Friday, 3 July 2015

A WHIFF OF DEVO ROLLBACK?

At least from this end of the M4 / A55 there appears to be more than a faint whiff of what could best be described as devo rollback in the air. As the new now unconstrained All Con Conservative government settles in at Westminster, what's in it for Cymru / Wales - potentially nothing good. Scotland, as far as the Westminster unionists may quietly (and honestly) admit over a pint of claret may be perceived as a lost cause (perhaps a literal case of 'when' rather than 'if' in relation to independence). Cymru / Wales on the other hand may yet offer far more constitutional room to meddle with, to tinker with or even rollback parts of our deeply flawed constitutional settlement. 

A weak 'badly' drafted Wales bill (which may well be on the cards) may be the green light to ramp up the rollback process. That's why Plaid Cymru's Lord Dafydd Wigley is absolutely right to seek urgent clarification about Westminster's pre-election hint that control of fracking would be devolved to the National Assembly rather than retained at Westminster. The rejection of planning permission for fracking in Lancashire, in North West England is significant as the active search by fracking companies for new locations is continuing. There is a need for complete acceptance by Westminster that that fracking cannot go ahead in any part of Wales without the express permission of the National Assembly. 

There certainly now appears to be a Westminster wobble in relation to the commitment to complete the electrification of the Great Western line to Swansea. This taken with the news that hard pressed commuters and businesses will face at least another five years of Severn Bridge tolls could be taken as a hint that our national priorities have been put on the electoral back burner by Westminster. Our constitutional settlement, such as it is is even to the disinterested should appear deeply flawed and simply unfair, not coming remotely close to either Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to powers which could be used to influence and shape economic matters. 

Now, at least from my perspective, the whole sorry laborious constitutional journey, has never simply been about powers for powers sake, it's been about trying to get the appropriate tools to change our countries economy for the better. That said in Cymru / Wales, when it comes to acquiring a degree of constitutional fairness we always seem to have to jump through hoop after hoop, again and again. This if nothing else should clearly demonstrate the degree of contempt with which Cymru / Wales is perceived and treated, not least by our Labour in Wales representatives in Westminster.

Friday, 12 June 2015

TIMELY CALL TO UNITE ON HS2

The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland governments need to join forces to campaign for full Barnett consequentials resulting from the England-only High Speed Rail 2 project. 
Only a few weeks after HS2 Ltd, the planners behind the multi-billion pound development, stated that there is "no business case" for Scotland and that the project would now not be extended north of the border
Plaid Cymru parliamentary leader Jonathan Edwards MP speaking on June 11th at a Transport Questions session in the Commons to press the UK Government on securing a fair share of HS2 spending for Wales, said:
"I was disappointed to hear the Transport Secretary replying to my question by maintaining his position that there will be no fair funding from HS2 to Wales, despite the admission of HS2 Ltd.
"Any claims of a business case for HS2 that would benefit Wales has long been demolished by official KPMG figures showing that the project would wipe over £200m from the Welsh economy each year.
"Because HS2 will be funded from general taxation, taxpayers in Wales will pay for HS2 despite it undermining the Welsh economy.
"It is clear that the Westminster government has no intention of extending HS2 to Scotland. This means that it is clearly an England-only railway, and if the UK's funding mechanisms are to be applied correctly, this must result in a full and equitable share for the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to invest in their own countries' transport infrastructure.
"The moral case to me seems clear. If the Westminster government maintains its current position then I urge the national governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to work together to demand fairness for our nations.

"The UK government needs to make a clear statement that this injustice will be rectified when the Comprehensive Spending Review is published, or face sustained pressure from Plaid Cymru and others who will continue to fight for a fair deal from this development."

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

A STRONG VOICE FOR WALES IN THE EU

Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon and Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Hywel Williams, speaking before today's debate on the second reading of the European Union Referendum Bill to make the case for strengthening Wales' voice in the European Union. Mr Williams will describe his party as "a critical friend" of the European Union - making the case for robust reforms while recognising that Wales enjoys significant economic and social benefits within the EU.

