Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Kidwelly leading way

Column published in the Llanelli Herald on February 13th 2016

The media has been full of the “crisis” in the NHS this week.

The British Red Cross went as far as saying the health service in England was facing a "humanitarian crisis" this winter.

Thankfully the NHS in Wales is being run differently from the health service across the border, but nobody is under any illusion about the pressures that it faces.

We are demanding more and more from the NHS. I find it astonishing that the average age of a patient in Prince Philip Hospital is 83!

It is a huge achievement of modern health care that people are living longer, but our later years are often spent in poor health and that is putting huge pressure on the health and social care services. Indeed, Doctors at PPH tells me that most of the elderly patients there often have multiple chronic conditions, and even after they've been treated for the condition they were admitted for can’t be sent home because of their other conditions..

Our health service has to change and adapt to meet these new demands. And it’s not only the demands of the patient that are changing, but the staff have changing needs too. GPs, for example, increasingly want to work part-time, and to mix their duties at a local surgery with hospital or University work.

Last week I welcomed Welsh Health Secretary Vaughan Gething to Kidwelly to see a new model GP surgery in action.

This time last year the Minafon surgery was in crisis after the existing GPs left. The practice was taken over by the Hywel Dda Health Board and in the absence of a full complement of Doctors they designed a team of health professionals who could support a smaller team of GPs.

Local patients can now see an advanced nurse who can prescribe, a physiotherapist and a pharmacist, alongside a telephone support service. It's a smarter way working and offers more services locally. For example, the pharmacist, is conducting a review of all patients at the surgery who suffer from asthma and reviewing their medication with them - this is something an overstretched GP wouldn’t have time to do.

This offers a model for all GP surgeries, but because most are in effect run as private businesses by the Doctors, it is harder to bring about the changes than one directly run by the health board- like Minafon on Kidwelly. However, as more and more surgeries struggle to find the Doctors they need change may well happen organically.

It does go to show that often the pressures on the system can produce changes for the better.

But change is rarely easy, and in a service we all value so deeply, can cause deep concern. That’s why its so important that we are honest and open about the challenges and listen to patients to mke sure changes are carefully thought through.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Sparking the flame of innovation

Published on IWA blog and in Western Mail on December 22nd

What will 2017 bring? It’ll be the year we trigger Article 50, marking the beginning of our exit from the EU; and Donald Trump will enter the Oval Office as the United States’ 45th president. These are things we know. But 2017 will also bring changes that many of us can’t even imagine. And whilst the bounds of these technological advancements are unknown, their impact on our lives is not.

Earlier this month, I raised concerns with Welsh Economy Minister Ken Skates that an estimated 700,000 jobs in Wales are at risk from being made defunct by automation. Human hands and - with the eruption of computers being able to learn for themselves – human brains, that are in danger of being replaced by machines and algorithms.

This innovation is all part of what is commonly termed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Just as the first industrial revolution was marked by our ability to harness steam power; the second by our capacity to mass produce; and the third by the development of electronics and computers; this fourth industrial revolution is the combination of these digital technologies with pre-existing physical and biological systems.

Machines are becoming embedded into every aspect of human life - our money, homes, factories, healthcare systems, workplaces and even bodies are becoming inextricably linked with automated systems. It is the speed at which these ‘cyber physical’ systems are disrupting existing industry - and the scope of this disruption - that is a defining factor of this industrial transformation. Whilst other revolutions progressed at a steady, linear rate, this fourth industrial revolution is progressing at an exponential one. 

But just as it’s crucial we prepare for the risks this disruption will bring, we also need to position Wales at the forefront of the new industries this revolution will spur. 

Achieving this will require a new economic strategy that concentrates our limited resources on the interventions that will have the biggest impact - where growth is predicted, where Wales has existing competitive advantage and and where the benefits of growth can be seen to generate a ‘common good’. 

We also need to ensure that the jobs that are left behind - the jobs that make-up the ‘economy of our everyday’ (in food, energy, housing, tourism and healthcare industries) - are jobs that are worth having. 

In an unpredictable era we need to move away from predictable, orthodox, economic approaches.

