Saturday, 31 July 2010


Many people in and around Newport and across Gwent, will welcome the Transporter bridge's return to active service transporting people (and vehicles) across the muddy Usk. I am particularly pleased to see that Newport (and Gwent's) iconic Transporter Bridge is now up and running after its refit. The refit was part funded by the National Assembly Government with £800,000, Newport City Council put in £350,000 from the council and Cadw some £75,000.

The Transporter bridge which dominates the skyline to the south of the city is quite unique, why it does not have World Heritage Status I don't know. The bridge has real potential to draw in visitors, certainly, when on weekend breaks from living and working in London, I brought my a number of my Australian, Kiwi and South African friends to have a look at the Transporter bridge, and to cross back and forth the broad and muddy Usk.

As a small child I never quite had enough Meccano or Lego to make a whole one, usually ending up with merely one of the bridge pillars, although it never stopped repeated construction attempts on my part. Crossing the bridge as a child was a regular treat, but the bridge's working life saw it being used by thousands of Newportonians going to and from work and to and from Somerton park the then home of Newport County. I was as small child (and still am as an adult) fascinated by the way the Transporter Bridge works. 

Friday, 30 July 2010


ALMOST £18 million of taxpayers' money has been handed to the operator of the Severn Bridges for repairs to the old Severn Bridge, the Department of Transport (DoT) has admitted. South Wales Central Plaid Assembly Members Chris Franks and Leanne Wood received a letter from the DoT which revealed that taxpayers have footed the bill for treatment to corrosion on the main cable and repairs to the cantilever edges of the M48 bridge.

This is a result of the concession agreement which was signed with bridge operator Severn River Crossing Plc (SRC) in 1992, which stated that the UK Government is liable for latent or pre-existing defects. The corrosion and damaged cantilever edges are seen to fall within these brackets with the cost of treating them £17,871,666 since 2005/06. This is likely to rise to £21 million by next May. This is despite tolls to cross both Severn crossings rising to £5.50 for a car and £16.40 for a truck.

The Plaid Cymru AMs hit out, Leanne Wood saying: "While a private firm reaps the profits from the substantial toll charges to get into Wales, the public is left to pick up the tab for essential repairs associated with pre-existing defects." The Plaid AMs noted that some £225, 733,000 SRC has made in toll revenues from both bridges since 2006. Chris Franks AM called it "astonishing" that tax payers are bearing the cost while Ms Wood called it a "very bad business deal". Leanne said: "The reverberations of this contract clause are being felt some 18 years later."

The Highways Agency, on whose behalf SRC operates the bridge, said: "The risks for defects that existed prior to the concession were not transferred to SRC as this would have resulted in significantly higher tolls." He said when the contract was signed, risks could not be quantified and no latent defects were identified until 2005/06. Further costs of £3.8 million are expected for this financial year to tackle the problems.

Thursday, 29 July 2010


News that the residents concerns about the noise and pollution levels caused by HGV's vehicles (on the A472) taking a short cut through the centre of Usk, while being of importance are nothing new. As a Trainee journalist on the Pontypool Free Press, I can recall this problem was a contentious issue in the late 1980's. Gwent Police, Monmouthshire council (the nominal successor to Gwent County Council in Usk at least) and Usk town council are still trying to resolve this problem.

I also remember that in the late 1980's a by-pass was offered by developers, controversially linked to proposed plans to build large amounts of housing in and around the town. This proposed development caused some controversy and headlines and letters in the Free Press at least at the time, but, nothing (and rightly so in my opinion)came of it.

The problem has not gone away, it's even worse than it used to be, as over the last twenty years the HGV's have got larger and far more frequent and damage is being done to Usk (and the river bridge) not to mention the increase in noise and pollution in the town, which affects residents, something that will also help to deter visitors to the town. The current 7.5 tonnes weight limit warmings which are being regularly flouted and any resultant fines are not working.

Most people know that there are periodic exceptions to the weight limit and the road traffic orders restricting weight limits are difficult to enforce. The short cut through Usk (from the A449) avoids using the A40 from Raglan to Abergavenny and the A4042 which has well known traffic related problems of its own, to save a few miles. The use of Sat-navs also causes problems by directing lorries through the town
rather than alternative routes.

The issue continues to rightly generate more than reasonable concerns amongst the residents of Usk, there have been recent and not so recent public meetings to address public concerns about the bridge and air pollution in the town. A number of different solutions have been proposed over the years, but, in truth nothing has been done to solve the problem.

The bad news is with the UK Government looking to make significant savings to its capital expenditure programme (which will be passed on down the line to the National Assembly in Cardiff and our local authorities) any suggestion of a by-pass will be a non starter. Even over the short term, with extra police patrols and road blocks may not necessarily survive the cost cutting that's going to descend upon Gwent Police (and the other forces in Wales).

There are not quick fixes, and no easy answers, one thing we need to do is get freight back onto rail and off our roads, far too much freight is being moved long distances by HGV's along roads which are entirely unsuitable for such volumes of traffic. This is one side effect of the wholesale butchery of our rail network in the 1950's and 1960's.

If Government in both London and Cardiff is really serious about cutting carbon emissions and reducing road congestion then much more emphasis on getting heavy goods back onto our railways, Now lets be honest this is not a quick fix and it may not be cheap but it can be done if the political will is there, as has happened in Scotland, where there is a useful combination of the will, the funding and interested private partners.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


News that two historic buildings in Monmouthshire (South Wales Argus 28th July) are to receive grants for essential repairs and maintenance work (from the National Assembly) is welcome news indeed. St Bridget's Church, Skenfrith - the medieval St Bridget's Church in Skenfrith will be offered the funds for repairs to its roof, drainage and masonry. The Savoy Theatre, in Church Street, Monmouth, have successfully applied for funds from the Historic Building Grants fund respectively. Cadw has listed both buildings. The grants are part of a total of £999,124 worth of funding announced this week for 24 historic buildings in Wales.

The Savoy Theatre in Monmouth which is the oldest theatre in Wales and contains a rare example of a small cinema from the intra-war period in Wales. The funds will be offered towards repairs to the front elevation of the building. I myself have trodden the boards at the Savoy, admittedly at a Green Hustings during the last Westminster election campaign, rather than an epic drama. Admittedly there may have been some fierce debate as to whether or not my New Labour lawyer opponent or my Conservative opponent might well have been well suited to play a stage pantomime villain.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010


When you consider the price of a pint (milk not beer), there are some things we should all be aware of. Firstly, a litre carton of full-fat, non-organic milk can cost between 70-80p of the shelf. Secondly, from this princely sum, a farmer will get between 21p and 28p. Thirdly, you can add in production costs off around 28p. Ouch! No wonder during the last 11 years some two thirds of dairy farmers in England and Wales have gone out of business, and finally it has been estimated that one dairy farmer leaves the industry every day.

