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In his latest CEO Blog, Gus Williams discusses the five pledges that Kier Starmer has made for what a Labour government would look to achieve if it wins the next General Election.

The pledges are reasonable and it’s difficult to disagree strongly with any of them, but that is partly because they are lofty in ambition but light on policy.

At Bevan Buckland LLP, we represent over 3,500 businesses, charities, not-for-profits, clubs, associations and individuals across South Wales.  A common theme I hear speaking to many of them is that they feel their individual voices are not by governments, locally, in Cardiff and in Westminster.

The answer to that is for all of us to get involved and make our voices heard, the more we all speak the more we will be listened to.

To make my voice heard I thought I would have a go at what I would like Labour’s five pledges to mean in terms of UK and Welsh government policy.

Pledge 1.  To get the UK’s growth rate to the top of the list of G7 countries by the end of the first term.  For decades governments have relied on luck rather than any seriously coordinated set of policies when it comes to boosting growth.  That luck ran out for the UK 12 years ago.  For Wales to achieve higher economic growth I would like to see a focus on skills, housing and infrastructure.  Any Welsh business that is looking to grow and recruit will know that there are two fundamental challenges: there are not enough people in the labour pool and those that are, do not have the required skills.

To attract more young people, young families, professionals, and skilled workers to Wales, we need to offer a good quality of life.  For most people that starts with providing housing opportunities that meet people’s needs and desires.  I’d like to see policies for Wales that move away from meeting quotas through large-scale identikit new build developments in the wrong places, seemingly disconnected from our towns and cities and with little sense of community and few amenities.  It is genuinely shocking that we haven’t yet fully learnt from the town planning errors of the past.  The answer to the town planning errors of the past has been to not bother with any town planning at all.  The town planning issues of the past were the mistakes of prioritising car use over amenities and building council estates that were too expensive to maintain.  We know the issues, and we need to encourage ambitious town planning based on increasing the availability of housing in our cities and major towns.   Bungalows amongst the beautiful hills and valleys are great for attracting retirees.  The young want city and town centre living and young families want suburban communities with good amenities and access to schools and work.

I’d like to see policies to encourage public and private investment in regenerating our existing town and city centre housing stock and bold town planning of new suburban communities for families with good public transport and amenities, particularly around Swansea.  If I wanted to push policy all the way I would like to see a development plan that treats South Wales between Cardiff and Swansea as a growing conurbation.

Along with skills and housing, economic growth policies for Wales should focus on economic infrastructure.  To take advantage of the opportunities presented by renewable energy investment and the de-globalisation of manufacturing we need to build the infrastructure.  Roads, factories, warehouses and offices.  Time and again, transport infrastructure has always proved to be crucial to economic development.  From the time of the canals, railways, docks, to the era of the road.  None of these got built without government support.  The recent new road policy in Wales has a glaring hole and will stifle economic development.  Judging the carbon impact of new roads MUST take into account the global carbon footprint of what we produce and consume.  Building new roads to bring industry back to Wales, industry powered by renewable energy, will massively reduce the UK’s global carbon footprint.  The carbon footprint of a revitalised Welsh manufacturing sector powered by renewable energy and with short journeys to markets across the UK would massively reduce the global carbon footprint of UK consumers by reducing dependence on goods manufactured in places like China which use heavily polluting coal and oil fired electricity and have to travel thousands of miles powered by highly polluting, low grade shipping oil.  The Welsh Government’s road policy ignores the fact that in reducing our global carbon footprint by re-industrialising South Wales with low carbon energy, we will have to increase freight transport emissions in Wales.

The policy focus for increasing economic growth in Wales should be simple and focus solely on skills, housing and economic infrastructure.

Pledge 2. Clean energy by 2030.  Wales is already at the top of most league tables for renewable energy production per capita.  Wales is one of the best placed countries for producing reliable wind , hydro and tidal power generation.  Just as the geography of the coal seams and ports powered the first industrialisation of south Wakes, geography could power a second industrial revolution for Wales built around cheap, reliable, renewable energy.  The transition to clean energy will require huge industrial manufacturing activity around the world.  The Welsh government should focus on building out the industrial and manufacturing capacity to support the move to clean energy.  Huge amounts of natural resources are needed to support the manufacture of renewable technologies, many of these resources will have to come from South America and further afield, we should be looking to invest in our port capacity to support the import of the raw materials and export of the finished product.  There are large amounts of public money popping up in different places under different initiatives to support the transition to a green economy and the Net Zero target.  I’d like to see all of this money focussed on building out our manufacturing infrastructure and capacity in Wales to support what is needed for wind, hydro and tidal turbines, hydrogen production, storage and transport, power storage capacity and innovation.  If we focus our green policies and financial support on building up a large green energy manufacturing base, the economic growth will then generate the income, profits and taxes for the public and private sector to invest in reducing our carbon footprints.  The best way to get businesses to invest in carbon reduction and net zero targets is to help those businesses to be profitable and successful.  Policies focussed on splitting up the funding pot into small grants and subsidies will not move the needle on net zero and will waste public funds.

