Wednesday, 26 September 2012


When it comes to economic development (sustainable or otherwise) I am no longer sure that the Westminster system of Government is capable of taking, let alone sticking to any long term decisions, they take. I have my doubts about the current development model being considered by the Labour in Wales Government (‘pushed’ is far too dynamic a word to be associated with this inert government) in Cardiff Bay. Despite the rhetoric and the speech making I suspect that we have reached that point where there are no new ideas, merely recycled old ones.

With the government in Cardiff bay effectively passing itself off as the old Welsh Office in drag, I would not be surprised if we see a new ‘Welsh Development Agency’ launched in the relatively near future. Following old flawed models of economic development planning for Wales (‘one egg, one basket’) just won’t wash anymore, and neither will simply waiting for a Labour victory in Westminster which might (from a Labour in Wales perspective) start the largesse flowing down the M4 again.

When it comes to economic development and regeneration providing the best conditions to enable our communities to grow and flourish, a sound planning policy is a key component. We should favour local small to medium sized enterprises and need to have much better thought out and far more consistent planning policies for in, out and edge of town retail developments, before our communities are damaged beyond repair.

One, but, not the only, potentially key area for economic activity is that of our town centres. Over the years regeneration scheme has followed regeneration scheme yet with a few exceptions we have failed to find a way of creating the right conditions for sustainable prosperity in most but not all of our towns. Regeneration has become one of those words that has no real meaning anymore. It is often perceived (and sometimes it is) as being driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies as a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed.

Our communities, towns and cities have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success? This is something that should be a key factor in the regeneration process. This is the question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the regeneration professionals have moved on (having vacuumed up significant funds to distant bank accounts) have the various schemes made a difference?

I suspect that ‘regeneration’ is now an industry in itself and a pretty well paid one at that. Beyond any immediate physical improvements to the locality and the local environment, do many of the regeneration schemes make a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme? If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively siphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success?

We need to think beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised is the community’s greatest resource – is ironically its people. So rather than regeneration and redevelopment professionals moving in and engaging in a token consultation process they should directly talk to local people and find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.

Regeneration schemes and projects should be bottom up rather than the top down. The bottom line should be when spending public money, work it extra hard and squeeze out every single possible benefit and maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources, local skills and local input.

If you are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished. If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will, with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits to our communities. As had been said elsewhere, regeneration should be a process rather than an event.

Over the last thirty years, we have all seen the commercial hearts of many of our communities have been seriously damaged as a result of a combination of aggressive policies pursued by the larger retail chains and exceptionally poor decision making on the part of local government and central government indifference. The result of the abject failure or indifference of local and central government when it comes to developing realistic local economic plans leads to a failure to create a level playing field for local businesses and suppliers. This when combined with some very questionable planning decisions over the last thirty years, has directly lead to many of our town centre's being "regenerated" to death.

The rise in the number of shops owned by larger retail chains damages the local economy, drains profit out of the area to remote corporate headquarters and reduces local job opportunities. Ten pound spent in a local business circulates in the local economy three times longer than if it is spent in a non local business. A real side effect of this is a real loss of a sense of community, a loss of local character as our high streets has lead to our high streets losing lost their distinctive local shops which have been replaced by “micro-format” supermarket or chain store branches and any real loss of choice for the customers.

Now the National Assembly Government is now looking to simplify the planningprocess to held railroad through large developments potentially overturning logical planning decisions and local opposition. Yes, the planning system needs overhauling, but, not at the expense of fundamentally damaging democratic control of the planning process – already weakened by years of National Assembly / Welsh Office indifference to local needs. Any plans to speed up the planning process should not at the cost of creating unsustainable developments that further damage the regional economy, our high streets and our communities.

Oddly enough, poor regulation, stupidity and greed and a desire by Government’s (of all political hues) to look the other way as long as things appeared (on the surface at least) to be working all contributed to drop us all in it economically. Now here in Wales, our local authorities, certainly not the best guardian of the public interest and our environment have been bluntly told, by the Welsh Government, that they should recognise that ‘there will be occasions when the economic benefits will outweigh social and environmental considerations’. 

