Friday, 23 December 2011

ABSOLUTE CERTAINTIES...

As one year passes and another one beckons there are some certainties in modern life, one of which is the post-Christmas train fare rises. As of January 1st train fares will rise by an average of 5.9%. For what it's worth, in his Autumn Statement last month, the Con Dem Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne capped fare increases at 6%, instead of the expected 8%. Since privatisation, rail fare rises have been linked to inflation, currently 5.2% as measured by the Retail Prices Index.

The Association of train Operating Companies, has said that fare increase would be used to pay for "new trains, faster services and better stations". Verbally at least this makes a pleasant change from simply using the increases in fares to maximise the dividend for shareholders. At the moment, passengers make a contribution of around £6.5 billion to the running of the railways, with taxpayers picking up the remaining £4 billion.

Let's be honest, the sooner our railways are run as not for profit organisations, with the profits being reinvested back into the railways the better. The public have tolerated what has become on occasion an often shoddy minimalist unconnected service. Most reasonably minded people would concede that historically the Department of Transport’s interest in Wales has been peripheral at best.

We need to prioritise investment in our railways and provide a decent affordable and reliable service for the passengers. We should get in a few years time a single rail franchise that directly answers to and works for Wales, rather than boosting company profits. A not for profit railway company that serves Wales could break up the cosy financial relationship that exists between the political establishment and the franchise holders – which would be no bad thing.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

ALL IN IT TOGETHER...

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has rightly criticised "cosy" deals between HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and big businesses over the way they settle their tax bills. Serious concerns have been expressed by MP’s about just exactly how some of the large tax settlements were reached. MPs believe that potentially there may be some £25 billion pounds worth of outstanding tax issues with some of the UK’s largest companies and they want HMRC to be much more open about its dealing with large firms.

Not surprisingly HMRC has said that the MPs had misunderstood the facts. If the MPs are correct and I see no reason why they should not be as whistle-blower from inside HMRC passed them some interesting information (according to Radio 4 on Tuesday morning). Perhaps they should do some digging to find out how many former HMRC employees have moved to potentially lucrative employment in the private sector.

Coincidentally the tax campaign group UK Uncut is taking HMRC to the High Court (today - Thursday 22nd December) to seek a judicial review to try to get them to reclaim millions of pounds in uncollected tax from Goldman Sachs. It's all a little awkward for David (‘Call me Dave’) Cameron as it either touched a raw nerve or at least exposed the lie at the heart of his much trumpeted “We are all in it together” – apparently not!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

ALEXEI NAVALNY RELEASED

Alexei Navalny (REUTERS)
Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and a key figure in the rallies after Russia's disputed parliamentary elections, has been released from prison in Moscow. He served fifteen in custody for “obstructing police“ and was freed this morning in the early hours. Mr Navalny told journalists and reporters that "extraordinary efforts" would be made to continue the protest movement. Protesters have demanded a re-run of the flawed 4th December elections when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party won a narrow majority. Democracy activists have identified instances of ballot-stuffing and used social media to report them. In the days following the elections Alexi Navalny was detained (6th December) and Moscow (and other Russian towns and cities) saw the largest anti-government protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union. More mass protests against ballot-rigging are planned on Saturday in Moscow.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

POWER TO THE PEOPLE? PERHAPS NOT...

News that the Con Dem Government has brought in the planned reduction of the feed-in tariff before the consultation process has even closed should not come a much of a surprise. The consultation process runs until Friday, 23rd December yet the changes to the feed in tariff were brought in on Monday, 12th December – so much for consultation. Friends of the Earth and two solar power companies have rightly challenged the UK Government in the High Court (Tuesday 20th December) over the plans.

The Feed-in tariffs (FIT) scheme was primarily designed to encourage investment in renewable energy and reduce costs for households, it's reduction could have a significant impact on the renewable energy sector in Wales. Developing renewable solar energy should be an integral part of developing sustainable future energy supplies and should play a key role in helping to combat the growing challenge of climate change.

The apparent speed with which the changes were brought in and the public demonstration of any lack of real sincerity in what could be described as a nominal consultation process is disappointing. The renewable energy sector is a growing employer in Wales with real potential for significant growth in future years, yet this ill-thought out change could put jobs at risk and derail expansion plans.

Feed-in tariffs give ordinary people the chance to take part in the fight against climate change through generating their own renewable energy and to make savings on their own household energy costs. Naturally these changes will make it more difficult for people to do this and in my opinion this change is driven by a short term desire to save money. So much for the Con Dem pledge to produce 15% of the country's total energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Part of the problem is the lack of any real sincerity on the part of the last few UK Westminster Governments when it comes to developing the vital renewable energy sector. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (and its predecessors) have effectively slowed down the development of the renewable energy sector and actively blocked the development of tidal lagoons and wave energy having a bias towards the grossly expensive nuclear industry.

The last thing that the UK Government and the cartel of Big Six energy companies want is for people to be saving money and to be less dependent on the large energy providers. It should be pretty clear to most people by now that the UK Government simply does not favour or wish to encourage smaller scale community beneficial energy projects.

Perhaps if you take the long view, a rapidly expanding small scale renewable energy sector would (eventually and perhaps quite quickly) threaten the energy company profits, their virtual monopoly on energy supply and useful taxes on the energy companies profits. Would any Westminster government want to reduce it's income and help people to save money and break their dependency on large scale energy providers and large scale energy developments. Hmmm...

Sunday, 18 December 2011

VACLAV HAVEL (1936 - 2011)

Vaclav Havel 1936 - 2011
News that Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's first president after the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, has died at the age of 75 will sadden many and bring back memories of the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989. Havel a former dissident playwright, had suffered from prolonged ill-health, died this (Sunday) morning. Havel was born in 1936 to a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia and as a result was a marked man, considered by the Communist authorities as "too bourgeois", he was banned from going to University, so he studied at night school. He wrote, had his writing banned and his plays forced underground after the 1968 Prague Spring. He first came to international prominence as a dissident playwright in the 1970s through his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77. In 1977, he co-authored the the Charter 77 movement for democratic change and faced along with other prominent dissidents near constant harassment. Havel was imprisoned and became Communist Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident and refused to compromise with the Communist authorities. Havel given the choice by the Communists, refused to leave the country preferring to stay and continue the struggle against Communist tyranny. Havel and the charter 77 dissidents were heavily involved in the successful velvet revolution in November 1989 which saw the effective peaceful demise of the Communist dictatorship. He was elected as Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president in December 1989. Havel successfully oversaw the difficult transition from authoritarian communism to democracy, and presided over the "velvet divorce" which saw the peaceful creation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Havel, left office in 2003 and continued writing. He died at his country home north-east of Prague.

Friday, 16 December 2011

PAYING THE PRICE FOR A FREE PRESS

Gadzhimurat Kamalov, the founder of a newspaper that has reported on corruption and police abuses in Russia's southern republic of Dagestan, was shot dead outside the offices of his newspaper Chernovik ("rough draft"), in Dagestan's capital Makhachkala, on Thursday. Kamalov founded the newspaper in 2003 and had edited it for several years and remained its publisher until his death.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has noted that Chernovik staff have been persecuted and harassed by the authorities. The CPJ called Kamalov's murder "a massive loss for independent journalism in the North Caucasus, Russia's most dangerous place for reporters". Violence (nominally political and wholly criminal) remains rife in Dagestan, where police have been battling Islamist insurgents since the 1990s.

The CPJ notes that Russia has one of the worst records in the world for attacks on journalists, with 18 unsolved press murders since the year 2000. Whether or not there is a list of journalists who happen to criticise the policies of the Russian Government (and some of the local corrupt elite's activities) is a mute point but there do seem to be an awful lot of coincidences.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

TOO MUCH MOANING...

News that the Committee on Members Expenses has recommended that MPs should scrutinise their own expenses should come as no surprise. Some MPs have called for the reinstatement of the much discredited Fees' Office which was deeply involved in the revelations in 2009. If these moaning MP's get their way, then we could be one small step away from returning to the old discredited expenses system, which turned the House of Commons into an old fashioned sleazy gentleman's club, and claims for duck houses and moat cleaning would not be far away. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) established in 2010, has made sue that MPs have to account for every penny of taxpayer–funded expenditure.

