9. Short Debate: A rural poverty strategy for Wales

– in the Senedd at 6:34 pm on 15 May 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 6:34, 15 May 2024


Item 9 is the short debate, and I call on Cefin Campbell to speak to the topic he's chosen. Cefin.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru


Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. It's a great pleasure for me to put forward this debate on developing a rural poverty strategy for Wales, and I'm very pleased to give a minute each of my time to Siân Gwenllian, to Sam Kurtz and to Mabon ap Gwynfor.

I think the most obvious place to start is to ask the question, 'Why do we need a rural poverty strategy for Wales?' Well, for those of us who live in rural areas, what we see around us is a picture of decline—banks closing, schools, post officers, pubs, and so on, all closing; young people leaving rural Wales to seek work, to seek affordable housing, or a better life or better leisure facilities. In rural areas, in general terms, this is the picture that is familiar to everyone. Levels of income per head are lower than the average in Wales; the levels of gross value added and productivity are also lower. Taken together, the levels of deprivation in rural areas are lower than in urban areas. Who would think that Ceredigion, which has house prices that are amongst the highest in Wales, has 30 per cent of children living in poverty—the second highest rate in the whole of Wales. And what this shows is that the external view of relative wealth can hide poverty under the surface, and that, truth be told, is the situation in rural Wales as a whole: significant poverty hiding in the shadows, and invisible.

To add to this, the cost-of-living crisis has had a damaging impact on our rural communities. The Bevan Foundation has talked about the triple pressures on rural areas, namely high costs, low incomes and poor access to public services through a lack of support by Governments of different stripes. As Professor Calvin Jones from the economics department at Cardiff University has said:


The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:37, 15 May 2024

'Rural Wales is in trouble. Probably more trouble than in living memory, and from forces and trends that are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Economic dysfunction is old hat here of course. The social problems consequent on poor wages, low value added, and a lack of economic opportunity and market income are many and longstanding. These include poverty, the hollowing out of towns, poor service provision for rural areas, and the out-migration of the young.'

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:38, 15 May 2024


That's the pattern that all of us who live in these areas are familiar with. And despite the seriousness of the situation, every time I've called on the Welsh Government in this Siambr to develop a strategy tailored specifically to dealing with rural poverty—and I have done that several times, as some of you will know—the Government has said 'no', stating that poverty is poverty, wherever one might live. Well, I disagree. Research shows that urban poverty and rural poverty are different, and they should be treated differently.

So, as a result of a lack of response from the Government, I decided to take the reins and commission research, and to develop a strategy myself, by taking advice from experts and drawing on the most recent research in relevant areas. So, on the basis of this, I've developed recommendations in a number of policy areas, from transport, childcare, housing, energy, digital services and the rural economy, and I've come to the conclusion that this Government, and policy makers more widely in all parts of Wales, should give more consideration to rural Wales in everything that they do—in all of the strategies, all of the policies and all of the work programmes they develop and implement.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:39, 15 May 2024

Colleagues, one thing that has become abundantly clear in my research is the fact that current policy-making processes do not give appropriate recognition to the different and specific needs of our rural communities. Now, in Northern Ireland, for example, public bodies have a statutory duty to carry out a rural-proofing test on everything they do—every strategy, policy and work programme. This comes under the Rural Needs Act (Northern Ireland) 2016. The Welsh Government would argue that it has a rural-proofing tool that can be for integrated impact assessments. But Audit Wales found in 2018 that there are, and I quote,

'very few examples of public bodies using the Welsh Government's Rural Proofing Tool in revising or developing services. Too often, this results in a single broad-brush analysis that can overlook and ignore differences.'

So, the rural needs Act in Northern Ireland was developed precisely because a similar, non-statutory requirement likewise failed to meet the needs of rural communities there. So, if there's one thing—and only one thing—that I hope people will take away from the work I've done on rural poverty, then I hope it's the need for a similar law to the rural needs Act here in Wales. Also, we so desperately need appropriate targets for reducing poverty in rural Wales, something we know is not in the Welsh Government's current child poverty strategy, for example.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:41, 15 May 2024


And finally, we know that people in rural areas do not claim all of the benefits that they are entitled to, and we should do more to ensure that they do so. There are examples of best practice here, including, for example, Hwb Bach y Wlad in Carmarthenshire. The scheme includes taking a mobile unit around rural communities to talk to people and to offer support and advice to them, to individuals and families alike. This is excellent. Over the past four months, Hwb Bach y Wlad in Carmarthenshire has provided successful support to over 4,800 people, which is incredible, and it goes without saying that this model needs to be emulated in terms of community engagement across all rural parts of Wales. 

