Saturday, 22 November 2014

HEAT OR EAT

In Wales, we pay on average 5-10% more for our energy than elsewhere and it has been estimated that 30% of households in Wales are living with fuel poverty. There are many reasons for this, but on top of our lower wages, it means that one in four households are in fuel poverty. Plaid Cymru already has plans to establish a publicly owned and not-for-dividend energy company will be able to offer lower energy prices to customers.
Now it’s not just customers who are on the mains who get hit with excessively high domestic energy bills, the situation is even worse for those customers living in rural areas (like significant parts of Monmouthshire) who are off the mains gas supply. Here it can literally come down to a choice of leaving the heating off to save money and choosing to put food on. Some 400,000 Welsh customers are not connected to the gas mains, and as a result they often face higher energy prices and have very little consumer protection. 
Plaid Cymru’s http://www.offgridcymru.org website will help to give people the opportunity to come together so that we can try to help them pool together and get a better deal for their energy. There is a real need for better consumer protection for off-grid customers. As the winter draws in, people across Wales will face the prospect of higher heating bills, but does not need to be this way. Plaid Cymru’s pioneering plans can bring down energy bills for customers all over Wales, fight for a better deal for us.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

1 IN 4

To emphasize the point during the election campaign against George HW Bush, Bill Clinton famously said ‘’it’s the economy stupid!’’ While noting that we are not living in the 1990’s or America, strong economic foundations are a vital component when it comes to building a prosperous Wales. A Living Wage makes economic sense due to the fact it would mean that workers are paid a proper wage to reflect their work, and will be able to live on what they earn.

Plaid Cymru wants to see an end to poverty pay - which is why the Living Wage is one of our key pledges going in to next year's Westminster General Election. New figures published by the Living Wage Foundation (on Monday 3rd November) have revealed that 24% of Welsh workers (that’s almost 261,000 people) actually earn less than the Living Wage. The worst performing regions in Wales are Conwy and Powys where 32% of employees are earning less than the Living Wage. 

It should be scandalous that many workers in the UK live with in-work poverty, in one of the world's wealthiest countries. Particularly as the UK Westminster government subsidises big business to pay poverty wages, by setting the minimum wage too low and then topping them up with tax credits to enable people to afford basic provisions. The Living Wage makes sense on a social and economic level. With 1 in 4 Welsh workers earn less than the Living Wage.

If the Living Wage became a legal requirement, over 250,000 Welsh workers would receive a pay rise, leaving them with more money in their pockets to spend locally. Plaid Cymru's focus is a Welsh economic recovery driven by investment and job-creation with those jobs paying enough for people to live on.

In-work poverty is a scandal that should not be blighting one of the world's richest nations. This contrasts with Labour's pledge for £8.00 per hour minimum wage by 2020  - an annual rate of increase worse than that between 1999 and 2014 - and it is clear which party is standing up for Welsh workers. 

Despite the myths peddled by much of the media, the majority of people receiving benefits are actually in work. This is a damning reflection of successive Labour and Tory Government's failure to ensure that earnings aren't outstripped by the daily cost of living. A decent day's pay for an honest day's work - that is what Plaid Cymru believes in and that is what we will be fighting for between now and next May.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

AS DAY FOLLOWS NIGHT…

The toll to cross the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing into Wales will increase again next year. From the 1st January, cars will have to pay £6.50 - up from the current £6.40 - while small goods vehicles and small buses face a 30p rise to £13.10, and heavy goods vehicles and buses will have to pay £19.60, up from £19.20. Interestingly enough back in 1966, it cost you 12p to cross the bridge, which would be around £2 pound in today’s money.


Back on January 1st 2014, the cost of crossing into Wales by car increased to £6.40 - a rise of 20p - small goods vehicles pay £12.80 (a 40p increase) and HGVs £19.20 (a 60p increase). The Severn Bridge operators rolled out the same old tired excuses for their greed saying that the tolls were agreed by a parliamentary order and in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), etc, etc.

Oddly enough, when it comes to the Severn Bridge tolls, one often-ignored fact is that the tolls on the Humber Bridge are subsidized by Westminster. When last in office at Westminster, the party formerly known as New Labour chose to quietly (and regularly) subsidise the Humber Bridge tolls, yet made no move what so ever towards doing anything about dealing with the tax on jobs, businesses and commuters which are passed off as the Severn bridge tolls – and our local Labour elected representatives pretty much maintained their silence.  