Since then MPs have been moaning that the system is overly bureaucratic not to mention that some MP's object to having to account for every penny of taxpayer–funded expenditure. The Committee on Members Expenses has called for the Ipsa to be stripped of responsibility for administering expenses payments by April 2012. The Committee (chaired by Conservative MP Adam Afriyie) has accused Ipsa of damaging democracy and called for it to be stripped of key responsibilities. They want Ipsa to simply regulate the system, with a department created within the Commons to control payments - this would effectively re-establishing the old Fees Office.

Oddly enough, I suspect that most members of the public have little or no problem with MPs being required to account for their expense claims in public. The Daily Telegraph, which broke the scandal of MP's expense claims has noted that a recent survey conducted for Ipsa by YouGov for Ipsa suggests strong public opposition to a system of allowances for MPs - 69% believe MPs should continue to make claims for costs incurred and those claims should continue to be published. It is quite amazing at how rapidly out of touched some 'elected' can become once they become ensconced in the Westminster Village.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

REGENERATION: A PROCESSES NOT AN EVENT?

There was a time when most Government’s would at least pander to the idea of taking a longer more thought out view when it comes to economic development. They would at least try to provide the best conditions and framework to enable the private sector to grow and flourish. Sadly while that concept appears to have quietly died sometime in the 1980’s as politicians concentrated on short term popularity and tax breaks and getting their noses back into the trough after each election.

Much has rightly been made of the state of our High Streets, the economic consequences of their imminent demise and the pressing need to do something about it. No doubt all the politicians will roll out the usual cliches about redevelopment and regeneration and then after having paid some lip service to the idea of reviving our high streets carry with business as usual.

This is not cynicism on my part merely a result of some twenty five years of observation on what has happened to my home town (Newport) and to the small towns of Monmouthshire and much of the Gwent valleys. We have all seen far too much talk over the years and scant action on the part of local politicians and the inhabitants of the Westminster village.

There are two key elements (amongst others) when it comes to creating economic circumstances which will favour the growth and development of small to medium sized local businesses and enterprises. Firstly there is a need to give local high street based businesses a fair and level playing field upon which to operate and secondly there is a need to give the public relatively easy and cheap (If not free) access to the high street.

More locally when it comes to development (or redevelopment for that matter) our Local Authorities need to develop a realistic and sensible long term economic view when it comes to planning policies and regeneration. Planning polices need to favour local businesses and small to medium sized enterprises – there needs to be a more thought out and more consistent approach to dealing with planning applications for in, out and edge of town retail developments.

Our Local Authorities are still far too often tempted by planning gain as developers offer includes, sweeteners and inducements to ease the passage of proposed developments. Council's fear the costs of planning applications (particularly those from larger retailers) being taken to appeal if original outline planning permission is refused. They may even be advised by Council officers of these potential costs if a development proposal involving a larger (potentially more aggressive) retail company goes to appeal - so much for local democracy!

Local Authorities also often fail to have properly researched retailing policies within their development plans. If retailing needs have not been assessed properly then it is very difficult for Local Authority planners to refuse any potentially damaging planning applications from developers, which results in local small businesses, consumers and our communities paying the price.

Since the 1980’s every Westminster Government has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our small market towns, or at least paid a form of lip service to it. Over the last twenty five years many retail developments have consistently undermined this aim, as local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales. The economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, a quick look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouth constituency and elsewhere in Wales.

Let’s at least be honest, how can we local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete with the aggressive tactics of supermarkets and larger retail chains chasing an ever larger market share. More than ever, our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.

If you live in various parts of Gwent or are intimately familiar with your home community, then over the years you will have noticed that redevelopment / regeneration comes and goes in phases, in any particular community or town regeneration schemes will have cleaned areas up, built in cycle routes, created transport plans, pedestrianised streets, reopened them to traffic, re-pedestrianised them and (as is the case in Newport and no doubt elsewhere) made certain streets shared space with both cars and pedestrians (this is not as crazy an idea as it sounds, and actually works) and so on.

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

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

Measuring a regeneration schemes success should be a key factor in any regeneration scheme. This is the key question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the development / redevelopment / regeneration professionals have banked the cheque and moved on - have the various schemes made a difference. I mean beyond any immediate physical improvements to the environment, have they made a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme?

If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively syphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success? How do you make regeneration projects work beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised during the regeneration process is the communities greatest resource - its people.

If we truly want to build and develop strong sustainable communities then any regeneration scheme should from the start and at every stage of the process. We don’t need regeneration professionals coming into an area and engaging in a largely token consultation process. They should directly talk to local people (who are an asset to the process) and actually find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.

Regeneration schemes and projects should be directed from the bottom up rather than the top down model (with a built in token consultation element) that we often seem to pursue. If you are spending public money, then you need to work it hard and squeeze out every possible benefit for the length of the project and afterwards.

We need to maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build in local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources and / or local skills and local input. If you are reusing or renovating old buildings (and this idea has worked very well in Poland and other places) then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished.

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

Monday, 12 December 2011

TIME FOR A REAL RUSSIAN REVOLUTION?

The current wave of demonstrations and protests in Russia over what outside observers have said were seriously flawed elections are important, but, they may not yet be another Russian revolution, even though one is well overdue. The focus of the protests have been Vladimir Putin (current Prime Minister and previous two-term President) and his ruling United Russia party, who has stated his intention to run again for President of Russia in 2012.

United Russia, known to some Russians as ‘the Party of Thieves and Swindlers' (because of its fairly blatant involvement in corruption) suffered a significant and visible electoral setback in Russian elections a week ago. Embarrassingly for Putin his United Russia's visibly reduced vote was only made possible by widespread and well organised electoral fraud.

Unfortunately this time the traditional ballot stuffing procedure was actually filmed by opposition protesters and plastered across the internet for the world and ordinary Russians to see. What followed has been some of the largest Russia wide public protests since the demise of the Soviet Union. From one end of Russia to the other, large crowds have gathered openly and loudly demanding that the elections be re-run.

The protesters raised a number of common key issues:

• freedom for political prisoners;
• the annulment of the election results;
• the resignation of Vladimir Churov (who heads the election commission);
• the opening of an official investigation into vote fraud;
• the registration of opposition parties
• new democratic legislation on parties and elections;
• new democratic and open elections.

What we are witnessing may not be the end of the Russian oligarchy more likely it's the end of the beginning of the end of the oligarchy. A Russian spring may yet be some way off, that said it's probably worth a recap of how Russia got here. Russia has only recently emerged from 70 years of Soviet style Communist tyranny. For many Russians the nine years of relative democracy under Yeltsin were pretty grim difficult years.

The country's living standards plummeted collapsed, criminality on many levels openly flourished and the country's assets were looted (sorry privatised) and pillaged for quick profits and any social consequences of the privatisation process were simply ignored. Any remaining influence that the inheritor state of the USSR had abroad for good or bad was squandered. The West lectured the re-emergent Russia rather than helping the Russians to bed in democratic and legal processes and looked for rich pickings.

It was not wonder that for many Russian's the arrival of Vladimir Putin, in 1999, was a breath of fresh air and stability. While Putin's methods were far from gentle, the results were relatively spectacular, as order was re-established. Living standards (fed by a rise in world oil prices) rapidly shot up and Russia influence overseas mattered. The price was a mercenary driven fraudulent political system – which to many seemed a small price worth paying at the time.

Despite the fact that the system was inherently fragile Putin/Medvedev popularity peaked at around 80 per cent or more. The unfolding Ukrainian Orange revolution caused panic in the Kremlin and led to a significant spend of accumulated oil money to dampen down any social protest and discontent. Internationally Russia has consistently worked to thwart any potential international support for the “Arab Spring” and is working to block any effective UN Security Council action on Syria.

The question is has the wheel begun to come of Putin's wagon? And if so why? One reason why Putin's star may be fading is that much of the planet is in recession and the demand for oil and gas has fallen (which leads to a corresponding drop in revenues) and a drop in Russian economic growth. Putin is also facing a new younger generation of Russian politicians and ordinary Russians who have no nostalgia for a watered down Soviet pastiche. The new younger Russians are well educated and well-travelled who are desirous of the same material benefits and civic society as the rest of us Europeans.

