Newsletter - January 2020

January 2020

Dear Resident,

I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year.

I hope you enjoy reading my first newsletter of 2020. It is considerably longer than my usual monthly newsletter, as I take a look back at 2019, and look ahead to the priorities for our area during 2020.

If you would like further information on anything which may not be mentioned in the newsletter or would like my support on any other matter, please don't hesitate to contact me on 01686 610887 or by emailing russell.george@assembly.wales

Best wishes

Russell George AM

Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire

Montgomeryshire & The General Election Result
 

It has been one of the most turbulent and divisive political times in recent memory and now that the General Election is over and has delivered a conclusive result for Boris Johnson and a Conservative majority, we can now end the uncertainty of the Brexit process by honouring the result of the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union - leaving by the end of January and getting a trade agreement in place with the EU by the end of 2020, ending the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

I was of course delighted that Craig Williams was elected as our Member of Parliament in Montgomeryshire. I have worked closely with Craig for many years, and I have no doubt that he will be an outstanding MP. As a person who was raised and lives in Montgomeryshire, Craig understands the opportunities and challenges for our area.

I would also like to pay tribute to our former MP, Glyn Davies, who stood down last month. Glyn and I have worked closely together for the past decade and regardless of your political allegiance, I think we can all recognise Glyn’s passionate commitment to representing Montgomeryshire’s interests first and foremost in Parliament.

Fay Jones (pictured above with me and Craig) is the new MP for Brecon & Radnorshire. She has a real understanding of rural life, and I shall be pleased to work alongside Fay and Craig as our two new Conservative MPs in Powys.

I very much hope that 2020 will be a time to look forward with optimism to a time when we can settle the four year Brexit distraction once and for all and move on to discuss the salient political issues facing our country which have not had the attention which they deserve for far too long. 

A safer, more accountable responsive Welsh NHS

The Welsh NHS has been the responsibility for the Welsh Government for two decades.

For every pound that is spent on a patient in England, the Welsh Government receives £1.20 to spend on a patient here so there's no excuse for under-funding. Welsh patients wait longer for tests, longer for treatment and longer in emergency departments than over the border in England. Although we depend so much on health services across the border in Shropshire, Welsh patients are still treated under ​Welsh Government guidance.

Some residents here in North Powys rely on Wrexham Maelor Hospital which is like every other Welsh hospital; it has wonderful, dedicated and hardworking staff​ but they are overstretched and under resourced and as a result it posted its worst A&E performance figures ever with just over 49% of its patients spending less than 4 hours in the emergency department against a 95% target - the worst in the UK and the worst on record.

​This is just one example and the accountability gap in the Welsh NHS must be addressed. ​I and my Welsh Conservative colleagues have suggested a five point plan to address this and make the Welsh NHS safer and more accountable - a listening NHS which responds to those it serves.

We believe that:

1. the system of Welsh Ministerial appointments to health boards should come to an end with the introduction of elected health commissioners directly accountable to the public in each health board area they serve.

2. there should be a duty on all NHS staff to disclose and record when things go wrong including providing details to senior managers and reporting them to the healthcare inspectorate.​

3. there should be a Welsh NHS Leadership Council with which all senior managers and executives will be required to register. Those found responsible for serious NHS failings will be deemed incompetent, removed from the register and prevented from working in the Welsh health service. ​

4. there will be a radical overhaul of the healthcare inspectorate to make it entirely independent of Welsh Government and give it new ​powers to intervene quickly when problems are identified. We will also treble its budget to expand its programme of unannounced inspections and ensure that requirements for improvement are implemented.

5. the independence and capacity of Wales’ Community Health Councils should be protected, by removing the ability of Welsh Ministers to appoint their members and increasing their funding to support their work as patient watchdogs and provide more support for patients raising concerns and complaints about the health service. ​

New Emergency Service in Shrewsbury

Turning to the local provision of healthcare for the people of Powys, the decision by the UK Government to approve plans to build a new emergency (A&E) service in Shrewsbury is welcome and comes after years of debate and campaigning over Shropshire's hospital services.​

Earlier in 2019 plans were given the go-ahead to transform hospital services for the half a million residents of Mid Wales, Shropshire and Telford.​

However, Telford and Wrekin Council had challenged the decision-making process and recommendations. It formally referred the matter to the UK Government's Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, who then asked an independent panel to look into the matter further before making a decision.​

The "Future Fit" Board had already considered the outcome and feedback from a public consultation; impact assessments on the different options and the findings of an independent review and the Health Secretary accepted advice of the independent panel that the "Future Fit" Board should proceed with the new emergency centre based in Shrewsbury alongside significant improvements in other types of care. This represents an investment of over £300 million in world class critical and emergency care now being invested in Shrewsbury.​

This will now mean that the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital will become a new Emergency Care centre and The Princess Royal Hospital in Telford will become a Planned Care centre with a 24-hour Urgent Care centre at both hospitals.​

This will be positive for us in Mid Wales as not only will we see life-saving emergency healthcare located in Shrewsbury, a more significant service than a standard A&E with the large investment that comes with it, but we will also see the return of the women and children’s consultant-led inpatient service return to Shrewsbury. ​

I think it’s also important to point out that both hospitals will continue to provide adult and children’s outpatients services and diagnostic tests as well as a 24-hour Urgent Care Centre, Day Case Renal Unit and Midwife-led unit.

