Wednesday, 18 December 2013

SOME ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT…

Making tracks for Cymru / Wales?
The study for the Campaign for Better Transport, which makes interesting reading, shows that rail services in Wales are used less, have lower levels of passenger satisfaction, are lagging behind other parts of the UK and could be improved by devolving responsibility for our railways from Westminster to Wales. The report was released as details were released of a £ 24 million pounds ( includes £17m from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) £ 5.1 million pounds from the Welsh Government, £ 700,000 pounds from Network Rail, and £ 400,000 pounds from Arriva Trains Wales) for much needed upgrades of railway stations at Rhyl, Aberystwyth, Pontypridd, Port Talbot Parkway and Ystrad Mynach. Improvements to the five railway stations will see welcome improvements to customer facilities, better access, increased capacity and more park and ride spaces.

The devolved Scottish rail service has delivered more and fared better than our rail service which is still managed by Whitehall. Discussions between the Department for Transport and the Welsh government in relation to scoping out the feasibility of devolving responsibilities for the rail franchise held until 2018 by Arriva Trains Wales are said to be on-going. Any comparison between Scotland and Wales is pretty much always going to be stark, with devolved management of services in Scotland consistently delivering significantly better results than the equivalent un-devolved management of services in Wales. Wales and Welsh interests are always going to come pretty low down the list in the priorities of a largely England focused Whitehall government department.  

There is considerable room for improvement when it comes to the provision and development of our railway services here in Wales. Firstly, full control of the transport budget and related planning regulations needed to be devolved to the Welsh Government and secondly when the franchise is renewed in 2018 the railways in Wales should be run on a  not for dividend profit basis, with all profits being ring fenced and reinvested into our railways. The healthy profits run up during the period when the East Coast mainline serve has been run by the Westminster Government after the collapse of the private franchise shows what could possibly be achieved here in our country.   

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

WHY SIMPLY TINKERING WON’T DO…

Once again the Labour in Wales Welsh Government has missed a real opportunity to actually deliver a modern planning system to meet the needs of the people of Wales in the 21st century. Our planning system is in need of root and branch reform so simply tinkering with the existing out-dated legislation as suggested the Welsh Government White Paper on Planning simply won’t do.

Our planning system, along with our pretty much nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter fit to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s decision to simply tinker and tweak with existing out-dated legislation in its White Paper on Planning (which was released on 4th December) is disappointing to say the least.

Our current planning system is too focussed railroading through large housing developments that bring little benefits for local people and local communities. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable development which is based on good design and actively promotes energy efficiency and good environmental standards.

An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill has been missed.  It is time to start the process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) and UDP (Unitary Development Plan) system which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests.

Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply out-dated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

FOOD POVERTY

The quiet if not stealthy rise in the number of food banks across our country and the growth in the number of people who have been driven to use them should be shocking. What should also shock us is the speed with which food banks have become an established and sadly necessary part of our social landscape and people’s lives.

One interpretation is that, if nothing else the flawed austerity policy being actively pursued by Westminster is clearly not working for Wales. Also perhaps the growth in the number of food banks is also a clear indicator of a good forty years of failure of the Union to deliver real and lasting prosperity and economic benefits to the Welsh people.

According to the British Medical Journal (BMJ), food poverty may well be becoming the next public health emergency. The number of people using food banks in Wales has rocketed in recent years, and has almost tripled in the last year. Figures produced by the Trussell Trust show that the number of food bank users has risen from 12,377 over six months in 2012 to 32,500 for six months in 2013 and also that some eleven thousand children have used food banks in the last six months in Wales.

The growth in the use of food banks is a result of the combined effect of the soaring cost of living, austerity cuts and ongoing stagnation in wages all of which means that more and more people in Wales are dependent on donations and charity to eat. The figures show that over thirty thousand people in Wales have been forced to take emergency food supplies or face going hungry. A third of these are children. Health experts are correct to be disturbed by these figures which suggest that food poverty could be the next big health emergency to hit Wales.

We have to get the basics right and a healthy diet is part of the solution, and an action needs to be taken to stop this food poverty becoming a major public health emergency. The Welsh Government should shake of it's self induced lethargy and actively and urgently revise its Anti-Poverty Strategy to introduce measures that will tackle the problem of food poverty head-on.

There are a number of ways to help people to help themselves including encouraging community food growing schemes, by making more land available for allotments and by working with food producers to make sure surplus stock can be sold at markets at affordable prices as well as support for producer co-ops are all measures that could bring down the cost of food.

The Labour in Wales Welsh Government needs to act to develop a long term sustainable food plan to guarantee good quality food at affordable prices to people in all parts of Wales. We need to see long term action being taken to minimise the impact of damaging UK Government austerity measures on Wales.

As part of this approach Plaid Cymru has advocated a ‘no evictions’ policy on the Bedroom Tax so that nobody can be turned out of their home as a direct result of this cruel tax. It has to be unacceptable for families living in Wales in the 21st century to find themselves in living in such a desperate and insecure situation. That’s why Plaid Cymru continues to fight for serious action to help and support, not punish these struggling families and children.

Friday, 13 December 2013

COMPLACENCY OR COMPLICITY?

The latest GVA figures (released on 11th December) don’t make pleasant reading, one interpretation is that the Labour in Wales Welsh Government and Con Dem Westminster Governments have allowed the Welsh economy to enter a spiral of decline and they continue to offer no meaningful route to recovery. The Chancellor's remains unhealthy fixated with obsessively investing in London and the South East, something that is reflected in the dire GVA figures which not unexpectedly reveal the vast wealth gap between the English capital and many other parts of the British State.

