Russell George AM's monthly update on his work in Montgomeryshire and the Assembly
Christmas is now upon us, and I enjoyed attending my first Carol service of the year at Welshpool Livestock Market a week last Sunday. It was a fantastic event with over 500 local people attending. I look forward to carrying out various visits in the run up to Christmas, including visiting a number of Day Centres that offer huge support to many people across Montgomeryshire.
Please find below my final monthly update for 2016 which, among other things, reports on the latest news from the NHS "Future Fit" process which has been assessing health provision in Shropshire and Mid Wales.
Please also click here for bin collection changes over the Christmas period which may be useful:-
I would like to wish you a blessed Christmas and New Year.
National Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire
Future of NHS services serving Mid Wales
The two bodies charged with responsibility for leading reform of the NHS acute hospital services which serve Shropshire and Mid Wales, the Shropshire and Telford Clinical Commissioning Groups, met this week (Monday 12th December) but failed to agree on a decisive way forward for desperately needed reform. Despite receiving a clear recommendation from the “NHS Future Fit Programme Board”, set up specifically to consider the best way forward, their recommendation has not been accepted and the Future Fit Board has been asked to go away and do more work - on top of the three years of consultation and £2 million which has already been spent.
You may have seen in recent weeks that “Future Fit” had agreed a recommendation on the future of hospital services for patients from Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin and Mid Wales. While this was never a final decision, their recommendation was that the new A&E Emergency Care Centre should be located at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. This news was welcomed by me and many others in recent weeks.
Members of the Future Fit board also recommended that Urgent Care Centres should be located at the Royal Shrewsbury and at the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford to reduce pressure on the Emergency Care Centre. The preferred option, put forward by the Board, would also see Women’s and Children’s services returning to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and would also see the Royal Shrewsbury caring for patients in need of critical and emergency care, as well as stroke services.
Many of you will recall the very strong campaign in 2010 which resulted in many community halls filling beyond capacity in an effort to retain these very important services in Shrewsbury. It is therefore particularly frustrating and disappointing to hear that the recommendation of the 'Future Fit Board' has not been accepted by the two bodies which commissioned it.
Over the years, the people of Montgomeryshire have clearly stated that they want services to be retained and strengthened in Shrewsbury and while I was pleased that the Future Fit Board agreed with this assessment, we don’t seem to be any closer to a conclusion following Monday night’s decision from the Commissioning Groups.
The consultation we were expecting in the New Year will now be delayed further. Please rest assured that both Glyn Davies MP and I will continue to maintain that emergency care serving Shropshire and Mid Wales should be located at the centre of the region in Shrewsbury. I will of course keep you updated.
Cross Border Healthcare
Earlier this month, I also took part in a debate in the National Assembly on cross border healthcare, an issue which continues to dominate my postbag. It’s part of the reason why I have recently set up the Cross Party Group on Cross Border Issues to try to learn more about the policy divergence at the border which is becoming problematic for administrators, clinicians and affects patient care. Wales and England share a porous border and cross-border healthcare remains a massive issue, with patients from Montgomeryshire travelling to England on a regular basis for treatment at the Royal Shrewsbury, Princess Royal Hospital in Telford and the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Gobowen.
Regrettably, the differences in policy in England and Wales have a direct impact on the access to, consistency of, and quality of care for patients which the 2013 commissioning protocol has not fully addressed. As a result, many of my constituents suffer from a postcode lottery when it comes to waiting times, funding decisions and differing treatment priorities. This means that Mid Wales patients often fall between the administrative cracks when accessing care.
As the Welsh NHS Confederation has said, there needs to be greater cross-border citizen engagement to raise awareness of devolution and the differences in treatment availability and waiting times as many patients on both sides of the border are unaware of the potential for divergence between health services or the potential wider implications of registering with a GP on either side of the border.
Finally, greater consideration should be given to border issues when producing policy. Last year’s Welsh Affairs Select Committee inquiry into Cross Border Healthcare concluded that healthcare care providers within England and Wales, as well as the UK and Welsh Governments must maintain closer links to ensure that patients receive the treatment they need regardless of their country of residence. Policies should be better “border proofed” to provide consistency in healthcare and that will be one of the immediate priorities of the new Cross Party Group which I Chair.
I would welcome assurances from the Welsh Government that it has put steps in place to work in partnership with the UK Government and other interested parties to ensure that recent recommendations are being implemented.