It is also essential that some planned care is delivered locally in our local community hospitals in Llanidloes, Newtown, Welshpool and Machynlleth, to prevent the need to travel out of county to see a consultant. Going forward; I will be keen to understand how the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust will work in partnership with Powys Teaching Health Board to achieve this going forward.

Nevertheless, this decision is a milestone which marks the point where the Shrewsbury & Telford Hospitals Trust has begun to confront its challenges and makes the necessary reforms which will allow it to attract top class consultants and clinicians. I am hugely encouraged by this decision which I hope will allow building works to commence on the Shrewsbury site for a new Emergency Centre by the end of 2020.​

Bro Ddyfi Community Hospital

During the Autumn, I met with the CEO of Powys Teaching Health Board and was given the assurance that despite technical challenges they are committed to improvement work to Bro Ddyfi Community Hospital and the health board has informed me that that they expect to start work on the site in 2020.​ This scheme will be a major improvement to the facilities at the hospital but I just feel people are not going to believe that the redevelopment of Bro Ddyfi Community Hospital is going to happen until they see diggers in the ground.​ The changes to the timescale is frustrating and I’m eager to see progress on this important scheme. I will be also be raising this matter again with the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething.

Health & Social Care Facility in Newtown

It is welcome news that Newtown is to receive £2.5 million of funding from the Welsh Government’s £100 million Transformation Fund to back new ways of delivering health and social care services.

The Fund has been created to support the scale up of new models of seamless health and social care as part of the Welsh Government’s long term plan for health and social care, A Healthier Wales.

This funding will see the development of a state of the art new facility in the Newtown area to offer more services locally and bring the latest technology and training to Mid Wales.

The funding announcement is an initial sum and further funding will have to come forward as the project and new facility moves ahead.

I have been raising the need for a new health facility with the previous and current First Minister of Wales, and no meeting that I have had with Powys Teaching Health Board's CEO takes place without a discussion about a new facility based in Newtown.

The fact that this funding and project is now a reality is good news, but I would also urge caution as planning and the new build that will take place will take some years and in the meantime we have to ensure that current GP and hospital services are supported and strengthened.

A town centre location is the correct place to help further regenerate the town centre, but the proposals also need to demonstrate that the new facility will help to strengthen health facilities in other towns in North Powys.​

I also think it is important that plans for the new school next to the health facility are developed at the same time as we need to ensure that the new school build has sufficient space and I’m keen that the local authority and the health board provide details on the potential build of both the new school and the health care facility as soon as possible.​

In the meantime and while we await this new facility, I will continue to lobby for improvements to support existing health services in our area.

Welsh Ambulance Service

In 2020, I would like to see the Welsh Government provide additional resources to the Wales Ambulance Service NHS Trust to ensure that patients suffering from serious medical conditions, including strokes are not put at risk of unnecessary harm.​

Ambulance staff work extremely hard, providing outstanding support, often in difficult circumstances in an effort to deliver the best possible care to patients but they are simply not receiving adequate resources from the Welsh Government to do their job effectively.​

Reports that those in Powys with serious medical conditions, such as strokes are waiting too long for a response to an Amber ambulance call because of the lack of ambulance response time targets in Wales for this category of medical condition underlines the importance of the need for additional resources to be provided by the Welsh Government - both in terms of the number of ambulances on the road here in Mid Wales but also an increase in the number of paramedics and medical staff.​

The safety of patients is being threatened and I will continue to call on the Welsh Government to listen to expert advice and the calls of deservedly worried members of the public until such time as this very serious issue is addressed and target times for responses to Amber calls are put in place.

Chronic Pain

I was delighted to recently sponsor an event at the Senedd at which the Chronic Pain Policy Coalition highlighted the issues facing those who live with persistent pain in Wales. The event heard from Wales' leading pain experts, people living with pain, and other stakeholders to discuss the issues facing people living with persistent pain.​

The closure of the chronic pain service at Oswestry's Orthopaedic Hospital in 2019 was deeply disappointing for many of my Montgomeryshire constituents who relied on the chronic pain service which was provided at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital. ​

The service which sought to reduce suffering and enhance quality of life for those who suffer with chronic pain conditions served 400 patients in Mid and North Wales; many of whom were left in the lurch after receiving little or no communication about their future pain management provision after the closure of the service.​

In many respects, chronic pain management, is a forgotten service and experiences a number of operational and clinical challenges so I am hopeful that the Welsh Government will work with the Chronic Pain Policy Coalition and others with an interest in this area to strengthen the overall provision of chronic pain management in Wales.

