Thursday, 28 February 2013


Surviving veterans of the Arctic convoys (and the much snubbed Bomber Command) have finally been recognised for their bravery and service with a new medal and award. The MoD has agreed on a design for the new Arctic Star medal and Bomber Command clasp. Honours will be sent out to veterans and their families as early as next month with surviving veterans and widows will be the first to receive the honours.

The families of deceased veterans who served will also be able to apply for the award. Over 3,000 men died in the freezing waters of the Arctic as they worked to keep supplies flowing through German blockades to Britain's ally, the Soviet Union, in Operation Dervish. The death toll of those serving in Bomber Command’s death rate was even higher with 55,000 airmen losing their lives.

Sixty years on the veterans bravery is being recognised with the Arctic Star medal for those who sailed on the convoys and the Bomber Command clasp for those who flew at least one operational mission over Germany and France.  An announcement is expected to be made in a written statement by Defence minister Mark Francois on Tuesday morning next week.

One reason why the Westminster Government has finally decided to act is that Russia wanted to present its own Ushakov Medal to Britons who had served on the convoys, but this move was blocked by the UK Foreign Office (FCO). The Westminster government rules on foreign awards meant permission could not be granted if veterans had received or were expected to receive a UK medal for the same services.

Cameron accepted the recommendations of a review of military medals carried out by former diplomat Sir John Holmes following a long campaign by veterans, their families and supporters. The Arctic convoys to the Soviet ports of Murmansk and Archangel were described as the "worst journey in the world" by Winston Churchill.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013


News that British Gas profits have risen because a colder 2012 meant people used more gas won’t surprise many people, let alone British Gas customers. British Gas revealed that profits from the residential energy of £606 million pounds for 2012, up 11% from the previous year, gas consumption had been up 12%. Profits are up 16% to £312 million pounds at its residential services unit, which covers services such as repairing boilers. Centrica, British Gas’s parent company, has reported an adjusted operating profit of £2.7 billion for 2012, up 14% from 2011.

Lest we forget, this winter British Gas raised its gas and electricity prices by 6% in November 2012, as did all of the other big six energy cartel members. Ofgem (Energy regulator) provided details of the plan last week, which will also limit the number of tariffs that suppliers can offer and force them to make bills clearer. The energy cartel’s excessive winter profit taking even provoked the Prime Minister David Cameron to step in and state that he was going to force them to put customers on their cheapest tariffs.

While this was nice, but it was more about being seen to look good as the Conservative pre-election pledge for an independent inquiry into the £25 billion-a-year energy industry long subject to lengthy and repeated criticisms about accusations of profiteering on electricity and gas was quietly dropped in August 2010.  The Conservatives have moved on from October 2009 when then Tory Energy Spokesman, Greg Clark (now Financial Secretary to the Treasury) said that the "cartel" of the big 6 energy firms would be referred to the Competition Commission by an incoming Conservative Government.

An 'independent' investigation into the Energy companies refusal to pass on reductions in wholesale energy prices to customers would have been nice as would the promised 'Energy Revolution' to overhaul the energy sector billing structure and charges. Then Tory Energy Spokesperson condemned the 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.

Oddly enough wholesale prices for domestic gas are currently lower than they were five years ago. At the moment it’s all about our pounds being in their pocket and maximising the cartel’s profits which coincidently boosts the Treasury’s tax revenues. Few of us this winter had as snug and toasty a relationship with the energy companies as that which exists between the political parties within the Westminster village (and without) 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 and repeatedly demanded an inquiry by the Competition Commission. Now the party formerly known as New Labour is busy trying to make political capital from the Con Dem’s failure to failure to tackle prices charged by the Big Six suppliers, something they conspicuously failed to do in the thirteen years they spent in office.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013


There is no reason why our country cannot be a self-reliant prosperous nation; the Welsh people are not predisposed by way of education, outlook or aspiration to be a poor people. Yet if you listen to Labour in Wales we will always be poor, we will have few economic prospects beyond handouts and independence is unaffordable, etc.  Like any simple untruth, keep it simple, repeat it often enough and people will start to believe it.

The fact that some parts of our country are suffering from a prolonged downward economic spiral that predates Labour in Westminster’s last period in power and the financial collapse should be noted. What our communities are facing now are the consequences of decisions generations of unionist (mostly Labour) politicians have consistently failed to make on behalf of Wales which are now impacting on our communities from one end of our country to the other.

Aside from the desire to make things better and the vision (something I believe that Labour in Wales is incapable of delivering) a Welsh government needs to have powers over our countries natural resources. We need to be able at a basic level to regulate, develop, control and own our sustainable energy (basically wind, water, wave and solar) resources. With the right leadership and some medium to long term thinking there is no reason why Wales cannot play a leading role in the development of a global low-carbon economy.