The figures are the latest reminder that Westminster austerity isn't working for Wales and that a lethargic Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff is continuing to fail to protect Welsh people from the Coalition's damaging policies, let alone allegedly stand up for Wales. The GVA figures showing that parts of West London are a 12 times wealthier than parts of Wales.  Clearly Westminster austerity isn't working for Wales and the Labour in Wales Welsh Government's inertia and complacency are only making matters worse.

As long as the Chancellor still remains fixated with a recovery focused on London and the South East, what we increasingly urgently need is a Westminster Economic Fairness Bill to rebalance the economy and bring prosperity to other parts of the UK. Plaid Cymru has always argued that the only real route to recovery is investment in vital infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals and railways that would generate jobs and growth. This is something that cannot be achieved in our country unless vital job-creating powers are transferred from Westminster to Wales.

We have reached the point where almost any progress on implementing the Silk Commission's recommendations should be welcomed but Labour in Wales must not back themselves into the anti-devolution corner by dragging their heels over the issue of an income-tax referendum. An income-tax sharing arrangement is necessary it is a vital tool which could be used to deliver  real and meaningful investment powers. The time for dithering and self induced inertia is past and the economic interests of the Welsh people need to come before narrow political self interest.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

TIME TO COME CLEAN ON ENERGY SUBSIDIES

The recent self generated row over the green levies is a classic attempt to distract people’s attention away from the realities of energy subsidies.  As the Con Dem government denounces proposals for a two-year price freeze as "socialism" the Westminster government has guaranteed EDF and Chinese state investors in the nuclear sector fixed above average prices for energy the next 35 years.

The small print of the deal for the new nuclear power station at Hinkley guarantees the French-owned EDF and Chinese state investors a strike price of £92.50 per MegaWatt Hour (or £89.50 if a second plant is built), this is around twice the current market rate for wholesale energy. This price per unit will rise in line with inflation and is being guaranteed for 35 years – so much of the ‘free market’.

The real irony is that in the event of wholesale prices falling or rising at a slower rate than expected, then it is we, the public who will pick up the tab in the form of higher taxes or higher bills. The Energy Institute at University College London has estimated that the annual public subsidy will be around £ 800 million to - £ 1 billion pounds. This is on-top of the current £ 2.3 billion pound annual subsidy most of which ends up as a form of funding to deal with legacy nuclear waste.

The problem is that we all face is significantly down to the cumulative effect of an almost unregulated energy market and the unscrupulous activities of the ‘Big 6’ energy cartel members who will continue to maximise their profits at our expense because they simply can get away with it. The three Westminster based political parties have dropped any pretence of trying to regulate the energy market, to curb excessive profiteering or even to attempt any long term energy planning.


There is no quick fix, as energy efficiency schemes install insulation help to reduce carbon emissions and reduce fuel energy bills over the long term rather than the short term. If green levies are to be reduced, and I don’t think that they should be, then energy efficiency and fuel poverty reduction schemes should be paid for out of (progressive) general taxation - with the burden placed on higher end of the income bracket.

Monday, 9 December 2013

GOODBYE LENIN

Whether the Ukraine aligns itself with the European Union or with Moscow is of some importance,  far beyond the long overdue removal of old Soviet street art, it will define the relationship between the EU and Russia for the foreseeable future. Other former Soviet republics who have been sitting on the fence will be watching events in Kyiv with veiled interest to see what happens and to see how Russia reacts. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv seeking the resignation of the government for refusing a deal on closer ties with the European Union. The demonstrators protested initially about President Yanukovych's decision last month to suspend work on an association and free-trade accord with the EU. President Yanukovych defended that decision by saying the accord with the EU would damage close trade ties with Russia. 


The protesters, who oppose a customs union with Russia, toppled a statue of Lenin and smashed it with hammers. This action followed a massive pro-EU demonstration on Independence Square on December 8th that attracted hundreds of thousands of people angered by Yanukovych's recent snub of the European Union in favour of improved ties with Moscow. However, the protesters are now calling for new parliamentary and presidential elections since the violent police crackdown against demonstrators on November 30th left dozens injured. The anger over the decision by Ukraine's political leadership to pull out of an EU Association Agreement has resulted in some of the largest public demonstrations since the country's Orange Revolution in 2004-05, which were sparked by a rigged presidential election won by Yanukovych. 

Sunday, 8 December 2013

AUSTERITY IS NOT WORKING

Lets be honest, Westminster austerity agenda is not working in our national interest. In response to the Chancellor's Autumn Statement, Plaid Cymru has renewed its commitment to securing a Welsh economic recovery and tackling the cost of living crisis by creating meaningful, well-paid jobs and bringing down energy prices. Over £ 1 billion pounds will have been wiped from Welsh economy this year by the Westminster Government, and cuts to Welsh public services extending far in to the future are having a devastating effect.

That is why Wales needs greater financial and policy powers to shape the economy here, create jobs and more sustainable growth. The Government response to the Silk Commission has said that Wales is set to have greater investment powers which would be maximised by the income tax sharing arrangements. All parties in Wales need to  push on with this for the benefit of the Welsh economy.

The change of focus in the Funding for Lending scheme from mortgages to businesses should be welcomed as both business investment and lending remain in a depressed state. Plaid Cymru would implement a public development / business investment bank ("A Bank of Wales") to lend to SMEs, and develop local industries here. Plaid Cymru also wants to cut business rates for thousands of Welsh businesses.

Although a reduction in consumer energy bills is to be welcomed, Plaid Cymru has concerns that the reduction will not apply to off-grid consumers in rural areas. The real reason for soaring bills is profiteering by the members of the ‘Big 6’ energy cartel, something that the current Con Dem Coalition government and the last Labour government entirely failed to tackle. That is why Plaid Cymru has proposed a publicly-owned energy company, Energy Wales, with a not-for-distributable-profit model.


