Tuesday, 31 August 2010


It's interesting to see that there has been a call for a UK-wide "floor price" for alcohol - which should be established to reduce consumption, and this according to a commission which was set up by the Scottish Labour Party. The alcohol commission has recommended a UK-wide ban on alcohol sales below the total cost of production, duty and VAT. The commission also said that consideration of a levy on alcohol retailers should also be considered, to help pay for alcohol-related services. The Scottish government, which wants to set a basic price per unit, said the report passed the buck to Westminster. Concerns about the damaging effects on health of rock bottom price cheap alcohol have been raised in Wales, lately last November.  I wonder if we will hear a peep from the Con Dem's?

Saturday, 28 August 2010


News that the Com Dem Coalition Government has quietly shelved plans for an independent inquiry into the £25 billion-a-year energy industry which has been subject to lengthy and repeated criticisms surrounding accusations of profiteering on electricity and gas, should come as no surprise to even the most impartial observers of the consequences of a warm relationship between the political parties within the Westminster village (and without) and the energy supply companies.

Interestingly enough, for sometime before the last Westminster general election, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made repeated criticisms (and much political capital) from New Labour for its failure to tackle prices charged by the Big Six suppliers. Both the opposition parties publicly and repeatedly demanded an inquiry by the Competition Commission. 

There was a hope that an inquiry into the nefarious activities of the energy supply cartel (sorry companies) might have had the power to reform the industry, encourage new entrants to break the hold of players such as British Gas and EDF on 99 per cent of the market and even possibly impose price caps. Yet, it appears that barely four months into the Coalition Government, there will be no inquiry has been called for and the Department of Energy and Climate Change confirmed on the 17th August that it has no plans to refer the industry to the Competition Commission.

Hmmm... perhaps there ought to be an inquiry into the dubious (and financial rewarding (in cash and kind) relationship between our political parties and the representatives of the energy supply companies who are keen to shower enough goodies around during Party conference season (and beyond) - perhaps not? 

Friday, 27 August 2010


A group of prominent Scottish business people are investing around £10m into the Airdrie Savings Bank. The Savings bank, which currently has seven branches in North Lanarkshire, is this year celebrating its 175th birthday. It is Scotland's only surviving independent savings bank and operates as a mutual so has no shareholders, it does not pay out dividends. The investors, who include Sir Tom Farmer (the founder the Kwik Fit), Sir David Murray (a major shareholder in Rangers Football Club and chair of the property-to-metals group Murray International Holdings) and Brian Souter (chief executive of the Stagecoach transport group), amongst others are helping the Lanarkshire bank expand and lend to more businesses. Now that's an interesting idea...

Thursday, 26 August 2010


The former Conservative party donor Asil Nadir (the former Polly Peck tycoon) has voluntarily returned to UK. Whatever his motives for returning, after he fled the UK to North Cyprus some 17 years ago to evade a potential trial for fraud, his timing is quite interesting. Nadir who was charged with fraud and 66 counts of theft when he was chief executive of Polly Peck, a business empire which traded in products as diverse as groceries and electronics. It has been alleged that he (once Mr's Thatcher's golden boy) secretly transferred £34m out of the company, leading to its collapse.

Now With Turkey in the process of trying to negotiate it's entry into the European Union, a number of loose ends need to be tided up, two biggie's include the on-going problem of Cyprus, along with Turkey's continued oppression and persecution of the Kurdish people. The former is particularly important to Greece and also to Cyprus (the non-Turkish occupied portion that is) as the Cypriot Republic is also an EU member.

While David ('Call me Dave') Cameron and his predecessors Brown and Blair would have liked to ignore or brush under the carpet so to speak the plight of the Kurds, there are plenty of voices within the EU who won't that happen. I digress the real motivation for Mr Nadir's return may lie in the fact that Turkey, anxious to smooth a path into the EU is bringing pressure on nominally independent Turkish Cyprus to cease to be a safe haven for criminals, embezzlers and other unsavoury characters, whose presence is an embarrassment to the Turkish Government on the mainland. 

Additionally, the election of a Conservative (well a largely Conservative) Government may have been interpreted by Mr Nadir, as an indication that he might receive a slightly warmer and more friendly reception now, rather than ending up being extradited by the increasingly co-operative Turkish Cypriot Republic, where he has been hiding for the last 17 years. I wonder how long it will be before he graces the door of Downing Street? If I was Mr Cameron, I think would stay in Cornwall and leave that one to Mr Clegg...

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Whenever the weather is bad, and I find myself in rather than out I usually quietly give thanks to the fact that I am not having the travel along the A4042 - having spent enough time travelling from Pontypool through Mamhilad and Goetre and on to Abergavenny (via Llanelen) in all seasons, all sorts of weathers and at all sorts of hours, I am now pretty familiar with the road, its limitations and its accident black spots.

When heading from north to south from Pontypool, through Mamhilad where the duel carriageway ends, the passing motorist is presented with a number of particularly dangerous accident black spots that regularly take lives and cause serious injury. Gwent Police were absolutely right when they requested that to the Welsh Assembly Government give serious consideration to building a roundabout at the dangerous Little Mill junction.