Pretty grim reading, even grimmer if you are living it. Now historically the answer to low milk prices or a surplus was to turn excess milk into other dairy products, with dairies producing other valuable products like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt's. Milk aside, diary products are big business, especially when you consider that a 25 pence litre of milk may end up as something that sells for 15 times as much. People are prepared to pay good money for ‘health yogurt’ – which with the addition of bacteria, flavouring and a marketing campaign produce pretty healthy profits for the companies that produce them.

Here's something else to think about, around 40 per cent of our yogurt is made in France and Belgium, in 2009 more than 40 per cent of all Cheddar sold in the UK was produced overseas. It’s a pretty similar story when it comes to our butter. Only one of the most popular supermarket brands [Country Life] is actually from UK sourced milk. The vast bulk of our butter comes from Denmark and Ireland, and this is despite the fact that farm gate prices for milk remain consistently higher in Europe than here in the UK.

We (in the UK) when compared with 10 years ago are now importing nearly half our butter from abroad, cheese imports are also up, around 60 percent over the last ten years. We are importing those products that have added-value and are exporting the low-value milk products which are then ironically turned back into butter, yogurt, etc and sold back to us. This is madness; this is what happens in the Third World, where countries export their raw commodities cheaply and then have little choice but to buy back the manufactured products that are made from their own raw materials. Successive UK Governments both Conservative and New Labour have sat back and allowed this to happen.

The NFU has suggested (and believe me they should know) that the UK is in the process of losing a critical mass of milk suppliers and that we are no longer in a position where we supply the UK's “core milk requirement” which is around some 13 billion litres per year. In the last year there has been a 15 percent drop in UK Milk prices. In the last 10 years the Supermarkets’ margins (that is the the amount of the price they take on milk) have doubled in ten years. Now with a trend for both the processor and retailer to be the same, we have a situation where they take over three quarters of the price of a pint. We have now reached the situation where in a land renowned for Dairy farming and where even though the price of our milk is cheap, we are now become a net importer of milk.

The development of railway communications during the industrial revolution provided the means to deliver the farmers milk to our towns and cities and ironically as a knock on effect there was an increase and greater spread of diary production. It is doubly ironic that the first supermarkets (Sainsbury’s in Covent Garden, London, in 1869) sold what was then called “railway milk” from churns. The milkman arrived next delivering direct to our doorsteps, his near demise which followed some years later was a direct result of super market price-cutting which has now, more or less, effectively killed him off.

As as early as 1914, the UK Government recognised that milk was pretty important for nutrition in children, that it helped prevent rickets, and provided vitamins. And so the first government attempts to regulate milk’s supply and quality came about. Pasteurization was duly brought in to kill of certain bacteria. We now have low fat milk, slimmed milk, semi skimmed milk, etc – it is worth remembering that full fat milk is only 4 percent fat, low fat milk being 2 percent (or less) and that milk is approximately 95 percent water anyway.

If is worth further remembering that during the good times, pre Mrs Thatcher, the banks positively fell over themselves throwing credit at framers to encourage them to (as both the UK Government and the EU wanted) to ever expand their production. Once Mrs T and the Conservatives who were never particularly interested in farming anyway, being far to enamored of dodgy loads of money men in the City, allowed Milk quota’s (effective cuts) the bad times had begun to roll for our Dairy farmers and oddly enough the banks stopped calling with offers of cheap credit.

Note as well that What can best be described as industrial milk production is (and was) not without its problems – slurry production being one of them, which can be enormously toxic and environmentally damaging. Something else to consider is that modern cows to produce large amounts of cheap milk, a While a modern Frisian may produce as much 4 times as much milk as equivalent cows did 50 years it only has three milking years in which to do it.

The talk of a milk ombudsman is welcome, but it needs to be more than talk (it will need real teeth), there is a need for action, before our dairy farmers (and our farmers) are driven out of business entirely. What may follow if nothing is done may not be very pretty, it may be semi industrial and serviced by cheap migrant Labour. Supermarkets have to take a share of the blame for aggressively pursuing ever greater shares of the profit.

Successive UK Governments (both Conservative and Labour) have also failed to take any meaningful action – this either being down to a combination of nice financial inducements from large Supermarkets and / or a general indifference to the agricultural sector. We, as consumers also have to take a share of the blame because we allowed all of these things to happen, if we want quality milk and dairy products (that are produce from UK milk) then we will have to change the way we buy, if we do that then out farmers will get a better deal. Sadly I suspect that I won't be holding my breath for the current Con Dem Government to pull the fat (or the milk) out of the fire...

Monday, 26 July 2010


Oh Boy! Here we go again, a few years ago we had the botched New Labour attempt to reorganise our Police Services now the Tories are at it! For starters the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) which was only established four years ago (by New Labour) is going to be abolished. it is worth remembering that, in 2009, Soca was heavily criticised when statistics revealed that for every £15 of public money spent, barely £1 was recovered from criminals and criminals' assets. 

The home secretary has proposed amongst other things the establishment of a new national crime-fighting agency (no doubt soon to be known as the British FBI). All well and good, but, it gets even more interesting as people will also be able to vote in two years' time for locally-elected officials to oversee each police force.

Policing in the 21st century - is described by the Home Office as a radical blueprint designed to make the service more efficient and accountable - with Elections taking place in May 2012 for police and crime commissioners to replace Police Authorities, which will have the power to set police force budgets and appoint and dismiss Police force chief constables. As you would expect both police Authorities and Senior Police officers may well be described as being less than chuffed at the prospect.

The new National Crime Agency (NCA) will include a new border police unit, the child exploitation and on-line protection centre (CEOP) and some parts of the National Policing Improvement Agency (which may well be phased out). The NCA will concentrate on cross-border organised crime, drug trafficking, and provide support to individual Police forces. 

Now, while there is room for cost cutting and room for improving Police force administrative processes and procedures the Tories run a very real risk of overtly politicising our police service. Such a move would be hugely detrimental.

Good and proper policing is by consent and there is a risk that this consent may break down if the police becomes politicised, especially if our Police services ends up doing things for overtly political ends. The sooner Home Office and Ministry of Justice functions are devolved to Cardiff where they will be accountable to the Welsh people, the better.

Sunday, 25 July 2010


And speaking of local food and local food producers, we are not that far away from this years Abergavenny Food Festival. For the second year running it does not clash with Plaid's National Conference - so I can look forward to overloading my fridge with locally produced cheese and other interesting produce. The festival is an exceptionally good example of how to showcase local Welsh produce, local services, local businesses and our local talent to a wider world, while helping to enrich Abergavenny and the surrounding area in the process.

