Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd16/09/2020
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:32 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon. Welcome to this Plenary meeting. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on the agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Siambr as to those joining virtually.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Siân Gwenllian.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on efforts to reintroduce eagles in Snowdonia? OQ55521
Diolch. As the species champion for raptors, I was extremely saddened to hear of the recent death of the only golden eagle in Wales. Any proposals to reintroduce eagles in Wales will require a licence from Natural Resources Wales. Habitat suitability and the effects on existing wildlife and land use would be part of the decision-making process.
Will you join with me in expressing grave concern about this idea, which apparently is being put forward by one gentleman and doesn't have support from anywhere else within Snowdonia? Farmers are concerned that eagles would attack their stock, and there is concern about the impact on biodiversity as there isn't enough sustenance in the area for eagles. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said that there would need to be broad support from local communities for such a proposal to succeed, and that support isn't there. Will you therefore state clearly that the Welsh Government is not in favour of this proposal either and that it needs to be put to one side immediately?
I appreciate that proposals to reintroduce certain species can be controversial; sometimes you have very polarised views expressed. So, I think it's really important that all views are taken into account as part of the decision-making process. That should also include a public consultation.
Clearly, there are concerns around this idea, but it is important I think that we consider strategies that protect those species that are under threat in Wales, like the Atlantic puffin, which, of course, I'm proud to be the species champion for. Minister, could you therefore tell us a bit more about how the Welsh Government will address any gaps in the marine protected area network for sea birds, including foraging areas for cliff nesting birds?
It is very important that we consider all our policies against, as you say, the species that we are particularly concerned about, and, of course, the Atlantic puffin is one of those. This is part of our work as we're looking to how we increase our biodiversity and support our marine ecosystems.
Minister, would you agree with me that reintroductions of species should only take place where there is good ecological evidence and that planning needs to be thorough? There needs to be good engagement with local communities. I'm aware, for example, that Cardiff University has done some research looking at habitats and food availability for eagles in Wales, and they favoured building an evidence case carefully and, obviously, having a full and respectful conversation with farmers and local communities—basically, I think, moving one step at a time. Would you agree with me that we want do see biodiversity but that a proper process has to be followed?
Yes, absolutely. John Griffiths will have heard my earlier answer to Siân Gwenllian when I said it's really important all views are taken into account but public consultation has to be part of the decision-making process, and when assessing any licence application for introductions of any species, NRW always takes into account the biological and the social feasibility of such a proposal.
2. What discussions has the Minister had with major supermarkets regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the food sector in Wales? OQ55504
Thank you. I regularly meet with representatives from each of the main supermarkets. I am reassured robust systems are in place to maintain adequate food supplies. The supermarkets have been made very aware of their role in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic through maintaining adequate social distancing measures. Local authority sanctions will be used if necessary.
I'd like to read the Minister a comment on my Facebook page, which I've had, which is reflective of many comments I've had. This is from a constituent:
'Can anyone answer this question for me please? Just 10 minutes ago I went to Morrison's Caerphilly. Whilst shopping I saw four people all not wearing masks except around their necks. I drew this matter to the attention of the store security, who said, "We have no authority to enforce the issue". I am now very confused in that the Welsh Government and the council have said the wearing of masks in shops is mandatory.'
I've also had similar reflected views from constituents talking about similar situations in Tesco, Asda and Aldi in my e-mail inbox, and it does raise concerns. As the Minister responsible for relations with the major supermarkets during the pandemic, what is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that the major supermarkets enforce COVID safety measures so that people who are contacting me can feel safe when shopping?
Thank you. You raise a very important point and a point that has filled my inbox with many e-mails from members of the public and from Members of the Senedd certainly over the summer recess. I mentioned that I regularly meet with the main retailers. Probably it was about every two weeks in the beginning; it's now about every four weeks. They assure me that they have social distancing measures in place and, of course, there is a geographical spread here. It's not just Caerphilly; it's right across Wales. I've had complaints as have all the main supermarkets. Officials are also in direct contact with retailers and they've shared guidance and addressed queries.
I mentioned, again, in my opening answer to you, Hefin David, that enforcement of the coronavirus regulations and guidance is a function for local authorities. I know many local authorities across Wales have done visits to supermarkets to make sure those measures are in place. But I think it's also a good opportunity to remind people of their responsibility as individuals as they too visit supermarkets and make sure that they are wearing face coverings and adhering to the 2m. And I think, again, over the last couple of days, I've had some concerns raised with me that people feel that perhaps wearing a face covering lulls people into a false sense of security, and whilst face coverings are now mandatory in supermarkets, please also remember the 2m social distancing measure.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Janet Finch Saunders.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, you'll be aware of how storm Francis wreaked havoc in north-west Wales. Flooding and landslides saw the A55 and properties submerged in Abergwyngregyn, around 40 individuals rescued from chalets in Bethesda, people from five houses rescued and businesses ruined in Beddgelert, and, of course, the historic grade I listed Gwydir Castle and gardens battered just after their summer reopening. Now, the 2021 Welsh Government flood risk management capital investment scheme actually doesn't include any funding that clearly benefits these areas—Beddgelert, Abergwyngregyn, Bethesda, nor Gwydir—in the short term. Will you increase funding for urgent flood risk schemes in areas that have been affected by storm Francis in north-west Wales, and why have you not already announced any such emergency funding for those affected by these really unexpected storms at a time when we should all be enjoying a summer?
Thank you. I'd like to welcome the Member to her new post in the shadow cabinet. We did see some unprecedented flooding over the summer. It reminded us that the climate emergency is still there alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. I have made 100 per cent repair funding for flooding events available to all local authorities, so it could be that the local authority hasn't applied for that. Certainly, with Rhondda Cynon Taf—and I know I've got a question further on specifically around RCT—we funded 100 per cent of what they've applied for. There are several flood alleviation schemes that we are funding in north Wales, but for the flooding events that we've seen, as I say, there is—. We don't need a special pot of money; that money has been made available to all local authorities and risk management authorities to apply for.
Thank you. Of course, all this falls on top of what my constituents experienced earlier with storm Ciara. It's well documented here that I put forward a report on the flooding concerns following storm Ciara, and it took until 18 August for you and your department to actually address those concerns raised. Now, you dismissed accountability at the time by stating that the local lead flood authority is responsible for the section 19 flood investigation report. This is a statutory requirement. Now, seven months on, that report has not been published. And I am not laying criticism on our local authority given what they've had to contend with in dealing with COVID-19 over the past six months. But this is not a one-off failure in terms of across Wales, and it took from December 2015 to July 2016 for a report for Betws-y-coed and Dolwyddelan. So, it is taking an unacceptably long period for S19 reports to be delivered. So, will you address this urgently by setting a deadline for these publications, and do you actually have any powers to instruct the publication of these statutory reports within a more realistic and more reasonable time frame, because, without those statutory reports, it's very difficult to actually then get any sort of flood works implemented? Thank you.
Well, I hope Janet Finch-Saunders will recognise that Welsh Government has been faced with exactly the same, if not more, significant concerns as local authorities. But I will certainly look at those dates, because I think you're right—it is helpful not just for transparency, but also for looking at what flood alleviation schemes we can bring forward. I've put additional significant funding to make sure that those flood alleviation schemes do come forward. Local authorities told me that one of the barriers to bringing the schemes forward was funding, so I've taken that barrier away by saying we'll fund 100 per cent of that initial study to see if a flood alleviation scheme would be suitable for that particular area.
Thank you. Now, everybody knows that trees play a major part in the mitigation of major flooding incidents. Now, since 17 August 2020, Natural Resources Wales have themselves received applications for licences to fell almost 50,000 trees from Gwynedd to Monmouthshire, and, to my horror, NRW only consider the environmental impact where deforestation will lead to use of the land for a different purpose. This is actually scandalous because, if you imagine taking 100 or 1,000 trees down in a particular area and say that you are going to be planting seedlings, you do not get the actual impact in terms of flooding protection. So, what urgent steps will you take to ensure that NRW themselves consider the impact of any felling on the rate of run-off, and that they do produce environmental and ground impact works? You have set aside £1 million to support slowing the rate of run-off into our rivers and streams. Will you use that funding to review the effectiveness of licences in preventing felling in flooding hotspots? My constituents believe that NRW, whilst they are technically a regulator, are running a really good business of felling many trees, and yet they do impose many regulations on other forestry owners. So, I think there has to be some equilibrium here in the system.
And finally, how is the felling of trees in the Conwy valley in line with the requirement in the UK forestry standard that woodland management be considered as a way of mitigating flood risk, when the concern really is that the amount of deforestation that NRW are doing in my constituency may actually be causing the problems with a lot of the flooding? Thank you.
The Member makes some very wide-reaching claims, and I think it would be best if I discussed them with Natural Resources Wales and then wrote to the Member.FootnoteLink
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, your consultation on proposals to continue agricultural support for farmers in a post-Brexit transition period through to whatever point it is that we manage to get a new Wales agriculture Bill passed proposes to close the young farmer scheme for new applications from next year onwards. Can you give us confirmation or clarity as to longer term intentions in terms of providing some form of bespoke support for new entrants into the industry? Clearly, it is causing concern that we may be facing a two or three-year period without any bespoke support of that kind. Why do you think it would be acceptable for us not to support young entrants in the interim period? And what kind of message do you think it might send to the industry if they believe that Government's thinking is that that kind of support is expendable, even if only in the short term?
The Member's probably aware that at the current time, the White Paper that we'll be bringing forward at the end of this calendar year, ahead of introducing an agricultural Bill in the next term of Government, is currently being finalised. I think we've got about another two chapters to write on it before it's able to come to me for the final write-off. As you know, I've always wanted to support our new entrants, but looking at what we've given in the past, looking at the way that funding has been accessed, I want to make sure that we are reaching people who are truly new entrants. That is part of what we'll bring forward in the White Paper.
That's the longer term plan; I was asking you about short-term, interim arrangements, because there will be a two to three-year period, therefore, when there isn't any kind of bespoke support for young entrants. It's needed now particularly, because we continually need new blood, new ideas and new enthusiasm. And with the prospect—the increasing prospect, actually—of a 'no deal' Brexit, then it's those kinds of people that we need, who are there ready to face the new challenges ahead. And with that increasing likelihood of a 'no deal' Brexit before us, I'm wondering whether your department has sufficient resources to be grappling with the COVID pandemic on the one hand and meaningfully and properly preparing for the prospect of a 'no deal' Brexit on the other. Maybe you could tell us whether your department is ready for a 'no deal' Brexit and whether you're confident that the sector will also be ready in what is 15 weeks' time.
In relation to my department, you're quite right; it's the same officials who are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic who are also helping prepare for a 'no deal' Brexit. You'll be aware that, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic is not something that you could have planned for, and clearly, in the beginning, many of my officials were helping with the COVID-19 response right across Welsh Government. Certainly the ones that you referred to—so, the agriculture White Paper, for instance, and the 'no deal' Brexit—they are now working very clearly on those issues.
Is the sector ready? I would say probably not. I think that business preparedness is certainly an area that causes me great concern. On Monday, I chaired the latest Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inter-ministerial group, where myself and my Scottish counterpart were told—. We were talking about business preparedness and we were talking about the Internal Market Bill that the UK Government have introduced and we were told by the Secretary of State that we were looking at it 'glass half empty'. I don't agree with that at all. I have genuine, real concerns that businesses aren't prepared. We asked them to prepare last year for a 'no deal' Brexit; they were stood down, if you like. We've now had the COVID-19 pandemic and, clearly, now, we're having to gear up again. As you say, I think it was 100 days on Monday, so it's probably 97 days now.
Okay. Well, we will need all sorts of contingencies, of course, and people are looking to the Welsh Government, obviously, to be leading from the front on that, and I would hope that you feel that you do have the resources, or if not, then we'll all need to bang the drum to make sure that they are there. One thinks particularly of the need to handle surplus lamb in a 'no deal' scenario. There isn't enough storage capacity in the UK to store lamb if we were to lose our export market. So, can you update, then, and explain to us where exactly you are in terms of contingency planning and whether you're confident that you will have covered all the bases? Because you can tell us that the work is starting again or gearing up again, but people want to know whether you believe that, actually, it's going to be the car crash that some people are suggesting it might be, or that you are confident that measures will be in place to mitigate the worst of the damage.
The Welsh Government has always led from the front around these issues. Back in November 2016, not long after the EU referendum vote, we started preparing. I've got my round-table of stakeholders and that's been meeting far more frequently this year, in light of COVID-19. It's not about starting again in relation to a 'no deal' Brexit; that work was done last year. It was quite prescient, now, looking at it, as it helped with the COVID-19 pandemic also.
Certainly, in the discussions we had last year around the sheep sector, we made it very clear to the UK Government they would have to provide additional funding, which was accepted last year. Nothing has changed in my view around that. But I think it is hard, because businesses have had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, they're now just starting to—not necessarily recover, because I think things have been, obviously, quite slow, as we are very concerned about a second spike, but I certainly think that those twin-track difficulties that all businesses are encountering at the moment are making it very difficult. But, certainly, we are doing all we can to make sure the information is out there and to pressurise UK Government. They will not extend the transition period, even though we've asked many, many times. They tell us that it will all be done by the end of the year and, clearly, the most important thing is that we continue to put pressure on the UK Government. I know myself and all my ministerial colleagues do that at every opportunity.
