Wednesday, 29 February 2012


Plaid’s right with its call for the management of Welsh railways to be put in the hands of a 'not for distributable profit' company when the current franchise contract with Arriva Trains Wales ends in 2018. In challenging times our country needs real leadership not lethargy, we need ambitious solutions to our problems, not make do and mend, if we are to make Wales the successful nation that it can be.

At a time when people are looking for an alternative to the car due to high fuel prices we have a situation where near continual hikes in rail fares (which just happen to boost rail company profits) mean that more and more people are finding rail travel unaffordable as well. Simple common sense suggests that we need to change the way the franchise system works here in Wales.

Plaid proposed to put Welsh railways into the hands of a ‘not for profit’ company back in November 2010 before the 2011 Welsh General Election campaign. If the current Welsh Labour government is serious about doing this then most of the preparation work for the re-franchising needs to be undertaken during the current Assembly term, so that there is sufficient planning time to develop a delivery model that is better suited to the needs of the people in Wales.

The Plaid Cymru plans would also mean that, in creating a not-for-distributable-profit organisation to run Welsh railways, more money could be made available to invest in rail services. This money could be invested directly to create more frequent services in the South Wales valleys, more frequent journeys to West Wales and on the Cambrian line, as well as additional services between the north and south of Wales. This could also mean more investment in new rolling stock to help keep pace with increasing passenger demand.

Now even though we are in difficult economic times, the Welsh government should be prepared to take radical and innovative action in order to get the best deal for the people of Wales. Sitting back and doing nothing is not an option, as rail fares in Wales continue to rise by as much as 11% while so many people are struggling to cope financially. If you are going to spend public money it is important to work it extra hard. At time when we have shrinking public sector budgets it is extra important that the Welsh government gets the best possible value for money out of every penny of public funds.

The Welsh government needs to wake up and to step up to the mark and use the excellent example of how a ‘not-for-profit’ company, Glas Cymru, can operate as the model to ensure the delivery of our nations rail services. There is absolutely no reason why train services here in Wales could not be run by a company with a similar not-for profit model, with a board containing representation from the Welsh government, experts from the fields of integrated transport, customer service, accessibility, rail projects and finance.

We need long term benefits not short term solutions, the creation of a not for profit rail franchise would deliver long term benefits for the economy of Wales and help to tackle climate change. When it comes to improving infrastructure, rail, is crucial to the sustainable development of the Welsh economy. An all Wales not for profit rail franchise could be a further step toward creating a national transport system for Wales, beginning to integrate all modes of public transport under one ticketing scheme similar, as is used in the Transport for London model.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012


PM David Cameron
I'm shocked, shocked to find that tax evasion is going on in here!
News that Barclays Bank has been ordered by the Treasury to pay half-a-billion pounds in tax it tried to avoid paying will be welcomed by many of us. The bank was accused by HM Revenue and Customs of designing and using two schemes that were intended to avoid substantial amounts of tax. The Con Dem Government has taken the unusual step of rapidly introducing retrospective legislation to end such "aggressive tax avoidance" by financial institutions. Apparently the authorities were alerted to the loopholes in the law by Barclays itself. The bank, which has not been named officially by the government, but named by the Daily Telegraph and the BBC) is the target of HMRC's crackdown. The Con Dem Government has closed the schemes to retrieve £500m of lost tax and safeguard payments of billions of more tax in the future. The Daily Telegraph understands that other major banks also tried to use the same schemes to avoid paying a total of £500m in tax. While its makes a pleasant change, I don’t think that this is an attempt to ensure that we are all in it together, merely a consequence of some pretty blatant and in your face tax evasion that even the Con Dems could not ignore it...

Monday, 27 February 2012


The Westminster Welsh Affairs Committee is correct when it says that Wales was ‘slow to adapt’ to changes in the international market for overseas investment. There is much truth in the Committee's labelling of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as a ’golden age’ for attracting foreign business investment thanks to a combination of grants, land and relatively cheap labour costs.

The Committee is also correct to say that successive governments reacted far too slowly to new emerging challenges from Eastern Europe and more distant competitors. Wales paid the price for that complacency as between 1998 and 2008, some 171 foreign-owned sites closed, with the loss of 31,000 jobs, mainly in the manufacturing sector.

The economic development model as practised by the Westminster Government (and the Welsh Office) well before 1997 and by the Welsh Government before 2007) was fundamentally flawed at a very basic level – it was short term and fundamentally dependent upon a combination of relatively cheap labour and other inducements that could never compete on a truly level playing field.

For too many years economic development (from the 1950's onwards) was focused on one-off large scale developments - what can be best described a single egg solutions, which promised much and deliver significantly less. The assumption, not entirely incorrect, may have been that other smaller business would develop supply materials, goods and services to the primary larger employer – this happened in part, Llanwern Steel works being a reasonably good example.

The problem was that if the larger industry suffered a downturn or caught cold then the smaller firms would suffer with varying symptoms of pneumonia. The focus should have been on developing small to medium size local businesses, which are significantly less likely to up sticks and leave for perceived greener pastures and fresh applications of development grants and also trade with each other and other local firms.

The LG development near Newport, was a good example of this - promising the usual total of 6,000 jobs – it accrued significant public funding (committed by the then Welsh Secretary, William Hague) yet never delivered anything like what was promised. Most economists (even Conservative ones) should have had serious concerns about the state of the Korean and the Far Eastern economies and a basic understanding of where technological developments in relation to PC monitor screens were going, enabling them to say hang on a moment.

