Saturday, 30 January 2010
Whatever happens at the next Westminster General Election, it is going to be a very, very different election in Scotland.
With grateful thanks to BellaCaledonia.com at wordpress.com
Poster Boy at one time had an exceptionally high media profile, when as an AM, as one out of sixty, he worked the local, regional and national news in Wales very, very hard, with outrageous, very carefully worded (and I will come back to that) but, allegedly misunderstood statements and points of view that were guaranteed to provoke a degree of anger from what might be called the usual suspects. This worked fine, from his point of view when in the National Assembly, whatever the levels of irritation it might have provoked within Tory circles in Wales, if that's not a contradiction in terms.
The transition to the Westminster arena has proved to be less than kind, when not serving faithfully and dutifully as a hard working special constable for the British Transport Police in London, Poster Boy could be found throwing in his opinion and thoughts on a variety of debates and specific committees within Westminster.
From being a strong local voice for Monmouth in a National Assembly based in Cardiff, Poster Boy is now one of many, with a resultant much lower media profile, within Wales and within his own constituency - which has been noted by many people. Now this may be a result of Conservative Central Offices standard operating procedure with fresh Tory lobby fodder i.e. sit down, shut up, don't rock the boat and vote how and when you are told or it may not.
Either way, where Poster Boy wants to be and where Poster Boy wants to go, especially with, if the Conservatives win power and redraw the constituency boundaries in Wales to reduce the number of Welsh MP's by 10, is open to question. Certainly he finds the higher status of the Home Affairs Select Committee far more appealing than the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, where his poor attendance has been noted, with a bare 5 out of 44 appearances - so much for that strong voice for Monmouth in Westminster.
In the longer term, perhaps a nice safe Tory seat over the border may prove more appealing and much safer electorally. Perhaps not, if he keeps opening his mouth and sounding off - even Conservative Central Office which is not necessarily renowned for having limitless patience, may lose its cool with Poster Boy's musings.
I for one, don't believe for one moment that Poster Boy's sounding are off the cuff, or ill-thought out musings. They are very well thought out, carefully crafted and designed to achieve one thing and one thing only - raising Poster Boy's media profile. Poster Boy is not dull, he may not be the shiniest spanner in the toolbox, and is certainly not very subtle, but he is very effective. It is the oxygen of publicity, to lift a phrase from Mrs Thatcher, that Poster Boy craves and desires, which the usual suspects usually give him on a plate.
It works this way, Poster Boy picks something up, sounds off after carefully crafting his prose, sometimes this is picked up straight away, and then all hell breaks lose amongst the usual suspects, and then this is turn is picked up by the media. Poster Boy, having enjoyed a splash of publicity, then rewords what was originally said to state that he had been misunderstood, misquoted, etc - this usually rekindles the frenzy amongst the usual suspects and Poster Boy gets a second bite of the cherry and even, more coverage in the media.
I am reminded by something a senior Conservative in the constituency, was overheard to say at the count in 2005, when said senior Tory muttered something about Poster Boy becoming a good solid Conservative MP, in about 20 years of so, when he matures. Somehow I don't think that Conservative Central Office will wait that long and suspect that Poster Boy's email bin probably contained some well worded, well crafted, well thought out emails from Conservative Central Office. I also suspect that much like Fu Man Chu in the old films, the world may yet hear again more of Poster Boy's well crafted, provocative and decidedly offensive musings in the future...
Thursday, 28 January 2010
What bothers me is that there is a risk that this may become a case of 'may’ rather than ‘when’ because UK legislation, which governs the crossings, needs to be amended to allow the use of credit / debit cards. As yet the Highways Agency has said that confirmation of any amendment is still awaited.
Now obviously with a forthcoming Westminster General election, the legislative programme will be severely curtailed, so how quickly will the change be made?
The Conservatives, who were in power in 1992, when the original Act governing the operations of what would become the Severn Bridges, was passed will obviously have their own agenda to pursue, slashing and burning their way through the public sector and military budget, no doubt. And what with them believing in tolls and private ownership of assets, this will probably not be a priority in their legislative programme, especially if any proposed change ends up not being passed before the Westminster General election.
I have oft wondered, why was the legislation so badly drafted in the first place to include the infamous annual clause that allows the operating company to raise the tolls every year? It is important to place things in context, 1992 was right in the middle of the privatisation era, when if it could be flogged off for a song, which helped make their dodgy mates in the City more than a few pounds, then it would be.
Did someone get a bung, a few quid in a brown envelope, a seat on the board or a nice holiday in the sun - these things went on at the time, although in 1992 the reality of Conservative sleaze, which could in its day give New Labour sleaze and the scandal of MP's expenses a real challenge for wild newspaper headlines, was yet to be revealed.