Powys Local Development Plan – Renewable Energy
I have formally objected to the Welsh Government’s interference in Powys County Council’s Local Development Plan (LDP). My full response is available here .
The top down nature of recent policy revisions and the considerable additional powers which Welsh Ministers are accruing for themselves, especially over small scale renewable energy developments not only serve to undermine local democracy and adversely affect community engagement but severely undermine the credibility of the whole planning process.
This is in direct contrast to the approach taken by the UK Government where an agenda of localism is being adopted and will also put Powys and neighbouring English authorities in direct conflict with one another over such schemes where impact will be cross border.
I passionately believe that efforts should be made to ensure that important planning decisions are made closest to the people they affect. These recent interventions by Welsh Government, reflect their desire to further centralise the important powers of elected representatives, thereby denying local people a voice and most importantly eroding the principles of local democracy.
Welshpool Primary Schools
All primary schools in Welshpool are to close and be replaced with a new English medium school and a new Welsh medium primary school. The English school medium school will be located at Welshpool high school and the Welsh medium school will be located at Ysgol Maesydre. Although I appreciate there will be some reluctance to see the existing schools close, education conditions need to improve, and I very much supported the proposals.
Rural Bilingual Schools
In spite of efforts from hard working teachers and governors at rural dual stream schools across Powys, many are under pressure to deliver savings in order to meet the challenge which has been set by Powys County Council of balancing their budgets. In many cases, this could lead to the combination of English and Welsh infant streams for part of the day, potentially compromising the bilingual status of the schools.
I recently raised this issue in the National Assembly with the Minister responsible for Welsh language education, Alun Davies, and I was pleased that he emphasised the importance of equity in terms of ensuring that people are able to access education in the Welsh and English languages equally. It is essential that Powys County Council adopts this principle when putting forward proposals for the provision of Welsh-medium education and bilingual education in the County.
I applaud the work of my colleague, Cllr. Aled Davies, who has been campaigning to ensure that the achievement of a balanced budget should not be at the expense of educational standards and that the funding formula should deliver adequate funding and resources to maintain small rural bilingual schools. If an increase in resource is not delivered, it is feared that the education of children in places like Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant and Llanfyllin will be damaged and the delivery of Welsh medium education will be further compromised.
In last month’s newsletter, I reported that EE would be in a position to complete improvements on their mobile masts and start delivering enhanced 2G, 3G and 4G services in the Newtown area which would be activated at the end of November. I’m pleased to say that this has now occurred and the people of the Newtown area should now be enjoying improved services on the EE network. However, I'm aware that coverage improvements have been slow to occur in other parts of Montgomeryshire so I'm keeping up the pressure on the operators. If you have specific concerns or questions about your area, please let me know and I would be happy to update you.
Boundary Commission Proposals - Montgomeryshire
The Boundary Commission is currently reviewing the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies across the UK in advance of the 2020 General Election. Our MP, Glyn Davies, has published a useful summary of how we have got to this stage on his blog here.
The Boundary Commission’s draft proposals (here) see a reduction from 40 seats to just 29 seats in Wales (which reflects historic over representation). However, as a result, the historic parliamentary constituency of Montgomeryshire will disappear under these proposals.
I believe there must be a much greater emphasis upon distance, geography and cultural similarities to promote effective representation in rural areas. My local party association have put forward an alternative proposal for Mid Wales which creates a Mid Wales constituency and keeps Montgomeryshire intact. A final decision is expected to be submitted for parliamentary approval in Autumn 2018.
I recently invited the Cabinet Secretary for Economy & Infrastructure, Ken Skates AM, to visited Caersws, to meet with local residents and campaigners from the Caersws Bridge Action Group to see first-hand the danger of pedestrian access over the bridge and to hear about the community opposition to the preferred option of a traffic light system which is seen as impractical and could cause traffic congestion. The meeting was constructive.
Currently, the bridge is narrow with only just enough room for two cars to pass with care. There are countless reports of car mirrors being damaged and there is certainly no room for a car and a lorry or bus to pass. Residents also have to walk over the bridge to access the recreational ground and football pitch and this clearly presents an unacceptable danger for pedestrians.
I have been a long-time supporter of the community campaign for there to be a stand-alone footbridge in Caersws which would make the crossing safe for pedestrians. Therefore, I was pleased that, after the Minister witnessed the first-hand the dangers of crossing the bridge, he was in complete agreement that something has to be done.