A combination of fantasy island economic assessments, a fatally flawed business case and a forthcoming Westminster election led to one of the spectacularly duller decisions of recent years being made, something that ended up costing us millions of pounds worth of public money. The old WDA has in truth not really consistently delivered anything like long term economic stability and much needed long term job opportunities to our communities that it should have done considering the amounts poured into it..

European funding opportunities has been seriously squandered, where are the physical assets, by which I mean the things you can literally put your hand on like improved communications (rail and road), broadband infrastructure, etc - that bring long term benefits to our communities. How much money has been scammed (and scammed may be the key word) into dubious training programmes and questionable educations programmes that fail to deliver the necessary skills that workers and potential workers need to make a decent living in the modern economy?

What was called in some circles the Plaid driven One Wales Government (2007 – 2011) at least made significant efforts to think and act differently when it comes to economic development and support for small to medium sized enterprises. Simply going out to attract branch factory operations for a relatively short term period does not help develop our economy it merely seeks to repeat the mistakes of the recent past, but, of course Labour (New or Old) is far happier living in the past than in Wales.

Thursday, 23 February 2012


Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik
The apparent deliberate killing of two Western reporters in the besieged city of Homs and reported deaths of some 60 people across Syria has triggered more Western anger towards the repressive Damascus government. Sunday Times reporter Marie Colvin, an American, and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed by shelling by Syria's government forces. Colvin, 56, and Ochlik, 28, were reportedly staying in a house in Homs' area of Baba Amr that was being used by activists as a media centre when it was hit by a shell on Wednesday morning. At least two other foreign journalists were wounded. Marie Colvin, filed her last copy for last Sunday’s Sunday Times, it is a powerful piece of war reporting, and exposes the harsh reality of what is going on in Homs (and other parts of Syria). We can certainly not say that we don’t know what is going on, the question is twofold – how much longer will we tolerate it and what can we do?

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


In the end it always comes down to the land, Who owns it? Who farms it? And who lives on it? Or who makes a living from it? Since Humans have been living in relatively settled communities land has been bought, sold and stolen fuelling grievances both real and imaginary. What is a relatively new in recent years is that land deals have become a new form of international trade. In recent years, sub Saharan Africa has been the public focus for this trade (the reality is that is been going on around the world for many years). A combination of commercial companies and the various commercial arms of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been chasing profits (and land) in Africa pursing profits and (in the case of the PRC) foodstuffs for the world (and the Chinese) market.

Between 2008 and 2009 the World Bank noted media reports of land deals that added up to something like 60 million hectares. The traditional UK media unit of measurement, Wales, won't help to illustrate the scale of the issue, that all adds up to something like the land equivalent to the Ukraine – some two-thirds of the land acquired happens to be in Africa. The evidence points to the fact that land deals are taking place on an unprecedented scale and at an increasing rate. Some of the specific land deals are pretty big, a recent deal in Liberia involved some 220,000 hectares.

The western media has tended to focus on the land deals signed by Middle Eastern and Asian government-backed operators but in reality Western commercial companies and Hedge Funds have also been heavily involved in the process – they don’t like the glare of publicity. One of the reasons why commercial companies are seeking to acquire land is because there is potentially big money to be made with cash crops as world food and commodity prices are expected to increase because of increasing demand for foodstuffs and also bio-fuels from China and India. Some of this is being driven by governments who are chasing land acquisitions abroad as a way to secure affordable food for their people at home.

In 1961 at or on the edge of independence Africa largely fed itself and even managed to export surplus crops. This is no longer the case, partially due to a neglect of the agricultural sector in many African countries, political instability, corruption and a chronic lack of investment to improve productivity and the means of getting surplus crops to both local and international markets. It goes without saying that not all types of investment is good and evidence is beginning to pile up that suggests that large scale land deals have a detrimental impact on indigenous local farmers.

Research by the International Land Coalition suggests that a growing number of these large scale land deals are failing due to a combination of poor soil types, financial problems, local resistance and unrealistic business plans. Some of these land acquisitions have resulted in some pretty raw deals for local people and as a consequence have fuelled dissent and resistance (in Ethiopia and Madagascar to name but two).

Now this does not mean that African states and peoples should steer clear of all land deals. What is needed is for land deals to be implemented properly, transparently, with safeguards for local people and local involvement. Some of the world's poorest people are losing the land, water and natural resources that have supported their livelihoods and their communities for generations. In Uganda, Oxfam has noted that some 20,000 people who claim to have been evicted from their land have taken their case to court seeking redress.

Part of the problem is because of the massive power imbalance between multinational companies, African governments and local farmers and landholders. Many of these land deals are negotiated behind closed doors without transparency, without local consultation something which fuels local dissent and anger. Across much of Sub Saharan Africa, as noted by the International Institute for Environment and Development, there is lack of secure land tenure which affects local farmers, herders and gatherers. This is partially down to a lack of written documentation and also because a great deal of land is owned by the state, which can obviously allocate it to outside investors even against fierce local opposition.

