Tuesday, 31 January 2012


I am old enough (just) to remember when petrol can in at £1 for 3 gallons, and a little later £1 a gallon, we are now paying around £6.02 per gallon (no wonder they changed things so that you buy by the litre rather than the gallon). I can recall adults at the time saying that if it got any more expensive they would cut back on driving or give up their cars (obviously that never happened).

Personally I reached my own private peak oil last June and am lucky enough to be able to use some subsidised public transport to get to and from work. The car is a luxury largely reserved for the weekend. Just for the record the UK average price for a litre of petrol is around: 133.89 and for diesel its around 142.21.

That 133.89 per litre breaks down along the lines of:
  • 47 pence for the basic cost of the fuel
  • 57.95 pence flat rate duty
  • 22.32 pence VAT
  • 1.5 pence for the bio-fuel element
  • 1.12 pence for the supplier
  • 4 pence for the retailer
Considering that motorists in these isles use around 37.6 billion litres per year you can see that is big money. Everybody wins - the Oil companies get rich, the Government gets a handy chunk of tax, the middlemen get their share - save for the motorist and the haulage firms who pay through the nose again and again. Wales is one of the parts of the UK that is least prepared for the consequences of fuel shortages and Peak Oil.

We have a transport and delivery network that is almost entirely dependent on petrol and diesel to get things done and to put things on the shelves. We have a high percentage of people who commute by car from where they live to where they work and many of them travel considerable distances. Our public transport system is inadequate, we need a combination of trams and trains to get people to work (and back again), we need to look at electrifying our local rail lines and ensuring that they are fully integrated into the transport system.

We face a future where cheap fuel will be a thing of the past, so we need to ensure that all our communities have reasonable access to a reliable cheap system of integrated public transport, at the heart of which needs to be our long neglected rail network. The old excuses about a lack of funding, despite the banking related financial crisis, are no longer acceptable;

We in Wales make up around 5% of the population of the UK, and make significant contributions to the exchequer - so we need 5% of the UK transport spend, and full control of our transport planning and our transport budget.If Westminster wants to make the Union work then cough up the cash!

Monday, 30 January 2012


At the moment, despite Teresa May (who may actually turn out to be a worse Home Secretary that Michael Howard) there are some 136,000 officers spread across the 43 forces in England and Wales. These figures for the number of police officers in England and Wales record a fall of 6,000 over the past year, as public spending cuts have bitten deep. Interestingly enough if you want to play the numbers game this fall takes us back to where we were (in numbers at least) back in 2002.

The last New Labour government learning a lesson from Mrs Thatcher (that seems to have escaped the current Con Dem Government) spent more money and employed more Police Officers and Civilian Support Staff to make services better and to buy their acquiescence. The Tory right believes that New Labour only made them more inefficient and that what with the constraints on public sector spending they believe that new ways of policing need to be explored, and that cutting substantially the back office staffing will reduce paperwork and red tape.

This is a right wing fantasy that has little basis in reality, which shows how cut off from reality they are closeted away in their own little world.  To this end, the Con Dem’s have decided that there will be elective police and crime commissioners. They justify this be suggesting its part of a value for money agenda that will protect front-line services. As for value for money, back in September 2011, the Westminster government postponed the elections for Police Commissioners from May to November of 2012.

Somewhat ironically this decision has pushed up the costs of the implementation process by around £25m to a total of £75m. The Westminster Home Affairs Committee was told last September that the £25m additional cost of staging the elections in November would not come out of the existing police budgets and the Home Office was in discussions with the Treasury about where the money would come from.

The Con Dem’s road to elected Police Commissioners in England (and Wales) which are being brought in as part of the Police and Social Responsibility Bill, has been a pretty rocky one. The plans were rejected once by the House of Lords (in May 2011), and rejected by the National Assembly (in Cardiff) who chose not to pass a Legislative Compliance Motion (LCM) , even the Association of Chief Police Officers have expressed their concerns.

As to what an elected Gwent Police Commissioner will be able to accomplish is pretty much open to question. Gwent Police are now engaged in some serious belt tightening as the force comes to terms with seriously reduced funding. Retaining Police Officers (on and off the beat) and civilian support staff has to be the bottom line.

Once you go down the path of cutting civilian support staff, which some may consider an easier and slightly more acceptable situation than reducing police numbers, there will be real consequences. A reduction in civilian support staff numbers will lead to a reduction in the availability of operational police officers, which will have consequences for all of us.

Policing, like everything else is driven by funding - this is the reality of modern (and old time) policing, our hard pressed Police Service (whether in Gwent, South Wales, Dyfed-Powys or North Wales) all need additional funding and an increase in the number of serving officers. On top of that our Police Officers actively need the active support of our communities, especially if we are seriously going to deal with crime and anti-social behaviour and to ensure proper Policing within our communities.

Lets be honest there is absolutely no reason why we should not be more creative when it comes to the ‘how are Communities are policed'. Certainly a more flexible approach to shift patterns to tackle periods when higher levels of criminal offences actually take place are higher is worth exploring and may pay dividends.