I now want to turn to specific policy areas and outline some of the most important specific issues, and propose possible solutions to them. In general, we know that all of these factors are drivers of poverty in rural Wales. They include: poor transport links and digital connectivity; fuel poverty, particularly in off-grid homes; high housing costs and low availability of affordable local homes, and too many holiday homes, Airbnbs and so on; poor access to childcare services; a fragile rural economy—nine out of 10 microbusinesses in rural areas employ fewer than 10 people; a lack of support for rural businesses; and uncertainty facing the agricultural sector, as has become clear during this week.

So, a number of these issues overlap, of course, and they call for co-ordinated solutions. Now, we've suggested in the strategy that will be published very soon a number of measures from the short to the longer term that touch on every policy area, so I don't intend to go through every one of them. So, in coming to a conclusion, I just want to refer certain aspects. 

In terms of transport, we need to rebalance the funding allocated to buses as compared to the funding provided to trains, with a view particularly to delivering free bus transport for our young people. 

On housing, we need to build on what has been achieved via the co-operation agreement, and we must go further, including following the example set by Gwynedd Council of buying back properties on the open market and letting them to local families. On energy, we must ensure that the Warm Homes programme is fit for purpose when it comes to rural dwellings, which tend to be off-grid and less well-insulated because they are older properties. Seventy four per cent of homes in Ceredigion and 55 per cent in Powys are off-grid homes, which means that the cap on energy costs doesn't apply to those who depend on oil.

We must expand the free childcare offer as part of a wider package to tackle child poverty, and we must consider interim measures, such as payments to grandparents who care for their grandchildren. At the end of the day, they are carers and they should be recognised financially and acknowledged financially for the invaluable work that they do. 

With digital issues, there remain too many digital notspots in rural Wales. We must see a new programme to ensure that fibre broadband is rolled out to everyone through a national broadband company, and that should be established as a priority.

Finally, we must create a new deal for self-employed people, a disproportionate number of whom live in rural communities, as I said at the beginning.

Also, we've suggested creating a new model to boost the rural economy in Wales, including the expansion of Arfor and the possibility of developing a new rural development board for Wales. As Professor Calvin Jones said:

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru 6:46, 15 May 2024

'Rural Wales is in trouble. Probably more trouble than in living memory'.

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru


I urge the Government to take these challenges seriously and to work with us to develop a strategy that would tackle rural poverty and revive our rural areas socially, economically and culturally. Thank you.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru


I'd like to thank you, Cefin, for bringing this short debate before us this afternoon. Like you, Cefin, this has been a concern of mine, as I represent a rural area. Everyone is aware that we are facing outmigration. It's happening in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and in Gwynedd; we're seeing the population growing older, and we're seeing the numbers in schools declining and the number of babies born in Gwynedd and the Welsh-speaking heartlands is falling. And why? That's what I'm eager to see: that commitment from the Minister to do a piece of work to look at why this is happening and why we're experiencing these things. There's one thing that's certain, which is that there is less investment in our rural areas, in the infrastructure, and we need to see the Government committing to that. How do we do that? Well, I'd like to hear the Minister this evening committing to calling on the Westminster Government to provide fair funding for Wales. Imagine what we could do with Crown Estates money and HS2 money: that could transform our rural areas. Thank you.

Photo of Siân Gwenllian Siân Gwenllian Plaid Cymru 6:47, 15 May 2024


Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this important debate. In a report commissioned by the Bevan Foundation on poverty in Arfon, the fact was underlined that there's a cost-of-living premium in rural parts of Arfon as a result of a lack of childcare, lack of public transport, high costs of public transport, high housing costs, high energy costs because of the low-quality housing stock, and a lack of access to supermarkets because of transport challenges, which leads to higher costs of living.

The report refers to food deserts, and these exist across the UK nations and they exist also in some of Arfon's communities, such as Dyffryn Nantlle and Deiniolen, where there isn't a supermarket, where public transport infrastructure is poor, and where people face having to pay more for food because of the cost of transport and travel and a lack of local choice. Dyffryn Nantlle is amongst the 10 per cent highest of food deserts across Wales and England. It is a difficult, vicious cycle, and part of the response is to improve public transport significantly. It's disappointing, therefore, that the possibility is that the Government is going to postpone the introduction of the bus Bill. Providing the ability to local authorities to commission bus services according to need is vitally important to solving and tackling rural poverty. It's disappointing to hear that that is no longer a priority, and I'd like to hear what the Cabinet Secretary's views on that are.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 6:49, 15 May 2024


Thank you, Cefin, for the opportunity to contribute this afternoon.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative

Forgive me if I draw attention once more to the cross-party group on rural growth's inquiry into rural productivity, where I think there's an opportunity to tackle rural poverty by improving the prosperity of those who work and live in rural Wales. I wonder if the Cabinet Secretary in his new role has had an opportunity to look at the report. If not, I'd welcome the opportunity to sit with him and discuss some of this, knowing that a lot of the 19 recommendations here are cross-portfolio, but understanding his role as the lead Cabinet member for rural Wales. But there are genuine opportunities within this report that do not require big money bags being spent to improve productivity in rural Wales. These are some small changes that can be implemented that can deliver real change in rural Wales, that would benefit people that we represent across Wales. Knowing that 80 per cent of Wales is rural, agricultural land, it just goes to show the importance of ensuring that rural Wales does have its opportunity to be prosperous, just like other parts of Wales too. Diolch, Llywydd.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:50, 15 May 2024


The Cabinet Secretary now to reply to the debate. Huw Irranca-Davies.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Diolch, Cefin. Thank you, Cefin, for tabling this short debate on rural poverty, and also Mabon and Siân and Sam for their contributions as well. I think we can all agree that this a crucial issue, because we know that, across Wales, including in our rural communities, many people are struggling with the cost of living, so it's right that we look at how poverty is experienced in different communities, and also at what we as Welsh Government can help with, and where our additional asks should be as well, I have to say. To that end, I'd be very happy to receive your report and have a look at it, Cefin. And Sam, just to say, we are digesting your CPG's report as well on rural productivity, and I'd be happy to sit down with you and talk through it in due course. We've been a little busy of late, but we will, we will.

What we're talking about here is over 80 per cent of Wales that is classed as rural, with around a third of our population, one in three people, living in rural areas. And those rural areas are quite different as well. There is deep rurality and there's also rurality at the top of the Garw valley, which is quite interesting in terms of some of the support, when we talk about giving rural support. So, I really do welcome the chance to debate the approach we're taking to help people right across Wales, and to ensure that we have equal access to the support that is on offer, regardless, I have to say, of whether you reside in a deeply rural or an urban area or areas in between. And on that basis, we believe, fundamentally, that taking a strategic approach to Wales as a whole is the right way forward, whilst also recognising the different challenges in different communities, including in rural areas.

So, we're doing this, for example, through the child poverty strategy. We're clear that we need to work together over the long term to help improve the lives of children, of every child in every part of Wales, right across Wales. No child should grow up in poverty. Every child in every part of the country should be able to look forward to living happy and hopeful lives and fulfilled lives. So, in order to help achieve this, we're driving collaboration within Government and more widely across Wales to rebalance actions towards preventing poverty, whilst also mitigating its worst impacts.

The strategy also rightly acknowledges, by the way, Cefin, that rural communities can face particular challenges. So, this is why the Government's wider work as well to support rural communities is so crucial. And that's a wide range of policies. So, yesterday, for example, I set out my plans to take forward support for the farming sector over the next couple of years. We know, as you pointed out, that there's a higher proportion of self-employed people in rural areas, who are more likely to live on lower incomes. Many self-employed people work in the farming industry or the associated supply chains. So, we've tried to show here that we as a Welsh Government are indeed listening, will continue to listen to rural communities, and, hopefully, with some of the reforms being taken forward, rural communities will benefit significantly from ongoing support for the food and farming sector as well.

But let me turn to some other areas. You've rightly pointed out that certain aspects of poverty are more prevalent, more heightened, in rural areas. So, for example, the risk of fuel poverty is higher, with around 28 per cent of households using off-grid fuel. This is a real issue. Now, since June 2022, we've taken the decision to allocate nearly £4.5 million in funding to enable the Fuel Bank Foundation to introduce a national fuel voucher and a heat fund in Wales, and this is where the Garw becomes quite interesting, because the voucher scheme, which has provided more than 57,000 fuel vouchers to date, supports all eligible households that prepay for their fuel and are at risk of disconnection. The Garw is interesting, as well as deep rural mid Wales, because the heat fund in particular responds to the needs to rural communities by providing for deliveries of oil and gas to those not connected to the mains gas network, and I know there are people in deepest Ceredigion, as well as deepest Garw, who have received support from this. In fact, it's supported 311 households to purchase off-grid fuel, and, to date, these interventions have supported a total of over 143,000 people.

We're also taking action to improve access to services in rural areas, recognising the difference. Transport links, which you mentioned, Cefin, and others touched on, particularly in rural areas, are essential for connections between people and communities and services and for access to opportunities as well. So, that's why Fflecsi, even in challenging times, is offering access to public transport where, previously, there was none. We are now trialling Fflecsi in 11 rural areas, where we are seeing—it's good to see—significant passenger growth, with the trials having now been used for over 100,000 journeys. 