That aside, lets be honest, as the Severn Bridges are such vital transport links to the economy of South Wales, the real question should be how long can we afford to have our interests looked after by an increasingly distant and increasingly indifferent Whitehall.
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
The Report has revealed that the gap between Rich-poor is wider now than it was 40 years ago, which if nothing else is a telling indictment of the real successive impact or lack of impact of previous Conservative and New Labour policies over the years.
The report found that despite women up to the age of 44 having better qualifications than men, men were still paid up to 21% more per hour. Many part-time women workers, earning less than £7.20 an hour, much less than the median pay of £9.90 across the country.
A quick glance reveals a few non surprises:
- Top 10% of population are worth more than £853,000 each
- Bottom 1% have negative wealth (liabilities exceed assets) of £3,840 plus
- Every extra £100 a month in family income, put a child a month ahead of typical development aged five
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Mr Blair, who is obviously keeping busy trying to make peace in the Middle East, amongst other things, has left the arrangements for the talks, to a US agency that handles Mr Blair's lucrative speaking engagements, they are charging more than £100,000 for a single speech.
Paul Ruddock, a co-founder of Lansdowne, has donated more than £250,000 to the Conservatives in recent years. Back in 2008, the firm made a killing by betting that the prices of shares in banks including HBOS and Barclays would fall. It has been estimated that the firm made more than £12 million by short-selling British bank shares.
The firm also short-selling shares in Northern Rock for four years until its collapse in 2007. Mr Blair will provide its executives with "a macro view on geopolitics". A spokesman for Mr Blair has confirmed that he will speak to Lansdowne, but that he is not taking on any formal job with the firm.
Since ceasing to be PM in 2007, Mr Blair has been estimated to have pocketed a cool £14 million since leaving Downing Street. The bulk of his time is apparently spent on unpaid political and charity work. He has a £2 million-a-year advisory job with a US investment bank, fat contract to write his memoirs, and earns hundreds of thousands of pounds for paid speeches.
In 2009, it was reported that he earned almost £400,000 for two 30-minute speeches during a 36-hour visit to the Philippines. When not busy piling up the money, Mr Blair is also involved with running several charitable foundations, gives advise to a number of African governments on reform, and occasionally acts as an international envoy on the Palestinian economy.
As it says in the old song, its all "about the compnay that you keep and then the pig got up and slolwy walked away..."
Monday, 25 January 2010
There has been far too much focus on attracting large scale single enterprises, which promise much but deliver significantly less, the expensive disaster / fiasco [take your pick] promised a spectacular total of 6,000 jobs - significant public funding was committed by the then Welsh Secretary, William Hague, it never delivered. Anyone with half a brain or even half an understanding of the state of the Korean and the Far Eastern economies at the time that and a basic understanding of where technological developments in relation to PC monitor screens were going, would have put their hand up.
A combination fantasy island economic assessments, a fatally flawed business case and a forthcoming Westminster election led to one of the duller decisions of recent years being made, something that ended up costing us millions of pounds worth of public money. The WDA has in truth not really delivered anything like long term economic stability and Long term job opportunities to our communities.
European funding opportunities have been wasted, where are the physical assets, by which I mean the things you can literally put your hand on like improved communications (rail and road), broadband infrastructure, etc that bring long term benefits to our communities. How much money has been scammed into dubious training programmes and questionable educations programmes that fail to deliver the skills out workers and potential workers need to make a decent living in the modern economy?
The Plaid driven One Wales Government has attempted to think and act differently when it comes to economic development and support for small to medium sized enterprises, which are the only real thing that will put wealth into our communities, and develop and sustain longer term employment possibilities. Attracting branch factory operations of a relative short term duration does not help develop our economy - we really do need to think differently and focus economic development priorities on smaller local businesses who will be rooted in our communities and offer more flexible employment opportunities.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) noted that the UK is losing 2,000 local shops every year and that of this rate of loss continues then by 2015, less than 5 years hence, there will be no independent retailers left in business, something that will badly hit both consumers and our communities hard as they lose any real choice in the marketplace and lose potential job opportunities. Over the last twenty years the commercial hearts of many of our communities have been seriously damaged as a result of a combination of aggressive policies pursued by the larger retail chains and exceptionally poor decision making on the part of local government and central government indifference.
When combined with the rapid growth of unsustainable, ill-thought out and more than questionable out of town and edge of town retail developments which leave next to no place for the smaller local businesses and retailers and deprive consumers of real choice. When you factor in parking charges, business rates and the effect of the closure of high street banks and post offices in many of our communities and you begin to see why many of our smaller businesses and local shopping centres are up against it.