As a nation, when it comes to natural resources Wales is rich by way of comparison with some developing countries, our natural resources sustainably used could underpin a first class economy. The current devolution prevents a Welsh government from doing this even if it wanted too. Not for nothing was Water excluded specifically by the Labour in Westminster Government from the National Assembly’s powers and only energy projects up to 50MW (on shore) and 1 MW off-shore come under  the control of the National Assembly.

We need a Sovereign Wealth Fund for Wales to make sure that the benefits of the green energy revolution stay here rather than feeding shareholder dividends in the city (and elsewhere) and are used to ensure that the people of Wales get their full share of the energy and wealth created. Such a fund could act as a guarantee for further borrowing and could build to be an impressive multi-million pound source of funding. Some of which could be used to offer loans for small micro-generation projects.

The way things work at the moment wind farm developments tend make token gestures towards feeding some of their subsidized profits towards local communities. At best this might be considered patronizing, especially as local communities (along with the Welsh Government) are effectively excluded from any meaningful participation in the planning process if the development is over 50MW in size.

One size does not fit all, our Communities should be able to develop and benefit from small scale renewable energy projects and regeneration projects in their own areas. If we do this right then we can develop more community leadership, grow local ownership of renewable energy projects and develop more cooperative models of ownership. People living in communities close to renewable energy installations should also receive the benefits of discounted energy and local dividends for community projects.

If we do this right then our communities and our country can become less dependent and we can become more self-reliant socially and economically, ironically Labour in Wales, who are part of the problem rather than the solution, would no doubt come up with reasons to oppose any of this. We also need to ensure that democratic accountability and planning gain is built into the energy development process and that our communities are able benefit from community beneficial energy projects.

Monday, 25 February 2013


The Mold Cape
The Mold Gold Cape, a unique ceremonial Bronze Age gold cape (first discovered in Flintshire some 180 years ago) will go on display in Cardiff and Wrecsam this summer. The Cape, which may have been a woman's was made around 3,700 years ago, will be loaned to the National Museum in Cardiff in July, and then will move to the Wrecsam County Borough museum. The cape which normally resides amidst the vast collections of the British Museum in London, shows the degree of sophistication present in early British societies, which were part of a larger European trade and exchange network which stretched from north Wales to Scandinavia. The Mold cape, which was last displayed in the national museum in Cardiff in 1996 and 2001, when the Cape was last on display in Wrecsam (in 2005) 11,500 visitors saw in just 12 weeks. The cape will be on show at National Museum Cardiff from July 2nd to August 4th and at Wrecsam museum from August 7th to September 14th 2013. The cape, which is of international significance to our understanding of cultural expression and power relations in Early Bronze Age Europe should along with other significant archaeological artifacts go on permanent display here in Wales, where despite the best efforts of Labour in Wales elected representatives (locally, regionally and nationally) to close them, we actually still have museums where we could permanently display our country’s archaeological heritage.

Sunday, 24 February 2013


Last week in his State of the Union speech U.S. President Barack Obama declared that by the end of 2014 "our war in Afghanistan will be over." Aside from finally bring the soldiers home the end of this phase of the war in Afghanistan could have some long term consequences, including a slow but steady decrease in Western security interests, an increase in drug traffic and terrorism in Central Asia.  Will the West wash its hands of any involvement in Central Asia, something that will please Russia, the Peoples Republic of China and the drug dealers and the terrorists alike?

At the moment at least, US (and Western) policy is based on an assumption that the 350,000-strong Afghan National Army (with US assistance and advisers), will be able to hold off or at least manage the Taliban. After 2014, unless there is a political deal, the Taliban will stay in the field with varying degrees of control in most of the Pashtun areas and perhaps beyond them. How far have we come since the heady days of 2001, when the suggestion that a battered Taliban would still be active in the field thirteen years after the invasion, would have been treated with disbelief.

As the Soviet Union faded into history in the 1990s, Taliban were in control of much of Afghanistan, their success (and the support of Pakistan) encouraged other extremists in Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who had fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan was responsible for bomb attacks in Uzbekistan and kidnappings in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. After the invasion in 2001, splinter groups like the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Uzbekistan and targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Tashkent (in 2004).

At present both the IJU and IMU have sought safe refuge in those parts of Pakistan which could politely be described as being effectively ungoverned.  Once NATO leaves Afghanistan their fight may yet be carried back to Central Asia, no doubt fuelled with the support and encouragement of Pakistan’s military and intelligence community. Power, politics, water and Islamic inspired insurgency are just some of potential problems that may feed Central Asia’s future insecurities.

