75 speeches by……and 8 more speakers
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure. And the first question, Caroline Jones.
1. What economic support is the Welsh Government providing to ensure we have thriving high-street businesses in Wales? OAQ(5)0167(EI)
We continue to provide a wide range of support to all high-street businesses in Wales to ensure that they go on thriving.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Unfortunately, due to the activities of some of the larger retail chains, who can afford to absorb losses, many of our small independent retailers are going out of business, destroying the diversity of our high streets. What economic incentives can your Government offer to small independent retailers to ensure their continued survival and avoid a future in which our high streets are just clones of one another, dominated by corporate chains? And will you discuss with the UK Government possibly lowering the VAT threshold, and graduated thresholds of VAT, for smaller businesses?
Well, can I thank the Member for her question and say that this is an issue that’s close to the heart of many Members in this Chamber? Just because a small business is struggling to operate doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a future in an environment that sees an increasing amount of activity take place online. I think the important factor that will determine the success or failure of a small retailer is whether it’s distinct—distinct from competition. And, in some town centres, such as Narberth, we see a good number, and a high concentration, of small boutique businesses and retailers in particular. Now, Government can act as an enabler, supporting small businesses on the high street, through programmes such as the business exploitation programme, operated in tandem with Superfast Cymru. We can also assist in terms of offering support through Business Wales, offering one-to-one advice for business growth and how to adapt to modern retail tastes and trends. Also, we can support businesses through the development of business improvement districts and town-centre champions. And we’re doing just this. But I think what’s crucially important is that, if a small business is struggling to carve out a niche, or to survive in a fiercely competitive environment, call Business Wales, seek advice and, potentially, seek support. Seek support in the form of a loan or other financial resource. It’s essential that that’s done as soon as possible. We can also offer advice and support in terms of skills training and management too.
Cabinet Secretary, one way to ensure that we have thriving high-street businesses in Wales is to make our high streets as accessible as possible, by developing car parking strategies that factor in local nuances around individual town-centre layouts. Now, I appreciate that the Welsh Government last year announced a package worth £3 million to help local authorities pilot town-centre free parking. So, in the circumstances, can you tell us how many town centres and high-street businesses, and high streets individually, have already benefited from this support?
I don’t have that data to hand. This is a responsibility of my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government. But, if the data are already available, then I shall ask him to liaise with you specifically on that. I think it’s also important to recognise it’s not just car parks that can have an influence over the success or failure of a high street; it’s also whether a high street is populated with vibrant businesses. And there’s a lot of work taking place at the moment, looking at whether high streets can be shrunk, whether businesses, or business activity, can be consolidated into smaller, tighter areas, to generate a greater degree of activity that’s concentrated around a central hub. This is something I’m very keen to explore as part of the place building element of the new prosperous and secure strategy. I think place building is absolutely essential in determining the prospects of a local economy. And, within an urban setting, it’s essential that a place feels of the highest quality, is accessible and is vibrant, not just during the daytime, but also at night time. And, for that reason, I think it’s essential that we go on supporting businesses in their diversification and ensure that town-centre economies are not just vibrant during the daytime, but also at night. The Member also raised car parks as a means of accessibility into town centres. I think it’s essential as well that we go on investing in active travel and in local scheduled bus services, which, for many people, are an essential—indeed, crucial—means of accessing high streets and town centres. And I’m pleased that we are maintaining the £25 million for bus services across Wales, to ensure that those that wouldn’t operate on a commercial basis can still reach out to rural communities and connect them with urban centres.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on commemorating our industrial heritage in Wales? OAQ(5)0166(EI)
Yes. We are incredibly proud of our rich industrial heritage in Wales. Over 1,000 industrial structures have statutory protection as listed buildings or as scheduled monuments. Industrial heritage also features prominently in our pan-Wales heritage interpretation plan focusing on ‘Wales: the first industrial nation’.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. A sense and celebration of our history is important, not just to our sense of place today, but to build the foundations for our future as well. We have a particular rich industrial heritage across the Dee coast in north-east Wales, from the steelworks in the east, going across to where Courtalds was in Flint, and then to the Point of Ayr Colliery. Earlier this year, the Point of Ayr community heritage project received £40,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund in a grant, and this will enable Point of Ayr to build a miners trail and a circular walk, which will meet with the coastal path and the site of the colliery, and will also link the town to Ffynnongroyw and Talacre. I was lucky enough to meet with the Chair, John Wiltshire, at an event down in the Senedd, and, last month, I was at the opening of the start of the trail. It was a privilege to be there as the Assembly Member representing the area, but also a particularly proud moment for me, as my ‘taid’ and uncle, and many members of my family, worked at the Point of Ayr. Now, the 23 July will be the grand opening of this trail, where one of the old pithead wheels will actually be reconditioned and opened. Cabinet Secretary, will you join me in congratulating the Point of Ayr heritage project, and John Wiltshire and his team, on all that they’ve done, and also urge others across Wales to learn from the group? And, of course, if you were free on 23 July, I’m sure the invitation is open for you to attend.