It is one thing to have ‘a Government of Spivs, by Spivs and for Spivs’ in Westminster, quite another to have a government of the inert and the inept in Cardiff Bay allegedly standing up for Wales.  Sadly neither government appear to have any real interest in sorting out our economic problems.  The rules and regulations are now blamed for the lack of economic growth rather than it being a combination of the banking crash, the bankers recklessness and years of stupidly allowing the so called ‘free market’ to drive economic policy and economic planning. 

Monday, 24 September 2012


On your bike?
Very occasionally the real attitude of this government towards the lower orders (i.e. US) shows through revealing what they (the Tory / New Labour / Westminster village elite) actually think. The Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell (MP) has flatly denied calling police officers who protect Downing Street and the heart of UK government "plebs".

Andrew Mitchell, the Tory chief whip, has profusely apologised after losing his temper with Downing Street police. Apparently they had tried to stop him cycling out the main gates. He admits failing to treat the police with "the respect they deserve", but denies calling the armed officers "plebs" and "morons". The Sun suggests otherwise.  Apparently an official police report into an incident which saw Andrew Mitchell argue with an officer says he used the term "plebs", according to the Sun. The paper claims the report also says Mr Mitchell did swear during the row.

Whether or not the 8am apology will make the problem go away is a matter for discussion. The occasional quiet moment with my sources within the Conservative Party suggest that this is how the Conservative Westminster Elite actually view the rest of their party and us. Why does the phrase on your bike come to mind...?

Friday, 21 September 2012


Most of us pay tax, one way or another and indirectly via democratic elections we have some form of impact on the way tax within these islands is set, collected and spent. Some people, who hold directorships of companies based or operating in tax havens, also as Peers and MPs, hold office within the UK Parliamentary system and can have impact and influence on the UK Tax system. This surely is a blatant conflict of interest and should not be acceptable anytime, let alone during a recession.

A full list of 68 UK Peers and MPs with directorships or controlling interests in companies linked to tax havens has been published by the Guardian (21.09.2012). It appears that some of the UK’s Parliamentarians who are able to influence tax laws have positions as directors and non executive directors in major companies with offshore links. There are 27 Tories - six of whom are MPs – 17 Labour peers, three Lib Dem peers and another 21 are either crossbench or non-affiliated peers.

The Guardian examined the Parliamentary registers of members' and Lords' interests to identify companies where Parliamentarians are registered as directors or a non-executive directors. They then cross-referenced this with accounts or other financial records to find out if the companies were registered, or had a parent company or subsidiary, in a jurisdiction known as a tax haven.

Tax havens tend to be masked by secrecy and low taxes, and there have been few attempts to identify them. UK Revenue and Customs does not provide a list of tax havens. While there is nothing wrong with a company being based in a tax haven does not necessarily mean that a company is avoiding tax or taking advantage of the secrecy that tends to surround tax havens, even if the tax jurisdictions are closely associated with tax evasion.

Across the pond, in America, there has been a great deal of ongoing irritation with tax evasion, back in March 2009, the 111th US Congress (2009 – 2010) brought in House Resolution 1265 (111th): Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act, which aimed to restrict the use of offshore tax havens and abusive tax shelters to inappropriately avoid Federal taxation, and for other purposes., it originally died (was referred to committee). Yet this issue won’t go away, the bill was reintroduced as HR 2669 on July 27th 2011 and again referred to committee and the report stage is awaited.

One of the things the bill did was list the 34 states and dependent territories seriously involved in tax evasion.

1) Anguilla.
2) Antigua and Barbuda.
3) Aruba.
4) Bahamas.
5) Barbados.
6) Belize.
7) Bermuda.
8) British Virgin Islands.
9) Cayman Islands.
10) Cook Islands.
11) Costa Rica.
12) Cyprus.
13) Dominica.
14) Gibraltar.
15) Grenada.
16) Guernsey/Sark/Alderney.
17) Hong Kong.
18) Isle of Man.
19) Jersey.
20) Latvia.
21) Liechtenstein.
22) Luxembourg.
23) Malta.
24) Nauru.
25) Netherlands Antilles.
26) Panama.
27) Samoa.
28) St. Kitts and Nevis.
29) St. Lucia.
30) St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
31) Singapore.
32) Switzerland.
33) Turks and Caicos.
34) Vanuatu.