Local small businesses as well as trading with us the consumers, also trade with each other - so the community gets twice the benefit. Money spent by and in local businesses spends on average three times longer in the local economy than that spent with chain stores which is instantly lost to the local economy which in times of recession our communities can ill afford.
Sunday, 24 January 2010
The Afghan Electoral Commission has, stating that a lack of funds and security considerations being the primary cause, has announced that Afghan parliamentary elections that were set to take place prior to the 22nd May 2010, have been postponed for four months until September 2010. A few things strike me, in the bad old 'Cold War' days, unpleasant, corrupt, unstable and undemocratic regimes would usually announce that democratic elections would take place ' within 6 months' so 4 months is an improvement - and oddly enough said promised 'democratic elections' usually never took place.
While the Afghan Government is hopelessly corrupt, ridden with warlords, paedophiles, former (and current) drug dealers and criminals, and a few honest persons, there is a more than fair chance (with Western support) that the Afghan parliamentary elections will actually take place, if the UN manages to complete its passing around the hat operation to find the funds, whether or not any UK forces will be on the ground (or busy packing their bags) is another matter, somewhat dependent upon whether of not David Cameron manages to keep the appeasement wing of the Conservative Party quiet. And I suspect that Gordon Brown, wishes he could put back the forthcoming Westminster election by four months...
Friday, 22 January 2010
President Obama is right to characterise his proposals as a victory for common sense and while we may have some way to g before the banks are forced to act responsibly, the first steps have been taken. I wonder if Gordon Brown (and David Cameron) will have the guts to follow suit sooner or later – or are they and their respective parties still far to enamoured with the dodgy money men in the City of London.
Occasionally you really wonder 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 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. With what amount to massive public subsidies and effectively ‘publicly owned’ banks, run by bankers who are so thick skinned that they carry on regardless with the awarding of bonuses; then perhaps the UK Government should seriously consider breaking up and ‘privatising’, and sell shares on the open market (with quotas on how many shares any one institution can own) – because from where many people are sat these bloated banking organisations appear to be a 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.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
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. A 25 pence litre of milk may end up as something that sells for 15 times as much, people pay good money for ‘health yogurt’ – which with the addition of bacteria, flavouring and a marketing campaign produce healthy profits for the companies that produce them.
Some 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 abroad. It’s not just yogurt and cheese; it’s a similar story with butter. Only one of the most popular supermarket brands [Country Life] is actually from UK milk. The bulk of our butter comes from Denmark and Ireland, and this is despite tha 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 now import nearly half our butter from abroad, cheese imports are also up, some 60 percent over the last ten years. In the UK we are importing those products that have added-value and are export the low-value milk products which are then turned 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.
The NFU has suggested, and 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.
Ironically it was a development of railway communications during the industrial revolution that provided the means to deliver the farmers milk to our towns and cities and ironically as a knock on effect there was a 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 followed some years later was a direct result of super market price-cutting which has now, more or less, effectively killed him off.
The UK Government as early as 1914 recognised that milk was 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 – one thing to think about is 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.
During the good times, pre Mrs Thatcher, the banks fell over themselves throwing credit at framers to encourage them to (as the Government and the EU wanted) to ever expand their production. Once Mrs T (and the Conservatives) who was never interested in farming anyway, being far to enamored of dodgy money men in the City, allowed Milk quota’s (effective cuts) the bad times had begun for our Dairy farmers and oddly enough the banks stopped calling with offers of cheap credit.
What can best be described as industrial milk production is 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, 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 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) 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.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
Once this has been done plans should be advanced for the extension of the line from Aberbeeg to Abertillery as well as the long proposed railway station at Caerleon – then we can move on to improving facilities for passengers and developing secure parking for rail users at Abergavenny, Chepstow and Severn Tunnel.
Monday, 18 January 2010
The National Assembly Government needs to look carefully at how a boiler scrappage scheme is brought in Wales, in England at the moment the scheme in England aims to help households with £400 off the cost of a new boiler, this was announced by the chancellor in the pre-budget report.
Here in Wales, where we will receive just over £4m from the UK government following the December announcement, we need to make sure that the money is targeted to do the most good. The proposed scheme is certainly worth looking at in Wales, and it is right that there should be more emphasis on fuel-poor households so that we can make best use of the funds available.
In England , the UK government plans for the scheme to help households cut their energy bills, to reduce CO2 emissions and to support thousands of jobs. In England, up to 125,000 households may benefit from the scheme, which may cost the government £50m.