We need to actually respond to local communities concerns rather than those of Ministry of Justice's (formerly the Home Office) perceived priorities and targets. We need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when it comes to basing Policing strategies on core and periphery because the end result is that some of our communities will lose out when it comes to access to Police services and resources.

If we are really serious about reforming and reorganising our Police then we need to develop a coherent national community safety strategy with a clear approach to tackling crime and the fear of crime in our communities. And be prepared to ask and answer hard questions: do we want two tier Policing? Should Policing targets be generated by local Police officers and local communities?

And where are we going to find the money to do this because Policing is not cheap? At one level if we want to solve, curb or reduce crime in Wales, then it makes sense for the control of Policing as well as Justice and Prisons within Wales to be fully devolved to the National Assembly.

Oddly enough in Scotland where they already control their own Policing (and have done since 1945) we have not had any of this nonsense. Perhaps this is because the Scot's competently manage their own Police, I don't for a moment believe that we in Wales are less capable than the Scots or less of a nation than Scotland?

Sunday, 29 January 2012


To be honest, it did shock me, even though it shouldn't – just to clarify I am not talking about Newport County's away win against Gateshead (and the much needed three points). I am talking about the news that the Con Dem Government teamed up with the party formerly known as New Labour to arguing against using European funding to electrify the Great Western Line to Swansea.

The potential new funds are part of the Connecting Europe Facility which is a 50 billion Euro scheme rolled out by the European Commission (at the end of last year) which includes some 10 billion Euro's which are specifically ring-fenced funding for transport schemes in Cohesion Fund areas such as West Wales and the Valleys. To be honest this is long overdue and would actually mean if implemented properly that people would see something physical on the ground as a result of the commitment of EU funding.

The funding aims to make improvements to trans-national links between EU member states in the next European budget period from 2014 to 2020. The EU Commission report makes specific recommends in relation to transport schemes in what are termed ‘Core Corridors'. The reason why this should interest us here in Wales is that , Corridor 8 shows links between the Republic of Ireland, the UK, France and Belgium, with upgrading of the Great Western Main Line from Swansea through Cardiff and Bristol to London one of their recommendations as a pre-identified project.

Bonus you would think – something useful that will bring actual benefits to transport links within part of Wales. Apparently not, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK Government and the Labour opposition both argued against this European funding in a debate last Thursday and as we are aware the Con-Dem government have entirely refused to electrify the railway line beyond Cardiff.

By now it should be pretty clear by now that none of the London based parties have any concept of the Welsh national interest. Welsh and British national interests have now diverged, whatever the British national interest its not even wildly related to our national interests. Our country would get a far better deal when it comes infrastructure funding as an independent country inside the EU than we do as part of the UK.

Rather than arguing against EU funding for Wales, the UK Westminster Government should be prioritising efforts to tap into this funding to electrify the railway line to Swansea and to the West Wales coast and including Milford Haven port as a core link for trade between the Republic of Ireland, Wales and the European mainland. Clearly as far as the London based Parties are concerned there are no Welsh priorities, something that can also be said for the Labour Government in Cardiff, who appear to be busy sleeping in the armchair for Wales.

Friday, 27 January 2012


Human Rights Watch continues to expose the realities of the Ethiopian governments development programme; with its “villagization” program. This foreign funded development programme is currently forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region to new villages. The deportees upon arrival have found that they lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities. Human Rights Watch has stated that state security forces have repeatedly threatened, assaulted, and arbitrarily arrested villagers who resist the transfers.

The Human Rights Watch report, entitled “‘Waiting Here for Death’: Forced Displacement and ‘Villagization’ in Ethiopia's Gambella Region,” examines in detail the first year of Gambella’s villagization program. The report details the involuntary nature of the transfers, the loss of livelihoods, the deteriorating food situation, and ongoing abuses by the armed forces against the affected people.

Foreign donors to Ethiopia, include the United Kingdom, United States, World Bank, and European Union, all make assertions that they have no direct involvement in the villagization programs. Yet, the multi-donor Protection of Basic Services (PBS) program subsidizes basic services – health, education, agriculture, roads, and water – and local government salaries in all districts in the country, including areas where new villages are being constructed and where the main activity of local governments is moving people.

The Ethiopian Government’s villagization program is taking place in areas where significant land investment is either planned or actually occurring. The Ethiopian government has consistently denied that the resettlement of people in Gambella is connected to the leasing of large areas of land for commercial agriculture, but villagers have been told by government officials that this is an underlying reason for their displacement. Former local government officials have confirmed these allegations to Human Rights Watch.

The residents of Gambella, who are mainly indigenous Anuak and Nuer peoples, have never had formal title to the land they have lived on and used. The Ethiopian government often claims that the areas are “uninhabited” or “under-utilized.” That claim enables the government to conveniently bypass any constitutional provisions and laws that should protect these populations from being relocated. Oddly enough many of the areas from which people are being moved are slated for leasing by the government for commercial agricultural development.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


The successful legal challenge, launched by Friends of the Earth and two solar power companies, against the UK Government’s arbitrary decision to bring in early cuts to solar power subsidies, should be welcomed. This High Court verdict says that the Government's plans were "legally flawed" and should now see thousands of businesses and homes eligible for higher payments. This result while being a bit predictable is welcome news and is an important victory for the future of the UK solar industry.

