The Welsh Conservatives chose Wrexham to launch their manifesto yesterday, and we did not get an invite. After a snarky tweet pointing that out we did manage to get a short notice sit down with their Leader Andrew ‘RT’ Davies so we posed him a few quick questions.
Wrexham.com: Your position on local authority council mergers and reorganisation is based around holding referenda for people, what kind of question would that ask?
The key to local government is that people identify with that local council to deliver the services, if you make huge great big organisations that are distant from the electorate then ultimately that connection breaks down. Our view is that if local authorities feel they can work together there should be a referendum held in those two areas and so long as both areas carry the agreement, that is the referendum of the people, then it should be allowed for them to merge.
We would not stand in the way if local people wanted it as ultimately you create local authorities to serve the people and deliver the services, rather than people in Cardiff drawing red lines on maps saying ‘that looks like a good idea’. Betsi Cadwalader was not exactly a brilliant idea of reorganisation was it? Just creating bigger authorities does not always mean you get a better model of service.
Mentioning we spoke to Leader of the Welsh Labour Party Carwyn Jones on Friday who mooted a two or three authority model for North Wales, we asked Mr Davies what number he had in mind.
I think what we need is a reorganisation from the bottom up rather than the top down and in Carwyn Jones’s model it comes from the top ie. the Welsh Government and is forced on communities. We have 22 local authorities at the moment, where mergers can be deemed to be in the public interest where local authorities, and I have used Conwy and Denbighshire for example, then that should be allowed to proceed subject to a local referenda. If Councils can put forward strong robust plans for delivery within their existing maps of responsibility then I don’t see why those authorities should not be allowed to continue.
Why did you launch the manifesto in Wrexham?
We are the only party to come to North Wales to launch our manifesto, all the others have launched in Cardiff with the exception of one other party that launched in Newport. There is more to Wales than the south east of Wales believe it or not. We are very proud of the representation we have here in North Wales. We have had a great representation in the Welsh Assembly, we have a good tradition here in North Wales and in particular north East Wales.
Record investment in the prison that is being built at the moment by the UK Government, proposals around the electrification of the north wales line, the delivery of the nuclear power station in Wylfa B, there is a real good news story to tell. We want people to know that as Welsh Conservatives we stand up for the whole of Wales not just one part of it.
Explaining how we had just published the story of yet again ambulances queuing outside the Wrexham Maelor we asked a two fold question, one on what the Welsh Conservatives would have done differently to Welsh Labour to prevent this situation from occurring and secondly what their proposals were for the future.
What we have to reflect on is we have some of the most dedicated and professional NHS staff in the UK, be that the porters the cleaners or the consultants doing the major surgery. Right across the board we have some of the most dedicated staff you will find anywhere in the UK. What we have been let down by is political leadership here in Wales, Labour have been in charge for 17 years and they cannot run away from that record.
Most of it can be tracked back to the devastating decisions taken in 2011, 2012 and 2013 to slash health spending here in Wales, a billion pounds has been taken out of the health budget here in Wales over the last five years by the Welsh Labour government supported by Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems.
Our commitment is to protect the health budget and to offer real terms increases each and every year over the five year term. This would allow health commissioners to plan services knowing they are guaranteed the resource over the full five year period. We would also reopen minor injury units across North Wales to take pressure off A&E departments, we are also committed to no hospital closures or downgrades.
Picking up Mr Davies point over Welsh NHS budget cuts, we pointed out many critics would say that was due to centralised budget cuts from a Conservative Government in Westminster.
That is not the case because the health budget in England was protected, and so the direct amount of money that was protected in the UK budget was passed over to the Welsh Government in an increased budget because obviously that is such a large part of the Welsh Government budget. Yes overall the Welsh Government budget has shrunk, but we inherited the biggest deficit of any government coming into power in 2010 in peacetime history. We had to stabilise the finances to make sure we could keep interest rates at the record rate they are at the moment at 0.5% so that businesses could expand and create quality jobs, because you can’t have good public services unless you have a growing economy creating a record number of jobs.
The Welsh Labour Government, along with Plaid Cymru and the Liberals when they were agreeing their budget deals took a political decision to cut the health budget here in Wales. Scotland did not do that under a SNP government, Northern Ireland did not do it and Westminster did not do it. They do have to face the political consequences of making such a political decision.
Noting the new proposed charges for some prescriptions in his manifesto we asked about what the level of ‘affordability’ would be and what exemptions would exist.
We spend about about £600 million on prescriptions in Wales, we are looking to free up around £35m to £40m of that. So £560m would still be provided, nearly 92% stay free, what we don’t think is right is a 40% taxpayer can walk into Tesco or to an independent pharmacy and have paracetamol, Bonjela or athletes foot powder on a free prescription when they could contribute a nominal £5 charge.
Mr Davies used the example of ‘millionaires’ getting free prescriptions in terms of social justice, so we asked about tax and fairness. We explained until recently Eagles Meadow was owned by a Luxembourg based company and had various tenants such as Starbucks. The latter of course being famous for having a chat with HMRC over tax, and agreeing a £20m bill on sales of £400m. We enquired on that basis what Mr Davies thought of the tax system, and where he would see Wales head on the topic under his potential leadership.
