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Politics

Development Bank ‘not a guaranteed solution’

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A NEW report by a think tank has assessed the potential of a public development bank for Wales to boost lending to firms and promote economic development locally.

The report by the Public Policy Institute for Wales describes evidence that ‘bank branch closures are having a negative impact on individuals and businesses in Wales, but more specific research is need to ascertain what impact bank branch closures is having on individuals and communities. Finding out the extent to which vulnerable areas are affected by bank branch closures can also help identify which specific services can be provided in the future.’

The report states: “However, even the most extensive public banking model, opening community banks would not be able to replace the branches that have been closed in Wales in recent years.”
On ways to protect banking services it comments: “A public development bank is potentially useful option, but not a guaranteed solution.”

Plaid Cymru Mid and West AM Simon Thomas said: “We need action from Governments in Westminster and Wales on bank branch closures.

“It is unacceptable that the bank network is being stripped from rural Wales. We cannot have a gap in the banking services available to rural and urban Wales.

“Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts has called for a change in the law to protect the last bank in town. We are now seeing often in our communities from Llandysul to Llanidloes towns left without a bank.

“While bank branches are expensive to maintain and are used by fewer people in the past they are still an important resource. The report highlights research by the Federation of Small Businesses that bank branch closures affect small businesses in rural communities, as they are more likely to require cash purchases than in urban areas.

“High street banks have a duty to consult effectively with the local community over closures. While banks are private companies making commercial decisions, in effect access to banking is essential for modern life and participating in democracy.”

“The Labour Government in Cardiff Bay should be looking at how other financial institutions like Finance Wales and credit unions have a role to play. Other ways to protect banking services for small businesses and individual customers like developing the services provided by the Post Office will be hampered by the closure programme of successive Westminster governments of different political colours.”

The report identifies problems with lending to small and medium sized businesses, automation has made banks more geographically and operationally distant from small businesses.

Bank closures contribute to this problem according to the Federation of Small Businesses.

Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman, said: “The rapid pace of bank branch closures across the UK presents some very real and tough challenges for small businesses. FSB members highly value the face-to-face interaction they receive in-branch, particularly when making complex financial transactions, with staff who often have a greater understanding of their business and the local economy. In addition, many of our members deal heavily in cash and cheques and need access to over-the-counter banking facilities on a regular basis.

“Small businesses are keen to embrace the opportunities of the digital economy. However, barriers towards digital inclusion, such as unreliable broadband connectivity, and a lack of confidence in using digital services creates serious challenges. These are some of the reasons which explain why the protection of in-branch banking is so important for financial inclusion.”

Large banks were three times more likely to shut a branch in Wales than in London and the south east of England, and five of the top ten areas affected by the 600 branch closures in Britain in 2015-2016 were in Wales – Powys, Denbighshire, Gwynedd, Conwy, and Carmarthenshire.

The FUW is particularly concerned as internet banking is not always an option in rural areas; many people will not have an appropriate internet connection- if they have a connection at all, and especially the elderly may not be familiar with IT and the process of doing their banking online.

Speaking earlier this summer, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “The closure of rural banks has a detrimental effect on rural areas, as they serve not only villages and small towns but many of the neighbourhoods in surrounding areas, as well as providing employment to local people.

“Closures are a great loss to residents and local businesses, particularly the elderly or residents who are unable to travel to the nearest town. The closures will of course also affect small businesses, as they will have to travel further afield for their banking needs.
“In addition, internet banking is not always an option in rural areas; many people will not have an appropriate internet connection if they have a connection at all, and especially the elderly may not be familiar with IT and the process of doing their banking online.
“For many telephone banking is impractical, as they prefer to deal with their personal finances on a one-to-one basis and mobile banking is limited in many rural areas. It is worth considering as well that some people may not be able to get to mobile banks during the short time they are present in villages.
“With more and more rural services and businesses being closed down, we must also acknowledge that it is becoming less and less attractive for young families and indeed business owners to remain in the countryside.
“If the problem of rural depopulation is not addressed with some urgency it could have severe consequences for our rural communities and with that also our rural economy.
“It is clear that if we want to ensure that Wales develops its full potential in being a rural economic powerhouse, we must make it attractive for working families to stay and also encourage vital services like business banking to remain available in our countryside.
“The provision of acceptable broadband services is an increasingly critical part of meeting the needs of rural Wales.”

A report from the British Infrastructure Group found nearly a quarter of Welsh constituencies appear in the worst 20 constituencies in the whole of the UK for broadband speed.

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Politics

Communities First had impossible task

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THE WELSH Government should ensure councils identify all programmes currently being delivered by Communities First that should be delivered by other public services and that they are transferred across to the relevant public service as soon as possible, according to a National Assembly Committee.

The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee also found it has been difficult to make an overall assessment of the success of the 15-year, £432m Communities First tackling poverty programme because of insufficient performance management.