Originally the Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) scheme was created to encourage investment in developing renewable energy and to reduce costs for households. The High Court victory means that (at least until the UK Government has another go) this is exactly what will be achieved thanks to this rejection of the Government's damaging proposals that threatened to damage both the developing green energy economy and the environment.

Herein Wales the High Court victory is important, because the growing renewables industry is a large employer in Wales and has real potential for significant growth in future. The High Court's decision will hopefully encourage more people to invest in solar energy and take advantage of its benefits and viability. It is important to know that the UK Government can be being held to account for its often arbitrary decisions and it is important that it be reminded (regularly) of its commitments (Coalition Agreement pledges) to produce 15 per cent of the country's total energy y from renewable sources by 2020.

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

If you take the long view then a rapidly expanding small scale renewable energy sector would (given time) directly threaten the larger energy company profits and their cosy comfortable virtual monopoly on energy supply and the lucrative (non windfall) tax on the energy companies profits. So naturally 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 smaller scale community beneficial energy projects.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012


News that the Turkish Republic has (too put it mildly) “reacted with anger” to news that the French Senate has (finally) approved a bill making it a crime to deny that genocide was committed by Ottoman Turks against the Armenian's during World War I should not come as much of a shock. So it would not be much of a surprise that the Turkish foreign ministry has loudly branded the decision "irresponsible" and threatened swift retaliatory measures.

Most historians and the Armenian's recognise that up to 1.5 million people died in 1915-16 under Ottoman rule during the First World War deported en masse from eastern Anatolia to the Syrian Desert and elsewhere in 1915-16. They were killed or died from starvation or disease during a brutal deportation ordered by the Ottoman Government.

The total number of Armenian dead is disputed, but, historians and the Armenian Government says approximately one and half million people died in pretty grim circumstances. Turkey (a republic since 1920) has repeatedly rejected the term genocide and argued that the number of Armenian's who died was around estimates the total to be 300,000. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), the death toll was "more than a million".

Now this may all sound somewhat semantic, a bit like the Brits saving that they only developed the concept of the concentration camp during the Boer war and that those Africans and Afrikaners who died, died of neglect and incompetence rather than from malice aforethought. Or perhaps its a bit like saying that the six million who died in the Bengal famine (1943/1944) did so because the Brits were busy at the time, but, generally they did a good job in India.

The French bill will now be sent to President Nicolas Sarkozy to be signed into law, which he is expected to do before the end of February. The Turkish government argues that judging what happened in eastern Turkey in 1915-16 should be left to historians, and that the new French law will restrict freedom of speech.

The current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to outline possible retaliatory measures against Paris in parliament on Tuesday. France has already recognised the killing of the Armenian's as genocide but the new law will mean that anyone denying it faces a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euro's ($57,000).

The Turks have already frozen diplomatic ties with France after the lower house passed the bill last month. The proposed law had been watered down and made more general - outlawing the denial of any genocide - but naturally this failed to appease the Turkish authorities in Ankara.

The current disagreement between France and Turkey may have much to with modern French politics and the current President than historical events. This, while recognising a historical genocide and an injustice, may have more to do with finding an easy way to delay Turkish entry into the EU and also be something that plays well with sympathetic French voters.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012


The efforts by local people and business people in Blaenavon to resist the proposed closure of the HSBC branch (the only bank in the town) on Broad Street, Blaenavon should be supported. They have rightly pointed out that the loss of the bank would be a real blow to Blaenavon, as it would force shoppers elsewhere and taking business away from the town.

Local campaigners have rightly pointed out that there will be an impact on the elderly and vulnerable people, who will now have to travel to the nearest bank in Pontypool, Brynmawr or Abergavenny. HSBC plans to close its Blaenavon branch from May 11th saying that it is no longer commercially viable. The big four bank have been quietly closing their branches across Wales for at well over the last ten years, much to the irritation of their customers. I and other Plaid activists in a number of campaigns in more than a few communities across the Gwent valleys to retain local bank services (in Abersychan and Blaina to name but two) - some have been successful, some have not.

The rot sets in when a local bank has its hours reduced, then it has limited or reduced services and finally it ends up being closed. The banks may talk about commercial viability, but, there are some things you cannot do on-line and some things that people generally prefer to do face to face. Closing the last bank in Blaenavon is a bad idea, as local businesses people have pointed out say the decision could damage or destroy a popular local shopping centre.

An emergency public meeting has been arranged for Thursday night (26th January), and plans are under way to launch a petition. A public meeting at Blaenavon Workingmen’s Hall on Thursday from 6.30 pm to decide the first steps of a campaign. Local campaigners are chasing support from politicians in Cardiff Bay and Westminster in an effort to resist the closure, all power to their elbow.

