The free event was a chance for members of the public to contribute questions to the First Minister.
Chairing the event was Sulwen Thomas who began with a question about Trident. He asked if in the light of circumstances in Paris would the Welsh Government make any representations for Trident to come to Wales.
The First Minister said that the Welsh Government had not made any representations for Trident to come to Wales: “It is not something we would pursue. He asked: “What is Trident for in the 21st Century?” He explained that the question needed to be debated as to whether the UK needed to be renewed or not and that he would not have the power to stop Trident coming to Wales: “I am not saying the UK government will listen to what I have to say but certainly, I will be looking at the issues and coming to my own conclusions.”
The First Minister faced a question from Cathy Start who raised the issue of scallop dredging in a Special Area of Conservation in Cardigan Bay. The First Minister said that National Resources Wales would be the authority to look at all the evidence and offer advice to the ministers. It was for them to assess the affect on the SAC and also the affect on other species as well as the scallops. He said it was for the minister involved, Rebecca Evans. Mrs Start suggested that the First Minister looked into the matter as a matter of urgency. She said: “The consultation process asks if you agree or disagree with dredging for scallops. If you put no every other question cannot be answered as they deal with the permit. It is flawed if not corrupt.”
Asked if he could deal with the flaws in the consultation, the First Minister said: “I will write to you. Everyone gets a response.”
One Carmarthenshire resident, Bill Hyde asked the First Minister if financial reserves held by councils would be used? Mr Hyde said: “It is estimated that Carmarthenshire County Council (CCC) have £130m to £300m in reserves and the public face £30m in cutbacks over the next four years.”
He continued: “The council tell us that they can’t touch it because they are earmarked. We can’t get any sense out of them. The new administration who promised they would use the reserves have gone back on their word. The Wales Audit Office has told CCC that they must use their reserves. Your own ministers from the Assembly also say they must use the reserves. I am wondering whether this will be a cash cow for the c hief e xecutives in Wales that have their own severance schemes. It is an issue for Carmarthenshire County Council to resolve. They run their own budgets. They have to explain why they wouldn’t use part of their reserves and it is up to them to explain that ahead of the next local elections in 2017. “
Mr Hyde said: “It seems that the Welsh Assembly or the Wales Audit Office is not saying anything about the issue. They are letting the chief executives rule the roost and whether you like it or not they are officer led and that is one of the big problems.”
Chairman Sulwen Thomas asked the First Minister if he was washing his hands of this. The First Minister replied: “No we can’t force them to spend money. We can encourage them. It is up to them as a democratically elected bodies to explain why they take the financial decisions they do. I think it is important for any council to demonstrate that it is the councillors who run the councils. I don’t think that has been true of some authorities in Wales. When you think that a local authority not too far from here was employing a Chief Executive on £190,000 per year plus a Porsche.”
Chairman Sulwen Thomas cut in and said: “And you couldn’t do anything about it? The First Minister replied: “No!” “Because they employ people independently. That may well have to change in the future. We can’t have a situation where if you are the Chief Executive of a local authority that you earn far more than if you were the top civil servant in Wales. That doesn’t make sense to my mind.”
Sulwen Thomas challenged the First Minister and said: “Is the Welsh Assembly strong enough to implement these changes. There is a strong objection to change?”
The First Minister replied: “We want to push ahead with mergers, fewer councils. Having said that what I want to do is is look at what powers we can give to community town councils. At the moment the reality is that they haven’t got much power.
Sulwen Thomas moved on: “The big talking point here in Carmarthen is that in the County Council only a few people have any sort of authority. Only the cabinet members have any authority. Ordinary councillors have no impact about what goes on most of the time. Would you like to change the emphasis of what goes on in County Councils after the election?”
The First Minister replied: “We have a cabinet system in local government but it isn’t quite a cabinet system in our terms in the Welsh Assembly. I answer questions every week publicly for 45 minutes. Ministers answer questions once a month on average as well. I think the same thing should apply in local government. I don’t see why that should be any different.”
The issue of clean and renewable energy was brought up by Robert Start. He asked what steps are being taken to ensure clean energy production. He wanted to know if the Welsh Government were investing in battery storage technology or hydrogen technology.
The First Minister addressed the question: “I think this is the way of the future. There are buses running on hydrogen. The hydrogen cell was conceived in Wales by a Welsh inventor so we have a proprietary interest in it. In terms of renewable energy generally we control very little in terms of energy production. That is going to change and we will have more power in the future. My view is that we have entered a period where the UK Government is just not interested in renewables anymore. Where do I think that energy has potential in Wales in the future? Marine energy. We have such potential for marine energy. Our southern coast has got the second highest tidal reach in the world. We’ve got the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. It is all set ready to go. My strong suspicion is that the treasury will scupper it because they are not prepared to pay for it. Energy security is one of the most important issues that we face over the next few years. Extending our reliance on energy that is imported is the wrong option.”
Last Friday (Nov 20) the Herald reported on the case of Pontyates businessman Clive Hughes and his accusation that the Welsh Assembly prefers to invest in Chinese plans for bio mass plants in Wales as opposed to investing in his bio mass plant.
At the public meeting, Mr Hughes put his question directly to the First Minister. He outlined his plans for a bio mass plant at Kidwelly and Swansea and said that there was no interest from the Welsh Assembly even though his plant was clean energy. The First Minister replied asked him if he had spoken to officials in the Welsh Government and Mr Hughes informed him that he had made a request to meet with him personally. “The best thing for me to do would to go back and look at this for you and get a letter out to you. The minister responsible for this is Edwina Hart. I need to look into what correspondence has been received and I will write to you” said the First Minister.
Other questions asked at the event included whether St Clears railway station could become a request stop. What steps the Welsh Assembly were taking to improve provision for carers in Wales. Rural high speed broadband, rural transport, farming issues, disability issues and parking on pavements were also issues raised by members of the audience. Following the event the The First Minister conceded that it was not a great turn out but said that he had enjoyed the variety of questions and that it was all about going around Wales and listening to the people.