Thursday, 27 June 2013


Before you can find the solution to a problem you first have to recognise that there is a problem – so rather than talking about ‘Food Security’ we should be talking about ‘Food Insecurity’. Some interesting research produced for Defra by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) suggests that the UK is likely to be hit by increasingly unstable food prices as the climate is disrupted. The report warns that global production of some foodstuffs is concentrated in a few countries and that these countries are likely to suffer increasing episodes of extreme weather.

Basically what it comes down to is that the effects of climate change abroad will have a far more immediate impact initially on the UK than direct climate change.  PWC has noted in its report that that while there will be some opportunities for the UK from climate change these are likely to be outweighed by resultant problems. Short term opportunities may include the export of technology and reduced shipping costs if the Arctic becomes ice-free (which if the UK retained a merchant navy might have been a real opportunity).

They note that the Arctic looks likely to be a big business opportunity; with research estimates suggesting that it is likely to attract more than £64 billion pounds of investments over the next ten years. Yet the biggest threats remain increased volatility in food prices and possible protectionist measures over food supplies being brought in e.g. India's ban on selling rice. The report warns that as the climate changes, there will be pressure for the UK to increase its aid budgets.

PWC’s report comes in the wake of a recent UK Government Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) which has assessed domestic threats and opportunities and the Foresight study into international climate change. This was based on the UN's "medium CO2 emissions scenario" (where there will only be a 2C maximum temperature increase) which is a target that won’t be met.  Chatham House has described climate change as a multiplier of other threats.

Here in the UK we have already adjusted to the fact that food and fuel prices are already pretty volatile, we don’t like it but we have little choice but to live with it. Yet our respective governments have not adjusted to the new reality and are pretty much carrying on like pursuing the same old policies. It’s time to face up to the fact that  there will be implications at home from environmental change, including water scarcity and extreme weather elsewhere, which will affect food production and the shipment of key resources and that this is something that  looks as though it will get worse.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


As part of the public spending review, the Chancellor George Osbourne announced that the Welsh government's budget will be cut by two per cent in 2015. Revealing details of the spending review MPs were told that the day-to-day revenue budget would be set at £13.6 billion pounds. He also revealed that the UK government would publish its response to the Silk commission on assembly powers shortly and details of an "impressive" M4 relief road plan would be revealed on Wednesday. The Wales Office (the Whitehall department) which represents Wales in the UK government would get a cut of 10% in its running costs. The Welsh government budget cuts are part of £11.5 billion pound savings from the UK government's overall spending plans of £740 billion pounds. Mr Osborne has more than once (before today) highlighted the need for a M4 relief road around Newport, while supporters of the scheme, and those who oppose it were hoping that the Chancellor would give the scheme the go-ahead this week it now appears that they and the residents of Brynglas (who’s homes have been threatened by a new M4 tunnel) will now have to wait a little longer before they get a definitive answer. Serious questions remain over how much the project will cost up to £1 billion pounds will be paid for? Will it be a toll road? Just exactly how better the money could be spent?

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


A former Welsh Government Minister returns?
It can be said to have started with an Estynreport on surplus school places, initiated no doubt by the then Minister for Education, Leighton Andrews (LA), and ended with a resignation. The report was welcomed by the Welsh Government and no doubt Mr Andrews as Minister of Education.  There is a problem with the number of empty school places which Schools Inspectorate for Wales has said needs to be cut to save money and improve standards. Understandably Estyn reports that local councils are reluctant to take difficult decisions and need to do more to re-organise or close schools with surplus places. Estyn noted that there were nearly 100,000 surplus places in Wales last year. No one understandably wants to close local schools and school governors and teachers leaders have said that the issue is more complex and needs more consideration. That was back in May, when the Welsh government welcomed the report and said decisive action was needed. What followed owed more to farce that politics, as the Education Minister was photographed holding a banner in support of Pentre Primary School in his Rhondda constituency. Quite how well that went down with Carwyn Jones (CW), the First Minister, is open to interpretation. One interpretation was that the Education Minister was hardly defending his own government’s policies. That was last week, well a week can be said to be a long time in politics, and Mr Andrews had form for opposing Labour Welsh Government policies having been photographed opposing the hospital reoganisation plans of his own government. Cleary CW operates some sort of ‘two strikes and you are out’ policy, so the Education Minister duly resigned this afternoon. Have we seen the last of Leighton Andrews, probably not, the pool of talent (and I use the term loosely) in Welsh labour leaves a great deal to be desired, so no doubt just like former public enemy number one Dr Fu Manchu, we shall hear from him again.