Friday, 20 January 2012


News that Chepstow based manufacturer Mabey Bridge has won a multi-million pound order to build 35 wind turbine towers for UK sites is good news. The firm has taken on 45 people and transferred 50 more to its factory in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, after the deal with German company Nordex. Some of the towers will go to the Pant-y-Wal wind farm in Rhondda and the rest will go to Scotland. Mabey Bridge created 240 jobs when it opened its £38m factory in Chepstow in May 2011. The firm can produce up to 300 towers a year. The         production of the 120-tonne towers, will begin in mid-February with the factory working around the clock. The turbine towers, for Gilfach Goch in the Rhondda valleys, will be the first made by a Welsh company to be installed in Wales.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


A nice little earner...
The news that the members of the energy cartel plan to cut our domestic energy charges will be warmly welcomed by hard pressed customers. EDF Energy started the ball rolling announcing plans to cut a typical gas bill for UK domestic customers by £38, or around 5%, from 7th February. This move, which affected around 1.4 million customers, followed a sharp fall in the price of wholesale gas over the winter period due to the (so far) relatively mild weather. What was not mentioned was that that EDF ramped up its gas bills by 15.4% last November in response to rising wholesale gas prices. The move was rapidly followed by the others members of the energy cartel (British Gas, Scottish and Southern Electric, etc) fell over each other in their haste to announce pending cuts to domestic gas bills. Oddly enough not all of the energy cartel members (who control over 90% of the domestic market) have yet to mention of any intention to reduce the cost of its domestic electricity bills, the cost of which increased rose by 4.5% last November. As welcome as the promised cuts are it is worth remembering that barely six months ago had the Big Six energy suppliers ramped up their prices by an average of 17% for gas and 10% for electricity.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


If the Unionists want the Union to work then one of the bottom lines has to be fair funding for Wales, we have been net contributors to the central coffers for a few hundred years. The Westminster Government brought in the Beeching rail cuts that decimated the railway network in Wales (thanks for that by the way – that really helped!). Since Beeching we have had an ill-thought out rail privatisation that has not helped when it comes to an integrated rail service.

Since the devolution process began Westminster has retained control of main line rail development, including any proposed electrification of railway lines here in Wales. Its worth noting that the main line from Glasgow to London was electrified in 1974, yet we don’t have a single mile of public electrified railway in Wales. This makes us a member of a fairly grim if exclusive club of European countries that have no electrified railways – the other members being Albania and Moldova.

If we are lucky we might get a bit, as the current plans for electrification of the Great Western Line (which originally intended to stop at Bristol) have been extended to Cardiff (belatedly the last Labour Government extended this to Swansea) before the Con Dems cut back the plan so the line will only be electrified to Cardiff. While this is better than nothing it stills means that main line rail electrification in Wales will remain pretty token, especially as there are currently no plans to electrify the line to Swansea, Carmarthen and further west.

The recent announcement that the Westminster Government plans to push on with the HS2 plan to connect London and Birmingham, with potentially further options for additional connections to Leeds and Manchester (and even Heathrow) is good news for rail users, even if by the time the plans come to fruition most of us will be unable to afford to let the train take the strain. The HS2 is a tidy £33 billion investment in England with scant measurable benefit for Wales, a bit like the Olympic Games even though it is a project that primarily benefits England there should be a ‘Barnett consequential benefit for Wales.

This could mean if fairly applied that would mean over the course of the building of HS2 during the next decade and a half that Wales gets an extra £1.9 billion for transport. That £1.9 billion could ensure that railway services across Wales are improved and that old lines surveyed for potential reopening as well as creating jobs within our communities.

I like to think that David Cameron and the Con Dems will work hard with the Labour Welsh Government in Cardiff to ensure that we don’ lose this opportunity to benefit even indirectly from HS2? Perhaps not!

Sunday, 15 January 2012


If Mrs Thatcher could be described as ‘the blond leading the bland’, then Tony Blair could equally have been described as ‘the brand leading the bland’. New Labour once famously said that it was more than comfortable to spend time in the company of the rich and shameless. Since Blair walked away from it all in June 2007 he has become a very marketable brand. He has done a number of deals which have brought him millions of pounds. Blair is an adviser, both paid and unpaid, to foreign governments (including a few dictators). Apparently he is highly in demand, is pretty well paid public speaker; international business consultant; a philanthropist (who works with two name associated charities and a third charity aiming to improve the lives of Africans.

Blair is also a Middle East peace envoy with an office in Jerusalem and is the author of a best-selling memoir, the proceeds of which he swiftly gave to charity. He is paid around £3 million a year to advise both JP Morgan, the US investment bank, and the Switzerland based global insurer, Zurich International. Not to mention, Tony Blair Associates (his own consultancy firm) which happens to advise the well heeled governments of Kuwait and Kazakhstan. Blair’s enterprises are what can best be described as a confusing mix of philanthropy, politics, and business administered via a complex mix of companies, which operate out of plush offices in Grosvenor Square in Mayfair in central London.

Some digging by the Daily Telegraph (admittedly no lover of Blair in or out of office) reveals that there are two parallel companies both with similar structures. One named Windrush Ventures and one named Firerush Ventures. As per legal requirement, the accounts are duly lodged with Companies House on Dec 30, in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year, they are audited by KPMG and signed off by Catherine Rimmer, one of Windrush venture’s directors. Ms Rimmer, a former Downing Street aide, is officially Mr Blair’s strategic director. Incidentally, Windrush Venture’s highest paid director, presumed to be Ms Rimmer, earns £200,000, according to the accounts.