Power and water are connected by plans to construct dams in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which while boosting their economies also may threaten to reduce water for agriculture (cotton) in neighbouring Uzbekistan. There is already talk of ‘water wars’,  the flash point may be the lush (and relatively green) Ferghana Valley (which divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) with its complex mix of ethnic groups, it’s badly drawn borders (which date back to Stalin’s time) and fresh oppression, and a recruiting ground for Islamic jihadists. Back in 2005, Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters in Andijon (in Uzbekistan).

Ethnic tensions have been simmering for years, several hundred Uzbeks and a smaller number of Kyrgyz died in bloody ethnic clashes in Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) and in nearby areas. To make things worse a historical cesspool of corruption in Central Asia (dating back to Soviet times) has worked to undermine most people’s belief in effective or fair governance. Transparency International’s corruption perception index of 174 states, lists Kazakhstan at 133rd, Kyrgyzstan at 154th, Tajikistan at 157th, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are 170th. Afghanistan incidentally comes in at 174th; the UK comes in at 17th and Ireland at 25th.

Unfortunately for Central Asia, as the West’s interest in Afghanistan (and the rest of Central Asia) wanes as the Afghan war winds down, the region remains between ambitious reborn great powers in the shape of Russia and China. While some in the West may occasionally speak out against any moves by Russia to manipulate the CIS customs union to "re-Sovietize" Eurasia, soon there will be no Western boots (virtual or otherwise) on the ground let alone and desire to offer an alternative.

Kazakhstan, while resisting political union, is a member of the Russian dominated customs union. Neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with one-third to one-half of their economies being dependent on migrant-labour based remittance payments from Russia may not have the luxury of playing for time. As NATO influence wanes and it pulls out of its bases in the region, Russia may increase the pressure by offering protection by expanding its military foothold in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan which already reluctantly host Russian military bases.

For Central Asia, any choices may be stark ones, Russia to the north, Islamic fundamentalism to the south or the People’s Republic of China to the East. Already the PRC looms large in Central Asian economies, with opportunities for trade and inward investment. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan now ship energy long distances to the PRC, something that hope may help reduce the effectiveness of Russia’s effective control of export pipeline routes to the West.

The PRC already uses the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to boost its Central Asian interests, for now admittedly these are mainly economic and energy related. While the PRC does not at least publicly challenge Russia's geopolitical role, as China's economic and political influence increases the Central Asian states freedom of action may be further reduced.

As NATO troop reductions in Afghanistan proceed, so NATO's need for logistical support via the northern distribution network in Central Asia will further diminish. The Central Asian governments, who are increasingly concerned that a NATO pullback (let alone a pullout) will leave the region more exposed to subversion and increased Russian and Chinese influence. Ironically the Central Asian States want continued Western support to hold off the IMU and IJU, to counter narcotics smuggling, and to help them keep Russian and Chinese power at arm’s length.

The brief 12 year period when the West’s had relative freedom of action in Central Asia is closing. Back in 2001, Russia effectively gave the USA and its coalition partners the go ahead to use bases in the region to support operations in Afghanistan. Now a more confident Russia is actively working to remove any NATO presence and influence from the region and is opposed to any Western involvement in dealing with the ongoing narcotics and terrorism problems.

In many ways the West failed to either effectively or consistently deal with the emergence of the newly independent Central Asian states and more widely failed to deal effectively with the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the independent successor states. Western aid was relatively scare, and not tied into a respect for human rights and civil liberties. The often authoritarian governments have quite happily used security tools against their domestic protesters, something that has quite often fed political unrest and fundamentalism.

As NATO prepares to leave Afghanistan (and the region) what legacy if any will it leave behind? There should be some areas for security cooperation, information exchange and border security with the Central Asian states. There should be a more robust sharing of intelligence about terrorism, narcotics, and criminal threats. This could add to the solid, low-key work by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union that has already been undertaken.

After 2014, it is quite possible that Central Asia will go back to being the focal point of yet another new Great Game, this time the battleground where outsiders seek to impose their influence may well only have two players, Russia and the PRC. Central Asian governments may well need assistance to securing themselves against external dangers, but the reality is that historic autocratic rule, weak governance and grim human rights records are as big a contributors to political instability as the threat of home grown or foreign Islamic insurgencies.