Plaid Cymru has also criticised the Chancellor's announcement that workers will be expected to work for up to five years longer in changes to the state pension. We in Wales will be hit disproportionately by these changes due to our lower life expectancy, and it is particularly perverse to reduce the job opportunities available to young people at a time when UK youth unemployment stands at a million.

Friday, 6 December 2013

NELSON MANDELA 1918 - 2013


Nelson Mandela the First fully democratically elected South African President, leader of the African National Congress and statesman has died and we are all sadly diminished for his passing. He himself dismissed suggestions that he was some sort of saint, rather a sinner who kept on trying. Some people just make the world a better place by simply trying (and trying again and again), and Mr Mandela was one of those. Mr Mandela was a positive example of hope and forgiveness triumphing over hate, adversity and life experience, to his lasting credit.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

BEING AWARE OF THE BEAR

Not that you would be aware of it from the UK media but another positive milestone was passed on the 29th November (2013) when the leaders of Georgia and Moldova signed their countries Association Agreements with the European Union. These agreements are an important step in their bid for membership of the 28-nation bloc, although as pen touched paper there must have been lingering thoughts about how Russia would react.

I am acutely aware that the largely London based and London centric UK  media rarely carries any positive EU related stories, but, as an interested child raised during the now thankfully historic Cold War era, the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, is a positive event. The fact that the largely unheralded (by the UK media) summit was held in Vilnius, Lithuania, a country that was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 until 1991, in itself shows how far we have all travelled in recent years.

The problem is that the summit has understandably deepened real fears of harsh retaliation from Russia in both Georgia and Moldova. The Kremlin has reacted aggressively and somewhat successfully to prevent the Ukraine from signing its own EU pact. Just days before the deal was due to be sign the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych walked away from the deal in Vilnius, in the process sparking a political crisis in the Ukraine and revamping the democratic western looking opposition.

Pro-European Demonstrators in the Ukraine (Picture from Reuters)
Thousands of pro-EU Ukrainians poured onto the streets of the capital , Kiev, on 24th November the crowd being  estimated at being more than 100,000 with larger demonstrations being held since then. The opposition continues to demand that the government resign after President Viktor Yanukovych decided to postpone the signing of a deal on closer ties with the European Union.

The Ukrainian parliament debated and held a stormy vote of no confidence in the government which the government just about managed to win. The Ukrainian President’s decision has sparked some of the biggest protests in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution back in 2004.

Only a few hours after the initialling ceremony, the Moldovan Prime Minister Leanca openly called on Moscow not to shut down the communication line with Chisinau. The reality is that Moscow will probably wait until after the Sochi Winter Olympics in February are over to initiate retaliatory measures to avoid any 'bad press' in close proximity to Russia’s golden Olympic moments on the media spotlight.

EU leaders in Vilnius condemned Russia for its pretty blatant bullying of Ukraine into shelving its landmark association deal with Europe in favour of retaining closer ties with Moscow. Russian sanctions could have devastating effects on Georgia's and Moldova's still-fragile economies as Russia is an important export market for both countries and regular destination for guest workers from both countries.

Perhaps this is the price to be paid for not following the bear
Georgia imports most of its natural gas from Azerbaijan and Moldova relies almost exclusively on gas from Russia - a state that has some form for periodically tightening the tap on its neighbours when it wants to. Russia has no right to try to dictate or to approve or disapprove whatever organisations economic or political associations independent countries might want to join.

Yet, the view from the Kremlin (or the Hermitage) is different, the sight of the EU map getting ever larger and drawing in more and more former Eastern bloc and former Soviet (however unwilling) republics is bound to set historic alarm bells ringing, not to mention setting the ghosts of Peter the Great and Stalin pacing the corridors of the Kremlin or the Hermitage. The dominant Russian component of the Soviet Union historically and practically ended up seeing the CCCP as an extension of greater Russia.

Smaller peripheral nationalities were (and continue to be in some circles) patronisingly and dismissed as possessing simple local political and linguistic peculiarities, this somewhat patronising idea, is entirely understandable particularly if you are Scottish, Irish, Breton, Catalan, Basque or Welsh. Or if you are participating in what looks (at least from the South East of our country) to be a somewhat one sided (London centric media wise) debate on Scottish independence. 

Dean Acheson, US Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman, once rightly said that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. In my opinion this well perceived observation was right then (in 1962) and is still right today; it’s been fifty years since the Empire was lost and the ‘Brit’ elite have still not got over it or adjusted to economic and political realities of their situation. Much the same can be said for Russia...


We are fifty years down the road since the end of Empire, yet the Westminster elite continue to preside over Fantasy Island and to act out a delusional role on the World stage. If nothing else this should, provide a degree of understanding to unfolding events in the East and Russia’s behaviour. The Russians lost their Empire in barely a fortnight (in late August 1991) and their elite and many (but by no means all) Russian citizens may well be a long way from getting over it and adjusting to the new realities and opportunities. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013

POLICING WALES?

One of the options within the recently published Stevens report into Policing was the suggestion of a single unified police service for all of Wales as has happened recently in Scotland (in April 2013). There are some merits to this idea, including various economies of scale, potential cost savings and the possibilities of concentrating resources to develop all Wales approaches to drugs, car crime, human trafficking, amongst other things. That said I think that we have however, passed the point where Westminster can simply make and implement decisions about the structure and organisation of policing in Wales let alone decide what our policing priorities are. However, our police services are organised on a fundamental level local accountability of Policing are paramount especially if we are to uphold the public’s confidence in the police service. Welsh police forces are working their way through some significant budget cuts, some of which could have some long term consequences for the way our communities are policed. One consequence of policing and policing priorities being decided by the Ministry of Justice is that of policing resources being pulled from one area of Wales to another resulting in some parts of our country ending up with pretty minimal Police coverage, something that is unacceptable. Whatever the merits or perhaps not, of a single all Wales Police service to one side we need a Policing structure that is fully accountable to our communities needs rather than those of the Ministry of Justice. The old local authority policing committee structures failed to deliver proper accountability. At a very basic level Policing needs to be accountable to the people of Wales, both locally and nationally, so before any future decisions on the shape of Policing in our country are made, control of Policing and Criminal Justice needs to be devolved to Wales.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

IT'S ALL GONE QUIET OVER THERE...