Palliative Care

I would like to see the Welsh Government take action to help radically improve access to hospice and palliative care for everyone across Wales.​

I recently spoke in a debate in the Senedd, during which I paid tribute to the Llanidloes Palliative Care Suite which was officially opened in May 2018 and was fully funded by the Llanidloes League of Friends and the local community.​

I would like to see effective collaboration between the NHS and charitable sector and would like to see hospices and palliative care centres in Wales receive more statutory support from Welsh Government to allow them to continue to provide the level of services and support they currently deliver to those coming towards the end of their lives.​

Given the current pressures in Wales on the NHS and number of available hospital beds, hospices provide an opportunity to allow people to access the support they need outside of a hospital environment and according to their own preference. 

Therefore, I believe that Local Health Boards should develop close working relationships with hospice providers to allow people to access an holistic package of care and we need to see more leadership from the Welsh Government to deliver a more proactive approach to help hospices and palliative care suites meet future funding and operational challenges.

The Welsh Government needs to ensure that the true value of the services which hospices provide to people needing end-of-life care, their families and communities is recognised by using its forthcoming draft budget to increase its support for hospices across Wales so that we become a compassionate country. ​

An education vision for the County
 

The future of education and how our schools will be structured in Powys is likely to be heavily debated and decided on during 2020.

Over a number of years, school governors in particular have contacted me regarding the financial challenges which face our schools. During 2019, I was pleased to meet with a number of governors and teachers. During discussions, I hear the clear message of the challenges which the education system in Powys is facing.

According to the NASUWT Teachers’ Union, pupils in Wales receive £645 less per head than those in England. Schools are being assigned a ‘totally inadequate level of funding’ and concerns have also been raised over a non-transparent system that sees £450 million of education funding never reach the classroom. We also see some schools, especially in rural areas, miss out on vital funding purely because of their location. This has been described as "a severe funding crisis" and any move to directly fund schools; remove significant layers of bureaucracy; and alleviate the pressure on schools and teachers should be welcomed so that more money gets into the classroom and to learners in my view.

We need better funding for Powys schools from the Welsh Government, and in turn, Powys County Council has to use the funding its does have wisely.

Powys County Council received a fairly critical report from an Estyn inspection in 2019, and the report made a number of recommendations that the local authority has to address.

The council has been working on its Post Inspection Action Plan to address Estyn recommendations following their inspection of the Education Authority back in July.

The council has said that work on a document that will inform improvements to education has started. At this stage, this is an internal process, and this work has been discussed with teachers and school governors. When it is completed, I am told that it will be the action plan that will detail how education in the county will be strengthened over the coming years.

In my view, the local authority needs to address issues raised in the inspection, take into account the views being expressed by local teachers and governors, and strengthen our education service. Any proposed plan for the County needs proper consultation with communities, teachers and parents.

I suspect proposals brought forward will be radical, and they need to be. But Powys County Council also needs to take communities with them, they will need to set out clearly there reason for change, and genuinely listen to communities.

Economy & Business
 

I suspect we can all share the same aim for 2020 – that is to see a Mid Wales which is more prosperous.

One of the areas of my work that I most enjoy is going to meet businesses across Montgomeryshire, whether it's one of our largest businesses, or a small business on the high street.

In December, I was delighted to support Small Business Saturday which is a grassroots, non-commercial campaign, which highlights small business success and encourages consumers to 'shop local' and celebrate small businesses in their communities. Our local high streets are instrumental in bringing people together – acting as a meeting place for friends and families and supporting jobs for local people. Let's do all we can to ensure that our high streets can flourish by shopping locally.

An area in which I feel I can be particularly helpful is raising specific issues which businesses raise with me with Government Ministers to bring about change, but more widely, I’m not entirely convinced that the Welsh Government has a road map for driving forward long term economic development here in Powys.

In my view, the Welsh Government’s latest economic strategy contains plenty of words, but has little ambition and fails to provide any targets on which I can scrutinise the Welsh Government and hold it to account. In short, it fails to provide a comprehensive strategy for delivering economic prosperity in Mid Wales in my view.

This is the fourth economic strategy since devolution and none of them have delivered on their original promise. This has meant that Wales continues to slip behind the rest of the UK.

When it comes to GVA, we are at the bottom of the league table; when it comes to weekly earnings, we are at the bottom of the league table; and when it comes to regional inequality, Powys languishes way behind Cardiff. This is a damning indictment of Welsh Labour’s stewardship of the Welsh economy over the last 20 years. After 20 years of Labour at the helm of the Welsh economy, it is of no surprise that the Deputy Economy Minister, Lee Waters AM, said in June that ‘we don’t know what we’re doing on the economy’.

