I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of Welsh local authorities in delivering public services and economic development.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Gary, and to be able to speak about the record of Welsh local government in delivering public services and economic development. It is a particular honour to do so after two hard years of the covid-19 pandemic, in which local government teams across Wales, not least in my own two local authorities of Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan, have played a critical role in supporting their local communities and in adapting on the hoof to maintain services during some of the most testing times that we have seen for decades.
We have also seen the very best of partnership and co-operative working—I am proud to say that as a Labour and Co-operative MP, and I spoke about the issue in this place not so long ago—with central Government and a range of other bodies, from our local health boards to our schools, care services, police and other rescue services. I can say, hand on heart, that I was deeply moved at a number of points during the pandemic to see councillors, officers and staff at every level working 24/7 to ensure that no one, from our children to the most vulnerable, was left behind. When we look back on this period, I have no doubt that many will conclude that it was their finest hour.
Let me point above all to one key principle: that of co-constructing services in partnership with the Welsh Government and other key stakeholders. That was best exemplified by the success of the test, trace, protect system in Wales. Compared with the complex, expensive and, I am sorry to say, failing system that we saw at times on the England-Wales border, the TTP system was more efficient and effective and, crucially, substantially cheaper. Independent analysis carried out last year by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre showed that the cost of personal protective equipment and test and trace in England was almost twice as expensive as that of their equivalents in Wales. The report estimated that the cost of PPE and the devolved elements of the test and trace system in Wales was £533 million. The Wales Governance Centre’s analysis showed how that was approximately half the amount of consequentials stemming from English spending on test and trace and PPE, which stood at over £1 billion. Those costs were £158 lower per person in Wales than they were in England.
We all know that buried on page 199 of the recent annual report of the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care was the disclosure that it had incurred £8.7 billion of losses on the £12.1 billion spent on PPE in 2021. That is a truly shocking waste of taxpayers’ money. I urge the Government genuinely to reflect on how that money could have been used more productively and effectively had the collaborative approach taken in Wales been used across England. When we look at the financial headlines, we also see success when it comes to local government in Wales. Instead of hollowing out and decimating local government, we have seen a revaluing of the crucial services, expertise and local knowledge that local government delivers.
The Welsh Government have provided a 9.4% uplift in funding overall, which in difficult fiscal times is a testament to the value placed on local government in Wales and, crucially, its hard-working staff. Next year, local authorities in Wales will receive £5.1 billion from the Welsh Government in core revenue funding and non-domestic rates to spend on delivering key services. That means supporting our councils with an additional £750 million to provide the critical services that Wales relies on, such as schools, social care, recycling and so on. That equates to an increase of 9.4% across Wales, or £437 million on a like-for-like basis compared with the current year, and no local authority in Wales will receive less than an 8.4% increase, which I am sure Members will agree is substantial given the overall fiscal constraints. That shows what I believe are Welsh Labour values in action, providing support to critical public services and workers who have helped us every day throughout the pandemic.
Among other things, local government will be able to maintain the Welsh Government’s council tax reduction scheme, with the Welsh Government providing £244 million in support to the most vulnerable people in Wales. It will support the major programme for government commitments, including the pledge to introduce free school meals for all primary school pupils in Wales. Social care staff will receive the real living wage in Wales—currently £9.90 an hour—from April 2022. That will apply to registered workers in care homes and domiciliary care, in both adult and children’s services. It will also apply to personal assistants who provide care and support that is funded through a direct payment—a real testament, I am sure, to the work of those staff through the pandemic period.
The Welsh Government are keen that we nurture that collaboration, drawing on that relationship to look to the future. I am thinking about the different models proposed for housing, and the need to think creatively about the future of social care, to be bold in the exploration of new, innovative models of transport and to think innovatively about the urgent need to decarbonise our economy and our communities. I declare an interest as someone who started his career as a play worker and a council official in the Vale of Glamorgan Council, at one point dressing up as Gully in Gully’s Gang, trying to support young children in our communities. I am sure that there are pictures somewhere. I have had direct experience of working in local government in a number of roles in south Wales.
I pay tribute again to every local government staff member across Cardiff, the Vale and the whole of Wales, from teachers to refuse collectors, care workers and highway staff, who all went beyond the call of duty, often taking on new roles and complex, challenging tasks. Particularly in the early stage of the pandemic, before we had access to the life-changing vaccines, they did so knowing the risks that they could be exposed to, even when the best precautions were in place, in order to ensure that a vulnerable elderly person did not go without support, that a child did not go without a meal or learning, and that no crucial piece of local infrastructure fell into disrepair.