Question 3, Mick Antoniw.
You need to unmute yourself first, Mick Antoniw. Not quite yet.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is ensuring that homes in flood risk areas are provided with suitable flood prevention equipment? OQ55508
Thank you. The Welsh Government has contacted all flood risk management authorities to encourage applications for funding property flood resilience measures, including flood gates, where such measures are considered an appropriate option for reducing flood risk to homes.
Can I say, Minister, firstly, that I welcome that answer? I know how seriously you've taken the issue of flooding when it occurred in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Taff-Ely. I'm very grateful for the swift response that we've had and the collaboration between Rhondda Cynon Taf council and Welsh Government. Of course, at the moment, we are awaiting a series of very important inquiry reports. I think there are eight for Taff-Ely alone that are awaited to deal with various issues arising from flooding. Now, as you know—and I know you fully understand this—of course, as winter approaches, there are very real concerns for those people who were flooded or live in flood risk areas that the same might happen again, having got their houses in order, to be potentially flooded again if we face more serious storms. One of the key areas that has emerged in the various meetings that myself and my colleague Alex Davies-Jones have had with local residents has been the issue of protection specifically for houses. Now, you mentioned the area of flood gates, but there are the issues of vent protections and so on. I'd be grateful, perhaps, if you could just clarify that if there are applications made either by Rhondda Cynon Taf council or by individuals, et cetera, for such flood resilient measures, they will be received and supported by Welsh Government if it can be shown that they would alleviate the flood risk. Because clearly it can't be right that there could be any house that might benefit from such flood resilience measures that can't afford to do them. If we can't stop climate change and the flooding risk, surely we need to do everything we can to ensure we support those communities where they have experienced the consequences of flooding.
Thank you, Mick Antoniw. Just to pick up the point that you made around investigation reports, as you said, there are several where we're awaiting the statutory flood investigation reports. I'd just like to clarify that these will be published for residents, for elected members and other any other interested parties to view. They may bring forward further recommendations for reducing risk, which we can then look at urgently. Like you, I don't want to see a recurrence of the flooding in those communities that were so badly hit earlier this year, and again, in my earlier answer to Janet Finch-Saunders I was saying we did see flooding, unfortunately, over the summer.
I've provided all the funding requested by local authorities and NRW to make repairs in your constituency area, as in other areas, and I think it's really necessary that we did that so that we can prevent the same area from flooding again this winter. Flood gates, air vents and similar flood resilience measures are eligible for Welsh Government funding through our flood-risk management authorities, so I would encourage the use of property flood resilience measures, in particular for homes in communities that were badly affected earlier this year. My officials have again written out to local authorities to remind them of the availability of that Welsh Government funding, and I'm sure you will ensure any of your constituents do so also.
I recently visited Skenfrith in Monmouthshire with the local MP David Davies to see first-hand the devastating effects that flooding has had on their village. Last winter's flooding had a devastating impact on so many local residents, and worry and anxiety about a repeat of that this winter is giving many residents, obviously, sleepless nights and impacting on their mental health. Could I please ask you, Minister, given that we're now in autumn, will you please encourage NRW to speed up their report on Skenfrith and the costs and benefits of schemes there, as people's safety, homes and livelihoods are at risk? Thank you.
Yes, as I said in my earlier answer, the same applies to Monmouthshire also, so I'll be very happy to remind NRW of that. But also to say to the Member if she wants to contact the local authority to remind them that they can apply for that funding—and it's 100 per cent grant funding.
Minister, I wrote to you earlier this month, and I've raised the issue of flooding in the Rhondda a number of times with you here in the Senedd. Plaid Cymru wants to see an independent inquiry as to why so many communities in the Rhondda have suddenly become prone to flooding, but this inquiry shouldn't stop any preventative measures or remedial works. I wonder if you can tell the Senedd what you as a Government intend to do to promote and support funding for flood doors. Now, I say flood doors and not flood gates, because flood doors are more robust and protective than flood gates. I heard your answer earlier, so I wonder if you can tell us what people need to do if they live in a community that is vulnerable to floods to get the local authority to pay or contribute towards the cost of a flood door for their vulnerable property.
What your constituents should do is ensure that they contact the local authority who can then submit an application for that funding. I'll say it again: it's 100 per cent funding that we are giving to the local authority. I don't know much about flood doors, but I understand they are more robust than flood gates, and I think it's safe to say that flood gates would never be a long-term solution, but certainly in the short term, they can help. So, I would encourage them to contact their local authority, who then in turn can ensure that they apply for that funding. There are lots of flood alleviation measures—I mentioned vents as well—and it could be that on visiting, the most appropriate measure can be put in place. But initially, please contact the local authority.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on action to prevent flooding in Clwyd West? OQ55485
Thank you. The Welsh Government are funding 10 flood-alleviation projects within Clwyd West. These coastal and fluvial schemes are at various stages of development, from appraisal to construction. Further information on schemes in our flood risk management programme is available via our website.
Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. You'll be aware of the flood risk that still exists in the Towyn and Kinmel Bay area, an area that has had devastating impacts from flooding in the past. I know that the local authority is very keen to progress with some works in that particular area in terms of reinforcement and replenishment of the beach defences, particularly around the Sandy Cove area and throughout Kinmel Bay. Can I ask what progress there has been from a Welsh Government perspective on this, and when local residents will be able to see some construction works under way in order to invest in those defences to bring them up to standard?
I'm not able to give you a date when that will be the case, but at the current time my officials are working with Conwy County Borough Council to develop an outline business case for investment for Kinmel Bay and Llanddulas. The scheme is being developed through our coastal risk management programme, and that will also include the frontage in Towyn.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to support Welsh farming for the next twelve months? OQ55480
Thank you. Last week, I announced over £106 million of investment in our rural economy over the next three years. This will cover a range of schemes, including supporting farm businesses to enhance their technical and environmental performance and improve their sustainability. Welsh Government policies include the recent Welsh dairy support scheme, where over £983,000 has been paid to 160 farmers who were hardest hit by exceptional market conditions due to COVID-19, and my recent announcement of a 2020 BPS payment scheme.
Minister, like other industries, as you've just said, Welsh farming has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and so it's crucial that the Welsh Government ensures the sustainability of the farming industry in its post-COVID recovery strategies. You have confirmed that you'll be laying the draft water resources regulations this year, which will simply add more burden and financial costs when the industry is going to need significant time to recover from the impacts of COVID-19. As you already know, there's evidence of some very good voluntary approaches across Wales. For example, the Wales catchment-sensitive farming demonstration project, which is a very successful scheme that was well received by farmers. Given the very serious impact that these regulations will have on farmers, will you now commit to dropping these regulations and instead committing to working with farmers to look at some of the alternative solutions, especially at a time when the industry will have to recover from COVID-19?
No, I won't drop them. I laid the draft regulations, as you know, earlier this year, around Easter time. What I have committed to is not bringing them forward whilst we're in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic. However, I can inform Members that, up until I think it was something like 27 August, NRW had told me of over 100 substantiated agricultural pollution incidents. So, you can see they're still occurring. I am aware there's a lot of good voluntary work going on, and I continue to receive information about it and officials are working certainly with the farming unions to listen to what they come forward with in relation to voluntary measures. I had a meeting on Monday, I think it was, with the National Farmers Union, and I did express my concern over the continuing number of substantiated cases that we have seen this year of agricultural pollution—and I mention the word 'substantiated' because, of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic, NRW officers weren't able to get out there as much as they would normally.
Former NFU chief economist, Séan Rickard, estimates that one in three farms could be driven out of business within five years in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. So, the best way that Paul Davies can support Welsh farming is by steering his party away from that disastrous destination. Another way is by supporting sustainable farming that delivers public good for public money. Minister, in June, I asked you about planning applications for chicken farms, particularly those in Powys, and you said that the town and county planning intensive agricultural working group was looking at considerations for new poultry developments. I'm sure that you're aware that another 120,000 broiler chicken farm near Llangadfan has just been approved, and that of the 96 applications for chicken farms received by Powys County Council between April 2017 and April 2020, 75 have been approved, with only three being refused. So, can I ask for an update on the working group's activities, please?
Thank you. And just to reiterate what you said about a 'no deal' Brexit, I don't think anybody is under any illusions about how much damage that would inflict on our agricultural sector here in Wales. And in relation to your point about sustainable farming, certainly the steps we're taking to bring forward the White Paper, to which I referred to in an earlier answer to Llyr Huws Gruffydd, absolutely has that at its core.
In relation to your substantive point, we are looking at how local planning authorities plan for new poultry developments, as you know, and we've convened the town and country planning intensive agricultural working group. The group has met three times to date. It was due to meet back in March and, obviously, work has been slightly delayed, but I can assure you that, following the current emergency-related responses, dialogue with advisers on this issue will recommence as a matter of urgency.
6. How is the Welsh Government supporting the agricultural sector in mid Wales? OQ55487
Thank you. Farmers within mid Wales have received basic payment scheme payments totalling over £84.3 million. In addition to this, the Welsh dairy support scheme was also available, which has paid over £900,000 to date. Our Farming Connect service has continued to support farmers, providing advice and online training, whilst also having the ability for support on the phone during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Many farmers will not ask for help or support with mental health issues, for a number of known reasons, but I was interested in seeing a recent survey by Tir Dewi, the charity, on farming in Powys specifically. As well as identifying the many reasons why farmers would not access that kind of support, for reasons I'm sure you and I would be familiar with, 58 per cent said they didn't know what support was available. So, I do wonder what you are doing in terms of liaising with your colleague the health Minister to ensure that mental health services reach farming communities in rural Wales, such as in my constituency in Montgomeryshire, because, as we know, many in the agricultural sector do work in isolation and this is a significant, significant issue.
You're absolutely right and you make a very good point about people not asking for help when it's really needed. It's very disappointing to hear a figure of 58 per cent and it's certainly not the sort of figure that I would have thought it would be. I meet regularly with the charities that help with mental health issues and support in relation to agriculture. I'm sure the Member's aware that we gave additional funding to the DPJ Foundation, for instance, to help them train people to assist farmers. So, it is really concerning that that figure is something that you think is apparent because I'm very surprised, because, again, over the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an increase in the number of people that have accessed the mental health helplines that have been put in place by those charities, including the DPJ Foundation and Tir Dewi. But when I next attend—. There's a group of all the charities that my officials meet with regularly, and one of the benefits of meeting online and virtual meetings is that you can access them much easier, and I certainly attended I think two or three over the past few months, but it is something that I will highlight again. But I do think, through our Gwlad newsletter, through our Farming Connect service, we do make sure that farmers are aware of the help and assistance available, and I would urge them to ask for help when they need it.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the accuracy of Wales's flood maps? OQ55515
Diolch. Natural Resources Wales are responsible for maintaining and updating Wales's flood maps. No model can be 100 per cent accurate, but the maps are constantly refined as new data and methodology become available. New flood maps will be launched alongside our national flood strategy this autumn, followed by a new flood map for planning in 2021.
Well, thank you for that response, but in dealing with casework recently I came to realise that 90 per cent of Welsh rivers do not have the gauges to measure water flow in those rivers. Now, that's the data that's being used to produce these maps across Wales, and it's those maps, of course, that are the basis for a number of planning decisions in all parts of Wales and a number of decisions as to whether people can access insurance for their homes or their businesses. But if the original data isn't robust or, for many parts of Wales, simply isn't available, then there's a risk that those far-reaching decisions are made on an erroneous basis.
Now, are you confident, therefore—and that's my question—are you confident, with the flow of 90 per cent of Wales's rivers not being monitored, that there is adequate data to create reliable flood maps in Wales? And if you are not, then what are you doing to tackle that situation? Because, with such a lack of data, the risk is that what we see NRW doing, essentially, is to put a finger in the air.
I will certainly go back to ensure that that is not the case. Currently, we've got the development advice map, and that's going to be replaced by the flood map for planning. So, it's really important, as you say, that that new system is based on absolutely the best data that we could possibly have. I've provided full funding support to NRW and to local authorities, along with my colleague Julie James, to create the new national asset database and the Wales flood map product. So, it is absolutely vital that the data is correct. So, I will certainly go back and check that that is the case.
8. Will the Minister outline how the Welsh Government plans to assess the success of the Rural Development Grants programme? OQ55502
The Welsh Government has committed to a comprehensive evaluation plan for the rural development programme. Work is ongoing to assess the impact and outcomes from individual schemes, and the RDP as a whole will also be evaluated against each of its agreed priorities.
Minister, you'll be very aware that the 'Ensuring Value for Money from Rural Development Grants Made Without Competition' Audit Wales report, published in June, has damningly concluded that the Welsh Government awarded £53 million of rural development funds without ensuring the grants would deliver value for money. Amongst other findings, the report also found that the Welsh Government made individual grant awards without demonstrating enough consideration of value for money and gave additional funds to existing projects without finding out whether or not they were truly successful.