In 2020, this must change and I would like to see every part of Wales benefit directly from Growth and City deals supported by UK Government funding; I want to see Wales have a number of new Trade Envoys in order to boost Welsh export activity and raise our commercial presence in both advanced and emerging economies; and I want to remove the key economic barriers for young people in Wales when trying to access jobs and training. I also believe that a strong Welsh economy should be built around sound public finances, low taxes, free trade and effective regulation; and that no new taxes must serve to over-penalise businesses or individuals such as the regressive proposal for a tourism tax which would hit Mid Wales’ tourism industry hard.

In contrast to the Welsh Government’s so-called Action Plan, which is characterised by a distinct lack of action, the UK Government has published an Industrial Strategy which provides businesses with the security and certainty to plan for their future as well as a firm foundation for improving living standards and investing in the future success of all parts of the United Kingdom. It outlines major investment in infrastructure, new investment in science and R&D, and ensures that growing enterprises have the skills and support, to create new jobs and prosperity.

The Industrial Strategy puts great emphasis on addressing the regional disparity in economic prosperity and the skills shortages which exist within Wales, which if successfully addressed, will drive increases in productivity and social mobility.

With specific reference to Mid Wales, we have already had an initial sum of money provided for a Mid Wales Growth Deal in an effort to rebalance the Welsh economy, and the new Conservative Government has also committed in its manifesto to deliver a Marches Growth Deal, investing in infrastructure to improve cross border transport networks and economic growth which is so crucial to a border county such as Powys.

I have been a long-time advocate of pushing for a Mid Wales Growth Deal and I’m pleased that the Welsh and UK Governments are currently working with both Powys and Ceredigion County Councils to develop such a deal. This followed a recommendation from the National Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, which I Chair. The pace is not moving as I would want it to at present and I’m looking forward to scrutinising both Powys and Ceredigion County Councils when they appear before the Committee in January to provide an update on progress. The current position is that both Powys and Ceredigion County Councils are currently producing a ‘proposition document’ to articulate our regional vision. The areas of work which the two local authorities are focusing on are Advanced Research & Innovation, Energy, Tourism, Food, Skills, Connectivity (Transport & Digital Infrastructure) and support for business in terms of sites & premises.

Even though high level growth strategies are important, I do believe that immediate action can be taken by Welsh Government to stop stifling businesses in Mid Wales. For too long, Wales has had the most expensive business rate regime anywhere in the UK. While the Welsh Government has extended its high street rates relief scheme for a further year, it only applies to retail properties up to a rateable value of £9,100 and also does not address the fact that the Welsh rate multiplier is the highest in the UK. Therefore, it is a temporary fix to pressures facing small and medium businesses in Wales.

In 2020, one thing on my wish list would be to see the abolition of business rates for all small businesses with a rateable value of up to £15,000 to support businesses on our High Streets. This is what is needed to provide the wealth and job creators in town centres such as Newtown, Welshpool, Llanidloes and Machynlleth with what they need, and it is especially important in light of figures published recently which indicate that some areas experienced a drop of 3.1 percent in retail footfall, with the worst drop in the week of Black Friday when shopper numbers fell by some 4.5 percent.

In 2020, we need to do all we can to ensure that businesses are not squeezed out of existence. We need a permanent solution to help our small businesses and boost the Mid Wales economy rather than a mere sticking plaster.

Transport

Newtown Bypass

On Thursday 14th February 2019, we saw the opening of the Newtown bypass. This was a momentous occasion for Mid Wales. It was over 70 years ago that the need for a bypass was first suggested. During the past 7 decades, the bypass has been on and off the agenda at various points in time. I believe that the bypass has the potential to transform the economy of towns such as Newtown, Llanidloes and Machynlleth.

The campaign for a bypass began in the 1940s. In 1949, the then Montgomery County Council published an advert which called for school boys aged 16 or over to consider putting themselves forward to record the number of vehicles travelling through the town between Friday September 2nd and Sunday September 4th 1949 in an effort to assess the need for a Newtown Bypass.

We should pay tribute to the many people, especially those that are no longer with us, who have campaigned for a bypass over the past 7 decades including those 30 people who joined me in handing in a 10,000 strong petition to the National Assembly for Wales back in March 2011.

The bypass itself includes a number of large structures, including 4 new roundabouts and 7 main bridges. For a major project like this to be completed within 3 years from start to finish is amazing in itself. There has been widespread support for this project from the community and there was a great interest in the construction works.

I was particularly pleased to take an interest in the development of the largest of the new structures, the bridge over the middle Dolfor Road. The bridge is a multi-span reinforced concrete structure, with two piers and two abutments. 90 metres in length and standing 20 metres tall, the bridge has nine pairs of steel beams which weigh 35 tonnes each. A magnificent example of structural engineering.

It ought to be acknowledged that people who live near the new bypass and construction sites have been incredibly patient over the past 3 years and that some landowners have had to make sacrifices and give up land belonging to their families for generations in order to allow the project to proceed.