I will come on to some of the successes in local government across Wales. I will focus on my own two local authorities and then take a quick canter through the others, but I could not do justice to all the authorities in Wales in this speech. I hope that other Members will intervene and make their own speeches, in which they can go into more detail. I am hugely proud of the work of Cardiff Council, under our leader Councillor Huw Thomas and his team. It has been a record of innovation, commitment and ambition over recent years. The list of successes is huge, but in addition to their remarkable work supporting people throughout the pandemic and their day-to-day delivery of services, I will highlight some other key successes.
A remarkable scheme of council house building and bearing down on homelessness under the leadership of Councillor Lynda Thorne has been truly transformative, with much more to come. I can see those new council properties being built in my own community and in deprived communities that need them. On campaigning and delivering on the real living wage, 40% of real living wage accredited employers in Wales are now located in Cardiff. That means that 8,000 people have had a pay rise thanks to pressure and campaigning from our council. There have been huge and continued redevelopments, from the city centre to the bay in my constituency, including the Central Square area, now home to the new BBC headquarters. UK Government buildings have chosen to locate there, as well as the Cardiff School of Journalism and our new, and promised, bus station and transport hub.
I have seen new leisure facilities in my constituency, including the new Star Centre and pool in Splott, and remarkable new education facilities, including Eastern High in my constituency turning around educational performance and aspirations. There are new green transport links, plans for the metro, and, hopefully, a new Cardiff Parkway station, a public-private partnership in the east of the city. We are attracting and developing new high-value sectors, including film and TV production and high-tech and other future-proof industries, in our cities, and building the skills chain to support them.
I am of course proud to have a constituency that includes not just one but two local authorities, one of which is the Labour-led Vale of Glamorgan. I pay tribute to the leadership of Councillor Neil Moore and the deputy leader, Councillor Lis Burnett, who is one of Penarth’s councillors, for their work throughout the pandemic, and that of their whole cabinet and team. Again, I could praise much of their day-to-day work, but recent highlights include saving the Penarth pier pavilion after a difficult period and bringing it back into vibrant and sustainable public use, and pioneering the Big Fresh Catering Company, a local authority trading company based on co-operative principles in our schools, which has turned a £350,000 deficit into a £500,000 surplus in one year, with that money being reinvested in schools.
We see huge investment at the Penarth Learning Community that turns around prospects for learners on a combined school site. St Cyres School is a part of that and recently celebrated being one of the first schools to be designated a school of sanctuary for its work in supporting those fleeing conflict and persecution abroad. The new food pod scheme, designed to support local communities that faced major challenges during the pandemic and to tackle food waste, is part of the council’s clean slate neighbourhood programme, a two-year scheme to make a key area of Penarth cleaner, greener, healthier and better connected. We are investing in our green and seaside spaces, from Cosmeston to the famous Barry Island, making the Vale a destination for all to visit and enjoy and generate local employment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) could not be here this afternoon—my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) is here—but she wanted me to highlight the work of the Labour-led Newport Council, led by Councillor Jane Mudd. Newport distributed 9,000 laptops and devices to learners during the pandemic, administering £55 million of Welsh Government funding to support businesses. Newport has world-beating recycling rates and exciting plans for economic development and regeneration in Newport city centre. Newport and my own city of Cardiff are leading the way with support for unaccompanied, sanctuary seeking children.
Neath Port Talbot dealt with a series of emergency and crisis situations, including severe flooding in Skewen, a gas explosion in Seven Sisters, and landslips. It is also investing in significant regeneration projects in Neath town centre, Harbourside in Port Talbot, and the Plaza cinema in Swansea, which I am sure we will hear about given the colleagues I can see here. New technology is being pioneered through the Homes as Power Stations approach and through Passivhaus, which creates buildings that use less energy. There is work to tackle homelessness, as we have seen in Cardiff, by developing the former Bryn House community education centre in Uplands.
Bridgend has made a record investment in 21st-century schools, renewed sea defences, and cultural regeneration, including at the Maesteg town hall. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, which I am sure we will hear about, there is free wi-fi in all town centres and investment in town centre regeneration, and a huge amount of work is being done, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), to tackle flood risk and the impact of the terrible floods of a few years ago. Like Cardiff, RCT is delivering a real living wage to council contractors, as well as directly employed staff.
Torfaen is pioneering new and exciting support programmes for dads and is piloting new forms of democracy with advance voting in elections. In Flintshire in north Wales, a £15 million redevelopment of a new care home is being undertaken, with state-of-the-art accommodation to support people. Caerphilly has received awards for its free school meal delivery for families. The approach to free school meals and feeding our children was in stark contrast to the regrettable situation in England, which had to be put under pressure by Marcus Rashford and others. Also, it set up Caerphilly Cares, a signposting and support service for local people.
I could not possibly mention every local authority and location, because I would be here for hours. However, I have given Members some highlights of the really exciting, positive and impactful changes that local government has made both in providing services and in driving economic development in Wales. It is a record of success, impact and ambition under a Welsh Labour Government who value our local services, and Welsh Labour-led councils that deliver every day.