Let's dispense with the ‘long-term economic plan’ and instead embrace shorter-term, more agile, rapid-response, approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances. 

As Sir Terry Matthews has advocated in the Swansea Bay City region, we need to shift our focus away from the familiar - new roads and business parks, and towards driving innovation - and instead link up businesses with the cutting-edge research taking place in our universities, facilitating partnerships that will solve real industry problems, as well as exploring the economic challenges and possibilities that remain unknown.

The challenge is how do we embed ‘innovation’ into our systems and our thinking. Some are advocating an arm-length body for Wales to take the lead, I think we need to be taking a more decentralised and flexible approach. 

We need an approach that recognises Wales’ economy isn’t a homogenous monolith, but rather a collaboration of multiple hubs of industry. In Scotland, they’ve achieved this through the establishment of university-led Innovation Centres. It’s an approach that could work in Wales, too. We could draw on our diversity - from Swansea’s academic excellence in engineering, to the outstanding research underway in Aberystwyth on sustainable food production, and Bangor’s leading contributions in the field of neuroscience. 

We need multiple minds sparking off each other, trying different approaches in different parts of Wales. Just as I have been critical of a UK economic strategy which concentrates wealth in the south east of England, and relies on that to trickle down to the other parts, we must be critical of any strategy that focuses efforts in just one corner of our nation. Further and Higher education institutions are natural partners in achieving this.

We need to introduce agitators within our existing governance structures too - at local, regional and national levels of government. People who understand the nature of the change already underway and who aren’t afraid to take risks. People who have the brains, the capacity and the personality to drive buy-in and to bring others with them. We are a creative nation - we need to find ways to celebrate and leverage this creativity for our common good.
If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that there is a deep disaffection for a business as usual approach. We must meet this cry for change with an economic message that commands confidence that things can be better for all our communities.

2017 will be a time of big change - politically, economically and technologically. Let’s seize this opportunity to make these changes work for Wales - and to establish ourselves as the UK’s Western Furnace of Innovation and Industry.  

Lee Waters is the Welsh Labour & Co-operative AM for Llanelli

Deal or no Deal?

Column published in llanelli Herald on December 23rd

Next month we’ll know if steelworkers have signed up to the deal agreed between their unions and the management of Tata.

In exchange for a pledge to keep Port Talbot and Trostre going for at least 5 years the workers have been asked to agree to the closure of the British Steel Pension Scheme, and its replacement by a defined contribution scheme.

The management say it is still a generous package, although less generous than the current one. Without the deal to cut costs Tata have made it clear they’ll walk away from the plants which mean the pension scheme will have to be taken over by the Government’s Pension Protection Fund - which will cut is value to 10%.

This what’s known as a Hobson’s Choice - take it, or leave it.

In this year of unpredictable results there are plenty of people within Tata who fear the workers will vote against the deal as a protest. But if they do the senior management of the Indian steel giant have been quite clear - they’re off.

I met with the Chief Executive Officer of Tata Steel in the UK, Mr. Bimlendra Jha, in Cardiff this week. It’s the second time I’ve met him. He’s a formidable character.

Mr Jha has had to work hard to get Tata’s board in India to agree to invest £1 Billion in their UK plants as part of the deal, and he couldn’t understand why workers would ever consider voting against the deal.  I reminded him that just a few months ago Tata was prepared to sell the plants, and then rejected offers to take them over - including those of local management. That has shaken people’s faith in the company - including mine.

Tata are going through a process of merging their European operations with their rivals ThyssenKrupp and many are nervous that the Welsh plants will be cut loose as part of that process.

When the latest deal was announced in the Senedd - alongside £4 million of Welsh Government funding as a sweetener in the form of skills and training grants - I was alone in expressing my discomfort that we are, in effect, being held to ransom by the whims of a board in India.

Given the way things are we face little choice. And I hope the workers to back this deal because the alternative is a lot worse.