There are some pretty successful business models out there that show what can be done by local people, one co-operative of 60,000 cocoa farmers (in Ghana) has been in business for almost twenty years and owns 45% of a UK company that manufactures and distributes chocolate. There are ways to improve productivity and market access that can support local farmers or at least give them a realistic chance of competing.

Many international companies are able to successfully source agricultural produce from local family farmers, and have invested in other activities along the production line to help secure their supplies and improve local livelihoods. Some farmers associations (in Mali and Zambia) own shares in the company they collaborate with, which gives them monetary benefits and a greater say. Co-operatives have reduced their costs by working with large numbers of farmers.

Some land deals could bring many benefits including increased food production; access to improved agricultural skills, secure land tenure for indigenous farmers and more sustainable development in rural communities. This is something that could help to slow one of sub Saharan Africa's greatest problems rural to urban migration. Civic groups in sub Saharan Africa are demanding far greater transparency and openness from their governments and from investors. If this is done right then local indigenous communities can be helped to become equal partners rather than ending up as victims.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


There may be some signs the Labour in Wales is finally waking from its self induced slumber? First Minister Carwyn Jones claimed that Wales is losing out on jobs and investment because it lacks the same powers over renewable energy enjoyed by Scotland. He has called for control of energy projects up to 100MW to be devolved to Wales.

Now I have no problem with that, it is worth noting that when Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards (31.01.2012) introduced a bill in Westminster which would have given the Welsh Government powers over energy generation in Wales – something both Labour and the Conservatives included in their respective Welsh general election manifesto's last year - its clear that Labour in Wales’s Westminster representatives were not prepared to play ball.

Mr Edwards argued not unreasonably that the proposal would lead to equality with Scotland and Northern Ireland and that it would mean that we would be better placed to fight fuel poverty with responsibility for our own resources. This entirely reasonable proposal was voted down by Labour MPs, who were more than happy to team up with Conservatives MPs to stop their own party in Wales taking these powers. The proposal was defeated by 239 votes to 44 after Labour and Conservative MPs teamed up against the Bill.

Waking up for Wales perhaps not? Carwyn is on record as saying that he wants decision-making powers for renewable energy developments up to 100MW to be devolved to Wales. So what about any projects that come in over the magic 100MW figure? That according to Carwyn's logic would get decided upon in London by Conservative / Lib Dem Ministers.

Now oddly enough this position may not quite be as ill-thought out as it first appears as it would mean that all of Wales' offshore wind farms, large-scale tidal developments (including any proposed re-badged Severn Barrage) and some of the biomass plant proposals that are floating about would all be excluded. Obviously from a developmental, strategic or practical point of view this is complete nonsense.

Anything for a quiet life and nothing controversial to disturb ones sleep perhaps? And anyway as Labour in Wales representatives in Westminster are totally opposed to any plans to devolve more powers to the National Assembly anyway perhaps this is the ideal solution to the problem as it puts party interest before the national one? Perhaps Carwyn hopes that no one will notice...

Monday, 20 February 2012


News that one of the 'Big Six' is due to announce a raise in profits at a time when many people are trying to avoid or to live with fuel poverty is never going to go down well with hard presser domestic energy customers. On Thursday Centrica (who own British Gas)are expected to reveal a group operating profit of £2.5 billion pounds, up four percent on 2010.

This unfortunately timed announcement comes against a backdrop of growing fuel poverty, which affects around 5.5 million households in the UK. Fuel poverty is defined as being when a household spends more than ten percent of their disposable income on gas and electricity. Fuel poverty is one of those things that the previous (and former) New Labour Government and the current Con Dem Government have done nothing about.

Nothing has been done or will be done to curb or regulate excessive profits from the energy companies via windfall tax. The talk about customers benefiting from dual fuel bills, etc, is mere distraction. What we have here is a dual political failure that speaks volumes as to how far both the former New Labour Government and the Conservatives (and their Lib Dem coat holders) have gone to drop even the pretence of standing up for the interests of ordinary people in favour of courting the City.

For growing numbers of ordinary people this winter it has come down to a choice of heat or eat, literally choosing between putting food on the table and heating their home. The only winners here are HM Government (with extra tax)and the big six energy companies (with fat profits) all of us as customers are losing hand over fist as the energy cartel ramps up its profits - I have not doubt over coming months that the rest of them perhaps slightly shamefaced (or perhaps not) will ever so quietly announce their profits as well.

Sunday, 19 February 2012


David Cameron
It would be far easy to dismiss David Cameron's emotive intervention into the Scottish referendum campaign as mere twaddle, designed to bully, frighten and patronise the Scottish people into voting No. It would be easy to dismiss him (and the Westminster Tories and their former New Labour and Lib Dem Unionist little helpers) an irrelevance, especially after the hammering they suffered in the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011). Personally, although the independence of Scotland is not my direct concern, I would read Cameron's remarks as a warning shot about the pitch the Unionists are going to make.

Cameron's first problem is that he actually believes it, the Union he is waffling on about is long dead, the state is ceasing to serve or deliver for large numbers of people in Wales, as far as I can seen Scotland politics is now fundamentally different as are Scotland priorities and perhaps the Scottish peoples perception of their place in Europe and a wider world. The harsh reality is that behind Cameron's sentimental pitch lies a desperate need for Scotland's oil - the Conservatives wasted millions (if not billions) in the 1980's funding tax cuts for the rich and subsidising the disposal of state assets to their friends in the City.