And thanks to the internet (which is free in Russia – now that's a novel concept) they know exactly who other societies function and how well or how badly people live. We and the modern Russians are no longer living in the 1980’s, despite the lack of free press and any real degree of impartiality in the Russian state (or oligarch) controlled mass media, most Russians can simply go on-lien to see what state their country is in and as Lenin said ‘What needs to be done?’

Ironically it was a failure on the part of the coup plotters in the old Soviet Union to understand the impact of faxes (the then brand spanking new communications technology)during the coup attempt in August 1991 that brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Perhaps it will be internet and various internet applications that will bring down the oligarchs in Russia the dame way it has brought down the tyrants in the Middle East.

We may see the start of a belated attempt to close the open door that is the internet over the next few weeks and months in Russia. Certainly last week, Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s best-known opposition figure and a crusading anti-corruption blogger, was somewhat cack-handedly and un-subtly locked up. In recent months democratic opponents of United Russia have been detained without trial in psychiatric hospitals in an unpleasant echo of the old Soviet Union.

Naturally Putin has put the blame for the protests on Western driven agitation – any old Soviet ploy. The Russians election period saw a significant increase in web based attacks on opposition websites and discussion forums. A veritable flood of pro-Putin and pro-regime tweets has taken place. If the Putin regime survives these current protests this is one problem won't go away and potentially a problem that cannot simply be bought off beyond the short term with a wedge of oil money from Russian government slush funds.

While the March presidential election is important it is very likely that Putin (who is still popular with many ordinary Russians) will win it. Russian authorities have played fast and loose with elections and electoral law in the past and opposition candidates may find themselves outside the electoral process next year. The Russians state, despite the economic downturn, has around $100 billion to dip into as pre-election sweeteners between now and polling day.

It is worth remembering that the Kremlin machine can play subtle and well as hard ball when it wants to or feels the need to. Russia is a powerful state and is flush with gas and lucrative energy contracts and is pretty willing to use control of its energy supplies against those states that won't toe the line. So what should we in the energy hungry / energy dependent West do about the situation in Russia? In recent years, Western governments repeatedly looked the other way when elections have been stolen or rigged in Russia or kept their silence.

Officially the Russian state has signed and committed itself to conventions committing itself to open political debate, fair elections and a free press. Russia, just like any other state should live up to those standards, and the West should be critical when Russia does not. What happens in Russia is important and Russia is an important European state and one of our neighbours. A Russian spring may well be around the corner and we may be seeing the first steps in the process that leads to Russia taking its rightful place among the other leading European democracies.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

FANTASY BARRAGE

FANTASY BARRAGE
When I was a child there was a TV programme called Fantasy Island, now it seems we have Fantasy Barrage, which makes much of promising all things to all people – but at a price (financially we are now talking about up to £34 billion pounds). The resurrection of the Severn Barrage scheme (once again) could make you wonder about the sanity (financial or otherwise) of some of the usual suspects. I have no doubt that the usual suspects will trot out the usual glib statements about the project being the solution to all of South Wales’s economic woes.

It sounds good the problem is that it's a fantasy, yes we need to develop the renewable energy resources of the Severn estuary, we would be mad not too. I have serious concerns about any Severn Barrage, firstly is does not generate enough energy over a log enough period and secondly it would be environmentally damaging. A more logical solution would be to build tidal lagoons (one in Swansea Bay would be ideal to test out the technology but has been repeatedly stalled and delayed by a hostile Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and previously powerless (but now vision-less) Welsh Government.

A combination of tidal lagoons, tidal fences, turbines based in tidal current rich areas and wave energy generation technology (currently being tested in Scotland) and some carefully situated off-shore wind farms could generate a significant amount of sustainable energy. The need is to stretch the period of generation beyond the 3 hour energy pulse offered by previous incarnations of the barrage have offered. This is something that a combination of tidal lagoons and other energy schemes could offer release energy for a far longer period than 3 hours. By using a variety of options we could generate sustainable jobs and skills not to mention make Wales a world leader in developing the energy generation technology – any takers?

Friday, 9 December 2011

ONE STEP BEYOND...

News that the Chancellor, George Osborne has promised to look at the cost of the Severn Bridge tolls, after halving Humber Bridge fees in his Autumn Statement last week is interesting news. There may be a deal on the Severn crossings as the Chancellor is willing if not keen to talk to the Welsh government. From January 1st Tolls for cars on the Severn bridges are due to rise to £6, while vans and small buses will have to pay £12.10 (a 60p increase) and heavy goods vehicles and coaches will pay £18.10 (an increase of 90p).

The tolls on the Humber Bridge between East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire are paid in each direction and are currently set at £3 for cars and up to £20.30 for an articulated lorry. The chancellor announced that he was writing down the outstanding debt on the Humber crossing by £150m which would allow tolls to be cut in half. This decision was included in the UK Treasury's National Infrastructure Plan; which also included a pledge to work with the Welsh government to improve the M4 in south east Wales - which if nothing else shows how bereft of ideas concerning Wales the Con Dems are.

The UK government is apparently "holding open the opportunity of a discussion" on the Severn crossing tolls. The Welsh Government First Minister, Carwyn Jones has pointed out that the Treasury has failed to match the cuts given to the Humber Bridge Board. A Welsh government spokesperson stressed it was for UK ministers to take action as “the Severn crossings are owned by the UK government. The Welsh government does not set the tolls, nor do we benefit from the toll income."

Very true, but a little inconsistent, as while there was consistent and persistent bleating from duly elected Westminster Labour sheep between 1997 and 2010 along the lines of there is nothing we can do to reduce or stabilise the tolls! It turned that this is or was not quite true as the last New Labour Government intervened in October 2009 in relation to the Humber Bridge. Perhaps New Labour’s representatives in Wales hoped that no one would?

The (then) New Labour Minister of Transport Sadiq Khan, announced a grant of £6m to the Humber Bridge company, saying that, “the Government was committed to doing everything it can to protect communities and businesses from economic downturn and help the country to recover. That is why I decided not to accept the Humber Bridge board’s proposed toll increases”. New Labour, then fully in control at Westminster and in coalition Government in Wales did precisely nothing to try to reduce the impact of the Severn bridge tolls between 1997 and 2010, which somewhat ironically may not be the case when it comes to the Con Dems.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

NOT ON OUR BEHALF...

So David Cameron is to travel to Brussels for a major EU summit on the eurozone debt crisis. Both Germany and France are keen to have a new EU treaty which would include measures to stop a repeat of the problems threatening the euro's future. Cameron is under increasing pressure from the anti-Europe wing of Tory MPs who want him to resist moves to strengthen the power of Brussels over EU members.

The PM has pledged to stand up for Britain, he will display some of the tenacious bulldog spirit, etc. Some old same old you might think, but there is more to this than meets the eye. Not quite, in a joint letter, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for the 17 eurozone countries to have common corporation and financial transaction taxes.

This is something Cameron (“the bankers friend”) is obviously set dead against. Cameron has cleverly hidden the real reason, why and on whose behalf he is actually going to the Brussels summit for, by playing the Tory patriotic card, saying he would fight for the UK national interest in any EU Treaty talks.

Cameron's real concern is the issue of corporation tax and the proposed financial transaction tax – something that could seriously hinder the effective money laundering that goes on in the City of London. The last thing Cameron wants is any bright light shone on the questionable financial practices that operate in and around the City of London. Cameron will be busy in Brussels acting on the banker's and the tax evaders behalf not on behalf of the inhabitants of these islands.

Interestingly enough, the previous New Labour government made much of its light financial regulatory touch, at least until the wheels came spectacularly off the wagon. It's a tad difficult for the Con Dems to make anything positive out of their refusal to take any action over banking regulation (at least until 2019). In the wake of the banking collapse and at a time of real financial austerity when we are all supposed to be in it together, this is pretty rich.

There is a real need to deal on a global basis with the problem of off-shore companies and those individuals who are actively engaged in tax avoidance, tax evasion and / or money laundering. The European transaction tax initiative favoured by France and Germany is long overdue and a small step in the right direction.

What a surprise! it turns out that the UK is at the heart of this problem as it has consciously chosen not to regulate some of its crown dependencies. The scale of the off-shore problem can take your breath away. The Cayman Islands; are currently home to some 12,000 corporations and have a population of 50,000, yet are home to 70% of the planets hedge funds.