Since the opening of the bypass, contractors have continued on site with drainage works, planting and landscaping at various locations; the erection of permanent fencing and removal of temporary fencing. Seasonal planting by the landscaping team is continuing into 2020 and over the next four years this will be monitored and managed under contractual obligations.

A few safety concerns on the bypass have been brought to my attention including the absence of arrow signals directing drivers to lanes before roundabouts where two lanes return to one. I have raised this with the Welsh Government and was informed that a road safety audit had been completed. The project team raised the same issue suggesting additional road markings. Bizarrely however, the recommendations have not been accepted by the auditor based on the lack of evidence that no accidents have occurred.  I strongly believe that safety measures should be in place before accidents happen, this is just common sense.  I have taken the matter up again with the Minister more recently, and I have been assured that officials will be setting up a camera to monitor a month’s worth of vehicular activity and the video footage will be reviewed to determine if there are a significant number of incidents and the project team will discuss the next steps based on the findings. 

The question has once more been raised of reinstating the roundabout at McDonalds junction and also a pedestrian crossing on Dolfor Road among other traffic improvements in and around the town. I have raised this with Powys County Council who will soon be taking over former trunk roads through the town.

I have experienced resistance from both Welsh Government and County Council for a roundabout to replace the lights at McDonalds junction on the grounds that the original roundabout did not work effectively due to being too small and secondly, that pedestrians need to cross at this point which is safer with lights. The Council is currently monitoring traffic flows and changes to traffic behaviour as drivers establish different routes in and out of the town.

Newtown Town Council undertook a public survey last year for the naming of roundabouts and structures along the bypass. I also met with the Transport Minister to discuss potential names. I am pleased that the Welsh Government agreed to name four key roundabouts along the route after local historic figures from the community, these being, Robert Owen, David Davies, Pryce Pryce-Jones and Laura Ashley. Just before Christmas the Transport Minister updated me and informed me that quotations for the roundabout signage to display the names of each roundabout are now being sought.

 

Dyfi Bridge

Urgent progress now needs to be made on other much needed projects including the construction of the new Dyfi Bridge at Machynlleth to address a major pinch point on the A487.

The Dyfi Bridge was never designed to carry the current volume of traffic. The road is also often closed due to frequent flooding, causing traffic to take a diversion of up to 30 miles. The bridge was closed yet again in the Autumn so it is imperative that this pinch point is resolved at the earliest opportunity.

During the recent flooding, there was a failure to monitor the flood levels by CCTV, and the flood barrier gates on the trunk road should have been opened for road access much earlier when the flood waters had subsided to a safe level.

I can’t stress how important it is to improve the reliability of crossing the River Dyfi and to improve access to key services including employment opportunities, healthcare and education for the people of Machynlleth and the surrounding area.

I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to take up these practical issues with his officials but it is essential that a decision is made on the long term viability of the project at the earliest opportunity so that urgent improvements are made to this stretch of road infrastructure in Montgomeryshire.

I have questioned the Welsh Government Minister for Transport, Ken Skates, a number of times during 2019 on when he will be in a position to make a decision on the project and he has informed me that the Dyfi Bridge project has seen a number of changes to its scope in the development phase. As a result, he requires a revision of the final costs before being able to make a decision which is expected shortly.

 

Pant-Llanymynech Bypass

The local campaign for a Pant-Llanymynech bypass has also been rumbling on for decades and the lack of progress is creating significant concern for residents, preventing tourists from visiting and spending their money in Mid Wales, and affecting local Mid Wales businesses who rely on exporting their goods across the border.  

Many people live, work and access public services on different sides of the Welsh-England Border but our existing governance arrangements do not incentivise improving those links. A long term solution can only go ahead if the UK and Welsh Governments work together on this crucial cross-border scheme.

Therefore, I welcomed the commitment by the new UK Government that they will deliver a Pant-Llanymynech Bypass and an ambitious Marches Growth Deal to improve transport networks and boost economic growth across the Welsh border.

I pressed for this commitment to be included in the Conservative Party's manifesto for the recent General Election so I am delighted that the new UK Government has committed that it will work with the Welsh Government and councils on both sides of the border to negotiate a Marches Growth Deal that will deliver much needed road improvements, boost local economies and cooperation between communities in England and Wales.

Other Transport Schemes 

On other transport and highway matters, I have had discussions to initiate a number of smaller schemes to resolve traffic flows and safety concerns in the county including the duelling of road sections at Llangurig and Llanidloes along with improvements at Moat Lane Crossing near Caersws. A public consultation event is being arranged by the Welsh Government for this latter scheme which could potentially include a roundabout. There is a growing interest once again for a significant improvement scheme to upgrade the road between Welshpool and Shrewsbury. Earlier this year the Cefn Bridge over the railway at Trewern was restricted due to traffic control following impact damage to the bridge itself. This caused major disruption to businesses and commuters as well as visitors to the area. Having raised the urgency of the bridge repair with Network Rail and with the Minister in addition to raising questions in the Senedd chamber, the repairs were finally completed in July.