I have over the years seen the aftermath of far too many accidents on the A4042 at the Little Mill junction. Moving north towards Goetre, the road once you get up the hill, is increasingly windy and on dark nights, in bad weather as well as in good weather quite treacherous, there have been too many bad accidents along this stretch of highway, which carries a significant amount of HGV traffic as well as ordinary motorists. I have seen the Police hard at work in the pouring rain brushing the broken glass of the road too many times, or have been halted by a patrol car with its lights flashing to bring traffic to a halt after yet another bad accident.

As a trainee journalist on the Pontypool Free Press (in the late 1980’s) I can remember the complaints and concerns from residents then and can recall the results of road accidents. However, it's not just the stretch of the road between Pontypool and Goetre that causes problems, I can recall my news desk dealing regularly with regular news stories relating to flooding and accidents at Llanelen Bridge on the A4042 between Pontypool and Abergavenny.

I have personally lost track of the number of times that my journey to and from Abergavenny and the north west of Monmouth constituency have been stopped or diverted by the Police and other emergency services dealing with the consequences of yet another traffic accident. Now this is nothing new, the problems along the road between Little Mill and at Llanelen had been clearly identified when Gwent County Council still existed (and that was pre 1992) and there have been far too many accidents since, over the years - the question is now no so much what will be done as when will something be done, before the grim toll of accidents is added too.

Further north the area around Llanelen Bridge has long been prone to flooding as well as being recognised and well known as a pretty lethal accident black spot; all we have had over the years is talk about sorting out the problems, but, never any action to resolve the problem. We have to ask ourselves; as we approach potentially another season of long dark winter evenings, is how many more lives will be lost or broken before any action is finally taken? For how much longer must we put up with inaction before anything is actually done to solve the problem and save lives?

The increasingly inadequate A4042, which might once (if we were lucky) have benefited from some minor improvements, is going to fall way down the list of spending priorities (if it is even on the list) as the UK Government is in the process of looking to make significant savings to its capital expenditure programme which will be passed in due turn down the line to the National Assembly in Cardiff and on to our local authorities.

There are no quick fixes, and no easy answers, one thing that seriously needs to be done is to get road 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 lasting side effect of the wholesale butchery of our rail network in the 1950's and 1960's - fifty years ago the communities that now lie along the A4042 (and elsewhere in Wales) were reasonably well served or had reasonable access to the rail network with railway stations at Little Mill, Nant-y-derry and Pen-pergwm - no long gone.

Now the privatised rail passenger carrying companies pursue maximising their profits at our expense in exchange of regular fat payments to the UK Government and the provision of an increasingly disjointed and increasingly minimalist service to boot. Little in relation to this changed during the thirteen years of New Labour Government and in relation to the Con Dem's we had better brace ourselves of even less change and little improvement when it comes to provision of a decent rail service.

Now not being naive I fully expect a degree of indifference from a distant Westminster and Whitehall, but, I and many other people expect our politicians in Cardiff to take a different view, even with the National Assembly's relatively limited powers and its soon to be reduced budget. We can do better, we have to do better here in Wales, because no one else will, no one else will care or even try. Ironically, if Government in both London and Cardiff was really serious about cutting carbon emissions and seriously reducing road congestion then there would be far 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,but, sadly it appears to be lacking south of the border, which is something that has to change over the next few years. Even with limited resources and limited powers we in Wales should be able to make a real and lasting difference to our communities - if our elected politicians at all levels are there to merely fill the seats and are not prepared to try then its time to replace them with people who will serve and help their communities rather than serve and help themselves.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Our country is pretty well off when it comes to natural renewable resources for energy production, I am glad to see that we are finally beginning to follow Scotland's example of harnessing the potential of renewable energy. A generation scheme off Ynys Mon , promoted by Marine Current Turbines and RWE npower renewables plans to generate a fifth of the island's electricity needs from the £70m project, with seven turbines between the Skerries and Carmel Head acting as underwater windmills, if the plans are approved. 

There are other potential spots where we can generate sustainable energy not to mention the readily exportable skills and technologies that can help to sustain and develop our economy over the next decades and help to tackle Climate Change. Here in Wales, when it comes to power generation there are real job opportunities; there is absolutely no reason why the renewable energy sector can not play an immensely important role in creating more green energy jobs not to mention sustainable secure and safe energy supplies.

There is a 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. Sadly I suspect that there will be little new from David Cameron's Con Dem's over the next few years - if the coalition lasts that long - and even less leadership on the green energy issue. It need not be this way, away from the Westminster village and the dead hand of Whitehall, things are already happening.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government has plans to tackle the threat of Climate change, with plans for a 42% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, rising to 80% by 2050. These proposals which were first unveiled last year are far more ambitious than anything that has been proposed in Westminster in recent years, where the 2020 target (set before the Con Dems came to power) for cutting carbon emissions has been set at 34%. 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.