Mr Williams is expected to say:

"Plaid Cymru is in favour of Wales remaining in the European Union and will be campaigning for this in any referendum - on our own terms.

"Wales enjoys significant economic and social benefits within the EU which we fear might be endangered in a renegotiation which is heedless of our requirements and would certainly be put in jeopardy were we to be dragged unwillingly out.

"But whilst we are pro-EU, we remain critical friends. We want the EU to be reformed, but not along the narrow lines this UK Government apparently proposes, nor along the lines that those who see the EU as a 'capitalist club' fear.

"We want a greater say for Wales in the future direction the EU takes with direct representation for our ministers. A single market that clearly benefits Welsh business, industry and commerce.

"The tripartite structure should be reformed into a new four part process that includes the sub state government representative body - the Committee of the Regions - so that it is no longer simply an official advisory body.

"We must end the scandalous waste of the Strasbourg parliament and excessive European civil servant and commissioner pay.

"And we must prevent large corporations bending the rules to their advantage either through TTIP or by lobbying at the heart of decision making without the impediment of an official register.

"But to want an end to these things does not mean we want out. Structural Funds and the Common Agricultural Policy provide £billions of pounds to Welsh communities each year. In the event of Wales being dragged out of the EU, funds which provide vital financing of projects across some of the poorest communities in Wales - which are also the poorest in the UK and in Western Europe - would suddenly be thrown in to doubt. As yet, we know of no plans to replace this funding.

"To suddenly cut off vital funds to our farming communities would also potentially destroy most of our agricultural industry. The family farm is the cornerstone of rural life and the rural economy. And it is a vital support four our culture and language.

"And those are yet more reasons why Plaid Cymru will fight our fight to keep Wales in the EU - on our own terms."

Thursday, 4 June 2015

SILENCE FROM THE RED CORNER

The news that the Westminster government's remaining 30% stake in the Royal Mail is to be sold and some £3 billion pounds are to be cut from government spending this year won’t surprise many people. 

The last remaining UK Government stake in the Royal Mail currently valued at £1.5 billion is to be used to pay down the national debt. Another£3 billion pounds of cuts are pending, they will be announced in July. Back in July 2013 the news that the Post Office profit rose from £ 152 million pounds to £ 403 million pounds (in the 12 months up until the end of March 2013) would once have been warmly welcomed. 

The increase in Post Office profits actually made little difference; the Lib Dems (notorious locally for campaign to keep open local Post Offices that were not under threat of closure) with their Conservative collation partners decided to privatise the Post Office. The Party formerly known as Labour (in Westminster) were understandably silent over the matter of Post Office privatisation, understandably as they had spent years crying crocodile tears, as they tried and failed (under Peter Mandelson) to privatise the Post Office themselves during what is increasingly been seen as their largely wasted 13 years in government.

Now don't get me wrong, I had absolutely no problem with the publically owned Post Office exercising the maximum amount of commercial freedom to go out and diversify and to make money (as happens in the Netherlands and in other countries) but happen to firmly believe that the privatisation of the Post Office was entirely ideologically driven and unnecessary. I still have major concerns about the longevity of the unprofitable rural postal operations – how long will it be before they are dropped because they don’t make enough profit? 

The Post Office, rather than be simply sold off to a private company was floated on the stock market, and its shares were sold off. The business has been valued at something between £ 2 billion and £ 3 billion pounds with up to 10% of shares being set aside for postal workers. Not surprisingly, probably along with most people, the members of the Communication Workers Union were understandably firmly opposed to the privatisation of the Post Office – unlike the Labour Party.


There are still potentially big and as yet unanswered questions as to how will the government go about selling it off? Will Westminster’s friends in the City - big institutional city investors - get some sort of preferential opportunity to buy shares? Perhaps the Conservatives will go for a big share sale to the public or drip feed shares into the market, as has happened with the Lloyds Bank shares?" Whatever happens expect near complete silence form the Party formerly known as Labour…

Sunday, 31 May 2015

POOR WEST BRITONS?