Thursday, 21 February 2013


It would appear that Labour in Wales’s elected representatives in Cardiff Bay have finally woken up from their self induced slumber and called for more powers over Policing, road safety, speed and drink driving limits, ports, licensing of alcohol, Water, etc. Interestingly enough the Welsh government also wants a shorter timescale for devolving powers in relation to rail services and infrastructure, and the responsibilities for the appointment of the Welsh member of the BBC Trust as well as the chair and members of the S4C Authority. Labour in Wales have also made it pretty clear that any transfer of further powers would need to be accompanied by full budget transfers from the Treasury, and that no further referendum would be required for any of their proposals to take effect. This does make a welcome change of pace from the self induced inertia that has gone before and the changes may well be a result of the possible consequences of a Scottish independence referendum finally beginning to sink in. Not surprisingly Labour in Westminster’s elected representatives from Wales were pretty quick to leap to their own defence (or at least the defence of their own interests), no doubt much muttering will duly follow behind closed doors (even perhaps from the as yet silent Peter ‘the Pain’ Hain, unless he is too busy representing other people interests).

Monday, 18 February 2013


Petrol prices have risen again (locally from 129.9 to 133.9 per litre) but as most of us will have noticed by now when it comes to fuel (energy) prices they mostly tend to go up and stay up over the longer term regardless of occasional short-term drops in price. Despite the recession related blips general longer term trend for hydrocarbon prices in much of the world appears to remain steadily upwards.

Partially this is unavoidable due to increasing demands for more energy (particularly from energy hungry India and China), the growing planetary population and the short term nature of our planet’s hydro carbon fuel reserves. This trend is relatively easy to plot (even in the short term) and the medium and long-term consequences of being dependent upon energy resources that you don't actually control should be pretty self evident to even the dimmest Westminster politician.

That said it’s worth noting that there are basically two types of energy resources primary and secondary. Primary energy is energy that is largely supplied without being transformed e.g. crude oil, natural gas, and coal and secondary energy that requires a transformative (often energy intensive and sometimes polluting) process to refine it before it can be used to produce energy.

As of March 2012 around two thirds of UK primary energy demand was met from domestic production. Coal accounted was barely 4% of final energy consumption by fuel in 2010. Almost all UK oil and gas production came from the seas that surround the UK. Peak oil (for the UK) happened in 1999, and Peak gas production took place back in 2000. Since then the UK has moved from a position of relative self-sufficiency to one of dependency on imported oil and gas.

By 2009, imported gas was around 32% of the total gas used. 58% came from Norway, 25% from liquefied natural gas (LNG) from various different countries, 16% came from the Netherlands, and 2% came via the Belgian interconnector pipeline. The increased reliance on imported oil and gas left the UK far more open to supply risks associated with global supply constraints and price volatility. The UK Government periodically punted plans to reduce the need for oil and gas imports, by pushing primary energy production, and by developing low-carbon alternatives such as electric vehicles, biofuels and fuel efficiency.

The writing is not so much on the wall as on TV, as last Tuesday saw the first airing of a Gazprom advert on UK domestic television advert – they sponsor the European Champions League.  Russia has periodically put the squeeze on gas exports to the Ukraine, (currently some 80 per cent of Russian gas exports to the EU flow through the Ukraine) so the real dangers of relying on imported energy from unreliable sources have been clearly highlighted.

Russia (with full coffers) has ridden out most of the consequences of fluctuating oil prices and appears to have managed to avoid any real consequences of declining cash reserves despite its economy being heavily reliant on oil and gas exports. While some countries subsidise their fuel prices (just how sustainable that is over the medium to longer term is open to debate), in the UK this does not happen, so everybody wins, Government gets more tax revenue, the oil companies get more profit, and us the ordinary punters get consistently fleeced.

As for gas, some states have made efforts to protect themselves against external shocks to their energy needs; France was able to store 122 days of gas and Germany able to store 99 days worth (2009 figures). Here in the UK the almost entirely market driven approach turned out to be entirely inadequate, in the UK had a storage capacity which would have lasted for only 15 days (2009 figures). Some countries discuss the issue of energy independence at the highest level here in the UK such talk is best avoided.

New Labour took the best part of a decade to recognise the need to increase storage capacity and the UK has been playing catch up ever since. One consequence of this lack of storage capacity is that UK had to sell gas during the summer and purchase gas again when it is needed in the winter. The Conservative’s headlong dash to gas in the 1980’s was accompanied by a complete failure in strategic energy planning. The situation has been made worse by the current Government's decision to somewhat half-heartedly look at developing diverse reliable alternative energy sources whilst pursing yet another dash for gas.  

The last New Labour Government and the current Con Dem Government largely ignored repeated warnings that the lack of sustainable energy has set the UK on a path towards higher domestic energy prices and potential power blackouts. Over the next four to six years almost all of our old nuclear reactors, along with nine major coal and oil-fired power stations, will be run down and closed, with nothing ready to replace them.