Now oddly enough more than a few of them are UK Crown Dependent territories. A couple of months ago the Treasury Minister David Gauke said that it was "morally wrong" to pay tradesmen such as plumbers, builders and cleaners in cash in the hope of avoiding tax. He said that the practice came at "a big cost" to the Treasury and meant other people had to pay more to help balance the books. The Westminster government may have highlighted this in its desire to clamp down on tax avoidance, the problem is that it will hit those who can least affords to tax evade.

US President Obama was 100% right to suggest that the governments of the world should jointly tackle the issue of tax evasion and tax havens. By tackling the tax havens, the tax avoidance and the questionable dealings of the derivative traders, hedge funds and the off balance sheet trading then we might go so way towards dealing with the consequences of the worldwide financial crash. However, I suspect that nice Mr Cameron and the other 18 millionaires in the cabinet will do nothing to close the tax loopholes – so much for all of us  being in it together? Hmmm...over to you George...perhaps not!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Yesterday, Newport West Labour MP Paul Flynn was somewhat predictably suspended from the House of Commons after claiming that Defence Secretary Philip Hammond was lying to Parliament over the conflict in Afghanistan. He refused a request by the Speaker (John Bercow) to withdraw the accusation, was duly accused of "disorderly" behaviour, and was suspended from the chamber for the rest of Tuesday.

Equally predictably the Defence Secretary said that the comments were scandalous. Mr Flynn’s attack came during questions on NATO strategy in Afghanistan, as Mr Hammond denied suggestions that coalition military operation was being scaled down after a series of fatal (“Green on Blue”) attacks on international forces by Afghan troops they were training to take over security operations before the NATO withdrawal in 2014.

Predictable histrionics aside, Mr Flynn raises a valid point. You can put as much spin on it as you like, but it is difficult to put a positive spin on the fact that the US has suspended the training for new recruits to the Afghan local police while security checks are carried out on investigating any possible ties to the Taliban. This decision follows a number of incidents in which foreign troops have been killed by Afghan soldiers or policemen they have been training or working with.

As the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of coalition forces in Afghanistan comes ever closer, the number of Taliban attacks looks to be increasing. The Labour MP for Newport West and a consistent opponent of the conflict, who was interviewed on BBC Radio Wales, noted that Dutch and Canadian troops had been withdrawn from combat and the UK should do the same.

The BBC liberates Kabul
It seems a very long time since the Taliban were routed from Kabul (and most of Afghanistan) following NATO's successful invasion of Afghanistan (back in 2001); the relative ease of victory turned out decidedly deceptive. If anyone had told us almost eleven years ago that some of our service personnel (including some of my relatives) would be effectively commuting back and for to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency many people may well have doubted their sanity.

The US and NATO seriously took their eyes of the ball by invading Iraq, Afghanistan was forgotten. Serious efforts to build up the Afghan army did not really start until 2009 by which time the security situation in Iraq was pretty grim. Prior to the renewed Taliban insurgency NATO's intended to create a small Afghan force to deal with internal disorder of a domestic variety rather than a full scale insurgency.

The new Afghan army should have provided the Afghan people with a visible sign of unity after several decades of brutal conflict and civil war. NATO’s training mission only began in earnest almost three years ago, at that point the Afghan army's desertion rate was around 85 percent. Things improved as from January to June (2011), NATO figures, showed that around 24,000 soldiers, some 14 percent of the 170,000-man force, deserted.

Once NATO departs, few impartial observers, doubt that after the Taliban and their militant allies will stream back into Afghanistan from their sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan no doubt refreshed, rearmed and refunded by the Pakistan military. By 2014 if Afghanistan's standing army is not unready and the Afghan government is not able to support it then some thirteen years of war, thousands of lives, and billions of dollars will have been squandered for nothing and the country will fall will some pretty grim consequences, even by Afghan standards, especially for Afghan women.

Another significant problem to be dealt with by 2014 is that the Afghan government, which is estimated to be probably the most corrupt government on earth. The levels of corruption show few signs of abating, with documented cases of Doctors working in government hospitals leaving wounded Afghan soldiers to expire in their hospital beds if bribes are not paid. For ordinary Afghans the medical infrastructure in the country could be best described as fragile.

