Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Leaving children behind

Column in Llanelli Herald on 8th December 2017

Fear of change, and the unknown, is something that we can all relate to - children, in particular, experience change on a daily basis, which is necessary for their development, but can also be very stressful for them.

Take moving home. Few children live in the same house for their whole childhood; most move several times, often to new towns and to new schools. Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. Unpredictable changes, however, can chip away at their sense of security and leave the child feeling anxious and less able to cope with what life throws at them.

It saddened me, then, to read that here in Carmarthenshire, looked after children are moved between homes more frequently than they are in any other local authority, with one child in six having been placed in more than three homes in a single year. And this is not just a change of house, remember - this is often to a different family, in a different town and to a different school.

When I was chair of governors at a primary school a few years back, I was responsible for looked after children, and it was heartbreaking that often just as we were beginning to establish a relationship with a child, they would be moved with no prior warning at all.

So I was immensely pleased to get the Assembly's powerful Public Accounts Committee to agree to a rolling programme of investigations into the way that we support children in care. One of the issues I hope the enquiry will be looking at is how this constant state of flux has on looked-after children’s chances in life.

Currently, the statistics for looked after children are outrageous. Consider this - only 23% of looked after children in Wales achieved five GCSEs at C and above, 43% of looked after children are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training),  and a child in the care of the state is more likely to go to prison than to university.  But where’s the outcry? These children get dealt a terrible lot in life and we can’t allow it to continue.

All children have a right to a healthy and safe childhood, and the chance to reach their full potential. Our ambition must be to make sure that looked after children have the same opportunities as everyone else.

How can we improve town centres?

Column in Llanelli Star on 1 December 2017

What can we do to breathe new life into Llanelli town centre? I know what a lot of people will answer - bring in free parking. And whilst this may be the answer that first springs to mind, I don’t think it’s the whole solution.

Our town centre has had problems ever since the focus shifted from the high street to out-of-town retail locations - where the biggest brands unite around a sprawling car park. Yet, even though large regeneration projects outside London still go hand-in-hand with car parking, research shows that large numbers of shoppers arrive by public transport. Bus services are particularly important.

Town centres are more likely to thrive if they’re easy to get to using any mode of transport, so it makes sense that offering a reliable and affordable public transport system is worth the investment.

And it’s worth noting that ‘free’ car parking isn’t actually ever free. Someone will always have to pay. In Carmarthenshire alone the cost of providing free car parking would amount to £5 million a year. What if we used that money somewhere, or somehow, else?

I‘d argue that a decent public transport system - like the one Mark Barry has set out for the Swansea Bay Metro - would be a good place to start. And it is this that I want to focus on when I hold my business summit at Llanelly House in a couple of weeks’ time. Done right, the Swansea Bay Metro has the potential open up job opportunities, bring in new customers, connect the urban and rural areas of our community and to attract new businesses and investment.

I don’t believe there is ever so a thing as an economic silver bullet - that one, transformative project that will instantly change all our fortunes. But if we want to encourage people to visit Llanelli regularly and spend money in our shops, we need to do everything we can to make that easier for them. This includes having a well-designed and affordable public transport system that gives people the freedom and ability to travel. And offers us all the option of leaving the car at home.

NOTES:  The Business Summit to discuss the Swansea Bay Metro will take place at 2.30pm on Friday 15th December at Llanelly House.

There's no magic bullet

Column in the Llanelli Star on 29th November 2017

I'm really pleased to be joining the Assembly’s Economy committee - trying to find new ways to get jobs into the Llanelli constituency is one of the main reasons I stood to be an Assembly Member. 

Let’s not pretend that this is going to be an easy task. It isn’t. And, while we’re talking about it, let’s not only focus on Llanelli town centre when the Llanelli constituency extends to Trimsaran, Pontyberem, Ponthenri, Llannon, Tumble, Cross Hands, Tycroes and Hendy.

These are rural communities where there are more older and lower-income people with fewer options for getting out and about, and where accessing decent jobs can be a real challenge. That’s why we see so many young people upping sticks to get work elsewhere. And why they almost never come back.

Like everyone, people in rural and small town communities rely on transport to get to jobs, schools, medical appointments, nights out, shops and services. The difference is they’ve got much further to go, and all-too-often they’re left with limited travel options. It seems so unfair to me that some people miss out on so much either because they can’t drive or because they can’t afford a car.