Now, on 8 September, the Welsh Government, very welcomely, made a further slew of RDG funds available. So, Minister, my question is: what faith can we have that the new wave of RDG spending will be effective when it remains clear that requisite checks and balances surrounding accountability do not appear to exist?
Thank you. Officials have acknowledged the approach to testing value for money for a number of historic RDP projects did not represent best practice and, as part of our ongoing review of delivery of the RDP, officials had already identified the issues that were described by the audit office Wales in the report that you spoke about, and had already taken action to remedy them. The report's conclusions provided helpful guidance to ensure that all the necessary actions have been implemented.
As the report made very clear, the issue is that value for money was not properly tested in the appraisal of projects, and all those projects have been reviewed to ensure they do, in practice, deliver value for money. Audit Wales included anonymised case studies, so I don't want to undermine the delivery of these projects by setting out exactly which projects they are. Though, of course I and my officials do recognise the need for appropriate scrutiny of them at the right time and in the right setting, and officials will be giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee to provide evidence in respect of the approach taken to the assessment of value for money through the RDP. But as I said, that work had already started before the audit office report, which then helped us with the announcement as to what projects we would support in the next tranche of funding with the RDP projects.
9. What assessment has the Minister made of the implications for the food and farming sector in Wales of the UK Government not being able to secure an EU trade deal? OQ55483
Thank you. Since the announcement of the referendum result in June 2016, I've been working with members of my round-table stakeholder group to consider all possible scenarios, including leaving on World Trade Organization terms. We continue to examine the options for supporting these key sectors should we leave the EU without a free trade agreement.
Thank you, Minister. I've got absolutely no doubt that you're working every hour of the day to make sure that we do have, and we do put the pressure on the UK Government to secure, a good trade deal for the benefit of Wales as well as for the rest of the UK, but, during a visit to a farm in mid Wales last week, a UK Government Minister, Mr Jayawardena, was reported as saying he was confident that trade will indeed continue with the EU, we weren't to worry, and optimistically added that good deals—good deals—would be struck worldwide with other countries, including with the USA.
So, bearing in mind that we now know the UK Government is making preparations for an Australian-style trade deal with the EU—in other words a no trade deal on WTO terms—which will utterly devastate our sheep and lamb farmers and other sectors in Ogmore and across Wales, and that the same Government's reckless threat to break international law means that not only smaller countries but the US itself may put the untrustworthy UK Government to the back of the queue in trade deals, was Boris Johnson's Minister talking sense on his day trip to mid Wales or was he talking through his hat?
You will have heard me say in earlier answers that myself and my Scottish counterpart were accused of having a 'glass half empty' attitude towards this, but, clearly, it is a matter of huge concern, as we're now only 15 weeks away from the end of the EU transition period. But, while there's still the chance of a deal with the EU, my officials will continue to work very closely with the UK Government. We made that very clear at the meeting on Monday with the DEFRA Secretary of State and other Ministers. It's really important that they share all the information they can with us so that we know exactly what talks are being undertaken. Obviously, my colleague Eluned Morgan leads on the trade talks for Welsh Government, and I know that, while the negotiations with the rest of the world might offer some opportunities, it's the EU that is still our most significant market by some margin. So, for me and for all my ministerial colleagues, we've made it very clear that that should be the UK Government's immediate focus.
I thank the Minister.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and the first question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister and is to be asked by Jenny Rathbone.
1. What strategy is the Welsh Government applying to city and town centre planning decisions so that its carbon emission reduction targets are taken into account? OQ55517
National planning policy states that our carbon targets are material in the planning process. They also apply the town-centre first approach that retail and commercial developments should be located in our town and city centres. Creating greener and cleaner communities is an integral part of our transforming towns work.
I fully support that statement, and thank you for that, but obviously the landscape is changing incredibly quickly. The pandemic has exposed many fissures in the town and city centres that we have designed, which no longer look fit for purpose. It isn't just that office jobs can be done from home as easily as in the town centre—and people like the Principality Building Society have already said they need less office space for their headquarters operations—but it's also that we need to create more space for walking and cycling to enable people to leave the car at home as well as to improve public transport lanes.
Equally, more people are buying online, which was happening anyway, but now, with the pandemic, people are less likely to actually want to go and buy whatever it is they need in a shop, and the speculative investment in purpose-built student accommodation now looks like a very risky speculative investment. But all these things have already generated carbon emissions in their creation, so I wondered what your view is about the 15-minute concept of planning decisions, which is being applied not just in Paris and Milan, but also in cities like Doncaster and Cambridge, to ensure that all the everyday services that people need are within 15 minutes of where they live. So—
That's—. You're out of time on your question, so you've asked your question now.
Okay. Thank you very much. So, how are the planning regulations keeping pace with the need to repurpose redundant office and shopping spaces, create more dedicated walking and cycling paths, and, specifically, your response to what look like empty purpose-built student accommodation investments?
I thank Jenny Rathbone for that comprehensive question, which covers a range of important issues, many of which perhaps were there in the background prior to the pandemic, but certainly the need to address them has been accelerated as a consequence.
In terms of foreseeing some of the challenges ahead and how we need to do things differently, 'Building Better Places' was published before the summer, and it looks at many of the issues that the Member raises in her question. I think the issue of this 15-minute city concept is certainly a very interesting one, and one that, actually, needs to be explored, not just in terms of our work in terms of planning but across Government in all the levers at our disposal.
So, it's going to take—in terms of the transforming towns work, all the issues that we announced when we announced that work and the town-centre first approach in January, they were there anyway, but I think the need to address them has become all the more important and all the more vital. So, there are things we can do in terms of actually some radical decisions about some empty properties. Do we need to be bold and be brave and think we don't just purchase them to create more property or more building space, but actually we create more green space in our town and community centres to better connect them?
So, it's something that—. Definitely, I think the Member raised a number of issues and things that we're exploring in actually how we look at town-centre approaches now, city centre approaches— that it's not just about the bricks and mortar, it's about the whole experience in terms of actually not just the energy efficiency of buildings, but actually how it applies in what we're finding is the new normal in terms of actually creating those flexible community hubs that can combine a range of public, private and voluntary sector, but also how we link these and then make them more accessible to communities right across Wales. I'm more than happy to have a further conversation with the Member on her ideas in this area.
Minister, Jenny Rathbone makes some good points. The Welsh Government often talks about building back better after the pandemic, and I think that planning reform and changing the way that the planning system is used to encourage sustainability is all key to this. All applications should be carbon proofed.
I previously raised the issue of an application for an electric-car charging station adjacent to the River Wye in Monmouth, the gateway to Wales, an application that was turned down because it was determined to go against technical advice note 15 flooding guidance. The site is not being proposed for housing or industry and it's never actually flooded. That decision that has been taken is in the past, but it strikes me that electric charging, along with other green infrastructure, is something that we should be promoting through the planning system. Can you look at ways that the planning application system—and, indeed, the appeals system—can be reformed, so that green infrastructure is supported, and facilities such as electric-car charging are made far easier than at present, so that we do get that sort of sustainable green infrastructure in the future that towns like Monmouth in my constituency and other towns and areas across Wales badly need?
Can I thank Nick Ramsay for his question? The Member will be aware that I am unable to comment on individual applications but, more broadly, then, support for green infrastructure is included in 'Planning Policy Wales'. My colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government is nodding along to me how this is something that we are very keen to take forward as a Government, but also, in terms of actually the whole holistic approach to these things, if we're looking in terms of actually how we're going to tackle resource efficiency to reduce our carbon footprint. Because we know, actually, the goods and products we consume make up 45 per cent of emissions, so we're not going to get to where we need to be unless we tackle the way that we use and consume things. So, when we're looking now, working with local authority partners, in terms of the location of further reprocessing centres to enable us to make use of that high-quality recyclate that we already have in Wales, and to reprocess and reuse them again, to ensure that we can look actually at how we can locate them with other energy-efficient things such as increasing electric charging point infrastructure and also things like solar and other things as well. So, the Member raises a number of points that we are keen to explore and looking at, actually, some practical interventions in the short to medium term.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the work of the Town and Country Planning Intensive Agriculture Working Group? OQ55488
Thank you, Russell George. The group is examining how local planning authorities can plan for new agricultural developments like poultry sheds. It will advise on issues to be considered by development plan policies and the material considerations involved in determining the planning applications. Work has been delayed by the pandemic response but will be recommencing shortly.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. In my view, we are in urgent need of updated guidance in the form a technical advice note, simply to support local authorities in assessing planning applications for intensive poultry units or chicken sheds or IPUs—they've got different names. That's certainly the case in Powys, where I hope you will be aware there's been a significant increase in builds taking place—I was pleased that another Member raised this earlier with your colleague Lesley Griffiths. We do need that updated guidance because there's a very real concern over the effects of high phosphate levels from IPUs, issues around air pollution, water pollution and manure management plans. Now, you did write to me last week and, as you say, it seems to be that there won't be much action before early next year, but that, I would say, Minister, is disappointing. I suggest we do need more urgent action. What assurances can you give me, with timescales, on when we will see the necessary guidance in place?
Russell, I share your concern, and we are working—. It's really disappointing that the group, which was due to hold its fourth meeting in March, just before the lockdown, was not then able to go ahead. They are now going ahead, so obviously we want them to do their work as fast as possible; we want to get all the right information in place. At the moment, where planning permission is required for new poultry sheds, they do have to consider the economic benefits and the environmental impacts of the proposal, including the cumulative effect of the increasing number of developments. So, some of the things you mentioned are already in place, but I am absolutely aware that we need to look again at the issues around pollution of the water courses and so on. I'll be working with my colleague Lesley Griffiths on getting the balance right between farm diversification policies and environmental protection, which are the two competing aspects here. So, that's exactly what the group is looking at, with a view to then us reviewing planning policy in the light of their findings, and I assure you we have encouraged them to go as fast as possible.
We now turn to questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, we are likely to see long-lasting changes to the housing market following COVID-19, not necessarily always for the better. People who can afford it may now want to buy large houses with open space and gardens and one that doesn't have to be as close to the office, and that could cause many people to be priced out of their communities. In our rural communities that's likely to be experienced most, yet we still don't have an action plan to stop the scandal of second home owners exploiting loopholes to avoid paying extra council tax, and we still don't have a planning system that's capable of restricting second home ownership, holiday homes or Airbnb properties. Can I ask you, Minister, when we're going to see action to reform the planning system and give local authorities teeth to ensure the post-COVID housing market works for young people and our rural communities?
Thank you, Delyth. I share your concern about pricing local people out of the market, and it's not just in rural communities, that's actually in communities across Wales, as Wales becomes a very nice place to come and live. But there are three separate issues there that your question raises, it seems to me. The first is actually people who want to come and live and work in Wales, but who can afford better houses because they're perhaps relocating from a more expensive part of the United Kingdom. But those people are coming to Wales to live and become part of our communities, they're not second home owners; they're people coming here to become part of our communities. But, nevertheless, I think it's right to say that there's some evidence at the moment—anecdotal—that they're pushing prices up, and we certainly are aware of that and we are looking at that.
The second one is the issue about people buying a second home that they themselves want to use, and you'll be aware that, during the pandemic response, we reviewed the threshold for grant assisting people, so we are now looking to see whether we can review the threshold for swapping from community tax to business rates. So, we're actively looking at that at the moment. We'll be getting information back in from our local authorities about how many people were affected by the change, and whether that has any material effect on the numbers of people who are making the flip. That's not going to change the way that they use their homes, but it does change the amount of tax that they pay and so on, so we're looking at that. And I know that the First Minister had a meeting with your colleague and mine, Siân Gwenllian, earlier today, in which they had quite a robust discussion, I believe, and we—. I know that discussion centred on a number of things that can be done to allow local people to access affordable housing in their communities. Yesterday, during my statement, I offered Llyr a meeting, and I'm more than happy to take that forward. I know the First Minister met with Siân Gwenllian this morning. So I'm suggesting that we get a small group of us together who have similar concerns, and, as I said yesterday in the statement, we're not the repository of all good ideas, so we're very happy to explore it.
I really welcome that; thank you, Minister. And I'm sure that we will certainly be very keen to work with you and to see what solutions can be found. So, thank you for your answer on that.
Now, to turn to some remarks that you made a while back—I think it was shortly after you came to the portfolio. You'd referred to new estates that had come through the planning system as potentially creating problems for the future. At the time, I know that we as a party had agreed with you, and that there are several examples of how this issue is still a problem: just down the road from where you are now in the Senedd, flats can't be sold by their owners because of a refusal by the people who built the buildings to fix issues with them; the fraud of leasehold homes that only now is being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority; and the never-ending business sites across Wales, such as that in Coity in Bridgend, where the developer keeps getting permission to build more homes because the authority, as I understand it, is powerless to use their previous poor performance as a reason to refuse future permission.
Now, it would be one thing if the system were capable of delivering affordable homes, but the planning system ensures that, if an authority gets too big for its boots, the inspector can cut the amount of affordable homes to ensure that the guaranteed profits for large developers keep coming, and profits that we believe, in Plaid Cymru, should be subject to a windfall tax. So I'd ask, Minister, when the Government is going to clip the wings of the planning inspector and tell the planning inspector directly that it is Welsh Government policy to increase affordable homes—because I know that you do want to do so—and that they should not be rebuking local authorities who try to ensure that development is in the interests of the community and not the shareholders of the developers.