Well, I’d be more than delighted to attend that special occasion, and I, too, would like to congratulate those volunteers who are investing so much time and energy in promoting their local heritage. I was delighted to meet some of the volunteers with the Member recently, and, in addition, we know that this particular facility, this site, the Point of Ayr Colliery, is of enormous significance for the community of Talacre, but also for the communities of Mostyn and Ffynnongroyw, Llanasa, Pen-y-ffordd, Flint and Holywell—Indeed, a crucial tourist attraction for that part of north-east Wales. In addition nearby, we have the Brymbo ironworks, which has received, in recent times, £110,000 in grants from Welsh Government—again, a crucially important facility to attract tourists and to bring the community together. I was pleased also to recently attend the opening of the Rhydymwyn tunnels, again in my friend Hannah Blythyn’s constituency, in Rhydymwyn, where it was quite apparent how much value the local community place on that facility. And I’d like to pay tribute in particular to David Hanson. He was honoured for the work that he’s done over many years in ensuring that it can be open to the public, and indeed to Mark Isherwood, as an Assembly Member, who remains steadfast in support, as does Hannah Blythyn, for the community group that made this happen.
Coincidental, but thank you for your comments. In the context of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct world heritage site, it’s now, I think, eight years since that was awarded, and I think eight years since the then Welsh Government first established a regional partnership body to drive forward the regional industrial heritage offer, incorporating potentially Llangollen railway, the canals, the Ceiriog valley, Brymbo, as you’ve referred to, but stretching across to Flintshire’s heritage trails, Rhydymwyn valley, Greenfield Valley Trust, and so very much more. But we still haven’t got that joined-up approach now. We haven’t got the through-ticketing, which bodies such as Llangollen railway are proposing. And a concern raised with me has been that the bodies have had insufficient representation from tourism and heritage bodies in the region themselves. It’s good that Glandŵr Cymru are on board, but where are all the others? Do you agree with me that we therefore need to incorporate better those wider voices, so that, together, they can bring forward the proposals that can at last achieve, I think, the objectives that we both share?
I’d agree entirely with the Member. I’ve been keen to encourage movement speedily, and with dynamism, in the direction that he outlines. I’d like to see more through-ticketing for sure. I’d like to see greater co-ordination between and amongst the various organisations that are involved in the culture and heritage sector in industrial north-east Wales. And, for that reason, I think it would perhaps be very sensible to convene a culture and heritage summit during the summer, to bring together those organisations, including Glandŵr Cymru, who the Member rightly identifies as a lead partner in the Pontcysyllte world heritage site activity, and I think, in drawing together those various interests, we may be able to make progress.
Questions, now, from the party spokespeople to the Cabinet Secretary. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, this week in a written reply to me, you accused the company behind the Circuit of Wales of, ‘many material gaps and inaccuracies in the information’ they have provided to you. Now, that’s a fairly extraordinary claim for anyone to make, let alone a Government, about a counterparty with which you are just weeks away from making a decision about a £425 million-project, which you’ve been discussing for over six years. Isn’t it the case, Cabinet Secretary, that it’s your Government that’s been inaccurate? You promised, at that dispatch box in February, a four to six-week process, which is the standard timeline for confirmatory due diligence. What you’ve done is conduct a forensic audit with the express purpose, it seems to me, of finding some excuse—any excuse at all—to justify saying ‘no’. And isn’t it also the case, Cabinet Secretary, that having first delayed the decision until after the May local elections, you’re now delaying it beyond 8 June? Not because of any gaps in information, but because you don’t want to be open and honest with the people of Blaenau Gwent, who you’ve strung along with false hope and empty promises for six years.
Not at all. The Member is completely and utterly wrong. He asked a series of questions; I gave a series of honest answers. Never before have I seen an opposition spokesperson criticise a Minister for giving honest answers. My duty is to ensure that projects that can create jobs, that are sustainable, get the support of this Government. My job is to make sure we invest our resources where there are employment opportunities. I am excited by this project, but I will not short-circuit the due diligence process, unlike the Member, who would have signed it off last year with, incidentally, another £18 million of public funding guarantees.