Although I have highlighted the substantial political differences that Labour authorities make, I must thank again all council staff and workers across Wales, no matter the political make-up of their authority, for the services they provide day in, day out, particularly during the pandemic. I should also highlight the role that all councils have played in offering help to the people of Ukraine and in offering to rehouse people fleeing Afghanistan and elsewhere, and also their response to cleaning up after the huge local storms and the damage caused in recent weeks.
I want to end by paying tribute to Councillor Andrew Morgan, leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, and his deputy, Councillor Rob Stewart, for the work, leadership and constructive partnership that they and all of their council leader colleagues provided throughout the pandemic and which continues today. In concluding, I hope that the Minister will recognise and welcome the leadership shown in Wales, and pledge to learn from and partner with, and not circumvent, our local authorities in Wales, which are doing so much good.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. It is also delightful to be in this debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). I congratulate him on securing it.
Across Wales, our local authorities are showing ambition in their commitments to economic development and the provision of public services. My own local council in Swansea is no exception. One of the biggest projects planned in the city is the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which has been talked about since well before I took my place in this place. After the original proposal was rejected in 2018, the new Blue Eden project was announced last year.
The new project will not only make Wales a world leader in renewable energy innovation, but bring hundreds of jobs to part of a city that has suffered for far too long as the industries for which it was once the heartland have been relocated. Although the Blue Eden project does not rely on any public funding, local government will have a key role to play in helping to develop and deliver the project. It will also be looking to the Welsh and UK Governments for support in doing that.
That project is about global innovation and will put our little corner of south Wales on the map, but today I want to share information on some of the economic investments that my local authority has committed to public services. They are progressive and ambitious commitments, showing the council’s determination to improve the lives of people in communities across Swansea.
My local authority has invested a record £179 million in our schools and education services; committed £5 million to upgrade all children’s play areas across the city, and scrapped fees for local sports clubs to use public parks and pitches; invested £144 million to deliver better care services for vulnerable adults and children; committed £50,000 to provide new life-saving equipment in every community in the city; expanded apprenticeship opportunities and is providing grants of up to £10,000 to support local businesses; invested £4 million to support homeless people, including through the “always a bed” pledge, meaning that nobody needs to be homeless in Swansea; and is providing free bus travel for everyone across the city on selected dates throughout the year.
Those are bold decisions, made in difficult times, but they are the right decisions, putting the interests of people from across the city front and centre and supporting communities by continuing to build a better Swansea. With the bold and innovative leadership of Swansea City Council’s leader, Rob Stewart, it will hopefully have an opportunity to continue to lead on those bold and ambitious plans.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this excellent debate. I had the privilege of being a council leader in the past; I know what a difference it can make. In fact, I was responsible for a 26 km electronic tram system in south London.
The council leader in Swansea, Rob Stewart, has great ambitions for a Swansea metro. However, we need the money to do that. I should again make the case to the Minister that Wales deserves its fair share of HS2 money, in accordance with that received by Scotland. That would give us an extra £4.6 billion to invest in our electrified systems. There are only 22 miles of electric rail across all of Wales, despite thousands of miles of it in England.
We have great ambitions there, but we also have great ambitions elsewhere. We have already heard that Swansea does a great job in its core service provision—in education, social services, housing and local transport—but also in terms of culture. The Minister joined me in Swansea West at the brand new arena that seats 3,500 people; Mark Drakeford, our First Minister, was there as well. That will be a great magnet for new investment and a great boost to people who live in Swansea. We have heard about the Blue Eden version of the Swansea lagoon. I knew about the lagoon prior to my election in 2010 when I was working at the Environment Agency Wales; at last, despite the blockages from the UK Government in providing the money, Blue Eden, its new rendition, is moving forward without Government support.
At a time when energy prices are rising, climate change is accelerating and we can see what is happening in Ukraine in terms of the need for energy security, it is imperative that we redouble our efforts to invest in clean, green alternatives, as opposed to fracking. In Swansea 62% of people are recycling, compared with 30% in north London, which is also building a new incinerator. I am very proud that my colleague the Minister for Climate Change in the Senedd, Julie James, has announced a moratorium on new incineration in Wales. That is something that England should take forward.
We saw the great work that local authorities did during the pandemic—in Swansea, Cardiff and throughout Wales—by looking after people in great need and providing food for people who were isolated, as well as by providing business support. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned the waste of money in England; strangely, we got the Barnett consequential of that, so we had more money to give to our local businesses. Local businesses therefore got much more support in Wales than they did in England, because we used local authorities and health authorities rather than mates in the private sector. For Ukraine, Swansea is a city of sanctuary. We are a nation of sanctuary in Wales, and we look forward to having the resources and the opportunity to open our hearts and homes to the people of Ukraine.