Vast amounts of aid has been poured in Afghanistan in recent years, yet the Afghan government does not have a transparent, workable budget, at least not in the normal sense. For 2011 the Afghan budget was nominally $14.3 billion dollars over 90% of which comes from foreign aid, if past years are anything to go by much of it will be stolen way before it gets a chance of being spent on any intended purposes.

History repeated 1975? or 2015?
Once Afghanistan is out of sight and out of mind (just like Iraq) will the money keep flowing in? Or will the West make the same mistake is made in the late 1980s and drop any interest in the country? The last time that happened the Afghan people were abandoned following their defeat of the collapsing Soviet Union, they paid the butchers bill in spades.

After the civil war the Taliban swept into power...they appeared reasonable in comparison with the warlords (who are currently NATO’s gallant allies) and we should all be painfully aware of what followed.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


Elfyn Llwyd MP, is spot on with his call for the devolution of the criminal justice system to Wales. David Cameron’s recent cabinet reshuffle amongst other things signals a marked move to the right with all that entails. What with the court closures programme, cuts in the number of Police Officers and Civilian Support Staff due to public sector budget cuts, Criminal Justice in Wales under the Con Dems will neither be safe, fair or robust until full responsibility for it lies in the hands of Welsh people.

Elfyn Llwyd MP, Plaid Cymru Parliamentary leader said:

"Plaid Cymru have always maintained that policing powers should lie in the hands of the Welsh government and the recent appointment of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary reinforces this view.

“At least under his predecessor Ken Clarke, rehabilitation and reduction of prisoner numbers were given genuine focus.

“Now we are left with a Secretary who will speed up the privatisation of the prison estate and youth justice – a catastrophe waiting to happen, if the mess that surrounded G4S before the Olympics was anything to go by.

“However, in contrast to London’s regressive approach, the campaign to devolve justice powers to Wales is gathering momentum.

“In the last few months alone I have given evidence to the Welsh Government’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee inquiry into the establishment of a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, and spoke on the same topic during a meeting of the Welsh Lawyers’ Association.

“A separate Welsh jurisdiction would have a distinct body of law supported by its own court structure and legal institutions. It would also include the devolved youth justice system – ridding us of unnecessary bureaucracy.

"Overall, devolving policing powers would increase the accountability of the Welsh government while strengthening the democratic process through allowing those who govern Wales to make the decisions which directly impact its people.”

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Leanne Wood's Conference Speech

I missed the Plaid Conference due to domestic commitments, but, caught Leanne Wood AM, Leader of Plaid Cymru's conference  speech. Here it is in full, it's well worth watching and has plenty of ideas and the plenty of the vision we need to rebuild our country.

2012-09-14-PlaidConference-LeanneWood from M H on Vimeo.

Friday, 14 September 2012


Justice for the 96

South Yorkshire Police is to reopen investigations into the force's conduct over the 1989 Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. The force is apparently considering referring itself to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). This follows the publication of the a report produced by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (on Wednesday) which found officers changed statements and tried to blame Liverpool fans for the crush in 1989 which killed 96 people. This is the least that should be done, this is the correct thing to do, but, it is not good enough, there needs to be fully independent investigation that should not prevent or prejudice any prosecution of any individuals within the Police Service who were involved in this appalling injustice. 

Thursday, 13 September 2012


This October is going to be busy month for Monmouth County Council (MCC) one way or another with two judicial reviews pending in relation to Abergavenny Livestock Market. To be fair one is in relation to the Welsh government for its decision to repeal the Abergavenny Improvement Acts and the second one is in relation to the Monmouthshire County Council (MCC) giving permission to sell the land upon which the livestock market sits. Both will be held at the High court in Cardiff on October 3rd.

Observation of MCC’s behaviour over recent years might suggest that it’s solely to boost the local authorities coffers. It’s a matter of public record that the County Council has long struggled to balance the books, suffering from a combination of historic poor financial settlements and poor decision making, which has driven the Authority to dispose of its assets for short term financial gain and actively pursue a policy of robbing Peter to pay Paul. What makes this interesting is that earlier this year a report commissioned by the Abergavenny Civic Society pointed out that re-developing the existing market site would cost approximately half of the council's new site. The report stated that redevelopment would cost about £2.25m, with MCC's plan would cost closer to £5m.