This may explain why our local Labour MP’s do little save trotting out the same old news releases bemoaning the failure of the Government (when in opposition) to do anything about the tolls. The Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Con Dem Coalition Government, who have driven the post Thatcherite ‘free market’ ideology into wholly new areas, yet show no inclination to curb the Humber Bridge state subsidy or offer to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.

At some point in 2018 ownership of the two Severn Bridges will revert back to the Westminster Government ‘s Department for Transport, once the take from the tolls reach passes the magic figure of £996 million pounds (that is at 1989 prices). The Labour in Wales Welsh government wants to take control of the tolls when the Severn Crossings return to public ownership and would look to reduce them although it believes abolishing them would leave too great a hole in the budget.

Plaid has called for the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that tolls on the bridges can be reduced, something that could have a considerable impact on businesses and the economy. With control over the bridges devolved, Plaid would cut the tolls to £2 to cover maintenance costs. Maintenance costs are some £15 million per year, but motorists and vehicles using the crossings currently generate £72 million pounds per year. While the tolls would form a useful revenue stream for Welsh Governments, Plaid’s priority is to cut the tolls.

A consultants' report (for the Welsh Government) suggested that the abolition of bridge tolls could boost the economic output in Wales by £ 107 Million pounds. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, it has been estimated that this cash cow may have been milked to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. What adds regular insult to regular financial injury is the fact that the old (M48) Severn Bridge continues to be periodical closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which are funded by the Department for Transport, from the public purse.

Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls recommended that the revenues from the tolls should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, this compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.

The 2010 study found that transport; construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The study also found that Welsh businesses were unfairly penalised by the tolls and concluded that the money should be shared with the Assembly Government and used to improve Wales’ roads and public transport.

There appears to be a general political consensus that something must be done about reducing the Severn bridge tolls – which is nice – but not particularly helpful to motorists. The ominous silence from the Department for Transport on the eventual ownership of the bridge and the potential fate of the tolls is also not particularly helpful and should be a real cause for concern. 

What concerns me is the possibility that the Department of Transport (and their Westminster based masters) may find the income from the Severn bridge tolls too useful to let go. The ownership of the Severn bridges should be transferred to the National Assembly in 2018, which means that a decision needs to be made now and preparations for the transfer begun  - what we in Wales don’t need is silence from the Department for Transport. 

Friday, 14 November 2014

PLAYING CATCH UP!

The age of devolution has given way to an age of self-government its time the financial institutions caught up with this fact. The ongoing debate in the UK about further devolution of powers has largely focused on rebalancing political power within these islands there also has to be a debate about rebalancing the UK’s economy so that all nations are directly involved in shared institutions such as the Bank of England. 
It is vital that Wales has a voice at every level of decision-making, which influences all Welsh life. This is especially true in those areas and institutions which impact on our people’s jobs and livelihoods. It is important if not vital that UK monetary policy works for Wales. 
Decisions made by the Bank of England’s have a considerable influence on the lives of the people of Wales and it is important that Welsh interest should be reflected within the decision-making process. It is time for the institution’s name to be amended to reflect its wider answerability within these islands.
There is a need for a Welsh Government nominee on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. There is also a need for a new approach when it comes to assessing the nature of the Bank’s interventions, whether that’s interest rates levels or other forms of intervention such as quantitative easing.
There has to be a ‘nations and regions’ impact assessment for all decisions made by the Bank of England. In a practical sense that would mean rather than taking a UK level position, the potential impact and the existing needs of the nations and regions of the UK should also be central to decision making.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A 0.5 FROM THE EAST GERMAN JUDGE...

The Westminster governments commitment to the electrification of the Great Western mainline through to Swansea (along with the electrification of the valley lines) may represent one of the largest commitment of resources to Wales for a specific project by a Westminster government in most people in Wales’s lifetimes. While this is significant it’s a job that upon completion will be at best partially completed because of a failure to commit to the electrification of the Severn Tunnel diversionary route from Kemble, in Gloucestershire to Swindon and through Lydney to connect with the mainline at Severn Tunnel Junction via Chepstow. 