Lots of hard work by the organisers over the years has helped to further put Abergavenny on the map as the ‘Gateway to Wales’.  This year's festival looks like it will be even better than previous years – the festival organisers and participants have helped make a real difference to Abergavenny and have added to the towns well deserved reputation as well as giving the town an international reputation and profile,  as well as showcasing exceptionally fine local Welsh produce and local businesses.

Friday, 23 July 2010


The good news for both farmers, suppliers and consumers is that the amount of Welsh-produced food bought by public sector bodies across Wales has risen over the last few years. A survey commissioned by the National Assembly Government has reported that almost half of all food and drink bought by schools, hospitals and local authorities in Wales is now of Welsh origin, while the amount of locally-produced food bought by the public sector has risen by 65.8% in the last six years.

The 2010 Welsh Public Sector Food Purchasing survey reveals that Local authorities have increased their purchases of local food by 90.5% over the last six years. Key categories include bread, milk, fruit and vegetables, ready meals, soft drinks, dairy products and water. The NHS (in Wales)  purchases 69% of the food and drink products in Wales, when it comes to milk on average, 50.9% of all the milk purchased by Welsh local authorities for schools is locally-produced. 

When it comes to Welsh purchases in higher education, accounted for 41.3% in 2009, compared with 28.7% in 2003, in the field of further education some,e 39.6% of purchases were of Welsh origin, up from a previous figure of 16.8%. The survey reveals that the only organisations to have bought less Welsh food than previously were the MoD and the Welsh Police Forces, which saw a 0.4% decrease in Welsh origin purchases.

One of the priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government, that was set out in One Wales was a Local Sourcing Action Plan, to encourage local procurement of food and drink by the public sector. The plan to encourage more local purchasing which will leads to money being reinvested in local communities and local businesses. This also leads to a reduction in food miles, reduces carbon emissions which helps to fight climate change. 

The Plaid driven One Wales government strategy has begun a process that should lead to real social, economic and environmental benefits for our communities beginning the process by keeping the money spent in the local economy. This commitment to sustainable development is a good example of how local investment can provide a range of benefits across the whole of Wales benefiting local farmers, local suppliers and producers and local people.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


The news that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee (South Wales Argus 21st July and Western Mail 22nd July) , chaired by Monmouth MP David Davies is to investigate the future of the Severn bridge tolls. Personally speaking having contested Monmouth constituency twice at Westminster level for Plaid, I know that David Davies once he gets his teeth into something (once he gets focused) can be pretty tenacious and terrier like, so hopefully we may get some clarity and some answers.  

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee will look at how tolls on the bridges affect the Welsh economy, the amount of cash that is spent on maintaining the bridges, their future when they return to public ownership and at the level of the tolls, payment methods, the impact of the tolls on tourism and the condition of the bridges.

This is welcome news, as back in June, Plaid AM Chris Franks, revealed that the private company that operated the Severn Toll Bridges had raised almost £226m over the past three years – yet barely £15m had been spent on essential maintenance on the original crossings damaged cables - should not come as much of a surprise to many people. The Severn Crossings Tolls have been a valuable cash cow for many years, effectively gifted by the then Conservative Government to the concession holders.

The bridge tolls have become in recent years an effective a tax on jobs, a tax on commuters, a tax on growth and tax on business in the south of Wales. Plaid Cymru's South Wales Central AM Chris Franks obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act, which showed significant difference between the large amounts of money raised by Severn River Crossing plc from the toll, and the relatively small amount spent on treating the damage to the cables on the old crossing (M48).

Since 2006, some £15m has been spent on main cable work on the first Severn Crossing. The Highways Agency suggests that another £5.8m of repairs will take place over the next five years. Some £225,733,000 has been collected in bridge toll revenue since 2006. people may well wonder if they are going to get saddled with major work to maintain the bridges after the toll profits have been siphoned off by the concessionary company when the bridges are finally returned to public ownership in 2016 or 2017.

The Committee will take evidence from the Severn River Crossing Plc, who run the M48 and M4 bridges, government ministers, business representatives in Wales and others. Written submissions on the topic need to be in by September 3, with evidence to be heard in public in October and November. For information on how to take part email: - the committee hopes to report back with recommendations for the government by the end of 2010.

Naturally our local labour MPs are behind the enquiry, which is what you would expect - Jessica Morden, MP for Newport East (and a member of the committee) has welcomed the move, saying that the tolls could be lowered for people living in the surrounding area: “Like the Dartford crossing I can't see why you shouldn't be able to get a concession for those within a certain postcode area.”

A good call from an opposition MP you might think, the problem is that despite being relatively comfortably in Government for many years, this is the way our local Labour MPs and AM's have (and in the case of the local Labour AM's are still) playing it.  Unfortunately, as lest we forget, New Labour (under Tony Blair and then Gordon 'Houdini' Brown) were firmly in power from 1997 until 2010 so why did they not do something about the Severn bridge tolls then?

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


I welcome Plaid's campaign against the proposed closure of three Gwent magistrates courts. The UK Government has announced plans to close Abertillery, Abergavenny and Chepstow magistrates courts, not to mention the county courts in Chepstow and Pontypool as part of plans to modernise and improve the court service.

The UK Ministry of Justice published it's consultation documents on June 23rd as part of it's plans to close 103 magistrates’ courts and 54 county courts in the UK which it deems to be underused and inadequate. The consultation documents can be viewed on the Ministry of Justice website. The closing date for responses is September 15th. In Wales, Magistrates and County Courts are under threat of closure and may be affected: 

The following Magistrates courts:

Barry Magistrates' Court, Aberdare Magistrates' Court, Llwynypia Magistrates' Court, Ammanford Magistrates' Court, Cardigan Magistrates' Court, Llandovery Magistrates' Court, Denbigh Magistrates' Court, Pwllheli Magistrates' Court, Flint Magistrates' Court, Chepstow Magistrates' Court, Abertillery Magistrates' Court, Abergavenny Magistrates' Court, Llangefni Magistrates’ Court.

The following County courts:

Chepstow County Court, Aberdare County Court, Rhyl County Court, Pontypool County Court, Llangefni County Court.

The Ministry of Justice's real motivation is to cut costs, just like all the over Government Departments, make no bones about it this cost cutting efficiency agenda is being is being driven by the Con Dem Government in London - and it part of the price that we are all paying (and going to pay) for the bailing out the banks. While there are no doubt real opportunities to cut costs, save money and make the system more efficient, there is a danger of real damage being done to peoples access to justice.

Plaid Cymru in the National Assembly has tabled a statement of opinion against the proposals to close 18 law courts in Wales. The UK Government needs to reconsider its decision, because the majority of the proposed closures in Wales would have a significant impact, not only on jobs and services but on the efficient functioning of the criminal justice system. There is a real risk that any closures will also have a knock on effect as there will be increase in travelling expenses and also higher costs will be incurred by delays in hearing cases.