Thank you, Delyth. Again, you've ranged over a couple of issues there in your questions and comments. So, on the first one, of leaseholds, we've had the Law Commission's report now, and there are a number of things there that the UK Government needs to do, but there are some things that we can do. You'll be aware that we've already moved to stop leasehold sales in anything that the Welsh Government has supported with subsidy—so, in the Help to Buy schemes, for example—and that's been very effective in doing that. We are looking at ways of assisting leaseholders with changes to the rules, and so on, around how you acquire the freehold. But we are working in conjunction with the UK Government over the Law Commission's really comprehensive report, which is being worked through—it hasn't been out that long. So I share your concern about the sale of leasehold properties.
Actually, one of the other issues—and my colleague Ken Skates has had a working group looking into this—is not just where houses are sold as leasehold, but where people buy a freehold house, but then they discover that the management of their estate is part of a company, because actually the roads haven't been adopted. So one of the things we are looking at is an adoptable standard for roads right across Wales—it varies from authority to authority at the moment—and actually increasing the arm of local authorities in being able to negotiate that those roads and sewerage and water and all the rest of it are brought up to standard and adopted as part of the 106 procedure.
Then turning to the issue around affordable homes and what can be negotiated as part of that 106 procedure, I don't quite share your analysis of where the Planning Inspectorate is, but we are very concerned that the local authority is put into a strong position in terms of negotiating what contribution is necessary from the developer, both in terms of affordable homes and actually in terms of necessary infrastructure to support the housing development. Because we also don't want to see housing developments isolated away from facilities, with no active travel, no green infrastructure, and so on. So, there are a number of things in 'Planning Policy Wales' that are advancing that. Shortly, I will be bringing forward the national development framework for Wales—next week I think it is—into the Senedd. And you'll be aware that, as part of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, we're proposing regional arrangements to bring the strategic regional arrangements into place. All of those things will assist the local authorities in negotiating higher affordable housing targets. And the last thing I want to mention is that you'll know that we're also insisting that, on Welsh Government land—and I'm working with other public landowners to extend this—there is 50 per cent of affordable housing on all Welsh Government land that goes to housing now.
Thank you. And I know that some of this was ground that we covered yesterday, but I do welcome a lot of what you're saying. Now, as we've just seen from that exchange already, there's a lot that I think that our two parties do agree on: we agree that more affordable homes are needed throughout Wales; we agree that more social housing is needed; and that new estates should be supported by properly funded infrastructure, as you were just referring to. And we agree that they should be as estates built around the principles of active travel and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015—that they shouldn't be promoting car usage or require major changes to road networks.
But my office has seen correspondence from one planning department that ignores the remarks you made a year ago in this Chamber that the well-being of future generations Act should take precedence over local development plans produced prior to that Act. Our planning system in this regard, I'm afraid, just isn't fit for purpose. Isn't it time for the Welsh Government to take action and require planning departments to stop allowing developments devised under the old system to continue, and to ensure instead that any housing estates must be redesigned within the principles of the Welsh Government policy, regardless of when that land was first allocated for housing?
I'd be really grateful if you'd share the correspondence with me, so that I can see which authority we're talking about, because it may be that we can have an individual conversation with that authority.
The problem with the planning system—a plan-led system, which I absolutely believe in because without that you cannot have a local voice in what's allowed to be built in the local community, and I really do think that people should be allowed to have the community that they want locally—but the problem with the planning system is that it has a lag in it, because when you get planning consent you have permission to build whatever it is you've got consented for a long period of time, before it expires. And, actually, it's not possible or it's highly problematic to retrofit those consents, and that's a matter of some frustration to all of us. So, we still have new houses going up in Wales that don't have sprinklers in them because the particular development was started before that legislation.
So, in each of the improvements we've made more recently, we've tried very hard to make sure that, when the new regulation or requirement on planning comes in, it comes in almost immediately that the legislation is passed, but it is not possible to make it go backwards. So, if you've got consent, you've got consent. And that's one of the frustrations, because we do have things still being built to old spec that would not now get planning consent. So, I share your frustration.
What we've been trying to do there though is to have a conversation with those house builders about not doing that, because they don't have to do that. They can apply to change the planning consent and we've been offering assistance with doing that. And, actually, I'm pleased to say that I met with one of the very biggest house builders most recently and they've changed their attitude completely and have been talking to me about how they might do that on some of their developments. So, it does show that if you show the way then people will come along that path with you because they can see that it's worth doing. There are some rays of light, but I share your frustration with the lag that the planning system necessarily sets up.
Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Sorry. The Welsh Government's recently revised household projection figures show, for example, a smaller rise in Flintshire than previously projected and a fall in Wrexham, although the number of single-parent households and single-person households are still projected to increase in both.
When I wrote asking you what effect this will have on the expected future housing build figures and types within local authority local development plans or LDPs, you replied that there's not a simple correlation between the Welsh Government's household projections and local planning authorities' housing requirements as set out in LDPs, and that the projections should be considered alongside an authority's latest assessment of the need for both market and affordable housing in their area. However, councils such as Wrexham and Denbighshire have previously been forced to include higher housing figures in their LDPs based on the Welsh Government's preceding projections. How, therefore, do you expect to see the new projections reflected in developing LDP revisions?
Yes. So, as the letter points out, Mark, it's neither a target nor a guide; it is based on the statistical projections that we have. And the local authorities have a set of guidance that they are supposed to take into account around local arrangements that they should put in place to develop their LDP. You'll know that we suspended the five-year future housing projection some time ago as a result of that, because we thought that for the growing number of planning authorities in Wales who don't have an existing LDP, they were causing serious problems with speculative planning applications around their edges. So, we've assisted local authorities in doing that, and we do expect them to come forward with their own proper projections based on the local information that you've just outlined, for example, for Flintshire, although I'm not going to be making comments on individual authorities here.
Well, I hope you're therefore confirming that if their figures conflict with yours, and that's evidence based, that that might take priority, unlike their past experience. But letters from you and your department to Flintshire council over years state, quote
'It is extremely disappointing that your authority has submitted a further request to extend the time taken to prepare your Local Development Plan, especially in the light of previous assurances.'
The Local Authorities (Coronavirus) (Meetings) (Wales) Regulations 2020 make temporary provision for the conduct of local authority meetings safely, effectively and lawfully while retaining the principles of openness and accountability. However, concerns have been expressed to me that Flintshire is, and I quote, 'closing down its plan', and that although arrangements have been made to provide councillors with briefing sessions on the LDP, and members have asked for the conclusion to the consultation on the deposit version, they've been told that the contents and LDP statement are not up for discussion, and it appears that the officers' version will be all that is on the table. What, therefore, is your expectation as the Minister in such circumstances?
So, Mark, I'm not in a position to discuss the ins and outs of the LDP process for a particular council at this point in time, but I'd very much welcome a meeting with you separately if you want to go through specific concerns about one individual council. And you'll know that, mostly, the matters of the LDP are a matter for the council, but until you give me the specifics, I'm not able to really comment at this point on an individual council's process towards its LDP.
Okay. Well, moving on: letters sent by your chief planner to local authority heads of planning from 27 March provided helpful guidance on how local planning authorities maintain services during the pandemic. These stated, for example, that those breaches of planning control that would merit the use of a stop notice or temporary stop notice require immediate attention from the local planning authority. Site visits in such cases are essential travel, and site visits, either in relation to posting site notices or for the purpose of assessing and analysing site conditions, including enforcement, cannot be undertaken from home, so are a reasonable excuse to travel for the purpose of the coronavirus regulations carried out in compliance with the requirements of the regulations. How, therefore, do you respond to the several constituents in Flintshire, but only in Flintshire, who have reported separate unauthorised developments, and then copied me on council responses stating that, quote,
'Within the planning service, officers were prevented from carrying site visits out to comply with Welsh Government guidance',
or making equivalent statements?
Well, again, Mark, if you want to share with me the specifics of such complaints, then I'll be able to address them, but that's not something I'm able to address here from the despatch box on the floor of the Senedd. So, if you want to raise those individual issues with me outside here, I'm more than happy to look at them for you.
3. What assessment has the Minister made on the effect that COVID-19 restrictions are likely to have on affordable home-building targets? OQ55512
Thank you, David. Providing people with a safe, warm and secure home remains a key priority for this Government. We are making good progress on our commitment to provide 20,000 additional affordable homes. The pandemic has had some impact on house building, but we remain confident that we will meet the ambitious target.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. So, we've got six months to go and, by my calculations, there's a lot of ground to make up. And I think it's very important that, as we are looking at the need for even more social housing, for example, as our experience of how we dealt with the homelessness crisis, and those roofless on the streets—. And I think that we do need candour so that parties preparing for the next election can look at what would be a reasonable target for the next Welsh Government to set. And I say this in the expectation that you probably won't now be able to meet the 20,000 target, and there are reasons for that; it's not a sanction I would apply against you. But we do need candour so that we can plan effectively, because housing at last, right across the UK, and the need for much more house building, seems to climbing up to the top of the agenda.
Actually, I really do think we will meet the 20,000 target. What we won't now do is exceed it, which we were hoping to do before the pandemic. But we are still confident that we will get to the 20,000. Actually, as I say, we had ambitions to go beyond that prior to the pandemic.
I'm quite happy to share some of the figures that I have with you, because they're useful planning tools. So, we would need to build somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 social homes a year across the whole of the term of the next Welsh Parliament in order to meet the current demand arising from people in emergency or temporary accommodation and what we know of the pipeline of those individuals who might come forward. So, that's a planning tool of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000.
A more ambitious one would, of course, do something more—it would start allowing people who want social housing, but who are not currently in that kind of accommodation, to access it, and a more ambitious target again might allow people who would like to access social housing, but have no hope whatsoever of getting to the top of any kind of priority need tree, to get it. But the baseline is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 over the next Assembly term. And I share that with you because I very much hope that all parties in the Assembly will have that ambition, because we need it to make sure that people have the warm, safe, comfortable homes that they richly deserve.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the local government budget in light of COVID-19? OQ55496
Diolch, Llyr. Budget provision for local government has been increased significantly in 2020-21 to support local authorities to respond to the impacts of COVID-19. I announced the extension of the local authority hardship fund to £497 million over the recess.
Thank you very much for that response. The assurance has been given with regard to the first quarter. I just want clarity that that will follow in the second quarter of this financial year. But, of course, a number of local authorities are planning their budgets for next year and some of them are considering departmental cuts. So, I ask you whether there is any guidance or message that you can give this afternoon to those authorities in planning their budgets to ensure that they won't be cutting a great many of the key services that are currently available and at a time when they will be needed most.
So, on the second quarter point, I can absolutely tell you that we will be paying—the hardship fund runs right through the second quarter, and we've made that clear to local authority treasurers, chief executives and leaders in our weekly contact, which is still going on.
In terms of the planning assumptions, we have started—we're all way behind on where we should be normally in terms of budget planning, which may not be a surprise. We've been a bit distracted by the pandemic, obviously, and just keeping services going. I would just take this opportunity to pay tribute to our local authority partners, who have absolutely pulled out the stops and been quite tremendous in staffing our community hubs, helping with our shielding programme and now our public sector-based TTP programme. We really could not have done this unless they had stepped up to that plate. And so, we wanted to make sure that they didn't have additional money worries while they were doing that and that they could keep carrying on with essential services. So, the homelessness example is a good one there. So, we could have put a lot of money into homelessness, but if we'd cut the housing budget or not kept it where it was, then it would just have been dissipated. But we didn't do that; we kept the funding up and we've given them the additional funding.
So, on the planning assumptions, we've just started to talk to them about what we're expecting by way of a reasonable worst-case scenario, a break-even and so on, and that's tied up, of course, with the UK Government's comprehensive spending review, which they're now talking about.
And so, we hope—and I understand the Llywydd has had some discussion with my colleague, Rebecca Evans, on this—that we'll be able to halt the normal budget timescale for the Senedd, but it does depend on the comprehensive spending review going ahead as planned and us understanding what comes out of that before we can pass it on to our partners. But we will be working with them in a co-production way to understand what the base assumptions look like and what are the various types of planning. So, if we all plan for 1 per cent cut, what would that mean for services, or if we all plan for break even, and so on, as we do? It is, though, more compressed this year than we would normally expect.
Thank you, Minister. I'd just like to start by saying that the latest announcement of money for local government, of course, is very welcome. Credit where credit is due—I think the fact that it's going to be given out on a claims basis is a great idea. I just wanted to know if the Minister can just give us confidence today that claims will be fairly assessed, given that some smaller councils, like Monmouthshire, have been disproportionately hit because of the unfair funding formula, which has, over the years, reduced their reserves to low levels, while other, better-funded councils have built up massive reserves of over £100 million, for example.
So, I don't recognise that description of the funding formula at all. Actually, the treasurer of Monmouth—[Interruption.] I can't hear what the Member on the screen is saying, Llywydd.
Could we have some silence for the Minister to be heard by everybody, please?