The British Virgin Islands (population 22,000) is home to 823,502 registered companies. General Electric paid no tax in 2010, yet made a $14.2 billion dollar profit. Barclay's has 181 subsidiaries registered in the Cayman Islands and paid little UK tax on its worldwide profits. The Dirty Digger's News Corp has 152 subsidiaries in tax havens across the planet (according to the US Government) and paid no UK corporation tax between 1998 and 1999.

So much for all being in it together, if developed countries exchequers lose out then it's significantly worse for developing and underdeveloped countries. Tax dodging costs developing countries around $160 billion dollars per year (Christian Aid). Around $ 1.2 trillion dollars was illicitly removed from poor countries in 2008 (US Integrity Research Centre).

President Obama rightly suggested that the governments of the world actually got together to tackle the issue of tax evasion and tax havens. The US President was entirely correct, if we actually tackled the tax havens, the tax avoidance and the questionable dealings of the derivative traders, hedge funds and the off balance sheet trading then we might go so way towards dealing with the consequences of the worldwide financial crash.

There again, perhaps if that nice Mr Cameron and the other 18 millionaires in the cabinet were to work with other governments worldwide to close the tax loopholes then perhaps we truly would all be in it together? Perhaps not! So over the next few days when Dave (and no doubt the Daily Mail) makes much of standing up for Britain in the Brussels summit its worth remembering that he is actually there on the bankers behalf not ours.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

HAS ANYONE TOLD DAVE...

News that the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, desires action to be taken in the New Year (after due consultation) to improve transparency and curb excessive executive pay packages in the public sector, should welcomed. The move, is apparently, intended to ensure that public sector workers don’t feel they were bearing the brunt of the cuts while their bosses are not. The Deputy PM indicated that there would be moves to increase transparency and that legislation could be brought forward in the New Year. I wonder if he has told Dave and George yet? I suspect the answer might be not yet, as apparently senior Conservatives are said to be sceptical about the plans and say no government work is under way on implementing them.

Monday, 5 December 2011

STILL SENDING OUR TREASURE TO LONDON...

A Roman ring found near Caerphilly has been returned by the British Museum for permanent display in the Winding House Museum at New Tredegar to put on permanent display. The silver ring, around 2,000 years old, was found on Cefn Brithdir, in the Darran Valley, earlier this year by a man with a metal detector. The finder alerted the authorities to his discovery and the ring was passed to the National Museum in Cardiff which identified it as a typical Roman silver finger ring from the 1st or 2nd Century AD, although its gemstone is missing.

A good local example of the portable antiquities scheme working well here in Wales, you might think. However, then the ring was declared to be treasure trove and placed in the care of the British Museum, whose officials eventually offered it to the Winding House, a former colliery building, as the relevant local museum. The question is not so much that the ring was declared treasure trove, but, that it was sent to the British Museum in London, when we have a perfectly good institution more that's more than capable of assessing the artefact's significance in the shape of the National Museum in Cardiff.

Friday, 2 December 2011

AN ACUTE LACK OF FAIRNESS...

I spent the first half of the week on a very intensive training course (complete with an exam - which thankfully I passed) so I missed the strike day entirely. It's literally taken until today for the deprogramming to kick in and to put thought to blog. Wednesday came and went, the Conservatives are feeling good, having a pop at the Unions over strikes for the Tories is like playing to a familiar audience.

The amply rewarded and well-paid card carrying largely Labour dinosaur Union bosses are happy as they got to have a go at a Conservative led Government. The current (New) Labour leader is quietly hoping that the strikes will go away and no one remembers that this whole economic mess originated when New Labour were running the show.

Now to be fair it's a devilishly awkward situation that the party formerly known as New Labour finds itself in. I mean they are trying to sit on the fence and avoid taking an official position, neither for or against the strikes. Fence sitting aside as the dust settle a lot of people who can least afford it are out of pocket at a time of year when they can least afford it.

The anger of public-sector workers who took part in strike action on Wednesday remains understandably undiminished. They are being asked to make significant financial sacrifices to pay for the mess, those responsible for the mess the private finance sector, are definitely not being asked to make the same level of sacrifice and by and large appear to have got away with it and escaped unpublished for their actions.

Understandably public sector, many of whom are not paid very much, are a tad upset that part of their pension, for which they were entitled to plan for many years, is going to be taken away. I have no doubt that the scale of government borrowing requires emergency action, yet any savings from changes to public-sector pensions won't actually come through until some years after this financial disaster has faded into memory.

Apparently the Government has moved some distance towards meeting the unions' objections, apparently by reducing the cuts for those nearing retirement. If this is the case, then serious efforts should be made to get a deal on the table and to sign it. Both the Unions and the Government should accept it an honour it.

Why do the cuts need to be so apocalyptic? Could not saving be made in other areas? Trident perhaps or a couple of aircraft carriers (one of which there are no plans to even use!). The UK Government can manage to find the money to spend on wars and their aftermath, but, not apparently when matters are deemed less urgent.

I wonder if the (subconscious or not so subconscious) motivation for the attack on the public sector workers is more ideologically driven rather than financially driven. It is worth noting that both Cameron and Osborne were heavily involved if not key players (coat holders) for Michael Howard’s thankfully unsuccessful campaign to be Prime Minister.

That thought aside, one financial cuckoo that's coming home to roost is that of PFI – something that the public sector was forced to use by the last Labour Government (and is still favoured by the current government) and for which we will all be paying for many years to come. We will all be paying for a whole raft of Blair’s legacies, including a couple of wars and the London based and largely London beneficial Olympics.

For the next ten years at least, public spending is going to be under severe pressure. Harsh choices will be made and priorities decided; and some changes may need to be made to relatively generous future pension rights of public-sector staff. I don’t necessarily dispute that, but, I question on whose behalf these decisions are being made and what efforts are being made to ensure that we all pay our fair share?

From where I am sat (in the cheap seats) this Conservative Government is the Trade Union leaders' best mate (if not a convenient ally). This is government for the rich and by the rich (for that's how it appears to me) has stood by while the City fat cats continue to be rewarded for failure and to rake in fat bonuses and done nothing.

The Con Dem's biggest problem is the acute lack of fairness, as boardroom pay has raced ahead, and tax evasion and tax avoidance largely goes unpunished. Excessive profiteering by the energy cartel has gone unpunished and those who can least afford are getting hammered. David Cameron and Mr Osborne remain utterly unconvincing as they continue to fail to convince most people that they (of all people) are genuinely "all in this together".

Last Tuesday George Osborne showed that he failed to even consider any idea for public disclosure of tax returns or a ban on honours to those who have already rewarded themselves pretty handsomely. Nothing was done about tax avoidance; and no consideration was given to a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions (something that needs to be done on global basis). Rather than criticising the strikers, Cameron might want to take steps to ensure that the bankers and the rich are in this, too, like the rest of us.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

PEAK WHAT?

Over recent years there has been much talk of peak this and peak that, one thing that may have slipped by is the possibility that we may be less than 30 years away from reaching peak Phosphorus. So what people might say, what's that to do with me... a lot is the answer.

As the population of our planet comes close to the 8 billion mark around 2025 (9 billion by 2050) the struggle to feed everyone is going to become more intense. Food itself is only one aspect of what is going to become (if it is not already) an increasingly complicated problem.

So far, largely out of sight and out of mind, a quiet struggle is going on to secure control of the worlds phosphorous reserves. While some countries such as India are entirely dependent upon imported phosphorous supplies all of us in the first world and elsewhere have become very dependent on relatively cheap fertilizers of which phosphorus is a vital component.

At the moment it takes around one tonne of phosphate to produce around 130 tonnes of grain. Not to mention that around 170 million tonnes of phosphate are mined every year (in 2011 (so far)) and the fact that there has been a 30 percent increase in the mining of phosphate. Geologically it is estimated that there are around 65 billion tonnes of phosphate rocks on the planet, but only around 16 billion tonnes of which can be mined economically.

Now obviously the word 'economically' is a variable and market price, demand, desperation and hunger will all have impact on the mining process so the margins will change. Interestingly enough 80% of the planets reserves can be found in Morocco and much oppressed Western Sahara.

In 2009, there was a 14.2% increase in the amount of phosphate fertiliser produced in the Peoples Republic of China - 15.8 million tonnes. The PRC itself may have phosphate reserves of around 18 billion tonnes. The PRC Government has added phosphorus to a list of around 20 minerals that China will be unable to source from inside China in anticipation of economic demand in the next 20 years.