This will be 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.

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 government in Wales when it comes to energy policy. Imagine what we could do if the National Assembly possessed similar powers to develop the alternative energy sector here in Wales as in Scotland.

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.

Monday, 23 August 2010


The views of the citizens should be regularly sought and heeded, rather than regularly avoided and ignored which sadly may have been the lasting impression gained by observing some of our sitting MP's on the stump during the last Westminster General election. The icing on the cake was Gordon Brown's televised mutterings following a clash with a potential Labour voter up north. The end result was being particularity grim up north for Gordon thanks to the presence of a live microphone - the rest as they say, along with his premiership was history.

Now just over four months or so down the line from Polling day, and after the dust has begun to settle I am still left with the impression that rather than being a historic election it was more of an odd one. This impression has been reinforced by the fact that a significant number of our Parliamentary representatives quite openly and quite deeply resented having to account for how they had fleeced the system, for some years, to line their pockets at our expense.

This impression has been deepened by the fact that so few of our formerly elected representatives who were unluckily enough to get caught with their hands in the till, so to speak, have finally ended up before the bench or the beak (or will at least do so shortly). I suspect that all of this could be said to leave any impartial observer of our questionable democracy wondering about the effectiveness (or not) of the system of checks (rather than cheques) and balances in place to monitor our elected representatives even after the expenses scandal.

It is worth remembering that The Times (back on the 25th September 2009) revealed that 28 prospective Conservative candidates who had a reasonably good chances of becoming Tory MPs were working as lobbyists or public relations consultants on behalf of businesses and other interests. Over a quarter of them had got their jobs after being selected to fight parliamentary seats.

A number of them were duly forced to put up their hands to admit that they had set up meetings for clients with Conservative Shadow ministers, MPs and officials. Others said that they provided advice on the party’s direction and some admitted to lobbying Tory Frontbenchers on behalf of clients. So much for a brave new sleaze free new Westminster world, I wonder how many of them got elected?

The then leader of the opposition, David Cameron (now Con Dem PM) found himself in a potentially difficult situation with at least one fifth of his 150 parliamentary candidates who are likely to get elected working or had worked in the highly lucrative field of public affairs or communications. The Times at the time noted that only 7 Labour and 3 Lib Dem parliamentary candidates (with a chance of being elected) had jobs in public relations or communications.

The real question you have to ask, and it is one that everyone should be asking is with regard to Westminster and every other elected body is how much has really changed?

UPDATE: As for lobby see the Guido Fawkes blog...

Saturday, 21 August 2010


So now it's back to reality with a bump, and playing catchup. I have spent the last four days working as a volunteer (with trowel, mattock, shovel, bucket and wheelbarrow) on an archaeological dig on the Priory field, inside the Legionary Fortress at Caerleon - so no radio, no TV, no politics, etc.

So far it's been a fairly a typical August with sunshine, drizzle, humidity and gales - am pretty tired, but, it has been worth it and great fun. The dig is part of on-going excavations, which, have over the last four years, helped to identify eight previously unknown barrack blocks, three large granaries, a monumental metal workshop and a very large store building. You can keep up to date with progress via the excavation blog.

Final excavations are taking place this year, and last up until mid September, inside the Roman fortress involving staff and students from University College London (UCL) and Cardiff University. The dig is open to the public and there are guided tours of the excavation site, at 11am and 2.30pm daily, except for Monday's.

Back to reality, have I missed anything whilst i have been away...?

Monday, 16 August 2010


There is a need for a Welsh equivalent to Green belt, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, not to mention helping to protect rural green spaces between and within some of our urban areas. It's worth noting that 'Green belt' is a useful planning tool, which was introduced for London in 1938 but then ended up being rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955. The original idea was that the opportunity to develop green belt which would allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict urban growth.

The idea worked and worked well, as of 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (around one-and-a-half million hectares) which despite the best efforts of previous Conservative and New Labour Governments it is still relatively well protected both by normal planning controls and against "inappropriate development" within its boundaries. Wales only has one green belt, and that lies between Cardiff and Newport, Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance.

In the south east, along the coastal belt and in and around Torfaen, the last twenty years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which was never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor is struggling to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site. The north of Newport has now been linked effectively to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to either urban area.

In Torfaen, there are on going plans to literally fill in the gap between Pontnewydd and Sebastopol - this development was vigorously (and rightly in my opinion) opposed in the 1990's by the "Fight the Plan" campaign group . The original development proposals, aim to include 1,200 new homes, shops, playing fields, and a school, and a community centre, these were effectively rubber stamped by Torfaen council (in 2005), but developers were unable complete a legal agreement in time so it never took place.

However, these things never quite go away and now there is a new development consortium (which now includes the Welsh Development Agency, Crest Strategic Projects Ltd and Barratt South Wales) which has decided to revisit the old development plans, with a view to submitting them this autumn. So much for sustainability, while it would be too much, on past experience to expect Torfaen County Council to do anything other than rubber stamp the proposals, they have been hell bent on maximising as much housing development as possible over recent years.

