try to avoid being put on a committee dealing with a private bill. It’s the parliamentary equivalent of doing time. The Whips have been known to use the threat of being put on the committee of a Private bill to sap the rebellious will of miscreant Members.
It will be interesting to see how long it is before Assembly Members groan at the prospect of being put on a committee that deals with one of these.
But back to the main story. Many of the big infrastructure schemes that formed the background of the industrial revolution stem from the Private Bill. Our railways network and our canal system were all established by using the devise of the Private Bill. And of course, the development of Cardiff Bay itself was as a result of a much contested Private Bill.
But what’s it to do with Efail-Wen? Well, this was the first place that the Rebbecca Riots struck. They were attacking the toll gate there. At a time of real poverty in rural Wales because of wet harvests, the small farmers vented there anger at having to pay tolls to the various Turnpike Trusts founded to repair and maintain roads.
There were a web of toll gates around Wales and each time the people passed through, they had to pay. Around Carmarthen there were about 11 different Turnpike Trusts so little wonder that the natives in the area revolted. And you’ve guessed it, the Turnpike Trusts were established by Private Bills.
So when Nick Clegg said that the Welsh government should accept more responsibility for raising the money it spent surely he didn’t have such schemes in mind. Or did he?
In 1988 Wales was run from over Offa’s Dyke by Peter Walker. He was Secretary of State for Wales at the time. He was offered the job by Mrs Thatcher as an insult. To her he was a dripping ‘wet’ and could not be trusted with a major department of State.
He did wrestle out of her one commitment. That he be given a free hand to develop his own policies for Wales. This commitment was easily granted for she regarded Wales as the UK gulag. So what someone ‘that was not one of us’ got up to there, was of little concern.
One of the things he got up to was tacking on to the 1988 Housing Act the provision for a new housing quango called Tai Cymru (Housing for Wales). This quango amongst other things was responsible for funding housing associations.
By funding these bodies Tai Cymru dramatically increased the number of social housing homes in Wales. But the very same Housing Act accelerated the right to buy.
So whilst housing associations were building homes for rent those looking for home to rent were having a hard time getting a roof over their head. Why? Housing Associations and Councils stock was contracting as more were buying houses under the right to buy.
Incidentally on an historic note, Tai Cymru was scrapped by Ron Davies. One of the selling points for devolution was the bonfire of the quangos. Tai Cymru was put aflame in the first round. Other bonfires followed, but as they say that’s another story.
Now you’ll ask what’s the point of this history lesson now.
Well it’s beginning to dawn on many, that many millions of young people will be excluded from owning their own homes. The banks and building societies after the banking crisis are being stricter in who they lend to and on what terms. They’re demanding that purchasers put down much larger chunks of their own cash into any house if they hope to get a mortgage.
Hundred per cent mortgages are very much a thing of the past. The best many can hope for now is 90 per cent. Large deposits and uncertain job markets mean that many will never become owners.
The young will be renters. And because of the cuts to the budgets of social housing providers, the bulk of the houses rented will be from private landlords.
Already this sector has doubled in size in Wales these last ten-years. It is predicted that by 2025 nearly a third of all houses will be in the private sector. So the future is the private rented sector.
Now nothing wrong with that you say, that’s the norm in most of Europe. Sure. But in Europe there’s a significant difference, in most European countries the law favour’s the tenant. But here?
Well, that takes me back to Maggie Thatcher and the 1988 Housing Act. Mrs Thatcher was lobbied by private landlords about needing more freedom to get control of their properties. She duly obliged by creating short hold tenancies. Giving tenants little rights and making it easier for landlords to evict. These tenancies have now become the norm.
So if the future is to be rented. Those renting should have homes of high standards and the tenants should have real security. So let the Assembly create it’s own tenancy and rid Wales of Mrs Thatcher’s legacy in housing.
Tax and stimulating the Welsh economy dominated the Assembly’s discussions today. It all kicked off in a press briefing given by Jane Hutt when she was asked what progress was being made in discussions with Treasury on the issues of ‘fair funding’ for Wales (the Barnett formula to you and me) and the power to borrow.
Well her answer was much the same as her reply last time ‘discussions still continue.’ Put in terms that the polite Jane Hutt would never dream of saying the Treasury are dragging their feet on the issues.
Of course the won’t want to change Barnett this side of a Scottish referendum. Why? Because the Scots do very nicely out of it.
Any change that might address the underfunding of Wales would have to address the massive bung being given to the Scots.
This bribe will surely feature very heavily in the Unionists case for Scotland staying within the Union. So sorry Jane you’ll be left dragging your feet awhile yet.
There is a knock on effect to “no change.” Carwyn Jones has made it absolutely clear he’ll make no demands for more powers on taxation until Treasury gives him what he wants on ‘fair funding.’
So despite the grafting away on these issues by the Silk Commission nothing will happen until Carwyn gets his way.
Indeed proof of Carwyn Jones’s attitude to taxation powers came when responding to questions from the leader of Plaid Cymru Leanne Wood, the First Minister denied that tax-varying powers could help deliver the economy out of recession.
Whether you accept Plaid Cymru’s case or not that the ‘ability to vary taxes would offer a real incentive for the government to bring about change to the economy and to finally take action to help Wales’ struggling economy.’ It is clear that Carwyn Jones ain’t going to budge, until HM Treasury move. And they won’t budge until Mr Salmond holds his referendum.
So blame it on those pesky Scots, Leanne.
Meanwhile, another call for devolution was presented to the government by economist Professor Brian Morgan.
The Welsh government asked Professor Morgan to look at how the complex regime of business rates could be reformed to help the economy. ‘Surprise, surprise,’ as Cilla Black would say, Morgan’s main conclusion ‘Full control over business rates should be passed to the Welsh government as a way to boost the economy.’
And Enterprise Minister Edwina Hart’s response ‘I’ll study the report carefully.’ That’s government speak for ‘this is a hot potato so I’ll put it into the pending tray awhile yet.’