I had a very good meeting with the chief executive and the chief treasurer of Monmouth, alongside the leader, very recently to discuss the prospects for Monmouthshire. We are very aware that the pandemic has hit councils in a different way, and, absolutely, we are working with those councils to understand what that looks like. So, in the case of Monmouthshire, for example, it has a much heavier reliance on the collection of council tax than other councils elsewhere, and a heavier reliance on fees and income charges. So, in some ways, they do better out of the hardship fund than other authorities. So, we are very much doing that, and that's why it is a claims basis, so that we can work with individual authorities to understand the impact in that authority.
Obviously, the distribution formula is done via the mechanism that involves all councils, and, actually, the treasurer of Monmouth is a very active member of that group.
5. How is the Welsh Government supporting households on a low income to make improvements to their property? OQ55489
Welsh Government initiatives such as the Warm Homes programme, the Welsh housing quality standard and optimised retrofit programme support our ambition for everyone to have a decent home that is affordable, warm, safe and secure.
Thank you, Minister. Since 2011-12, the Welsh Government has been providing financial assistance for household improvements via Nest. Now, this scheme has been in decline since 2015-16, with fewer households seeing improvements through the scheme each year. The numbers are down from 6,000 in 2015-16 to 3,800 in 2018-19. While the Welsh Government is winding down assistance with property improvements, the UK Government, on the other hand, has launched a green homes grant scheme, which should see over 600,000 homeowners in England supported. Will you commit to working with the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs so as to be bold and to create a Welsh green homes grant scheme to support low-income households in Wales so that they can afford improvements here?
Well, Janet, you won't be at all surprised to find that I don't share your analysis at all. You are obviously aware that the Nest scheme is not my portfolio; it is actually in my colleague Lesley Griffiths's portfolio. But, since 2011, more than 61,400 households in Wales have benefited from our Warm Homes programme, which supports people living on lower incomes to improve their home energy efficiency and save money. Between April 2017 and March 2021, we will have invested £104 million in the Warm Homes programme to improve up to another 25,000 homes.
We've also recently launched, through my portfolio, our optimised retrofit programme, which will support the retrofitting of 1,000 existing social homes this financial year. That's not very many, but it's the format of it that matters. The reason that we are doing that is because we disagree with the UK Government around the way that they've done the green homes initiative because one size simply does not fit all. It's quite obvious that the way to retrofit a Victorian stone terrace in the Rhondda is not the way that you would retrofit a 1970s cavity wall-built house in my constituency, for example. So, what we've done with our optimised retrofit programme is we are supporting social landlords who have every single type of house in Wales in their portfolio to come forward with a variety of technologies and schemes that will raise those houses from the Welsh housing quality standard that have already achieved C up to A. We will be able to see what works, and then we will be able to roll those programmes out so that what works for each house is available, rather than just a blanket one-size-fits-all programme that, frankly, will not work.
6. How does the Welsh Government plan to ensure local authorities are equipped to enforce local lockdowns? OQ55513
Thank you, Caroline. Environmental health officers have the power to issue fixed-penalty notices or recommend prosecution. They can issue premises improvement or closure notices for breaches of the coronavirus regulations and, from 14 September, they can close premises, events or public places on public health grounds. The police also have enforcement powers if people don't respond to the environmental health officers.
Thank you, Minister. The sad truth is that COVID-19 continues to spread, and far too many people are failing to take this disease seriously, leading to unfortunately inevitable local flare-ups of infections. The only way that we can combat this in a fair and balanced way is to impose hyperlocal restrictions. Local government, already stretched thin before this pandemic, are now expected to impose and enforce lockdown measures. Minister, what additional resources are you providing to partners in local authorities to ensure that they can cope with challenges such as ensuring pubs are adhering to social distancing rules and are collecting contact information to aid our track, trace and protect efforts? Thank you.
Again, I want to put on record my thanks to local authorities and their staff who have worked really hard throughout the pandemic to make sure that essential services keep running and to deliver the additional services that they've been delivering for us across Wales in terms of all of the things I mentioned in one of my previous answers.
I just want, Llywydd, to reassure Members as well that the COVID control plan sets out a clear command, co-ordination and communication structure for managing incidents and outbreaks, including the need for any kind of local arrangements. The arrangements are in place and active now and on a daily rhythm for current incidents and include local authorities fully. So, we have had a range of meetings, you won't be surprised to discover, over the last two days, around Caerphilly, Merthyr, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Newport, et cetera.
The regional local resilience fora provide for further effective communication and co-ordination between all partners, and there are effective mutual aid arrangements between local authorities in place. So, a local authority that finds itself in a position where it's having a spike in coronavirus will be able to get assistance from other local authorities and their environmental health officers, and that's been working really well.
My officials have also asked local authorities to provide information through the regional local resilience fora structures on what more is needed and what can be delivered so that we can provide financial support in the most straightforward way. We have recently agreed with authorities affected by the current spiking that additional money can be made available either through the TTP process or through the hardship fund in order for them to be able to recruit more enforcement officers or to assist other authorities to recruit them. And you will know that there's been much more enforcement activity in my constituency, in part of your region, recently as a result of that, because the local authorities are very aware of that.
We are assured by local authorities that they are in the game for that and that they're doing that piece of work, and, indeed, I have a meeting with them later on this week and another early next week in order to discuss that.
7. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's response to its call for evidence on estate charges on housing developments? OQ55506
Yes, thank you, Hefin. We've had all the responses in and we're in the process of preparing a summary of those responses, and I hope to be able to publish it later this autumn.
Can I emphasise the importance of publishing those responses? Throughout lockdown it's been very difficult for residents in Cwm Calon estate in Ystrad Mynach to get any progress with particularly the estate management company Meadfleet, who have effectively cut off residents. They still take their money, they do a bit of work, but they don't want to engage with residents in any meaningful way. Residents are sick of them, to be honest with you. Redrow own part of the estate. It's very difficult to get work done there, although Redrow are engaging better, and Caerphilly council are doing the work as much as they can in the light of the restrictions that we are living under. There is no redress, and there remains no redress for residents who are in freehold to make a complaint on this issue. That remains the case, and we are desperate for action to take place.
I commend you, Minister, in the work that you have done on this and seriously engaging with residents across Wales in similar situations. The sooner we can get the evidence published the better, and the sooner we can make progress on this the better. So, I really wanted to say, Minister, please keep this on the agenda and, as soon as possible, can we make progress on this issue?
Yes, Hefin, I'm very well aware of the difficulties in a number of constituencies. Yours is particularly badly hit, I know, and we've had a number of meetings and a site visit at one point, I remember, and a number of other things on this. There are a few things that are also happening. So, we'll publish the results of our call for evidence shortly, and then we'll be able to look at what the programme going forward might be. I'm very encouraged by the fact that the Competition and Markets Authority investigation is rolling on, and I just said in response to an earlier question that we're very pleased that it's bringing people to the table who otherwise wouldn't have been brought to the table. So, it may be that people are more willing to talk once the investigation proceeds.
Also, we're currently investigating whether Wales should sign up to the new homes ombudsman arrangements, and, subject to a piece of work that my officials are doing, we may be able to recommend that we do that. Through Rebecca Evans, my colleague, I'll be asking the Llywydd to consider whether we can get something onto the floor of the Senedd once we've completed that piece of work. So, there are things going on, Hefin, but I do appreciate the amount of work that it's been for you and your office, and the concerns of your constituents, and we very much hope to be able to do something swiftly once we've got that piece of evidence in place.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on regulations relating to houses of multiple occupation in Wales? OQ55507
Thank you, Mick. Legislation governs the licensing, management, planning and classification of houses of multiple occupation—or HMOs, as they're known—and the registration and licensing of landlords and letting agents. The primary legislation relating to HMOs is the Housing Act 2004, which introduced mandatory and additional licensing, and the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which introduced landlord and agent registration and licensing.
Minister, you'll be aware that I've raised this issue with you on many occasions. We've had many discussions on this and I know that you share my view that the character and sustainability of communities must not be put at risk by the proliferation of HMOs. Treforest in my constituency is one such community. Local councillor Steve Powderhill and I have opposed many applications, but too often the regulations do not provide any real protection. Recently, we opposed an application for a pub to be converted into an HMO only to discover that converted existing buildings are not covered by the legislation in the way that new-build applications are. I wonder, Minister, if you'd be willing to attend a virtual meeting with myself, local residents and the local councillor to discuss how regulations can and need to be tightened to better protect communities such as Treforest and others in Wales.
Yes, Mick, I'm more than happy to attend such a meeting. In fact, I've already attended meetings such as that with a number of other authorities that have large concentrations of HMOs. Llywydd, I am wondering whether to get a group of AMs together across the Senedd who are affected by this—Aberystwyth, I know, has some of the issues, certainly my constituents in Swansea do, Pontypridd does and there are a number of towns across Wales that have universities in them that have this particular problem. So, I'm very happy to attend that meeting, Mick, but I think there may be a reason to get a number of AMs who I know have an interest in this area together so that we can discuss some of the solutions. I can see a lot of nodding around the Chamber.
A nodding Llywydd here, as well, as it happens. A nodding Llywydd here as well, representing Aberystwyth.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is empowering town councils in north-east Wales? OQ55479
Town councils have been and continue to be an important part of the COVID-19 response and recovery. The Welsh Government is supporting town councils to exercise their current powers to make a difference for their local communities and is taking through legislation to give the sector a wider range of powers, provided certain conditions are met. We are also seeking to further empower town councils through access to Welsh Government funding schemes and our Transforming Towns work.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Town and community councils play a vital role in supporting their communities and the Government should do all it can to empower them. A particularly good example of this great work is the work done by Pen-y-ffordd Community Council in my own constituency. The council are very keen to ensure that their community's voice is heard in the development of Welsh Government planning policy. Deputy Minister, can I invite you and the Minister responsible for planning, Julie James, to come and visit Pen-y-Ffordd and hear first-hand from the community?
We could go on a tour, Julie.
I thank the Member for his question, and as he rightly says, there are a number of very hard-working and very effective town and community councils that not only have gone above and beyond in the past six months, but are very embedded in the communities in terms of the work that they do to make a difference, day in, day out, in those communities.
The first thing to say—and I'm sure the councillors of Pen-y-Ffordd will be well into this already—is that Flintshire County Council are currently going through the LDP process, so it's really important that the community council fully represent the voices of their constituents in their patch during this process. I'm advised also that the community council did input into and comment on the last revision of 'Planning Policy Wales', and whilst that revision has taken place, I'm more than happy to have that conversation, not just around planning, because I think there are other ways in which we can better work with community town councils to empower—for example in line with the Transforming Towns work, in terms of the town centre adaptations. And I know, right across Wales, town councils have come forward with proposals that local authorities have then progressed, because they're there on the ground, understanding, perhaps, what needs to be done on their doorstep.
But also things like the circular economy fund, which, this time, was for public sector bodies—so, not just local authorities. It's been opened to town and community councils as well, and I'm hoping that we'll be able to see some examples of, actually, how they could be shared and spread out in the future too.
Neil McEvoy isn't present to ask his question 10. Question 11—Paul Davies.
Question 10 [OQ55490] not asked.
11. What discussions has the Minister had with the local authority in Pembrokeshire regarding the future delivery of public services? OQ55518
Thank you, Paul. I've discussed the future of public services with all local government leaders, formally and informally, throughout the pandemic. I continue to work closely with leaders as we strive to keep citizens safe, protect the vulnerable and learn the lessons to deliver more agile and digitalised services in the future.
Thank you for that response, Minister. Of course, it's absolutely crucial that people across Wales are able to access their local authority when they need to, and that's in a time of national crisis. In order to ensure the efficient delivery of public services, people need to be able to speak and communicate with their local authority. Now, sadly, figures from May 2017 to February 2020 showed that a staggering 220,000 phone calls made to Pembrokeshire council were either abandoned, with the caller ringing off, or, in some cases, not being answered at all. In the circumstances, Minister, do you agree with me that this level of disconnect between people and their local authority is unacceptable? Therefore, what further steps can the Welsh Government take to ensure that local authorities across Wales are accessible and responding to local people's concerns and issues?
I'm not aware of the particular incidence you mention there, Paul, and if you want to tell me about that more specifically, I'm happy to look at it for you. But, in general, we've been working hard with local authorities throughout the pandemic to make sure that their services can continue in a digitalised and remote form. Most local authorities have stepped up to that plate very well. So, the very large numbers of local authority personnel who've been, for example, delivering the community hub service have been doing it largely from their homes with good equipment. We've made sure that local authorities are able to support their IT infrastructures in that way, and we've worked very hard with them to do that. As you know, we also passed regulations, through the Senedd, enabling fully digital meetings to take place, and authorities have stepped up to that as well, and they have been doing their meetings in that remote access, digital way, in a way that the Senedd led the way on.
As far as I'm aware, Pembrokeshire has done all of those things as well; I've not heard any reports otherwise. And, indeed, actually, local authority leaders were telling me only very recently that they think that's been working very well and they're asking us to make those regulations permanent so that they can continue to work in that or, more likely, a hybrid way in the way that we're currently working, going forward. But on the specific point that you mention, if you want to raise that with me, I'm very happy to look at it; I'm not aware of it myself.