The National Assembly should know better and act accordingly, the institution is supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities. We need to protect the green wedges around and within our urban communities. The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas.

If the National Assembly was to take the long view and create Welsh Green belt land with the legal and planning protections then, we might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and also manage to introduce a more long term element into the process by which our elected officials (and council officers) plan and view development and redevelopment within and around our urban and not so urban communities. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


The Lib Dems as part of the Con Dem coalition government have not just signed up to George Osbourne's savage public sector cost cutting exercise scheduled for October, they are going to have to sign up to helping to bail out their own party out of the financial hole they find themselves in. Some 20 Lib Dem staff have lost their jobs at Lib Dems HQ, the rank and file are facing a 15 per cent rise in their membership fees.

The emergency conference to approve the coalition deal with the Tories cost them the best part of £100,000. Now with potential Lib Dem support at the polls next year in Scotland (Parliamentary elections), Wales (National Assembly) and England (Local Government) looking to crash as a direct result of the coalition deal, not mention the cuts, and a potential electoral reform defeat / farce (take you pick) means that things may be starting to look grim for the Lib Dems.

What may make things more interesting is that the Lib Dem's may well be pretty skint - the Electoral Commission has revealed that the Lib Dems received £6.4 million but spent £6.6 million in the last Westminster election. As part of the Lib Dem austerity measures the party's membership fee is going to go up to £60 pounds. £60 pound to help fund potential electoral oblivion - that's value for money!

Thursday, 12 August 2010


Even though many of us will be enjoying the summer, some of us will also be faintly wondering about what our winter fuel bills will be like if we have a bad winter. Some of us may be thinking about making a stark choice between heating or eating this winter. Energy supply wise, we are now in the situation where we are now even more dependent upon imported gas from either unstable regions or dubious suppliers than ever before, and we the customers face unnecessarily expensive bills.

As a matter of urgency the Westminster Government, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly should work with the Irish Government to make these islands entirely self sufficient via renewable non market driven energy resources rather than pursing the dubious and costly (potentially in more ways than one) nuclear alternative that is particularly favoured by Whitehall civil servants.

The renewable energy sector can and should play a major role in creating more sustainable green energy jobs in Wales and elsewhere in the UK. If we can develop a flexible self-sufficient energy development strategy that actually encourages decentralised microgeneration schemes and then actually implement it then we have a fighting chance of creating jobs, useful new skills and will be able to bootstrap the economy out of the recession, as helping consumers and securing a stable safe energy supply.

As part of this process, 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 sustainable economic future. We can create more sustainable green jobs with exportable technology e.g. plumbers can install solar water heating and other professionals can install solar panels, micro-generation, biomass systems, green sanitation and water use can all contribute to the sustainable growth of our economy.

However, When it comes to energy supply in these isles, we are subject to the less than tender mercies of the so called 'free market', I say that because what we have is a virtual monopoly on energy supply in the UK. This is a direct result over the last eleven years of so or the departure from the commercial scene of a significant number of the energy supply companies - they fell from twenty two in number to six.

Now we have been told don't worry about it, that's the way the market works, and besides everybody took advantage to buy cheap shares in all the privatised utilities didn't they? Many people might have done so, but, how many people still have them or shares in their successor companies. By way of experiment at one of the Westminster election hustings (in Trelech) I asked that very question - out of well over 100+ people present only one person raised their hand. The only real beneficiary in the medium term was the City. Now the free marketeers will tell us that this was a good thing - I beg to differ the only real end result of the privatisations was that the ever richer minority in the City (and some of their friends in the Palace of Westminster) got richer at our expense.

Anyway, as I said, Free market, I think not, what we have is less than a £30 differential between all of the energy supply companies, which works out to be no more than a few pence a week difference in bills. We are all paying the price, and future generations will continue to pay the price of the economic consequences of an energy cartel which brings minimal benefit to hard pressed energy customers and maximises it's profits and which feeds the UK government impressive amounts of tax.

The Energy companies who have reaped vast profits over (500% between 2003 and 2008) were pretty quick to blame rising oil and gas prices, and even quicker to rake in the profits, as the average annual dual fuel bill rose from £662 a year in 2005 to 1,048 in 2007. The New Labour Government was pretty happy to rake in the extra tax revenues and ignore repeated calls for a windfall tax on excessive profits and the Energy companies were equally slow to pass on any reductions in energy costs to their customers – the only real losers in this pretty picture was us, the unhappy energy customers.

The then New Labour Government ignored repeated warnings that it was setting the UK on a path towards higher prices and blackouts. Over the next six years almost all of our old nuclear reactors, along with nine major coal and oil-fired power stations, will be closed, with nothing ready to replace them - now that is something to think about.

Now it's not all New Labours fault, that would be too easy and too simple. This mess has been along time coming, the real culprits are the Conservatives. Conservative complicity in the headlong dash to gas in the 1980’s was bad enough, but, things were compounded by a real and basic failure in strategic energy planning something that was made worse by the then New Labour Government's perverse decision to half-heartedly look at developing diverse reliable alternative energy sources.