The accounts show is that in the 12 months to March 31 2011, Windrush Ventures recorded a group turnover of a little over £12 million. In other words, Mr Blair’s management company was being paid £12 million - most of it coming from the secretive Windrush Ventures LP - for “the provision of management services”. The accounts show that about £3 million of it went on office and staffing costs. What happens to the rest of it is not entirely clear. Windrush Ventures employs 26 people with a total wage bill of almost £2.3 million at an average salary of £88,000.

It has office rental costs of £550,00 and a further £300,000 is spent on equipment. With a profit of £1 million - on which he pays tax of £315,000 - that leaves Windrush Ventures with about £8 million of “administrative expenses” unaccounted for. There is no obligation under company law to say what happens to that money. The accounts also show that in the previous year, Windrush ventures received about £8.5 million and paid tax after expenses were deducted of £154,000. That means that in the past two years, Windrush ventures was paid £20 million for management services and paid a total of £470,000 in tax. There is no suggestion that the accounts are anything other than entirely legitimate.

The Daily Telegraph also notes that it is not clear what monies go through Windrush and what income is channelled (for want of a better word)  through Firerush. Blair is apparently tight-lipped about the corporate structure - even going so far as to refusing to say why the companies are so named. There have been reports that Firerush is the structure set up to handle income from Tony Blair Associates, which if true - and on the scale of the Windrush accounts - would suggest the Blair Empire, including his charities, have incomes far beyond what anybody had realised. Firerush’s accounts have only partially been published and reveal little, although fuller accounts are anticipated later in the year.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


Isn't it a little odd that the UK Westminster Government has not so quietly committed itself to spending the best part of £500 million pounds on providing tunnelling for the proposed new High Speed (HS2) railway from London to Birmingham, which happens to go through the constituency of a Cabinet minister. Specifically that of case Cheryl Gillan MP (the Welsh Secretary) and who according to David Cornock (the BBC Parliamentary correspondent for Wales) may well be the bookies favourite for the chop come the next cabinet reshuffle.

Perhaps we should not speak harshly of this Welsh Secretary, who has after all done such a fine job fighting hard to get the electrification of the Great Western Line through the south of our country all the way to Swansea, or was she too busy fighting against the £32 billion pound HS2 in England to fight for railways in Wales? Mind its nice of HMG to spend the best part of £500m on a tunnel to help someone keep their job. An extra £500 million might go a long way on the railways here in Wales. Mind what's £500 million between colleagues?

If the UK is going to seriously spend big money on railways there were some slightly better options than this; they could have plugged HS2 into St Pancras which would have enabled through trains to and from the European mainland. To be honest St Pancras is actually part of the problem, a visible symbol of the so called Metropolitan mindset – it would have made more sense to develop HST capable railways to the south and west of London – that way it might (with some vision) have been possible to run through trains from the rest of these islands to and from the mainland both directly and overnight, now there's a thought?

The HS2 plan intends initially to connect London and Birmingham, with potentially further options for additional connections to Leeds and Manchester and even a possible spur to Heathrow – this should perhaps be considered to be the phase 2 of the current scheme. The question is whether or not we will ever see a Phase 3 or HS3? If so and if the Governments of these islands are serious about high speed rail then any such plan should be for the new network to continue north to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there should also be an option to build westward past Heathrow to Cardiff and Bristol.

Wales (and Scotland to a lesser degree) runs the real risk of being left behind at a time when developing reliable high speed rail transport is becoming increasingly seen as the norm and as a real green alternative to short haul flights. Perhaps leaving Wales behind (and Scotland independent?) is indirectly part of the plan, if you step back and take the long view, working on the assumption that HS2 is actually built, what we are talking about (potentially for the first time) is significantly improving the rail network on an England level rather than at a UK level.

Friday, 13 January 2012


Recent visits by Hilary Clinton and William Hague to Burma and the support shown to Aung San Suu Kyi and the democrats should hopefully help Burma make the transition back to democracy. As Burma makes its slow transition from military rule towards democracy, some unfinished business is also being concluded. One may suspect that one thing that William Hague did not raise in his discussions with the Burmese Government (dictatorship) was the issue of Karen autonomy. News that the government of Burma has signed a ceasefire deal with Karen National Union is obviously good news.

While details of the agreement (as noted by the BBC) with the Karen National Union remain unclear apparently the two sides held talks in Hpa-an, the capital of eastern Karen state. The Karen people have been fighting for greater autonomy (founded in 1947) for over sixty years, since they were betrayed by the British Government as Burma became an independent state. The Karen people bravely and consistently supported the Allies in the fight against Japan throughout the second world war, and paid a heavy price for their actions. The British promised to consider the case of the Karen after the war was over, they did not, abandoning them to years of repression by the Burmese Authorities.