You accuse the company of misleading you, and you say you give honest answers. Well, isn’t it the case that if anyone has been guilty of misleading people, it’s your Government? In the auditor general’s report, he refers to a press release that your Government issued on the FTR acquisition, which he says, in terms, was both incorrect and misleading. That’s the auditor general’s verdict, not mine, on this Government. Now, in your response to the auditor general’s report, you said that you were shocked and disappointed at its release during the pre-election period. Yet, isn’t it true, Cabinet Secretary, that the deputy permanent secretary was informed of the intention to publish on 10 March, almost six weeks before? As the auditor general has said in a letter to me, and I quote: ‘Although I can understand why the Cabinet Secretary has expressed disappointment regarding the timing of my report, I find it hard to understand how officers could express shock in this respect.’ You’re blaming the company, blaming the auditor general, blaming everyone else, but isn’t it true, Cabinet Secretary, that it’s you and your Government that are to blame for the fact that, here we are, six years on, still waiting for a decision?
I’m astonished, again, that the Member used the term ‘misleading’. I am astonished—
The auditor general used the term ‘misleading’.
In the context that he did. The Member should retract that, because what I stated in those written answers was true and factual—true and factual. And I say it again: my job is to ensure that projects that can gain Government support, that are proven to be sustainable and to create the jobs that they purport to be creating for the communities that they must serve—. My interest is with the people of Ebbw Vale; yours seems to be with political self-interest. There is a big difference—a big difference—between ambition and recklessness. I will not short-circuit the due diligence process. Where do you think the auditor general would have you, if you were to propose short-circuiting the due diligence process, if you were in my position? Do you think the auditor general would support you in that?
Here we have a Cabinet Secretary who has delayed a decision not once but twice, beyond an election, for obvious reasons, and he accuses me of acting in self-interest. There’s a simple answer to the charge of prevarication that we make, and that’s to get on and make a decision. The Cabinet Secretary has said that he has now got all the information from the company that he requires and that he expects to receive the final due diligence reports very shortly. So, can he confirm there is now no impediment, no barrier, no excuse left that will prevent him from making a decision and an announcement before 8 June? Can I remind the Cabinet Secretary that Cabinet Office guidance on Westminster general elections states clearly that devolved functions should continue as normal? His predecessor, Edwina Hart, made a decision on the Circuit of Wales in the middle of the Assembly pre-election period. If she was honest enough to do so, then why should you and the First Minister be cowering behind this excuse of pre-election purdah instead of being honest with the people of Blaenau Gwent who put their trust in you?
I should just suggest you keep digging yourself in, because what you’re essentially saying is that we should, again, ignore the due diligence process. The reason that there have been delays is because the information has not been fully populated in the data bank. That is the reason why. That is the reason why. Do not blame the Government for failing to provide the information that the developer is required to provide. We remain excited by this project—
Ah; well, there we are. There we are, and there’s the point. You’re here to scrutinise me, but you don’t wish to listen. You just wish to give lectures about how to dodge due diligence. That is not your role. [Interruption.] That is not your role. [Interruption.] Your role is to ensure that you scrutinise—[Interruption.]—the information that is presented to you, but you don’t wish to do that. [Interruption.] You don’t wish to do that. What you wish to do—
Can we hear the Cabinet Secretary’s reply, please?
Thank you, Presiding Officer. What you do is you wish to butterfly-move from one policy and project decision to another. For example, how would a £12 billion world expo help the people in the Valleys if it were to be based in Cardiff? That was another of your suggestions. It presumably would come with a huge debt burden—[Interruption.] There are many—[Interruption.] I think you’ve amounted to £1 billion of debt per month since this Assembly was elected. That is not responsible; that is reckless. That is not ambitious; it’s delusional. Our job is to create—[Interruption.] Our job is to create lasting work for all people in Wales, and right now we are doing that. We have record employment in Wales as a result of this Government—our interventions, our investments. We now have low unemployment that is below a level the previous Governments at Westminster could ever have dreamed of, as a result of our interventions and our investment. Our job now is to tackle those structural problems within the Welsh economy that have deprived too many people of work for too long, but we will do it by making sure that our investments go into work that is sustainable. I will not dodge any due diligence process in ensuring that taxpayers’ money is invested in the right and proper way on behalf of the people of Wales.
Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Presiding Officer. Keeping on the theme of supporting the Welsh economy—[Interruption.]—I’m sure that you will welcome Theresa May’s pledge to—[Interruption.]
Can we move on to the next question? Russell George.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, I’m sure you will welcome Theresa May’s pledge to abolish the Severn bridge tolls once ownership has transferred to Highways England next year, bringing, of course, at least £100 million to the Welsh economy per year—a far more immediate time frame than the one—perhaps Joyce Watson will listen to this—in Labour’s manifesto, which merely promises: ‘We will work with the Welsh Government to scrap the tolls on the Severn Bridge.’ Given that a Conservative Government on 8 June would open up Wales to even more economic prosperity, when will the M4 relief road get started to support the significant increase in traffic this will bring?