Now, in mid and west Wales, through the local transport funding 2023-24, we are funding just under £1 million for TrawsCymru bus infrastructure in Ceredigion, and over £3 million on the development of Haverfordwest bus station. I'm just giving instances here of how we direct investment towards our rural communities. 

You touched on digital connectivity in rural areas. It's not always as good as it is in urban areas, but I'm looking across at Luke here—it's not always good in some of our rural areas within what are regarded as semi-urban or peri-urban areas. We've got to work on this right across the piece. But we will, Cefin, continue to use the levers at our disposal to support businesses, homes and the public sector in Wales to get the connectivity they need.

So, the full fibre roll-out with Openreach has now delivered full fibre broadband to over 44,000 homes and businesses across Wales. It's backed by over £50 million of public funding. That's the difference that these devolved institutions can actually make. 

We'll continue to use these existing initiatives, including Access Broadband Cymru, as well as maintaining a close working relationship with the UK Government, to ensure that the needs of Wales are addressed through Project Gigabit. That has to reach every part of Wales. 

So, I hope this makes clear to the Senedd that, as part of Wales-wide strategies, whilst recognising the differences, there is support that particularly benefits those living in rural communities to help tackle rural poverty. And can I just say? We know that in rural areas and urban areas, and all places in between, the last 14 years have not been kind to them. We've got communities and families across Wales, including across the countryside, feeling the impacts of damage to the UK economy. We know that help is needed, so we have put in place the discretionary assistance fund and the single advice fund, providing support that is really crucial for those struggling with the cost of living. In February 2024 alone, over 2,200 awards were made from that discretionary assistance fund in mid and west Wales alone. They totalled more than £257,000 for those in most financial need. And between January to December 2023, in the mid and west Wales region alone, over 18,700 people have accessed the single advice fund services and were supported to claim over £10.4 million of extra welfare benefits. We are really trying to target and drive this home within rural areas, as well as wider Wales.

The council tax reduction scheme is helping people who are on a low income, or claiming certain benefits, to pay some or all of their council tax bill. In mid and west Wales alone, over 47,000 households are in receipt of funding through the scheme. Almost 37,500 households pay no council tax at all. And, of course, rurality and the impact of people living in rural communities should always be considered in the development of policies. I'm sure, as all of us across the Siambr will know, the well-being of rural Wales is inextricably linked to the performance of the Welsh economy. It's for these reasons that the Welsh Government is required to undertake an integrated impact assessment when developing any policy. The process brings together a range of impact assessments into a coherent framework, rather than bits and bobs of everything, but this includes equality, Welsh language, the socioeconomic duty, children's rights and rural-proofing. I wrote to you, last week—I hope you've had it—a letter setting out the approach we take and the questions officials need to consider in the context of rural-proofing when developing those policies, and it's quite extensive. Cefin. 

Photo of Cefin Campbell Cefin Campbell Plaid Cymru

You used the word 'should' twice, maybe three times, in describing the rural proofing that should happen by Welsh Government. Now Audit Wales, as I mentioned earlier on, has clearly shown that this doesn't happen to the extent that it should. So, in order to avoid the arbitrary, ad hoc approach that, clearly, has happened in the past, would you be in favour of tightening that up by looking at Northern Ireland and emulating what they have, which is a rural needs Act, and rural-proofing becomes something that we have to do rather than should or maybe do?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 7:00, 15 May 2024

Cefin, look, it's a fair point, but can I suggest—? There is a requirement on officials, cross-Government, to undertake an integrated impact assessment, including rural-proofing. Officials have to consider every policy in the context of rural-proofing. If it helps, I'm more than happy to speak to other Cabinet colleagues, as this is in my brief, and re-emphasise the need to actually do this, but it has to be done. It's there within the way that we do this within Government. And if there's work to do on that, rather than put it on a statutory footing, I'm more than happy to drive this home right across all portfolios when developing policies.

I do understand the importance of doing all we can to tackle poverty in our rural areas. I'm not convinced that a rural poverty strategy on its own is the right approach. I'd rather that we focus on the actions, some of which I've laid out already—there may be more that we can consider, and that's why I'd be interested in receiving what you have come up with, Cefin—focus on the actions that we are currently taking, and actions that we can take going forward, through the plans, the actions and the strategies that we've already got in place, to make tangible improvements in the day-to-day lives of people living in rural communities right across Wales.

But I thank you genuinely for bringing the debate and the contributions from other Members. It's right that we discuss this, and it's right that we discuss the way that we can lift the lives of everybody in Wales, not just out of poverty, but to develop lives that are full of richness and opportunity as well. Lifting people out of poverty is one thing. Lifting them to even higher ground than that is something we should all be looking for. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 7:02, 15 May 2024


I thank the Cabinet Secretary and everyone who contributed to that debate. That concludes our business for today.


The meeting ended at 19:02.