In England, at the moment people who own their homes or landlords who rent homes are eligible to participate, but social landlords, housing associations and boiler installers are not eligible. We have an opportunity here to make good use of limited funds, so lets work it out before any hasty announcement is made. Time to look and think before we leap.
Saturday, 16 January 2010
It is worth remembering that not that long ago in the 1980's it was a Tory Secretary of State who literally sat by and quietly did nothing when many of our Dairy farmers got hammered into the ground by cuts in the milk quota. Never again must any Welsh Minister fail to stand up and be counted and to fail to argue their corner on behalf of Welsh farmers. Now at least withElin Jones (AM), the Plaid One Wales Government Minister for Rural Affairs we have a minster who is not afraid to actually meet with and to stand up for our farmers and their interests - this is a refreshing change from what has gone before.
Much more of an effort to create a level playing field for our farmers and a real effort from National and Local government to secure 80% of publically procured food locally by 2015 – this could provide the first practical step towards helping Welsh farmers and other producers make the most of the new opportunities that will arise from higher public purchasing of local products.
Let’s not kid ourselves, any economic failure across the farming sector will have a massive knock on effects for dependent small businesses and suppliers across the whole rural economy, in the small towns and across the Welsh countryside itself; which is as a living landscape is a result of generations of ongoing hard work by the farming community.
The Plaid driven one Wales Government unlike previous governments in Westminster and Cardiff Bay no longer treats the agricultural sector with indifference. Most people agree that much more effort has to be made to market first class Welsh produce within Wales, within the UK and in Europe and beyond.
Now, our farmers, despite some mutterings to the contrary, are not just in the businesses of merely waiting for an annual brown envelope and cheque from Brussels but for a real opportunity to make a decent living within the agricultural sector - to do this they need a fair deal. We need to take practical steps to give Welsh farmers a fighting chance of making a real living; securing 80% of publicly procured food locally by 2015 is a realistic and practical aim.
This is something that could provide the first practical step towards helping Welsh farmers and other producers make the most of the new opportunities that will arise from higher public purchasing of local products and is something that will benefit local farmers, local businesses and the local economy.
Friday, 15 January 2010
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's Long overdue. Whilst clearing my spare room I came across a hastily scribbled note from 2006 (probably in preparation for a Conference speech in 2006 / 2007) even a few years down the line it makes interesting reading.
- 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.
A good question to ask would be what do they get for their money? or what are they seeking for their donations? The answer may well be a weak and watered down Supermarket Ombudsman - which is the last any of us needs, whether as a customer, a supplier or a farmer.
Thursday, 14 January 2010
The Green Valleys project uses small scale hydro-power which does not rely on a traditional dam, but uses what’s called micro-hydro, which actually diverts up to 50% of a stream's flow into buried pipes that lead to camouflaged generators.
The Green Valleys project plans to build 40 more of such micro-power stations. Nesta estimates that with advice from energy advice surgeries, super-efficient vehicles and wood-burning stoves, 13 local communities in Brecon have cut carbon emissions by about 20% in a year.
The Green Valleys project (which was established in May 2009) is a not for profit Community Interest Company based in the Brecon Beacons National Park, which takes ideal geography and topography for small scale hydro-electric generation by making use of the small streams and steep sided valleys within the National Park area.
The project was Wales' only finalist in NESTA's Big Green Challenge competition. This is creative thinking, combined with local ownership which is benefiting the local community - another excellent example of people motivating themselves.
Wednesday, 13 January 2010
When the plans to electrify the rail line from Bristol to were unveiled in 2009, and Plaid discovered that Wales did not feature, so it was only natural that Plaid kicked off about it. Some serious negotiations followed and Plaid, and Ieuan Wyn Jones AM, Deputy First Minister, worked exceptionally hard to ensure that the draft of the scheme which originally proposed leaving out the Wales section of the network by terminating the electrification at Bristol, was duly amended so that electrification work would push as far west as Swansea.
Personally, I would have gone one step further and asked Westminster to start the electrification process from the Swansea end of the line, because I trust New Labour about as far as I could through a grand piano, one handed up hill in a heavy driving sleet against the strong wind. That thought aside, we with the prospect of a New Labour defeat at the next election, what about a potential Tory commitment to the project? Well we do have Nick Bourne, waxing lyrical about improving public transport in Wales, which if nothing else might be interpreted to suggest that some of the Tories may have shifted in their opposition to any positive thoughts about Wales.
Mr Bourne, in his blog says;
"Similarly, supportive of a green agenda, will be a commitment to enhance existing rail services in Wales. I believe strongly that we need, once resources allow, a high speed rail link to Swansea from Paddington. This underpins the union as well as being of immense economic and social significance for Wales and the west of England. As a priority we need to see what the cost of this is and when it can be reasonably delivered.