It is time for the Welsh Government to commit to completing the rail link from Ebbw Vale into Newport and to think beyond simply connecting the valleys with Cardiff Bay. We need to build in more connectivity to our rail network and also to maximise the benefits of improvements to our railways by squeezing every possible benefit from the investment of public money, especially in times of austerity then the completion of the Ebbw Vale link into Newport needs to be completed. The restoration of the rail link into Newport from the Ebbw Vale line has an impact well beyond simply enabling passengers to travel to and from Newport. Once completed the final stage of the long promised rail link would enable commuters to travel to work in Newport, Bristol, and beyond without having to drive or catch the train to Cardiff Central. The completion of the rail link could make a significant impact on local rail services. At present within Wales rail serves run between Merthyr and Bridgend via the Vale of Glamorgan. There is no reason why it would not be possible for extra serves to be run from between Hereford, Abergavenny and Ebbw vale, and Cheltenham via Gloucester and Chepstow to Ebbw Vale, something that could add extra off peak services for passengers.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST...

It has been suggested that David Cameron is considering launching an investigation of the energy market. Whether or not the ‘’Big 6’ energy cartel members are colluding to rig prices or deliberately exploiting excessive market power to fatten profits in an unfair way is perhaps open to question in some circles. From the perspective of the cartel members (and investors) if any investigation is launched then they (the ‘Big 6’) may argue that uncertainty will surround the energy industry.

If there is an investigation then if a Competition Commission inquiry may investigate whether there are structural flaws in the industry which mean that competition does not serve consumers' interests adequately. One significant question that should be asked (and hopefully answered) is whether it is good or bad for consumers, and for the economy for energy companies to both generate and sell energy to their customers.

Now it can be argued that the all in one generators and sellers of energy have little incentive to keep retail prices as low as possible, since higher prices boost the profits of their generators, not to mention the value of whatever gas reserves they happen to hold. It is also worth noting that if the energy industry is referred to the Competition Commission rather than to Ofgem (the current and fairly toothless energy regulator) then that pretty much puts the skids under Ofgem. Downing Street may believe that that is important to show that the big players in the energy industry suffer from behavioural rather than any structural weakness.  

Oddly enough there was a Conservative pre-election pledge for an independent inquiry into the £25 billion-a-year energy industry which was quietly dropped by the Com Dem Coalition Government in August 2010, when no doubt when they hoped no one would notice. Back in October 2009, the then Tory Energy Spokesman, Greg Clark has said that the "cartel" of the big 6 energy firms will be referred to the Competition Commission by an incoming Conservative Government.

He also said that there was an unacceptable lag between the cost of wholesale gas prices and household energy bills - noting that customers were on average being charged some £74 pound too much for their energy per year. An 'independent' investigation in the Energy companies refusal to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices to customers was also mooted along with an overhaul the energy sector billing structure and charges. 

Few people this winter will have as snug a relationship with the gas companies as that exists between the political parties (within the Westminster village) and the energy supply companies. Before the last Westminster general election, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made repeated criticisms (and much political capital) from New Labour for its failure to tackle prices charged by the Big Six suppliers. Both the opposition parties publicly and repeatedly demanded an inquiry by the Competition Commission. 

Now don't get me wrong, an investigation sounds great, but, it was a Conservative Government that was responsible for starting the whole sorry mess by privatising the energy market in the first place. Throwing any rational energy pricing structure upon the whims of the alleged 'free market' by allowing the newly privatised energy companies to price gouge customers in the first place was a catastrophically bad idea. By the time the dust settles the fact that Conservatives pre election pledge ended being kicked into the long grass may well yet come back and haunt them before the next Westminster election. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

SMALL RAIL SUCCESSES WIN BIG

Many of our existing railway stations suffer from some pretty significant gaps in services, so are underused. The future trend is merely for Government at all levels to simply be there and to provide nothing or at least next to nothing for this costs the least. The new bottom line, being when you have ineffective and inert Government, is that if we want a civic society or want to reopen an old railway station then we have to make Government act on our behalf, whether it wants to or not.

Small scale local transport projects and well organised local campaigns may provide the best opportunity to make a real difference when it comes to reopening or improving the services of our railway stations. There are a number of good examples to follow; including the Carno Station Action Group, the Severn Tunnel Action Group who have campaigned to restore rail services and improvements in the passenger infrastructure, Better Trains 4 Chepstow who are campaigning amongst other things for more stopping services at Chepstow, and the campaign for a railway station at Magor.

Driver Training on Gaer Spur in 2009 (Photo: Ian Brewer)
The final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport needs to be completed and railway stations at Caerleon and Magor would help to reduce road congestion. Such developments would provide a regular rail service to local residents and reduce the ever increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads. The re-opening of Pontrilas Railway station (in south Herefordshire) for passenger traffic (and timber shipments) would also help, as would a feasibility study into developing regional rail freight services, removing heavy Lorries from local roads.


