The Importance of Learning Lessons from the Pandemic as the Cost of Living Crisis Looms Large
With one Government sitting on its hands and another washing its hands of all responsibility, where does that leave Wales? Leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, writes for the Byline Times
An important lesson was learnt during the pandemic: Homelessness could be ended overnight. When the order came to stay at home, so too, did the solution to find a home for everyone. All it took was a crisis, and the political will.
So now, in the face of a crisis of a different sort – a cost of living crisis – which threatens to force people out of their homes, be it through rising rents, unaffordable mortgages, or landlords forcing eviction – the question is: Will that same political will be applied to this crisis?
Much has been said about the cost-of-living crisis, but make no mistake, it’s here, and it’s already affecting too many people. Whether it’s sky-rocketing energy bills, stagnating wages, or soaring food and fuel prices, the average person in the UK can’t help but notice the change in their monthly outgoings.
In Wales, it’s predicted to hit us harder than the rest of the UK. We have a lower wage economy, and as such, a higher proportion is spent on food and fuel – commodities that are soaring in price. Add to this the fact that Wales is disproportionately impacted by rising fuel prices as our public transport infrastructure has been starved of funding. North-south rail journeys have to be made via England, and many internal train routes are not connected.
The result? Increased reliance on cars, especially for our rural communities. I’m sure this is a familiar story for other parts of the UK, too.
Rent is rising higher in Wales than anywhere else in the UK, second only to London. Rent in Cardiff alone has increased 36 per cent in just two years. A quarter of private tenants in Wales are worried they will lose their homes in the next three months.
Our communities didn’t cause this crisis, but they will pay the price if action is not taken now.
Yet rather than offering a serious proposal for reducing household bills through direct intervention – the Tories in Westminster have drawn up plans to protect profiteering companies and the super-rich at the expense of working people.
And what of the Labour Government in Wales? The purse strings may be held by Westminster, but they are not powerless to act in many areas.
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Since the Senedd has restarted after the summer recess, I have used every opportunity in First Minister Questions to call on Welsh Government to use some of these powers to help people in Wales. My party has called for rail fares to be halved, bus fares capped and rural fuel duty to be slashed for areas with poor public transport. We’ve called for all rents to be frozen, and all evictions banned over winter.
These calls for the reintroduction of a temporary ban on evictions have been echoed by Shelter Cymru in Wales, and in England by the Kerslake commission on homelessness.
An emergency measure for a crisis, just like we saw in the pandemic.
A lesson that was important to learn, but all too quickly seems to have been forgotten.
What other lessons have been forgotten since the pandemic? The need to act quickly and decisively? The benefit of empowering communities to lead, which they did via the teams of volunteers who delivered food and prescriptions to the vulnerable? The benefit of Wales charting its own course during the pandemic – to do what’s best for the people of Wales, to better protect our more vulnerable population?
We have a crisis, and we know we have a way, but there are surely questions over whether we have the political will.
The Tory Government in Westminster’s response is to engage in fantasy, trickle-down economics to please the super-rich. Meanwhile, the Labour Government in Wales is missing in action.
The First Minister of Wales made a statement in the Senedd on the cost-of-living crisis. Among some of the actions being taken is the formation of a new committee which will meet once a week. Important? Yes, potentially. Quick and decisive action? No.
They are also silent on whether or not they will use their power to keep income tax at 20p and use the extra money generated to protect public services and shield the vulnerable – as happened during the pandemic.
With one government sitting on its hands and another washing its hands of all responsibility, where does that leave Wales? One in eight households in Wales is already struggling to buy anything beyond the basics. Thousands are already having to choose between heating and eating. People cannot afford to wait for both governments to get their act together to tackle the cost-of-living crisis.
Covid taught us all important lessons, and in Wales, we saw first-hand the benefit of charting our own course and setting in place protections that best suited us. After all, health is fully devolved to Wales.
But what of the current crisis, an economic one, for which many of the powers still lie in the hands of Westminster?
Make no mistake that tax cuts for the super-rich will do absolutely nothing to drive growth in the Welsh economy. Given their refusal to invest in our infrastructure – the UK Government needs to recognise that our government in Wales must be given the fiscal tools to unlock our economic potential ourselves. That is the only way to improve the lives of people across Wales.
Our message to both governments is clear – use the powers you have act on this cost-of-living crisis – now! Show the same will displayed in the pandemic to address the crisis at hand now.