The pre Thatcher Labour Government did nothing to establish a wealth fund in which to store future anticipated tax revenues from the North Sea (as was the case in Norway and may soon be the case in Scotland). The Conservatives under Thatcher and Major just blew the money looking after their own vested interests, New Labour under Blair and Brown did nothing to change the situation and opportunities were wasted. Given a logical non emotive rational debate, freely reported in the media (and here I include the BBC which no doubt will struggle to hide its bias)then we cold be in for an interesting debate.

Cameron's second problem is that we no longer live in the 17th and 18th centuries. The once perceived political necessities of curbing the divine right of kings, protecting Imperial trade, controlling Ireland and Scotland for historic strategic reasons and conceding the City (and its interests) a free hand in world trade are all history. The Empire is long gone, and any real perception (outside of the pages of the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Express and the Sun and some parts of the Conservative Party and UKIP) that the UK remains a real power and influence in the world died quietly at Suez in 1956.

In Cameron's remarks I do detect a combination of arrogance, ignorance and  a lack of understanding of how the Union has actually worked and a basic understanding of how states actually work. Over time, peoples have combined, been conquered, formed, reformed, participated in and benefited from the existence of states, many of whom have been multi ethnic in nature. During the same period peoples have left failing states, established new states and re-established old states. It's actually part of the Human condition that's what we do.

The Union (as is) is no longer working, it is not delivering basic economic opportunities to people as individuals or as communities across significant parts of Wales (and Scotland). So simply appealing to emotive sentiment and arose tinted vision of what is effectively a long dead vision of the past won't do and just won't work. None of us can live of nostalgia, it won't butter any bread let alone buy any. I think at we are in for an interesting few years as the debate on Scotland's future develops. Personally I think that the Scottish Government should call in international observers for the referendum to ensure that poll is a free and fair vote and any Unionist skulduggery or interference in the democratic process can be avoided.

Friday, 17 February 2012


Before the last Westminster General election in May 2010 there was much talk (even from the Conservatives) of the need for a Supermarket (and even a Milk) Ombudsman, and a pressing need for votes, since then there has been an effective silence from Westminster. One view from this side of the bridge that may be increasingly shared is that the Supermarkets bought their tame politicos in the Westminster village (well before the Political Parties and Referendum Act 2000 came in) so they can continue to aggressively pursue ever greater shares of the profit with minimal regulation.

At present one litre carton of full-fat, non-organic milk can cost around 65p (01.02.2012 figures). From this a farmer got between 21p and 28p. Production costs come in at around 28p. Over the last ten years two thirds of dairy farmers in England and Wales have gone out of business, that it is estimated works out as one dairy farmer leaving the industry every day. The situation has not got any easier for the farmers or the consumers, especially as we now have to factor in increased transport and production (fuel) costs.

When it comes to a fair deal the current milk prices make grim reading as the shelf price for four pints has remained largely static at around £1.27 for 4 pints since February 2011, and widespread promotions continue to be offered on liquid milk in May with Sainsbury’s and Asda offering 2 x 4 pints for £2.00 and Tesco offering 3 x 4 pints for £3.00. Supermarkets are also widely offering branded and organic milk on promotion – guess who takes the hit for cost cutting – the farmers!

DEFRA's annual data showed that the average UK farmgate price (Defra, stood at 29.27ppl at the end of January 2012. The GB average price was 29.38ppl in November 2011, 0.29ppl (1.0%) higher than the previous month and up 3.44ppl (13.3%) compared with November 2010. The Northern Ireland (NI) average for November was up slightly, to 28.76ppl, an increase of 0.20ppl (0.7%) compared with October and 1.07ppl (3.9%) more than the previous year.

What's happening is that we are in the process of losing a critical mass of milk suppliers (something the NFU is only too aware of) and UK farmers are no longer in a position where they can supply the UK's “core milk requirement” which is around some 13 billion litres per year (2010 figures). In 2009 / 2010 year there was a 15 percent drop in UK Milk prices. It is no coincidence that over the last 10 years that Supermarkets’ margins (e.g. the amount of the price they take) on milk have doubled.

Now with a trend for both the processor and retailer to be the same, we have a situation where they take over three quarters of the price of a pint. We have now reached the situation where in a land renowned for Dairy farming and where even though the price of our milk is cheap, we are now become a net importer of milk.

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

The banks (pre Mrs T) fell over themselves throwing credit at our farmers to encourage them to (as per Government and the EU policy) to expand their production. Mrs T’s particular brand of Conservatism was never that interested in farming, they were far more enamoured by the iffy money men in the City, so did nothing to prevent the imposition of Milk quotas (or their consequences) the bad times had begun for our Dairy farmers and oddly enough the banks stopped calling with offers of cheap credit.

As consumers we also have to take a share of the blame because we allowed all of these things to happen, if we want quality milk and dairy products (that are produced in these islands from UK milk) then we will have to change the way we buy, if we do that then out farmers will get a better deal. I think that there is little point in hoping that the Con Dem Government will get its act together, wake up and pull the fat (or the milk) out of the fire...because they won't.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Newport County v Bath City
The decision to move the Newport County v Wrecsam game to the evening of Friday 16th March (and possibly to Rodney Parade) to avoid an unnecessary clash with the Wales v France game on the Saturday shows what can be achieved with the application of a little commons sense and practical thinking. Its just a pity that some common sense cannot be exercised when it comes to arranging fixtures in the RaboDirect Pro12 – why on earth some of the Welsh regions ended up playing fixtures against Scottish sides, when Wales and Scotland were playing in Cardiff escapes me.