So much for easy access to Justice - one more sound argument in support the need to devolve control of Criminal Justice to Wales. 

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

£21million boost to improve train stations

A £21m boost to improve train stations across west Wales and the Valleys has been announced announced by Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones. This is a small but important step towards improving our transport infrastructure. I wonder how much coverage this announcement will get in the South Wales Argus.

Monday, 19 July 2010


South Gwent's Labour AM's and the Con Dem Council Group in Newport have had a pop at Ieuan Wyn Jones AM, Deputy First Minister and Minister of Transport over the on-going delays to the completion of the much called for rail-link between Ebbw Vale and Newport. The delays to the completion of the rail project have been aggravated by a combination of possible cuts to the Network Rail budget and almost certain cuts to the National Assembly budget.

While the delays are unacceptable and the project needs to be completed as quickly as possible it is a tad rich for local Labour AM's to try to make hay be blaming Plaid when they are part of a Labour - Plaid coalition Government. No doubt working on the assumption that no one will notice. It is also worth noting that the Plaid - Labour coalition has been in existence since 2007, why was the project not finished before? when there was a Labour Government in power in Westminster?

There is a certain kind of low politics which the less able indulge in, which revolves around cheap shots, so you can understand why the Labour AM's are having a pop. However, it's pretty rich for the Con Dem (Tory - Lib Dem) Council to have a go, especially when their Government in Westminster is about to embark on a series of public sector spending cuts which will amongst other things hack the hell out of public services, not to mention lead to the cancellation of many infrastructure projects  including the planned electrification of the mainline from Swansea to London and seriously cut the Network Rail budget into the bargain. 

Sunday, 18 July 2010


Post-election it seems to have gone pretty quiet at Westminster in relation to developing sustainable green energy - we have yet to see what damage the 'new financial reality / austerity' will inflict on efforts to develop alternative sustainable green energy. The Nuclear option may well still be on the table, one significant question that needs to be addressed is who will be sat around the table if and when the Nuclear conversation takes place. 

The Scottish Government will be a full party to any discussions about the construction of any new generation of Nuclear power plants in Scotland and along with the Scottish people it will play a full part in the planning process. In Wales things are quite different, the National Assembly may end up as a coat holder, actioning decisions made elsewhere in relation to Energy Policy in general and Nuclear Energy in particular.

Now this fact should be a matter of serious concern, especially when it comes to Nuclear Energy developments that may take place within or near to Wales - any planning processes related to Energy provision should take place with the full involvement of the people of Wales and their elected representatives and alternative energy generation schemes should be fully and seriously considered as well - this may not however, be the case.

The failure to devolve control of planning consent for 50MW power generation projects to the National Assembly when combined with the role of the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) runs the risk of damaging our economic prospects for only with complete planning control over power generation can Wales generate long–term sustainable job opportunities.

The final years of the New Labour Government (if government is an appropriate word for it) may well end up by being written off as a literal case of the lights being on but nobody being at home. there were few new or fresh original ideas about solving our energy problems. Back in 2008, Gordon Brown's cabinet rubber stamped Tony Blair's decision to back the nuclear option to solve the UK energy needs.

This decision was both disappointing and short-sighted, but, was not unexpected. By making nuclear power its priority the failing Brown Government effectively abandoned any serious attempts to conserve energy, and significantly undermined its own commitments to tackling climate change.

When it comes to power generation there are real job opportunities here that need to be fully grasped; the renewable energy sector should play an immensely important role in creating more green energy jobs. We need to create a decentralised power generation system which will create sustainable long-term jobs for local people, not damage the environment and contribute to providing our local communities with a long-term viable economic energy future.

Now is definitely the time for control of energy policy to be devolved to the National Assembly and time for some original non nuclear thinking and a fundamental sea change in attitude from all levels of government in Wales towards energy policy.

The Scottish Government has already set out a wide-ranging vision to address climate change, which includes a drive to boost renewable energy such as wind and wave power. Scottish Ministers also aim to see significant progress in boosting the energy efficiency of buildings, increase the number of electric vehicles on the roads and aim to cut in emissions across the farming and rural sector.

This is serious forward thinking on the part of the Scottish government as energy experts have for several years been consistently warning of a serious future shortfall in Britain's energy supplies, as a result of the rapid depletion of Britain's North Sea gas reserves, the increasingly tough regulations on carbon emissions from Britain's ageing coal-fired power plants and the planned decommissioning of 14 of 15 existing nuclear generating stations by 2025.

Imagine what we could do if the National Assembly possessed similar powers to develop the alternative energy sector here in Wales. In Wales, we need real direction when it comes to the development of safe and secure energy resources, power generation can provide the potential for real sustainable long term job opportunities; the renewable energy sector can and should play an immensely important role in creating more green energy jobs.

Beyond this there is a need to unify the power generation and supply companies into a single entity, preferably run on a not for profit basis, in the interests of the inhabitants of the UK rather than big businesses. A growing number of people are coming around to the conclusion that this decision was influenced by an unholy combination of irresponsibility and self-interest - it's certainly worth having a look to see which former Conservative and New Labour Minster's have made that transition from Government benches to the Boardroom over the years since energy privatisation.

Whether or not it was a matter of irresponsibility for successive Conservative and New Labour Government's to leave the energy sector largely and effectively unregulated as the private energy companies - is probably no longer open for discussion. The Energy companies have proved themselves almost entirely incapable of making long term strategic decisions that are necessary to provide us with safe and secure energy.

Saturday, 17 July 2010


Yesterday I was in Tenby at a conference on 'Town Centres' which looked at regeneration and the regeneration process and how it works - it was interesting and touched on a number of different themes and gave much food for thought. There was an interesting mix of participants, not just Plaid members, but representatives from a whole variety of different organisations and interest groups. A number of different ideas and concepts were discussed, some of which I have blogged on previously.  

Certainly if you live in various parts of Gwent or are intimately familiar with your home community, then Over the years you will have noticed that redevelopment / regeneration comes and goes in phases, in any particular community or town regeneration schemes will have cleaned areas up, built in cycle routes, created transport plans, pedestrianised streets, reopened them to traffic, re-pedestrianised them and (as is the case in Newport) make certain streets shared space with both cars and pedestrians (this is not as crazy an idea as it sounds, and actually works) and so on.

We have restricted parking, created parking and removed parking, made it free and charged for it, created bus lanes, removed bus lanes and changed the hours when bus lanes operate, etc - now this is all well and good and may reflect the latest trend in regeneration and development, but at the end of the day has it made the places where we live, work and shop better? Has the regeneration process or scheme increased or generated wealth in our communities or provided people with the opportunities to get jobs, to go into business for themselves or generate wealth? 

One of the (many of us would like to hope) unintended features of redevelopment is that quite often it is (or is perceived as being) driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies whether they be Town or County Councils or the National Assembly - a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed. The communities and towns and cities of South Wales have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success?  

