‘Dismissed’ and ‘patronised’: Campaigners report being ignored by Welsh Government

A picture of the Senedd, seen from afar

Mark Thomas, a campaigner for the Welsh Cladiators, highlights several campaigning groups’ negative experiences when engaging with Welsh Government.

The supporters of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru (CBFJ Cymru), Welsh Cladiators, Save Northern Meadows and Save Penrose are ordinary people animated by a sense of social justice or a desire to do what is right for their local communities.

Yet, the conduct of the Welsh Labour Government has now forged an unusual sense of unity and purpose amongst this relatively diverse group of campaigners. Key to their critique of the Welsh Government is its failure to listen to citizens, coupled with a propensity to patronise those who seek to legitimately question or challenge government policies and decisions. 

Significantly, our campaign groups exist outside the growing Senedd bubble. Propelled by a deep sense of injustice, they are ordinary groups of citizens who have come together to effect real change through civic activism. Yet, for all their drive and energy, they are also desperate for their campaigns to end so they can ‘get on’ with their normal lives. Instead, they face a David versus Goliath dynamic, with adversaries who can endlessly deter and ultimately wear down dissenting voices. 

Our groups report that, throughout their exchanges, the Welsh Government has always been courteous and respectful. For all this civility, however, campaigners were left with the impression that the government ‘knows better’ than its citizens. This is exactly how members of the CBFJ Cymru (core participants in all modules of the UK Covid Inquiry) feel as they continue their campaign for a Wales-specific, independent and judge-led inquiry into the Welsh Government’s management of the devastating Covid pandemic. 

The Covid-19 pandemic and calls for a Welsh inquiry

Despite their significant lobbying efforts, former First Minister Mark Drakeford continually rejected the CBFJ Cymru’s respectful appeals. He repeatedly argued that any Welsh Covid decisions needed to be considered in the wider UK context. Yet most Welsh citizens will recall that, during the crisis, we were assured that Wales was doing things differently to other nations. Still, a cursory examination of the tragic Welsh Covid death toll suggests very little difference when compared to our close neighbours, something the Welsh Government has since explained by referring to our rapidly ageing population. Surely, this should have been more reason for the government of the day to plan, prepare, and mobilise. 

Central to CBFJ Cymru’s critique is Welsh Government’s state of preparedness at the outbreak of the crisis. Many global experts agreed that following the 2002-2004 SARS Asian outbreak, it was not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’ a respiratory flu-like pandemic would happen. The Covid UK inquiry has yet to deliver its judgement on the big questions, but evidence to date strongly suggests that the Welsh Government was poorly prepared. 

Endless deflection and avoidance seem to weaken our emerging democracy.

CBFJ Cymru are deeply committed to finding out why their loved ones contracted Covid in care homes and hospitals. They want to learn and understand more about delayed masking and testing for patients, carers, and hospital workers without symptoms. Former FM Mark Drakeford had previously said there was ‘no value’ in testing those without symptoms back in 2020. During the recent inquiry, he testified that there weren’t enough Covid tests and that all the government’s responses were reasonable. But we also now know that there were frighteningly inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for dealing with a global airborne virus. Many people in Welsh care homes experienced no GP visits, hospitalisations and frequently no oxygen, morphine, or end-of-life care. CBJF Cymru members find it impossible to square those facts with any definition of a ‘reasonable response’.

Gofod i drafod, dadlau, ac ymchwilio.
Cefnogwch brif felin drafod annibynnol Cymru.


Despite their persistent appeals, CBFJ Cymru have been left with a shockingly short amount of time as part of the wider UK review led by Baroness Hallet. In contrast to the Inquiry’s module one, which led to the UK government being subject to 35 days of scrutiny, Wales is being given a mere 12 days to cover the two years of Welsh Governance response. 

CBFJ Cymru are further incensed by former Health Minister and now First Minister, Vaughan Gething’s UK Inquiry evidence that he’d failed to read important briefing documents relating to the nation’s pandemic planning. 

‘Not healthy for governance’

Welsh activists recently enjoyed some strong focus when the inquiry moved to Wales for their 12 days of evidence. Disturbingly, the Welsh public learnt that Health Minister Gething and other key Welsh Government advisers were deleting their WhatsApp messages throughout a major global pandemic that would surely be subject to major public scrutiny afterwards. Incredibly, Vaughan Gething also appeared to roll back on some of his earlier comments concerning his reading of key documents. Such conduct has added to already inflamed concerns about the Welsh Government’s lack of openness and transparency. Tireless and leading Covid Cymru campaigner Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees recently eviscerated Vaughan Gething’s fitness to stand as First Minister after having witnessed the Welsh Labour Government defeat a cross-party Senedd motion to hold a Wales independent Covid Inquiry.