This is something that was raised by Rick O'Shea on the alternative commentary of the Glasgow v Scarlets game (which was played in Scotland) last Thursday evening, amongst others. Surely it should not be that difficult to plan it so that teams play corresponding fixtures with either Scottish, Irish or Italian sides in and around the Six Nations. When I buy my Newport County season ticket I get a complete list of fixtures from mid August to April, it is not like that with my Dragon season ticket - all you get a a couple of months of weekend focused date. It does to seem to be possible to produce a full fixture list for a league that contains twelve teams in advance - this has always struck me as odd, especially as this seems to be possible for almost every other sport (on the planet), some of who's leagues contain a great deal more than twelve teams.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


I think that Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins is absolutely right to ask for assurances from the Labour Welsh Government that no public funds will be used to pay-off AWEMA officials that have been implicated in the charity's financial mismanagement. I for one share the concern that any officials who may be implicated in recent reports into financial mismanagement at AWEMA might receive 'redundancy payments' as the organisation's affairs are wound up. Considering the actual (if not potential) scale of the extent of maladministration highlighted in last week's official report, and previous reports, it would be scandalous for those responsible to receive any further public money. One impression I get it that Labour in Wales quietly hoped that they could ride out the storm and not so secretly hoped that the problem would go away. I just wonder that if the scandal had not involved card carrying members of Labour in Wales would they have acted a great deal earlier and with something like a degree of urgency.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Having successfully avoided the need for any panic (or precautionary) buying during the brief flurry of snow last week I had no need to rush out and try and buy sixteen pints of UHT milk and half a dozen loaves of bread and had no need to fight someone in the supermarket for the last broken bag of sprouts. That aside, but with milk on my mind I wondered why successive UK Governments have failed to take any meaningful action to help our dairy farmers (or any of our farmers for that matter).

I suspect that this is down to a combination of nice financial inducements from large Supermarkets and a more marked indifference to the agricultural sector. As consumers we also need to take a share of the blame because we allowed all of these things to happen. If we want quality milk and dairy products (actually produced from UK milk or even made in Wales) then we will have to change the way we buy, then our farmers will get a better deal and we will get a quality product.

One consequence of how we buy and how our milk is produced for us and sold to us is that the number of dairy farmers in Wales dropped by a third in five years (up to December 2009) and this despite repeated warnings that more needed to be done to save the industry. Our farmers have consistently not received a fair price for the milk they produce, which when compared to the price charged by retailers to consumers, which will sadly not come as much of a surprise to most people.

Before our farmers, dairy or otherwise, are driven out of business entirely then need action not words. If our governments at all levels do nothing then the future for agriculture may be grim, semi industrial and serviced by cheap migrant workers. Industrial milk production has been much trumpeted as the saviour of the dairy industry (and a number of important planning applications are in the pipeline) but it is not without its problems.

There are waste issues, slurry production being one of them, which can be enormously toxic and environmentally damaging. There are also likely to be animal welfare issues when it comes to industrial farming. Modern cows to produce large amounts of cheap milk, a modern Frisian may produce as much 4 times as much milk as equivalent cows did 50 years but it only has three (milking years) in which to do this.

Historically the old answer to low milk prices or a surplus was to turn excess milk into other dairy products, like butter, cream, cheese and yoghurt's. The problem we in Wales face is that many local Welsh dairies serving our urban centres are no longer in business – some around Cardiff were bought up and sold off for housing and diary operations in some areas relocated outside of Wales. What this all means is that we in Wales miss out, as Dairy products are potentially big business as some of our more successful organic producers can prove.

The development of railway communications during the industrial revolution provided s means for rapid delivery of farmers milk to towns and cities and lead to a growth of diary production. The first of the supermarkets (Sainsbury’s in Covent Garden, London, in 1869) sold “railway milk” from churns.

The milkman delivered direct to our doorsteps, his near demise came later as a direct result of super market price-cutting which has now, more or less, effectively killed him off. The decimation of rural railways following a Conservative Government (questionably motivated) decision to favour road transport weakened the very infrastructure that had driven an expansion of the dairy industry.

A 29 (gate price) pence litre of milk may end up being sold for 15 times as much, people pay good money for ‘health yogurt’ – which with the addition of bacteria, flavouring and a marketing campaign produce healthy profits for the companies that produce them. We have some excellent and very successful companies and producers doing just that, but, this potentially profitable sector of the agricultural economy in Wales is undeveloped.

As for buying local - around 40 per cent of our yogurt is made in France and Belgium, in 2009 more than 40 per cent of all Cheddar sold in the UK was actually produced outside of the UK. Yogurt and cheese aside; its a pretty similar story when it comes to butter. Only one of the most popular supermarket brands [Country Life] is actually made from UK milk. The bulk of our butter comes from Denmark and Ireland, and this is despite the fact that farm gate prices for milk remain consistently higher in Europe than here in the UK.

We (in the UK) when compared with eleven years ago now import almost half of our butter from abroad, cheese imports are also up, some 60 percent over the last eleven years. We are importing products that have added-value and are busy exporting the low-value milk products which are then ironically turned into butter, yogurt, etc and sold right back to us.