We need our fair share of money. I have mentioned the transport money, but in addition to that we have had a freeze over the last 10 years of austerity. Had the income of the Welsh Government grown in accordance with the economy, we would have had £2 billion to £3 billion more. We are set to lose something like £1 billion in EU funding. The Minister may talk about a mix of cash flow and the amount allocated per year, but the reality is that we are not seeing the money that we saw before. We look forward to getting the shared prosperity fund at the level that was promised. We welcomed levelling up, but it is small beer compared with the huge numbers that we are talking about. We want a fairer future. I am pleased that the £10 minimum living wage, which has been enabled in Swansea, will help a fair deal at a time when benefits are going up by only 3.2% when inflation is set to be 8% by next April.
In Swansea and across Wales, Welsh Labour is striving to achieve and deliver a stronger, fairer and greener future. I welcome what it is doing, and I am privileged to congratulate the local governments across Wales and in particular in Swansea.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this important debate.
It is important that we shout loudly and proudly about the work that our local councils do across Wales. I am obviously going to speak about Newport City Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) is unable to be here, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth has alluded to. However, she is very keen that we put Newport City Council, its leader Jane Mudd and all her cabinet colleagues on the map. I was not going to speak today—I was just going to intervene—but when I was reminded that Newport became a city 20 years ago this month, I thought it was important that I speak about that.
Throughout the pandemic, our local government have stepped up to the plate and shown how important their work is—certainly in Newport. They kept the children of key workers in school to enable them to go out to do vital work in retail, in track and trace, and in hospital settings. The local council, by providing those key services, put in place infrastructure to enable other people to get on with vital work.
Further services included homing the homeless during the pandemic. Newport City Council has a designated caseworker who works with those who are more difficult to reach and maybe not so willing to engage with local services. That person is doing a brilliant job of bringing people in and getting appropriate services to vulnerable people who might need additional care. That is a really good service provided in Newport.
Recycling has already been mentioned. In Wales, we are proud to be the second best recyclers in the world—we are happy to give England some lessons on how that should be done. We have integrated recycling that goes across local authorities, allowing each local citizen to play their part by putting out the right recycling.
In Newport we are also very conscious of air pollution. Our local council leader, Jane Mudd, has been very bold and we now have a fleet of electric buses, which are all part of our integrated public transport. As my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) said, we have free travel for all in March. That is brilliant —people can get the bus for free.
Newport City Council undertook a “Stand with Ukraine” rally on Sunday, where I was privileged to stand with Jane Mudd, our leader, to say that Newport is a city of sanctuary, alongside the whole of Wales. We are looking forward to working with the local council, the Welsh Government and non-governmental organisations, including St Woolos cathedral and the Very Reverend Ian Black, who will be opening their doors to refugees when they arrive.
I nearly forgot to mention that Jane Mudd has been instrumental, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East, in work on the western gateway, developing links across Wales and further afield—as far as Swindon and Reading—to make sure that we have the business infrastructure in place. That will be really important.
Newport City Council does a brilliant job. It works with local people, local organisations, other councils and, of course, the Welsh Government. After all, great partnerships produce great results.
As ever, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Gary. Like my colleagues, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing this important and timely debate.
Local authorities play an incredibly important role in delivering public services, and this afternoon we have heard about the incredible work of local authorities across Wales. The debate has been quite Swansea-heavy, but let me say that I am proud that my local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council has been leading the way on the long-term recovery from the devastating impact of coronavirus and the unprecedented flooding that devastated my community back in 2020.
However, even with the support of local authorities, we cannot and should not pretend that the last few years have been anything other than challenging for communities across Wales and the UK more widely. As the cost of living continues to rise sharply, it is clear that we cannot rely on the UK Government’s half-baked levelling-up agenda to address the ever-widening funding gaps. That is why I feel incredibly fortunate that the Labour-led RCT Council, led by Councillor Andrew Morgan and the deputy leader, Councillor Maureen Webber, has been bold and ambitious in supporting my local community as we transition towards a recovery period.
I feel a particular closeness to my local authority because, like many of my colleagues, it is where my political career began. I first stood to represent my local community of Tonyrefail West in 2012, and I have remained a very proud local councillor ever since. Before anyone seeks to point the finger, I would like to place on record that that position has been unremunerated since my election in 2019.
Despite that, my eyes have always been open to the real impact that effective local authority councils and town and community councils can have on their area. In recent years I have had the real privilege of playing my part in a number of local projects, including seeing a new play area built in Edmondstown, a new school development in Tonyrefail and an all-important speed reduction scheme on Barn Hill. The importance of our local authorities in delivering those everyday services, which residents across Wales truly rely on, is clear for all to see.