In the south east, we need Abergavenny and Chepstow railway stations to be real gateway stations, with fully integrated local bus services and more safe secure parking. We need better facilities at Severn Tunnel Junction and Caldicot railway stations and the provision of adequate safe secure parking facilities. We need feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the old line from Little Mill to Usk and the development of a new railway station at Usk.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

IN REMEMBRANCE

In Flanders fields...
Tomorrow will be Remembrance Sunday (the 10th November), when people pause briefly to publically remember the veterans and survivors of historic and more recent conflicts and those who never came back. My family like far too many others in Wales (and elsewhere) had relatives who served and survived and also relatives who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and other conflicts. One of my maternal grandmother’s lost two brothers in the First World War and its aftermath, her elder brother was a regular soldier, who wrote home and told them not to allow his younger brother to join up and to come out to France. It was too late the younger brother had joined up was killed in action in 1918 and buried near Amiens. I have absolutely no problem remembering those who lost their lives and the courage, comradeship and their endurance of those who served in the First World War and other conflicts (and not necessarily in the armed forces); but I have little time for rose tinted nostalgic flag waving foot tapping pap. As has been said elsewhere, soldiers don’t die for the politicians, for patriotism or even us but for their friends and comrades with whom they serve. Far too many lie in corners of foreign fields, are names on a war memorial, faded photographs, faded memories or literally have no grave at all. US President Abraham Lincoln rightly noted at Gettysburg the fallen have given their last full measure of devotion. It may be more true today that the world will little note the current crop of political leader’s lyrical offerings on conflict, nor long remember them. What we should never forget what the former soldiers and veterans did and what they went through and we should not just cherish their memory but ensure that after their military service they are fully honoured as is the military covenant.

Friday, 8 November 2013

FOR ‘NOT YET’ READ ‘NEVER’.

We live in a strange country where the First Minister is reluctant to take up the challenge of new borrowing powers and a degree of control of how some of the taxes we pay is spent. Perhaps for ‘Not Yet’ read ‘Never’. At the same time the Con Dem coalition Westminster government is pushing for all it’s worth the questionable economic and financial benefits of the proposed M4 Relief Road around Newport whilst simultaneously attempting to set by remote control the future economic priorities of the Welsh government for the next 20 years.

I have always believed that when it comes to spending public money, it is essential that it is worked exceptionally hard, with every single pound’s impact being maximized. The proposed M4 Relief Road is poor value for public money. There are easier and cheaper more deliverable alternatives to the proposed M4 Relief road in the shape of upgrading the A48, SDR and the Queensway across the Llanwern site and more investment in our railways (including the proposed metro light rail system amongst other things).

Behind all the spin and the waffle there are two key issues at stake which are directly related to the proposed M4 Relief Road. Firstly, we have a London based Westminster government attempting to remotely set the economic priorities for the Welsh Government and secondly, Westminster is attempting to predetermine a particularly questionably beneficial infrastructure project that could end up being paid for by the people of Wales for the next 20 years.

Potentially well over a billion pounds may be required to pay for the proposed M4 project, it has been estimated that the real cost may be closer to some £1.2 billion pounds. This project runs the risk of imposing some serious and unnecessary strains on Welsh finances and there are better projects with greater value for money and more measurable returns upon which any borrowed capital could and should be spent.

The Westminster government’s attempt to link borrowing powers and tax raising powers with the proposed M4 Relief Road is entirely unacceptable. The London-based Westminster government has no right to predetermine what the priorities, economic or otherwise of a Welsh Government should be any more than the EU does. Can you imagine the reaction if the EU attempted to tell a Westminster government what it’s economic and infrastructure priorities would be for the next decade, we would never ever hear the end of it, but, when it comes to our country that’s OK? I don’t think so… 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

A MERRY CHRISTMAS (NOT)

As the nights draw in and the autumn days begin to feel colder and drift towards winter, people begin to think about Christmas, paying their extortionate heating bills. If you live in South Wales and commute over the Severn Bridges then lurking at the back of your mind is the prospect of yet another Severn Bridge toll increase on January 1st 2014. The  tolls cost businesses some £47 million pounds (2009 prices) per year so by cutting the tolls to £2 the south Wales economy good gain by at least £34 million pounds.

A Merry Christmas from Severn Crossings PLC - NOT!
Plaid has called for the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that the tolls on the bridges can be reduced, something that could have a considerable impact on businesses and the economy. With control over the bridges devolved, Plaid  would cut the tolls to £2 to cover maintenance costs. The costs for upkeep are £15 million per year, but motorists and vehicles using the crossings currently generate £72 million pounds per year.

While the  tolls would form a useful revenue stream for Welsh Governments, the priority of Plaid is to cut the tolls. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, Severn River Crossings plc will have milked its cash cow to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. To add insult to injury the old (M48) Severn Bridge is periodically closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which is funded by the Department for Transport, from the public coffers.

The Severn Bridges (and tolls) may be out or sight and out of mind on a daily basis to most Westminster ministers but they loom large in the imagination (and the wallets) of long suffering commuters, businesses and visitors on a daily basis. There is a risk of the tolls being used to fund a new M4 which would cost £1 billion pounds plus. To do this the tolls could have to stay in place indefinitely and might even go up. This would be against the wishes of the business community and Plaid wants that ruled out.

Back in 2012, Plaid Cymru submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Transport seeking details of any correspondence between it and the Welsh Government on the level of tolls since May 2011, the last Assembly elections. In its response the Department of Transport merely listed emails between the Highways Agency and the Welsh Government advising of planned increases in tolls for 2012 and 2013.

The FOI request revealed that there was no other correspondence between the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government.  In 2012 a report for the Welsh government suggested that abolishing the tolls would increase traffic by an estimated 12% - equivalent to about 11,000 vehicles a day – and that businesses and commuters forked out around £ 80 million pounds a year crossing the Severn bridges.

In October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls which has recommended that the revenues should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. This study of 122 businesses was commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, this compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.

While noting that the economic impact was not substantial for most, the 2010 study found that transport; construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The 2010 study found that Welsh businesses were unfairly penalised by the tolls and concluded that the money should be shared with the Assembly Government and used to improve Wales’ roads and public transport.