The international community has repeated calls for Burma to free more dissidents as part of the process of democratisation. Several high-profile dissidents have been released in Burma in a series of prisoner amnesties. Amongst those freed are Min Ko Naing, one of the leaders of a failed pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and the former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, detained in a purge in 2004, freed from house arrest. Burmese State TV has announced that 651 prisoners will be released with a new presidential pardon, but did detail how many of them would be political prisoners.

Thursday, 12 January 2012


News that the local Government minister, Carl Sargeant, has announced that the Abergavenny Improvement Acts (1854 – 1871) are to be repealed is bad news. The removal of these old laws, that ensured that a livestock market be held within Abergavenny, may finally open the door to the building of a supermarket on the site of the current livestock market. This move has long been obsessively championed by Monmouthshire County Council, who will benefit financially from the disposal of site of the livestock market.

Carl Sargeant’s decision while not necessarily the final nail in the coffin of the current livestock market, certainly does not help local people and campaigners, who have been resisting the loss of the livestock market for a number of years. The Welsh Government has over the years seriously failed the people of Abergavenny and the surrounding area and has entirely missed the important issues raised by the protesters.

Conservative dominated Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) desire to dispose of the cattle market site (and the Cattle Market) in Abergavenny to boost the local authorities coffers had come up against the original parliamentary legislation (dating for the 19th century) which give Abergavenny the legal right to hold a market within the town. MCC has long struggled to balance the books for many years having suffered from poor financial settlements over the years, is seeking to dispose of its assets for short term financial gain.

In retrospect MCC should have grasped the opportunity to get things right when it came to planning the long term economic future of Abergavenny - they simply chose not to. The repeated failure to work with concerned local residents, farmers and small businesses to ensure that Abergavenny retains its Cattle Market and it’s fundamentally unique character as a market town, is profoundly depressing.

Across Monmouthshire (and elsewhere in Wales) we have seen the detrimental economic effects on the local economies in both Chepstow and Monmouth (to name but two) of ill-thought out redevelopment schemes. The retention of the cattle market in Abergavenny and potential redevelopment of the unused portion of the site presented a real opportunity to do something different, something that could have addressed environmental and economic concerns.

For some years Welsh Government Ministers (under Section 77 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) have the power to call in any applications for planning permission for their own determination, something that clearly needed to be done in this specific case. That they have in this case consistently chosen not to do this despite the strength of the case and the importance of the issues raised should raise some serious concerns about the quality of advice given to ministers and the support they get form the civil service, if nothing else.

While I recognise that there is a tendency to consider that development proposals are best dealt with by planning authorities that know their area, its needs and sensitivities, it is pretty that in the case the National Assembly has missed the point entirely. The issues and concerns raised about redevelopment, its economic impact and the lack of impartiality in the planning process are not only important locally, they have a wider relevance across Wales.

The whole sorry process raised issues of more than local importance, issues which are in conflict with national planning policies; issues which will have wide effects beyond their immediate locality; and may give rise to substantial controversy beyond the immediate locality. And that is aside from the significant impact on sites of scientific, nature conservation or historic interest or areas of landscape importance within Abergavenny.

One thing that is clear is that our planning laws are clearly in need of a serious revamp, especially when one of the key beneficiaries (Conservative run Monmouthshire County Council) effectively ran the whole planning process as effective judge, jury (and jury selector), executioner and main financial beneficiary. The effective silence and virtual invisibility of locally elected National Assembly and Westminster representatives on what is (and has been for a number of years) a key local issue is also worthy of note.

Having fought three elections in Monmouth constituency (between 1005 and 2010) I can say that the opposition of the loss of the livestock market has never been about nimbyism, people in and around Abergavenny have never been opposed to balanced well thought out development. The implications of the redevelopment of Abergavenny and its cattle market is one of those cases where there was a real a pressing need to call in the proposed development, yet the Welsh Government and its Ministers (consistently) failed to step up to the mark for the people of Abergavenny.

Perhaps the reason for the failure is down to a combination of poor advice from civil servants to ministers, or a marked indifference on the part of elected representatives of Labour in Wales to any other parts of Wales that fall outside what they perceive as their territory. Whatever the reason, this is a bad decision, one that could have a significant and profound lasting economic impact on the town of Abergavenny and its surrounding area in future years.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012


It's an interesting fact but there are more Panda's in Scotland than Conservative MP's
David Cameron's ill-advised attempt to try to interfere with the timetabling and the question for the Scottish referendum on independence may yet come back and bite him. It's all pretty simple really, Cameron seems to have (deliberately) missed the point, the bottom line is that Scotland’s future should be decided by the Scottish people (and the Scottish Government) Cameron's intervention is ill-advised and must surely add a few more votes to the growing pile of potential ‘Yes’ votes.

From where I am sat Cameron begins more and more to resemble the fictional public school bully Flashman every day. Certainly this ill-judged intervention seems to suggest that he has displayed about as much tact and judgement as the fictional Flashman. To be fair wrapping his government in the flag and stirring up a hornets nest over Scotland’s position in the UK with plenty of emotive language is classic distraction; which no doubt (hopefully) will distract peoples attention away from and the floundering Con Dem’s governments and the state of the economy.