Can I thank the Member for his questions? I’m delighted by the u-turn approach of the Conservatives at Westminster. Nonetheless, I do welcome their move in the direction that the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, has given a very clear and strong direction on. I am confident that the local public inquiry is proceeding to the time frame that was outlined. Subsequent to the outcome of the public local inquiry, a decision will be made, and I’ve outlined how I envisage and intend to ensure that work is carried out subject to the outcome of that inquiry without delay.
Well, of course, you’ll be aware there’s no u-turn on these benches. We’ve been very supportive of scrapping the Severn bridge tolls for some time. I can hear Joyce Watson shouting in the back row, ‘Where’s the money going to come from?’ I’ll perhaps answer that as well, Cabinet Secretary. The UK Government has provided substantial funding to boost the Welsh economy, from investing £1.2 billion in the Cardiff capital region, to a £400 million increase to capital budgets, as announced in the autumn statement, on top of the £500 million the Welsh Government will be able to borrow to invest from 2018. Yet the creation of the national infrastructure commission, which will oversee the numerous infrastructure projects that we need in Wales, has been delayed until the end of this year. You will be aware, of course, of the economy and infrastructure committee’s recommendation in March, yet you didn’t accept the recommendation to establish it as a non-statutory body, with the presumption that legislation would follow, which I think was disappointing to committee members and many others. Do we take it that this will mean that the infrastructure commission will not be a permanent fixture in Wales?
No, we shouldn’t. The national infrastructure commission, the proposals for how it will be composed and the membership it will comprise has been clearly outlined. It’s our intention to ensure that there is, before the end of this Assembly term, an evaluation of the effectiveness of the commission, based on models that have operated elsewhere. We believe that it will be a very effective means of providing expert advice. I think it’s fair to say that one essential element of the work of the national infrastructure commission of Wales will be how it interacts with the UK commission, given the significance of many major infrastructure projects on both sides of the border, not least rail, in the coming 10 to 20 years. It’s my belief that, in terms of the presumption to put it on a statutory footing, we need to ensure that we first of all evaluate the effectiveness of the national infrastructure commission before we proceed with any further developments regarding its composition or how it stands.
Along with the substantial investment for infrastructure, the UK Government’s industrial strategy has provided key opportunities for regional economies. I note the Welsh Government has responded to the industrial strategy consultation, and so have the Welsh Conservatives. Can you commit to publishing your consultation response to Assembly Members immediately, and if not, why not?
This is something that I’m quite happy to do. I’ve said previously that I believe that the UK industrial strategy offers us opportunities in terms of where we can work together on regional economies and developing more place-based interventions. I think there are great opportunities likewise in terms of the sector deals, but what will be essential in the determination of the success or failure when the strategy is actually deployed as a set of actions is whether it’s backed up with the appropriate and necessary resource, not just across England, but also across the whole of the UK, including Wales. For that reason, I’m determined, if that strategy goes ahead—and of course it is dependent on the outcome of the UK general election—but if that strategy goes ahead then it’s essential that Wales benefits from its fair share of funding, especially with regard to research development and innovation.
UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Could the Cabinet Secretary update us on the Heads of the Valleys road improvement scheme and the expected finishing date for the Clydach gorge section?
I’d be more than happy to update Members on the Heads of the Valleys dualling scheme. It’s a scheme that we’re immensely proud of in Government. I believe it was my colleague Carl Sargeant who initiated the scheme after a previous transport or economic development Minister from a different party, I believe, delayed it. So, I’ll be more than happy to update Members on the progress of this hugely important piece of infrastructure for the Heads of the Valleys.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for that answer. I asked the question, Cabinet Secretary, because I was wondering if it will be finished in time for the Circuit of Wales project.
That all depends on the delivery period of the Circuit of Wales. But the delivery period of the Heads of the Valleys road is progressing well, and there have been no major significant delays in recent weeks. I will update Members with detail about when it aims to be completed by.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Can I move on to another matter? As the Cabinet Secretary is aware, Blaenavon is a world heritage site with many thousands of visitors each year enjoying not only the restored ironworks, but also Big Pit and Blaenavon railway. However, this does not seem to be having the desired effect on the town itself, with many shops on the high street closed. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to improve the connectivity of the attractions of the town to the town itself?