Finally, question 12, Mark Isherwood.
12. Will the Minister make a statement on the governance arrangements for local government during the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55499
Thank you, Mark. In April, emergency regulations were made to give local government the flexibility to continue to conduct business through virtual meetings during this unprecedented situation. Underpinning these regulations is the need to operate legally and safely—safe for members, safe for staff, and safe for individual members of the public.
Thank you. What action have you taken since the Audit Wales article in July on local council democracy coming out of lockdown, which found that since Welsh Government regulations on 22 April enabled councillors to resume their roles in decision making and holding each other to account, the rate at which democratic structures had returned had varied across Wales? By the end of June, several councils were yet to reintroduce cabinet meetings and were still relying on emergency powers to take decisions. In some councils, there was no comprehensive record available online of the decisions taken since lockdown, making it difficult for the public to see and understand the decisions their council had taken during lockdown and who was accountable for them. The formal scrutiny of decisions and services hadn't yet been reinstated in many councils, and only half of councils would have held virtual meetings of their scrutiny committees by the middle of July. They said that
'Effective scrutiny is a key component of good, transparent decision-making, and an essential pillar of the democratic process.'
The emergency regulations have obviously enabled vital business to continue and have supported the really heroic efforts made by most local authorities to combat the pandemic. Obviously, the regulations have made it possible for those who would otherwise not have been able to participate in meetings, due to the need for shielding, for example, to continue to do so. Obviously, most council chambers wouldn't have been able to support any kind of social distancing or COVID-19-secure working. So, as a result of that, it forced us to look really hard at the way we deliver services and the way we communicate with each other, and we've seen a really good effort, I think, from most local authorities to do that.
My officials have been in touch with local authorities across Wales in the last three or four weeks to understand where the challenges are, and there are challenges, of course. In some local authorities, there are specific challenges around broadband and so on, which I don't need to rehearse here in the Chamber, but which Members will be familiar with. There are issues in relation, in some cases, to equipment and levels of familiarity with remote communication, training issues and so on. But my officials are in touch with officials right across local government to understand those challenges and to ensure that all the arrangements are robust and in place.
I absolutely agree with you, Mark, that scrutiny is an absolutely essential part of the role that councillors play in any local democracy, and we've been specifically asking questions right across local government around when the scrutiny committees are able to meet, what the arrangements are to ensure that members have access to all of the right documents so that they can carry out their scrutiny function properly and that they've had access to training to enable them to do that. We've also asked local authorities who wish to go to a hybrid arrangement to conduct a robust risk assessment. We've actually cited the Commission as a good example of that, and we've agreed to assist them with those risk assessments should they wish. So, I seriously hope that that will have enabled all local authorities by the end of September to have conducted at least one round of scrutiny meetings, and we will be following it up with them afterwards.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the local coronavirus restrictions in Caerphilly borough and Rhondda Cynon Taf. I call on the Minister to make the statement—Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you for the opportunity to update Members today about the very latest situation affecting parts of south Wales. Over the last few weeks, we have seen a rise in the number of new cases of coronavirus in Wales overall and in four local authority areas in particular: in Caerphilly, in Merthyr Tydfil, in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Newport. This increase is largely being driven by people returning from holidays in continental Europe, where we have also seen higher rates of coronavirus in recent months, becoming infected with coronavirus and, crucially, as people start to socialise more and we see a reduction in adherence to social distancing. Unfortunately, as people have socialised more, they've forgotten to keep their distance from each other, making it easier for coronavirus to spread from one person to another. We've also seen an increase in house parties and at-home gatherings over the summer.
I published the Welsh Government coronavirus control plan last month. That sets out the range of actions that we would take to respond to local outbreaks and hotspots of coronavirus, should they arise. I'm pleased to report again that our contact tracing teams have worked exceptionally well over recent weeks to trace the contacts of more than 90 per cent of people who have tested positive and their close contacts. From this information, we've been able to identify clusters in these four local authority areas of concern, and with the addition of extra community testing, pinpoint the moment where we have seen community transmission begin in two of those authorities.
We reached that point in the Caerphilly County Borough Council area last week, and unfortunately, I have today had to announce we have also reached that point where we need to introduce local restrictions across Rhondda Cynon Taf. Llywydd, I'll focus the remainder of my statement on the reasons why we're taking action in Rhondda Cynon Taf, but I want to make it clear that we are working closely with local authorities in all areas where we see increased cases, and we review the situation daily about the need for additional measures.
The very latest figures, published this afternoon, show the rolling seven-day average of new cases rate is 82.1 per 100,000 people in Rhondda Cynon Taf. The seven-day rolling average for Rhondda Cynon Taf yesterday was 68.4. Yesterday's published positivity testing rate was 4.3 per cent; that has increased to 5.1 per cent in the data published today. That is the highest positivity rate in Wales.
Our contact tracing teams have been able to trace about half of the cases we are seeing back to a series of clusters in the borough. The rest are not linked to those clusters and suggest that we are now seeing evidence of community transmission. There are a number of clusters in Rhondda Cynon Taf, two of which are significant. One is associated with a rugby club and pub in the lower Rhondda and the other with a club outing to the Doncaster races, which stopped off at a series of pubs on the way. Just as in Caerphilly borough, we have seen a rapid increase in cases over a short period. These are mainly linked to people socialising without social distancing and meeting in each other's homes. We have also seen some cases linked, as I say, to people returning from overseas holiday.
The local authority in Rhondda Cynon Taf has been proactive in visiting premises throughout the borough over the last week in particular to check compliance with the law and the measures we all need to be taking to protect each other from coronavirus. These checks have resulted in improvement notices being served on seven supermarkets, which have now been complied with. A bar has been closed in Pontypridd after a series of breaches were captured on CCTV, a licensed premises was closed in Tonypandy and improvement notices served on another bar in Pontypridd and a barbers in Tonypandy. A further 50 licensed premises were visited by council officers over the weekend and more enforcement action, either in the form of improvement notices or closure orders, is likely to follow.
Taken together, this rapid rise in cases, with evidence of community transmission throughout Rhondda Cynon Taf and the evidence of non-compliance in many licensed premises across the borough, means that we need to introduce local restrictions in the area to control and, ultimately, reduce the spread of the virus and to protect people's health. As the cause of transmission is similar to what we have seen in Caerphilly, the restrictions will be similar. But action will also be taken to end the late-night opening of all licensed premises in Rhondda Cynon Taf. I want to be clear that we are seeing cases throughout the borough, meaning the restrictions must apply to the whole area.
From 6 o'clock on Thursday, tomorrow, people living in Rhondda Cynon Taf will not be allowed to enter or leave the Rhondda Cynon Taf Council area without a reasonable excuse, such as travel for work or education. People will only be able to meet outdoors for the time being. People will not be able to meet members of their extended household indoors or to form an extended household for the time being. All licensed premises will have to close by 11 o'clock in the evening, and everyone over 11 must, as in the rest of the country, wear face coverings in indoor places. We will keep these measures under constant review and they will be formally reviewed in two weeks' time.
In the week since local restrictions were introduced in the Caerphilly County Borough Council area, there are some grounds for cautious optimism. We have seen a small fall in both the seven-day rate of new cases and the positivity rate, although these do remain high. The police have reported very high levels of compliance with the restrictions, and I want to thank everyone living in the area for their help over the last week and for the support we've seen from public services right across the Caerphilly borough. It is only by working together that we will be able to reduce coronavirus, protect ourselves and our loved ones and to keep Wales safe.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. I think it is a slight variation on the statement that was issued earlier in the day, and so I look forward to reading the detailed statement that you've just given to Plenary this afternoon. I do notice that, in the remarks in the statement that was issued earlier and the one that you addressed to the Chamber, the word 'lockdown' was not used at all, yet if you go on to any social media platform or mainstream media, the word screaming out at you is that RCT has gone into 'lockdown'. I presume this is a deliberate change of language from the Minister and his officials, because most people associate the word 'lockdown' with, obviously, the national lockdown that happened in March, and obviously these new controls are nowhere near as severe as those introduced at the national lockdown. But I'd be grateful if you could clarify exactly why the word 'lockdown' hasn't been used by you, and if it is a word that the Welsh Government are trying to avoid, then what liaisons have you had with the media and other outlets to try and phrase the language so that people who are affected by these new restrictions can get first-class information and can adhere to the requests that you are making of them. Because, as you said in your statement, it's quite clearly down to personal responsibility and people responding to the requests—the virus has not gone away and there are actions that they need to take.
And with that first-class information that needs to be conveyed, I do regret that local Members were not taken into confidence about this announcement today. As I understand it, obviously Welsh Government chose to put itself up to the press conference last night, so I assume this announcement was, well in advance, considered by Welsh Government, and I think it would have been most helpful if local Members could have been taken into confidence or, if some local Members were taken into confidence, why not all local Members? Could you confirm who exactly did have a briefing prior to this announcement in the press conference at 12.30 p.m.? Two simple requests that have come into my office since this announcement: a lady who is enjoying a holiday in Tenby, for example, with her family now wonders whether she needs to be back in Aberdare before 6 o'clock tomorrow night. Well, clearly, I don't think that's the case because these are local restrictions. Another request that came in was about driving lessons and driving tests, because they're using the Merthyr test centre—would they be able to undertake the test now in Merthyr because they live in Aberdare. Those are just two very simple things for which, as a local Member, I certainly would have benefited from some form of briefing from officials so that I could have requested a more detailed briefing and understand it so that I could convey proper, sound information back to constituents, so that people don't end up falling foul through misinformation. I wonder whether such a briefing could be furnished in the coming days to local Members so that they can obviously assist their constituents.
I'd also like to try to understand—in your statement, you say that, in the next two weeks, the new restrictions will be reviewed. What will be the threshold that you will be looking for that would lighten the load on some of these restrictions and start a rollback from the RCT area to get back to, maybe, what other parts of Wales comply with at the moment? I think it's important that people understand, whilst these restrictions come in at 6 o'clock tomorrow night, what we are aiming for in the next two weeks and what the numbers are that you as a Minister and your officials will be looking at to make sure that that is the case.
My final request to you is: in England information obviously is power in making these decisions and, in England, it is published on a local authority basis on a weekly level and, especially by ward level, that information is made available in council areas. You go out here today into the Bay area and you see people enjoying the late-summer sun that we're enjoying at the moment, and you wouldn't say there was a care in the world, yet just a couple of miles from here, two areas are under severe restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak. Wouldn't it be a good use of information to make that available, as England do, on a ward-by-ward basis so people can understand the level of infection that is circulating in their community and can make sure that they are doing all they can to support their community in bearing down on this virus? If it can be done in England, why can't it be done in Wales? I hope you will give us a positive response in your answer.
Thank you for the questions. On the starting point about the terminology used, we're using the terminology that's set out in our coronavirus control plan. I accept completely that it's being reported as a local lockdown, just as Caerphilly was, and I actually don't think it makes a lot of sense for the Government to try to fight a battle to persuade the public or the media not to describe this in the way that they are already—in the way they've been described in Scotland and in England. These restrictions are all referred to by the public at large as 'local lockdowns'. I'm using the language that we've used in our coronavirus control plan, and it's not the same as the national lockdown we went into, but that is because we are trying to address the challenges that we see and that we face. Further measures are, of course, possible, and different measures are possible in different parts of the country. If the pattern of infection and the reason why cases are rising in different parts of Wales differ to those in Caerphilly or RCT, then we may well have different measures, should we need—and it's a 'should'—to introduce local restrictions in other parts of Wales.
The information is pretty clear, I think, on the restrictions. These are essentially the same measures as have been introduced in Caerphilly, together with a restriction on the opening hours of licensed premises. And that comes because there's evidence in RCT of pubs being a particular centre in the way that infections have been spread, but also more significant evidence of a range of licensed premises that have not been following the rules. It's a deliberate choice not to close every single licensed premises and prevent them all from opening at all, and that is because there is a range of premises that are following the rules, and we know that if people are drinking in a licensed premises, they're more likely to be monitored and behave differently, whereas if we encourage people to displace that activity outside pubs, then people are likely to carry on drinking at home and more likely to have people around into their homes, not just in breach of the new restrictions we've put in place, but we know consistently that it's contact in private dwellings that has led to the largest amount of coronavirus re-spreading.
In terms of the decision, there's been very little time in terms of the decision. The decision wasn't finally made and concluded until about 12.20 p.m. today, and I was then in the press conference at 12.30 p.m. I was expecting to send a slightly different message in the press conference on perhaps discussing some of the challenges we spent lots of time yesterday going through in this Chamber on testing. In the end, we've had to make a choice on local restrictions, and I do not think it would have been appropriate to have made that decision 10 minutes before the press conference, give an entirely different press conference, and then made a different statement shortly afterwards. And I did ensure that a statement was circulated to Members before, albeit literally a minute or two before I was on my feet in the press conference, and we made clear we had contact with the Presiding Officer's office to make sure I could attend today to give this oral statement and answer questions directly.