 

Rail

People’s expectations of Wales' rail service are simple. As the passenger watchdog Transport Focus put it: “Passengers tell us that their top priorities for the new Wales and Borders railway are getting a seat on reliable services that provide good value for money.” 

Sadly, during 2019, my email inbox from frustrated rail commuters has significantly increased. Frustrations of cancelled trains, leaving students attending college in Shrewsbury stranded, or people not being able to get to and form work.

The responsibility for Welsh rail services under the railway franchise that was operated by Arriva Trains Wales and now Transport for Wales has been a matter for the Welsh Government since 2006 and it has abjectly failed to take responsibility or take appropriate action to address the issues with capacity on Wales-only rail services over the last 13 years.

There were insufficient efforts from the Welsh Government to work with the previous operator on the state of the rail fleet in the 12 months before the handover to Transport for Wales and there was a complete lack of an effective handover strategy built into the procurement process for the new £5 billion franchise to ensure that issues in relation to quality of the rolling stock were addressed from the very beginning of the new franchise agreement.

Over the last year, we continue to see cancelled trains, delayed trains, lack of staff, signalling problems, capacity problems, lack of quality information to passengers, and overcrowding, and this is unacceptable by anyone's standards. This is not the ‘transformational’ improvement to services that Wales was promised by this Welsh Government and neither does it represent the additional capacity or the vision of future rail services in Wales.

In addition to my role as Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire and Shadow Minister for Economy & Infrastructure, I also Chair the National Assembly's Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee. In Spring 2019, the Committee published its report into the rail disruption which has affected passengers, highlighting a number of possible causes and potential remedies. The Committee's clear message to Transport for Wales was that if a similar level of disruption is experienced by passengers in the future then they must be adequately compensated as it will be some time before the full fleet of shiny new trains arrives. 

I have been informed that a new fleet of trains is being built specifically for the Cambrian Line and will be introduced from 2022. These trains will deliver increased capacity for passengers but will also run with faster acceleration, allowing services to meet the timetable more reliably. However, until the new trains are introduced, I will continue to call for Transport for Wales to make progress on improving their level of service; to increase the frequency of services to one train per hour throughout the day; and make improvements to facilities at stations. As well as better trains, more capacity and better fare and ticketing options, we must see a rail service which integrates effectively with the other modes of transport we use on a daily basis and a transport system which isn’t viewed in isolation but contributes to cross border economic growth and better supports other public services.

I will continue to keep a firm focus on Transport for Wales’ performance and plans to increase capacity and improve service levels on Welsh rail routes, and will be examining this issue again early in the new year as the Government Minister and CEO of Transport for Wales attend the committee which I chair for further scrutiny.

Visiting Dolfor Show and Guilsfield Show in August 2019.

Supporting the farming industry in Mid Wales
 

Throughout 2019, I’ve met with local representatives from the farming unions here in Montgomeryshire and I’ve always been keen to support events held by the farming unions at the Senedd. I will continue my close working relationship with them in 2020.

I was also pleased to attend an event at the Welshpool Livestock Market in December. As always, hundreds turned out for the Christmas Carol concert, with money raised going to support the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. Every year, I attend the Royal Welsh Show, and one of the more enjoyable parts of my job is to attend as many of the local shows across Montgomeryshire as I can which showcase the very best of the farming community and rural life.

During 2019, many farming businesses have contacted me directly about their concerns. Principally, the industry is concerned about the Welsh Government's proposals (which are included in its "Sustainable Farming and Our Land" consultation) to support farmers after Brexit. Furthermore, following the announcement that 15% of the 2020 Basic Payment Scheme budget will be transferred to the Welsh Government, it has levers at its disposal to directly support Wales' rural economy and rural development in future years. 

Both my own party and I had and continue to call on the Welsh Government to provide farmers and rural communities with greater confidence in the Welsh Government's plans; to fully recognise the importance of food production in Wales; and acknowledge the role which farmers play in developing the rural economy.

I endorse the view of members of the farming community who have said that the current proposals lack sufficient detail and raise a number of serious questions regarding how the Welsh Government’s new proposed scheme will work in practice.

The proposals lack a stability mechanism, which is vital to protect farmers from market volatility, whilst the lack of a clear eligibility system could potentially result in the large expansion of the scheme and result in some farmers losing out on funding.

As we enter 2020, I believe we need more detail about how the bespoke support for every farm will work and whether this will result in extra bureaucracy for farmers. This may mean that farmers are not able to deliver the projects which are expected of them, meaning that the aims of the new scheme will remain unfulfilled.