This is total madness; this is what happens in the developing or third world, not in the first world. In the developing world many countries have little choice but to export their raw commodities cheaply and then have little or no choice other than to buy back manufactured products made from their own raw materials.

Friday, 10 February 2012


Communist Authorities in the Peoples Republic of China are continuing a big security operation to try to end a wave of unrest caused by Tibetan campaigners. In the past year, at least 19 people have publicly set themselves on fire, five in the past week alone, in a campaign that calls for more freedom for Tibetans.

China has occupied Tibet for more than sixty years. The BBC Reporter, Damian Grammaticas has been to Sichuan province bordering Tibet where most of the unrest has been happening.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


The people of Homs (and the rest of Syria) continue to pay the price for the Peoples Republic of China and Russia giving the green light to Syria's rulers to slaughter its opponents. Russia and China have now twice vetoed UN action on Syria. President Assad and his government used the veto as an effective licence to kill those Syrian people who oppose them. Human rights groups and activists say more than 7,000 people have been killed by Syrian security forces since the uprising began last March.

The UN actually stopped estimating the death toll in Syria after it passed 5,400 in January, saying it was too difficult to confirm the figures. Syrian Government forces have been battering the rebel stronghold of Homs since last week. It has been estimated at least 95 people died in the city last Monday alone. The Syrian government has publicly vowed to pursue the offensive until "order" is restored and state television has denied that there had been any bombardment.

Russia may persist in maintaining its relationship with the Syrian dictatorship; sue to a combination of arms sales, strategic desire for a warm water port and a lingering resentment in the corridors of the Kremlin to having lost the Cold War. It has been estimated that some 10% of Russia's global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts being possibly worth as much as $1.5 billion (£950 million). Aside from ammunition, recent sales have included military training aircraft, air defence systems and anti-tank weapons. The icing on the cake though is the fact that the Assad regime provides the Russian navy with a navy base at the port of Tartus (which is Russia's last base outside of the former Soviet Union).

It's entirely natural for the Peoples Republic of China itself a brutal repressive dictatorship to side with the Syrian Government. The PRC’s behaviour towards ethnic minorities (and the peoples of Tibet and Xinxiang / East Turkestan to name but two) within its own border is a matter of record. China has other concerns and anxieties, spreading democracy definitely is not among them, stability at any price may be a key factor here as well as potential arms sales.

Syria's slightly more fair weather friends Venezuela, South Africa, Brazil and India, abstained on previous UN resolutions have been pretty quiet of late (as has the old traditional ‘left’). Its 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 or perhaps they are stuck in the vice like grip of the past or enjoying the trappings of power.

However, you spin this, its yet another pretty blatant diplomatic rebuff to the West, perhaps signalling a much stronger stance from Beijing and Moscow who are unhappy to see the weight of the Security Council ranged against the Syrian authorities. Perhaps all of this signals the end of the new era of intrusive diplomacy brought about by the UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya last March, overwhelmed by Russia and China's self-interest.

It is entirely naive to think that that President Bashar al-Assad will go peacefully or any time soon. A brutal leader can kill as many of his people as he likes when there are no real consequences for him or his regime over the short time and stay in power. Assad's brutal murderous regime continues to rocket and shell its own citizens and to bring buildings crashing down on top of women and children in Homs.

The West and the Arab League invested a great deal of time and effort in putting together the UN Security Council resolution – which if not vetoed would have condemned the violence and called for a transition to democracy. Such a resolution would have sent a powerful signal not only to Assad but also to those around him that the world had taken note and a potential coalition forming against him. Although the wording of the resolution was weak, making no reference to sanctions or even the specific removal of Assad – both Russia and China quickly used their veto to kill it stone dead.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


The South East Wales Transport Alliance (SEWTA) is canvassing our opinions on its report (from March 2011) that looks at improvements to rail provision along the Abergavenny to Newport line. The report includes proposals for a new railway station at Caerleon and improvements to existing stations at Abergavenny, Pontypool and New Inn and Cwmbran, has been pout out for public consultation.

The 'Abergavenny to Newport Rail Corridor Option Development and Appraisal' report lists three distinct proposals for rail development:
  • The basic option includes improving the interchange and parking facilities at stations in Abergavenny and Cwmbran, providing a disabled access bridge at Cwmbran along with basic improvements at Pontypool and New Inn station.
  • The middle option adds to the basic proposals by developing Pontypool and New Inn station, and improving parking and access to the A4042, and adding an infill service going from Abergavenny to Cardiff.

  • The enhanced or full option include all of the above with an additional hourly service between Cardiff and Abergavenny and creating a new station at Caerleon. 
The report, produced by Capita Symonds, recommends the medium option with the addition of the new Caerleon station. The report notes that the middle option would “results in over 168,000 new rail trips (105,000 from station improvements and 63,000 from frequency enhancements)”. The report anticipates that something like half of these rail journeys trips would be as a result of people choosing the train rather than the car to travel.

Interestingly enough a new Caerleon railway station is anticipated to add around 93,000 new rail journeys. The report estimates that there would be a increase in passenger numbers on the Abergavenny to Newport line of around thirty two percent when compared with whats happening at the moment.

SEWTA has asked members of the public to give their views of the plans. The consultation period closes on March 12th 2012.