I presented my view that traffic lights at this point would not be acceptable, and I was pleased that the Minister agreed to liaise with Cadw and Natural Resources Wales regarding the structure of the bridge to determine what structural scope there could be to add a pedestrian access to the existing bridge.
Delivery of Public Services - Town & Community Councils
Recently, I had the opportunity of raising the confusion which often exists when town and community councils want to take on the delivery of services which had previously been delivered by the County Council. Under a specific section of the Local Government Act, there is provision to allow a community or town council to incur a limited amount of expenditure for purposes for which it has no other specific power or duty, and which will bring direct benefit to their area or any part of it.
However, it has become clear that urgent clarity is required on the circumstances in which town and community councils can take control of important local assets and services which are clearly in the public interest.
For example, I recently raised the case of Llanfair Caereinion Town Council who are keen to take on the running of the Town Library from the County Council in an effort to save it from closure. In spite of the willingness of the Town Council to invest in this important public asset, the legal advice which they have received has said that the Town Council is prohibited from investing in the library due to provisions under Section 137 of the Act. However, the local authority, Powys County Council, has received opposing legal advice and there is now confusion over the application of Section 137 when it comes to the ability of Town and Community Councils to take control of assets and services.
There is a fear that Llanfair Caereinion Library will close without the intervention of the Town Council and it would be a shame if this were allowed to occur as a result of being hamstrung by bureaucracy. There is a willingness on behalf of the Town Council to take control of the library but ambiguity and confusion reigns when it comes to the interpretation of the legal position which will allow them to do this under Section 137 of the Local Government Act.
No doubt other town and community councils will be in a similar ambiguous position so I was grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for giving his attention to this matter and I welcome his intention to bring forward proposals as part of the Welsh Government’s consultation on Local Government reform which will clarify the law in relation to the power and capabilities of town and community councils in taking on services and assets.
In the meantime, I hope that the Town Council and Powys County Council will be able to come to agreement which will see the future of the Llanfair Caereinion library safeguarded.
Last month, I led a debate in the National Assembly calling for the Welsh Government should use the economic levers at its disposal to take small businesses out of business rates altogether. Business rates have been devolved to Wales since April 2015, and yet the Welsh Government have not chosen to introduce a permanent scheme of support.
During my contribution, I showed a video clip of small business owners from across Wales who have contributed to a video on how their businesses have been adversely affected by the burden of business rates.
One of these small business owners, Megan Lawley of Jazz Clothing in Newtown, is facing a significant increase in her business rates from April next year and spoke of possibly having to move to Shropshire where she would be able to get full rate relief. When visiting business in Welshpool last Saturday, I had other concerns raised with me.
I was pleased to be able to raise Megan’s specific case to demonstrate the unfairness of this punitive tax which has prompted some businesses to relocate across the border or has forced other small business owners to borrow money off family just to stay afloat.
Fundamental reform is necessary to create a system which alleviates the pressure on retailers and small businesses across Wales, enabling them to reinvest, create jobs and expand.
Electric vehicles Charge Points scheme
The UK Government has recently opened a grant scheme for both domestic and workplace charge points for electric vehicles. Both apply to Wales and further details of these schemes can be found here .
200th Birthday of John Roberts, Telynor Cymru
Last month, celebrations took place to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of Mid Wales’ most famous musicians, John Roberts, Harpist of Wales or ‘Telynor Cymru’ and I was pleased to be able to mark his 200th birthday in the Senedd. His life and works were marked with two days of performances, talks and events exploring his life and how he and his family, who lived in Newtown, became one of Wales’ best known musical acts of their day.
The celebrations formed part of the Gregynog Festival taking place at Gregynog Hall. Born to a Romani mother and a Welsh father in north Wales, Roberts lived in Frolic Street in Newtown for much of his life and is known to have performed at Gregynog Hall during the mid-19th century. He and his family performed at the Bear Hotel in Newtown and also performed on nine triple harps in front of Queen Victoria whilst she was visiting north Wales. In 1848, he won the world harp competition at Abergavenny, as well as the harp prize at the National Eisteddfod in Cardiff in the same year. Roberts put Newtown firmly on the musical map and remains a significant figure within Welsh culture.
Friday 16th November 2016 - 3.30pm - 4.30pm - 20 High Street, Welshpool
If you would like to make an appointment, please call my office on 01686 610887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
I will also be producing a 2017 Calendar with all forthcoming surgery dates. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like a calendar posted to you.