Reflections on 2018 and looking forward to 2019
Happy New Year! Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!
As we all look forward to a new year, I wanted to provide reflections on 2018 and look forward to 2019.
There is so much I could include and as we look forward to 2019, the outcome of Brexit will have far-reaching effects on our local community, none more so than for the agricultural industry. This will be ongoing over the months and years ahead but I have decided to focus my contribution on what dominates my inbox as the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire – Health, Transport, the Mid Wales Economy and Broadband & Mobile Coverage.
2019 also sees the changing of the guard as Mark Drakeford takes over from Carwyn Jones as First Minister. As a far-left Corbynite, I do not share the same political outlook as the new First Minister and he has a big task ahead of him in solving the problems which Carwyn Jones' Labour-led government have created for Mid Wales but I look forward to working with Mark and wish him well in leading our country through what will be a period of great opportunity but also one of many challenges.
All in all, 2019 promises to be an equally busy year as 2018 and I'm looking forward to representing the people of North Powys to the best of my ability and continue fighting Montgomeryshire's corner in the National Assembly for Wales.
As always, if you require support or assistance on a specific issue, please do not hesitate to contact me by telephoning 01686 610887 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Russell George AM
Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire
Reforming Health Services
Here in Montgomeryshire, we don’t have our own District General Hospital, and therefore rely on services provided by Wrexham Maelor Hospital, Bronglais General Hospital in Aberystwyth and hospitals in Shropshire.
We are soon to hear the conclusion of a long running consultation that will see services in Shropshire change. In 2018, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) recommended that the Shrewsbury & Telford Hospitals Trust (SATH) should be put into "special measures", something which has been rightly described by my colleague, Glyn Davies MP, as an inevitable consequence of the Trust's failure to reform the acute services which serve the people of Shropshire & Mid Wales. Running two major hospitals, both of which provide all services with comprehensive A&E services serving over half a million people has proved to be unsustainable.
As a result, 2018 has also seen the Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) consulting the public on two options which were designed to improve the hospital services provided at both the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford to meet the needs of communities across the areas which they serve. This follows a massive injection of capital funding from the UK Government of £312 million to invest in acute health services in the area to bring about this much needed reform.
"NHS Future Fit" asked the public whether they preferred for the Royal Shrewsbury to become an Emergency Care Site and the Princess Royal Hospital a planned care site (the CCGs' preferred option) or vice-versa.
I undertook my own survey in relation to this consultation and received over 600 responses from residents in Montgomeryshire. The overwhelming conclusion was that 95% of respondents preferred an emergency care service at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital rather than the Princess Royal in Telford but there were also concerns that under both options, the proposed model of care would result in residents having to travel further for some of their care.
On balance, while my preference was that no care should move further away from Montgomeryshire’s residents, I was in favour of the preferred option which was put forward because it 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. If this option proceeds, the £312 million funding would be invested at the Royal Shrewsbury for acute healthcare services. As might be expected, the proposal received strong support from Mid Wales and western Shropshire but also attracted opposition from Telford & eastern Shropshire. It was particularly heartening to see that the response rate from Powys was nearly as high as that in Telford, and I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to spread the word and encourage people to respond.
I also expressed the view that, alongside the proposed reconfiguration of services in Shropshire, it is 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 and I would be keen to understand how SATH might work in partnership with Powys Teaching Health Board to achieve this as we look forward to 2019.
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 in 2019 following a decision on changes to healthcare across the border in Shropshire.
Either way, my view is that 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.
I am now expecting the CCGs to announce their preferred option later this month (January). My hope, and indeed my expectation, is that they will confirm that Option 1 (Emergency Centre located in Shrewsbury) remains the preferred option. Once this is announced, there will still be some milestones to pass, but my hope for the early part of 2019 is that this long process comes to an end with ‘option 1’ being confirmed, which will allow building works to commence on the Shrewsbury site for a new Emergency Centre next year.
Nevertheless, 2019 will be a year which will require some difficult decisions to be made to ensure that the Shrewsbury & Telford Hospitals Trust confronts its challenges and makes the necessary reforms and to be able to attract top class consultants and clinicians. Many of Montgomeryshire's residents rely on healthcare provided by the Shrewbury & Telford Hospital Trust and I would like to pay tribute to the way in which clinicians continue to get on with the job and strive for the highest possible standards of healthcare in spite of the challenges which the Trust has faced in recent times. I know that this dedication will continue in 2019 and beyond.
In just a few weeks’ time, we will see the long awaited opening of the Newtown bypass, 75 years after the need for a bypass was first suggested.
This will be a momentous occasion and I would like to thank the many people, too numerous to mention, who have played a part in bringing about the bypass, which I believe has the potential to transform the economy of towns such as Newtown, Llanidloes and Machynlleth.
Even further progress has been made since I took part in the ‘Bypass’ charity 5k run back in October. The contractors, Alun Griffiths, organised a fantastic event, which raised the sum of £3500 and was donated equally to the Wales Air Ambulance and Cancer Research UK.
The bridges are now complete and over 90% of the surfacing has been laid with road markings, barriers, signs and lighting all being installed. An incredible 6.2 km of hedgerow, almost 89,000 plants and 195 trees have also been planted which illustrates the scale of this feat of engineering and an outstanding achievement for all concerned.
Many people who live near the new bypass and construction sites have been disadvantaged over the past 3 years and some landowners have had to give up land belonging to their families for generations in order to allow the project to proceed. It has to be acknowledged that balancing the needs of the project and respecting the views of landowners was always going to be challenging, but I know that I, along with many others, would want to acknowledge the sacrifices that have been made.
I am pleased to have seen how the contractors have sought to engage with local educational establishments over the past 3 years, and how they have looked to protect and improve the environment around Newtown by creating a number of new woodland habitats.