In my area, RCT Council has been central to an ambitious regeneration project that will be transformational for our local high streets, which, as I am sure we can all agree, have been particularly hard hit over the past few years. Even with the best efforts of our Welsh Labour Government, it has been an especially difficult time as independent shops that may previously have been completely reliant on footfall and in-person transactions have been forced to modernise rapidly and move their operations online. That is why I am particularly grateful that RCT Council has consistently prioritised supporting businesses big and small through its business advice and guidance hub.
Let me reassure colleagues that the support for local economic development in our area does not stop there, thanks to our council. I am delighted to report that RCT is currently backing a number of ongoing important regeneration projects within Ponty town centre, which will bring jobs to the area as well as strengthen the local economy. The regeneration framework, aptly named Pivotal Pontypridd, began in 2017 when the council first identified Pontypridd as one of its five strategic opportunity areas. While it will come as no surprise that I, as the Member for Pontypridd, welcome this news with open arms, I will do my best, out of respect for other Members, not to gloat too much, though it is very tempting.
This fantastic regeneration project aims to build on the investment that RCT Council has secured and made available for a number of crucial projects in recent years, including the £12 million Pontypridd town centre regeneration programme, and the £14 million project that saw Pontypridd railway station get a much-needed upgrade. Over the past four years, RCT Council has committed to many more projects, which amount to an incredible £115 million investment for our town centre. Those include funding the brilliant Llys Cadwyn, which was completed in 2020 and sits proudly in the centre of our town. That mixed-use development is now home to important businesses, such as Transport for Wales HQ, Bradleys Coffee, the excellent Gatto Lounge, which I recommend for a cocktail or two, and a new library, fitness centre and customer contact point for council services.
In a world where we are used to seeing decision makers at the top of Government change with little warning—perhaps the less said about reshuffles the better—it is clear that our local authorities are playing an increasingly important role in ensuring that local projects such as these receive the consistency and dedication that they truly deserve.
To conclude, that is why it is so important that we shout proudly about the work going on in Wales, thanks to our fantastic local authorities. They play a crucial role and must not be impacted by funding cuts from central Government, not now or in future. After all, it is our councillors across the nation who are often at the heart of fixing everyday issues, which may never reach the inboxes of a Member of Parliament. They deserve our unwavering support at every level.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for securing this timely and important debate. I am proud to work, alongside my Welsh Labour colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), with the local Labour council in Swansea. As has been mentioned in today’s Swansea-heavy debate, it was the first Welsh council to adopt a minimum staff wage of £10 an hour. By doing that, Swansea Council shows how much it values its staff, who are the ones who have kept our vital services running, especially throughout the pandemic.
I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Swansea Council leader, Rob Stewart, and his cabinet members. It is amazing to see many projects come to fruition, such as the new Swansea arena, which I know the Minister visited. I am looking forward to going there in May to see “The Good, The Bad and The Rugby—Live”. Although the Minister knows the frustration of the people of Swansea over the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, he will agree with me that the new Blue Eden project is the innovative and economy-boosting project that Swansea, and indeed Wales, needs.
Last month, Swansea Council announced a record-breaking budget for services that affect my constituents every day. An extra £35 million of funding will go towards record levels of spending in schools and social care, with support concentrated on community-based services, such as litter picking, street cleaning and road improvements. Those are all issues that I am sure many of us hear about from our constituents every day. It is great news that the Labour Government have protected the budget of Swansea Council, allowing it to invest more in the priorities of the people of Swansea and Gower.
The pandemic showed us the huge benefits of spending time outdoors. I am pleased that Swansea Council has introduced schemes to reflect that, with free bus travel over the school holidays, allowing families to make the most of the fantastic outdoor spaces available, whether that is our world-famous beaches on the Gower peninsula or our green spaces, such as Penllergare valley woods. I am pleased about the investment that is going into playground spaces, which my colleagues spoke about. A lot of that is seen in my constituency, such as Gowerton park, Parc Melin Mynach, Bracelet Bay, Pennard park and Coed Bach park, to name a few that are currently undergoing transformation.
One thing that has not been spoken about today is that in 2015 Swansea became the first council in Wales to introduce the local area co-ordination network. Our local area co-ordinators—or LACs as we call them—were invaluable during the pandemic. In the first five months, they responded to over 20,000 inquiries, from picking up food and medication to dropping pets at vets, and anything in between. These local authority co-ordinators who work in my constituency and across Swansea are dedicated to their communities. My thanks go out to them on behalf of all my constituents who they have worked so hard to support. One of the good things about the scheme is that we are showing the rest of Wales and beyond what good practice this is. To see that good practice roll out in other authorities is what it is all about, because it benefits everybody.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to those cabinet members from Gower who will not be standing again in the local elections, who have been very patient, collaborative and kind to me since I was elected in 2017: Councillor Mark Thomas from Penclawdd, who has been environment enhancement and infrastructure manager—highways, to a lot of us—and Councillor Mark Child from West Cross. We will also be saying a sad goodbye to Christine Richards, our councillor for Loughor and the former deputy leader of Swansea Council.