One major problem that we all face from increased use of phosphate based or phosphate rich fertilizers is run-off. It has been estimated that around 37 million tonnes of phosphorus is leaked into the environment every year, washed into rivers, lakes and the oceans helping to fuel toxic algae and bacteria.

Food security is going to become a key issue in the first fifty years of this century along with energy security. Gradually weaning ourselves of phosphate and chemically based fertilizers might be the wise course. Not to mention significantly investing in plant breeding stations to tailor crops on a non genetic level to make best use of our soils, but, of course that would get in the way of profits.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR...

Even in times of economic uncertainty at this time of year people are looking forward to Christmas and the New Year – and if they live in the southern half of our country they have been bracing themselves for the latest rise in the Severn Bridge Tolls. So news that the Severn bridge tolls will rise from £5.70 to £6 pound per car (an increase of 30 pence), small goods vehicles and small buses will have to pay £12.10 (an increase of 60 pence) and heavy goods vehicles and buses will pay £18.10 (an increase of 90 pence) is not good and will hit families, commuters and businesses when they can least afford it.

Severn River PLC who operate the franchise will certainly have a very happy new year, admittedly at our expense; they are able to raise the bridge tolls each year by the inflation rate as part of the terms of the Severn Bridges Act (1992). There timing is amazing one month before Christmas - as has I have said before the bridge tolls are an extra tax on jobs, on Welsh people going to work and on business operating in the south of Wales.

Rather ominously back in May 2011 the Welsh Affairs committee had received no hint or suggestion that tolls on the Severn Bridge will fall on the Severn Crossing when it came back into public ownership. The Committee had itself recommended (December 2010) that the toll could be as low as £1.50 in 2017 when ownership of the Severn Crossings reverts from Severn River Crossing PLC back to public ownership in 2016 or 2017 (or even perhaps 2018).

In October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls boldly recommended that the revenues should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study found that Welsh businesses were unfairly penalised by the tolls and concluded that the money should be shared with the Assembly Government and used to improve Wales’ roads and public transport.

Now it is a matter for the public record that, once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing has been for then the revenue stream will revert straight to Treasury coffers in Westminster. The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses found the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.

While noting that the economic impact was not substantial for most, the study found that transport, construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings had suffered (and continue to suffer) increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The bridges are of such importance to Wales that it is only right that control, or at least shared control, over them is in the hands of the Welsh people.

Plaid wants to see the transfer of powers (to Wales) so we can reduce the tolls on the bridges, something that could have a considerable impact on Welsh businesses and the Welsh economy. With control over the bridges devolved, Plaid has suggested reducing the cost of the tolls to under £2 a car and would also introduce new collection techniques so that people crossing the bridge would have an alternative to paying by cash. Any profit that is made could be used to maintain the bridges and upgrade Welsh infrastructure.

The day when the Severn Bridges come back into public ownership cannot come quick enough along the day that the tolls are cut. In the meantime, there may be a few other things that would be worth examining. In 2011, the Welsh Affairs Committee chair David Davies, MP for Monmouth, noted that due to "the inflexible provisions of the 1992 Severn Crossings Act, neither the government nor Severn Crossings Plc is able to freeze or reduce the toll without incurring significant costs."

A fair point, it might well be worth inquiring how come the Act was so badly written? And whether or not any individuals (elected or not) directly or indirectly benefited (financially or otherwise) with a seat on the board or with contributions to Party funds? Now that might well be worth a freedom of information request or some investigative journalism – now there's a thought?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A PETITION WORTH SIGNING

’We call upon the National Assembly for Wales to urge the Welsh government to recall all Local Development Plans across Wales and to scrap the use of population projections issued by the Statistical Directorate that are used to inflate housing numbers in local development plans.


We call for all LDPs at whatever stage of development to be halted immediately in order to bring the level of housing growth in line with genuine local needs.We the undersigned view all LDPs guided by the Welsh Government’s population projections as ill thought out, fundamentally flawed and detrimental to the communities of Wales.This type of planning is not sustainable, is not needed and is not wanted by the people of Wales. In order to halt the damage that is already being done and to prevent further irreversible damage and devastation to our communities, environment and identity across Wales, we appeal to the Welsh Government to intervene immediately.’


e-Petition: Recall LDP’s

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

CYNICS ANONYMOUS...

My name if Jonathan, and I have a problem with cynicism! Perhaps I have been in the game (politics) for too long and seen too much, but, when I hear the phrase 'there will be a consultation process' I do tend to think that it has more to do with managing public opinion after a decision has been made. Hand on heart, I openly admit that I am something of a cynic and that I struggle with my cynicism.

Managing my cynicism is something that I mostly successfully. However, the way the UK Government (and many other levels of Government) treat people and they way they tend to involve people in governmental processes does not help. Certainly the after the fact nature of the process does make me speculate on why people are pretty disillusioned with politics and have a fairly developed loathing of practising professional politicians at most levels of governance.

So the UK government has confirmed that is intends to close Swansea coastguard station. The UK Transport Minister Mike Penning has stated that the station at Mumbles (which employs 28 people), would close by March 2015. I have no doubt that the loss of local expertise and expert knowledge that the closure will cause lives to be put at risk at some point, off Swansea, the Gower coast and in the Bristol Channel. News that the Coastguard Stations at Holyhead and Milford Haven, which had originally been in line for the chop have been granted a reprieve is some good news.

Part of me honestly wonders just how sincere the UK Westminster Government (for this read all levels of government) actually was (if at all) when the 'consultation process was announced. Obviously someone in London perhaps with a Metropolitan mindset was looking to save money, I am certainly getting the impression that Wales is out of sight and out of mind (for much if not all of the time) so who cares what happens there - at least as far as the Westminster Parliament is concerned. .

From a UK Government perspective no doubt the fact that the "Save Swansea Coastguard" campaign had collected 110,000 signatures and the fact that the campaign against the closure was very effective and very visible, was not doubt awkward but not insurmountable. One thing is true, here in Wales, this decision may be interpreted as being a little more evidence that  we are ceasing to receive any meaningful material benefit from being part of the Union.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

ONE HAND IN THE BALLOT BOX...

Labour in Wales has a long history of putting self-interest and party-interest before the interests and needs of the Welsh people. Now they are really taking the biscuit by proposing 'a reform' of the electoral system that would give them around 70% of the seats in the National Assembly with barely 42% of the vote.

An Electoral Reform Society report has shone a little light on labour in Wales's dubious proposal. At present, 40 AMs are elected as a result of first-past-the-post contests and the remaining 20 are elected from regional lists based upon the percentage of votes cast. Labour with a bare majority in the National Assembly has long looked for an opportunity to make a change to an electoral system that fails to guarantee it a permanent majority.

Now they have their chance in the wake of UK government plans to cut the number of MPs from 40 to 30. Labour in Wales publicly opposes reducing the number of assembly constituencies to match the boundaries of new parliamentary seats. The ERS report suggests that Labour could win "disproportionately" more seats if all Welsh Assembly members were elected via the first-past-the-post system.

Scrapping the semi-proportional elections would deny thousands of voters a voice. Naturally Labour in Wales insists it opposes changing the electoral system and accused the ERS of "misrepresenting" its position. Hmmm....over to you Peter (the pain) Hain...

Monday, 21 November 2011

A WELL-HEELED DICTATORSHIP…

Things may be looking up for the repressive Communist dictatorship in Cuba as an expected scramble to exploit and develop toil reserves in Cuban territorial waters begins. International oil companies from Spain, Norway, Russia, India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Canada, Angola, Venezuela, and the Peoples Republic of China (oddly enough there are none from the USA) are literally falling over themselves to bring in exploration drilling rigs to search for what may well be substantial oil deposits.

The US Geological Survey (back in 2004) estimated that there may be some 4.6 billion barrels worth of oil, the Cuban authorities disagree and suggest that there may be some 20 billion barrels worth. Either way a major oil discovery would make this communist dictatorship financially independent for the first time since the revolution in 1959 and effectively shatter the US trade embargo and turn Cuba from being a net oil importer into a net oil exporter. While this would be good news for the Cuban people it might not be good news for environmentalists and hard-pressed Cuban civil rights activists as the dictatorship would be flush with cash and effectively unassailable.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

TIME TO CALL IN A FEW FAVOURS?