We are now in the situation where we will become even more dependent upon imported gas from either unstable regions or dubious suppliers. The Con Dem’s solution to was to rush to go Nuclear and to effectively hand the Nuclear industry lock stock and barrel over to French energy companies who are busy paying off large loans to the French government. Anyway that was the plan, although the wheels seem to be coming of that particular wagon.

Now Cameron (and Westminster’s) focus is on Shale Oil/Gas as the great panacea for the UK’s energy problems – the problem is unlike primary energy sources the extraction and preparation of shale oil/gas is energy intense and certainly based on the Canadian experience exceptionally polluting. Even if Europe chooses not to chase Shale then developments elsewhere in the world could mean that as had been said elsewhere we can effectively kiss goodbye to curbing climate chance for ever and bequeath rising sea levels, wild weather and pollution to our descendants.

Even if the environmental and pollution issues could be addressed (and we don’t appear to be anywhere close to doing that at the moment ) there are other significant issues. For one, Shale oil/gas is a finite resource, there is just like oil, coal and gas, there is little chance of extracting 100% of reserves. What we may be talking about extracting something like 40 or 50% of it – which might last around 10 years – the big question is what happens then? While we use the brief window of Shale based energy are we going to develop secure energy supplies for the future or is this merely short term fix?

What successive Westminster Governments (since 1997) should have done was to  work with the devolved governments and the Irish Government to make these islands entirely self sufficient via renewable non market driven energy resources run by not for profit companies. They should have developed a flexible self-sufficient energy development strategy that encourages decentralised microgeneration. This could create jobs, useful skills and bootstrap the economy out of the recession as well as helping consumers by delivering community beneficial energy schemes – significantly successive Westminster governments have chosen not to do this.

Wales needs direction not Carwyn’s platitudes when it comes to the development of safe and secure energy resources. The renewable energy sector can play a key role in creating sustainable green energy jobs for local people, not damage the environment and provide our communities with a long-term viable economic energy future, that’s should be the real future dividend for our communities rather than the shareholders in the City or provide well paid jobs on the board for former Westminster politicians. 

Friday, 15 February 2013


News that Downing Street has public criticised the retailers for their silence in the on-going horsemeat scandal may well be a significant development in the questionable relationship between the politicians (at Westminster and elsewhere) and the large supermarket retailers. With Downing Street criticising the apparent reluctance of stores involved in selling affected products to step up to the plate and comment publicly on the horsemeat crisis – this could be interpreted as David Cameron telling the supermarkets that they are on their own and that its time to face the music.

The BBC quoting Number 10 sources reported that they were told that “it isn't acceptable for retailers to remain silent while customers have been misled about the content of the food they have been buying". They also allegedly said that  those selling affected products should answer key questions such as how did the crisis arise, what inquiries have supermarkets made about their suppliers and how can any similar problems be avoided in the future.

Some people will always seek to maximise profits, regardless of the consequences for the rest of us. This whole sorry saga is about chasing profit, with the pressure coming down from above for the cheapest red meat, so that profits can be maximised by the retailers at the cost of quality. The retailers silence is telling, as their persistent failure to ask too many questions (or looking the other way) on the part of the larger retailers has led us to where we are now.

Irish food inspectors announced last month they had found horsemeat in some beefburgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK, and sold by a number of UK supermarket chains including Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl. Since then, a growing number of UK retailers have recalled processed beef products found to contain horse DNA. UK police are currently investigating allegations that horsemeat was mislabelled as beef have arrested three men on suspicion of offences under the Fraud Act.

In response to finding themselves (temporarily) out in the cold some the reluctant purveyors of hidden horsemeat said that they would speak out once the results of tests to determine the presence of horsemeat in processed meals are released. The first results of industry-wide tests are due to be released sometime today (Friday 15th February 2013), they were ordered by the Food Standards Agency after the revelation that quantities of horsemeat had entered some beef ready meals.

Samples of beef products have been examined in laboratories for traces of horse DNA as part of the tests, and food retailers said they would have results from about 30% of their product ranges.
Retailers said getting through all their processed beef ranges could take several weeks. Some shops have already recalled products they found to be contaminated - including Asda which withdrew a beef bolognese sauce on Thursday, the first fresh beef product to be involved. Aldi, Tesco and Findus have also withdrawn some beef-based ready meals.

The problem with hidden horsemeat is not limited to the UK and Ireland as food safety experts from across Europe are due to meet in Brussels this morning to  try to draw up plans on how to conduct DNA testing of a large number of beef food products across much of the continent in the next few g weeks. This meeting follows accusations from the French government who accused meat processing company Spanghero of knowingly selling horsemeat labelled as beef. The firm has denied the allegations, saying it only ever dealt in meat it believed to be beef.