We know how important our local councils are to us all. Our working relationship with them and with the Welsh Government is key. I am proud to work alongside Swansea Council and look forward to continuing this work post-election with new faces and old friends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) on securing the debate and setting out so passionately the excellent examples of local authorities delivering for local residents.
My hon. Friend rightly talked about the level of support and commitment from officers and members right across local government in Wales during the pandemic. He also spoke about the support from the Welsh Labour Government through the plans for free school meals, social care, workers receiving a real living wage, and the significant investment in local government services. He highlighted the good work in Cardiff Council and the Vale of Glamorgan Council with a stellar list of achievements across the two authorities in regeneration, transport, dealing with food poverty and many other issues.
Local government has always played a huge role in delivering frontline services. I know that only too well from my 20 years as a county councillor before being elected to Parliament. However, it is fair to say that the role of councillors and councils, as we have heard a number of times today, has never been under as much pressure as the last two years. By and large, all 22 local authorities across Wales, for members, officers and frontline staff, have really stepped up to the plate and continued to deliver excellent public services for their communities.
Many of today’s speeches have highlighted the flavour of the work done by our local authorities. My hon. friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) talked about the good work of Swansea Council, with the new Blue Eden project, which sounds very exciting and will create hundreds of jobs. They also talked about the significant investment in education and schools, the 62% recycling rate and transport improvements. Swansea was the first council to offer the minimum staff wage of £10 an hour.
I was particularly interested to hear about the work on green spaces and sports pitches with the abolition of pitch fees, which is something that the opposition group on Merthyr Tydfil Council, led by Councillor Darren Roberts, have pledged to do if they win the election on 5 May.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) about the achievements in Newport City Council: the multi-agency social work hub; the safeguarding; the western gateway, looking out across the region; and the significant work on tackling recycling.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about the work of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, leading the way after covid, storms and flooding affected many communities across her constituency and the surrounding area. That comes from being bold and ambitious. She also mentioned looking at significant improvements in play areas and schools—services that we all know people rely on every day and appreciate very much, as they do town centre regeneration as well.
I know from part of my constituency in the Caerphilly County Borough that the council there has been at the forefront of supporting families during the pandemic, recently delivering its one millionth free school meal, supported by Welsh Labour Government funding and delivered with a real sense of commitment—not, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) told the Welsh Labour conference on Saturday, after
“a last-minute U-turn after a really good kicking from a Premier League striker”,
which was the case in England.
In Torfaen, Welsh Labour councillors are among the local residents who make up the volunteers who ensure that households across Torfaen have access to regular food. Seven days a week, amazing volunteers sort, pack and distribute food and essential items to those in need, as well as offering financial, mental health and physical support across Torfaen. There are now hundreds of high-quality new homes in Flint, together with newly built care facilities and a superb town centre regeneration that has created more jobs and apprenticeships locally, all delivered by the Welsh Labour-led council in Flintshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and I had the pleasure of visiting Flintshire last week.
In Bridgend, the Welsh Labour council has helped more than 4,600 people into work through its dedicated employability scheme, involving free training, supported job searches and CV development advice to upskill and support those seeking work. In Neath Port Talbot, the council has given advice, information and financial support to more than 2,000 businesses, along with administering £47 million in covid payments to businesses.
I think it is fair to say that local authorities are often the strategic partners in projects to support economic development. They are the catalyst and brokers that often bring together a range of partners and stakeholders that deliver holistic projects for our communities. Since devolution, our local authorities have been at the forefront of delivering regeneration projects across Wales—we have heard about many of them today—all done in partnership with the Welsh Government and other strategic partners. That strategic partnership must be safeguarded as the Government here in Westminster move forward with their levelling-up agenda. Wales cannot afford to lose the high level of partnership working and trust that has been built up over 20 years. That is why it is important that the Welsh Government are at the table for discussions and decisions around levelling-up projects going forward.
The excellent record of partnership working in Wales can be further illustrated by the fact that, throughout the pandemic, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association sat around the table with the Welsh Government to ensure that the response to the pandemic was co-ordinated between the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities. I pay particular tribute to Councillor Andrew Morgan, who facilitated that role. In addition, the Welsh Government Minister Julie James MS met council leaders on a weekly basis, co-ordinating the response to an ever-changing and fast-moving pandemic. That example of partnership working extended, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, through the Test, Trace, Protect scheme that rolled out across Wales as a partnership between Welsh health boards and Welsh local authorities, which know their communities best and delivered a scheme at a fraction of the cost in England—and more efficiently, if I may say so.