The current tax regime is that everyone who is based within the United Kingdom rightly has to pay the tax that they are due to pay, there are record amounts taxes going into HM Treasury helping to pay down the deficit, but also with the tax changes the Conservative Chancellor has made, has created an environment for businesses to invest with the capital allowances they are allowed, the corporation tax levels are the lowest in the western world outside of Ireland, that have allowed new companies to start up and there are 31 million people in employment across the UK.
We believe that if you allow businesses to keep money within their businesses they don’t salt it away in some Swiss bank account or take a lovely holiday out to the beach, they invest that, create extra employment or buy new kit to modernise their business.
There are income tax powers coming to the Assembly although there is a little uncertainty to when that will actually happen. It is my goal that Wales will become the low tax capital of Britain so we can keep our entrepreneurs and we can attract entrepreneurs to Wales so that we can create quality jobs especially in places like Wrexham, and across the whole of North Wales so that we can have decent rates of take home pay.
As Mr Davies touched on jobs in Wrexham so we felt it was a good time to ask about the forthcoming closure of the Wrexham HMRC office that will see 350 jobs leave the town, likely going to Cardiff. We cited a comment from a reader who wrote to the Wales Office over the issue, who had a reply basically saying Wrexham was not clever enough due to better numbers of graduates and a more diverse population . We asked Mr Davies if he agreed with that view.
No I do not accept that. I believe you have a very skilled workforce here in Wrexham and the whole of the north east of Wales, you can see that by the whole host companies that exist and are set up here. You have JCB down the road , Airbus in Broughton, Glyndwr University doing a fantastic job just across the road, the further education colleges offering apprenticeships the length and breadth of north Wales. We are committed in our manifesto to moving one of the major departments out of Cardiff to north east Wales because we want to be a government that instead of concentrating power in the south east actually pushes responsibility, power and jobs to all parts of Wales.
We asked if he knew which ‘major government department’ he would move, or if he had a shortlist in mind.
We would want to consult on it obviously, because it is important you get the capacity issues right. It is important there is the capacity in the locality where we would want to move the department to, that there are the skill sets and that there are the opportunities as well. We know this part of Wales has great opportunity and a great welcome to those who want to relocate.
Mr Davies’ manifesto mentions a ‘North Wales Powerhouse’. Citing a quote from Stephen Crabb MP where he described the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as a possible ‘competitor’ to Wales we enquired if they would be separate things, or if there would be a link.
I think there is a link, but they could potentially be two separate things. I think the point Stephen was making at that time was unless if the then current Welsh Government engaged in the process that there is a danger there could be a split. I think it is important the two grow together, and ultimately there is a linkage.
We know the links in North Wales are east to west and west to east and not north to south. I think it would be vital to have a government in Cardiff Bay that is the same colour as the government in Westminster to drive forward this city deal type concept, albeit that it is for the North Wales area, so that it could get traction to deliver the quality jobs and quality infrastructure projects and ultimately the economic growth we all want to see.
There are commitments from Westminster to support that as the Chancellor explained in his Budget, we can’t afford for it to fall down over political infighting because a Government of a different colour is elected to Cardiff Bay.
Referring to a piece we ran on Budget day where we pointed out the Chancellor’s North Wales Deal was mentioned in the same breath as Cardiff’s billion quid ‘City Deal’, yet the North Wales Deal did not have a specific plan nor funding we asked Mr Davies to put the ‘meat on the bones’ of a North Wales Powerhouse in terms of what he would like to see the outputs to be within one or two Welsh Government terms.
Importantly what we would want to do is to be able to leverage money in to improve the transport infrastructure in North Wales, so there are better communications, and importantly broadband connectivity is rolled out across all of North Wales so we do have super fast broadband and better mobile phone coverage. These are integral to developing a 21st century economy. At the moment you do not have to drive very far before you are out of 3G range for example, let alone 4G.
These are the type of things investors look at and actually see as some of the basics they require let alone the added value. It is by linking up the Northern Powerhouse with the North Wales Growth Deal that I believe we can overcome a lot of these problems.
One of Alun Cairns’(Secretary of State for Wales) first events he hosted was to get all the participants around the table to say right, how do we get this deal off the ground. It is important it is bought into from local authorities, from businesses and from community groups here in North Wales rather than it being dictated to from upon high. Our whole ethos is about localism and people taking control within their own area.
We then asked if there were any key infrastructure or capital spending projects Mr Davies would like to see built in North Wales, or invested in.
The improvements in the A55 go without saying because time and time again there are huge bottlenecks that are causing great economic damage to North Wales. Making sure the North Wales line is in the next envelope of funding, which I think is 2019-2024, where Network Rail will submit the projects that will get the funding in that funding window, and it is a vital consideration that the North Wales line is in that because there will be a huge economic price to pay if it is not.