Measuring a regeneration schemes success should be integral to the regeneration process. This is the question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the development / redevelopment / regeneration professionals have moved on - have the various schemes made a difference, I mean beyond any immediate physical improvements to the environment, have they made a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme? If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively syphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success?

How do you make regeneration projects work beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised during the regeneration process is the communities greatest resource - its people. If we truly want to build and develop strong sustainable communities then any regeneration scheme should from the start and at every stage of the process.

Rather than regeneration and redevelopment professionals coming into an area and engaging in a largely token consultation process it is vitally important that they should directly talk to and engage with not just local elected representatives but local people (who are a major asset to the process) and actually find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.

Regeneration schemes and projects should be directed from the bottom up rather than the top down model with a built in token consultation element that we often seem implemented in the past. One other key thing to remember as was said yesterday, if you are spending public money, then you need to work it very hard and squeeze out every possible benefit.

We also need to maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build in local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources and / or local skills and local input. If regeneration schemes are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished.

If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits for our communities. After all regeneration should be a process not merely an event.

Thursday, 15 July 2010


The news that nearly £16m has been awarded to boost outdoor and adventure activities across Wales is good news - this is an important step towards growing job and business opportunities  in outdoor activities and will have the knock on effect of boosting existing local businesses. The funding, which is mostly from European funding and local councils, aims to to create four tourism centres, with more than £6m will be spent in the North, improving cycling facilities and activities capitalising upon our area's of outstanding natural beauty.

When I lived and worked in London I was acutely aware that my South African, Kiwi and Australian friends would periodically disappear on organised trips to Scotland and Ireland, I became aware that Wales barely seemed to feature on their radar, so low at the time was our profile, something I endeavoured to put right.

Since moving back to Wales, and making reasonably periodic forays into our country's more rugged areas and endeavouring not to fall of mountains in the process I have become actually are that while there have been some significant improvements in this sector of tourism - there is significant room for improvement. Yet even now, by way of comparison with similar areas of Ireland and Scotland, it is clear that we are still missing out on some real opportunities and our outdoor tourism sector is still way underdeveloped.

Hopefully these new centres will provide world class facilities in a wide range of outdoor tourism activities and will be able to showcase what Wales has to offer to visitors as a sustainable tourism destination. The new funding project aims to break ground in the South, with a world-leading commercial bike park in the Heads of the Valley area at Gethin Woods in Merthyr Tydfil, the creation of a 'One Historic Garden' centre of excellence, and the creation of the "best all-round, purpose-built trail centre in the UK" at Afan Forest Park in Neath Port Talbot. These are all small, but potentially economically significant steps in the right direction to help to grow the outdoor adventure tourism sector.

There is a real need to boost tourism by promoting Wales as a world class outdoor activities destination - after all we are blessed with some spectacularly rugged areas with Snowdonia, the Cambrian Mountains and the Brecon Beacons. We need to grow the outdoor sector of adventure tourism, there are real job opportunities, and opportunities to grow sustainable local businesses which will benefit the local economy and the local communities across Wales.

While Abergavenny, more locally, rightly makes much of its position as a gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park there is plenty of potential to grow the out door adventure tourism sector, something that could benefit local businesses and also give our farmers an opportunity to help diversify their business with a growth in the development of bunkhouses and on farm accommodation.  

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Support for our Small Towns

I have long said that we need a new fresh approach to supporting small town and rural businesses, which are the lifeblood of our small towns and the rural economy in eastern Gwent and across much of rural Wales. Many people have recognised that for some groups of people in rural areas, economic and social problems are continuing to increasing; effective Government and Local Government indifference to the rural economy and rural economic needs when combined with the promise of significant cuts in public spending (which will hit scant rural public services hardest) will have a damaging impact on our communities.

It is time for David Cameron's Con Dem Government to wake up and to work to repair the damage that has been done to our small towns and our rural communities. The Plaid driven One Wales National Assembly Government has worked hard to actively support and encourage rural economic activity – because as many people realise without a prosperous rural economy many of our smaller communities are at risk of quietly and effectively dying as economic activity fades away.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has previously noted that the UK loses approximately 2,000 local shops every year and that of this continues then by 2015 there will be no independent retailers left in business, something that will hammer both consumers and our communities as they effectively lose any real choice in the marketplace. Over recent years in the small towns across Wales, that once particularly rich mix of local shops, small businesses and local suppliers have come under increasing pressure as the usual suspects in the shape of “identikit” chain stores have replicated themselves across our nation's high streets.”

The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England report ‘Rural Roulette’, focused on the area around the small town of Saxmundan (in Suffolk) and revealed that 81 shops surveyed employed 548 people, with 317 employees working part-time. They discovered that local small businesses were very flexible and able to fit in odd hours, at odd times for their staff and that many employees travelled short distances to their place of work and the majority of employees were women.

The Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England further noted the following:

  • There was a loss of choice as it becomes harder to buy local foods. 64% of the local shops in Fakenham, Norfolk, and 75% of those in Warminster, Wiltshire, closed when new superstores were built in those towns.Most supermarkets sell very little locally sourced produce, with only 1-2% of their turnover coming from local foods, so, when local shops close, the outlet for local produce disappears with them.

  • There was a loss of jobs as local businesses close. Supermarket domination of the retail trade puts the local food infrastructure at risk threatening the viability of local abattoirs, wholesalers and small farms and the associated jobs. A study by the National Retail Planning Forum in 1998 of 93 new superstores found that each one resulted in a net loss of 270 local jobs.

  • There was a loss of character, as once distinctive lively town centre's become 'clone towns'. Local shops and services depend on each other for survival. As independent shops close, once vibrant market towns can become retail deserts (or ghost towns). Where shops are taken over by national chains, creeping homogenisation creates clone towns.

  • There was a loss of landscape when traditional farming practices are discontinued. River valley meadows, marshes, heaths and pastures need to be grazed by livestock to maintain their appearance and wildlife, but the supply of meat from such animals, often traditional breeds, is often considered too small and intermittent to suit supermarket specifications.

Our small (and not so small) towns and communities need an economically active local network of food producers, wholesalers and local retailers to not only help to sustain many other jobs within the local economy but to grow local employment. Local businesses provided work for local trades people such as electricians, builders and plumbers – whereas national chains tend to employ people from outside of the area for renovation and repair work. There other beneficial knock on effects with local employment in banking, accountancy, legal advice, insurance, etc – all of which underpin the viability of our small towns - as small businesses also trade with each other.

We need to develop more sustained long-term initiatives to actively promote new and existing businesses in our small towns, our rural areas and all of our communities, whatever their shape and size. Our often hard-pressed existing small businesses, local retailers and suppliers provide much-needed jobs for local people and provide a linked network of businesses that use each other's services and feed the local economy. Small shops and local retailers provide a significant social network for  many local people and passers by and add to the long-term viability and vitality of our communities.