  Saif al-Islam - Photo: Ismail Zitouni/Reuters
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son / spawn of Muammar Gaddafi, was captured yesterday near the southern Libyan oil town of Obari, as his armed companions were trying to smuggle him out of the country. The fact that he threw in the towel unlike his old man is currently being held in custody means that he might avoid an immediate and violent retribution for his crimes.

Oddly enough this news, as has been noted by the Independent on Sunday (20.11.11) may make some former grandees a tad twitchy. Saif al-Islam was Gaddafi’s heir and was feted in the West in his time. As a keeper of the regimes secrets and someone who was in the thick of brokering Gaddafi’s deal with the West his survival could be described in some circles as awkward.

Tony Blair, Lord Mandelson and other high rollers such as Oleg Deripaska and Nat Rothschild have all got links to Saif al-Islam. What may make this even more interesting is if he decides to blow the lid on the lot in court and call character witnesses, something that would be more difficult for those involved to avoid any trial takes place in the Hague.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has a warrant out for Saif al-Islam arrest for crimes against humanity which could make things interesting. So far the Libyans as of yesterday were pretty determined that he would be put on trial in his own country to start with. The ICC is in contact with the Libyan Justice Ministry and one of its prosecutors would now fly to Tripoli for talks.

Mahmoud Shammam, the Libyan Information Minister, said: "This is the final chapter of the Libyan drama. We will put him on trial in Libya and he will be judged by Libyan law for his crimes." A guilty verdict and sentence of death in Libya would upstage any possible proceedings at The Hague and could lead to a number of UK based individuals breathing a deep sigh of relief - I wonder if any 'favours' will be called in? Watch this space!

Friday, 18 November 2011

PROSIECT GWYRDD

News that the National Assembly for Wales’ petitions committee have agreed to examine Prosiect Gwyrdd on the request of objectors from all over south east Wales is good news. The committee has decided to examine the scheme which was set up by five councils, including Newport, Monmouthshire, Caerphilly, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. Local campaigners against the plan have pointed out that the project directly contradicts the Welsh Government’s policy of having localised facilities, and councils’ ability to choose their own waste technology and management.

The National Assembly petitions committee also needs to examine the Wales waste survey, which as campaigners have pointed out is flawed because it only gave people a stark set of choices for waste disposal bury it or burn it. We, in Wales and elsewhere can do better than that. If we are serious about recycling and sustainability then we need to look at legally preventing the burning of waste that's recyclable, this is something that would encourage actively councils and waste producers to better promote recycling.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

ANOTHER BROKEN TORY PROMISE...

Here we go again, yet another broken Westminster promise, when the Tories were in opposition they pledged to introduce an award to honour the Arctic convoy veterans who took supplies to Russia via Murmansk and Archangel in the Second World War. Back in January 2011, the Prime Minister stated that the sailors who served on the hazardous voyages had "missed out" and more should be done to recognise them.

However, it seems that pre-election and post-election promises are cheap, as a letter to Sir George Young (the Leader of the Commons) a long–time supporter of the campaign, Prime Minister Cameron said the sailors had already been recognised with the award of the Atlantic Star Medal. Once again, no doubt heavily influenced by the MoD, who seem to have a historic if understandable Cold War problem with honouring those who took aid to our then Soviet Allies.

Russia has remembered, appreciates and honours our Royal Navy and Merchant Navy veterans for their heroic deeds. Russia has awarded commemorative medals to acknowledge its gratitude to the surviving sailors, more than 3,000 of whose comrades were killed. Yet Prime Minister Cameron and the MoD seem to be incapable of recognising and honouring our veterans.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

ANOTHER PIECE OF THE PUZZLE...

News that Network Rail is finally creating a separate division for Wales. This move will allow investment decisions about tracks and stations to be taken in here in Wales. This move should be welcomed, it's a bit late but in the end it is the thought that counts. This follows a UK Government report that recommended decentralisation of the network to boost efficiency - that also took them a while. We are soon to have a new fully devolved rail division, which will look after the maintenance and upkeep of more than 200 stations and around 900 miles (1448 km) of railway track. This decision makes sense, as for the first time in our country's history the entire rail network will be managed on an all-Wales basis. This makes perfect sense, as decisions on developing an all Wales transport strategy need to be made here in Wales, rather than by a distant and indifferent (to the needs of Wales at least) Department for Transport.

Monday, 14 November 2011

WHICH BIT OF 'NO' DON'T YOU GET?

The knowledge that the UK Government has accepted FIFA assurances that Welsh football independence would not be threatened by the creation of the 'British Olympic football team' does not surprise me. Aside form the fact that we are not necessarily dealing with the sharpest tools in the box here, the problem may be made more complicated by the problem of differentiation. By this I mean there are some people who have real difficulty differentiating between British and English - ask someone in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and you may get a straight answer, especially when it comes to sport.

Nothing should be allowed to threaten to undermine the continued existence of an independent Welsh international football team, especially the emergence of a temporary Team GB football team. The UK Government simply does not get it and is probably incapable of getting it. I mean why would an English sports minister have the slightest concern about the future of the Welsh national football team? FIFA's word is not good enough, the organisation is tainted with a long and recent history of corruption and questionable financial dealings.

Our Football Association of Wales is one of the world's oldest football associations and is any important symbol of our nation.The game in Wales is undergoing a renaissance at the moment and Welsh footballers and Welsh teams have a higher profile than for a while domestically and internationally - this should not be threatened under any circumstances. The football associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have pretty clearly stated (on more than a few occasions) that they are not interested in a Team GB football Team, which bit of NO don't the London Olympic Organisers understand?

Sunday, 13 November 2011

SPOT ON...

There is little I can add to Grangetown Jack's well articulated article on Labour in Wales' musings on representative democracy, entitled 'Join Plaid Cymru - to Save Wales from Labour', he is spot on in his observations. We have finally reached the point where Labour in Wales are beneath contempt, putting party and self-interest before the national interest.

Friday, 11 November 2011

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS...

A report by Human Rights Watch has called on the Arab League to suspend Syria, saying the abuses against civilians in Homs are crimes against humanity. The US-based group's report makes grim reading documenting arbitrary detention, deaths in custody, torture, enforced disappearances, and systematic unlawful killing of civilians in the city of Homs (and elsewhere in Syria) by Syrian Government forces. Homs is the focus for anti-government demonstrations and the effective capital of the revolt against the brutal and repressive Syrian dictatorship. Some forty people were killed there on Thursday.

The UN says at least 3,500 people have been killed in Syria in protests against President Bashar al-Assad. Syria continues to benefit from China and Russia's veto on the UN Security Council, where a resolution which condemned the crackdown in Syria (back in October) was a serious blow to attempts to develop an international consensus on how to grapple with President Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime. Western diplomats tweaked the resolutions wording (which had been proposed by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal, in co-operation with the USA) to try to take account of Chinese and Russian concerns.

The clear diplomatic rebuff to the West, perhaps signals a much stronger stance from Beijing and Moscow who are unhappy to see the weight of the Security Council ranged against the Syrian authorities. This move has only heightened divisions on the Security Council, where Brazil, India, South Africa and Lebanon quietly abstained; this suggests that any idea of a new era of intrusive diplomacy which was brought in by the UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya last March is effectively over, perhaps overwhelmed by self-interest.

It's natural for the Peoples Republic of China itself a brutal repressive dictatorship to side with the Syrian Government. Russia has other concerns, spreading democracy not being among them, so an anxiety about a potential lack of future arms sales may be a driving concern. It’s a little odd that some of the states indirectly supporting the Syrian dictatorship have themselves been involved in liberation struggles themselves, perhaps they might well have once had a degree of sympathy for the Syrian people who are laying down their lives for freedom and liberty.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

OUR PLACE IN THE CYBER SUN…

A recent survey of Welsh businesses and consumers suggests that a majority of both support the idea of our nation getting its own domain name. Nominet suggests that 69% of consumers backed the move and 59% of Welsh businesses and other bodies. A sample of 1,003 individuals - 21% of whom were Welsh speakers - and 250 senior decision makers in Welsh organisations was used. Seems pretty reasonable to me, especially as Internet regulator ICANN is planning to allow countries and other organisations to apply for the new names from January 2012. This would give website owners in Wales an opportunity to end their address with .wales and .cymru, instead of .uk. This is something that would help with the marketing of Welsh produce, the branding of Welsh businesses and organisations and help raise our country's profile worldwide. Why should we not have our place in the cyber sun?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

HE WHO PAYS THE PIPER?