Back in October 2009, the Tory Energy Spokesman, Greg Clark has said that the "cartel" of the big 6 energy firms would be referred to the Competition Commission by an incoming Conservative Government. He also condemned the unacceptable lag between the cost of wholesale gas prices and household energy bills - noting that customers were on average being charged some £74 pound too much for their energy per year.

Many people, at the time, could see the benefits of an 'independent' investigation into the Energy companies refusal to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices to customers and welcomed the promise of a long overdue 'Energy Revolution' to overhaul the energy sector billing structure and charges. All good stuff, but, and don't get me wrong here, this all sounded great, but, it does seem to have gone awfully quiet over there (in Government).

Also if my memory serves me correctly wasn't it a Conservative Government that was responsible for starting the whole sorry mess in the first place by privatising the energy market in the first place, throwing any rational energy pricing structure upon the questionable whims of the 'market' by allowing the newly privatised energy companies to price gouge customers in the first place? One reason why it may have gone quiet is that the energy cartel helps to feed the fat wallets of their Tory chums in the City?

By the look of it and energy prices are set to rise once again and while no one is disputing that the six main energy suppliers have been ever so slowly (in most cases) reducing their prices since the beginning of this year, energy bills are still too high. Consumer Focus research suggests (in October 2009) that current gas bills should have been at least 7.4% cheaper (some £60.10 annually) and electricity bills should have been at least 3.1% cheaper (£13.80 annually). I suspect that the energy companies will move pretty swiftly to raise our bills if energy prices go up again.

Now the reality is that little has changed, vast profits are still being made by the energy companies. Customer Focus's research showed the reality, that the energy companies are pocketing £1.6bn extra, despite the belated passing on of some energy cost reduction to households, little has changed and if energy prices continue to fluctuate then once again millions of households may yet struggle to make ends meet this winter.

Monday, 9 August 2010


Perhaps, in this age of financial austerity, perhaps anticipated by David ("Call me Dave") Cameron's Con Dem's, the future trend is merely for Government (at all levels) to simply be there and to provide nothing or at least next to nothing for this costs the least. Think about it we had 13 years of New Labour Government and at the end of it what did we get, not a lot in my book.

The new bottom line, being when you have ineffective and inert Government, is that if you want a civic society or want to reopen an old railway station then you (as in us the citizens) have to make Government act on our behalf, whether it wants to or not. Now this is not the Big Society that Cameron has droned on about (before the election), this is people making Government (at all levels) pull its collective finger out and do what they want for their communities. And that's the stuff of a collective New Labour and Conservative nightmare ...

This potential future trend, has already been fully anticipated by the rail franchise holding companies, who are there as far I can cypher it, in it to make lots of money and provide a pretty minimal unresponsive service. Lets be honest here, our railways and our rail passengers have been neglected for long enough - we currently fork out a small fortune to the rail companies that hold the franchises - for a pretty poor unconnected service.

Despite the threat or promise (take your pick) of future cuts to the Welsh budget there are opportunities to make a real difference locally whether it be within our communities or to our neglected public transport infrastructure that should serve our communities. Many of our existing railway stations suffer from some pretty significant gaps in services, so are underused.

This is pretty basic stuff, if there are more stopping services then you will get more passengers. There is nothing quite so frustrating as standing on a platform watching a passenger train slow down to pass through the station without stopping. Our existing railway station need better toilet facilities, often lack any waiting room for passengers, if we invest in better facilities and better more frequent services then we will bring more passengers.

Now it's not just our existing railway stations that can be improved, there are plans to reopen a village railway station in Mid Wales that was closed in the 1960's. Passenger trains last stopped in Bow Street, near Aberystwyth over 40 years ago (in the South Caerleon, Magor and Pontrilas spring readily to mind). Now a local campaign group is working to reopen the railway station. Trafnidiaeth Canolbarth Cymru (TraCC), a group that works with councils on transport issues, is carrying out a feasibility study.

At the moment people living in Bow Street have to either drive to Borth or Aberystwyth to catch the train. People who would like to support plans for Bow Street station can write to:

Canolfan Rheidol
Rhodfa Padarn
Llanbadarn Fawr
SY23 3UE

Or email enquires@tracc.gov.uk between now and September 2010.

Small scale transport projects seeking funding, are appraised under a scheme funded by the assembly government.Then the appraisal is resented to officials so it can be considered for the assembly government's national transport plan. Well organised small scale local campaigns may provide the best opportunity to make a real difference when it comes to reopening or improving the services of our railway stations.

There are a number of good examples to follow; there are campaigns to reopen Carno Station and the successes of the Severn Tunnel Action Group who have campaigned to restore rail services and improvements in the passenger infrastructure and Better Trains 4 Chepstow who are campaigning amongst other things for more stopping services at Chepstow, are but a few good working examples of well motivated well organised local campaign groups working hard to reopen or improve services and facilities at their local railway stations (and not doubt making Government and the rail franchise holders wish that they had never been born).