Communities First was the Welsh Government’s flagship tackling poverty programme. The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children Carl Sargeant AM announced that the programme would be wound down in February this year.

The report also highlights that uncertainty for staff caused by the way in which the announcement was made has had a detrimental impact on their work, and affected the people using the services.

The Committee also recommend that the Welsh Government outline how long legacy funding will be available for as soon as possible.

Committee Chair John Griffiths AM said: “For many people, Communities First has had a life-changing impact, and we know it has done great work in communities across Wales.

“We are concerned that the Welsh Government must learn lessons for future tackling poverty activities, ensuring progress is measurable, based on evidence of what works, and that the successful elements of Communities First, which could be delivered by other public bodies and are valued locally, are transferred to other public services to deliver.

“The need for these services hasn’t disappeared, but faced with uncertainty, we have heard that Communities First staff are already leaving for other jobs. Their expertise and relationships cannot easily be replaced.”

A key criticism in the report is that the Welsh Government had no baseline from which to assess success and without such a measure, it was impossible for Communities First’s successes – if any – to be adequately measured as delivering anything like value for the money invested in the scheme.

Evidence from Carmarthenshire County Council not only makes that criticism express, but continues: ‘Measuring the long term impact that the programme had on the individuals was not carried out in the initial years of the programme. As a result, there was limited recording of statistics and outcomes achieved during this period’.

Indeed, the committee states that its own work was hampered by lack of transparency by the Welsh Government. ‘On the day that it was announced the programme would definitely be ending (14 February 2017), all performance measurement data was removed from the Welsh Government’s website’.

The report mordantly notes that: ‘However, we were told in very stark times by a witness that having 102 performance indicators means in practice you have no performance indicators’. It goes on to warn that new indicators put in place by the Welsh Government are so broad as to be almost meaningless and recommends that the Welsh Government adopt the approach recommended by the Bevan Foundation, a social welfare think-tank.

The report notes that the Communities First programme was set the ‘near impossible task’ of reducing poverty, which could never be achieved through one single programme.

In written evidence to the Committee, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant said that “….the underlying premise of the programme that it was possible to improve area characteristics by influencing individual-level outcomes – was (and remains) untested.”

In addition to the broad aims of the programme, it remains unclear and un-evidenced as to whether interventions to improve individual circumstances lead to changes in a geographical area’s characteristics. This was accepted by the Cabinet Secretary in his written evidence.

Although it is unclear how well a place based approach works and it remains the approach for some other programmes such as Communities for Work, Flying Start, Lift, and others. The committee recommends review of these programmes ‘to ensure they are working to optimum benefit’.

The Committee expresses concern that Communities First programmes were used to deliver services that statutory bodies should have delivered, noting that Communities First schemes ‘were delivering projects and support in important areas, including health and education’.

As Herald readers in Carmarthenshire will recall, it is almost impossible to conceive that a local authority would misuse funds for a targeted project to subsidise delivery of its own services.

Other recommendations include:

• That the Welsh Government considers removing postcode barriers to families accessing Flying Start where there is an identified need and capacity to support them

• That the Welsh Government ensures that all advice and guidance to local authorities is available in written form to supplement information that is provided in person or orally

• That the Welsh Government That the Welsh Government makes it clear in guidance to local authorities that employability support should encompass all stages of the employment journey, including support to a person once they are in employment

Mark Isherwood, the Conservative spokesperson for Communities, joined in the Committee’s criticism.

“Despite repeated warnings, the Welsh Government has failed to deliver what the Communities First programme originally intended, which was to deliver community ownership and empowerment to drive positive change.

“An article by the Bevan Foundation achieved a far more perspicacious insight into why Communities First achieved such little success, by stating that community buy-in is essential and that if people feel that policies are imposed on them, then policies simply don’t work. The Cabinet Secretary should take note.

“However, it is not too late to do things differently. We can still unlock human capital in our communities and places to develop solutions to local issues, improve wellbeing, raise aspirations and create stronger communities.”

The Bevan Foundation has welcomed the recommendations of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s report.

In particular, it welcomes the Committee’s inclusion of the Bevan Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s proposals to reduce poverty through a whole government strategy for reducing costs and raising incomes, rather than its current focus on employability, early years and empowerment.

The Bevan Foundation also welcome’s the Committee’s adoption of other Bevan Foundation proposals including:

• The recommendation that the Welsh Government work with the Bevan Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Foundation on a dashboard of indicators,

• The recommendation that the Welsh Government explore further the role of assets in generating income and wealth

• The comment that the Welsh Government needs to provide a robust framework for local action

Director of the Bevan Foundation, Victoria Winckler, said: “We were delighted that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee has listened carefully to our written and oral evidence and included so many of ideas in its recommendations. The Committee’s inquiries into poverty are vitally important, and we hope that the Welsh Government heed the Committee’s recommendations. We look forward to working with the Welsh Government and the Committee in taking them forward.”