Comments can be emailed to: or posted to:

Alison Walker
Ty Gwent
Lake View
Llantarnam Park
NP44 3HR

Monday, 6 February 2012


News that the last bank in Blaenavon is to close, despite a petition with over 1,000 signatures and a meeting between HSBC and local councillors is a real blow to the town. News that HSBC have stated that they will retain the cash point is a small crumb off comfort. At least for a while most members of the public in the town will be able to access the ATM without getting charged for it, the question is for how long will the ATM remain.

Many non bank associated ATMs carry charges for cash withdrawals - ATM charges hit all of us, especially some of the most vulnerable people in our communities - by charging people to withdraw their own money. A couple of years ago on a visit to relatives in London, half-wake I nearly got stung at a service station on the M4, narrowly avoiding being charge £2.50 for a £20 withdrawal but ever since have endeavoured to be wise to the practice.

The last New Labour government chose not to regulate ATM charges, and there will not doubt be little interest expressed in solving the problem by the current Con Dem Westminster government. Some of the amounts being charged to use these ATMs are scandalous, to make matters worse there has been a history of sharp increases in charges in recent years. Some are now charging as much as £2.50 for every withdrawal - for anybody withdrawing £10 that an extra 25%!

This is a cost that many users can ill afford. To make matters worse it would appear that more deprived wards with no free cash withdrawal options are being targeted by these companies, this is disgraceful and unscrupulous behaviour by these ATM companies. From a standard £1.99 charge, about 60p will go to the owner of the site where the cash point is, roughly 60p is taken by the firm that owns the machine and another 40p goes to Link.

What little is left over - about 39p in this case - pays towards installing and maintaining the cash point. Very often people living in these communities that have seen the loss of local branches of banks and do not have the luxury of being able to travel to withdraw cash.  People's options have been further limited by the ongoing Post Office closure programme begun under the Conservatives and continued under the last New Labour government.

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

Since 1995 banks have closed 22% of their branch network, 15% of post office branches have been closed, 5% of building society branches have been closed. Machines which charge now account for over 40% of the 53,000 machines in the LINK network. In 2001 only 7,000 cash machines charged to get money out but by July 2009 that figure had rocketed to 25,000. It is high time that action is taken to protect our communities, it is wrong that unscrupulous companies should profit most from those who can afford it least.

Even some of the larger banks have their issues when it comes to charging people to make withdrawals. Back in October 2011 the House of Commons Treasury select committee wrote to the heads of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group expressing their concerns about the fact that two of Britain's largest banks had restrictions on basic account holders using commercial opponents cash machines. Basic accounts offer most of the services of a standard current account, but do not have overdraft facilities or chequebooks. Just for the record RBS is 83%-owned by the government, while Lloyds is 43% state-owned.

If I am being honest I expect little or no joy from the current Westminster government (their interests are a million miles away from Wales) and just like the previous then New Labour Government they have no interest or desire to take any action to regulate the proliferation of ATM charges. In Wales, it would be nice of the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government was to step up and work with local public service providers to provide free alternatives and to try to protect our communities from this unfair practice and unfair charges, but, I am not going to hold my breath.

Friday, 3 February 2012


How many times must a community say ‘NO’ before its voice is heard? That may sound a strange question but when it comes to the planning and development process it appears to be the case that our local communities and sometimes the wishes of our local authorities are most often ignored, marginalised or overridden. The reason why I mention this is because locally a public inquiry began on Wednesday (1st February) into Torfaen County Councils rejection of plans for open-cast mining at Varteg, near Pontypool.

For those of unfamiliar with the case, Torfaen County Council had refused permission for 325,000 tonnes of coal to be extracted because of concerns over dust and noise pollution. The planning applicant in this case is the Glamorgan Power Company who appealed against the decision at the inquiry at County Hall, Cwmbran, which was chaired by Welsh Government appointed Officer.

The developer argues at that the proposal is the only way to achieve reclamation of the land. Some hundreds of local residents have opposed proposals (including teachers and parents from Ysgol Bryn Onnen, which is barely 120 metres away).

The proposed opencast development at, on and around the Varteg / the British has been around for a very long time. As a trainee journalist (on the old Pontypool Free Press) I covered some pretty fired up and passionate packed out meetings back in the very late 1980’s. Local people have been living with the threat of opencast and the promise of reclamation / redevelopment afterwards for over twenty years.

I can only hope that the Welsh Government Inspector listens to the expressed wishers of the local community and the County Council and then makes his decision accordingly. Open cast is and is likely to remain a controversial big issue that has blighted a number of our communities in the former mining valleys from one end of Wales to the other.

Three significant issues, that actually apply across the whole of Wales, have been raised, but have been largely overlooked. They are the linked issues of development / redevelopment, the planning process and community consent. One thing I have noticed over the years when it comes to controversial development proposals such as: large scale housing developments (the South Sebastopol plan, Llanwern and Carmarthen West housing development to name but three), the livestock market in Abergavenny, open cast mining, waste incinerators, etc that there is an apparent tendency for repeated applications by developers – regardless of any refusal – until they get the result they want.