This is obviously the model to follow to get better rail services for our communities and to re-open old railway stations, it's time to make our Government at all levels far more responsive to what we want not what they want. There has been too much talk and far too little activity over recent years. That has got to change whether it be at UK, Welsh or local Government level. Don't say that you have not been warned...

Sunday, 8 August 2010


I was away for the weekend so missed the fun, being dependent upon relaid bulletins from the radio - at breakfast time the Con Dem's were going to cancel free milk for the under 5's, by lunchtime, they (the Con Dem's) had changed their minds and the under 5's milk was safe! So there we are, after a few hours of confusion this morning, everything is back to normal - no doubt down to that nice Mr Cameron (ensconced in No 10) who acted swiftly to save the children's milk or perhaps to prevent a damaging media storm of comparisons between Mrs T (in the 1970's) and the Con Dem's (in the 2010's).

Apparently this all started when the Health minister, Anne Milton, wrote to Government colleagues in Scotland suggesting that the Department of Health was considering scrapping milk for nursery and primary school children by April next year as part of cost saving measures. The scheme costs around £50m, double what it was five years ago and was expected to rise to £59m by 2011/12. However, as the leaked letter was being reported by the BBC, No 10 swiftly released a press statement saying the scheme would remain. 

Further developments followed as the Department of Health was forced to hurriedly revise its stance saying scrapping school milk had been under consideration but had now been "ruled out". It is thought No 10 acted again to over-rule health ministers as it was feared comparisons would be made to Margaret Thatcher who was haunted by the nickname of "Maggie the Milk Snatcher" for scrapping free school milk for older children in 1971 when she was education secretary, for years.

Downing Street stated that Prime Minister David Cameron apparently "did not like" the idea of scrapping the free milk scheme. The Nursery Milk scheme which allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk each day free of charge, owes its origins to a scheme which dates back to 1940, when milk was issued to pregnant women and young children to protect them against wartime food shortages.

The Department of Health has somewhat hurriedly revised its stance saying scrapping school milk had been under consideration but had now been "ruled out". Now we may be in for some interesting times ahead within the Con Dem coalition as senior Liberal Democrats are on the record praising the provision of free milk. Now the costs of the scheme (some £50 million at the moment) may appear pretty steep to you and me, but, by way of comparison with the costs of replacing Trident, paying for the banks greed driven blunders and the new aircraft carriers they pale into insignificance.

Did the Con Dems seriously suggest as cost cutting measures that we take away under 5 year olds school milk to pay off the shambolic banking disasters, good grief! seriously it's time to get a grip!

Friday, 6 August 2010


It's always difficult when people drop by for a meal, food aside what do you talk about? It's especially difficult when those awkward silences arise! Last night (Thursday) Prime Minister David Cameron had a not particularly unexpected or unannounced dinner guest, in the shape of President Zardari of Pakistan, who dropped by on the off-chance of catching the PM in at Chequers.

Mr Zardari (whose own money matters (and misdeeds in the past) would make Lord Ashcroft's money matters pale into insignificance) was Mr Cameron's guest at a private dinner at the PM's country residence. The after-dinner conversation would have left little room for any uncomfortable moments of silence, as there was much to talk about with plenty of lively conversation with counter-terrorism co-operation, NATO operations in Afghanistan and trade amongst the topics of conversation. No doubt there was a free and frank exchange of views - which is usually diplomatic language for 'a full on shouting match'.

Any exchanges would have been a tad more intense because of the PM's diplomatic blunder in India which caused a significant amount of muttering and some anger in Pakistan last week. The PM, during his India trip, did wonders for UK - Pakistan diplomatic relations, when he said elements in Pakistan should not be allowed to "promote the export of terror whether to India, whether to Afghanistan or to anywhere else in the world".

Now, the real issue was not so much what David ("Call me Dave") Cameron said, as where he said it that ruffled feathers in Islamabad. Had Dave said it in Islamabad or anywhere else he may have got away with it. It was saying it in India, which no doubt earned him a few points with New Delhi what really rubbed Islamabad up the wrong way. Most independent strategic analysts accept that elements in Pakistani military intelligence and within the army have been trying to play both ends against the middle over recent years in Afghanistan.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall!

Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Danny Clark, a Plaid Cymru activist and community councillor in Llangynwyd near Maesteg has started a campaign against proposed shift changes for fire service staff in Wales. I have sought to support Danny’s work in highlighting the difficulties fire service staff will face if these changes are made. The South Wales Branch of the Fire Brigades Union balloted members for industrial action short of a strike over the proposals for a new duty system, and the union’s committee met recently to discuss roster plans for Maesteg, Penarth and Pontypool, where 50 jobs will be cut and the firefighters left will have to double their weekly working hours to 96 hours per week.