I (and no doubt many other people) have long been puzzled by Conservative dominated MCC’s obsessive desire (let alone their motivation or heaven forbid any incentive), to press for the disposal of the livestock market site (and the livestock Market) and its replacement with yet another supermarket, in Abergavenny. MCC has partially succeeded in its aim by persuading the Labour in Wales administered National Assembly to repeal the original parliamentary legislation (which dated from the 19th century) which gave Abergavenny the legal right to hold a market within the town - as part of one of three Abergavenny Improvement Acts.

This was nominally one step further than previous assembly governments which failed to call in (for review) the planning applications for the livestock market site despite plenty of opportunities to do so if only on grounds of its economic impact and sustainability. The Labour in Wales,administered Welsh Government, went one step further, in allowing people a say on whether or not the Abergavenny Improvement Acts should be repealed.  The acts had ensured the presence of a livestock market in or in close proximity to Abergavenny, hence MCC’s desire to remove them.

The consultation process was a case of being too little too late, it was not good enough, and the scope for the consultation and review was far too narrow being limited to the repeal of the Abergavenny Improvement Acts, rather than why they were being repealed. It’s grimly ironic that one of the main reasons for Abergavenny’s existence is the livestock market which still works despite the fact that it needs modernisation. Local farmers were surveyed by KALM and they expressed a preference for retaining the livestock market where it is because it is the centre of an area where they have access to agricultural traders, dealers and other facilities. Thousands of letters were delivered to the National Assembly (in Cardiff) calling for the retention of the livestock market, to next to no effect.

From where I am sat it is clear that Government (and elected representatives) at almost every level (and from almost every political party) have failed the good people of Abergavenny and for small famers from the surrounding area. MCC has been allowed to act as judge, jury, executioners and main financial beneficiary, from the closure of Abergavenny Livestock market. The silence of locally elected representatives from Monmouth constituency, who happen to be members of the same political party, as those trying to remove the livestock market from the town, has been as eloquent as it has been telling.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


News from Associated press (WARSAW, Poland) that US POW's sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of the Soviet atrocity in the Katyn forest (in 1943) they saw rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the Katyn forest (on the western edge of Russia) which suggested that killers could not have been the Nazis who had only relatively recently occupied the area. The testimony about the massacre of Polish officers may have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets and opened people’s eyes to the reality of Stalin’s rule.

The real mystery is how the messages (and files) disappeared for so many years in Washington DC. One long-held suggestion is that at the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans (and British) were hoping would stay the course, not make a seperate peace, and help to defeat Germany and Japan in World War II.

US Documents that were released on Monday and seen in advance by The Associated Press lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the U.S. government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers and prisoners in Katyn forest and elsewhere in 1940. Soviet denials were consistent until the dying days of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe that reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted to Soviet guilt at Katyn, a key step in Polish-Russian reconciliation.

The years of silence by the U.S. government has been a source of deep frustration for many Polish-Americans. Post war the Poles were betrayed by their former Western Allies and brave Polish servicemen, unlike every other nation who fought under Allied Command, were not invited to participate in the Victory Parade due to pressure from Stalin on the British Labour Government. Many years passed (along with the Soviet Union) before Poland and Russia finally achieved a degree of reconciliation.

Meanwhile in Hungary a former Communist interior minister, Bela Biszku (aged 90), who oversaw the crushing of the 1956 revolution, has been arrested on suspicion of war crimes. He is the first of the 1956 Communist leadership to face a criminal inquiry. Mr Biszku, is accused of failing to protect civilians in wartime, and of responsibility for ordering security forces to open fire on crowds. It’s been 22 years since the fall of communism, and 44 years since Hungary signed the 1968 New York Convention on bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice.

