Please find below the latest edition of my e-newsletter for 2018.
As always, I hope you enjoy reading the update and please don't hesitate to get in touch if I can help in any way or if you have any comments by telephone on 01686 610887 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Russell George AM
Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire
For me, the partial launch of phase 2 of Superfast Cymru, the Welsh Government's next generation broadband strategy, was a disappointment and has raised more questions than answers.
You may recall that the Welsh Government had committed in its 2011 manifesto to delivering next generation broadband to 100% of premises across Wales.
While it is welcome that 92% of premises in Wales have been reached as it provides for the vital need of putting Mid Wales on the global stage in its capability to do business effectively and ensure equitable broadband access for households, a significant minority of premises, mainly in rural areas such as here in Montgomeryshire, have been left stranded and it's not good enough for the Welsh Government to say that the service is available to all households depending on “how much you were willing to pay for it".
But the fact of the matter is that many homes and businesses in rural Mid Wales still can't enjoy the high speed broadband which is enjoyed by our urban neighbours in South Wales and some people have literally been left in limbo by unacceptable delays in the award of phase 2 contracts.
The delivery of phase two of Superfast Cymru has fallen behind schedule. In my view, there should have been a seamless transition between phase one and two of the scheme but nine months has gone by since the end of phase 1 of the scheme, serving to add to the frustration of people who remain without fibre broadband, many of whom have wires hanging from lampposts outside their homes, seemingly just waiting to be connected.
The statement announcing phase 2 of the Superfast Cymru scheme confirmed that the contracts for North West Wales and South West Wales, representing just 16% of the 98,145 homes identified by the Open Market Review which assessed which premises would be eligible for assistance under phase 2.
I have therefore asked for clarity about whether or not the remaining 84% of homes are in lot two, which seems highly unlikely, and that the £67 million of the £80 million that has yet to be spent will be allocated to meeting the target of universal access to high speed broadband across Wales.
I will continue to make the case that rural Montgomeryshire needs to be prioritised, and if you would like further information on your individual cases, please contact me and I will facilitate a response from the Welsh Government.
Newtown Bypass & Fun Run Event
I was delighted to take part in the Newtown Bypass 5k amateur run on Sunday 21st October. The event included an elite 5k run followed by an amateur run and a fun walk for families on a completed section of the bypass between the contractors’ depot on the Dolfor Road and the Llanidloes Roundabout
I was pleased to have completed the run in 40 minutes especially as I had done no training. I did feel the aches and pains, but it was all worth it as money raised from entry fees went to the Wales Air Ambulance and Cancer Research UK as well as people being able to raise money for their own chosen charities.
Alun Griffiths Contractors did a great job, with support from other local organisations such as the Rotary Club and the Rapid Relief Team.
However, there was great demand for the tickets for the walk and I have asked the Welsh Government to consider allowing a further walk to take place on the full bypass route before it opens, without limits on the numbers of walkers or attendees.
I have been impressed with the progress made and it is certainly taking shape. With the warm dry weather over the Summer it has allowed the contractors to progress earthworks ahead of schedule. Now the weather has cooled down, landscaping and planting is taking place to allow new plants to establish.
While completion is planned for the early part of next year, I would like to see a big push to open it early and before the end of the year. I believe this is now possible and I look forward to the bypass finally opening.
Mid Wales Growth Deal
In last month's Budget, the Chancellor reconfirmed the UK Government's commitment to a Mid Wales Growth Deal. This is welcome news and it is an exciting opportunity for the people of Mid Wales to drive economic growth. There is also great potential for us to revolutionise local governance - shifting powers down from London and Cardiff to local leaders who are better placed to take decisions that affect our communities.
This announcement from the Chancellor follows a successful meeting which I was pleased to chair at NPTC in Newtown in early October at which local business leaders and representatives were invited to meet with Lord Bourne, who is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Wales, to discuss ideas on how a potential Mid Wales Growth Deal could work in practice, providing important local input into ongoing discussions.
There is of course an important role for me to play as Montgomeryshire's AM in developing a deal, and ensuring that it delivers for people living and working all across the region. However, in my view, the Mid Wales Growth Deal will only be a success if it engages a wide variety of interested parties from the very start and I believe that more could be done to involve the private sector in these earliest stages of development.