When in office the Labour Westminster Government quietly subsidised the Humber Bridge tolls, but, made no move towards doing anything about dealing with the tax on jobs and the tax on commuters that pass themselves off as the Severn bridge tolls. The Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Con Dem Coalition Government, have shown no inclination to transfer control of the Severn Bridges to Wales or offer to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.

The various studies are useful, but, we are still waiting for any decision to be made in regard to the Severn Bridger tolls and the future ownership of the Severn Bridges themselves. None of this will bring a crumb of comfort to the commuters who braced themselves to face a bridge toll rise on January 1st 2013 and are now getting ready  to face yet another toll rise on January 1st 2014.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

THREE NIL

That drop goal!
If you are from Newport and have even the faintest amount of knowledge about Rugby in the town then when some says ‘Three Nil’ to you then you knowthat they are talking about. A significant Rugby event took place 50 years ago today at Rodney Parade. Arguably one of the best All Black sides of all time were beaten 3 : 0 by Newport at a packed Rodney Parade. A superb drop goal by 21-year-old centre John 'Dick' Uzzell (in the 17th minute) made history, and inflicted the only defeat in a 36 match All Black tour. Newport have also beaten South Africa and Australia but for many it was that stunning Wednesday victory that added probably the greatest moment in the club's 139-year history. Any of my Kiwi, Australian or South African friends and flat mates who came down for the weekend (when I was living in London) always ended up on  the receiving end of the appropriate Newport rugby tale from my Mother, whether they were  into the game or not. Long may the memories be held and the tales told and retold of that glorious day...


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

MORE SMOKE AND MIRRORS

If you were looking for a classic bit of spin, then David Cameron’s promise to reduce or remove the so called ‘Green levies and subsidies’ of energy bills comes close to being it. This is classic misdirection, it makes DC look good, and distracts people’s attention away from the recently agreed guaranteed (and well above the market rate) energy price for the planned nuclear plants, something that should permanently skew the alleged ‘free market’ for energy.

It also effectively ignores the excessive profits that have been generated by the ‘big 6’ a situation that has been aggravated by a lack of effective regulation. One way of the other we are all paying the price for effectively having a pretty much unregulated energy market. This is one of the legacies of the last Labour government, who spent 13 years in office sitting back and watching this situation develop. 

Excessive profits and Tax evasion - surely not?
The ‘big 6’ energy cartel members, coincidentally ramp up the energy bills as our winter approaches, yet this is only part of the ‘corrupt’ legacy that surrounds the few remaining energy giants. The independent on Sunday (27.10.2013) and Corporate Watch (a not-for-profit research group) have revealed that more than 30 UK companies have cut their taxable profits by racking up interest on debt from their owners.

This minimises or in some cases entirely wipes out their UK corporation tax bill.  As most of the owners are based abroad, 20 per cent of the interest payments would usually have to be sent straight to HMRC, minimising the overall saving. As a result of swift footwork by the accountants, the money is lent via offshore stock exchanges this means that it qualifies for a regulatory loophole called the "quoted Eurobond exemption", no tax is withheld.

Scotia Gas, 50 per cent of which is owned by SSE, the energy giant which is about to put its prices up by more than 8 per cent, has avoided an estimated £72.5 million pounds in tax. UK Power Networks and Electricity North West, responsible for running large sections of Britain's electricity network, have both saved more than £30m. Scotia Gas is the second-largest gas distribution firm in the UK, serving 5.8 million people in Scotland and in the South and South-east of England.

Half of it is owned by SSE, the rest is owned by the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. After they bought the networks from National Grid Plc in 2005, the new owners lent the majority of their money – about £530m at a 12.5 per cent interest rate – through the Channel Islands Stock Exchange rather than investing it in shares in the company.

Scotia has since paid interest of £537.3 million pounds on these loans. The £268.7 million pounds  of this that went to the Ontario pension funds cost the UK an estimated £72.5 million pounds in tax revenues. SSE Plc pays full UK corporation tax on the interest it receives as it is based in the UK but will have signed off the scheme.

More than 30,000 people contacted the Citizens Advice Bureau in the 13 days after SSE started the latest round of price hikes. It announced its increase on 10th October and was quickly followed by British Gas, Npower and Co-operative Energy. The massive rise in those contacting the charity represents a 55 per cent increase on the number of consumers normally seeking advice about the best power deals.

The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan also owns National Lottery operator Camelot and Bristol Airport, both revealed to be using the tax-avoidance scheme last week. It is among several foreign pension funds investing through this legal loophole. Two of Britain's 14 privately run electricity networks – Electricity North West and UK Power Networks – also use the loophole.

A portion of every Briton's electricity bill payment is given to their local power network to pay for the running and maintaining of cables in their area. UK Power Networks, which owns and maintains power cables and lines for eight million people in London, the South-east and East of England, has avoided an estimated £38 million pounds since 2010 from paying £164.4 million pounds via the Cayman Islands to firms controlled by Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong tycoon and Asia's richest man.

The Cheung Kong group also owns Northumbrian Water, among several water firms that use the quoted Eurobond exemption. Electricity North West owns and operates the region's electricity distribution network, connecting 2.4 million properties to the National Grid. It has avoided an estimated £30 million pounds in tax after sending £107.2 million pounds to its owners, JP Morgan Infrastructure Investments Fund and Colonial First State, since they bought it in 2007.

The Eurobond exemption was introduced in 1984 to encourage third-party investment into UK companies. But analysis of listings on the Channel Islands Stock Exchange and UK company accounts shows firms across the economy are using it to minimise tax bills by borrowing from their owners. More than £2 billion pounds a year has left the UK as interest payments to owners, avoiding an estimated £500 million pounds compared with if loan amounts had been invested in companies' shares.