The proposed plan by the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service of an alternative crewing system at selected South Wales fire stations, aimed at maintaining existing response times and levels of service to the public will make, according to them, make net savings for the service. However, it will expect longer working hours from crews, while firemen and women will be expected to work to an older age. I do not think this is an acceptable way to treat fire officers and believe that it could lead to tired crews that may become a danger to themselves and to the public.

From the staff Danny and the Plaid team have spoken to in Maesteg, these changes are not positive for the workforce or for the service in general, and therefore an e-petition has been started to garner support for the campaign, and to support the FBU.


The above is a straight lift from Bethan Jenkins AM's blog it's worth reading and is a campaign that is well worth supporting as the implications of the proposed shift changes will impact across all of South Wales.  Bethan has already written to the FBU to request a meeting to discuss this matter further, and to offer Plaid Cymru’s support. 

The petition will be presented to the petitions committee at the beginning of the new National Assembly term, and I fully support the campaign and urge people to support our Fire Fighters and sign the petition and the campaign.

This is the link to the petition

Tuesday, 3 August 2010


The plan to stop funding for Gwent Theatre, which is one of the more established theatre company's which regularly performs in schools across the former county of Gwent, is very bad news indeed. As the cuts begin to hit home, all of our public funded bodies are going to feel the cuts.

The Arts Council of Wales is now planning to withdraw funding worth £3.6m from 32 arts groups from next year. The Gwent area, especially Monmouthshire, is sadly going to be particularly badly hit. Gwent Theatre which was set up over 30 years ago, and has previously received £250,000 a year from the Arts Council of Wales, may well be wound up as a result of the loss of funding.

The impact of the loss of funding will hit the Theatre's small company of six people: actors, stage manager, educational and administrative staff who will all lose their jobs. A number of whom have worked with the Theatre company for over twenty years and have consistently delivered work of the highest quality throughout the former county of Gwent.

There will also be a further reduction in employment opportunities for actors, script writers, musicians, poets and storytellers all of whom will now lose out when the cuts begin to bite. Gwent Theatre provides employment opportunities for up to 40 people in any given year.

The most significant impact of the loss of Gwent Theatre is going to be the loss of its role in educating countless pupils and young people in Gwent's schools - I can remember them coming to my school when i was a kid. It's worth remembering that 2009 – 2010 alone, Gwent Theatre was able to deliver 220 performances to some 14,000 + young people in some 219 schools.

Gwent Theatre also held 81 theatre workshops with over 2500 participants. The highly acclaimed Gwent Young Peoples Theatre put on seven productions, with 5183 youth theatre attendances and audience figures of 1,794. This is pretty good if not an outstanding delivery of work in a single year from a small theatre company.

Over the years Gwent Theatre has worked hard to establish itself as a highly successful company which regularly takes its excellent work into our schools and our communities across Gwent – something that more than than fulfils the aims and objectives of the Arts Council of Wales to put the experience of live theatre into individuals and communities lives.

It's time to think again funding wise, this may on the surface appear to be an easy hit, but, it is a cut that is far too deep - Gwent Theatre has successfully and faithfully served individuals, schools and communities across Monmouthshire, Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Newport and Torfaen, and has worked solidly for years to build up good working relations across the greater Gwent area.

Gwent Theatre does not deserve this fate and neither should our communities be culturally deprived of the important future contributions to could and should made by Gwent Theatre in future years.

Monday, 2 August 2010


ATM charges can sting all of us, including some of the most vulnerable people in our communities by charging people to withdraw their own money. I myself nearly got stung early one morning at a service station on the M4, narrowly avoiding being charge £2.50 for a £20 withdrawal, fortunately I was awake and cancelled the transaction. 

Last August Dr Dai Lloyd, one the Plaid AM for South Wales West loudly called on the then New Labour government to regulate ATM proliferation and charges in order to ensure a fair deal for Welsh communities, particularly for those on low incomes who are hit hardest by these charges. 

No joy! Why do I suspect that the Con Dem's will also do little to protect some of the more vulnerable members of our communities. Some of the amounts being charged to use these ATMs are ridiculous, to make matters worse there have been some rapid increases in charges recently.

Some are now charging as much as £2.50 for every withdrawal - for anybody withdrawing £10 that's an extra 25%! This is a cost that many users can ill afford. To make matters worse it would appear that more deprived wards with no free cash withdrawal options are being targeted by these companies, this is disgraceful and unscrupulous behaviour by these ATM companies. 

From a standard £1.99 charge, about 60p will go to the owner of the site where the cash-point is, roughly 60p is taken by the firm that owns the machine and another 40p goes to Link. What little is left over - about 39p in this case - pays towards installing and maintaining the cash-point. An industry insider said: "The breakdown is roughly the same for all companies, but the charge differs depending on where the cash machine is.”

Very often people living in these communities that have seen the loss of local branches of banks and do not have the luxury of being able to travel to withdraw cash. Their options have been further limited by effects of the New Labour driven Post Office closure programme which hit all parts of Wales.  

Many of our smaller communities, especially (but not just) in the Valley communities have lost their banks and their post offices, leaving people with little choice - so much for market forces. Even in those of our communities that are still lucky enough to still have a post office, the days of withdrawing benefits and pensions directly and over the counter are long gone.  