In conclusion, we know that the Welsh Government have protected the budgets of Welsh local government in recognition of the frontline services they have provided. Today we have heard just some examples of Welsh Labour councils delivering for their communities in the most difficult of times. I and all others offer our best wishes to them on 5 May and hope that we see the return of many more Labour councillors and councils to work with our Welsh Labour Government to continue to deliver public services for the people of Wales.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Gary. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and all other hon. Members in this debate because I find myself in the strange position of actually agreeing with much of what I have heard today, including much of what the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) just said—until the slightly political points at the end.
Let me begin by making a serious point. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth paid tribute to those council workers across Wales who worked 24 hours a day during the covid pandemic and, of course, during the floods that immediately preceded the first lockdown. I am sure all of us went out and saw what these amazing people were doing. I visited people who, as the hon. Member said, had worked literally 24-hour days filling sandbags for people during the floods and had come off other jobs to do that. We know about the unsung heroes, such as the road gritters and many others, who are out there and who will work for 24 hours when the chips are down and when we need it. I absolutely want to associate myself with all his comments about the wonderful people who work for our local authorities across Wales. We are indeed lucky to have people of that calibre working for us, and we should never take their services for granted. We thank them all.
Hon. Members may be surprised by this as well, but I pay tribute to all local councillors in Wales—not just the Labour ones, of course, but including them—who it has been my pleasure to work with in this role. One or two things that I wanted to say have been mentioned; as the hon. Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) said, what a fantastic arena Swansea Arena is—something that Swansea Council brought forward.
When I met Rob Stewart last week, he made it clear that the project was not just about him; there was a whole team behind him. But what a fantastic team it was. As I am sure hon. Members will agree, the moment someone walks in there, they see what an absolutely amazing building it is—it bowls them over. It will be a huge asset for Swansea and the whole of Wales, and I am pleased to have worked with those who played a part in bringing it about, and I congratulate Swansea Council.
I had better not say too much about the tidal lagoon project. We know that there were issues with the previous one. I believe that Rob Stewart is a very capable person. I do not want to say too much in the run-up to an election or my words will probably appear on his leaflets, but he is somebody to be taken seriously. These matters are not for me, but I am sure that anything he puts forward will be taken in that light.
Given that all of us agree that by and large we have very hardworking councillors, there has to be a question as to whether the Welsh Government might want to devolve further powers to local authorities over the coming years, particularly as the Corporate Joint Committees become legal entities and as the growth deal regions take on all sorts of extra responsibilities. All of us realise that centralising control is not a good thing, whether it is in Cardiff or Westminster, and feel that some of the services offered by local authorities might improve even further if local authorities were given even more responsibilities.
It is correct that local government in Wales and across the UK has been at the forefront of responding to the pandemic, leading from the front and co-ordinating the fight against the virus. We want to harness that leadership in our drive for economic recovery, improving local services and focusing economic growth on the industries of tomorrow. That is why it has been a privilege for me to be part of the growth deal projects, and see how local authorities of all sorts of different political dimensions and viewpoints are coming together to bring forward programmes and projects that can benefit the whole of Wales.
One hon. Member mentioned the extra money going into local authorities—I think it was the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I obviously welcome that, but, dare I say it, that was made possible only because of funding to Wales through the Welsh block grant of £18.4 billion a year on average over the next three years. It is one of the best ever funding settlements for the Welsh Government—in fact, the best ever. For our part, the UK Government recognise the value of local authorities in leading communities. We know and trust them to make the decisions that are best for their local areas, and we look forward to seeing local authorities put back in the driving seat over programmes, such as the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund, about which details will be coming out shortly.
As I mentioned, we are working with local authorities and other partners in the four Welsh regions to deliver long-term investment through the city and growth deals. We are working with local areas on bespoke investments, and I remain hopeful of a positive announcement on freeports very soon. As hon. Members will know, £790 million is going into the four Welsh city and growth deals; of course, a lot of money is coming from the Welsh Government as well. We have enjoyed working with the Welsh Government and local authorities to kick-start economic growth.
We are seeing the deals produce results. As I think the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth mentioned, just two weeks ago, Cardiff Capital Region announced the purchase of Aberthaw Power Station, with a hugely exciting plan to turn the site into a centre for green energy. I had a very good discussion with Kellie Beirne about that just before the announcement was made. I look forward to seeing hundreds—perhaps thousands—of jobs being created in the industries of tomorrow as a result.
I have mentioned the fantastic Swansea Arena already. In north Wales, I look forward to visiting Bangor University later in the spring to look at the digital signalling processing centre, into which we have invested £3 million in groundbreaking technology to help secure and develop further investment in the regional digital economy. We are seeing the fruits of the growth deals coming to light, from improving tourism facilities at the world heritage site in the Dee Valley to building a new transport interchange at Porth in the Rhondda.