Much as been made by some people about Norway’s relationship with the European Union and about how it could be the model for the UK’s relationship with the EU in the event of a ‘NO’ vote. It sounds reasonable save for the fact that the Norwegians have been fiscally responsible for the last 50 years, the same cannot be said the UK, where Westminster governments regardless of their political hue pursued (at least since 1979) short term policies with long term consequences.

Norway closely cooperates with its Scandinavian neighbours (potentially a model for cooperation for the nations within these isles), it was a founder member of EFTA, yet in 1973 end 1995 voted no to join the EEC/EU. Norway like the UK is a member of NATO and has contributed troops to NATO operations and has lead responsibility for NATO's air policing mission over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The big difference, save for population size and energy policy is that Norway has a sovereign oil fund which currently stands at around or about £400 billion (around $640 billion); the UK has no sovereign oil fund. The UK rather than thinking in medium or long term, during the oil boom years, simply blew the North Sea cash on cutting national borrowing and keeping down taxes. Whatever revenue came in disappeared into the day-to-day budget.

In Norway for the last 18 years Norway, various governments saved the government's petroleum and gas revenue - arising from levies on oil and gas companies which operating in Norway and from its stake in national energy giant Statoil – into its national oil fund. The income from the fund actually cover 11% of Norway’s national spending. Even more ironically, the UK buys large quantities of Norwegian gas, adding to Norway’s nest egg, which happens to be one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

Norway’s global investment arm of the Government Pension Fund, as the oil fund is formally named, is one of the biggest investors in shares across Europe, even though its share holdings took a hammering during the financial crisis, the fund is now acquiring significant trophy properties across Europe. Around 4% of the fund (around £16 billion pounds) is diverted each year to subsidise Norwegian government spending.

This keeps Norwegian hospital beds open, helps pay for social benefits and has paid for significant infrastructure projects across Norway. Norway’s fund continues to grow as levies on oil and gas production and on oil companies bring in around £30 billion annually. As the oil and gas continue to flow and oil and gas prices remain high, then Norway’s fund continues to grow.

The UK, under Labour’s James Callaghan in the mid to late 1970s considered setting up an oil fund, but as economic crisis worsened it simply grabbed the money. In Norway they followed the British, but wisely had second thoughts after the oil price collapsed in the 1980s. So they decided to consciously bank the benefits from the oil bonanza for future generations of Norwegians.

Mrs Thatcher was many things to many people (some of them unprintable on this blog) but she was in no way an investment prime minister. David Cameron may credit Mrs T for having made Britain great again after the late 1970s but she spectacularly failed to invest in Britain’s post-Thatcherite future. Capital spending plummeted and the UK’s national infrastructure was left to rot and public services in particular were starved of resources. 

The Brits chose neither to save nor too invest and squandered a fortune on bailing out the economy and subsidised tax cuts. It did not have to be this way – in Shetland, the council set up an oil fund which contains around £185 million today, even after upgrading roads, ferry terminals and local swimming pools. In Scotland, the Scottish Government has advocated setting up a special fund supported by North Sea oil revenues.

While the North Sea oil is well past its peak, and although oil prices are currently low, the future prospects of West Coast oil fields could seriously deliver for Scotland. The prospect of future energy revenues being banked in Scotland rather than squandered by Westminster may concentrate the mind of the Westminster elite. This may go a long way to explain David Cameron and the leaderless Labour Party’s inherent nervousness about the renewed prospects of Scottish independence – especially in the event of a wrong result in any EU referendum.

As for Cymru / Wales - there is no reason why our country cannot be a self-reliant prosperous nation; the Welsh people are not predisposed by way of education, outlook or aspiration to be a poor people. Yet if you listen to Labour in Wales we will always be poor, we will always be dependent and we will have few economic prospects beyond handouts and independence is unaffordable, etc.  Like any simple untruth, keep it simple, repeat it often enough and people will start to believe it.

As pointed out by Plaid Cymru Leader Leanne Wood during the televised Westminster debates, some parts of our country are still suffering from a prolonged downward economic spiral that predates Labour last period in power (in Westminster) and the financial collapse. What our communities are facing now are the consequences of decisions generations of unionist (mostly Labour) politicians have consistently failed to make on behalf of Wales, which are now impacting on our communities from one end of our country to the other.