Oddly enough I have no problem with Scotland resuming its place amongst the other nations of the world. I am sympathetic to Scottish ambitions, and hope that my own country begins to wake up and see the opportunities that independence can bring. The reality is what happens in Scotland is actually none of my business; it's simply a matter for the Scottish people. Cameron honestly does not seem to get it (or perhaps he does) his intervention while not unexpected is still rather surreal and hopefully pointless.

There are a few things that it's worth noting, one being that Cameron has less influence in Scotland than any Conservative leader in the last 150 years, he certainly presses all the wrong buttons with the Scottish electorate. Additionally after at least three re-launches (and re-branding exercises) the Conservatives in Scotland have gone nowhere. It's also worth noting that there are more live Pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MP’s and a much better chance of more Pandas in future years.

Sunday, 8 January 2012


The Night Watch (Rembrandt)
The oft iffy relationship between law enforcement and the modern day inhabitants of Grub (Fleet) Street and alcohol is probably as old as law enforcement itself. Making yourself look good, presenting a coherent managed image and ensuring that it gets distributed via the media probably itself dates back to the days of Julius Caesar. He was the probable inventor and first practitioner of serious spin in its modern form and a dedicated practitioner of managed news.

So the news that alcohol is firmly off the agenda from any meetings between the police and journalists may lead to the shedding of more than a few tears of regret and leave a few people weak at the knees. This follows the not particularly surprising revelation (in a report by Elizabeth Filkin) that the close relationship between parts of Scotland Yard and the media has caused "serious harm".

And that information has been (in the past) given "inappropriately" to the press. The report went on to suggest that these nefarious activities had "compromised" the way police and the media scrutinised each others activities. New rules for officers about relationships with journalists would be brought in. Since the dark days of the 1970's the Metropolitan Police has been a dedicated practitioner of the managing its image, and to building useful working relationships with selected crime journalists and other members of the press.

Part of this is about managing the news and part of it about using the press to flush out information from members of the public in relation to particular enquiries and investigation. That's actually fine and practical, it's when the relationship moves beyond that to a cosy cash fuelled (in some quarters) one, where bad news is buried when it becomes truly iffy if not criminal.

There is a world of difference between an active free press (the traditional fourth estate) and a well managed press. Long gone (thanks to News International in part) are the days when the Independent could refer to the Metropolitan Police PR machine as the "mean machine". Now that alcohol and flirting are on the way out, its only a matter of time before the Christmas Party is cancelled.

Friday, 6 January 2012


There is much in the old adage that you don’t chose your football club it chooses you. I have been a long time football fan ever since as a small (and impressionable) child I saw Newport County win three games in a row and put West Ham United out of the FA Cup. That was enough and I have been a supporter ever since, through thick and thin, rain and shine, promotion, relegation, bankruptcy, and rebirth, and even two periods of exile, one of which paralleled my own personal economic exile in London (between 1991 and 1998).

Coming home in a sporting sense as well as an economic sense in 1998 meant that I could watch the County more regularly and as some might say further hone my football related disorder. Since 1998 there have been highs - Blackpool in the FA Cup, Cardiff City (at Spyty and at Ninian), Swansea City and Wrecsam in the old FAW Premier Cup, and promotion with Dean Holdsworth. There have been lows – let us never speak of Caernarfon Town in the FAW Premier Cup (unless you support Caernarfon Town at least), or Bangor and Merthyr in the old Welsh Cup and Bath City away on Tuesday evening last (and so far in truth much of the current season).

I had a good Christmas with families, friends and loved ones, but, what I would have wanted most as Christmas present was three (precious) points). In my heart of hearts, when it comes to both politics and football despite everything I remain an optimist and firmly believe that Justin Edinburgh can save us from relegation (although it won't be easy). Avoiding relegation aside my one hope is that the club wakes up and takes seriously the sporting opportunity that is our participation in this seasons Welsh Cup.

One belated Christmas present that did arrive was Swansea City’s first away win – which was a long time coming – but which will soon hopefully to be followed by a few more. Cardiff City also seem to have got themselves back on form with a few back to back wins. And Wrecsam’s form continues to shine as they sit on top of the Blue Square Premier (County had enough opportunities to win the game outright, rather than draw, when they played up in Wrecsam earlier this season).

Tribalism aside I want success for the other Welsh football clubs (and Welsh football period). I want to see Swansea City stay in the Premiership, and Cardiff City join them (preferably not via the play-offs) in the Premiership next season. I not only want to see Newport County avoid the drop (and at a push finish the season mid table) but also want to see Wrecsam promoted as Champions from the Blue Square Conference this season. I also hope that Colwyn Bay can make the play-offs from Blue Square North and see no reason why Merthyr Town can also not get promoted this season.

Sporting success (or even competence) on the field is difficult enough but made more difficult by the economic situation, which hits costs and attendances. What would be nice would be better all round media coverage for Welsh football (outside of the Premiership and the Championship) for the rest of us. S4c’s Sgorio does an excellent job on Monday evenings but the BBC could do better. Better if not improved balanced more detailed coverage would be good for the game in general and the clubs specifically.