Now there is nothing wrong with appealing against a planning decision because a decision to refuse has to be based on sound rather than emotive reasoning. In recent history there have been occasional refusals of planning permission by County Councils, who on far too many occasions have then been overruled by the old Welsh Office and more lately by the Welsh Government. Now part of this could be out down to what might be best described as a form of judicial indifference, or perhaps it’s a consequence of a combination of poor advice from civil servants to their ministers in Cardiff.

The planning process is being undermined, as our local authorities fear the cost implications of planning applications being taken to appeal. My sources tell me (locally) that we have reached the point where Councillors are regularly advised by their officers of the potential costs if this or that development proposal is refused and goes to appeal.

So basically don’t refuse the planning application. One result is that people have become cynical about local democracy and the planning process especially when people see land being bought up, infrastructure work being done and road junctions built to serve planned developments years before any public planning process ever begins.

The current system of rolling Unitary Development Plans and the regional development strategy no longer works, they don’t allow our local authorities to adequately serve or represent our local communities. Our current planning system fails to deliver real and lasting benefits to our communities and fundamentally fails to deal with the issue of over-development.

Our planning process is far too vulnerable to an often developer led assessment of market trends for easy build/easy sell for higher profit many of which bring our communities minimal benefit. We need a far more joined up all Wales development plan and need to develop Welsh Greenbelt which should serve all our communities over the medium and the longer term rather than the relative short term.

Thursday, 2 February 2012


President Obama
The USA and England may not just be divided by a common language and the Atlantic Ocean, there is the issue of tax evasion and tax avoidance. Last week President Obama, during his State of the Union Address to a joint session of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, briefly lambasted those who sought to pay as little taxation as possible.

The gist of his comments ran along the lines of everyone needed to pay their fair share of tax, otherwise the American dream was broken, and that hard work was no longer rewarded and that unnamed others should be required to play by the rules and do their bit too – and pay their fair share of taxation, the same as everyone else does.

That is about as close the an American President can get to having ago at tax evaders and even then he may get accused of playing the ‘class war' card. Tax or its apparent avoidance briefly became a big issue in the US Republican primaries as Newt Gingrich effectively forced Mitt Romney to publicise his tax returns, which revealed the fact that he made $20m (£13m) last year in unearned income.

Newt Gingrich's supporters then funded a series of adverts labelling Mr Romney a "vulture" and "corporate raider", and accusing him of making his millions by asset-stripping and firing workers. He openly mocked Mr Romney's bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

Prime Minister David Cameron
Mitt Romney then duly gave as good as he got and laid into Newt Gingrich by focusing much of his attack on Gingrich’s political and personal integrity and he attacked the way he has made money, and accused him of being a lobbyist.

So tax, tax evasion and tax avoidance in times of austerity may well be a big issue in the forthcoming US Presidential election amongst other things. After all we are all supposed to be in this together. David Cameron used to make much of saying we were all in it together, but, that no longer seems to be, nor ever was the case.
This is something that David Cameron will no doubt go out of his way to do his best to avoid making any reference to this issue now or any-time soon. Some of us (its now pretty apparent) are in it a great deal less than most of us.

I mean, its awfully awkward, having gone out to bat in Europe for the square mile and conveniently forgetting the UK’s other 5,999 square miles. I think for most of us, despite the increasingly desperate Tory spin, it is now pretty clear where David Cameron stands (or squirms) in his position, it would make dinner with Lord Ashcroft awfully embarrassing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards yesterday (31.01.2012) repeated calls for energy powers to be transferred to the Welsh Government, which is currently run by elected representatives of Labour in Wales. Jonathan Edwards hoped to introduce a bill in Westminster which would give the Welsh Government powers over energy generation in Wales – this was something that was supported by both Labour and the Conservatives in their Welsh general election manifesto's last year, where they argued that there should be an increase from the present 50 MW limit.

Mr Edwards argued that the proposal would lead to equality with Scotland and Northern Ireland and that it would mean that we would be better placed to fight fuel poverty with responsibility for our own resources. This sounds fair and is entirely reasonable, but Mr Edwards motion was voted down by Labour MPs, who were more than happy to team up with Conservatives MPs to stop their own party in Wales taking these powers. The proposal was defeated by 239 votes to 44 after Labour and Conservative MPs teamed up together against the Bill.

After the vote, Jonathan Edwards, Plaid MP for Carmarthen East, said:

"It is extraordinary to see Labour MPs from Wales teaming up to vote with the Conservatives against a motion that would empower the Welsh Government which they run. Do they just not trust Carwyn Jones with these powers?

“My Bill was simply titled ‘Energy Generation Wales’ and, although our policy is for full transfer of powers to Wales, it would have been open for other MPs to amend and put forward their own suggestions.

“This was an opportunity for Labour to introduce proposals from the manifesto on which their Welsh Government were elected last year but their MPs in London seem strangely keen that Wales should not have these powers.

“When you see the Conservatives and Labour walking through the lobbies together in London then you know that they are doing something which is good for Westminster, not for Wales.

“It is a strange world where Labour would so obviously rather have the Conservatives in charge of energy in Wales than take responsibility for it themselves.

"In 2012 alone, Labour MPs from Wales have voted in favour of NHS privatisation, a reduction in farming subsidies for Wales and now against Wales having the same energy powers as Scotland and Northern Ireland.

"If Carwyn Jones can't persuade Welsh MPs to support his policies, then it makes you wonder if he has any influence on his own party – never mind his complete failure to influence the Tories in charge at Westminster."