Cllr Debbie Wilcox speech to Welsh Labour Conference in Llandudno, Saturday 21st April 2018
***Check against delivery***
I am conscious of the fact that bookending this conference in the Saturday “graveyard shift” is never easy. It comes at the end of a full and exciting day and with the prospect of our annual dinner this evening. Therefore, my role is to follow the advice of Thomas Jefferson who once stated that “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do”.
Firstly, I am delighted to see a woman as Deputy leader of our party in Wales and my warmest congratulations go out to Carolyn Harris I am also proud to stand in front of you giving my first official speech to conference as the first woman leader of the WLGA. As you know I put my name forward for the deputy leadership. I only mention it because I was told during the nomination process by someone in our party that I must “not to overdue the local government angle”. An interesting piece of advice to the leader of Newport Council and leader of the WLGA that I happily ignored!
Conference it is my contention that we need to value our councillor base much more than we do. Councillors are a key source of funding to Welsh Labour and the eyes and ears of the party on the ground. We are the door knockers and campaigners. We know our local communities and throughout the years of austerity we have sought to protect them.
Labour leaders in Welsh councils run the best councils. Look at the regeneration of Newport city centre that we have led, examine the renaissance of Cardiff and Swansea over the past decade, look at our valleys authorities ranging from Torfaen, RCT, Caerphilly, Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot who have brilliantly dealt with the legacy of the decline of traditional industries and go down the road from this hall to see Flintshire again building council houses.
I want to pay tribute to all my fellow leaders Andrew Morgan, Anthony Hunt, Rob Stewart, Aaron Shotton, Rob Jones, David Poole, Huw Thomas and Huw David for the huge support and encouragement they have given me in undertaking this role. I could not ask for a better group of comrades. But more than that they demonstrate how labour councils working with a devolved administration offers a clear alternative to the Tory carnage in England. It is a model that our party will need to develop the moment Jeremy Corbyn enters Downing Street and starts to build a new Britain out of the debris left by Tories and Lib Dems. I was delighted to ask to contribute an essay to the LGA publication “On Day One” which is a series of essays by Labour Council Leaders giving advice to Jeremy about engagement with local government on the day he becomes Prime Minister in the next government of the UK! A day that cannot come soon enough! In my essay entitled – for England see Wales I set out the way in which Wales can provide a model for local government working with national government as we have done so successfully for many, many years.
Throughout the period of Tory austerity Welsh councils have worked closely with Welsh Government to blunt the impact of austerity and offset its excesses. We have avoided the Westminster approach of using councils as “human shields” for cuts and seeking to shift the blame for their failed management of the economy to the Town Halls.
In this context we are struck by the irony watching Conservative MPs attacking Tory Northamptonshire for issuing a Section 114 notice for a “bankruptcy”. Happily, the so called “EasyJet” council based on mass privatisation is dead. But these same MPs are blaming the victim. It is they who have caused this with failed economic policies that have been the weapons of mass destruction of our public services.
In Wales we do things differently. In relationship terms, the model of a Welsh Labour government and Labour Councils working to offset the Tory attack on our communities should provide a blueprint to a new Labour Govt to deal with the crisis that councils face. No one expects us to wave a magic wand but the grotesque spectacle of Ministers like Eric Pickles and Sanjeev Javid pretending to promote “localism” while they seek to destroy local government will be consigned to the nearest refuse collection vehicle.
But Wales is far from immune from the Tory onslaught. It has been harder hit by welfare cuts than other parts of the UK and the legacy of Thatcher’s attack on our communities still impacts. The past decade has been a nightmare for elected councillors trying to balance the books, save jobs and protect frontline services. These are the issues that Welsh Councils and our Labour government have sought to address. But this has been intensified by “permanent austerity” which is challenging the very existence of the Welsh public realm.
For example, the pressures on Welsh social care will rise by around 4.1% a year between 2015 and 2030/31, due to demography, chronic conditions and rising costs. This will require the budget to almost double to £2.3bn by 2030/31 to match demand.
In response to this our Finance Cab Sec Mark Drakeford and Local Government Cab Sec Alun Davies are looking for ways to make social care sustainable into the future.
WLGA fully support this work. We recognise that with a small sacrifice Wales can tackle this problem via a system of enhanced social insurance or tax. If Welsh workers paid a levy of just 1%, that could bring in some £280m a year. There are different ways to carve that up. At most £80m could go immediately to social care, leaving £200m a year to accumulate in the fund for the future. That would be an immediate increase of 15% in social care spending for the elderly.
Contrast this social justice approach with the so- called Tory “dementia tax” and it leads me to question why such a policy should not become a key focus for our party entering a general election? Let’s actively develop a new approach about a dedicated social security fund that means everyone can be promised adequate social care in old age. Such a promise could revolutionise the way we live our later years and prove that we are on the side of older people who have given so much to this country.
In another setting I am proud to state that in Wales we have studiously avoided outsourcing services to the private sector. We have worked closely with our colleagues in the Wales TUC together to manage change as a fundamental part of how we improve the delivery of public services in Wales. Our primary purpose is protecting the public services workforce as a far as we can.
We are aware that this social partnership approach is an anathema in England, but it has reaped huge dividends in the Welsh context. Wales has a national Workforce Partnership Council (WPC) chaired by our First Minister where the public services workforce and its future is at the heart of all our considerations. The vision for Public Services in Wales is shared by Social Partners - Welsh Government, WLGA and Wales TUC - and we as local government employers are proud to have supported the Trade Union Act to reverse the divisive UK approach that was a fundamental attack on workers rights.
The WPC has also been the forum for debates about local government reform. Welsh Councils have built regional frameworks into City Deals and growth bids. In South East Wales I am delighted to be involved in the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal. This is a £1.28 billion programme which will achieve a 5 per cent uplift in the region's GVA by delivering a range of programmes which will increase connectivity, improve physical and digital infrastructure. Our intent is shown by the City Region Cabinet which has already agreed to invest £37.9 million to support the development of a compound semiconductor industry cluster in SE Wales.
Finally, I don’t want to re-run the debate on structures today. What is important is the meaningful and positive way that Alun Davies has engaged with the WLGA since becoming Cabinet Secretary. He is asking important questions about new powers and about long-term sustainability. He has laid to rest the divisiveness and rancour caused by a previous Minister for Public Services and all leaders will positively respond to his Green Paper. He knows that the WLGA isn’t the Blessed Order of St Mary of the Meek and strong views are held on the way forward and these will be conveyed. But this will be done in a respectful and open way with political dialogue between Labour Leaders and the Cabinet Secretary and I promise with no swearing! On both sides!
Conference I would like to offer a big thank you to these “happy few” for staying to hear these words from the WLGA. Enjoy the fringe events – enjoy the conference dinner this evening and I look forward to being with you tomorrow to hear the speech of Britain’s next Prime Minister!