Additionally we need to look at opening new stations, improving existing rail services and possibly opening or re-opening rail lines.
I have always been a strong supporter of rail. Once it may have looked like romantic quixoticism, now happily it makes social, cultural and economic sense as well, and contributes to saving the planet.
That is why I am keen, as is the Party, to look at ways of enhancing rail services in Wales."
Now this all sounds very good, very sensible, very inspirational, etc but – not quite true, as far as the Conservatives in London are concerned. Meanwhile back in October 2009 at the Tory party conference, Theresa Villiers, the Tory Shadow Transport Secretary has a very different idea on proposed plans to finally begin the electrification of the main line between London and Swansea, which were outlined by Lord Adonis ,the New Labour Transport Secretary, in The Times (23rd July 2009) on by stating that it was not possible to give a “cast iron guarantee”.
The depressing impression that you get is that the Tories are going to pursue their clearly stated intention of hacking the hell out of the public purse, by pursing traditional Thatcherite polices of ‘slash and burn’ when it comes to capital projects in an effort to rapidly reduce the borrowing deficit which has been made worse by the best part of 30 years of what could be described a ‘relaxed’ regulation of the banking sector, which led us to the banking crisis.
All our efforts may yet come to nothing if, the Tories win power in London power in May – with a fresh agenda that aims to specifically make serious cuts in capital projects. Our own experience tells us that when the Tories are in power, public services (and ironically military spending – there was a hard review of defense expenditure prior to the Falkland’s War, which effectively gave a green light to the Argentineans to invade) have been dramatically cut in order to try to reduce the size of the state.
Wales needs a modern rail service, with smooth connections to European markets for passenger and freight and with UK Government trying to persuade wants people to make less use of their cars and trying to cut carbon emissions, electrification of the railways is the way to go – a win, win. We can't let the Tories block Wales' rail electrification that way Wales will lose out twice over.
Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Not that long ago families could live on one salary; but today people are working all hours of the day to cope. This situation has arisen of a culture that rewards recklessness in the city of London, which had promoted a vast increase in credit, and an absurd house price boom – that is how we have arrived at the credit crunch which is bringing real economic hardship for many and enriching the few.
How did it come down to this? New Labour’s failure to help the people who will need help over the winter months and its failure to consider a windfall tax to curb excess profits from the utility companies speaks volumes as to how far New Labour has left behind the ordinary people in favour of courting the money men in the City. Sadly for growing numbers of ordinary families this winter it will come down to a choice of eat or heat as the interests of big profit for big business comes before the needs of ordinary families.
If you are worried about your energy bills then call the Home Heat Helpline is a free phone line staffed by specialist advisers for energy customers that gives advice on:
- payment options for customers in fuel debt
- reduced or "social" tariffs
- energy saving measures
The number is 0800 33 66 99 or check out the website: http://www.homeheathelpline.org.uk
Monday, 11 January 2010
On a very local level, one of the simplest ways to make very basic preparations for ourselves to deal with the consequences of potentially rocketing food and oil prices, which many scientists believe are not that far away in the near future as a result of peak oil, is for as many people as possible to grow some of their own food. There are long waiting lists for allotments in all areas of Wales. Whatever demand is there should be encouraged.
There are moves afoot to try to increase the amount of land that’s available for food production, certainly Plaid’s Rural Affairs Minister in Wales; Elin Jones is looking for ways to increase the availability of land for allotments and community gardens. The Westminster government’s call for less food waste, more seasonal food and for people to buy sustainably-farmed food is to be welcomed.
The idea of a food strategy is most welcome, but we have to be realistic, as food price problems could hit us pretty quickly and without warning, so it makes sense for governments to help, encourage and enable communities on as small a scale as possible to build up their own resilience and resources so they can cope with a potential food or fuel crisis.
We need to go much further and faster in terms of reducing food imports and tackling a wasteful food/supermarket culture.One way to help would be to help our communities with the provision of land for allotments, as across Wales, the demand for allotments continues to grow apace, this by a strange twist of fate is something I am quite aware of as a significant number of my friends and various acquaintance’s (in Newport, Torfaen and Monmouthshire) all have allotments, or are trying to acquire them, so I am aware of the difficulties faced (particularly the length of time it takes) when it comes to acquiring a plot.
Apart from providing a ready source of vegetables and saving money, raising and looking after your own crops actually provides a degree of necessary exercise and is a good excuse to get stuck in. Now at the beginning of 2009, Plaid AM Leanne Wood produced research which showed that there were some 2,500 people on waiting lists for an allotment in Wales and that some people may well have to wait for nearly nine years before they get a sniff of a plot or pitch.