We are developing the Wylfa Newydd development to make sure that it actually gets going on the construction front as they are high quality construction jobs paying decent wages. We want to make sure the North Wales Powerhouse Deal or Growth Deal actually moves forward and rather than being a talking shop does deliver tangible benefits on the ground.
Referring to the latest Trussell Trust food bank stats that we had written about earlier that day and pointing out that it was 2016 and children in Wrexham were getting ‘emergency packages’, we cited Labour’s Carwyn Jones’ verdict that the Tories in Westminster were effectively to blame. Anticipating a deflection of blame back to Cardiff we enquired what Mr Davies would do to intervene in Wales if he held power in a few weeks time.
We have got to have a strong economy to create quality jobs with decent take home pay and support for people who have fallen on hard times. If you look at the economic legacy that Labour left we would be in a mess the Greeks are in if we continued down the road of what Labour were prescribing for the UK economy.
What has happened is there has been a series of measures which have been put in place that have allowed the deficit to be paid down, the income tax threshold has moved up slowly and by the end of this Parliament be £12,000. Thirty one million people are in employment across the United Kingdom, which is a record number of people.
If you take disabilities, in the last twelve months 156,000 new jobs have been created for people who are registered with disabilities, there are now 3 million people in employment who are registered as disabled. Is there more we can do? Of course there is more we can do, but ultimately what we have to be doing is making sure we are keeping economic conditions right so that jobs are created and jobs are protected and take home pay continues to rise.
Are you seriously telling me John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn can deliver that? I think people know that when it comes to the economy it despite what people talk about rhetoric wise it is the Conservatives that deliver the conditions for record rates of economic growth.
After the short notice scan read of the manifesto we spotted a mention of ‘free town centre parking’, so we asked if this would be subsidies to local authority and private operators. The specific answer came during an explanation of the five elements of a ‘High Street Regeneration’ policy.
Free parking is an important part of the package we want to ensure comes forward, and that would be a mix of Welsh Government and local authorities working together to deliver that and splitting the business rates multiplier between large supermarkets and small in town traders, as at the moment if you are a large supermarket on the outskirts of town with a free carpark and all the other benefits you are paying the same business rates as a small trader such as a fish and chip shop on a High Street. That cannot be fair.
Another note in the manifesto that got us curious was a mentioned of attracting ‘major sporting events to Wales’, and in the context of the recent good news at Wrexham FC and it’s 99 year lease on the ground we asked not only which events they could be, but if there are any specific plans for the Racecourse.
The obvious one for us to bid for is the Commonwealth Games in 2026 I think. We believe Wales can host that and we would get behind that. We would work with governing bodies of all the sports in Wales because it does not have to be the big flash showcase events, there is a range of sports out there that deserve equal effort on behalf of the Welsh Government to attract european or world stature events to Wales.
Talking about the Racecourse I am a guy who can remember the Home Championships in the football, we used to play up here regularly. We do need to turn around the fortunes of the Racecourse, it has obviously over recent years jumped from one ownership to another and now it has gone back to the Supporters Trust. When you look what the Supporters Trust has done for Wrexham FC they have stabilised the ship, and have had a good run this season and I think they are just outside the playoffs, sadly just like Cardiff City at the moment as we are just outside the playoffs.
We have got the taste of success in Wales and we have got the facilities, with a little bit of effort and goodwill on all parties we can develop that into a european beating product if not a world beating product
To round up the questions we asked Andrew Davies about the believability of the Conservatives in Wrexham. Referring to the area’s proud mining and steel heritage and resulting ‘memory’ of the 80’s, right through to more recent times where Remploy was closed down by the Conservatives in Westminster, with resulting promises not kept over employment of the workers – we asked if it was a problem for the Welsh Conservatives in what has been seen as a traditional Labour area.
If you look at Andy Atkinson our candidate, or Simon Baynes in Clwyd South, you have two candidates there who are community champions. I walked on the High Street with Andy six weeks ago and he was instantly recognisable – but he was recognisable for the things he done. Rather than just leaflets through doors, traders were coming up and thanking him for sorting out some issues they had faced, doing events and festivals that promoted the town of Wrexham and making sure he championed the cause of the town.
Rather than taking Wrexham for granted and seeing it as a bankable seat Andy has been fighting tirelessly over the last couple of years to become that community champion. When you are in a chamber of 60 individuals that is what you need, you need someone who is a strong and passionate advocate for their home constituency that is prepared to stand up and make the tough calls rather sit cosily on the sidelines thinking this one is in the bag I don’t need to worry about this one.
The Labour party has taken Wrexham for granted for too long, and so it is now the time if people do want change they need to vote for that change. If they want another five years of managed decline, if they want to continue with the same old same old, then yes they will turn out and vote the same way they have always voted.
(Andrew Davies spoke with Wrexham.com on the afternoon of the 18th April)
You can read a similar style very quick Q&A with Welsh Labour’s Carwyn Jones here.
The full candidate lists for both Wrexham and Clwyd South can be found by clicking here.
Top picture: The manifesto launch, not taken by us as we were not there!