Pledge 3.  NHS Reform.  We all love the NHS, but what we all really love and want to protect is the principle of a healthcare system that is free at the point of use, and we love the frontline people who keep the NHS running and the people we see working hard to provide care to our loved ones.  The root cause of the problems in the NHS are that it has been kicked around as a political football.  The NHS is the only political issue about which people care where the Labour Party has always polled better than the Tories.  Labour treats the NHS as sacrosanct and beyond criticism.  The Conservative Party is too often offended by the socialist principles of the NHS which has led to endless half baked reforms to increase what they see as the holy grail of “competition” and “efficiency”.  If I could offer a single policy that solved the issues with the NHS then I’m probably in the wrong job.  However, I would like to see a commission for Wales tasked with establishing the fundamental truths and principles on which a future NHS should be run.  Politicians should take, at most, the equivalent role of board of governors when it comes to running the NHS, not the role of chief executives.  The job of running the NHS is way beyond any small group of politicians, especially if they are ideologically driven.  The fundamental truths I see around the current NHS are:

We get what we pay for.  Health outcomes in the UK are worse than some other developed countries largely because those countries spend more on healthcare.  We spend somewhere in the middle.  If we want better healthcare we should all be prepared to pay for it through increased taxation.  That is the simple truth.

The myths of competition, privatisation and free markets in the NHS.  In free markets theory, the principle is that competition drives innovation, and innovation increases prosperity.  Over the past 20 years UK governments have got bogged down in the idea that you can apply this principle to the NHS to reduce costs.  Politicians espousing these ideas seem to have no idea of how the free market principle actually works.  The free market drives innovation, one of the common side effects of this is reduced costs and efficiency, but free market theory is not directly about reducing costs.   Think of all the things we spend a greater proportion of our income on due to innovation – technology is far more expensive to buy that 20 years ago (think 4K Tvs and smart phones), but they do more and add more value.  In the NHS we have had an incoherent set of reforms trying to introduce “free markets” into the NHS with the aim of reducing costs.  This is a problem. You cannot “manufacture” a free market in a closed economic system like the NHS, so the reforms have just created a bunch of mixed incentives based on a flawed theory that doing so will reduce costs.

The fundamental problem with a closed economic system like the NHS, increasingly run centrally, is not reducing costs or increasing efficiency, it is how do you encourage and facilitate INNOVATION to improve outcomes.  This fundamental misunderstanding of how the principles of market forces, competition and privatisation can and should (or not) be applied in the NHS has left the NHS in a mess.  The simple, repeatable, efficient parts of the NHS have been part privatised draining easy profits for the private sector out of the public purse.  This drain on funding has left the NHS having to manage all the increasingly complex aspects of healthcare provision with less of the money pot.  Using centralised targets and rules to try and create an internal market has just created warped incentives that focus on meeting abstract targets, these incentives do not encourage innovation in health outcomes or service provision.

Where there have been huge innovations and improvements in outcomes is in Cancer treatment and care.  That innovation in has happened because you have well funded public, charitable and private institutions working together outside, alongside and inside the NHS, not because of some bogus “internal market”.   Reform of the NHS should focus on debate about the level of funding healthcare should receive and breaking up the centralised institutional structure of the NHS to encourage front line innovation.  Create national specialist centres where innovation is driven by academic and clinical research and create localised primary care institutions who can set their own priorities, plans and control spending to meet the needs of the local population.  The role of central NHS management becomes one of facilitating the sharing of best practice between independently managed institutions.

  1. Criminal justice reform. Our criminal justice system was designed in and for the 19th century. It is not a system that is fit for purpose in the 21st century.  Reform has never happened because the “lock ‘em up” brigade always seem to shout the loudest.

Reform should include recognition that different criminal acts have different root causes, different societal impact, and should be treated separately.  Criminal acts can generally be broken down to: crimes of addiction, crimes of mental health, crimes of greed (including most organised crime), anti-social behavioural crimes and crimes of violence, sexual crime, psychopathic and sociopathic crimes.  They all have different root causes, different degrees of culpability, and require different means of rehabilitation.  I won’t get on my hobby horse here, however one of the key problems to address is that justice needs to be swift and timely, particularly for minor youth offending.   Taking six months to prosecute someone for a minor offence and then fining them a minimal amount is a complete waste of public money with no justice or rehabilitation value to society.  Likewise criminalising people who made life mistakes serves little purpose.  I’d like to see “no blame” rehabilitation orders for minor crimes that don’t create a lifelong criminal record for offenders and more money for early intervention.  Crimes of addiction and mental health are largely socio-economic in origination and we need to address those socio- economic issues, as are many crimes of violence. Crimes of greed, including what is often called white collar crime, is too often seen as victimless and not prosecuted and punished to the extent it should be, despite the fact that these are often the only real crimes of moral choice.

Pledge 5. Break down barriers to opportunity for every child by reforming childcare and education.  Am increasingly centralised, OFSTED driven, and league table focussed education system has narrowed the definition of what is a “successful” education and thus narrowed the knowledge and skillset of school levers entering the workforce. A higher education system focussed on numbers and growth has also channelled too many young people down a narrow path of academic education with poor skills and job outcomes.  Abandonment of schemes like the YTS because it was seen as limiting the ambitions of the working class and the expansion of Universities under Blair/Brown in the mistaken belief that just by sending everyone to university they will earn more money, were misguided policies which we are now paying for – without even getting into the growing student debt burden.  Education should be a value adding process, we need a skills based system of education with multiple streams that are judged on the value they add to individual life opportunities and outcomes, not based on GCSE and A level rankings.  We’ve moved to far towards a rote system of learning that favours those who can afford private tutors or can pay for schooling.  A return to allowing teachers greater license to teach problem solving and creative thinking along with an educational ethos and qualification system that promotes broader post-school ambition would be welcome.   This probably requires an overhaul of the qualifications system and a less centralised syllabus.

These are just my thoughts, but I hope my thoughts may encourage a few of you to think about how we can address these issues in Wales, and how we can take advantage of the opportunities ahead of us.  More importantly, as you are all leaders, role models and an intrinsic part of your communities,  I hope I can motivate some of you to get involved and make your voices heard, whichever part of the political spectrum you are on.