The Member raises a very good point that’s relevant, actually, to many more communities that have important heritage sites on their doorstep. As a consequence of the work that’s been taking place via the steering group looking into the Historic Wales policy pledge, there will now be far closer interaction between those who manage Big Pit and the Blaenavon ironworks. I think as a consequence of that, there will be a greater focus on accessibility and outreach programmes. If they are able to work in tandem together, to pool resources—that are very limited, granted—I do believe that there will be opportunities to better advertise those wonderful assets to people who live in the immediate area, but also to enable better transport links and accessibility to both sites. I think the potential for joint ticketing across the region is enormous, so that more people can access more heritage sites, more of the time.
Question 3 [OAQ(5)0170(EI)] has been withdrawn.
4. What plans does Transport for Wales have for relieving congestion to the east of Cardiff? OAQ(5)0159(EI)
Transport for Wales provides support and advice to advance the Welsh Government’s vision for delivering a transformational integrated transport system in Wales, providing high-quality, safe, affordable and sustainable transport for all.
Well, we can certainly agree on that. But it’s now five years since Mark Barry’s report ‘A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region’ and two years since the Cardiff capital region board agreed we needed an integrated transport system as a catalyst for economic change. Meanwhile, more and more people are piling in to Cardiff and Newport by car and massively increasing the congestion and the air pollution problem. The map of possible metro stations seems to have no more status than a piece of artwork. I just wondered if the Cabinet Secretary can tell us when the people of Cardiff and Newport are going to be able to shape the new metro map to deliver that modal shift that everybody seems to recognise is needed.
As has been regularly said, the metro is a dynamic piece of work with a timetable that we are sticking to and, by 2023, services will be begin. I’m pleased that recently we were able to give details of two stations to the east of Cardiff that will be taken forward with a view of securing the appropriate funding to upgrade them, those being Llanwern and St Mellons, but I’m also pleased to have recently met recently with incredible volunteers at Magor station who would like to see their particular facility upgraded and modernised as well. I recently wrote to that group and to Members with an update on how we will be supporting that particular community. I think it’s essential that, as we develop metro phase 3—and right now we’re in phase 2, where we are procuring the operator and development partner—but in phase 3 we will see future rail extensions and further bus integration across the metro map area. I think it’s essential that we deliver a wide range of benefits by engaging with people across communities to determine where investment needs to go, and how that investment can link up to other forms of travel, primarily active travel, so that people can get to and from metro services on foot, or on bike.
Cabinet Secretary, a recent survey by INRIX Roadway Analytics found that business in Cardiff was particularly badly impacted by congestion. I think we think we need to take these UK-wide surveys very seriously. Now, one way of relieving traffic at peak times is to invest in a Cardiff parkway railway station at St Mellons, and associated park-and-ride facilities. I think your decision to examine the feasibility of this station was widely welcomed. I wonder how far advanced your scrutiny is now.
I will provide information in writing to Members on the stages at which all of the projects that we’re now taking forward are currently at. Certainly, with St Mellons, the creation of a significant park-and-ride facility will reduce congestion into Cardiff city centre, but it will also ensure that businesses can continue to grow, against a fiercely competitive environment just across the border. We know that, between congestion on the M4 and the existence of tolls at the Severn bridge, there are significant factors working against our interests in driving economic growth. We wish to remove both of those. I’m pleased that political parties in London have now recognised the need to remove the Severn bridge tolls. It’s now essential that we resolve the congestion problems on the M4. But that won’t just be delivered via an M4 relief road—it does require considerable investment in the infrastructure that will enable people to take public transport and indeed participate in active travel into and around the city centre.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on superfast broadband provision in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(5)0164(EI)
To date, the Superfast Cymru project has invested over £48.6 million in providing 171,498 homes and businesses in Mid and West Wales with access to superfast broadband connectivity, delivering average speeds of over 73 Mbps.
I thank the Minister for that and I acknowledge the role that she’s played in rolling out this programme and improving the accessibility to broadband throughout Mid and West Wales, but she will be aware that we’ve still got quite a way to go. I spend quite a lot of time in the car traversing the region and we go in and out of signal so it’s very, very difficult to do any business by e-mail for any great length of time, and I still have constituents who complain that they’re being messed about by the providers who are installing the service—like one from Llansadwrn in Carmarthenshire, who writes to say that he’s had his date of installation of superfast broadband revised back. The first installation date was summer 2016, then revised to March 2017, then to July 2017. Another one, who says that it’s always ‘two months away’ whenever she’s given the date and then that’s revised to a further two months away. So, I wonder if the Minister can give any hope to my constituents who are writing to me in these terms that there will be some significant further improvement soon.