While every Government (since the 1980’s) has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our small market towns, they have accomplished little as over the last twenty years retail developments have consistently undermined this much vaunted aim. Local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the economic consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales. The sad fact is that the economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, just look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouth constituency and elsewhere in Wales.

Can we seriously expect our Local Authorities local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete on level terms with the increasingly aggressive tactics of supermarkets and retail chains who are chasing an ever larger market share. Our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.

The reality is that We need our small local businesses to be economically active and making a contribution to the local economy and Government at all levels should provide a helping hand and a level playing field to ensure that they are still around and economically active in the heart of our communities in future years. 

Tuesday, 13 July 2010


Before the election, when every prospective politician was the farmers friend (or claimed to be at least) there was much talk from the big 3 London based parties about the need for a Supermarket Ombudsman. With potential votes in the offing all of a sudden it seemed a very good idea, especially if you were a Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour Party candidate, to talk up the prospects of having a Supermarket Ombudsman (with real teeth) who might be capable of protecting both the consumer, the supplier and the farmer from some of the more harsher aspects of monopolistic capitalism as practised by certain supermarkets.

Now don't get me wrong a Supermarket Ombudsman is a good idea and a measure of protection for the customer, the supplier and the farmers is a good idea that has (and is) long overdue - but it does seem to have gone awfully quiet since the election. When I was clearing my spare room I came across a hastily scribbled note from 2006 (probably in preparation for a Conference speech in 2006 / 2007) which even though we are a few years down the line should give most people some food for thought:
  • The big '5' (in 2006) controlled almost 80% of the grocery sales in the UK
  • Between 1995 and 2000 the UK lost one fifth of its local shops and local services - local post offices, local butchers, local branches of banks, grocers, etc

  • The supermarkets have made and regular large donations (in cash or kind) to both New Labour, the Conservatives and other political parties.

  • 54 years ago farmers received between 45 and 60% of the money that consumers spent on food.

  • In 2006 it was just 7% in the UK, 3.5% int he USA and 18% in France.

  • Gate prices don't make anything like a fair comparison with final Shelf price - in the UK farmers got (in 2006) something like 8 - 13% bellow the EU average gate price.
Now, if anything the situation is probably worse, there is a real clear and present danger that the Political parties have readily got used to some of the perks of having a close relationship with the Supermarkets, Power Companies, etc - with their glossy adverts in conference brochures, free food at funded functions, glossy paid adverts in conference brochures, etc. One very old rule is that once you sell your virtue it stays sold, and once you sell your principles they stay bought and the end result is that the fabric of our democracy is damaged or tainted.

A good and pertinent question to ask would be what do they (the Supermarkets) get for their money? or at least what are they seeking in lieu of their donations? The answer may well be a weak and watered down Supermarket Ombudsman - which is the last thing any of us needs, whether as a customer, a supplier or a farmer. Another question that needs to be asked is whatever did happen to that much vaunted pre-election idea of a Supermarket Ombudsman?

So far, not a lot...

Monday, 12 July 2010


With the Con Dem Government actively preparing to hack the public sector budget to hell and back - something that will inevitably damage front line public services and effectively punish the many for the reckless greed driven misdeeds of the few - we are all waiting for the cuts to start. When the cuts begin to bite we may find ourselves in wholly brand new territory, with a Conservative (in action if not name) Government (despite the presence of Lib Dem office seekers), seriously considering reducing the Police budget and cutting Police (both uniformed and civilian support staff) numbers whilst trying to deal with the crime related effects of the recession. 

Now this is something that even Mrs Thatcher in her more lucid moments (and she had some), well before she went mad towards the end of her tenure as PM never even considered doing for a moment. Mr’s T at the start of her destructive and divisive period in office made sure that she raised Police pay (and improved conditions) – something which won her a combination of tacit approval, tacit support or at least a degree of passivity from the Police service, which had been neglected under the previous struggling Labour Government – during who's tenure in office there had been an erosion of police pay and working conditions.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, speaking at an annual lecture to the Police Federation, made the comparison between the poor record on organised crime and the good progress made in countering terrorism. He went on to say that the Police Service's response to organised crime has been "uncoordinated" and "inadequate". He went on to say that there were 60,000 organised groups, comprising 38,000 criminals and warned that cuts and elected police chiefs could further erode the capability to target these groups. He said that organised crime cost the UK at least £40 billion a year but combating it was not a priority for chief constables, with only about 11% of organised criminals were being actively targeted.

Food for thought - yet faced with paying for New Labour’s reckless spending, the ongoing financial legacy of Blair's wars, bailing out the banks, replacing Trident (an essential prop of Britain is to stride the world stage clinging on to the pretensions of being a World power), etc - the new Government finds itself just a s skint as Gordon's lot were. Is it just me or do people find it a tad odd how they can always manage to find money for their wars, their banks and other things when they need to? 

So a few months in despite the best efforts at spin, David (“Call me Dave”) Cameron's Con Dem Government has brought itself to what can best be described as their budgetary Rubicon moment - 'To cut or not to cut and how deep?' So here we are with serious consideration being given to reducing Police numbers and cutting back on operational policing and the myriad of police support workers who fulfil a hundred routine (and not so routine) tasks behind the front line? That's one way to make our communities suffer as the cuts begin to bite...

Sunday, 11 July 2010


In relation to the banking crisis and the vast debts that us mere mortals are having to repay, perhaps is best to paraphrase Winston Churchill, 'Never have so many had to pay so much on behalf of so few!'. George Osborne and the Tories have reluctantly gone along with the much publicly stated need to regulate the more unsavoury aspects of the banking sector. The question is will they sign up to President Obama's stated aim to regulate tax havens?

Just in case you forget, back in January (2009) President Obama announced two measures to curb the banks, the first aimed to stop banks from engaging in proprietary trading, private equity, or any other activity for their own profit unrelated to serving customers. The second measure aimed to take further steps to limit the balance sheet size of banks so that they cannot in future acquire “too big to fail” status.

President Obama is right to characterise his proposals as a victory for common sense and while we may have some way to go before the banks are forced to act responsibly, the first steps have been taken. I wonder if David Cameron will follow suit sooner or later – or are the Tories (despite everything that has happened in an almost unregulated, greed driven finance sector over the last few years) still far to enamoured with their friends, the dodgy money men in the City of London.