I have and will continue to urge the Welsh Government to carefully listen to the concerns of farmers and our rural communities and to urgently respond to these concerns to provide greater confidence in its plans.

Of equal concern to post-Brexit support, arable, sheep and beef farmers are concerned by the Welsh Government’s proposal for the all Wales Nitrogen Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) which they are planning on introducing in 2020. They haven't announced exactly when the new regulations will come into effect but there are fears that the measures of NVZ will only result in a paperwork burden for all farmers in Wales at a time when farming incomes are down due to the pressure of low commodity prices and the uncertainty over Brexit. The livestock industry is unprepared for this and is not in a financial position to fund expensive extra storage. I agree with the farming community when they say that it would be much more proactive to disseminate knowledge to inform farmers about the potential of pollution rather than legislate and penalise the vast majority of farmers who do not contribute to pollution. Furthermore, the proposal to restrict the ability of farmers to spread manure when appropriate could be counter-productive and actually increase the risk of pollution.

Turning to Brexit, the scrapping of the damaging Common Agricultural Policy could provide an exciting opportunity to directly support farmers and food producers, and to open new trading markets to enhance the agricultural sector, which will be so vital to the future of our mid Wales economy, and It is welcome news that the UK Government will match the current annual budget available to farmers in every year of this new Parliament and that agricultural funding will remain outside of the usual budget process to provide confidence and clarity to the agricultural sector. This funding will support farmers as they move away from the, in my view, the EU’s bureaucratic, unfair and environmentally-damaging Common Agricultural Policy.

Farmers have seen first-hand the detrimental impact the Common Agricultural Policy has had on the industry with diminishing levels of food security and lack of new entrants.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the UK was 75 per cent self-sufficient, but worryingly this figure now stands at just under 60 per cent and unbelievably, the average age of a farmer in Wales now stands at just over 60. That’s no way to build a sustainable industry that can thrive for decades to come.

It’s why we need to make the most of the opportunity that Brexit provides us to reinvigorate our farming community and to produce the food our nation’s larder requires.

I firmly believe, as we leave the EU, we need a deal that protects vital industries such as agriculture, that are so important for us in mid Wales, and secures future funding and paves the way for our country to exploit the new opportunities that leaving the EU will offer.

The Welsh Conservative team have brought forward a number of proposals that we have asked the Welsh Labour Government to take up, and indeed we would bring forward if we came into Government in Wales in 2021. We would focus on Welsh produce, establishing a group of Welsh Trade Envoys to promote Welsh businesses in selected high-growth and developing markets around the world, which would help Welsh farmers to take advantage of the opportunities which new post-Brexit trade deals will provide by providing better access to new markets. 

Finally, turning to animal welfare, I and my Welsh Conservative colleagues are committed, as the farming sector is also, to delivering high standards of animal welfare at slaughter, but Wales continues to lag behind the rest of the UK in this field. We must be a global leader by continuing to raise the bar and all animals should be treated with the utmost respect at all stages of life, and be subject to the highest possible welfare standards.

It is damning that the number of animals slaughtered in Wales due to Bovine TB has increased by 28% in the 12 months to August 2019 compared to the previous year. We would have a ‘’twin-tracked’’ approach to tackling the issue, ensuring that Wales has a healthy wildlife reservoir and a healthy farmed livestock industry. More action needs to be taken to try and reduce the prevalence of the disease within the wildlife population to prevent the contamination of livestock.

In short, I am committed to further strengthening Wales’ farming and food sector. This is why my own party has suggested the introduction of a dedicated new cabinet position, a Minister for Rural Communities, to work across different government departments to secure real change for our rural areas and to develop a strong, vibrant rural economy to take every possible advantage of the opportunities that Brexit will bring to Wales.

Mid Wales Connectivity

Broadband

85% of Montgomeryshire’s residents can benefit from superfast broadband coverage and almost a quarter can benefit from ultrafast speeds via fibre to the premises. This is big improvement on the position from just this time last year. But my focus continues to be on getting this percentage up to 100%. For many communities across Montgomeryshire, broadband connectivity remains a distant dream and I sympathise with this frustration from the “have nots”.

A higher proportion of premises in Montgomeryshire are still without access to so-called "decent broadband" of 10 megabits per second compared with the average for Wales and in the rural parts of Montgomeryshire, the gulf between the "haves" and the "have nots" rises further. 

Broadband is now considered the fourth utility, is an essential part of modern life and is no longer a "nice to have" luxury. It is also essential for a thriving Mid Wales economy so from my perspective, I will keep asking probing questions of the Welsh Government and Openreach until such time as all people in Montgomeryshire are able to benefit from the same high speed broadband which is enjoyed and taken for granted by people in more urban areas of Wales. If you would like me to make enquiries on your behalf on the options available to you, please don't hesitate to contact me by emailing russell.george@assembly.wales

It has to be matter of great regret that some communities have been left stranded following the conclusion of phase 1 of Superfast Cymru and it is unbelievably frustrating for constituents to see fibre cables hanging from poles just metres away from their homes without any way to access a fibre broadband service. This ought to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I also believe that there should have been a seamless transition between phase one and two of the scheme. This delay, and the relative lack of specific information on the timetable for the delivery of a broadband upgrade on the Welsh Government and Openreach broadband checkers, have both served to add to the frustration of people who remain without any broadband at all, not alone high speed broadband.