Aside from the desire to make things better and the vision (something I believe that Labour in Wales is incapable of delivering) a Welsh government needs to have powers over our natural resources. We need to be able at a basic level to regulate, develop, control and own our sustainable energy (basically wind, water, wave and solar) resources. With the right leadership and some medium to long-term thinking there is no reason why Wales cannot play a leading role in the development of a global low-carbon economy.

As a nation, when it comes to natural resources Wales is rich by way of comparison with some developing countries, our natural resources sustainably used could underpin a first class economy. The current devolution prevents a Welsh government from doing this even if it wanted too. Not for nothing was Water excluded specifically by the Labour in Westminster Government from the National Assembly’s powers and only energy projects up to 50MW (on shore) and 1 MW off-shore come under the control of the National Assembly.

We need a Sovereign Wealth Fund for Wales (initially based around the assets of the Crown Estates in Wales - control of which needs to be transferred to the National Assembly) to make sure that the benefits of the green energy revolution stay here rather than feeding shareholder dividends in the city (and elsewhere) and are used to ensure that the people of Wales get their full share of the energy and wealth created. Such a fund could act as a guarantee for further borrowing and could build to be an impressive multi-million pound source of funding.


Some of which could be used to offer loans for small micro-generation projects. The way things work at the moment wind farm developments tend make token gestures towards feeding some of their subsidized profits towards local communities. At best this might be considered patronizing, especially as local communities (along with the Welsh Government) are effectively excluded from any meaningful participation in the planning process if the development is over 50MW in size.

One size does not fit all, our Communities should be able to develop and benefit from small-scale renewable energy projects and regeneration projects in their own areas. If we do this right then we can develop more community leadership, grow local ownership of renewable energy projects and develop more cooperative models of ownership. People living in communities close to renewable energy installations should also receive the benefits of discounted energy and local dividends for community projects.

If we do this right then our communities and our country can become less dependent and we can become more self-reliant socially and economically, ironically Labour in Wales, who are part of the problem rather than the solution, would no doubt come up with reasons to oppose any of this. We also need to ensure that democratic accountability and planning gain is built into the energy development process and that our communities are able benefit from community beneficial energy projects.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

A PROGRESSIVE ALLIANCE IN WESTMINSTER

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas have today confirmed that the three parties will work together as a progressive alliance in Westminster. 

Making the announcement ahead of the Queen’s speech the three parties said they would unite whenever possible to battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity. 
  
First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said: 

“We are already well aware of what to expect from the Tory government in this Queen’s speech, with the continuation of the relentless assault on the poor and a further £12bn in cuts to social security. 

“At the General Election, people in Scotland gave the SNP an unprecedented democratic mandate to put an end to the cuts agenda which is hurting people across our communities – and we will use this mandate to work with Plaid and the Greens to lead the fight against Tory austerity and put forward a better plan to benefit people in Scotland and right across the UK. 

Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood, said: 

"Plaid Cymru’s team of MPs will be working with their SNP and Green colleagues in a progressive alliance to put forward the positive alternative to the Conservative government. As a group in the last parliament we worked together to hold the first ever debate on the bedroom tax and also held joint debates on inequality and Trident. 

“It is clear from the Labour leadership contest that that party is moving further to the right. The Plaid Cymru, SNP and Green will act as the only real opposition to the Conservative government and its agenda for further cuts and regressive policies such as the repeal of the Human Rights Act.” 

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: 

“With a Government wedded to further austerity and unwilling to take the action required on climate change it is vital to have a strong opposition voice in Parliament. It is, therefore, unfortunate that the Labour leadership has so often failed to offer the real alternative that’s so desperately required. 

"I’ll be working alongside MPs from Plaid Cymru and the SNP to put forward a real alternative to the tired business-as-usual politics that’s dominated Westminster for too long. On issues such as trident renewal and opposition to cuts it’s vital that progressive politicians work together to truly hold the Government to account.”