On occasion you may find yourself wondering exactly how far we have progressed in the last hundred years of so? In the later years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century US Presidents, Presidential candidates and politicians including Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) and William Jennings Bryan a Democratic Presidential candidate) were opposed to the power of big business and fought against the dangers of monopoly capitalism (as personified by ‘Standard Oil’ and 'the Trusts’ in Teddy’s case). In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, a future Democratic presidential nominee, warning against the power of finance, said: “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

President Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan had (and in my opinion has) a valid point - if you believe in the ‘free market’ (and the City money men claim to) then no organisation can be too big to be allowed not to fail. The massive public subsidies effectively made some of the banks 'publicly owned’, yet they are still largely run by bankers who are so thick skinned or self interested that they carried on regardless when it came to the awarding of bonuses - would that they had been more generous when it come to advancing loans to small to medium sized and larger businesses in their hour of need.

The new Con Dem UK Government should seriously consider breaking up and 'privatising' the larger 'publicly owned' financial institutions, and selling shares on the open market (with specific quotas on how many shares any one institution can own) – because from where many people are sat these bloated overgrown banking organisations appear to be a serious block on the ‘free market’.

We also need to a degree of similar rules for financial institutions across the globe, off shore must become a matter of historical record – there must be no where the financial institutions can hide and no more endless threats of taking their “ball” (businesses operations) elsewhere and relocating because they have lost their so called special status. it is important to remember, that no one, not even bankers (or MPs) are above the law and no one is above financial regulation and scrutiny.

The OCED estimated that some $10 trillion dollars worth of private wealth is concealed in Paradis Fiscaux (tax havens). These financial dead letter drops tend to be used by banks, multi-national companies, corporations, the super (and not so super) rich, drug dealers, dictators, terrorists, fraudsters and other criminals who use them to hide and launder their wealth. One significant side effect of Paradis Fiscaux is that they enable people and organisations to avoid paying their fair dues to the society in which they live, unlike the rest of us mere mortals.

To put things in perspective - the $10 trillion dollar figure produced by the OCED means that the lost taxation normally accused would be more than double the entire planet's global aid budget. President Obama, President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel are on record saying that off-shore capital needs to be properly regulated - Gordon Brown (remember him?) waffled, will the Con Dems sign up or are they in the pockets of the money men in the City or under the influence of Lord Ashcroft - who's
heart may be in Belize with his wallet?

Friday, 9 July 2010


The news that the 52 prisoners who will be freed over the next few months is welcome news but clearly more needs to be done when it comes to Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba. The prisoners are the last remaining jailed members of the group of 75 opposition figures who were arrested in a mass government crackdown in 2003. 

The Cuban Communist authorities have repeatedly denied that they hold political prisoners, labelling them mercenaries paid by the United States to undermine the system. Yet this mass release of political detainees, by one of the world last remaining Communist dictatorships should be seen as a significant concession to sustained international pressure over human rights, and it should have some positive effects in relation to better relations with both the US and Europe.

However, it is important to remember that Cuba is still a Communist dictatorship that badly needs free democratic elections along with the lifting of the trade embargo that has done little but bring much hardship to the ordinary long suffering Cuban people.

No doubt, when the Communist dictatorship collapse and a free democratic Cuba emerges I have not doubt that we will discover that senior Party members have lived pretty high on the hog over the years - as was the case in East German and the Old Soviet Union.

The record of Human Rights violations despite Communist denials will I don't doubt turn out to have been far worse than we previously imagined. Despite that dark thought - the news of the staggered release of political prisoners is still a positive step forward, and hopefully all of the political prisoners will soon be free.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


The cross party Rural Development Sub-Committee in the National Assembly has recommended that Wales should promote its wine, cider and beer industries to mirror the success of countries like New Zealand. This recognition of the economic potential of the home-grown drinks industry is to be welcomed. Anyone who has attended (and if you haven't then I strongly recommend that you consider it!) the Abergavenny Food Festival which is being held between the 17th and the 19th of September this year, will recognise the diversity and number of small scale cider, beer and wine producers from within the old county of Gwent and elsewhere in Wales and beyond.

The timely reports wants support for research into barley and hop cultivation and a reform of "beer ties", which force landlords to buy from pub owners and says that newcomers to the growing industry newcomers should have government guidance and advice – which has been welcomed by brewers and consumers' groups. The report goes on to offer the growth and development of the New Zealand's wine industry as a good example for producers in Wales to learn from.

Its not just about production though, there is more to it that that, the report has stated that the Welsh Assembly Government should work with Welsh brewers to help design and develop a marketing campaign which can help further promote Wales as a country of small breweries producing quality beer. There is also recognition of the need for government guidance to help our farmers make the most of potential opportunities to diversify into growing crops which can be used for brewing or apples for cider making.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010


The Plaid driven One Wales National Assembly Government is aiming to take a longer more thought out view when it comes to economic development. One part of the process that is being admirably addressed by Plaid leader and Economy Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones AM ,Deputy First Minister is economic development with “Economic Renewal: A New Direction” which sets out the role the One Wales government should play in providing the best conditions and framework to enable the private sector to grow and flourish.

There are however, two key elements (amongst others) when it comes to creating economic circumstances which will favour the growth and development of small to medium sized local businesses and enterprises. One key element is planning policy especially comes to development (or redevelopment for that matter) our Local Authorities need to develop a realistic and sensible long term economic view when it comes to planning policies to match that being developed by the National Assembly.

To match the economic vision we need a planning process that favours local businesses and small to medium sized enterprises - we need to have much better thought out and far more consistent planning policies for in, out and edge of town retail developments - before our communities are damaged beyond repair. Our Local Authorities are far too often tempted by planning gain as developers offer includes, sweeteners and inducements to ease the passage of proposed developments.

County Council's fear the costs of supermarket applications being taken to appeal if original outline planning permission is refused - they may be advised by officers of the potential costs if a development proposal involving a larger more aggressive retail company goes to appeal - so much for local democracy! Now to make matters worse Local Authorities often fail to have properly researched retailing policies within their development plans.

If retailing needs have not been assessed then it is very difficult for Local Authority planners to refuse any potentially damaging planning applications from developers, and local small businesses and consumers end up playing the price. Every Government since the 1980’s has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our small market towns, yet, over the last twenty years retail developments have consistently undermined this aim, as local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales.

The economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, just look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouth constituency and elsewhere in Wales. Can we seriously expect our Local Authorities local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete on level terms with the increasingly aggressive tactics of supermarkets and retail chains who are chasing an ever larger market share.

More than ever, our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements (why not call them what they are "backhanders") from developers. They need to support local small to medium sized enterprises and support local communities with well developed and well thought out planning policies.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


I am impressed with that Nick Clegg chap from the Con Dems, he seems to have managed to irritate the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Welsh Assembly all in one go... That's pretty impressive work for one brief statement in the House of Commons on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum - what with the London centred parties deciding that Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish electoral concerns should take a back seat as David ('Call me Dave') Cameron desperately tries to pander to both Lib Dem's dreams of electoral reform and hard core Tory backbench (and not so backbench) opposition to any attempts to extend democracy and give a measure of equal worth to ordinary peoples votes. I wonder who else he will be able to annoy when he really gets to work with the public sector / public service cuts? 