Almost quietly, almost unnoticed and certainly unheralded at least in this part of Western Europe the Nord Stream gas pipeline has come on-line which enables Russia to ship commercial natural gas supplies to Western and Central Europe. The gas pipeline, currently one of the world's longest submerged pipelines has not been without controversy. The pipeline project, which was actively pushed by the Russian government and agreed to by Gerhard Schröder's government of Germany. The project has not been without a degree of controversy for a number of reasons, especially the fact that it increasing European energy dependence on Russia.

Gazprom, nominally an independent energy company but in fact the energy arm of the Kremlin, has a bit a reputation for generously spreading it's largess around to help get what it wants. Some dubious activities may have taken place in Sweden and in Germany to smooth the path for the Nord Stream pipeline. Certainly it is a fact that Schröder, by coincidence after leaving the post of Chancellor of Germany, ended up as head the shareholders' committee of Nord Stream AG.

There is another factor that has set some alarm bells sounding and that’s because the new pipeline may enable Russia to bypass traditional transit countries Ukraine, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Belarus and Poland. Some transit countries are very concerned that a long-term plan of the Kremlin is to attempt to exert political influence on them by threatening their gas supply without affecting supplies to Western Europe.

In recent years there have been several seasonal and very bitter public Russian and Ukrainian gas disputes. Now with Nord Stream there is a real fear that France and Germany may sell the Eastern European countries down the river in exchange for cheap Gas. These fears have been strengthened by the fact that Russia has consistently refused to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT).

The ECT is an old international agreement which should provide a transparent framework for energy trade, transit and investments. The ECT process was originally based on plans to integrating the energy sectors of the then Soviet Union and Eastern Europe just after the end of the Cold War into a much broader European and world energy market.

Nord Stream’s critics have said that Europe could become dangerously over dependent on Russian natural gas supplies, especially if Russia faces a surge in both domestic and a foreign demand for gas. A Swedish Defence Research Agency study noted over 55 incidents since 1991, with "both political and economic underpinnings".

Back in April 2006 Radosław Sikorski, who was then Poland's defence minister, made reference to the project in terms of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. More recently Edward Lucas in his updated (2009) book The New Cold War: Putin's Russia and the Threat to the West, (which is well worth a read) has suggested that "though Nord Stream's backers insist that the project is business pure and simple, this would be easier to believe if it were more transparent."

The involvement of Gazprom in the project – a company that's as great a believer in transparency as its masters in the Kremlin - does not help matters and neither does the fact that Nord Stream AG is incorporated in Switzerland where it can take full advantage of effective banking anonymity. Russia's response has been that the pipeline actually increases Europe's energy security, and that any criticism is caused by bitterness about the loss of significant transit revenues, and political influence. Diplomatically that's as close to ‘Bite me!’ as you can get.

So there we are Russia is quietly supplying a significant portion gas supplies to Western Europe – how soon before we end up hostage to a Russian political agendas. Be silent and get your gas or criticize us over Human rights or when we attack a small country or chill in the leak midwinter! I have no yearning for a new cold war, but harsh realities, but the writing may be on the wall when it comes to energy security.

Relying on energy supplies that are at risk of interruption or are found in unstable regions of the world is just plain stupidity, as is consciously choosing to become more increasingly dependent on imported gas. If you think that the members of the big six give customers a hard time just wait until one or two of them get bought by Gazprom no doubt ably assisted by the city based friends of New Labour and the Conservatives, ever eager to chase a quick profit at our expense.

Here in Wales, a small country on the fringe of Europe, we had better take note and hope that we can rapidly make our small country energy independent. We need to develop a flexible self-sufficient energy development strategy 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. The peoples of these islands need to be entirely self sufficient via renewable non nuclear non market driven energy resources and quickly.

Friday, 4 November 2011

SHIPPING EMISSIONS

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended that greenhouse gas emissions from shipping should be included in the UK's climate change budgets. The Climate Change Act has committed the UK to cutting all its climate-changing emissions by 80% - based on 1990 levels - by 2050. At the moment, however, international aviation and shipping emissions are not currently included. If the Con Dem Government agrees that this will mean tighter targets for other sectors such as motoring and electricity generation.

Shipping emissions in the Bay of Biscay
The CCC has suggested that shipping might account for up to 10% of emissions allowed under the 2050 target. This is something that needs to be tackled on a global basis, and if coherent co-ordinated international action proves impossible, it is quite likely that the European Union will introduce measures for traffic in and out of European ports.

The World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam issued a report which recommended some kind of global shipping tax which could be used to raise some of the $100 billion dollars per year of climate-related cash that rich countries are committed to providing to the developing world by 2020. The problem of shipping emissions Global Forum on Transport and Environment in a Globalising World (which met back in November 2008 in Guadalajara, Mexico) produced a report on the Environmental Impacts of Increased International Maritime Shipping which looked at the implications for maritime diesel emissions.

The report noted that shipping activity has increased significantly over the last century, and represents a noticeable contribution to global emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The report concluded that projections up to year 2020 indicate a growth in fuel consumption and emission in the range of 30%. It also suggested that most scenarios for the near future, the next 10-20 years, suggest that regulations and measures will be outweighed by an increase in traffic leading to a significant global increase in emissions from shipping.

One simple solution is to base manufacturing industry more locally rather than ship finished products across the globe. This is something that would benefit Welsh communities, save money, especially when you consider the rising costs of maritime diesel and reduce the carbon footprint of manufactured goods and cut pollutants which affect all of us.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

A LUXURY WE CANNOT AFFORD…

The Con Dem Government has announced that it is going to cut the subsidy for solar power by half for new installations from 12th December. Solar panel makers and solar panel installers are concerned that the cut may lead to the loss of thousands of jobs and a reduction in investment in this form of renewable energy. This decision also means that consumers who register for the scheme after that date (even if the deposit has already been paid) will see their return halved.

The Westminster government has launched a fast-track consultation on the change, which it says reflects falling panel prices. The proposed new tariff of 21 pence, which is down from the current 43p, will come into effect from the 1st April 2012 and be paid to anyone who installed their solar system after 12th December 2012. One interpretation of this is that the last few Westminster governments have just not really been serious about energy security and developing secure sustainable energy resources.

Sadly it certainly looks like the Con Dem Government is about as serious about developing renewable energy resources, as was the previous New Labour Government. That said, there may be other motives, perhaps no one (in Government) really wants micro-generation schemes to work because then we (the consumers) will have less need of the Big Six and of course profits / share prices and dividends could be hit, and we (sorry they) would not want that it might upset the chaps over dinner.

This decision certainly does seem to be a slap in the face for this sector of the renewables, let alone any consumers and customers seeking to develop sustainable energy. One interpretation could be that this decision will make life just that little easier for the energy cartel members. That aside, we appear to have a Westminster Government that's not serious about developing sustainable energy and that's one luxury that none of us can afford.

Monday, 31 October 2011

VETERANS INQUIRY

News that MPs are going to look at the services and support provided for our veterans and service personnel returning from active service duty is to be welcomed. Around 250,000 armed forces veterans live in Wales and their treatment will be looked at by the Commons' Welsh Affairs Committee. The inquiry will look at the support offered to former personnel and will ask whether government departments co-ordinate their activities. Medical and mental-health services will be considered by the MP’s. Evidence will be taken on the support services received by veterans and their families, including provision to help former military personnel resettle after completion of their service. Military housing for service personnel and their families still leaves a great deal to be desired. Our current and former service personnel and their families deserve better than they have got from previous Government. Will things get better? The precedents are not good, its worth remembering that sadly the bottom line is that live heroes, as ironically a predecessor Conservative - Liberal Coalition Government found out cost far more than dead ones.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?

While the Welsh Government's decision to allow ordinary people a say on whether or not the Abergavenny Improvement Acts, which ensure the presence of a livestock market in Abergavenny, is welcome, this is is very close to a case of being too little too late and its not good enough. Before Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) can, acting as judge, jury, executioners and beneficiary, financially benefit from the closure of Abergavenny Livestock market the three Abergavenny Improvement Acts must be repealed.