Going forward, I would like to see the Welsh Government issue quarterly updates on the number of premises connected under the scheme and I would also like to see a change in approach where the terms of reference of the Superfast Cymru programme are changed to compel Openreach to prioritise the digital connectivity of those premises which 1) cannot receive a decent broadband connection at all; 2) to those that cannot get 30 Mb/s Next Generation Access approved superfast broadband; and then finally to the remaining premises rather than picking the low hanging fruit. This would ensure that those premises who most need an upgrade will be provided with decent digital connectivity before those which already receive adequate broadband and are relative "easy wins".

In this report I’m also providing a few useful links.

An online checker is available so that people can see whether their home or business is scheduled to be considered for an upgrade at https://www.openreach.com    

I also wanted to outline the options available to premises not covered by the latest phase of the rollout. Details of these such as the Access Broadband Cymru scheme and vouchers for businesses are available here: https://gov.wales/go-superfast/boost-your-broadband

Residents may also be interested in a Community Fibre Partnership (CFP) where Openreach work with a local group representing two or more premises to bring superfast broadband to an area. Where possible, Openreach bring together funding from Local Authorities, Government voucher schemes and other grants to help make things affordable, plus Openreach contribute toward the cost. More information is available: https://www.openreach.com/fibre-broadband/community-fibre-partnerships 

Also, as part of the UK Government’s Rural Gigabit Connectivity programme, the Gigabit Voucher Scheme has been launched which provides funding assistance for superfast connectivity to rural areas. Businesses and residents in some of the hardest to reach places in the UK, with broadband speeds of less than 30 megabits per second, are eligible for vouchers worth up to £3,500 per small/medium business and £1,500 per residential address. The vouchers can part or fully fund a CFP scheme. More information is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rgc-programme-key-information 

 

Mobile

When it comes to mobile coverage, voice services from at least one operator are available in 96% of Montgomeryshire, but availability from all operators is significantly lower at 68%. The availability of 4G services from at least one operator is 87% and 4G availability from all four operators drops to 49%. Nevertheless, mobile coverage in Montgomeryshire continues to lag behind the Wales and UK average and I have ongoing discussions with all mobile providers, highlighting areas where there is no mobile signal at all. My most recent discussions have been with the mobile operator EE. EE customers across the area, who once had good signal, are now finding that they have poor or no service at all.

While operators must bear some of the burden of tackling some of the hardest valleys and communities to reach, public sector intervention, in terms of both policy change and political support, will be needed. The Welsh Government's Mobile Action Plan, which is now three years old, has been proven to be little more than a set of warm words rather than concrete commitments, and unfortunately, the drive behind that plan seems to have dissipated with none of the proposals yet implemented in any meaningful way.

During that same time period, we have seen new planning policy and updated guidance in England and Scotland which has helped prepare for 5G deployment and speed up the process for new mobile phone masts in appropriate locations; a pilot of non-domestic rate relief; the launch of a publicly funded capital investment project in Scotland and an updated accord with National Parks England that recognises the importance of digital connectivity to the residents, businesses and visitors to these sensitive rural areas.

This political inertia in Wales when it comes to creating the right regulatory, political and commercial conditions necessary for mobile operators to invest in digital connectivity is putting Mid Wales at a further disadvantage so in 2020, I will continue to press the Welsh Government to use the devolved policy levers at their disposal and commit to a public date by which these much needed reforms will be delivered so that Mid Wales doesn't fall further behind.

I also recently conducted an online survey about mobile coverage in Montgomeryshire and I'm grateful to those who took part. 45% of respondents said that they were EE customers and 15% said they were Vodafone customers with other providers making up the remainder but coverage both at home and "on the move" was generally poor with 53% of respondents complaining of very poor or non-existent coverage in their area and only 15% confirming that their mobile signal was excellent or good.

In October 2019, the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) and the UK Government also announced a £1 billion proposal to build a Shared Rural Network that would see 4G mobile coverage extended to 95% of the UK’s landmass.

To help reach 95%, the Shared Rural Network proposal will be delivered by focusing on eliminating virtually all partial not-spots (i.e. where there is coverage from one or more operators, but not all). This will be made possible by all four MNOs sharing each other’s infrastructure.

New publicly funded infrastructure, to be shared by all four MNOs, will also be built in areas of the country where there is currently no coverage (total not-spots).

Both industry and the UK Government aim to reach a formal agreement in the near future in what should be a positive development for mobile coverage here in Montgomeryshire.