In 2011 the ‘Biszku Law’ was drawn up, allowing for the 1968 New York Convention to be incorporated into Hungarian law. Back in February, the Budapest Prosecution Service began its investigation, Mr Biszku’s arrest follows the detention (and release into house arrest), of Laszlo Csatary (aged 97), the former police chief of the Jewish ghetto in Kosice, who oversaw both the ghetto and the deportations to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. Some business should never be unfinished and war crimes should never go unrecognised and it’s never too late to investigate and to prosecute.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


As fuel prices creep upwards, as we are waiting to get hit by price rises from the energy cartel, the next hard blow to our wallets will come in the form of rising food prices. The poor summer across the northern hemisphere (either too wet or too dry) is impacting on global food prices which have risen by 10% in the month of July, which has raised the fears of soaring prices for the planet's poorest, as noted by the World Bank.

Oxfam has noted that when extreme weather events drive local or regional price spikes, the people living in poverty face a double shock as they have to cope with higher prices, just like the rest of us. The difference between the developed and developing world is that this often comes at a time when the direct effects of extreme weather events have often already depleted their assets, destroyed their crops and stripped them of their livelihoods.

Back in 2011 the emergency in the Horn of Africa and the 2012 Sahel food crisis clearly showed how this combination can lead to hunger on a mass scale. The small-scale subsistence farmers and the pastoralists ended up getting hit hard in both regions, where the loss of livestock and crops reduced available food stocks and also reduced the value of people’s assets so that they were unable to afford to buy food

The World Bank has warned that the affects of the US heat wave and drought in parts of Eastern Europe were partly to blame for the rising food costs. Key grains such as corn, wheat and soybean saw the most dramatic price increases, something that will hit those countries that import grains particularly badly. Between June to July (2012), corn and wheat prices rose by 25% and soybean prices increased by 17%. The World Bank noted that only rice prices fell by some 4%.

In the USA, the worst (and widespread) drought for fifty years has wrought havoc on the corn and soybean crops while simultaneously in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the wheat crops have been badly damaged. To make matters worse, the World Bank noted that the continued use of corn to produce ethanol biofuels (which absorbs around 40% of US corn production) played a key role in the sharp rise in the price of US maize.

While we (the food consumers) will all loses out, the impact on developing countries in North and Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East who will be the most exposed to price rises because significant quantities of their food is imported and food bills make up a large proportion of average household spending, will be harsher. .

Already maize prices had increased by 113% over the past quarter in Mozambique, and the price of sorghum had risen 220% in South Sudan. Last time this happened (back in 2008) there was widespread unrest. Other potential factors could make a potentially bad situation worse and force grain prices still higher. The World Bank is concerned about a combination of food exporters pursuing panic policies, a severe El Nino, poor Southern hemisphere harvests and strong increases in energy prices.

The World Bank's Food Price Index (which tracks the price of internationally traded food commodities) was six percent higher than in July 2011 and one percent up from the previous peak, which was back in February 2011. Why is this important? Well aside from the fact that the most vulnerable in poorer countries will lose out? While we won’t starve, in the developed world as food (and fuel) prices go up, our purchasing power goes down (and we spend less), something that will hit the wider economy.

Thursday, 6 September 2012


The Westminster government is promising (in England) to get planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. In true Spiv fashion ‘ for a limited period, people will be allowed to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices will also be able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) fails and a note of desperation creeps in Westminster ministers seek to boost the economy.

On the surface it sounds good; it seems reasonable, save for the fact that somewhere amidst the smoke and mirrors is a plan to reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing. Not that long ago, a matter of a few months, the Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. Now Westminster ministers want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house-building and revive the economy.

Meanwhile this side of the bridge a major change in planning rules in Wales aims to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This decision may be aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits.

The Labour in Wales run Welsh government will formally announce this controversial move sometime next month. The problem lies not with the planning system, which is far too weak, and has proved itself to be more than capable of blatantly ignoring expressed local concerns, with few real consequences for the decision makers. Any meaningful supervision of the planning process by the Welsh Assembly Government has proved to be pretty minimal.

Quietly in Westminster we are moving towards having ‘a Government of Spivs, by Spivs and for Spivs’. The rules and regulations are blamed for the lack of economic growth rather than it being a direct consequence of the banking crash, the bankers recklessness and years of allowing the so called ‘free market’ to drive economic policy and economic planning. Oddly enough, overregulation and red tape did not cause the financial crash – the banks did.