Considering that other stock exchanges such as the Cayman Islands and Luxembourg also qualify for the exemption, the reality is that the total amount of tax being avoided is likely to be much higher. Incidentally HMRC, who are busy shedding jobs and cutting services to the bone, know that the exemption is being misused and even considered restricting it last year, but they backed down after lobbying from the financial industry. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

HERE WE GO AGAIN!

The news that the Labour in Wales Government (in Cardiff) made no representations to Westminster opposing the privatisation of Royal Mail will surprise any observers our inert government in the Bay. A Freedom of Information disclosure to Plaid has revealed that the Labour Government in Cardiff did not participate in the campaign to oppose the sell-off.

Our Post Office: Sold on the cheap?
A letter received by Plaid from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Whitehall states: “I can confirm that the Department has not received representations from the Welsh Government about the privatisation of Royal Mail.” While Plaid Cymru actively sort to develop a Welsh way forward to keep postal services in public hands, but Labour in the Bay could not be bothered to send a single email or a letter on this important issue.

On yet another issue of importance to the Welsh people Labour have simply sat on their hands while public opinion rallied to support of public ownership and to support of the postal workers.  Whether we are talking about chasing extra funding for our country as a result of the proposed HS2 development, belated support for our farmers, the lack of interest in value for money in relation to public transport investment, or missed opportunities for additional EU funding for Wales.  A recognisable if not well established pattern has emerged, with the Labour in Wales Government talking the talk, but actually doing nothing practical to back up the rhetoric.

This week, the American bank JP Morgan valued Royal Mail at between £7.75 billion pounds and £9.95 billion pounds, the top figure being three times the flotation figure of £3.3 billion pounds. Citibank suggested an upper valuation figure of £7.3 billion pounds and Deutsche Bank argued that Royal Mail could be worth something between £6.4 billion pounds and £6.9 billion pounds.


The Coalition Westminster Government floated the company on a share price of 330 pence. In barely a week, shares had broken the 500p mark – an increase of more than 50% – valuing the company at £1.7bn higher than the original Government estimate and losing the taxpayer £900m. This, if nothing else suggests that the Con Dem Coalition Government in Westminster sold of the Post Office on the cheap.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Never Forget / Nikagda Nezabudem

Where once Rock kept the flame of resistance against Communist Dictatorship burning, now it's being mobilised to keep apathy at bay, least the reformed Communists win big in the forthcoming Czech elections. 



With only a few days to go before the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections, popular Czech rock bands played a free concert in Prague with a political message: get out and vote. The organizers gave the event a Russian name -- "Nikagda Nezabudem," or Never Forget -- as a warning that voter apathy could mean a disproportionately strong showing for the country's Communist Party, driven from power in 1989. 

(Source: RFE/RL)

Sunday, 20 October 2013

SEVERN TUNNEL CLOSED; ENGLAND CUT OFF

As a regular rail user the news that the Severn Tunnel is going to be closed for maintenance this weekend and next weekend has greeted me every morning (at Newport Station) for some weeks. I suspect that the First Minister is perhaps not a regular rail user, perhaps the government limo is too comfortable and too convenient, ideal perhaps for snoozing in whilst going to and from work.   

Severn Tunnel closed - England cut off!
The Welsh First minister’s criticism of Network Rail over the planned closure of the Severn Tunnel for maintenance, on the same weekend as the opening ceremony for the Rugby League World Cup, and the Womex music festival (both in Cardiff), might have a shred of validity if plans to upgrade the diversionary route via Kemble, in Gloucestershire to Swindon had not been dropped in November 2008, under the last Labour Westminster Government.

When the Severn Tunnel is closed for maintenance rail traffic from South Wales is diverted via a single-track 12-mile section of line between Swindon and Kemble (in Gloucestershire). Plans to upgrade this section to double track as it is the only diversionary route between Wales and London were conspicuous by their absence from Network Rail’s plans in 2008/2009. This is a vital link between Wales and London (and Europe) and the only alternative to using the Severn Tunnel.

The origins of the present problems date back to November 2008 (when Labour were in office at Westminster) when the Office of Rail Regulation’s settlement for Network Rail allocated £26 billion pounds - 2.4 billion less than requested; forcing Network Rail to drop a number of projects. Lost amidst the small print of this decision was the decision to drop a plan which would have restored of the 12 miles of single track to double from Kemble to Swindon.

In the event of a major accident or incident in the tunnel, perhaps a crash, a fire or even flooding, then we need a fully operational alternative so that passenger and freight services to London are not affected. Talk to anyone who works the rails (or anyone who has relatives who work on the rails) in the south and they will tell you that the aging Severn Tunnel is going to require more maintenance as time passes, it remains a vital transport link, but it ranks pretty low on Network Rails or Westminster’s list of priorities.

We badly need some original thinking to solve this potential block on our rail links; the construction of a railway bridge / tidal fence close to the Second Severn Crossing should be seriously considered as part of any plans to harness the enormous renewable energy potential of the Severn Estuary. This could carry the main rail link from South Wales, solving the problem of the Severn Tunnel, enhance rail services from Severn Tunnel Station and generate sustainable energy, which we will need in the near future.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