In the wake of the hidden horsemeat scandal it will come as no real surprise that trade in local butcher’s shops has risen by around 15%. What’s important is that the entire meat industry isn't tarred with the same brush and that people finally recognise the benefits of buying produce sourced locally. Here in Wales, we have excellent quality red meat much of which reaches us through our local butcher and other local shops rather than the larger retail outlets.

Our surviving local butchers and local shops are the vital backbone of the Welsh meat industry, so it’s important that they receive the support they need and deserve. This horsemeat scandal will knock customer confidence in the supermarkets, so what better way of helping this important sector of our local economy than by buying the safer, healthier option in local butchers shops and giving a much needed boost to some of our small businesses.

Thursday, 14 February 2013


News that there will be real-term cuts in the EU Budget which could hit hard some of Wales' poorest communities is not good news. We are set to lose out on around £1 billion pounds over the next seven years, which threatens to jeopardise the future of important fields such as agriculture and education. Seeking to score points Labour in Wales MPs voted alongside Conservative Euro sceptic MP’s simply to show loyalty to their colleagues in London rather than to stand up for the people they are allegedly supposed to be representing as MP’s for constituencies in Wales.

Plaid Cymru's Jonathan Edwards MP  said:

"The confirmation that the EU Budget faces real-terms cut is devastating news for Wales.

"As a net beneficiary of EU membership, some areas of Wales receive structural funds for all-important fields such as agriculture and education - funding which is vitally important for some of our poorest communities that are not only some of the worst off in Wales but throughout Europe.

"Areas such as West Wales and the Valleys are new set to miss out on vital EU cash that could have helped develop our economy.

"Those Labour MPs who voted with right-wing Eurosceptics must now make a public apology to the people they have betrayed for their role in the vote that started the chain of events leading to today's announcement.

"Plaid Cymru have always maintained that Wales' future lies within Europe. It is now clearer than ever that we are the only party working in the Welsh national interest."

Now when it comes to Europe I think there is a clear need for reform and proper democratic accountability. Regional policy is important to Wales, what’s alarming is that many people in our country appear to have missed the fact that both the Conservative and the Labour parties are calling for an end to EU regional policy. Thanks to the EU’s regional policy we have tapped into significant structural funding to create jobs and build the economy in some of our poorest areas, as well as substantial agricultural support for our farmers across our rural areas.

We have received more than 2 billion pounds in EU structural funding over the past seven years not to mention other forms of financial support for example, for students, fisheries and small businesses.  What’s actually been done with the money and how effectively it has been spent is another issue! Perhaps if those Labour in Wales and Conservative MP’s in Westminster had actually worked for Wales and protected Welsh interests then we would never have needed or been eligible for European regional funding in the first place.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013


The Welsh Memorial in Flanders Campaign aims to build a cromlech in Flanders to commemorate all Welsh soldiers who served during the First World War. The plan is to have the monument completed by the centenary of the war's outbreak in 2014. Local residents in Flanders have already donated land for the memorial. The Passchendaele Society suggested there should be a memorial to the Welsh soldiers who fought in the area. The Society and the Langemark Commune joined forces to purchase a piece of ground near Iron Cross on the Pilckem Ridge and planning permission was granted.

In 1917 there was significant Welsh involvement in the Salient with the 38th (Welsh) Division, the 29th Division with the 2nd South Wales Borderers and the 2nd Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment and the Welsh Guards in the Guards Division all serving at the front. The memorial will honour all Welshmen serving in many other Welsh units throughout the Salient from 1914 onwards and also in the multitude of non-Welsh units, not to forget the artillery, medical, supply and Tunnelling Companies, amongst other units.

Wales lost more men per capita than any other nation involved in the conflict. The appeal has raised around £11,000 pounds and the stones for the cromlech have been donated, but another £60,000 pound is needed to complete the memorial. Anyone wishing to contribute towards the project can pay direct into a Lloyds/TSB account under Sort Code 30-93-53 and make cheques out to ‘Welsh memorial in Flanders campaign’.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


The ongoing budget cuts being made by the Labour in Newport run City Council run the risk of doing some pretty long term damage across the city, with potential loss of jobs at the council, the loss of the in schools music programme, the reduction in sports facilities and the loss of the popular superdragons programme to name but a few. This is only the beginning as a result of Labour in Newport City Councils latest budget cuts - the Newport Art Gallery Temporary Exhibitions Programme has been scrapped. The latest budget cuts as approved by Labour Cabinet members will see the gallery lose the programme in its entirety as a public service with an approximate cost saving of around £40,000 per year.