I acknowledge the issue around the moving timescales, which we’ve discussed many times in this Chamber, and we have worked very hard with BT to make them give much more realistic time frames. Sometimes, it’s just not possible for them to understand what the engineering difficulties might be on the ground, but we have a very regular meeting with them where I go through evidence provided by Assembly Members such as yourself, to say, ‘Can we improve this communication system?’ Whilst it’s very frustrating for those individuals who are still in that situation, the incidence has dropped off very significantly since we’ve been working very hard to do that, though I acknowledge the frustration for those who are caught in that. We have done extremely well in terms of coverage. At the moment, we’ve got 80 per cent completion in Pembrokeshire, 75 per cent completion in Carmarthenshire, 63 per cent completion in Ceredigion, and Powys is over 71 per cent complete. Those figures will improve as we go towards the end of the project. So, just to reiterate, the Superfast Cymru project will end in June. All the work that will be done under the project must have commenced by June—it will be complete by December. Very shortly, in June, I will be making some announcements about the future programme to get to the remaining numbers of people. We are looking at an enormous number of innovative ways of getting the last few per cent up into superfast speeds. We’ll be investing in excess of £80 million in doing that. That’s dependent on what the clawback is on the current contract. So, as usual, I encourage all AMs to make sure that, where superfast is available, people are buying the service, because, obviously, for everything over 21 per cent take-up we get a gain share for that and that enables us to invest that money further in improvement. You did also mention mobile phone connectivity. It’s true that the technologies are merging to the point where they appear to be one and the same thing, but unfortunately they are not. We don’t have mobile phone technology devolved in Wales—I wish we did—but we are working very hard with the mobile phone operators on a series of measures that will help improve connectivity, and I will also be making a statement about the number of roundtables we’re having on improving that connectivity. We are acutely aware of it. The last thing to say on this is that we will be looking to see what we can do about the roll-out of fifth generation, so that people don't have to climb up the steps—they can leap from where they are now up into the best possible provision. That's an ongoing conversation with all of the mobile phone operators as well.
Minister, I've got two letters from you here, one dated March and one dated April. The one in March says that officials have spoken with BT colleagues who have confirmed the roll-out of superfast broadband will take place in June, but then a month later, on the very same property, you write again to me saying, since the update, information has now changed and it’s no longer available and unfortunately this particular property is going to be too far from the cabinet. Now, the issue here, of course, I hope you will agree, is completely unacceptable because this particular property in this area had an opportunity to take part in another technology solution, and on your advice in March they turned the other solution down and said, ‘No, that's fine, because we've got superfast broadband coming in June—we don't need it, sorry’, and then only a month later to get yours—. Then it was too late, of course, to take part in the other technology solution. Do you agree that this is absolutely unacceptable? What are you going to do to make sure people get accurate information in the first place?
Yes, I accept the frustration of that. The letters do also say, of course, that dates are always subject to change, depending on engineering works and so on. We do try to give the most accurate information, and I absolutely acknowledge the frustration for those caught in a situation that changes in that way. So, we work very hard to make sure that information is accurate and the number of instances has declined very seriously, but I absolutely acknowledge the frustration of people who are caught up in that, and I’m very happy to work with you on an individual basis to make sure that those individuals do get the best solution.
6. What impact has recent currency fluctuations had on Welsh exports? OAQ(5)0168(EI)
In general, a lower value for sterling would be expected to help support exports by reducing the prices of exported goods in overseas markets. However, export levels are affected by a wide range of factors. Irrespective of the currency position, the Welsh Government engages vigorously in a range of programmes to promote Welsh exports and these efforts will be redoubled as the UK leaves the European Union.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. I'd be very interested to hear what specifically ‘redoubling’ actually means. I think it's fair to say that when negotiations begin between the UK and the EU on our withdrawal from the European Union there might be market volatility, there might be further currency fluctuations as every angle of the negotiations is analysed, and the potential for leaks. When I asked the Welsh Government what specific support was being provided for the agriculture sector in terms of mitigating currency fluctuations, the response was that currency fluctuations were beyond the control of the Welsh Government, which was a very helpful answer. The Irish Government has established a €150 million agriculture cash flow support loan scheme, making funds available to farmers at low cost to help address impact of currency and exchange rate volatility. I wonder if the Welsh Government might consider an equivalent scheme in this country to support exporters more broadly for potential volatility in the financial and currency markets.