In terms of the guidance, you'll see, as I say, because the guidance relating to Caerphilly—it's very similar guidance for RCT, as I say, with the additional point about licensed premises. In the coronavirus control plan, we have a two-week review commitment, so we have to review the measures we've introduced today within two weeks, but there is a daily review of the position in each local authority. So, again, if we have intelligence of a need to introduce different measures, we may do that before the two-week review, but I expect it'll take a slightly longer period of time to see a sustained fall in numbers of new cases and, indeed, of the positivity rate in terms of those measures we'll be looking for before we look to reduce or remove the measures in place.
But, crucially, there's the local intelligence we'll also get from our test, trace, protect system on community transmission. Because, as the First Minister said yesterday, and as we've said on a number of occasions in the past, when we previously saw significant outbreaks in both Anglesey and in Wrexham, and a significant incident at the Kepak plant in Merthyr Tydfil, we understood who that cluster was. We could trace people back and we had confidence we weren't seeing community transmission, so we didn't need to take whole-community measures. What we understand here is we are seeing community transmission, and we can't have the smarter lockdown that TTP allows us to introduce.
Those are the reasons that underpin the choices we've made today, and I'll of course look at the Member's final point about whether ward-by-ward information is available to publish on a more regular basis. But we do, as every Member knows, publish daily figures and daily updates on the position across each local authority area.
I'm disappointed but I'm not surprised that Rhondda Cynon Taf is to be placed in lockdown. We were warned that this would happen if transmission rates increased, and they have, and a number of events and locations have been pinpointed in the statement. But I want to focus on the testing capacity here in the Rhondda. For coronavirus tests to be limited to just 60 a day by the UK Government at the testing facility that was set up in the Rhondda was an absolute outrage. The rationing of testing when the virus is spreading makes no sense to me. We know from countries that have coped better during this pandemic that tracking, tracing and isolating is key in stopping the spread. So, I want to know what additional testing capacity we can expect to see in the Rhondda this week, because we need it now. We can't wait a couple of weeks for the UK Government to sort their act out. I also want to know why this Labour Government is putting so much faith in the Tory Government to do the right thing. We all know that that is risky. People's freedoms are going to be restricted now, and I want to know how we can make it as easy as possible for people to be able to isolate if that is what they need to do. A lot of people are still reeling from the financial hit of the first lockdown, and now they have to face this as well. So, how can it be made easier for people to be able to isolate without losing income, and will you be able to make some financial support available to those whose income and businesses will be affected?
And my final question is this reasoning about keeping pubs and clubs open. If you know that the spread has occurred because of transmission in pubs and clubs—yes, it's great that Rhondda Cynon Taf council are inspecting pubs and clubs and other establishments and making sure that they comply with the rules, but, surely, keeping pubs and clubs open when the spread is happening in pubs and clubs doesn't make a lot of sense to many people. So, can you further outline your reasoning for keeping pubs and clubs open, because I can't see that many people purchasing alcohol after 11 o'clock? So, that seems like a limited measure in terms of dealing with that particular point.
Thank you for the series of questions. I've set out in some detail over the weekend and yesterday the very real challenges and frustrations that came from a decision at official level within the UK Government to restrict lighthouse lab testing to centres to 60 per day in Wales, in Northern Ireland, and similar restrictions in Scotland too. That's why I had rapid conversations with other health Minister colleagues in other nations, and why, at 11:30 on Saturday morning, I was talking to Matt Hancock. We've seen an improvement in that, but there is definite learning to take from that, and there's learning to be taken within the UK programme about making choices that affect every UK nation. But they did it on the basis of only looking at English data, and that's why they had to recover the position and reintroduce testing facilities that should not have been removed. That's plainly unacceptable—I've made that very clear in conversations with the UK Government, as indeed have other health Ministers for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
We need to be in a position where, if the UK programme can't carry on delivering the number of samples each day, each of the respective nations makes choices about how to deploy those resources. Because we do see higher incidence areas, where it's more important in those areas for people to have access to a test. We also know that it'll take a number of weeks for those challenges to be resolved at a UK level. That's why—. And I'll deal with your point about further testing as well. But, in terms of the UK programme, of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland take part, and they have significant reliance on the UK programme. It's not something we'll receive a consequential for if we withdraw from that programme; it's a programme that I take part in and have access to the tests that it provides. And, up until about three weeks ago, it was a pretty decent turnaround in performance. We need to see it return to that level with the new equipment that I understand is due to be invested. But it puts all of us in a very difficult position in looking to run an effective testing programme together with the very high performing test, trace and protect service we have here in Wales.
In Rhondda Cynon Taf, we'll be maintaining the mobile site in Clydach Vale—that's now going to be extended to Monday at least. We're also looking to have another mobile test unit in the Abercynon area; hopefully, that'll be available tomorrow. I've announced today that we'll have five additional mobile testing units. We'll be running their tests through Public Health Wales, not lighthouse labs, and they're going to be split in the first instance between the Aneurin Bevan health board area and Cwm Taf Morgannwg, where we see the highest levels of need and demand. And we're also looking, over the next—. By the end of next week, I expect us to be in a position where we'll have additional lanes through all of the drive-in centres. Again, those additional lanes will offer opportunities for people to be tested and then to have those results analysed in our Public Health Wales laboratories. So, that's the proactive action we're already taking to fill some of the gap being created until the lighthouse lab programme recovers from the current position, where it's not able to turnaround its lab capacity.
In terms of support for self-isolation, this is a matter I've raised several times, not just in public, but in conversation with the UK Government, with the support of other health Ministers too. If we don't support people to do the right thing, then making a choice between staying at home on statutory sick pay, potentially, and not being able to afford to pay your bills, or risking your own health and that of others but being able to pay your bills is an invidious position to place people in. I know that there are trials of supporting people in self-isolation in England, and I've again made the case and pressed the case for those trials to be rapidly concluded, and for a full UK programme to be provided. There isn't the budgetary space for individual nations to do that themselves—it needs to be a consistent, UK-wide programme, in my view. And if the UK Government did choose to do that, then I would welcome that as a positive step forward in enabling people practically to comply with the advice they are being given by our test, trace, protect service.
In terms of pub opening, I've answered, in response to Andrew R.T. Davies, some of the challenges of displacing activity and actually having a line of sight on how and where people are drinking, as opposed to driving that into people's homes. We've seen recent evidence of alcohol sales going up significantly during national lockdown, and we need to recognise, in each of the choices we make, there is a balance of harm. But we do think that this measure will allow us to maintain licensed premises so that businesses don't lose their opportunity to turn a business, people don't lose their jobs and we'll have a line of sight on behaviour. And we'll then want to be able to understand how people are mixing, rather than not wanting to tell us that they've been seeing other people in contravention of the rules—there's a real risk we'll drive this underground.
The other point, though, and it's important to make, is it's not just a proportionate response of the law that requires us to consider this, but it allows us to take further measures. So, if we don't see the improvement in the way that both those businesses behave, but equally the way that customers go in and behave, then we do have opportunity to take further steps and measures. And this is not so dissimilar from measures that were taken in Aberdeen in Scotland and measures that we understand are being contemplated, if not implemented, across England as well. Every judgment is a balance, but I believe these are the right set of measures to introduce now. I look forward to the public responding positively to them.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement today and for all the actions that are being taken to try and safeguard the well-being of the residents of Rhondda Cynon Taf. As you can imagine, questions are coming in to me thick and fast already from residents of the Cynon Valley, so I welcome this opportunity to ask you some of those directly.
Firstly, with regard to booked holidays, I know that the residents of RCT will not now be able to travel for these purposes, and that, in the case of the Caerphilly residents previously, Welsh Government wrote to the main tour operators setting out the expectation that they would refund customers or allow them to amend their booking to a later date. Will you commit to resending this letter with reference to the residents of Rhondda Cynon Taf and sharing this correspondence with representatives of the area so that we can, in turn, share it with our constituents, who may require such proof in order to press their case, if necessary? In addition, what support can you offer to those who have booked holidays in the UK and to local tour operators, such as Edwards Coaches, whose businesses may be badly affected?
Secondly, with regard to those who have previously been shielding, I'm aware that the previous Caerphilly guidelines have not recommended any changes for this specific group over and above the advice or the regulations that have been imposed on other residents. Yet, in recent days, Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board and Councillor Andrew Morgan, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council, have—quite sensibly, in my opinion—advised people in RCT who have previously been shielding to work from home wherever possible, due to the rise in the coronavirus cases here. Can you confirm, then, the evidence that you will offer to previously shielded people in this regard?
And thirdly and finally, I'd like to ask about support for local businesses. These new restrictions are, of course, very, very different from the national lockdown that we saw in the spring. How can Welsh Government encourage local residents to continue to shop locally safely and to support home-grown local businesses, while also safeguarding their own health?
Thank you for the series of questions from the Member. In terms of your first point, about holidays, I recognise that Hefin David has been making the case in particular yesterday, but in correspondence and conversation with me as well, about his residents in the Caerphilly constituency, and I'm happy to take up the Member's suggestion to write again to parts of the holiday industry. We've been in contact with them, their insurers, to again confirm the restrictions that are now in place and the fact that residents from RCT will not be able to go on holiday—it will be a breach of the law to do so—and to chase a response on this issue and indeed the outstanding response on Caerphilly. And I'm happy to take up the Member's suggestion to share that correspondence with constituency and regional Members so that you can see the letter we have written and any response we then receive.
I think there's a broader point about the travel industry and reputational damage that they'll need to consider. There's a point not just about those foreign holiday operators but within the UK as well. This isn't just about having sympathy for people who have found their ability to go on holiday restricted. If people did breach the law and nevertheless go on holiday, they are at a higher risk of having coronavirus because community transmission is taking place, and I do not think that holiday operators would welcome a position where someone has broken the law to go on holiday and potentially introduced coronavirus to part of their holiday operation. There is a point of self-interest here for holiday operators to do the right thing, and that must mean making sure that refunds are available and people are not put in an invidious position and, equally, that other holidaymakers don't feel at risk from people that they're sitting next to in terms of transport.
There is a point about how we support people, and there's a really difficult point here, because, in the English restrictions that have been introduced locally, we haven't seen an additional flow of resource going in to support businesses. Now, we've seen that in Leicester and other areas too, and, again, I think this would benefit from a joined-up UK response, where we can sit down and understand the budgetary response that is available, and whether there is a, potentially, UK-wide scheme for businesses where we're placing new restrictions upon them. Our budgetary position in Wales is not that we're in a position where we have lots of spare cash to be able to put into businesses to support them when we're needing to take public health measures to protect the health of the wider public. That's why myself and the First Minister have been very clear that we want to see the COBRA process restart in earnest, to have regular conversations, and, hopefully, shared decisions, but, equally, within our own individual responsibilities, a better way of communicating, in every part of Wales and the UK, the choices that are being made and what underpins them.
In terms of shielding, the whole country is being advised to work from home wherever possible, and that is something that certainly applies to people who are being shielded, not just people who live in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly. The advice from our chief medical officer—we had a deliberate discussion about the shielded population, and, whilst the advice at present isn't to reintroduce the full shielding arrangements, we are considering direct contact with people who were previously shielded to remind them of the position that they were in, the current position, and to remind them in particular that they should follow these rules to the letter to make sure they're minimising their risk of exposure, because they're at much greater risk of harm.
And when it comes to staying local, we both have a local travel restriction, but it is also an opportunity for people to support their local businesses. And that's both about how we comply with the rules ourselves as customers, but also how businesses themselves make it clear that they are providing as safe an environment as possible for their customers to continue coming back, whether online or in person. And I hope that people do take seriously the message that exists here, not just from an enforcement point of view, but actually look after our staff and look after the public that they serve.
Thank you for the statement. I just want to add to some of the points that have already been made and ask for assurances on a number of different fronts. Firstly, on communication, could you explain how Government, working with the local authority, will increase the level of communication locally in Rhondda Cynon Taf, in this instance, and in other areas affected, because it's clear that the messages are still getting lost? Even six months into the pandemic, there are some basic messages still being lost.
Another element of communication that I'd be keen to see is on informing people when exactly they should be seeking a test, because people are erring on the side of caution. And that's a good thing; we want people who perhaps need a test to make sure that they get one. But, if there's a better way of communicating, in order to remove those people who perhaps have some symptoms but they're not really COVID symptoms, to not get involved in the wait for testing and so on, that would be very, very useful at this time. I've found it myself difficult sometimes to pin down the definition of new, persistent coughs and so on. So, communication on that would be good.
Enforcement—I'd like assurances on enforcement. How do you make sure that those pubs where people are still allowed to congregate are properly policed, that local authorities have the powers and the resources to police them in order to make sure that people are having to stick the rules?
Limiting contact is another thing that I'd like assurances on. When do you make the call that keeping a pub open until 11.00 p.m. isn't acceptable, that you have to take away more opportunities for people to mix? Because it's been shown, hasn't it, that those places can be risky. And, of course, if you do have to close places down, we need those assurances about assistance for those businesses.
And, finally, on testing, can we have more assurances on how we will know that we need—the capacity that we must have within our communities from lighthouse labs and the UK-run systems? Because Independent SAGE said months ago:
'There is an urgent need to plan for migration of testing back from the...Lighthouse laboratories into a more integrated..."normalisation" of such increased capacity across our existing PHE/NHS laboratories'.