The Temporary Exhibitions Programme offered the Council long term strategic potential, high profile and high quality public programmes. It should be a showcase for cultural programming that benefits the city and brought in significant additional Arts Council of Wales funding and investment. Had the programme survived then it would have greatly enhanced the development of a new Newport County Council cultural strategy. The decision to cut the programme appears to have been based on a simple cost saving rather than strategic thought.

This was the only artistic programme in the art gallery (which still has fixed displays of objects and art from the museum collection). Back in August the newly refurbished spaces launched an exhibition of paintings by Geraint Evans, as late as October the Llew Smith radical Christmas card exhibition (no doubt this was Labour in Newport approved culture) was opened. These exhibitions brought in new and repeat visitors to the art gallery, and museum and generated positive publicity and public interest. The plan (such as it is) is for the Temporary Exhibitions Programme to be replaced with a single static exhibition drawn from the permanent collections (and no further programming thereafter).

The Temporary Exhibitions Programme was a city centre attraction (they even ran an exhibition on the Newport County’s 100th anniversary) which brought much needed visitors to the centre of Newport. It enjoyed sustained success and maintained visitor levels in recent years – and it also tapped into funding from Arts Council of Wales. Ironically 2013, was planned (pre-cut) to be a very high profile year with 14 planned exhibitions (double the previous number despite a smaller budget).

Now our Art Gallery, if rumours are to be believed, may close entirely within a year – Labour in Newport’s self justifying logic may run along the lines of there is no point in maintaining a Temporary Exhibition Programme if there won’t be a galley! Yet artistic programming, in theatres, arts centres, galleries and museums can play an important part in developing a healthy and sustainable culture.

More recent budget cuts along with the proposed new budget cut have been developed without any consultation, being entirely a local management decision. As a result of two recent Museums and Heritage restructures the city’s museums and heritage service has been left with a vastly reduced portfolio - Tredegar House is now run by the National Trust (this was a sensible decision as to avoid a well loved asset being run into the ground) and our transporter bridge has become a seasonal project. Staff reductions at both the Museum and Art Gallery and The Medieval Ship Project have taken place with the loss of a number of non-managerial jobs.

The Labour in Newport City Council never put this and countless other proposals for budget cuts out for consultation as it is writ the Labour in Newport ruling group rubber stamp will follow on the 26th February 2013. The Labour in Newport ruling group has almost entirely without any public knowledge (save for the valiant efforts of the South Wales Argus and campaigners) or consultation rolled through a series of severe budget cuts.

Little more than lip service to any real form of public consultation has been paid; as while asking on-line for comments on the budget no details of the actually budget can actually be obtained. It’s pretty clear that Labour in Newport don’t do culture or consultation...but they definitely do cuts. Quite how the cuts will be spun to the public by a certain ambitious Labour City Cabinet member seeking to replace Paul Flynn as MP (for Newport West) next time remains to be seen.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Last week Citizen Cameron failed to reduce the number of MP’s from 650 to 600, with the proposed reform of the parliamentary boundaries Wales would have seen a reduction of 25% of its MP’s  (10 out of 40). Incidentally the figure of 40 MP’s was merely historically plucked out of the air. A number of Labour’s in Wales’s elected representatives would have been culled, hence the loud and persistent bleating from some of those usual suspects. Aside from Citizen Cameron’s patience being tried what has been lost was a much needed opportunity to reform the way our National Assembly members are elected.

Lord Elis-Thomas, interviewed on BBC Wales' The Wales Report (last Sunday) advocated reducing the number of Wales' local authorities as part of a wider package of reform, which included reducing the number of Welsh MPs and increasing the number of assembly members. He was absolutely right to link reform of governance at all levels with the introduction of Single Transferable Vote system of voting.  If we are going to reform governance (at all levels in Wales) then it must suit Welsh needs and aspirations rather than blindly following a British model which may not necessarily suit our needs.

If we approach the subject of Wales’s governance rationally then our country is at some levels actually somewhat overburdened with elected representatives. Wales with a population of 3.06 million has 60 AMs, 40 MP’s (at the moment), 4 MEPS; we have 1264 councilors (one for every 1830 electors). Wales also has around 8000 community councillors; out of some 875 'communities' in Wales, 735 of them have a council. Let’s not forget our unelected tier of government with its Assembly Government Sponsored Bodies, Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies (formerly known as quangos) and the seven Health Boards.

So how does Wales compare with other countries when it comes to governance? Scotland with a population of 5.2 million people has 59 MPs, 129 MSP’s and 6 MEP’s. Scotland has 1,222 councilors (one for every 3180 electors) and 32 unitary authorities. There are also 1,200 community council’s in Scotland, incidentally a country where the law states that candidates cannot stand on a party-political ticket. Scotland also has 14 Health Boards, 7 regional transport partnerships, while the Police and  Emergency services are currently undergoing reorganisation.