Originally MCC's consultation process was limited to market users and the town council. Now local people can put forward their views, but, only in relation the repeal of the acts, they cannot make any reference of the proposed plans for the site or plans to move the livestock market from Abergavenny to a new site in Raglan.

The Welsh Government (under Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) has the power to call in any applications for planning permission for their own determination, something that clearly should have been done in this specific case - so far they have chosen not to do this. They have looked the other way, using the old excuse that development proposals are best dealt with by planning authorities that know their area, its needs and sensitivities. In this case it is pretty clear that MCC's involvement in the proposed redevelopment of Abergavenny and its cattle market is more than a tad iffy.

The Welsh Government has ignored the real and pressing need to call in this proposed development. Even when MCC changed the composition of the Planning Committee because it returned the wrong verdict (against rather than in favour of the development), there was barely a murmur from Cardiff. This planning application should have been called in as it has raised issues of more than local importance, issues which are in conflict with national planning policies; issues which could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality; and give rise to substantial controversy beyond the immediate locality.

The application to redevelop the livestock market in Abergavenny will affect sites of scientific, nature conservation and / or historic interest as well as areas of landscape importance in the town. It is nonsense that the Welsh Government has acted to open consultation on the real of the Abergavenny Improvement Acts, yet refuses to take evidence in relation the planning application, its impact and its affects on the town, local farmers and the surrounding area. Quite honestly this is stuff and nonsense if not a duplicitous act on the part of the Welsh Government.

Friday, 28 October 2011

NO MORE EXCUSES...

Once again there have been more calls for action in relation to finishing the Ebbw Vale line link into Newport. Fresh Welsh Government transport statistics have shown that some 122,000 journeys took place from the Valleys county to Cardiff (in 2009/2010) in comparison to 2,900 to Newport stations which has no direct link from the Ebbw Vale line.

The South Wales Argus, local people and politicians of every political hue have all been calling for a passenger rail link between Newport and Ebbw Vale for the last ten years. The new Labour run Welsh Government is currently prioritising its National Transport Plan, which apparently includes consideration of the rail link, and a rescheduled delivery plan is set to be published this Autumn.

It should be pretty obvious by now that the chance of finding a sentence containing the phrase ‘priority transport infrastructure project’ and the word ‘Wales’ within any Network Rail and the Department of Transport report is pretty minimal. Recent experience with the proposals to electrify the main line from London to Bristol suggests that they clearly have no concept of Wales or Welsh priorities beyond when they dovetail onto the end of larger infrastructure projects or when our country geographically gets in the way.

Aside from the potential economic benefits for the city centre, and the convenience of a quicker link to the main line services from Newport station there is another potential benefit. If the Newport link is open then the Gwent Valleys (and Newport) could benefit from an expanded service that runs from Ebbw Vale to Abergavenny and back again through the day. A better service, means more passengers and will help to reduce congestion on our roads. Further delay and meaningless waffle from the Welsh Government on this important rail connection is not good enough! Get it done!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

THE UNION...DISCUSS...

News that Scotland with full control of it's territorial waters would be the world's sixth richest country with it's geographical share of North Sea oil may make more than a few people both inside and outside of Scotland and sit up and take note. The SNP's John Swinney, in his keynote address to his party's conference, makes the point that UK government has been reaping the benefits of the resource for too long and that the Scotland has been subsidising the rest of the UK.

Scotland contributes more to the UK in tax revenue than Scotland gets back in the UK public spending. Mr Swinney told the SNP conference that: "The figures show that with a geographical share of our offshore resources, Scotland would be the sixth-wealthiest country in the world - 10 places ahead of the UK at 16th." The SNP rightly believe that independence would give the Scottish Parliament the "normal powers enjoyed by nations across the world to deliver jobs and growth".

Makes you think doesn't it? It might make even some of the almost perpetually winging Unionists sit up and take note as well. Wales is not Scotland and Scotland is not Wales there are similarities and there are differences and not everything that would work in Scotland would work in Wales and vice verse. Differences and similarities aside there does need to be a non hysterical rational debate about the state of the union and Wales's place within it, especially if the Scottish people decide to re-establish an independent Scotland.

I have noticed over the years that there is a tendency for Unionists to A) get hysterical if anyone questions the union and B) a tendency to talk about the about the Union as if it has been set in stone for ever, it's not, it has never been. The union has been a movable feast since it's inception in 1801 with the abolition of Ireland's parliament, the Scottish parliament was abolished in 1701. Ireland's national struggle or Irish Home rule agitation (depending on your point of view) acted almost as smoke screen to cover the development of administrative devolution developed in Scotland and Wales from the 1880's onwards.

The Scottish Office was created in 1885 along with the post of Secretary for Scotland (there had previously been a post of Secretary of State for Scotland from 1707 until 1745). From 1892 onwards the Secretary for Scotland sat in cabinet, but was not officially a full member of the cabinet of the United Kingdom. The Secretary for Scotland post was upgraded to full Secretary of State rank as Secretary of State for Scotland in 1926.

We have come along way since the Wales and Berwick Act (1746) was passed stating that that in all future laws, 'England' would by default include Wales and Berwick-upon-Tweed (This act was finally repealed in 1967). Even during what might be called by some the high-tide of the Union there were practical gestures towards Wales.

In 1881 the Welsh Sunday Closing Act was passed, the first specific legislation exclusively concerned with Wales. A Central Welsh Board was established in 1896 for inspection of grammar schools this was established under the Welsh Intermediate Education Act 1889, a separate Welsh Department of the Board of Education was created in 1907. An Agricultural Council for Wales was established in 1912, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries ran its own Welsh Office from 1919.

A post of Minister of Welsh Affairs was first established in 1951, held initially by the UK Home Secretary. Other low level changes followed, including the establishment of a Digest of Welsh Statistics in 1954, and Cardiff's designation as Wales’s capital city in 1955 (oddly enough these later changes took place under the auspices of a Conservative Government. The Labour government in Westminster established the Welsh Office (in 1964) with a Secretary of State for Wales, and added to its powers including health (1968), agriculture (1969) and education (1970).

The Union, thus rather than being set in stone has been constantly tinkered with for most of its life. A major change came when most of Ireland gained it's independence in 1921/1922. The six counties (in the north east) remained in the Union gaining the Stormont parliament (from 1922) which lasted until the early 1970's when it was overwhelmed by the troubles and Westminster took over. Yet even the most die hard Unionist Conservative governments repeatedly attempted to establish devolved civil government in Ireland's trouble north east if only to curb the conflict.

The problem is unlike a significant portion of the Unionists we are no longer in the latter part of the nineteenth century, we have gone well beyond tinkering with the Union to try to make it work. Now as Scotland makes measurable progress towards independence, the remaining UK nations need to seriously consider their own constitutional futures within or without what may end up as constitutional remnant.

What's been almost entirely conspicuous by its absence is any form of serious debate on the future constitutional relationship of the countries of these islands, especially if Scotland regains it's independence. Political and economic unions are not set in stone and neither are multi-national states, they come and go, existing as long as the will, the political ideal, the military force or the creation myth remains powerful.

The economic and political factors that lead to the creation of the original union no longer apply were are living in an entirely different world. The perceived end of the union does not mean that the social union ends up being resolved - why would it? My relatives and friends scattered across England will still remains my relatives and my friends. Nor that businesses relationships would change, economic relationships may change, they will adapt and new fairer ones will be forged.

Lets have an end to the unionist hysteria and have some rational discussion. Here is Wales, with a very few exceptions, that's all we have had from the three main Unionist parties. If one thing is probably certain in these uncertain times it's that here in Wales we can certainly no longer rely on a self-interested, self-serving, unambitious, reactionary Labour movement to make any case for our nation, let alone stand up for Wales.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

FEED THE WORLD...

With the planet's population due to top seven billion very soon worrying about where the next meal is going to come from is going to be a real issue for a significant proportion of us. As our planet's population continues to increase (it's estimated to reach around 9.2 billion people by 2050) there will be a corresponding rise of around 70% in demand for food (UN).Around half of the planet's undernourished citizens are dependent on small farms for their food. Some 80% of food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa is produced by small farms. Who produces it? who owns the land? and to whom do they sell it to? and at what price? may also become pretty important questions.