Powys and Ceredigion Councils have commissioned a consultancy, AECOM, to produce an economic analysis of the region. The report will be presented shortly, and at that point the local authorities, along with the private sector, will begin to produce a growth vision and a set of proposals before entering in to negotiations with both the UK and Welsh Governments.
Powys County Council Funding
The Welsh Government has published its draft local government settlement for 2019-20, with Powys once again one of the hardest hit.
I believe it is iniquitous that councils in Mid & North Wales receive a cut in funding while the majority of councils in South Wales get an increase in funding.
Powys County Council is facing a 1% cut in its funding for 2019-20 as are the Isle of Anglesey, Conwy, Flintshire, Monmouthshire and Gwynedd. In contrast, Cardiff, Newport and Swansea councils all received a cash increase.
For well over a decade, Powys County Council has received one of the worst local government funding settlements from the Welsh Government of all 22 local authorities in Wales. Powys will now have to find additional savings and people will be asking why difficult decisions are having to be made to reduce or even withdraw their valued public services or increase council tax.
The current system provides councils in urban south Wales with far more attractive financial settlements while the largest, most rural councils such as Powys are among those with the worst cash settlements. This exposes a fundamental weakness in the funding formula which has been in much need of reform for many years. The formula which is used to calculate funding for local authorities in Wales needs to be reformed as it doesn’t properly take into account the challenges of delivering vital public services over large rural areas of Mid Wales.
The ongoing year on year funding cut to Powys County Council is causing real damage to local services in Powys.
Transport for Wales
October marked a huge milestone for transport in Wales as the running of rail services was handed over from Arriva Trains Wales to the new Welsh Government owned not-for-profit company, Transport for Wales, and the new franchise operator, KeolisAmey.
Rail passengers may not see much of a difference straight away as the majority of the benefits will not take effect for a few years, but given the scale of the public investment - about £5 billion over 15 years - it is clear that rail passengers here in Mid Wales are also justifiably expecting the franchise to deliver improved value for money and put right the shortcomings in services that have afflicted rail users in Mid Wales for years. As such, it is vital that we see rapid and significant improvements here in Powys on the both the Cambrian and Heart of Wales lines.
Transport for Wales has confirmed that there will be one train per hour between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth and that the operator will replace the entire fleet of its trains by 2022, providing extra seats on the busiest services; and after fears to the contrary, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport has confirmed that direct services to Birmingham will continue.
However, 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 economic growth and better supports other public services.
I would like to see an “opportunities pipeline”, which makes clear to all businesses in Powys every commercial opportunity over the next 5 years to ensure that the franchise supports Mid Wales businesses to win new work.
Enhanced services; enhanced comfort and service quality; a transformed experience on the train; improved ticketing, technology and fares; improved stations; and environmental benefits is a tall order by anyone's standards and we will have to wait to see whether or not the end result will match our needs here in Mid Wales and whether the Welsh Government's ambition becomes a reality.
Brexit and Our Land
Farming is such a massively important sector for our rural economy in Montgomeryshire and Wales as a whole. I know that there has been a lot of uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on our farming communities and farming incomes and I was pleased to be able to attend the ‘Brexit and our Land’ event at the Senedd a couple of weeks ago which was sponsored by my colleague, the new Welsh Conservative leader, Paul Davies AM, and jointly hosted by two farming unions to highlight the real concerns the industry and wider community have with the proposals set out in a recent Welsh Government consultation.
I was also pleased to meet NFU representatives last Friday at Cwmfron Farm, the home of Montgomeryshire NFU County Chair, Alex Higgs, to listen and discuss the real concerns that we have. Last month I also met with FUW representatives in Newtown.
I am in agreement with the position of both farming unions in Wales on food security and sustainability, and you can be assured I will continue make the case in the National Assembly for Wales. The Welsh Government needs to place food security at the heart of its policy-making. For me, it is crucial that the right balance is struck between environmental protection and food production.
I believe we need strong action from the Welsh Government in support of our rural economy. With climate change and more extreme weather conditions becoming more frequent in Wales, now is the time to plan and invest in the production of our food. The Welsh Government must ensure that Welsh farmers are not disadvantaged post-Brexit.