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Politics

Aber academic to advise on Brexit

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Professor Nicholas Perdikis: Advising on Brexit

A LEADING expert on international trade policy from Aberystwyth University is providing specialist research advice to the National Assembly for Wales on how Brexit is likely to impact the Welsh economy.

Professor Nicholas Perdikis has taken up a five month Academic Fellowship with the National Assembly for Wales Research Service to explore the potential implications of the UK’s departure from the EU on key sectors of the economy.

His appointment is part of a pilot Fellowship scheme that enables senior academics at Welsh universities to spend time at the Assembly Commission working on a project of mutual benefit.

Llywydd of the National Assembly for Wales, Elin Jones AM, said: “I am very pleased that the considerable expertise and experience of Aberystwyth University has joined the fellowship programme. This will help Assembly Members to gain a better understanding of the implications of Brexit for key sectors of the Welsh economy, which will be vitally important so that they can scrutinise the policies of the Welsh and UK Governments.”

From August 2017 until January 2018, Professor Perdikis will divide his time between the National Assembly’s home in Cardiff Bay and Aberystwyth University.

As part of his brief, he will examine how a range of scenarios could impact on trade in Wales, including no deal or trading on World Trade Organisation terms as well as membership of the European Economic Area as a transitional arrangement.

Professor Nicholas Perdikis, who is Professor of International Business and a specialist in International Trade and Trade Policy at Aberystwyth Business School, said: “Nobody yet knows how leaving the EU will affect trade in Wales or the UK as a whole and Brexit remains the focus of political debate and discussion. This fellowship is a fantastic opportunity to work in an advisory capacity to the National Assembly for Wales at a time of significant change to Wales’ international economic environment.”

In addition to his academic research on trade, integration and the European Union’s trade policy, Professor Perdikis has acted as a consultant to international and national organisations.

These include the United Nations Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and British High Commission in India.

Professor Perdikis is also co-author of a report on the proposed EU-India Free Trade Agreement.

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Politics

Calls to suspend ‘racist’ UKIP member

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A UKIP Assembly Member has been heavily criticised after a recording of a phone call in which she called a prominent Labour MP ‘a coconut’ was released.

A Labour Assembly Group spokesperson called for Michelle Brown, who represents the North Wales region, to be suspended immediately after the tape was released by her former senior adviser Nigel Williams.

During the course of the conversation, in which she also referred to former Labour MP and current Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum Tristram Hunt as a ‘t**t’, Ms Brown said: “Chuka Umunna is a f***ing coconut.

“He’s got as much understanding of an ordinary black man’s experience as I have.

“He may be black but his mother or his father was British from a very, very influential family.

“He is a coconut – black on the outside, white on the inside, and Barack Obama’s exactly the same.”

Former detective Nigel Williams, who was sacked by Ms Brown in May this year after working for her since her election, told the Daily Post that he had been ‘appalled’ by the recording, which he discovered in his records a year after the conversation took place.

“It’s bad enough coming from anybody, but to come from a newly appointed Assembly Member is absolutely appalling,” he added.

“I’ve seen swearing and I’ve been called all sorts of names myself, but I’ve actually never seen it from somebody in such a position.

“This wasn’t a meltdown. This was just a conversation that Michelle Brown was having, which she thought was OK.”

Labour and Plaid Cymru AMs led criticism of Ms Brown. A spokesperson for the Labour group said: “This is absolutely outrageous language and lays bare the disgusting racism at the heart of UKIP.

“Anything less than immediate suspension would be a clear endorsement of Michelle Brown’s racist slur.”

Plaid leader Leanne Wood said: “This racism reflects poorly on our parliament – the National Assembly for Wales – and that’s why her party should take action on this.”

Speaking to the BBC, Leader of the Welsh Conservatives Andrew RT Davies said: “The language is completely unacceptable and it’s regrettable in the second decade of the 21st Century that that type of language is held by people who hold public appointment.

“From my view, if that person was in the Conservative Party – they would be suspended.

“As I said – it is completely unacceptable language.”

UKIP Chair Paul Oakden said UKIP ‘obviously does not condone the personal views expressed by Michelle Brown’.

“We will conduct an investigation into this matter, the findings of which will be passed through to our National Executive Committee so that they might consider disciplinary action,” he added.

However, Mr Oakden also noted that the party would also be investigating ‘whether a UKIP member and official surreptitiously recorded a private telephone conversation with Michelle Brown and then disseminated it without her consent, more than a year after the event’.

In the meantime, two of UKIP’s remaining five AMs criticised Ms Brown’s language.

Caroline Jones said that ‘inappropriate language is not condoned by myself or anyone else in the party,’ while David Rowlands ‘thought we’d put that racist language behind us as a party’.

Responding, Ms Brown said: “The point I was making is that, because of his considerable wealth and privilege, Chukka Umunna cannot possibly understand the difficulties and issues that the average black person faces in this country any more than I can, and I stand by that assertion.

“I do however accept that the language I used in the private conversation was inappropriate and I apologise to anyone that has been offended by it.”

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