That’s why I’m excited by the proposals being touted by Mark Barry - the man behind the Cardiff Metro - for a similar set up to be introduced to the Swansea Bay area. Proper investment in public transport could generate significant benefits for the rural communities in the Llanelli constituency - not least because it’ll help ensure new jobs created through schemes like the Swansea Bay City Deal will be within everyone’s reach.

I don’t believe there is a ‘magic bullet’ - and if I hear of one more project being labelled ‘transformative’, I will scream. But I do think that a decent public transport system - like the one Mark Barry has set out for the Swansea Bay Metro - has the potential to open up job opportunities, bring in new customers, connect the urban and rural areas of our community and to attract new businesses and investment.

Nowhere is this more important than in rural and small town communities. 

Saving green spaces

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 22nd November 2017

I read a report recently, which said that people recover faster in a hospital when they have a bed with a garden view, than when their window faces onto a wall of adjoining buildings. It brought home to me the importance of green space in our lives.

In a lot of ways, it’s how we develop a sense of community in the first place. Saturday afternoons in the park with a book, a football, a picnic; a bike ride, a long walk with the dog, a bag of chips or an ice-cream on a wooden bench taking in the view. We all like to spend time outside where open spaces, natural surroundings and the interactions these bring with others help to calm our minds, keep us active and increase our happiness.

I’ve recently moved house, and one of the things that first attracted me to my new home was how close it is to Parc Howard. A short walk and I’m in one of Llanelli town’s gems.

What a shame then that so many of our precious green spaces are at risk. We are living through a time when demand for new housing has never been higher and it is absolutely right that we  build new houses for our younger generation. But, given that housing is the biggest driver of change in the loss of green space, isn’t it time for housing developers to make sure that gardens and parks are central to their developments?

Like most people, some of my fondest childhood memories are of playing outside. But with increased traffic on the road, parks closing or being neglected due to public cuts and new houses being built with much smaller gardens, today’s children may not experience that same sense of freedom and independence.

And once green space has been lost, we can never get it back. This is why I asked the council to look at brownfield sites for the new Ysgol Dewi Sant instead of digging up another precious piece of public space. Yes, the school needs a new building, but the loss of Llanerch Fields is at a cost.

Children deserve a place to play, they need fresh air and exercise, and they don’t ask for much. When questioned by community members on what they would like to see in Parc Howard, children responded overwhelmingly with a request for a field to kick a ball around in. The families of the new Parc-Y-Strade housing development are demanding nothing more than the children’s play area that they believe were on the developer’s original plans. Councillors in Tyisha ward, one of the poorest in Wales, want just one park for its children.

Green spaces seem to have become a perk. I think that they are still crucial to our lives.

Remembering Sarge

Published in the Llanelli Herald on 15th November 2017

The death of my colleague Carl Sargeant has hit me like a tonne of bricks.

Carl’s suicide was a tragedy. The circumstances surrounding it are now thankfully the subject of an independent enquiry led by a QC, so I won’t get into my views on this other than to say that mistakes were clearly made and it’s important that this is properly examined.

Suicide is now the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK (Carl was 49). In 2016, men accounted for 82% of all suicides in Wales.

Bereavement has a devastating effect on families, friends and colleagues. In cases of bereavement by suicide, feelings of devastation, incomprehension and guilt are often magnified with the impact felt across communities and generations.

I know all of us in the Labour group in the Assembly are dumbfounded by what happened, and in his own community there is a lot of anger and upset. I completely understand this, and hope that with time, and with the answers that I hope will flow from the inquiry, they will get some peace of mind.

Carl was the centre of his community. He was the Assembly Member for Alyn & Deeside in Flintshire, and someone who still lived on the council estate in Connah's Quay where he was raised.

He was not an off-the-peg politician. He was rare in modern politics to rise from the factory floor, without a University education, to the cabinet table. And he was living proof that you don’t need a college degree to succeed in life; he was an able Minister and held the record for being the Cabinet Minister to pass the most laws in our Welsh Parliament since its inception.

I first met him in 2003 when I was a journalist and he had just been selected as a candidate for the Assembly election that year. He was a mobile DJ doing discos in his area and didn't seem like a typical AM, but as I quickly observed in his early years in the Assembly he had a natural knack for people and politics.

When I became Director of the green transport charity Sustrans Cymru and led the campaign for a law to ensure a network of paths for walking and cycling he was the Minister I had to persuade. We developed a respect for each other but he was no push-over.

When I became the candidate in Llanelli he came to campaign for me and was brilliant on the doorstep - he was just himself, warm, natural and funny.