Sam Smith-Higgins, another key figure and supporter of CBFJ Cymru, ripped up her 30-year Labour Party membership card in an angry response to the Welsh Labour Government’s continued approach, especially in comparison with the Scottish Labour Party’s demand that the SNP Government hold a Scottish Covid Inquiry. 

Sam asserts that ‘all doors close when you dare to challenge the Welsh Labour machine.’ She goes on to say: ‘I have very good friends in Welsh Labour, but they simply don’t want to consider any criticisms about party policy. It’s simply not healthy for Welsh democracy or governance.’ 

In another example of the indifference they have faced, the CBJF Cymru group recently offered, on social media, a ‘symbolic olive branch’ to elected Welsh Labour representatives, which received no response. It seemed no party member was willing to break rank and cross the party line. 

To many citizens, an independent Wales Covid Inquiry would be a sign of a confident nation, with a mature government able to withstand robust scrutiny. Yet endless deflection and avoidance seem to weaken our emerging democracy. At a time when we’re looking to dramatically increase the number of Senedd Members, it’s a bleak and depressing reflection on the confidence of the government of the day.

The cladding crisis

First Minister Vaughan Gething based a major part of his recent leadership campaign on ‘listening more’ to the people of Wales. But speak to any member of the Welsh Cladiators and they’ll say that for the past seven years, post Grenfell, the Senedd Member has done little to advocate or support their fight for justice. Specific criticisms involve his failure to attend numerous public protests or call out responsible developers for failing to remediate their seriously defective fire-cladding and build homes in his Cardiff Bay constituency, the epicentre of the Wales’s building safety crisis.

One tipping point for Welsh Cladiators involves two very solemn and respectful Senedd Grenfell vigils on 14th June. During both the 2022 and 2023 events, Vaughan Gething failed to attend, in one case despite being present at an event in the Senedd on the same day as the Grenfell remembrance. In the words of one Welsh Cladiator: ‘At no point did he come outside to acknowledge us – for many attending it was a line crossed.’ 

The 2023 Grenfell Vigil took place inside the Senedd and saw no Welsh Labour MS attend. To the small number of Cladiators present, it was a powerful confirmation that the Welsh Government had little time for Welsh victims of the crisis that fell out of the horrors of Grenfell. 

Welsh Cladiators have been further upset by the Welsh Government’s wider approach to the crisis. Housing Minister Julie James has provided a £20m interest-free loan to help fund remediation by responsible developers. The same developers have made some £32 billion in profit in the last decade or so. 

In November 2022 the Welsh Government derailed cross-party efforts to adopt Sections 116-125 of the new English Building Safety Act. The statute provides regulatory authorities, such as local government and fire rescue services, with the powers to issue legally enforceable Contribution and Remediation Orders (CROs) against responsible developers and freeholders. They are currently being rolled out in England but remain off-limits to Welsh victims, currently leaving some to take legal action at their own cost.

Throughout the long-running crisis, Minister Julie James has adopted a light touch and collaborative approach. Yet, this is the same industry that former UK Housing Minister Michael Gove has described as behaving like ‘cowboys’, going as far as to threaten developers that he would put some of them out of business if they did not take responsibility. 

Protecting natural sites

Further evidence that the Welsh Government’s allegedly inclusive approach to governing the nation is faltering involves many citizens of Cardiff and Penhros in north Wales, who formed two highly vocal campaign groups who are looking to prevent the destruction of much-loved environmental spaces. 

In the case of Cardiff, the Northern Meadows are a much-used and valued 23 acres of meadow, ancient trees, and grassland. Cardiff Council’s decision to grant planning permission for the development of a new Velindre cancer centre entails the loss of a community amenity and habitat for a hugely expensive hospital. 163 medical professionals and experts have written to the Welsh Government stating that the new facility should be co-located next to an existing general hospital and not as a stand-alone unit. 

Campaigners fully recognise the urgent need to update cancer services in Wales, but they consider the site should never have been granted planning permission in the first place. The proposed location is not accessible, and is designated as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, bounded on one side by a Site of Special Scientific Importance and on two other sides by the Forest Farm Nature Reserve.