A quick update about the announced (and announced may well be the key word here, not to mention announced to whom) closure of one of Monmouthshire's small schools - Llanover Primary School. School Governors have gone on record (in the South Wales Argus - which makes interesting reading) stating that they are unhappy with the nature of the consultation process, which was combined with offers of places at other schools, which made parents somewhat nervous about securing places at other schools, so they pulled their children out of Llanover Primary School, effectively undermining efforts to keep the school open. Hence, falling rolls make the school uneconomic and unsustainable, due to falling pupil numbers. Knowing the way that Monmouthshire plays the game, I am not surprised at this one bit and I suspect very similar scenarios have played out over the years with small school closures in Monmouthshire and beyond.

Monday, 5 July 2010


Sometimes people hit the nail on the head first-time, Plaid AM Nerys Evans call for Communities First anti-poverty programme to be scrapped unless it clearly demonstrates its value to the Welsh economy (Western Mail 5th July) is one of those moments. Now she is absolutely correct to question the value and contribution of this programme, which promised much and yet may well have delivered significantly less in some of our most vulnerable communities.

I believe that there is a pressing need for a full and public scrutiny of the way the £214 million's worth of funding (from the National Assembly) between 2001 and 2009 has been spent. This call is particularly timely, especially as the Wales Audit Office report (back in 2009) said that of the £214 million, £140 million had gone to partnership mainly to pay staff and administrative costs rather than on outcomes. 

Certainly locally in Newport the impression that was created as a result of working with and talking to community activists in Pill over a number of years between 2001 and 2007 that funding was allocated to community groups that were favoured by (or under the control of) the Newport Labour Party rather than representative of community groups or concerned local residents.

With all areas of Government funding are going to face severe cuts it is vitally important that we all get real value for money, community based and EU funded projects, schemes and initiatives should make a real difference not merely provide a state of near permanent employment for project staff.

Sunday, 4 July 2010


It looks like Wales may miss out on any chance of rail electrification this time thanks to a combination of New / Old Labour and the same old Tories. With Whitehall tightening its belts and facing significant spending cuts there is a real and growing concern that the proposed upgrade of the Swansea to Severn Tunnel (and on to London) railway may yet end up as a casualty of Tory spending cuts. No doubt New / Old Labour will be quick to blame the Tories (they have after all done this for years, even when they have been in power), but that would hide the fact that both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's New Labour Government long ignored Wales and Welsh issues.  

The planned rail upgrade, was however, conspicuously absent from the George Osborne's list of capital projects that were to take place before his Budget speech. The rail project is being reconsidered as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review, which is due to be published in the autumn. With the Tories getting ready for what are expected to be pretty savage and deep spending cuts, what guarantees can be extracted for this key project to proceed - a good question that is in need a serious and urgent answer.

More locally within Gwent, the National Assembly's commitment (in March 2010) to finish the work on Gaer junction, so that direct trains can run between Newport and Ebbw Vale was warmly welcomed, along with the prospects of a new railway station in Ebbw Vale town centre and an hourly service. These are important small steps forward to improve our public transport infrastructure and to give people a real choice when it comes to using their cars or not. Now, while it it obvious that much more needs to be done, these improvements should be completed despite the threat of immanent budget cuts.

Elsewhere in south Gwent, there is much that can be done to improve our rail services. Both Caerleon and Magor would benefit from new railway station's and serious consideration should be given to reopening the line to Usk from Little Mill, In recent years we have seen hard won improvements to Severn Tunnel Junction, yet even here there is room for improvement. No to mention the fact that better facilities and better access is needed at Caldicot, Chepstow and Abergavenny Stations, as well as more frequent stopping services.

The National Assembly does not have the same powers over transport as does the Scottish Parliament (it should) and neither does it have the same financial settlement (Wales needs fair funding) - but despite these limits there is much that can be done. We also need to get serious about getting freight off the roads and onto the rails where it belongs - if this can be done along with rail electrification then we can reduce both pollution and road congestion. If Government wants to change the way we use public transport when we need a public transport system that's fit for purpose and fit for us to use.

Friday, 2 July 2010


It looks like we are all going to be in for a busy few months next year, trooping to and from (or not) to the polling booths - what with the possibility of a referendum on more powers for National Assembly in March, a referendum on electoral reform (AV = Alternative Vote) in May (the 5th) and elections to the Welsh Assembly in either May or June of 2011. One thing is becoming pretty clear that there is no strong voice for Wales in the Con Dem cabinet, let alone a stage whisper for Wales. 

With both the Tories and Lib Dems having strongly coming out against having the referendum - the one for more powers - on the same day as the National Assembly elections, because it might be very confusing to voters (how patronising can you get?) by having more than one election on one day. one wonders how eloquent and vociferous will be the protests from the Lib Dems and the Tories about the prospect of holding the referendum on changing the voting system on the same day as the National Assembly elections, after their Masters in London have publicly announced their decision - so much for consultations and clear channels of communication. Ironically at this rate they make Peter (the Pain) Hain look like a staunch and effective defender of Welsh (rather than Labour Party) interests. 

There is something else to think about, Vaughan Roderick, the BBC Welsh affairs editor, has pointed out that there may well be a fourth vote in 2011. With the UK Labour Party actively campaigning to defeat the proposed change in the voting system (despite the fact that such a change was offered by Gordon Brown (where is Gordon these days?) before the election and the promise was repeated in the Labour Manifesto). If old Labour gets the 'No' vote out for the AV referendum - then the Con Dem coalition government which is far from certain of winning the referendum to change the UK voting system, could fall apart, leading to a general election in June. Ouch! 

Thursday, 1 July 2010


News that both Govilon and Llanover Primary Schools are to close on the 31st August is disappointing news for pupils, parents and teachers in the affected schools and their communities. Not for nothing are our small villages and community schools referred to as the hearts of their communities - their loss will be a bitter blow to both communities. There has been much understandable local criticism of the consultation process, which has been described to me as being somewhat after the fact. 

Sadly many of our small communities across the whole of Wales have and probably will face similar situations. The National Assembly needs to take a long hard look at the programme of small school closures by Monmouthshire County Council (MCC), rather than merely acting as an effective rubber stamp. There is a bigger picture here, one that stretches far beyond the Assembly directive (which is regularly sited by MCC spokespeople) which aims to reduce surplus places. 

For many of our smaller communities a school building and its facilities aside from being a ficus of much community activity are an important community asset out of school hours - which once lost is gone forever. It's time to look at the bigger picture and and to take a much longer view - merely repeating a questionable policy of small school closures and amalgamations (as practiced over the border) is not good enough - our communities badly need some real vision here.