I think the Irish example is one that certainly demands scrutiny and appraisal, but it's my view that as we leave the EU we will need to work even more closely with the Department for Trade and Investment at a UK level, and intensify our activities in terms of trade missions and in terms of attracting foreign direct investment. We've enjoyed, actually, very recently, figures that have come out showing that exports have risen by a record amount. We're seeing an increase in exports faster than the UK as a whole, up by more than £700 million, but there's no doubt that as we leave the EU we will need to intensify our efforts to find more new markets and ensure that more businesses export. The degree to which a country exports is a determining factor in how productive the economy is, and it's my view—and I've been pressing this message with the business community—that more businesses in Wales need to examine the potential to export to more territories. For that reason, we’re looking at more trade mission opportunities and at more engagement programmes to ensure that businesses, large and small, are given every bit of support from Welsh Government they can get to enable them to export. But one final point that's very important as well as we leave the EU—currency stability, of course, will be a crucially important factor that determines the damage or the benefits in the aggregate that leaving the EU will deliver to Wales and the UK. But we must go on working where we can with other parts of the UK, both internally and as the UK on an international stage, not least because huge opportunities are delivered to us by Governments outside of Wales, but within the UK, in terms of trade investments leads and also intelligence on new and emerging export territory. So, it’s important that this Government goes on working with other Governments across the UK.
Devaluation means that exports are cheaper in the purchasing currency, but the cost of imports increases in pounds. The pound has fallen from $1.5 from last June to between $1.2 and $1.3, a 14 to 20 per cent reduction. And whilst the cost of imports increases, supported exports are going to increase the cost of exports to be reliant on bringing in raw materials from abroad and producing goods to be exported. It also brings inflation into our economy, which has gone up by a factor of 9 since last year. Does the Minister share my concern that Welsh exporters can get affected by the increased cost of the raw materials coming in, at the same time as they’ve already set fixed prices for their goods going out, and they’re getting squeezed by that, and does the Cabinet Secretary also agree that what we need is some form of currency stability, so that people know exactly where they are? We’ve had the devaluation—we now need to stay there. We can’t keep on having our currency bouncing around—everybody suffers.
We’ve not had a strong and stable exchange rate in recent months—it’s something that the business community and our economy most certainly need. Depreciation of sterling since the referendum result has been a double-edged sword, in terms of what it has delivered for some exporters in Wales. As Mike Hedges suggests, one effect is to push up the cost of imports, and this adversely affects exporters both directly, as it increases the cost of imported inputs, but also indirectly, as it increases prices across the whole economy, and therefore affects even domestically sourced inputs. Now, I’m keen to make sure that we examine supply chain opportunities for, in particular, key manufacturing sub-sectors, where there are opportunities across Wales to grow small companies, and indeed to start up new companies. I can think of a number of opportunities in the automotive sector, where currently, considerable numbers of parts for cars produced in the UK are actually sourced from outside the UK, whereas as we leave the EU, it may well be possible to grow businesses within Wales that can act as supply chain manufacturers of goods for the automotive sector. For that reason, a summit is being convened that will bring together the likes of Bentley, Toyota, Vauxhall, Ford and Jaguar Land Rover to ensure that we examine fully and scrutinise the opportunities for a stronger supply chain in the automotive sector.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on support for small businesses in Wales? OAQ(5)0171(EI)[W]
Small businesses play an important role in the Welsh economy and we continue to provide support for entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises to sustain and grow in Wales through the dedicated Business Wales service and, indeed, through infrastructure investment in our infrastructure.
Wrexham council spends some £200 million per annum on procuring goods and services through public procurement. Less than a quarter of that, as is far too common across Wales, is with companies within the county, and around half is issued to companies in England. That’s a loss of some £100 million per annum to the Welsh economy. Now, there are potatoes for school dinners coming from Rochdale, although there is a potato distributing company in the town. There is bread for school lunches coming from Liverpool, although companies such as Village Bakery are more than able to provide that produce. So, with new councils being formed across Wales over the next few weeks, what’s your message to Welsh councils in terms of improving the very disappointing record that we have at the moment in terms of public procurement in Wales?
I think it’s very important that councils scope out opportunities for the business community in their respective areas to ensure that businesses are registered on the Sell2Wales database. At the moment, it’s got something in the region of 34,000 registered suppliers. It’s essential that we go on building the database, and that local authority economic development units and procurement units work closely with business organisations—with Business Wales in particular—in disseminating information about the opportunities that are there at the moment, and which could emerge in the coming months. I think there’s a huge opportunity with the work that will take place on a regional footing in local government to better scope out and better disseminate the information that is required by businesses to win important procurement projects and to be part of a growing area of the economy in Wales.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on support for businesses in the tourism industry? OAQ(5)0165(EI)
Yes. Our tourism strategy, ‘Partnership for Growth’, sets out our priorities for each of the years leading to the turn of this decade to grow the tourism industry across Wales; to invest in the industry; and to ensure that, as a partnership, we go on enjoying world-class developments and events that are attracting many, many millions of people every year.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Of course, the tourism industry in Wales brings in over £6.2 billion to our economy, 13 per cent compared to just 8 per cent in England, 10 per cent in Scotland and only 4 per cent in Northern Ireland, a direct contribution of £2.7 billion that equates to 6 per cent of our GDP. That’s predicted to grow to 7 per cent by 2020 and that accounts, of course, for 14 per cent in terms of employment. It is clear that as a Government you should be valuing, encouraging and supporting this much-valued industry. But much of it, of course, is achieved, by those working in the private sector with much personal investment and a lot of hard work. Given the huge burden now facing many small tourism operators—and I do know of hoteliers in Llandudno who are facing now recent increases of over 83 per cent—how are you working as a Government to look once again at the business rates multiplier in order to prevent our businesses, in effect, from going backwards and perhaps going out of business?