I believe the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) mentioned levelling-up deals. I think I am right in saying that there were three successful bids to the fund in the area, and I signed them off myself. I was surprised at criticism from elsewhere that there had been pork-barrel politics, because one of the only local authorities that did not get any of the levelling-up fund was my own in Monmouthshire—if there had been any pork-barrel politics going on, I had not been very clever at getting anything out of the barrel myself. Of course, in reality, local authorities put forward the projects, which were assessed by independent officials. I was pleased to sign them off and I hope I might get an invitation to come and see them when they are developed.
This is real devolution: empowering local places and making sure that devolution goes beyond Cardiff Bay. As a Government, we look forward to working closely with local authorities across Wales. I have mentioned some. We have not mentioned some of the Plaid Cymru local authorities. I would be pleased to meet many of those leaders to discuss growth deals with them, as well as the independents in mid Wales.
In Monmouthshire, I must mention my excellent council leader, Councillor Richard John, who has done such a superb job of leading Monmouthshire over the last two years. I could cite many achievements—I am sure that Labour councils could learn many things from how things are done in Monmouthshire, such as the superfast infrastructure. Monmouthshire is the only local authority in Wales to run a post office. Despite the fact that the funding formula seems to disbenefit rural areas, Monmouthshire has managed to keep its council tax rises down to manageable levels. That is not to underestimate the achievements of other local authorities across Wales.
On the point of levelling up and pork-barrel politics, will the Minister try to clarify the criteria for levelling-up grants? In the past, obviously, the EU funding was needs-based and focused on lifting productivity in areas of deprivation. We would all welcome more clarity so that there cannot be any accusations that money is just being given out for political reasons.
I thank the Minister for the tone in which he is responding to the debate. I wonder whether he could go back to his colleagues at the Treasury and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on an issue I have raised a number of times in the past: funding for dealing with fire and building safety issues in Wales.
When it comes to the funding given through big announcements at Westminster, it has been really difficult to get clarity about what is passed on to Wales. Councillor Lynda Thorne from Cardiff Council spoke with me the other day. We are trying to support residents, but without clarity on the money coming through from the UK Government, it is difficult to respond systematically. Can the Minister raise that with his colleagues again?
I think that is a perfectly reasonable request. It is very obvious that some things are devolved and some things are not. When they are devolved, when the UK Government make an announcement it is only going to apply to England, and roughly 5% will come to Wales. But there are some quite unusual, niche issues on which even Ministers and MPs might not be absolutely certain. If that is one of them, I will be happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman and give a full response.
Before drawing this debate to a close, I want to mention Newport City Council. Newport is my home town, and I congratulate all the councillors there—particularly those who were involved 20 years ago when Newport became a city. At that time, it was a Labour council, but my late father was one of the councillors then, and it was something he felt very passionately about. I am sure all of us who have a connection to Newport are pleased that it got exactly what it deserved.
I thank hon. Members for this afternoon’s debate. I have sought to answer as many points as possible in the time given, and I am sure answers to the ones I was not able to address will be forthcoming shortly. I will say three things in conclusion: first, the UK Government see Welsh local authorities as the leaders of their areas, best placed to take decisions on public services and investment to drive growth and jobs. I have had the pleasure of meeting, eating with and working with leaders from all the major political parties except the Liberal Democrats—that is because there are no Liberal Democrat leaders in Wales. It has been a pleasure and a joy to do so, and I have found that they all want to put their constituents first, rather than party politics.
Secondly, the UK Government believe in devolution, but that devolution reaches beyond Cardiff Bay. Apparently the Welsh Government think the same way, so we are looking forward to more powers being devolved to local authorities over the coming years. Thirdly and finally, these are clearly very turbulent times, and it is more important than ever that we remain focused on the long game, with Welsh local authorities working with Welsh businesses and civic society to deliver a prosperous, levelled-up Wales. Wales needs its two Governments working hand in glove, and it is time for the Welsh Government to work with us, not oppose for the sake of it. The Secretary of State for Wales and I would really like a warm, constructive relationship with the Welsh Government, co-operating and collaborating in order to secure the future prosperity of Wales. Thank you very much; diolch yn fawr.
It has been a fantastic debate, with some great contributions from colleagues. It is a shame that we did not have some colleagues from other parts of Wales present, but we did try to get in points relating to a number of the other local authorities, including in north Wales and elsewhere. It is important to recognise their contribution, and that of their staff and councillors.
Suffice it to say that during the pandemic we have seen the best of our local authorities in Wales, but not only that: going forward, our local authorities are setting out a hugely ambitious and optimistic agenda. They are innovating, particularly in relation to the greening of our towns and cities and our economy going forward, and the new industries and technologies that will be the bedrock of the future Welsh economy and the future of jobs and opportunities for our young people. Thank you again for chairing the debate, Sir Gary, and thank you to all colleagues and the Minister for participating today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of Welsh local authorities in delivering public services and economic development.