What's really quite amazing is that the whole business of allotments is still largely regulated by legislation from the early years of the 20th Century. The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotment Act says a council has a duty to provide land if they are satisfied there is demand and if six electors petition that council, their representations have to be taken into consideration.
There are enough examples across Wales, where groups of interested people have petitioned their local council only to be told that the council has considered their request, but there is no land available. Clearly our local authorities need to sort themselves out when it comes to the provision of land for allotments and help people to help themselves.
Sunday, 10 January 2010
Certainly as a child I (and many people I have spoken to over the last few days) can recall walking to school in the snow and being miserable in school because A) we were cold and B) we were not allowed to go outside and play in the snow very much. I don't recall any prolonged period of school closure, save a for a few days in the winter of 1981 / 1982 when it was seriously cold. So what's different now?
One thing I suspect is that now many if not the vast majority of teachers don't live anywhere close to the school where they work, a combination of house prices (i.e. being able to afford to buy somewhere to live) and being able to find a school where you can get a permanent job. I am aware of teachers commuting from Newport and the heads of the valleys to Cardiff and to places as far west as Bridgend and of teachers commuting to schools in the valleys from the coastal belt.
A combination of local government reform in the early 1990's which broke up the old large and Labour dominated local authorities means that teachers, social workers, local government employees cannot simply go to the nearest school, or office to sign in for work. Also add into the mix that teachers have to have Child Protection Checks and these relate specifically to the relevant local authority and you begin to get a picture of why things are different.
We definitely don't handle bad weather particularly well in the southern portions of the UK, but, this is not necessarily the case everywhere, especially in the north and on the European mainland. A few years ago I was in Eastern Germany and Poland, when they had one of those late flurries of bad weather (some of the worst they had experienced for twenty years according to local TV) - the trains ran, buses ran, kids walked to and from school (at least in the urban areas) , planes flew and people went about their ordinary business - life went on and no one battered anyone senseless for the last pint of milk or packet of biscuits.
Saturday, 9 January 2010
These proposed developments are going to be on a much larger more ambitious scale than anything previously attempted. According to the UK Westminster Government, these schemes as well as trying to solve the on-going problem of energy security, will also be a lot cleaner in terms of emissions.
The Bristol Channel zone 1.5GW windfarm will be called the Atlantic Array and will be developed by RWE Npower Renewables, part of RWE Innogy. For the record the current rules governing planning that relate to energy developments ensure that energy schemes over 50 MW's lie under the remit of Westminster rather than the National Assembly.
Two other proposed development sites lie off Scotland, where things are different. There is a distinct possibility that Scotland (as Alex Salmond believes) may well have hit the energy jackpot for the second time. Originally with North Sea oil and now with Scotland's abundance of potential wind and water power.
While some onshore wind farms have been and are likely to remain controversial - off-shore may well prove to be a whole different ball game. With the renewable energy industry in Scotlandis now turning its attention to offshore wind farms, as well as the technology that may harness and deliver the power of the tides and the waves.
Scotland's renewable energy resources are concentrated in the north of the country, while most Scots live in the south, hence the hugely controversy around the new Beauly to Denny power line. One significant difference between Wales and Scotland is the fact that the discussion and the decision is being made in Scotland - we in Wales, despite our National Assembly might well find that similar decisions are made in Whitehall and Westminster not in Wales.
One thing is true, it comes down to a matter of scale, major renewable energy projects can and do have major impacts on our land and seascapes. When it comes to the environmental benefits of large-scale renewable power generation they will always have to be judged against their own environmental impact.
One thing is certain, the Scots have set themselves some tough climate change targets and the current and future Scottish governments will have many more tough decisions to make in the years ahead if those targets are to be met. It is only fair and just that we in Wales should have the powers to make similar decisions about our future energy needs rather than merely ending up dealing with a combination of either decisions made in Westminster or the consequences of Westminster's indifference.
Friday, 8 January 2010
Caldicot Town Councillor David Ashwin and myself (frozen by dawns early light at Severn Tunnel)
For those of you who don't know it, Severn Tunnel Rail Junction Railway station is pretty often exposed to a particularly bitter east wind of the Severn estuary - there have been long term issues with secure parking, decent facilities (including shelter) and access to the from the 'island' platforms int he middle for the station. On a number of occasions outside and during election campaigns I and colleagues have been seriously frozen at Severn Tunnel on a number of times whilst campaigning for better rail services.