Slovenia with a population of 2.05 million with 90 elected representatives in its Assembly (88 directly elected and 2 representatives for the Hungarian and Italian minorities) and 7 MEP’s. Slovenia has 211 municipalities (eleven are urban municipalities), all the municipalities have local autonomy. Each municipality has an elected Mayor (elected every 4 years), and a Municipal Council. In the most of the municipalities, the municipal council is elected via PR with some smaller municipalities using a plurality voting system. Slovenia’s urban municipalities have elected Town or City Councils. The country also has 62 administrative districts which are merely territorial sub-units of government administration, each of which has a Head of the Unit who is appointed by the Minister of Public Administration.

A strong case can and should be made for our 22 local authorities to be reorganised into between five and seven counties (with Cardiff as a municipal region in its own right). Such a reorganisation would match the already completed reorganisation of our local health boards which have been reduced in number to seven.  The Conservatives ideologically driven reorganisation of local government in the 1990’s aside from being flawed, replaced several large authorities with 22 smaller authorities. This had more to do with breaking up perceived centres of monolithic Labour power and trying to create local authorities that he conservatives might win control of, than making local government more efficient.

Locally the former county of Gwent was abolished being replaced by five councils which covered; Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport and Monmouth. Almost overnight, one chief executive was replaced by five seperate chief executives, five heads of education, five heads of social services and deputies, etc, etc. Any relative economies of scale vanished being replaced by five seperate purchasing organisations, etc. Many of the local authorities, well before the age of austerity in which we no languish were struggling to make ends meet and most of them had to operate with poor financial settlements.

Our institutions at all levels need to be fully democratic being elected with Single Transferable Vote and multiple member constituencies so that they cease to dominated by single political parties and are fit for the twenty first century, rather than the nineteenth. Along the way we can cull the number of highly paid council cabinet members, reduce the number of councilors, and reintroduce some joined up thinking along with sensible economies of scale, and cut out that local government middle management tier without cutting front line services.

Sunday, 3 February 2013


We live in interesting times, public transport wise at least, with the distinct possibility that the rail franchise system operating system, rather than the trains themselves, is ceasing to operate. The UK Transport secretary has instructed preparations be made for Directly Operated Railways, which is a government owned company, to undertake the minimum preparatory measures necessary to operate train services in the event of a failure to agree the terms of an interim agreement with the existing Franchise operator for the Great Western rail franchise.

This announcement follows the news that the competition to run the Great Western rail franchise between south Wales and London is being scrapped. This follows advice from the Chair of Eurostar Richard Brown who has been investigating the collapse of the West Coast Main Line franchise deal. Back in March (2012) FirstGroup, National Express, Stagecoach, and Arriva (part of Deutsche Bahn) were all short-listed for the Great Western franchise.

The UK Transport Secretary (Patrick McLoughlin) is looking to negotiate an interim franchise of at least two years with current operator FirstGroup. In a Parliamentary statement, the UK Transport Secretary announced that he would begin "a more fundamental review of the franchise proposition, recognising that this is a large and complex franchise which will need to manage service delivery whilst the route is electrified and new rolling stock is introduced."

A parliamentary report into the collapse of the West Coast Main line franchise deal, was not unanimous, several committee members markedly choose not to blame government ministers. The report which scrutinised the scrapping of the £5 billion pound franchise revealed that the decision cost around £50 million pounds of public money.

The Department for Transport has chosen to blame human error for the fiasco and admitting that "Independent experts concluded the collapse of the West Coast franchise programme was caused by a number of failures including inadequate planning and weak governance structure, but not systematic failings in the department.” Despite this the DfT has chosen resume the competition for the Essex Thameside (15 years), Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise (7 years), while suspending the completion for the Great Western franchise.

The collapse of the West Coast Main Line franchise deal which MPs said was the result of "irresponsible decisions" and "major failures" on the part of the DfT and the civil service people may wonder whether the rail franchise system is fit for purpose. Interestingly enough back in July 2009, the then New Labour government stepped in to run a failing private rail franchise - the East Coast Rail Service - which was a polite way to effectively nationalise it, because National Express was in difficulty. National Express also ran the Stanstead Express, East Anglia and c2c - but walked away from running the East Coast Service (which it operated as standalone company, NXEC) yet got to carry on running those bits of the network it could squeeze a profit from?

All of this nonsense is carried on at our expense. Clearly the rail franchise system is no longer working as envisaged when the railways were broken up privatised. It’s time to do something different and to run our railways on a not-for-distributable-profit basis, so that profits would be ring fenced for reinvestment in rail services rather than pumping up the profits and the dividends.