I think the Member raises a number of important points. First and foremost, the Government is here to help businesses that right now are struggling because of revaluation. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government has detailed the support and the increase in resources available to support small businesses, not just in the tourism sector, but in many other sectors. But I think it’s also important that we recognise the importance of growing the value of the visitor economy. It’s through growing the value that we grow profit levels, largely, and in North Wales, an area of the country that the Member represents, we’ve seen a pretty staggering growth in the number of high-quality restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions. I was with Sean Taylor, the entrepreneur that put together the Zip World collection of world-class attractions, just last week to see the new forest coaster: a remarkable piece of infrastructure—a first-on-the-planet piece of infrastructure—and something that many would consider to be very eccentric, but it is of the highest quality. As the Member highlighted in her question, it’s being delivered by an entrepreneur with somewhat eccentric ideas, but ideas that are delivering the goods. Where people come forward with ideas that are workable, we will back them. As has been shown by Zip World, right across an area of North Wales that desperately needed investment in jobs and services, he’s created more than 200 jobs in that time. That’s an incredible achievement. So, I want to see the sector go on growing, not just in number—in terms of employment numbers—but also in terms of quality. I’ll be making an announcement tomorrow regarding the recent thematic years, which I hope Members will discover is exciting. But I’m also intent on making sure that we use our resources through the tourism innovation fund and the tourism investment support scheme to continue to develop world-class reputation-changing attractions that bring more people into Wales, spending more money, driving up the value of the economy and making sure that those visitor-economy-related businesses are sustainable in the long term.
And finally, question 9, Eluned Morgan.
9. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on how rural Wales can boost its economy? OAQ(5)0172(EI)
Yes. Rural Wales has specific opportunities and challenges, which have been brought into sharpened focus as a result of Brexit. We must look at the contribution of all the levers at our disposal, across all ministerial portfolios, which have a part to play in shaping and also influencing an agenda of prosperity for all.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. We heard during the referendum that Brexiteers like R.T. Davies and Neil Hamilton made promise after promise—[Interruption.]—yes, and you, Janet Finch-Saunders, fair enough; you made those promises as well. I think it’s worth saying that those promises were made to the farmers of Wales and the people of Wales, who were promised that they would not see a cut in the amount of money coming to Wales. Now, in rural Wales, that amounts to about €350 million a year. One thing is clear to me and that is, whichever way we leave the European Union, hard or soft, we’ll see the end of the common agricultural policy. Does the Cabinet Secretary believe that rather than cross our fingers and hope for the best in terms of what comes next, actually we need to start focusing now on our rural economy, and we need to develop a specific rural economic development plan for Wales? That should include things like providing the right infrastructure, and I’d like to congratulate Julie James on the incredible work that has been done on superfast broadband in rural Wales, but other things like the foundational economy, the need to enhance tourism and the need to add value. But specifically, how are we going to deliver an economic development plan for rural Wales? What are the drivers? Who is going to deliver it? Because the massive pressure on local authorities means that it’s very, very difficult for them to deliver without support from the Welsh Government.
Can I thank the Member for her question, and also thank the Member for recently hosting me at one of her forums—the mid and west Wales economic forum—which I found incredibly interesting and which certainly has contributed to my thinking with regard to the new regional place-based economic development agenda, which I have talked of previously in this Chamber and at other venues? I think it’s absolutely essential that the agriculture sector, in particular, gets continued support from Welsh Government as we leave the EU, but there is also a need to recognise that challenges faced across rural Wales can be unique and require bespoke solutions. For that reason, I’m keen to go on working not just with the Member through her economic forum, but also with my colleagues across Government, and principally the Cabinet Secretary for environment and natural resources, to ensure that as we succeed in spite of or because of Brexit, regardless of which it is, that we do succeed and that all parts of Wales benefit from economic growth in the future. Not all parts of Wales have benefited equally from economic growth in recent years. It’s this Government’s intention to ensure that in the future there is prosperity for all.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.