A HARSH CHOICE THIS WINTER: HEAT OR EAT

As the evenings draw in and days get colder the news that SSE have bumped up their domestic energy charges by 8.2% to cash in on the predictable spike in demand for winter heating will not come as no surprise. I have no doubt that the otherfive of the energy cartel members, known collectively as the ‘big 6’, will similarly raise their prices to rake in the cash at
A harsh choice: Heat or Eat?
our expense (British Gas were the first). Sadly this state of affairs is something that we have all become used to with an effectively unregulated energy market and little action beyond weasel words from successive Labour or Conservative Westminster governments. This winter, as never before, people will be put into a situation where they have to make a stark choice between literally heating their homes and putting food on the table. Rather than mumbled words of condemnation from a former New Labour energy minister (Ed Milibrand, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 3rd October 2008 until 11th May 2010, showed no great desire to regulate the unscrupulous activities of the energy cartel) ) was for the energy cartels failure to pass on the benefits of wholesale energy price falls to its customers and their excessive profiteering, we need action. The Westminster elite (and I lose the term loosely) appears to be more focused on employment activities within the energy and banking sectors after they cease to politicians than stepping up to the mark to ensure proper regulation of the energy market and some degree of protection for the rest of us hard pressed energy customers. Westminster is either incapable or simply unwilling to deal with this problem, so perhaps it’s time for a home grown solution to the problem. We need a new Welsh national energy company, an Ynni Cymru to break the stranglehold of the Big Six energy cartel members on the energy market. Wales needs a ‘not for dividend profit’ company, as with Glas Cymru works within our water industry. This would firmly ensure that customers come before shareholders dividends and the City of London and that all the profits would be reinvested back into the energy sector in our country, ensuring that Welsh families, households and small and larger businesses get a good deal on their energy and our country will end up with secure sustainable energy supplies. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

WAITING FOR A TRAIN!

I now regularly sees the sun come up whilst trundling rapidly across the Gwent levels and regularly stand on Cardiff (Central) Station waiting for connections amidst the tantalising smells wafting across from the Brain brewery (at least when there is a South West or West wind). I find that I have become a regular rail user, joining the many thousands of people commuting to (and from work) in the south.

As a regular rail user (Arriva Trains)I find that to be honest, aside from the occasional glitch (over running maintenance from weekends, periodic broken down trains, point’s failures and cable thefts, etc) most of the time the system seems to function. Having lived, worked and commuted in London (for some seven and half years) I find myself commuting by train again. On a good day I can make it from station to station (Treforest to Newport, etc) in around 50 mins (and that with one change) which is not too bad.

A simple choice: People before Profits
Other rail travellers are not so lucky, with rail franchise operators running services that ensure certain connections literally cannot be made, which is one way to avoid getting fined. This is not a satisfactory way to run a rail service, the key word here being ‘Service’. Obviously this state of affairs speaks volumes,especially as it fails to impact on the Westminster elite (I use the term loosely) as they tend not to travel by train very much (save when cultivating votes).

In much of our country trains a once cheap and reasonably reliable form of public transport is conspicuous by its absence, that not to mention costs and infrequent services deter actual and potential rail passengers. When you factor in the legacy of the Conservative and Labour rail service rundown and cuts in the 1960 and early 1970’s and excessive profiteering on the part of the privatised passenger franchise holders and much is explained.

Our country suffered particularly badly from rail cuts in the late 1960’s when Labour was in office under Harold Wilson, that and the pit closure programme that hit hard in the south and north east. The privatisation of British Rail, something that New Labour loudly boasted that they themselves would have done if the Conservatives had not already done it, was one of the latter significant more questionable ideologically driven batch of privatisations (between 1994 and 1997).

For the best part of ten years prior to privatisation British Rail could best perhaps have been described as starved of funds. The passenger arm was initially broken up upon privatisation into 25 seperate passenger franchises. Our country’s rail region Wales and West ended up as Wessex Trains and Wales and Borders which at one point included the Cardiff Railway Company services which operated as Valley Lines. This franchise was then split into two separate franchises, which are currently run by First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales.

Our current franchise was awarded to Arriva Trains Wales in 2003 and runs for 15 years, and is due to end in 2018. There have been many persistent calls for the rail franchise to be run as a not-for-profit operation – with profits being feed back into the system, rather than vanishing to pay shareholders dividends. The Welsh Government has been considering this option for when the deal ends. Arriva Trains Wales is the only train firm covered by the Welsh Government’s transport remit. Any longer-distance services e.g. Swansea or Cardiff to Paddington are currently operated by First Great Western who have their fares regulated by the Westminster Department for Transport.

Now while this may well be ancient history, but it has implications for the way the railway franchises run how their profits are made and where they go. Despite the best efforts of New Labour and the Con Dems to reduce it, the franchise companies still receive a significant chunk of public (state) funding. Basically this has to be repaid to the Government before any profits can be made on top – hence the regular (and painful) rise in rail fares. It would make more sense for profits made to stay in the system rather than get hovered up to pay shareholders dividends and senior mangers fat bonuses.

The service we currently get reflects the disinterested priorities of the franchise holder rather than our national priorities when it comes to our railways and the services we need. A couple of weeks ago, I used the Arriva trains service from Betws-y-Coed to Llandudno junction (my actual destination was Conwy) but connecting trains (that stop) could best be described as infrequent. The friendly advice was to walk across the bridge to the town rather than wait a few hours for the connecting service (as Conwy appears to be an infrequent request stop).

For those people who don’t know about it, the Conwy Valley line is one of our country’s most beautiful rail journeys (at least in my opinion) it runs from Llandudno (via Llandudno Junction) to Blaenau Festiniog is single track and served by a series of unstaffed  stations (some of which are request stops). If I am being honest the service provided could best be described as minimal and inconvenient for potential passengers, possibly far less of service runs on the line than at any time since the railway was built with a train every three hours on weekdays and Saturdays, with six departures per day each way in total.

The electrification of the local lines into Cardiff, Bridgend, Newport and Swansea is long overdue as is the tram system to link the Bay properly with the rest of Cardiff. The Transport (Wales) Act which came into effect in February 2006 gave the National Assembly the powers to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how much longer do we have to wait to see some vision? In the meantime the rail companies have been busy ramping up rail fares, attempting to reduce rail services, all with the tacit co-operation of the Westminster Labour Government and the Department for transport (in London).

Such duplicity has never been acceptable - it’s time for our government in Cardiff to take the long term view, to bite the bullet and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services across the whole of Wales. To do this effectively Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed in 2017 needs to be run on a not for dividend profit basis. That day cannot come soon enough!