We had a lovely visit to a pensioner on Bigyn Road in Llanelli who had benefited from a home installation project he had championed, and a great morning at the Links mental health charity on Queen Victoria Road where he shared with the people there how he had begun to crochet to help him deal with his own feelings of stress and minor depression.

His death hasn’t fully sunk in for me yet. But I know I’ll miss him, and so will Welsh politics.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Time to abandon austerity

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 8th November 2017

Securing economic growth in Llanelli, when we are living through such unpredictable times, is one of the greatest challenges facing me as an Assembly Member.

One of the things I’ve argued for is something called the ‘Foundational Economy’, or put another way, looking after what we’ve got on our doorstep: the industries and businesses that are there because people are there. The food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive.

This isn’t a small part of our economy. It accounts for four in ten jobs, and £1 in every three that we spend.

With that in mind, it makes sense to me that to stimulate our economy, we need to strengthen our public services and make smart investments in our communities.

But this isn’t happening. Instead of investment, we have had seven years of austerity - the longest period of sustained cut-backs that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. And despite the hardship this has inflicted - often on the most vulnerable people in our society - there’s little to show for it.

We have schools here in Llanelli that have had to cut their staff, increase their class sizes and have been reduced to asking parents for money to provide essential equipment.

Many of our community centres are having to close their doors because of a near-constant cycle of cuts.

Essential public services - our fire service, police and health - have been guilty of not paying their own staff enough to put food on their family dinner tables.

When I speak to the people bearing the brunt of this unfair and unnecessary policy, it is clear to me that it needs to be abandoned. But the UK Government disagree. Instead of abandoning austerity, they’re planning on extending it even further. And the UK Treasury is apparently gearing up to inflict a further £3.5 billion of unallocated cuts in 2019-20. This could mean Wales is faced with another £175 million budget hole.

The threat of yet more cuts makes it increasingly difficult for the Welsh Government to mitigate the worst effects. I don’t know how our public services will cope if the hammer of £175 million does fall. And I don’t know how anyone can justify asking them to do so.

The UK Tory party needs to abandon its obsession with cut-backs. There is an alternative to austerity - looking for opportunities for growth and developing an investment strategy that will work for our communities.

Working together to tackle litter

Column published in Llanelli Herald on 3rd November 2017

It’s said that the two red lines which run the length of Westminster’s debating chamber are exactly two sword-lengths apart, to prevent spontaneous duels breaking out between opposing frontbench MPs. The physically-drawn ‘battle’ lines must act as a constant reminder of the need for a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach. And sometimes it shows - the circus that is Prime Minster’s Questions lacks any genuine debate, and is all the poorer for it.

As a new politician - only elected for the first time last year - I find this perpetually combative approach limiting. True, there are big differences between the ideologies of the main parties and - personally - I’d only ever want to stand for election on a Labour ticket. But there are a number of times when politicians from different political backgrounds agree, and too often a stubborn allegiance to party politics can get in the way of working together and achieving change.

So, since standing for election I’ve tried to do things a little differently. I’ve tried not to get drawn into making personal attacks on people who choose to stand for a different party at the ballot box. And where there are common problems to tackle, or ideas to explore, I’ve attempted to work across political lines.

For example, I was delighted to see the unanimous backing of Councillors from across Carmarthenshire for the Swansea Bay Metro idea. And I’ve invited every member of the Council to join the business event I’m holding in December, that will explore the potential for this innovative public transport scheme in our area.

I’ve also set up a joint litter taskforce with the Plaid-led Carmarthenshire Council. An issue we both wanted to address, in which we recognised that we’d achieve more working together. At the latest meeting - held every three months - we’ve agreed to work together on big campaign to tackle the issue of dog fouling. And there are a number of other initiatives in the pipeline that wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t taken this collaborative approach.

Working across political divisions doesn’t always work. It’s a difficult juggling act working in tandem on some issues, whilst retaining critical independence on others. I haven't hesitated to criticise the council on the lack of consultation on Park Howard or on bulldozing Llanerch field, for example. And sometimes I find myself sat round the table with people whose decisions I’ve publicly criticised the week before - or who’ve publicly criticised me. Which isn’t easy. But it’s much more reflective of the real world where sometimes we all have to put aside personal differences and just get on with the job.

Politics too often drives us to focus on the divides between us instead of the things we have in common; I stood for election wanting to try and do things a little differently. Perhaps I’m naive, and perhaps my fingers will be burnt in the end, but I think it’s worth a shot.