Here's hoping that the second half of the County's season is better than the first half and everybody else's is as good as the first half of their season was. My sporting optimism goes beyond the round ball game to rugby and I am ever hopeful (being a season ticket holder) that the Gwent Dragons (“Try not to pass the ball to opposition players and try to kick it between the posts, rather than past them”’) and Newport RFC will turn the corner between now and the end of the season.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


While I have no problem with the public sector workers recent strike action in defence of their Pension rights, and fully support the right to withdraw ones labour in the event of dispute, I have become entirely disillusioned with Unison. Part of the problems is that Unison is so monolithic that is straddles far too many diverse sections of the world of work, and part of the problem is Unison's pointless relationship with the Labour Party.

Now don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe in Trade Union's but equally firmly believe that the old historic relationship between the Trade Union movement and the Labour Party was always one sided but is now pretty pointless. The relationship always in reality revolved around finance – the Trade Unions had it and the Labour Party lacked it and wanted it.

The relationship between the Trade Unions and the Labour Party was important but occasionally frosty at least until Blair (and successors) opened up a whole new relationship between Labour and the City. The Labour Party last seriously (and erroneously) listened to the Trade Unions in the late 1960’s when it bottled it when they watered down the ‘In Place of Strife’ White Paper in the late 1960’s.

This White Paper would have brought in secret ballots before every strike; a cooling off period of 28 days before big strikes; collective bargaining with legally binding results; a new Industrial Relations Court and penal sanctions to force unions to comply. Had Barbara Castle and her colleagues pushed their proposed legislation through then some rationality would have been brought to the world of industrial relations. And this years before Mr’s Thatcher ever appeared on the scene and the worst undemocratic excesses of the old Trade Union movement would have been curbed.

Ever since then and despite the spin put on it by the Trade Unions, the Labour Leadership has basically walked the walk, talked the talk, taken the money and delivered little if anything to the Trade Union movement and its leaders. The Blair years should have in all seriousness killed off any Trade Union interest or involvement in prolonging a dead relationship with the Labour Party.

The fact that this has not happened, is largely down to the permanent presence of Labour Party members (especially at higher levels) and activists within the Trade Union movement, than any realistic chance of extracting any benefits for their members. Whereas once the Labour Party was the political wing of the Trade Unions, the relationship has now been reversed and the Trade Unions have been taken over and are largely run for the benefit of the Labour Party rather than their own members.

Obviously this convenient arrangement works well for the Labour Party who when in government quietly started most of the plans (i.e. The Passport Office and the Forensic Science Service to name but two) to make cost savings (at the expense of jobs) with minimal resistance from their card carrying stooges within the Trade Unions. Yet when the cost saving measures came to fruition under the Con Dems the reaction from the Labour dominated Trade Union leadership was entirely different.

In some parts of Wales the Trade Unions are blatantly sectarian with leadership positions at certain levels being almost entirely dominated by Labour members. These Union officers are quite happy prevent hard working Plaid AM's from addressing rallies against job and pension cuts in Swansea and elsewhere.

It's time for Trade Unions to wise up and de-Labourise their senior officers, cease any financial contributions to the Labour Party and to concentrate on fighting for the interests of their members. I think that elected and salaried Trade Union officials should not be card carrying members of any political parties.

On personal basis I have reached and passed the point of no return when it comes to Unison. Just before Christmas I finally severed that bond (along with a few work colleagues) once and for all. I am still a Trade Unionist and still think that Trade Unions are important in the workplace, but, firmly believe that the links with the Labour Party need to be severed.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012


One judge of character is how you behave when called to make a stand for your friends when they are in trouble. I mention this because oddly enough the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has done some digging that may shed a slightly different perspective on David Cameron's decision to stand up for the City of London, rather than the rest of us. Now it turns out that some of the city of London's biggest banks happen to be involved (or at least behind) some large scale tax avoidance top slicing European countries of some hundreds of millions of Euro's a year. This investigative journalism may go some way to shedding some fresh light on David Cameron's decision to wield Britain's EU veto to protect the Square Mile (and no doubt some of his mates).

Tuesday, 3 January 2012


On January 1st tolls for cars on the Severn bridges rose to £6, vans and small buses now pay £12.10 and heavy goods vehicles and coaches now pay £18.10. This is an effective and very lucrative private tax on jobs and business which impacts on both sides of the estuary. This side of the water, New Labour’s Westminster sheep persistently bleated (between 1997 and 2010) that nothing could be done to stabilise the tolls! Yet the last New Labour Government happily intervened in October 2009 in relation to the Humber Bridge. The Humber Bridge tolls (each way) are set at £3 for cars and up to £20.30 for an articulated lorries. The current Con Dem chancellor has publicly stated that he will write down the outstanding debt on the Humber crossing by £150m which would cuts the tolls by half. Here in Wales, all we get is a pledge to work with the Welsh (‘Labour in waiting mode’) government to improve the M4 in south east Wales - which will do little to reduce or stabilise the Severn Bridge tolls. Do you ever get the feeling that we are second class citizens of this union?