The railway station provides a vital link for rail passengers to and from work in Bristol, Bath, Newport, Cardiff and beyond - with passengers travelling from as far a field a Monmouth and the Wye Valley, the Forest of Dean and eastern Newport to catch the train to work. I am convinced that but for the on going fight made by the Severn tunnel Action Group that the station would have been quietly run down following proposed cuts in services, now it has more than a fighting chance of acting as useful transport hub for local rail passengers and residents.
Severn Tunnel Action Group's fight for better services, better facilities for passengers and better access to the 'island' platforms continues and provides a working example of what it is possible to achieve when people set their minds to an objective. Well done!
Thursday, 7 January 2010
The creative and communal approach taken by villagers from Fintry, in Stirlingshire (in Scotland) towards the news that a commercial company was seeking to develop a wind farm, was certainly different and very beneficial towards their village – rather than adopting a not in my back yard approach villagers embraced the project and bought their own wind turbine.
Forming the Fintry Development Trust, villagers have used the income generated to benefit their community and community facilities and projects. Whether we are talking about wind, bio-mass energy generation or small scale hydro-electric projects; the idea that local communities can generate communally owned energy and revenue may provide a useful model for similar developments across Wales.
In the two years since the turbine began producing energy, it has generated more than £200,000 for the village of Fintry. The income generated has gone towards insulating 50% of the homes in the village, with further plans to insulate more and help households covert to greener energy.
Residents receiving new cavity wall and/or loft insulation will be on course to save on average £600 on their annual fuel bill. By not having to spend the money on heating this represents a total increase in annual disposable income for the community of £91,352. The measures also means carbon dioxide in the village will be cut by 464 tonnes each year.
This is creative use of communally owned sustainable energy which benefits the local community and the environment and may well prove a model for simular developments for our commubties across Wales.
The Fintry Development trust
In 2003, when a commercial developer unveiled plans for a wind farm near the village of Fintry (in Stirlingshire, in Scotland) – villagers embraced the proposals and created a renewable electricity supply for the village by buying a wind turbine at the wind farm and use the proceeds to fund a village-wide emission reduction programme.
The project aimed to reduce energy consumption and fuel poverty by funding projects that would cut dependence on fossil fuels. The initial scheme to buy the turbine was funded through bank loans and cash from the then Scottish Executive. By 2007 villagers had set up a charitable enterprise dedicated to cutting energy bills and consumption.
Surplus cash from the project was also used to conduct a village-wide survey to assess energy saving needs like insulation and advice. In 2008, the Fintry Development Trust had received its first income from the turbine and began insulating households.
Wednesday, 6 January 2010
So what you may say does this have to do with us? A lot is the answer, while Russia may have declining cash reserves over the long term and an economy that is heavily reliant on its trade in oil and gas – the risk of shortages as a consequence of the Kremlin and Mr Putin's geopolitical games is something we in the West can truly all do without. We are in the middle of a cold snap at the moment, and gas is the fuel that is used to heat about two thirds of Britain's homes.
On Monday (4th January 2009) the National Grid issued a warning (a Gas Balancing Alert) to energy providers that demand for gas is threatening to outstrip gas supply. This warning (the last one was sent out in March 2006) follows a 30 percent rise on normal seasonal demand as the cold snap continues. Natural Gas prices rose to their highest level in 10 months (reaching 45 p per therm) – this triggered the import of extra gas from Belgium and Norway via the natural gas (liquefied) importation terminal in Kent.
So what you may ask? Well - quite alot including the prospect of higher energy bills (because we the consumer pay for the shortsighted self interest of the energy companies), higher profits for the energy cartel (sorry companies) and more tax for Gordon Brown’s government. Now while other countries insured themselves against external shocks to their energy needs; successive UK Government’s left it to the market to sort out – so what did the energy companies do, they chased quick short term profits at our expense.
The UK’s market driven approach has been entirely inadequate. One year ago as of January 2009, France could store 122 days of gas and Germany 99 and the UK had storage capacity which would only 15 days. In the 1980’s and 1990’s developing a long term energy strategy or making sensible long term decisions in relation to energy supply was never an option for the Tories during their last tenure on government.
Likewise, the New Labour Government took the best part of a decade to recognise the need to increase storage capacity. The consequence is that UK has to sell gas during the summer because we cannot store it but UK energy suppliers often struggle to purchase gas again when it is needed during a particularly prolonged cold spell as we have at the moment.
The complicit insanity of the Conservative’s headlong shortsighted dash to gas in the 1980’s has been compounded by a real failure in basic strategic energy planning and made worse by the Government's perverse decision to half-heartily look at developing diverse reliable alternative energy sources. This New Labour Government has ignored repeated warnings that it was setting the UK on a path towards higher prices and blackouts.