Poor regulation, stupidity and greed and a desire by Government’s (of all political hues) to look the other way as long as things appeared (on the surface at least) to be working all contributed. Now here in Wales, our local authorities, certainly not the best guardian of the public interest and our environment have been bluntly told, by the Welsh Government, that they should recognise that ‘there will be occasions when the economic benefits will outweigh social and environmental considerations’.

Tell that to the residents of Torfaen, who have been fighting the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who have been fighting to retain the livestock market in the town. Or perhaps the concerned residents of Carmarthen who are worried about the impact of over large housing developments or the concerned residents of Holyhead who are opposed to new marina development. All these people (and all of us) have been ill-served by the planning system, by our local authorities and our own Government in Cardiff – why should we expect the Westminster Government to be any different...

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


Historically Cabinet Reshuffles take place for a variety of reasons, to make the incumbent PM look good or more dynamic, to get rid of perceived deadwood, out of desperation, etc. As has been hinted at by Boris Johnson few reshuffles can be said to have taken place for another runway at Heathrow, as suggested by the replacement of Justine Greening (as Transport Secretary) who was publically opposed to a third runway at Heathrow (as is / was David Cameron), who has been replaced as transport secretary by Patrick McLoughlin. Greening may well have been, as Friends of the Earth describe, a "victim of intense aviation lobbying over airport expansion”. Some reshuffles go down in history as ‘bloodbaths i.e. Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ others have been compared with rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Cameron’s reshuffle sits firmly between the two, neither of bloodbath nor yet disastrous. The U-turn on the third runway has yet to be announced but it won’t be long coming. So much for this being the ‘greenest government ever’, if anyone wanted a clear indication of how entirely bereft of fresh thinking and new ideas Westminster is - this is it.

Monday, 3 September 2012


Increasingly when it comes to development, whether for natural resources (and I include minerals and food produce here) or sustainable energy developments (in Wales, across Europe and around the world) there is an increasing problem of finding the right balance between economic development, the environment, job creation and the impact of development on the local community. In Europe, the problem is as real in the East as it is in the West as it is anywhere else in the world. Romania, an EU member, is one of the Europe’s poorest nations and has high unemployment, yet, is rich in natural resources.

Rosia Montana Gold Mine (Transylvania, Romania)
The case of the town of Rosia Montana (in Transylvania) which has high unemployment yet sits in and on rich mineral deposits of gold. In the communist era the town’s inhabitants paid a high price for with environmental pollution. Now local authorities (and many local people) are desperate for jobs and have understandably jumped at the prospect of investment from foreign investors who want to re-open the town's communist-era gold mine which appears to be a much needed lifeline.

Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) the company behind the project, which was first mooted back in the mid-1990s, says that the new mine could benefit the Romanian economy to the tune of $19bn (£12bn) and create thousands of jobs in the process. The proposed mining project by the Canadian company Eldorado Gold Corporation through the Deva Gold Company at Certej, Hunedoara County, has just received the environmental permit from the Regional Environmental Protection Agency of Timisoara.

Not everyone thinks that this proposed development is a good thing, local activists and some residents are seriously concerned about the reopening of the old mine and the use of cyanide in ore processing. They may have a point, especially after leaks of toxic chemicals used in mining processes at Baia Mare (in Romania) in 2000 and more recently in neighbouring Hungry, had a massive impact on local people and the wider environment.

The proposed development aside will destroy some key archaeological sites, where there is archaeological and metallurgical evidence of gold mining from the classical period. Alburnus Maior was founded by the Romans during the rule of Trajan as a mining town, with Illyrian colonists from South Dalmatia. The earliest reference to the town is on a wax tablet dated 6 February AD 131. Archaeologists have discovered houses, necropolises, mine galleries, mining tools, 25 wax tablets and many inscriptions in Greek and Latin, centred around Carpeni Hill much of which will be destroyed if the mining project goes ahead. .

Whether we are talking about communities in the developed world or the developing world the bottom line has to be that that local people should have a significant say or even control over the development process and any community should benefit from the exploitation of local resources. Too many times (here in Wales and elsewhere) we have seen that promises of jobs have not been fulfilled and too many local communities have been left with a toxic environmental legacy and scant long term benefits.