While Ed Miliband used his conference speech to outline his vision for a One Nation country under a Labour government, in Cardiff Labour were busy making a reality of such a vision as finance minister Jane Hutt delivered the second draft budget since the 2011 Assembly elections.
Midway through a spending review period which, in 2010, saw ministers in Whitehall deliver a substantial cut in the budget for Wales, the finance minister sought to outline plans for the £15 billion available to spend in 2013/14 to support the twin objectives of creating new jobs and kick starting growth.
Amongst the key measures announced were:
• £65m for transport improvements - including £40m for the Brynmawr to Tredegar section of the A465 Heads of the Valley Dualling Programme and £25m for improvements to the A55 Conwy Tunnel;
• £30m for hospitals - comprising £18m to support the redevelopment of Morriston Hospital, Swansea, and £12m for adult mental health facilities in Llandough Hospital, Cardiff, and Glanrhyd Hospital, Bridgend;
• £25m for schools and colleges - including £15m in 2013-14 to accelerate a number of schemes under the 21st Century Schools programme;
• An additional £10m in 2014-15 for high-speed broadband to ensure universal access by 2015. This builds on the additional £10m being allocated in 2013-14 for Next Generation Broadband Wales from the Centrally Retained Capital Fund;
• An additional £13m for capital investment in the Flying Start for families with children under four;
• £12m to expand the Welsh Housing Partnership;
• £10m for domestic energy efficiency projects;
• An additional £10m to support a programme of vital flood and coastal defence improvements across Wales.
The draft proposals continued by committing to:
• Continued protection for the health budget - with plans for the second year of the three year funding package of £288m for the NHS that was announced in last year’s budget up to 2014-15;
• Growing the social services budget in the Revenue Support Grant - which by 2014-15 will be £35m higher each year than in 2010-11;
• £20m revenue funding, which forms part of the additional allocation of £55m announced in last year’s budget, in support of the government’s Five for a Fairer Future commitment to double the number of children benefitting from Flying Start. This brings total additional investment for Flying Start over the three years 2012-13 to 2014-15 to £74m;
• Protecting funding for schools, meaning an extra £185m will have been invested in schools since 2010-11;
• Maintaining a commitment to the Pupil Deprivation Grant - with funding worth £36.8m in 2013-14, an increase of £4.7m on 2012-13;
• Maintaining universal benefits – such as free prescriptions, free concessionary bus travel, free school milk and breakfasts and free swimming, which, ministers argue, “provide a vital shield for the people of Wales and helps mitigate the impact of the actions being taken by the UK government, such as welfare reform”. This is likely to prove controversial given Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont’s ongoing attacks on Alex Salmond and the SNP administration for being unable to afford such universal benefits.
Outlining the plans, Jane Hutt explained the Welsh government was doing all it could to boost growth and jobs in the face of serious cuts from Westminster.
“Our number one priority is to deliver a budget for growth and jobs which will create a more prosperous Wales, by encouraging economic growth and creating and sustaining jobs.
“Despite the Welsh budget being £2.1bn lower in real terms by 2014-15 than at its peak in 2009-10 as a result of cuts imposed by the UK government - including a 45% cut in capital over that period - we have ensured all Welsh government departments see an increase in funding.
“We stand by the decisions we have taken that underpin our budget - our investments in schools and skills, in health and in social services to ensure we can deliver our Programme for Government.”
Having won 30 out of the 60 Assembly seats available in last year’s elections, ministers will now have until the end of the year to seek support for their proposals from another party if they are to see a budget passed safely.
Having last year been prepared to support the budget by insisteining a Welsh version of the pupil premium be included, the Lib Dem leader in Cardiff, Kristy Williams, has once again put education at the heart of her budget wish list.
Outlining her calls prior to the budget being delivered she concluded:
“We are immensely proud that when we are out knocking on people’s doors, it is the Pupil Premium that people remember from that particular budget. We used our influence to give all children a fairer start in life.
“Nonetheless, we can’t just sit back and believe the job is done. In this budget, we are calling on the Welsh Labour government to make further moves to ensure that Wales’s children are not allowed to be left behind.”
For Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, for an agreement to be reached it is the pursuit of measures to tackle youth unemployment that will need to be a priority. No stranger to working with Labour having served as Carwyn Jones’s deputy in the last Assembly, the party’s shadow finance minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, responded to the budget proposals:
“This is the second budget which delivers significant cuts to key services. Against this background of cuts we believe that the Welsh government should be doing more to invest in the Welsh economy by using innovative schemes such as Build4Wales to invest in schools, roads and hospitals.
“We also want to see the Welsh government doing more to target youth unemployment, which has increased dramatically over recent years. We don’t want another lost generation as happened in the 1980s under Thatcher.”
Whilst a deal is pretty much impossible at best, the Welsh Conservatives, despite cuts being made to frontline services in England, sought to attack the Cardiff government of failing to look after the NHS.
Tory shadow finance minister Paul Davies explained:
“It’s Groundhog Day for our National Health Service. Snubbed again and still facing the toughest funding settlement in the UK. Hospital downgrades and closures threaten communities the length and breadth of Wales as a result of Labour’s record-breaking cuts. Lessons have not been learned and the plight of frontline health workers has not been heeded.
“The first minister has admitted our health boards probably won’t break even and bail-outs will be required again, yet there is no additional investment in this draft budget. Chaos and confusion reign.”
Finally, picking up on the continued controversy in Scotland over Johann Lamont’s apparent campaign to bring to an end certain universal free benefits such as free perceptions, and the reluctance in Cardiff to follow suit, the BBC’s political editor in Wales, Betsan Powys, wrote on her blog:
“There was one in the eye for Johann Lamont, Scottish Labour leader. Universal benefits are going nowhere in Wales. Labour, in Wales, put them in their manifesto. They won the Assembly election hands down. No matter that Ms Lamont regards freebies as a “cynical trick” designed “to make people believe that more was free, when the poorest are paying for the tax breaks for the rich”.
Jane Hutt stood in the Assembly chamber and defended them as “a vital shield” for those who benefit from them.
“Is a free prescription a vital shield for someone on £50,000 a year, I asked her? She didn’t dwell on the detail but the principle was clear enough. Wales voted for a party that supports universal benefits. They are staying.”