As I have said before (and will say again) that 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.
If we develop a flexible self-sufficient energy development strategy within these isles that encourages decentralised micro generation schemes and by actually implementing it this could create jobs, useful skills and help to bootstrap the economy out of the developing recession as well as helping consumers.
Tuesday, 5 January 2010
Looking beyond the immediate teeth grinding impact of yet another annual increase in the Severn bridge tolls, there is another issue – one that is beginning to become worth considering, what’s going to happen in 2014, when it has been estimated that the PFI contract will have been covered by toll receipts. Who actually is going to own the bridge (or bridges) and will they stop collecting the tolls?
If not then the bridge (or bridges) sit on the border - but the toll on the newer bridge is collected in Wales, the older one being collected in England - so will the bridge and the tolls simply revert back to the Department of transport? Or if perchance it comes down to the National Assembly, by default or as a result of central government indifference, then does the National Assembly act as merely an agent for the Department of Transport or does it end up with a measure of a degree of freedom of action?
With that thought in mind, what choices could be made - something that might be worth considering is that if the current tolls were halved then, what could be accomplished by using a percentage of the remaining toll fees to cover ongoing maintenance of the bridge and what could be accomplished by using the remainder of the toll for ring fenced capital projects – such as new integrated transport systems, reopening railway lines, funding tram systems and investing in rail freight – which would be far more beneficial for all of us in Wales than any of the future toll fees disappearing into the Westminster coffers merely to help to bail out the bankers?
Monday, 4 January 2010
In reality what they should be doing, is comparing their price rises with last July's inflation which was minus 1.4%. This is about blatantly lining the rail company’s pockets at tax payers and rail passenger’s expense. On average UK train fares are already some 20% higher than the European average and if the UK Government is serious about reducing road congestion then it needs to urgently review the way that rail fares are regulated.
The Association of Train Operating Companies (AToC) faced criticism in early 2009 for failing to itemize each train company's average unregulated fares rise. However, some companies revealed their fare increases; Virgin Trains increased unregulated fares by an average of 2.8%, ScotRail's fares rose by 3%, and turn-up-and-go fares on Southern trains rose by 4% and the Southeastern train company’s unregulated fares rose by 7.3% and other fares rose by 2.8%. A number of companies, including National Express East Anglia, First Capital Connect, TransPennine Express and Merseyrail have frozen their unregulated fares.
As tax payers it is worth remembering that the private rail companies are receiving approximately some £ 5billion per year from the taxpayers, so there can be little justification for rail companies having the right to increase rail fares every year by inflation plus.
The real question is why rail passengers should have to pay higher fares regardless of the quality of service they receive, with UK rail passengers currently facing fares that are twenty percent higher than those paid by our European neighbours.
It’s time to face facts, to most people it is pretty clear that the privatised rail experiment has failed, it’s time to re-unify our rail service and to bring the rail services back under responsible public ownership where service and efficiency comes before profit at passengers expense.
Sunday, 3 January 2010
A growing economy (admittedly one built on questionable credit and even more questionable expansion of the banking sector) - ironically this fact was something which had scant impact with voters and did little to help the Conservatives avoid an electoral hammering in England and Conservative and effective electoral extermination in Wales and Scotland.
A privatised railway system - something which benefited the few at the expense of the many - New Labour had little problem with a privatised railway system, going so far as to say that if it had not been privatised then they (New Labour) would have privatised it themselves.
One thing they (the Tories) won't make much of is the privatisation of the old building societies - which following their disappearance into the larger financial institutions helped contribute in the longer term to the financial mess that we are all paying for at the moment (and for the foreseeable future).
Privatised utilities - a real Tory legacy - the whole process of privatisation can best be described as 'the age of pillage' - when a Tory clique (and their friends in the city) helped themselves at our expense when it came to plundering the assets of the state for a quick short term profit.
The dash for gas - which led to the rapid development and rapid use and decline of a priceless assets, which has left the UK dependent upon imported gas from questionable suppliers in potentially unstable regions of the world.
The damage done to the British Army was accelerated by Jon Major's 'Options for Change' - which was in turn driven by a Conservative Government hastily trying to cash in on the 'peace dividend' following the end of the Cold War.
The NHS...hopspital borne infections, and 'an internal market' within the Health Service, PFI (which has been happily and expensively continued by New Labour) enough said...
Cameron's legacy may (if elected) consist of another bail out for the banks, war with Iran and the quiet ditching of electorally useful green Tory tinge...and more sleaze...
Roll on Polling day...