A few more things to think about: 


  • Fee paying machines introduced in 1999 and some now charge as much as £2.50
  • Average fee at the UK's 25,000 charging ATMs now £1.75, initially was around £1 per transaction.
  • 96.5 per cent of all withdrawals last year were from free cash machines.
  • Over the last 5 years the number of cash machines that charge has increased by more than 18,000. The number of free cash machines has grown by only 8,000.

The CAB has said: "When we looked into it we found there was a disproportionate number of these machines in poorer areas.”

As well as hitting everybody, it is worth remembering that ATM machines that charge for transactions have a much more disproportionate impact on people on low incomes and those claiming benefits which are paid directly into bank accounts. 

Richard Bates, of watchdog Consumer Focus, added: "It is shocking that there are more fee-charging cash machines in communities where people are least able to afford them."

What about the Banks?

  • In 2008, the Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) group, sold more than 800 of its cash machines to an independent operator. This company is now free to introduce fees on the machines.
  • HBOS won't directly benefit if charges are introduced - and it will be able to continue saying its own machines are free - but it made £75m from the sale of the network.
  • Abbey has also sold part of its cash-machine network.

  • NatWest has even bought one of the fee-charging ATM operators, whose profits will now feed into the banking giant's bottom line.

Since 1995 banks have closed 22% of their branch network, 15% of post office branches have been closed, 5% of building society branches have been closed. Machines which charge now account for over 40% of the 53,000 machines in the LINK network. In 2001 only 7,000 cash machines charged to get money out but by last year that figure had rocketed to 25,000 (July 2009). 

It is high time that action is taken to protect our communities, it is wrong that unscrupulous companies should profit most from those who can afford it least. The New Labour Westminster government failed to take any action to regulate the proliferation and charges of these ATMs. Sadly we may have a long wait until the Con Dem's step up to the mark on the subject of ATM charges.

In Wales, there is still time in the next term for the National Assembly's social justice Minister needs to step up and work with local public service providers to provide free alternatives and we must see if there is anything else that can be done to protect our communities from this unfair practice and protect our communities from unfair charges.  

Sunday, 1 August 2010


News that Conservative dominated Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) and the supermarket Morrison's have exchanged contracts for the sale of Abergavenny's cattle market site, will come as no surprise to the residents of Abergavenny. MCC have, over the years been hell bent on disposing of the cattle market site, in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost the local authorities coffers. 

MCC has struggled to balance the books for many years, it has suffered from a poor financial settlement, this is a situation that has clearly driven the Authority to dispose of its assets for financial gain. The harsh reality is that MCC is (as are many local authorities across Wales) far too small to be viable in terms of finances and delivery of services. Taking the long view, local residents are still paying the price for the demise of Gwent.

Most people could (and can) see, with the exception of MCC and its planners; that the public, given a choice, are more than happy to buy local produce and to support local retailers - they don't particularly want to shop in chain dominated high streets. A successful dynamic and diverse economy has a place for the larger retailer and the supermarket chain, but, not at the expense of everything else and the destruction of our small town high streets.

For a number of years there has been an ongoing campaign to Keep Abergavenny Livestock Market (KALM) and to preserve the unique character of Abergavenny as a traditional market town shows. Survey, petitions and research have over the years shown that both local residents and many local farmers wish to retain an active Cattle Market in Abergavenny. MCC should if it had half a brain made the most of a real opportunity to get things right when it came to planning the long term economic future of Abergavenny.

KALM effectively presented MCC on a number of occasions with real opportunities to begin the whole process afresh, by working hand in hand with concerned local residents, farmers and small businesses to ensure that Abergavenny retains its Cattle Market and it’s fundamentally unique character as a market town. For reasons of short term financial gain MCC Conservative Councillors have chosen not too do this.

Across Monmouthshire (and elsewhere in England and Wales) we have to often in the past seen ill-thought out unsympathetic redevelopments that have had a detrimental effect on the local economies in both Chepstow and Monmouth and elsewhere. The retention of the cattle market in Abergavenny presents a real opportunity to do something fundamentally different, something that should be able to address both environmental and economic concerns and contribute to the retention of the unique character of the market town that is Abergavenny.

The National Assembly Ministers, under Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 have the power to call in any applications for planning permission for their own determination, something that clearly needs to be done in this specific case. While there is a tendency to consider that development proposals are best dealt with by planning authorities that know their area, its needs and sensitivities, it is pretty obvious that with regard to MCC, and the redevelopment of Abergavenny and its cattle market this is clearly not the case, hence the need to call in this proposed development.

Planning applications can be called in when they raise issues of more than local importance, issues which are in conflict with national planning policies; could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality; may give rise to substantial controversy beyond the immediate locality and are likely significantly to affect sites of scientific, nature conservation or historic interest or areas of landscape importance which covers almost every aspect of the proposed redevelopment of Abergavenny cattle market.