Dr Ashley Roberts, who works at the University Hospital of Wales (UHW) as a Consultant Interventional Radiologist, has argued that the new cancer centre plans are an out-of-date form of cancer care: ‘Those who oppose the new development and destruction of the Northern Meadows have been branded as anti ‘cancer services’ but this is not true. We should not spend millions of pounds of tax-payers money doing the wrong thing, and destroying an important natural space which we would never have back.’

The location of the site has meant access to it will involve the felling of a significant number of mature trees and the construction of a large bridge through the Forest Farm Nature Reserve combined with an access road. 

Repeated appeals to Health Ministers and the Welsh Government to intervene and change track have been ignored. Save the Northern Meadows campaigners believe they have also been treated dismissively by Cardiff Council and largely ignored by Welsh Government. 

For many campaigners there is a distinct feeling that the Welsh Government’s agenda lies beyond citizens’ needs of social justice and environmental protection.

Another part of Wales to potentially fall under the bucket of a developer’s JCB digger is Wales’s Penrhos Nature Reserve. Situated on the stunning coastline of Anglesey, Penrhos is an incredibly beautiful 200-acre piece of Wales. In a typical year, some 100,000 people will visit it. Following the sale of part of the site to property developer Land & Lakes, for the last twelve years, the cherished site has been threatened with being turned into a £120 million major holiday village

The sale of land belonging to Rio Tinto’s former smelting plant resulted in the developer being awarded outline planning consent in 2009. This came to the immediate notice and distress of many local citizens who have since mobilised against the planned development. In response, developers claim that some 600 jobs will be created and result in a major boost to the economy. With some 27 acres of mature and ancient woodland targeted to be felled, it all seems a long way from the Welsh Government’s repeated policy assertions that it is proactively protecting the Welsh environment.

As with the Save Northern Meadows group, Penrhos campaigners are in deep conflict with their local Anglesey Council who seem to favour the developer’s agenda over local citizens’, a situation echoed by Welsh Cladiators in relation to Cardiff Council.

The protracted battle over the Penrhos site has reached the stage of a Judicial Review requiring activists to raise £20,000 in initial legal fees. 

‘Flawed consumers’ and dissatisfied citizens

It would be easy to label and then dismiss some of these campaigners as anti-developer NIMBYS (‘not in my back yard’) but that would be to trivialise a more serious issue, namely, the continued and persistent failure of the Welsh Government to respond and protect the rights of its citizens in the face of more powerful corporate interests. 

All these groups talk of being patronised by the Welsh Government, of being heard but not listened to. For many campaigners there is a distinct feeling that the Welsh Government’s agenda lies beyond citizens’ needs of social justice and environmental protection, and is centred around the maintenance of its own party-political power and corporate interests.

Given the social injustice they have experienced, many Welsh Cladiators and CBFJ Cymru members had originally anticipated pushing at an open door of government support. Much to their surprise, they instead feel abandoned by the very people they expected to protect them. The victims of the cladding scandal, for example, did everything that society asked of them to purchase property, only to be failed by a broken system. Social scientists Preece, Flint and Robertson, who have been researching the impact of the building safety crisis on victims, have highlighted the campaigners’ sense of loss of autonomy at being cast as ‘flawed consumers’. As one Welsh Cladiator reflected ‘when the powers you expect to help you don’t turn up in your hour of need, it takes some coming to terms with. It’s even worse when you also realise you then must fight them, as well as your original perpetrator.‘  

The lived experiences of these diverse groups of Welsh campaigners provide a stark contrast to the uplifting rhetoric on citizen inclusivity, engagement and environmental protection that pervades so much of the Welsh Government’s communications. 

With Welsh farmers recently protesting and other crises involving Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board and Swansea Maternity Care, there are many examples that demonstrate evidence of deep and widespread citizen dissatisfaction with our governing processes and core delivery mechanisms. Yet, clearly this sense of discomfort has not translated into the Welsh political landscape. 

Despite plans to increase the number of Senedd Members, voting turnout in elections remains stubbornly and depressingly low. Is it hard to believe that this might be fuelled in part, perhaps, by similar experiences to that of our long-suffering campaign groups? Democracy doesn’t work if politicians think that a vote every five years means they can then ignore citizens’ voices for the following five years. With a new incoming UK Government, it will be interesting to see if anything significantly shifts or changes in how Wales is governed.

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Mark Thomas is a founding member of Celestia Action Group and Welsh Cladiators.

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