The Welsh Government launched the Our Future Wales consultation in May 2020 with the aim of identifying ideas and solutions for rebuilding Wales following the Coronavirus pandemic. The public consultation drew more than 2,000 responses from individuals, groups, and organisations across the country and gathered a range of opinions – from ideas about public spaces and digital infrastructure, to future economic models. Responses were submitted in May-July 2020 and 685 were analysed by the Wales Centre for Public Policy in August-September 2020. Submissions were arranged into broad categories that formed the structure of the report (Figure 1).
One of the key overarching themes revealed in all six categories was the need to reduce inequality, with 222 submissions mentioning ways to address this. Participants advocated for a more equal Wales, where the gap between the affluent and the disadvantaged was much smaller than it currently is across a range of policy areas including health and social care, education and training, food and fuel poverty, and the arts and culture.
Respondents to Our Future Wales consultation suggested that the most pressing need for change to improve inequality was in housing (93 submissions). A wide range of issues including problems regarding homelessness, rough-sleeping, access to emergency shelter, housing quality, house prices and second-home ownership were all identified as being problematic. Often, these issues are intrinsically linked with a range of social inequalities that are both complex and deeply rooted. For example, the provision of shelter to those who were homeless or rough-sleeping during lockdown was identified by many as a positive intervention, but one housing association pointed out that a long-term solution to housing problems in Wales would require much greater integration of social and health care in order for residents to be fully supported in their accommodation. In order to address the problem holistically, problems of deprivation and poverty must be systematically addressed.
Indeed, the linking of problematic areas to wider structural inequalities was a common thread throughout the responses. For example, many views (44 responses) were expressed on ‘working from home’ which varied significantly from some people who found it liberating to others who had found it difficult, especially those with caring responsibilities. They were now in charge of home-schooling children as well as caring for dependants who were no longer receiving support from care agencies and day centres. One response from an organisation that advocates for the rights of children argued that this is a gendered issue, and that the majority of unpaid care work is carried out by women. More broadly, they argue, health crises of these kind have a gendered impact on populations which was also demonstrated in increasing reports of violence against women and girls, reduced access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, and mental health issues. Working towards gender parity would involve addressing key factors which lie behind some of these issues such as access to and affordability of childcare and healthcare provision for gendered health conditions in rural areas.
Similarly, the pandemic has highlighted inequalities that people experience because of their ethnic or cultural heritage. Research conducted by the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic COVID-19 expert advisory group, chaired by Professor Ogbonna of Cardiff University, concluded that the risk for black men has been more than three times higher than white men and nearly two and a half times higher for black women than white. Similarly, there remain differences also remain for Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian men. These differences were argued to be related to a wider, entrenched culture of inequality and exclusion that existed prior to COVID-19, but even allowing socio-economic factors, there remains twice the risk for Black men and around one and a half times for black women. Responses to the Our Future Wales consultation highlighted many of these discrepancies. For example, a pressure group campaigning for race equality argued that in order to achieve a community free from racism, prejudice, or discrimination, deep-rooted structural inequalities such as socio-economic inequalities, racism in employment strategies, health inequalities, and housing problems needed to be addressed. A range of other organisations all argued that at the heart of addressing race inequality in Wales is a need for a structured strategy to diversify areas of public life such as politics, the arts, and academia. The complexity of addressing these issues in order to provide equality of access and opportunity regardless of ethnic or cultural heritage is difficult and the Welsh Government are developing a Race Equality Action Plan.
Digital inequality was identified as being an issue to improve in Wales (31 responses). For example, some respondents highlighted unequal access to good quality, fast broadband connections in Wales, especially in rural areas. Since lockdown measures had been implemented, people are more dependent on their digital skills and broadband speed to stay in touch with friends and family, order shopping, as well as work from home. We heard that digital inequality in Wales has a generational component which risks alienating older populations who may be struggling to access digital services and communities. Indeed, across all age-spans, research from the Office of National Statistics in 2018 demonstrated that Wales had the lowest proportion of people with basic digital skills (66%) against a UK average of 79% and the highest proportion of people completely lacking basic digital skills (19%). The ubiquity of technology to enable day to day life during the pandemic risks alienating members of society who are unable to participate in the digital world and the associated impact on mental well-being.
The way in which these inequalities can be addressed provides a significant challenge for Welsh Government and wider society. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is one way in which Welsh Government could structure their response to the pandemic but the extent to which the Act has been able to make a lasting impact to date is not clear. For respondents to the consultation, whilst they support the aims of the Act, it is currently not being implemented broadly enough to achieve substantial change. Overall, there needs to be a comprehensive response to address the problems of inequality, and the task of creating a more equal Wales is one that Welsh Government needs to address with care and attention and by working collaboratively with those most affected.