Newsdirect’s Health Reporter, Alex Myles, considers the biggest thing to happen in Welsh politics for quite some time.
After prolonged talks between the two parties, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru have published their Co-operative Agreement, promising ‘radical action in testing times’.
Labour fell one seat short of an outright majority at the 2021 election. Whilst they could probably have made some progress without a formal arrangement, it became clear as the new Senedd settled in that having some security would be preferable – especially as Wales emerged from the pandemic.
The agreement is not a coalition. Plaid MSs will not become government ministers although it is expected that Plaid Special Advisors will join government to ensure policies are progressed.
The policy programme agreed by the two parties is broad, consisting of almost 50 commitments across of policy areas ranging from education, housing, social care, the Welsh language and, unsurprisingly, energy, with an ambitious target to meet net zero by 2035.
The pledge which garnered early attention is the commitment to offer free school meals to all children in Wales, something which has caused headaches for both the UK and Welsh Government.
The agreement commits to reform Wales’ education system to ‘support all learners’ physical and mental wellbeing and their academic progression’. This includes promoting a more sustainable model of supply teaching, removing profit from care of looked after children, reforming school term dates to bring them more in line with patterns of family life and employment and reform qualifications, taking forward the Tertiary Education and Research Bill, changing how post-16 education is managed.
Social care has been a hot button issue for all UK administrations, with Brexit and the pandemic placing massive strain on a system that was already under significant pressure. Both leaders speak of their shared ambition to create a National Care Service, free at the point of need, and to better integrate health and care, rewarding and recognising workers in the process.
With stories of residents being priced out of their local communities, the agreement gives prominence to housing reform. A pilot and consultation to tackle the impact of second home ownership has already been drawn up by the relevant minister, Julie James. Perhaps the most controversial of agreement’s commitments, measures include increasing and reforming taxes and bringing more homes into common ownership.
As the cladding crisis continues to have a detrimental effect on leaseholders while house prices soar, Drakeford and Price commit to significant reform of building safety legislation, publishing a White Paper to make the rental market more affordable, and establishing ‘Unnos’ – a national construction company geared towards the supply of social housing. There is also a pledge to ‘end homelessness’.
Along with ‘Unnos’, the government also intends to create ‘Ynni Cymru’ – a publicly-owned energy company with the aim of expanding community-owned renewable energy generation. The party leaders will commission independent advice to examine how Wales could reach net zero by 2035, 15 years earlier than the previous target. As climate change will increase the risk of extreme weather events like floods, which already has adverse effects on some Welsh communities, there is a promise to commission a review into flooding and invest in flood defences.
‘Radical action’ are choice words, but these certainly are unprecedented promises that will be difficult to deliver. It’s important to note that nothing is set in stone here, and critics have been quick to poke holes in the agreement. It’s surprising to see no commitments geared to tackling worrying NHS waiting times and ambulance response times – some of the worst on record – something the Welsh Conservatives were all to keen to pounce on, saying the deal ‘fails to deliver on the priorities of the people of Wales.’
Some have also taken umbrage with Welsh Labour taking full responsibility for these measures when they previously voted against extending free school meals and issues such as second home ownership were only brought to light by grassroots campaigners.
It will be interesting to see how exactly these commitments are implemented and what effect they’ll have not only on the people of Wales, but the fracturing relationship between the Senedd and Westminster.
This is a deal with a shelf-life. Drakeford and Price have committed to working together on it for three years at which point we expect some political conscious uncoupling and quite possibly a new Labour leader.