As regular rail users will know the regular closure of the Severn Tunnel for maintenance tends to be an issue when it comes to weekend travel. Historically the diversion added an hour to and from weekend journeys to Paddington – the line was only single track. This section was finally upgraded to double track (completed in August 2014) is the only diversionary rail route between South Wales and London so the next step should be to electrify the diversionary route in parallel to the planned electrification of the Great Western mainline to Swansea.

In the event of a major accident or incident in the tunnel, perhaps a crash, a fire or even flooding, we need a fully operational alternative so that passenger and freight services to London are not affected. Talk to anyone who works the rails (or anyone who has relatives who work on the rails) in the south and they will tell you that the ageing Severn Tunnel is going to require more and more maintenance as time passes, it remains a vital transport link, but it ranks pretty low on Network Rails or Westminster’s list of priorities. 

This is a vital rail link between Wales and London (and Europe) and the only alternative to using the Severn Tunnel. We need some original thinking to solve this potential block on our rail links; the construction of a railway bridge / tidal fence close to the Second Severn Crossing should be seriously considered as part of any plans to harness the enormous renewable energy potential of the Severn Estuary. This could carry the main rail link from South Wales, solving the problem of the Severn Tunnel, enhance rail services from Severn Tunnel Station and generate sustainable energy, which we will need in the very near future.

Friday, 7 November 2014

AT THE END OF THE LINE…

The proposals for a High Speed Rail 3 (HS3) link between Manchester and Leeds should be welcomed. The announcement could be taken to suggest that finally (if somewhat belatedly) Westminster has realised that non-road related transport infrastructure needs to be seriously invested in. While I recognise the importance of the proposed HS3 link in the north of England, however it is spun, it is yet another example of a large scale all England infrastructure project, once more our country runs the risk of being left behind. 

HS3 will take any alleged benefits for Wales from HS2 even further out of reach. Our railways are in desperate need of electrification and have been for decades, yet the UK government happy to force Welsh taxpayers to foot part of the bill for the England-only HS2 project which is expected to cost anywhere between £40-80 billion pounds. Rather than relying on cross-border links to get from one end of our country to another, Plaid Cymru wants to see a country-wide approach to transport investment where people can travel all around Wales with ease. 

Plaid has actively campaigned for the electrification of the Great Western mainline, the North Wales Main Line, and the valley lines, yet both Labour and Tory governments have made minimally slow progress. Our country needs a transport infrastructure that is fit-for-purpose - this is vital to create jobs and to help our economy grow. It is ludicrous that the HS3 project, if goes ahead, is being labeled as an UK-wide project when it will clearly not benefit Wales. Wales should receive its fair share of investment in our own transport system so we get Wales moving again.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

SHOW SOME AMBITION

The Labour in Wales Welsh Government needs to show some ambition and to strive to build a secure energy future for Wales. The devolution of energy powers to Wales can create a system of community beneficial renewable energy projects, and result in fairer energy prices for us - the customers. Our Government needs to be able to decide on energy projects for the whole of Wales to achieve long-term energy goals and to establish an arms-length, publicly owned not-for-distributable-profit energy company – Ynni Cymru.

Aside from our people, our country’s greatest asset is the potential of our natural resources. These need to be managed in a sustainable way that promotes fairness. Before we can develop a sustainable future for our country, the Welsh Government needs to make better use of its existing powers and achieve the devolution of powers over planning for renewable energy for Wales.

The Welsh Government needs to develop binding sustainable energy targets and to assume responsibility for delivering them. Our communities need to get a direct benefit from larger energy projects in their area and the opportunity to participate in and to develop small-scale community energy projects. All energy projects in Wales need to include community benefit clauses so that our communities get something back.

We need to urgently establish of an arms-length, publicly-owned, not-for-distributable-profit energy company – Ynni Cymru – something that should directly benefit Welsh energy customers by helping us to pay a fair price for their energy. Energy bills in Wales have risen three times faster than wages since 2008, and the establishment of Ynni Cymru can help to tackle this issue directly.

Once we were a world leader in carbon-based energy and we have the potential to be a world leader in developing sustainable energy projects. For this to happen then our Government needs to work to create the right environment so that everyone in Wales can benefit, rather than leaving it to disinterested Westminster based governments and the Big 6 energy cartel members. Our potential as a world leader in green industries needs to be unlocked and we need to create a stronger and more economically self-sufficient Wales.