Joe Atkinson takes a look at talking points that will dominate the Senedd in 2019.
2018 was perhaps the most tumultuous year in British politics for decades. From the ongoing deadlock in parliament over Theresa May’s Brexit deal to four leadership elections in the National Assembly for Wales, it was a year of conflict and change that culminated in the appointment of Mark Drakeford as the new First Minister of Wales.
At the start of 2018 you’d have had astronomical odds on Professor Drakeford, Paul Davies, Adam Price and Gareth Bennett all winning elections to lead their parties within a calendar year. Predicting the future in politics is notoriously difficult, but we’ve had a go anyway – here’s what to expect in Welsh politics in 2019.
Economy and Transport
A decision on the M4 relief road has been just around the corner for many years now, but it seems a verdict really is imminent with the passing of the reins from Carwyn Jones to Mark Drakeford. The appointment of Lee Waters as deputy economy and transport minister is an interesting one; Mr Waters has strongly opposed the relief road, calling instead for investment in public transport and cycling and walking routes. Despite the Llanelli AM’s insistence that he won’t have a say on the decision, his appointment could be read as a signal the road won’t go ahead. Transport for Wales will be hoping for a less eventful 2019 after a trouble-filled start to its running of the Wales and Borders rail franchise. Delays, cancellations and trains being withdrawn for servicing blighted the new operator after it took over from Arriva last October, but the government has insisted change won’t occur overnight.
Health and Social Services
Public health was a focus of some of Mark Drakeford’s more stand-out campaign pledges, including a national roll-out of water fountains and a ban on smoking in city and town centres. The government will continue implementing reforms to health and social services through its ‘A Healthier Wales’ plan which focuses on bringing health and social care services closer together and designing services around individuals. There will also be legislation to make health and social care organisations more open and transparent, and to implement a contentious ban on parents smacking their children.
We’ll have first sight of the new Welsh national curriculum in the spring as the government progresses its roll-out of the most significant education upheaval in Wales for decades. Kirsty Williams, the Liberal Democrat who retained her role as Education Minister in the recent reshuffle, has implemented sweeping changes to a system that has seen Wales achieve the worst results in the UK for many years. Expect developments in the slow-moving reform of post-compulsory education and training; the Welsh Government plans to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales with an all-encompassing Tertiary Education and Research Commission for Wales.
International Relations and Welsh Language
Eluned Morgan, who stood unsuccessfully to be First Minister, won a consolation prize as she joined the cabinet to be the newly created Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language. The role reflects the increasing importance the government is placing on international relations and marketing itself globally in response to Brexit, as it prepares to have more limited access to European markets. Baroness Morgan previously had responsibility for the Welsh language as a junior minister, and it will be interesting to see how she ties her portfolio together; AMs have recently discussed the potential for Wales to market itself around its bilingualism and become a world leader in bilingual technology.
Housing and Local Government
One of Mark Drakeford’s manifesto pledges was to promote housing to the cabinet to reflect its importance. Julie James, the former chief whip, has taken on the role of Housing Minister with additional responsibility for local government. The Conservatives have ramped up criticisms of Welsh Government housing policy in recent months, releasing their own rival housing strategy and claiming not enough houses are being built. It looks to be a big year in terms of local government reform as the government looks to take legislation through the Assembly to reform council election arrangements. After a highly publicised spat last year plans to impose mergers on councils were put on ice, but the government’s previous local government minister Alun Davies was adamant that the current structure of 22 councils is unsustainable.
Brexit and Law
Jeremy Miles has been made Brexit Minister, and retains his role as Counsel General, pending approval from AMs. With fewer than three months to go until Brexit day Mr Miles will surely have his hands full navigating the increasingly choppy waters that could lead to a no-deal Brexit his government has been warning against for months. Mr Miles is also busy taking the Legislation (Wales) Bill, which will improve accessibility of Welsh law, through the Assembly.
Energy, Environment and Rural Affairs
This is a portfolio intricately connected to Brexit, with much discussion over the impact of leaving the EU focusing on the effect on Welsh farmers and environmental protections. Lesley Griffiths, the minister in charge of this portfolio since the 2016 Assembly election, has spent much of her time discussing how a future farm payments scheme for Wales would work, and received criticism for suggesting she would drive ahead with her proposals even if farmers responded negatively. In April, the Welsh Government will receive the power to consent over energy projects with the capacity to generate up to 350MW of energy, where it previously only had powers over projects up to 50MW.