The 63,000 strong population of Montgomeryshire is spread over a rural area of 839 square miles and as a result, the rural topography of North Powys currently presents significant challenges in accessing services which our urban counterparts take for granted - from local hospital services to reliable high speed broadband and everything else in between.
Brexit also presents its challenges for rural Wales and as D-day rapidly approaches, the attention of the National Assembly over the forthcoming months and years will be on transposing EU law into Welsh law.
To a certain extent, other areas will be put on the back-burner while this occurs but during this crucial process, my attention will be on ensuring that our rural communities are able to seize the opportunities and navigate their way through the challenges which Brexit presents.
I have to say that I have been somewhat concerned that the Welsh Government’s approach towards exiting the European Union over the last two years has been stymied, being only focused on one form of “Brexit” – that of unfettered access to the single market – without providing the immediate support necessary for regions such as Mid Wales to prepare for all eventualities.
Exiting the European Union provides both Wales and Montgomeryshire with a real opportunity to sell itself to the world and to trade with markets outside of the European Union as well as a focus on the intra-UK markets to sell our products.
However, the Welsh Government’s £50 million EU Transition Fund, for example, was not introduced until several months after the UK Government’s announcement of £3 billion to help businesses and the public sector prepare for exiting the EU.
Agriculture is such a massively important sector for the rural economy and I know that there has been some concern about the impact of Brexit on our farming communities. Approximately 80% of Wales’ agricultural land is steep and with high rainfall, therefore being designated as Less Favoured Areas under EU law. These conditions are often favourable to sheep farming, and, at the last count, there were over 10 million sheep and lambs in Wales, accounting for 29% of the whole of the UK’s sheep population. Currently, there are 6,548 holdings in Less Favoured Areas which have cattle and sheep, and 94% of UK exports for red meat goes to the EU.
The UK Government has announced that it will continue to provide direct payments to farmers until 2022, and the Welsh Government recently announced a replacement of payments to farmers after exiting the European Union. For me, it is crucial that the right balance is struck between environmental protections and food production. The gap between the 2022 date the UK Government has given and the end date of the Basic Payment Scheme should also be addressed by the Welsh Government and I believe that the Welsh Government should introduce an Agriculture Bill in this year’s legislative programme to help support Welsh farmers beyond leaving the European Union.
The UK Government is also helping to support Mid Wales through its Industrial Strategy. However, in order for rural Mid Wales to be given the best opportunity of seizing the economic opportunities which will be presented by the UK Government's Industrial Strategy, it is essential that we become plugged in and connected to the wider Midlands economic engine.
Cardiff and Swansea are set to have City Deals and there are plans afoot for a similar arrangement in North Wales. These new regional deals, worth billions of pounds, are re-shaping the economic development priorities of South and North Wales.
As a result, all of these regions will see money invested in better transport links, better broadband connectivity as well as other programmes designed to boost innovation, create employment and raise living standards. Mid Wales deserves the same kind of powers and freedoms to help support economic growth, as well as to create jobs and drive investment. This is a great chance for Mid Wales to benefit from the City and Growth Deal movements, and work is currently underway to develop the vision for its economic future.
When the Welsh Government announced its digital innovation review earlier this year, they said that they wanted to “develop the potential of our regions so that they would support better jobs closer to home,” an aspiration to which we can all subscribe.
But in order for this to occur, the digital divide which currently exists between rural Mid Wales and its urban counterparts in South Wales and the Midlands must be eradicated and I’m concerned that the digital divide is actually widening not narrowing. Many people are justifiably feeling left in the lurch after being left out of the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru scheme which was designed to provide high speed broadband to 90% of the Welsh population, leaving the final 10%, many of whom are in rural areas of Wales stranded.
There has now been a six month hiatus between the two phases of the Superfast Cymru project and with very little detail on when the next contract will be awarded, not alone implemented, this is nothing short of a shambles and prevents rural Wales from accessing the economic opportunities which digital connectivity can deliver.
Finally, the challenges of delivering healthcare services in rural Mid Wales has recently been high on my agenda as the NHS in Shropshire consult on changes to the way in which they deliver hospital services, proposals which inevitably affect the residents of Mid Wales who access healthcare from across the border.
On balance, while my preference would be that no care should move further away from Montgomeryshire’s residents, I am in favour of the preferred option which has been put forward by the Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin clinical commissioning groups. This option would see an Emergency Centre located in Shrewsbury which is centrally located to serve the life-saving emergency healthcare needs of the wider region and those of us here in Montgomeryshire.
That said, I strongly believe that NHS services should be delivered as close as possible to home and I have previously called on the Welsh Government to allocate additional funding to Powys Teaching Health Board for minor injury units and develop a Community Hospital Development Fund to encourage the innovative use of community hospitals across rural Wales. I will be looking for the Welsh Government to revisit this suggestion following proposed changes to healthcare across the border in Shropshire.
In my view, patients should not travel significant distances for some planned care procedures when this type of elective healthcare can be delivered locally, making community hospitals more sustainable and to ensure that any additional economic, social and psychological burden of travelling further to access planned care or visiting friends and family is alleviated.
So, the challenges facing rural Wales are numerous but so are the opportunities and I will be continuing to work hard to ensure that rural Mid Wales can flourish through the Brexit process and beyond.