You as a Government did the opposite. I feel we're paying the price for that now. We need assurances that we will have the tests that we need over the winter period.
Thank you. Perhaps I'll deal with that final point first. You'll recall that we had real difficulty and challenges at the start of the pandemic in significantly increasing our own testing resources. We had equipment on order that was held up and not able to be delivered into Wales. That was because of restrictions provided in other countries. And we then also had some challenges when equipment arrived—one piece in particular that took several weeks to settle down and function properly. So, it's why there is some difficulty both in increasing our own testing resources and the people who are needed to make sure those tests are processed properly, together with some concern over the difficulties that lighthouse labs currently face. Because whilst Matt Hancock has indicated it'll be a number of weeks—up to around three weeks, he hopes—before lighthouse labs are back on an even keel with much more capacity, able to meet the demand that they face, we know it's possible for other events to intervene, and that's why we're already switching our capacity.
We're not waiting three weeks and saying, 'We just need to tough it out'; we're actually increasing our own capacity available to the public through NHS Wales laboratories. And that's partly the reason why we've increased our own capacity to make sure that there is an alternative to publicly available testing. It's also, though, that we increased that capacity ready for the autumn and winter period, when we expect we'll have more people coming into our hospitals, more people seeking healthcare, and we'll need to have testing facilities available, and it will allow us, as we are doing, to deploy testing in hotspot areas. So, we're doing exactly what we thought we would need to do, but it's earlier and in a different way because of the challenges that the UK programme is facing.
It's not a simple matter of blind faith; it's actually a matter of the practical reality of where resources are. It's a UK programme and, actually, a few months ago, the unified criticism of me was that we weren't taking part when other nations were taking part. We resolved the data issues and the lighthouse lab programme actually worked pretty well for the last few months. We now need to deal with the challenge that we all recognise is taking place and the anxiety that is causing constituents.
On enforcement, I'd like to praise environmental health officers in every local authority, regardless of the leadership of that council. Environmental health officers have been a huge part of what we are doing and I really do want to pay tribute to them. They are all going above and beyond the normal call of duty to check on premises, to enforce and to keep the public safe. We're not looking to introduce COVID marshals as the UK Government suggested they were going to do. We're looking to see more recruitment of people to assist environmental health officers through proper recruitment processes and local authorities are already looking at how they're going to do that. My colleague Julie James, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, is working with local authorities and being clear that we want to see them co-operate with each other. Because, actually, given the sustained increase in cases in Caerphilly, they have needed support from others, and it's about how councils work together, crucially to make sure that 22 authorities aren't competing against each other for the same limited resource.
I do, though, want to pay tribute, not just to environmental health officers, but the leaderships of the particular local authorities that we've been working with. I can say that, at the start of this, with the first incident in Ynys Môn, the Plaid Cymru leader there was very responsible and I thought did a very good job in leading her council through that first significant incident. And we're seeing that now with Philippa Marsden in Caerphilly and Andrew Morgan in Rhondda Cynon Taf. And that relationship, where we're talking regularly with them, is really important. They're getting unified communication as well, so that people on the ground, with their local responsibilities in local government, are discharging those with the support of and in a consistent way with Welsh Government. And that is also about the simplicity of our message.
We've actually had a pretty consistent message here in Wales. We have challenges with different messages and the way the media communicate those, and different messages in particular across our border, where lots of people get their media from. So, we have been republishing messages, through not just social media, but using the Welsh media too, and Ministers have had a very high profile in not just Welsh media, but across UK stations as well. We'll continue to do so to try to deal with people's anxiety about not just the message, but about how to get a test and when to get a test.
The symptoms are a high temperature, a new continuous cough or a loss of a sense of taste or smell. That's when you should be going to get a test, and if you do need a test, don't go to a healthcare facility. Don't go to a hospital, don't visit your GP, don't go to a pharmacy—that's exactly where we don't want you to be. Please, if you can, book your test from home, or if you need to go to a walk-in centre, make sure that you're not breaching social distancing rules in place with other members of the public.
Minister, can I first of all put on record, I think, the importance of the work that RCT council have been doing in terms of the monitoring and enforcement in supermarkets and in pubs and so on? It's been important. But I think, also, there's a realisation that exists in the community I live in and represent that cases have been increasing and that further action was going to need to be taken.
A number of questions have been answered, but I've had, through social media already, hundreds of postings for information and so on, and that is understandable in the way in which communication has been developing in our constituencies. Just two points there. One point that has been raised is in respect of the elderly who, obviously, we have great concerns about, and who will not be able to meet up in their support bubbles in the same way. I'm just wondering what consideration has been given to the sort of support and advice that needs to be given to the elderly in that situation. We know also, with schools going back—and we want our schools to stay open—that there are many grandparents who take their grandchildren to school, and there may be issues there in terms of whether that can continue or not. That would be helpful if you could clarify that particular question.
And then one final point. You've referred to community transmission. Of course, there's a lot of posting on social media saying, 'Well, we have clusters here and there, why don't we just close down the areas where those clusters exist?' I think it would be helpful, Minister, if you could explain and clarify today what the issue is with community transmission, why it is not realistic or feasible in controlling this current spread to be just closing down small areas or confined areas, and why it is important that we have to look at this at a broader area in terms of the speed and expansion of transmission.
And then one very final point. The University of South Wales have been doing a lot of work in developing technology for rapid testing. I'm wondering if you have any information or an update as to how that is progressing, because if it does progress, it obviously offers tremendous opportunities.
Thank you for the questions. On the final point first, the University of South Wales's potential development is still in trials. We understand that it looks positive. It's one of a number of potential point-of-care tests where you can test people rapidly. We already have one such device that ourselves and Scotland in particular have been interested in, and that should again provide a test in under 20 minutes. So, crucially, that test should also allow us to deal with some of the strains of the flu as well, which is particularly useful when it comes to flu season even if people don't have COVID. If they have flu, it is an infectious disease and we should remember that in an average flu season, 8,000 to 10,000 people across the UK lose their lives. So, there are real threats, and if you need to have a NHS flu jab, you are in a vulnerable group when it comes to harm from COVID too. So, we'll continue, as we get more information, to make that available, not just to the constituency Member, but to Members across the Chamber as well.
On your point about enforcement, again, the point about our environmental health officers and the work they've done and the way they've worked together across boundaries—there are some partnerships across different local authorities—their commitment is really significant and has made a really big difference in the join-up between the responsibilities of local authorities and the health service as well. There has been a genuine team approach between local government and our health services. So, that enforcement activity—the checking—will continue, but the starting point is businesses themselves following the rules and customers following the rules too.
The rules come into place from 6 o'clock tomorrow, but as we saw in Caerphilly, behaviour starts to change as soon as the announcement is made, and we're looking for people to behave in this way to protect themselves, their families and their community. That's the point and the purpose of this: to try to save lives. The Caerphilly guidance that exists is a useful touch point for people in RCT because we've answered a range of questions. There will be very similar questions as the ones asked in Caerphilly. It's Caerphilly plus the issues about restricting the hours of sales within licensed premises.
On schools and individuals with caring responsibilities, even in the national lockdown, it was a reasonable excuse to visit another person in their home if you have caring responsibilities with and for them. That still is the case now. But we're not seeing the extended household arrangements surviving from tomorrow in RCT because of the evidence about community transmission and the challenges of people mixing indoors without social distancing.
And that comes back to the final point that I need to deal with, your point about community transmission or clusters. If you consider the issues we've seen, for example, in a range of areas, whether it's the current issue in General Dynamics, where there's a workforce, many of whom are in Merthyr Tydfil, but workers who travel from further afield, or the previous issue we saw—seeing the Member for Blaenau Gwent in the room—in Zorba, where there was a large workforce, but we understood who they were and where they lived. The employer and the trade unions—where they were there—were really co-operative and encouraged people to get tested and tested quickly, so that when we saw lots of tests being undertaken very quickly, it meant that the case rates in some of those authority areas rose up significantly, but we understood what that was. That was effectively a self-contained cluster of people who all had predictable links with each other.
What we find in RCT is that about half of the cases are in those areas we can predict and understand how the virus is transmitted. We're seeing about half the cases, though, in areas where we don't understand where the index case is and how they link with each other, and that's when we see community transmission in the normal contact of people with people who are following the rules as opposed to the individual events, for example, in the club that went to the Doncaster races all on a bus in the day, going in and out of pubs and then coming back as well. That individual event is also going alongside wider community spread and that's the real danger point that could see us back to where we were in March this year, just before going into national lockdown, and that is what we're desperate to avoid and why we appeal to people to follow the rules, not just in RCT and Caerphilly, but the rules that apply in the rest of the country too.
Finally, Huw Irranca-Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I just begin by joining the Minister and others who have praised the work of front-line officers on the ground in different departments in RCT, under the leadership of Andrew Morgan, but also other agencies? They've put sterling work in not just now in recent hours and days, but actually weeks and months as well. But also his call on the UK Government to extend support to not only employees, importantly, but also businesses that are affected by localised constraints and localised lockdowns as well, otherwise the economic and financial pressures are there to actually bend the rules, go back; we don't want that to happen, but there's a reality on the ground. I also have had several questions coming in to me live since the announcement has been made, and I wonder if I can run these past the Minister.
First of all, in areas like Gilfach Goch and Llanharan and others, which are on the border of RCT but within the Ogmore constituency, where we haven't had pubs and clubs shut down, where we don't have the data yet that is showing that there are intense localised outbreaks of the virus there, people are asking whether there can be a more hyperlocalised approach to this as we go on in the next few days and weeks or does it have to be on a county borough area. Are there reasons why a county borough wide approach is the preferred approach? Is it simplicity for enforcement, for monitoring? I don't know, but people there are saying, 'Well, why are we being penalised when we don't have these outbreaks, when our pubs and clubs are behaving well?' and so on.
Secondly, bordering areas just outside, such as Evanstown and Gilfach Goch, which are literally on each other's sides of the street, with family and neighbours who commute across for child minding purposes and have extended households between two county boroughs on opposing sides of a street, what advice should we be giving to those in Evanstown who are not affected directly by these constraints, but will be when they realise that tomorrow morning their child minding or their grandparents or whatever, well, they cannot actually go and visit? What advice should we be giving?
And finally, I've already had an approach from many people, but one is from a couple who had actually reorganised their wedding from the height of the initial period of the lockdown earlier on in the year from May to October to a different venue in Cowbridge. They've booked it, they've got a limited number of guests coming, they live in Llanharan, and they're now asking does this mean that their wedding cannot go ahead for a second time. I suspect the news is not good, but in which case could the Welsh Government, in light of what Vikki was just saying, extend that letter that could go out not just to holidaymakers and tourism operators, but also to wedding venues and others to make sure that they show the greatest sympathy possible for people who have been affected by this?
Thank you for the series of questions. I go back to there's some consistency in what Members have said and also contrary points. So, thinking about what Leanne Wood said about, 'Why aren't we closing all the pubs now?', there's a counterpoint that pubs that are being responsible, who don't want to see any restrictions, and where we are is a measure of restriction for all licensed premises because of the evidence we have. We've chosen not to close all premises because we recognise that some are behaving responsibly, and as I say, we don't want to displace all of that activity into people's homes where there are even greater risks of transmission.
So, as I say, it's a balance, and the challenge about taking hyperlocal choices is how many different messages people can have communicated and still follow because many people say, 'Give us simple rules and simple guidance for us to follow and to understand.' It lies behind some of the frustrations members of the public have about different messages between different Governments. We are trying to do the right thing for Wales and to take national choices and to understand local choices, and in any area where you have a border around the choices you're making, there's going to be transference across and a need to understand. Now, those rough edges in choices we make are inevitable, but there isn't a perfect choice, as you will know, being a former Minister; you never get to make a perfect choice in Government. But within this, we have to make choices that are, on balance, going to keep people safe, and avoid as much harm as possible.
So, on that challenge about the border, there's a difference between visiting for social purposes and if people have genuine caring responsibilities. For some people, they're genuine caring responsibilities and for others, they're not so. Now, that's a significant interruption in how people live their lives, and I recognise that, but if we don't do this, then we're likely to see coronavirus spread further, not just within RCT, but across that pretty porous border in the way people live their normal lives. We all recognise the harm that took place ahead of and then during the first lockdown.
And then, on your point about the impact of lockdown, I guess there's a challenge here for the UK Treasury to think about the impact of local lockdowns, where you end lots of activity and you end up almost certainly seeing a reduction in the tax take and economic activity, and at the same time, the cost you need to put in to sustain that activity, and what will happen if we don't support businesses and the challenges of those businesses going under if they're not supported, and equally, the much wider challenges if people aren't supported to isolate as they should do. If people go out, it makes more local lockdowns and a national lockdown—not just in Wales, but across UK—more likely, with a much higher financial price to pay, as well as a price we'll all see being paid in terms of people's health and well-being.
On your point around wedding venues, I think the point is well made. I'm afraid the news isn't good for your constituents, but I will take on board the point about how we within the Government write to those venues and those operators, because I recognise it's a significant life event, there'll be people who are really anxious about it, and this does have meaning. So, I'll certainly take that up and take on board your comments.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is the topical questions, but none have been accepted for today.