But we need to get out of the situation where we are so vulnerable. We need to develop local industries and businesses that are grounded in the area, and not so susceptible to the changing moods of foreign owners.  That is a key driver for the local economic strategy i’m developing with others

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Allowing parents in Llanegenech to choose

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 16 December 2016

Next week Councillors on Carmarthenshire ruling Cabinet will make a decision about turning Llanegenech primary and infants into a Welsh medium school.

The Plaid-run Council say this is necessary to achieve the Welsh Government’s target of doubling the number of Welsh speakers by 2050.

The Welsh Government envisages schools moving along a ‘language continuum’ so that English-medium schools become dual-stream schools, and dual-stream schools become Welsh medium ones.  As a first step Carmarthenshire are putting the emphasis on converting all the dual-stream schools in the county into Welsh-medium schools.

Whilst doing this may make it easier to hit targets, it does nothing to address the quality of Welsh language education for the overwhelming majority of pupils in the County. The Council don’t seem to have plans for increasing the skills and capacity of English-medium schools to enable all children to have access to high quality Welsh language teaching.

Instead, I believe the Council should be placing the greatest emphasis on the other end of the language continuum.

In urban areas where there are a range of schools to choose from, the creation of new Welsh language provision extends choice. However, the conversion of a village school into a Welsh medium one prevents families from being able to choose how their children are educated, and risks creating social and cultural divisions.  

Llangennech has been a successful model of community cohesion where children from different language backgrounds have been educated side by side. Families who do not want a Welsh medium education for their children will be forced to travel outside the village. And the sense of community which has built up around the school risks being undermined; friendship groups will be disrupted, and child care arrangements will be complicated - these are all hard to measure but will all be affected by this change.

There are wider issues too. To walk to the nearest alternative school in Hendy, for example, would involve crossing a Motorway junction. This is clearly not practical and would therefore involve an additional car journey at a time of peak congestion - going directly against the sustainability and public health duties of the Council.

The debate over the future of the language has been marked by decades of consensus and goodwill about its growth. The handling of the issue in Llangennech has been insensitive and underlines the danger of not taking communities with us in our efforts to safeguard its future.

I would urge Councillors to think again

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Harnessing the algorithm

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 25th November 2016

Farming is not a subject that traditionally excites people much. But work being done by Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire could have far-reaching results that benefit us all.

I drew on the work being done by the college in a debate I arranged in the Assembly this week.

The college are at the forefront of what’s known as ‘Precision Agriculture’. At their farm at Gelli Aur near Llandeilo they are using satellite imagery to increase milk production.

By measuring the weekly growth in grass on their farm they calculate exactly how much feed the cattle need and decide which fields to put the cows in via a smartphone app.

It is a rapidly developing area where farmers gather a wealth of real-time information -  water and nitrogen levels, air quality, disease - data which isn’t just specific to each farm or acre, but to each square inch of our farmland.

At a time when we’re facing a future of food and water shortages across the world, and a changing climate, this approach to food production and land cultivation can dramatically improve productivity (and farmers income) as well as reducing harm to the environment.

But we haven't begun to scratch the surface of the potential of precision agriculture for Wales.

At my recent public workshop in Llanelli on developing a jobs blueprint for my constituency there was a consensus that we need greater ambition for the area if we are to withstand impending economic storms. And precision agriculture presents us with a prime opportunity for us to demonstrate this ambition.

One of the industries that will likely bear the brunt of Brexit is our food production and manufacturing industries - the removal of the CAP, and the likely imposition of export tariffs will hit our farmers hard. We need to prepare for this, and to find new, imaginative, innovative means to drive growth in this critical sector.

This week I helped secure cross-party support in the Assembly for the Welsh Government to develop a strategy that will put Wales at the forefront of the development of precision agriculture.

And students in this part of Wales can play a big part in this.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The first six months

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on November 18th 2016

It takes a while to adjust to any new role. Six months into being an Assembly Member I must confess that while there are elements that fire my enthusiasm, there are elements that make me tear my hair out.

The most satisfying part is representing the area where I was born and raised in our National Assembly: It’s a huge privilege, and a huge challenge too.
I’ve made a good start on the things I promised to do, like an economic strategy for Llanelli and creating a litter taskforce to clean up our streets. I’ve also spoken up on issues in the Assembly, challenging traditional thinking.