For a major project like this to be completed within 3 years from start to finish is amazing in itself, and while the contractors say that there is still work to complete at Dolfor Road, there is an expectation that work to allow the opening of the bypass will be completed over the next few weeks, ready for the first vehicles to use the bypass. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there will still be other construction works such as landscaping that will continue after the bypass has been opened.
As this major construction project continues, there will inevitably be some disruption, but I firmly believe that when it is completed, it will serve to resolve local traffic congestion issues, improve school safety, improve response times of the emergency services and support tourism and the wider Mid Wales economy. As such, I am very much looking forward to it opening very soon.
Mid Wales Growth Deal
In 2018, there was still a huge variation in economic performance between the different regions of Wales and in 2019, I would like to see this regional economic inequality begin to narrow.
The £1.2 billion Cardiff Capital Region Deal is already investing £38 million in a world-leading technology cluster in Newport, to create more than 2,000 jobs, while the eleven projects underpinning the £1.3 billion Swansea Bay City Region City Deal are being developed to drive growth across that region, boost innovation, create employment and raise living standards. Last month, the UK and Welsh Government both confirmed that they will put in £120 million for the North Wales Growth Deal but I want the Welsh Government to do more to support Wales' growth deals going forward.
The City and Growth deals are a hugely successful set of UK Government funded policy initiatives which are being applied in Wales jointly with the Welsh Government, and I have been a long-time advocate of pushing for a Mid Wales Growth Deal. I’m keen that the Welsh Government throws its weight behind the deals, and going forward shows greater enthusiasm for the deals in order to ensure that the opportunities that they present are realised.
The Welsh and UK Governments are currently working with both Powys and Ceredigion County Councils to develop a Mid Wales Growth Deal. This followed a recommendation from the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, which I am privileged to Chair. Over 2018, I have been progressing discussions with both UK Government and Welsh Government Ministers but it is also essential for county councillors in both Powys and Ceredigion to work together closely to make a strong case for a Growth Deal to persuade both Governments of the benefits which a regional growth deal could have for the Mid Wales economy.
In the Autumn, the Chancellor re-confirmed the UK Government's commitment to a Mid Wales Growth Deal and this was welcome news following a meeting which I chaired at NPTC in Newtown at which local business leaders and representatives were invited to meet with Lord Bourne, the 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.
I will be hosting a Growing Mid Wales Trade Delegation at the Senedd at the end of this month to showcase the produce and services from businesses in Powys and Ceredigion and to continue to make the case for a Mid Wales Growth Deal with the Welsh Government. I would urge businesses from the region to attend, and this is possible by contacting either myself, Powys or Ceredigion County Councils.
My hope for 2019 is that we will see a firm case being provided to the UK and Welsh Governments by Powys and Ceredigion County Councils, underpinned by input from our local businesses, with confirmation of funding for a Mid Wales Growth Deal. I firmly believe that Mid Wales deserves the same kind of investment to transform our economic fortunes and integrate Mid Wales into the wider Midlands economic engine and that this investment in our region will start bearing fruit in terms of regional economic development in Mid Wales this year.
Broadband & Mobile
2018 saw a mixed picture when it came to narrowing the digital divide between those in urban and rural areas of Wales. Ofcom's Connected Nations Report for 2018, published last month, conducted a case study which focused on Montgomeryshire's digital connectivity. It found that a higher proportion of premises in Montgomeryshire are without access to "decent broadband" (a download speed of at least 10Mbit/s) compared with the average for Wales (3%) but in the rural parts of Montgomeryshire this rises to 19% without a decent broadband connection.
When it comes to high speed broadband of 30 Mbit/s or more, 80% of Montgomeryshire can now receive high speed broadband (98% in urban areas and 70% in rural areas) and it is welcome news that phase 1 of the Superfast Cymru broadband scheme, which concluded in February 2018, has delivered fibre broadband to those who would have never received it without public intervention. Indeed, 27% of premises in rural Montgomeryshire can receive fibre to the premises which delivers ultra-fast broadband speeds.
However, this has meant that the digital divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" has widened and since February, the rollout of fibre broadband to the significant minority of premises which remain left in the lurch has totally ground to a halt as we have eagerly awaited the award and implementation of phase 2 of Superfast Cymru.
My view is that there should have been a seamless transition between phase one and two of the scheme but almost a year has now gone by since the end of phase 1 of the scheme, serving to add to the frustration of people who remain without any broadband at all, not alone high speed broadband.
Phase 2 was supposed to be awarded in July, but unknown "unforeseen complexities" which have been subject to "commercial confidentiality" restrictions have contributed to the delay in commissioning the work and we are still waiting for the award of "lot 3" which covers Montgomeryshire. This is undoubtedly holding back the economy of Mid Wales.
I have been told on numerous occasions by the Welsh Government Minister responsible that a new online checker is being developed so that people can see whether their home or business is scheduled to be completed under this second phase. It was expected to be available before Christmas, but Christmas has now been and gone and we are still none the wiser. In 2019, I will be keeping up the pressure and doing my best for all of those communities who remain stranded without decent broadband which is now an essential part of modern life and not just a "nice to have" luxury.
When it comes to mobile coverage, it would be wrong to suggest that the situation hasn't improved in 2018 with more mobile services being delivered into many more rural communities. 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.
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 two 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 2019, I will be urging 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.
Indeed, the Economy, Infrastructure & Skills Committee, which I Chair, has recently made a series of recommendations for the Welsh Government to consider including the need to create the right planning and economic conditions for operators to invest in mobile coverage improvements in rural areas. My colleagues and I who sit on the Committee will await with interest at how they respond to our recommendations.