I set out to be a fresh voice for Llanelli, and I hope my first six months has shown that I’m not afraid to speak out on the issues I care about. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck between reflecting public feeling and being true to your principles. For me politics is about making an argument about changing society, not simply parroting what the latest opinion poll says. I’ve been encouraged so far that many people accept that I will sometimes hold opinions they don’t agree with, but they appreciate honesty and integrity.

One of the challenges of being an AM is finding the time to think and reflect; And to balance the role with the needs of my family.

Like countless families across the Llanelli constituency my wife and I struggle with juggling the needs of our children and the pressures of work.  Picking up and dropping off the kids is a challenge for us. My wife works for the NHS in Abercynon, and I need to be in the Senedd in Cardiff Bay four days a week, and active throughout the constituency on other days.

I also am hyper-accessible through social media and via my busy office in the town. I hold a joint surgery with Nia Griffith MP every Friday between 10 -11 at Lakefield Hall in Llanelli where you are welcome to come to speak wth me to discuss any issue you may have.

As I expected, the role is full-on. But I’m keenly aware our family life can’t be just about managing my demands. My wife is a professional in her own right, and my two children deserve the time and support of us both. They need stability in their young lives and that is why, instead of uprooting our children from their schools and friends, we’ve made the decision that I move around instead.

I split my time between Cardiff and Llanelli - where I have a family home which I stay in several times most weeks, enabling me to be busy and active working in the community.

I have got lots of plans for things I want to do and issues I want to raise over the next five years to improve our constituency. But I also want to be a good father to my two young kids, and a good husband.

It’s a challenge for sure, but also an opportunity to make a difference that I don’t intend to waste. And when its all over I want to be able to look myself in the mirror, and look my family in the eye, and have no regrets.

Monday, 14 November 2016

It’s not only Nissan that needs a deal

Published in Llanelli Herald on 11th November 2016

Though the fate of our steelworks have disappeared from the headlines the crisis facing the industry is still very real.

The underlying challenges steel manufacturing in the UK remain, in fact the uncertainty about what happens to our economy after we’ve pulled out of the EU has added some extra challenges in for good measure.

Not that you’ll hear the UK Government talk much about how it can help salvage our steel industry. They have taken action to protect the car industry - which remains important to us locally.

Ministers have given guarantees to Nissan in order to secure the future of the huge factory in Sunderland that if there are barriers to trade with Europe after we’ve pulled out the EU the UK Government will compensate the Japanese company.

It may well prove to be a very expensive promise. Compensating the foreign owned firm for any taxes that are put on car exports could well amount to hundreds of millions of pounds every year being passed on to Nissan’s shareholders from the UK taxpayer if the Brexit  negotiations don’t go out way.

It's just as important to safeguard our steel making industry as it to protect our car manufacturing base.  But while they’ve taken action on one, they only have words on the other. It's time Tory Ministers matched the efforts they’ve made for Nissan with real action to save our steel.

Whereas the UK Business Secretary travelled to make promises to the Nissan Chief Executive, Carlos Ghosn, to secure the manufacture of two new models in their Sunderland plant, the recent meeting between Tata and Welsh Government officials revealed that UK Ministers have not taken action to secure the future of steel manufacturing in Wales.

Ken Skates, the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Economy & Infrastructure, recently met with Tata UK Chief Executive Mr Bimlendra Jha and told me that Tata are not getting the same kind of promises from the Prime Minister. When Carwyn Jones met Theresa May recently he said how important it was that other manufacturing industries get a clear steer from her about their future, but she was short on detail.

The Welsh Labour Government have set out to Tata our commitment to the Steel industry - including reducing business rates, alleviating energy costs and examining how procurement practice can be better used to support Welsh steel. But the Tories must match that with a fair solution for the British Steel Pension Scheme and tariff free access of the single market.

And, crucially, we need the option of a management buyout back on the table.

This isn’t an issue that can be kicked into the long grass. Theresa May must prove her mettle.

Lee Waters is Welsh Labour AM for Llanelli