Monday, 24 June 2013


Well there you have it or perhaps not not? Any changes in the running of the Severn bridges must benefit motorists from both Wales and England, a UK Westminster government minister has warned. The Welsh government has indicated that it would like to take ownership of the two Severn Bridges when they come back into public ownership in 2018.  By then it is expected that Severn River Crossings plc will have milked its cash cow to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. Meanwhile in Cardiff, Carwyn Jones has said any money left over from tolls could go towards upgrading the existing M4 (in Wales) and Westminster Transport Minister Stephen Hammond has said that no decisions (one way or the other) have been made over ownership or tolls.

While the Severn Bridges and the tolls may be out or sight and out of mind to Westminster ministers - perhaps as our interests and our county are peripheral to the Westminster mindset – that does not help us very much. This sorry state of affairs may be a result of abandoning future planning to the ‘free market’ if nothing else it is a clear indication that the concept of forward planning and taking the long view no longer fits  into the Westminster worldview.  Differences of opinion between Wales and Westminster are not new, what makes this latest spat more ironic is that the Welsh Conservatives have nailed their colours to the mast by calling for control of the Severn Bridges to reside in the hands of the Welsh people.

Last year a report for the Welsh government suggestedthat 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. Studies into the impact of the Severn Bridge Tolls on our economy are nothing new. Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economicstudy of the Severn Bridge tolls which has recommended that the revenues should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses found 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 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. Under the current stitch up (sorry set-up), once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing is paid off less on-going maintenance costs (possibly by 2018) then that handy revenue stream will revert to Treasury coffers in Westminster. 

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Quality time for Bankers?
I have no problem with most of the recommendations from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which suggested that senior bankers who are guilty of reckless misconduct should be jailed. That’s fine with me, and probably lots of people, but what about the politicians who appear to have largely escaped censure beyond the prospect of being elevated to the House of Lords. Personally I would have been happier had the commission recommended that the politicians who were responsible for the crash in the first place could be held to account (as happened in Iceland) and subject to conviction, should also have faced the prospect of going to jail.

The weighty 571-page report has recommended that the government review alternatives for selling off the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), including breaking it up, and has demanded action to make the banking market more competitive. In relation to RBS, the committee only suggested that the Westminster government formally look at different options for the nationalised bank by September 2013. Some committee members recommended splitting RBS between a "good bank" (an active High Street lender with a cleaned-up balance sheet) and a "bad bank" (a warehouse for all of the dud loans left over from last decade's debt bubble).

Another option, which was backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and committee member Justin Welby suggested breaking RBS up into a number of smaller regional banks. The committee cautioned against rushing to privatise the bank, which it said risked getting poor value for the taxpayer, and because the committee believed RBS first needed to be restructured, in order to make sure it played its key role in supporting the economy. This is the cross-party parliamentary group's fifth report laid into the lack of accountability of bankers and also recommended that some bankers bonuses be withheld for up to 10 years - something that would probably not upset many people, save for the bankers.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


Thames Water, the UK's biggest water firm, has paid no corporation tax this financial year not to mention making £145 million pounds in pre-tax profit. The company said that it had delayed paying corporation tax due to investments in its infrastructure amounting to £1billion pounds a year between 2010 and 2015. They blamed the government as ‘the government's tax system allows us to delay, not avoid, payment of tax based on how much we invest." Last year Thames Water increased bills by 6.7% last year and its revenues rose 6% to £1.8 billion pounds.

Meanwhile Dwr Cymru Welsh Water put £338 million pounds into capital projects in the past year, some £76 million pounds more than in 2012. Dwr Cymru Welsh Water has three million customers, and has kept bills to the same level in real terms as in 2001. Research by Cardiff University claims the company is worth £1billion pounds a year to the Welsh economy. Its financial results come in a different form to companies with shares on the stock market. As the company is owned by the not-for-profit company Glas Cymru means that savings or efficiencies are ploughed back into Dwr Cymru or used to keep bills as low as possible.

Glas Cymru was founded 12 years ago, and works from the premise that having a public service company, which is a monopoly, being run on the basis of profit maximisation for shareholders does not work in the customers' interest. The Glas Cymru non-profit model of ownership could work elsewhere in other businesses and industries including rail franchises and energy developments.

Research published by Cardiff Business School said that Dwr Cymru contributes £1 billion pounds to the Welsh economy every year. Basically for  every £1 spent by the company, another 56p is generated for the rest of the Welsh economy. The research also noted that the water regulator Ofwat saying that between 2009/10 and 2014/15 Dwr Cymru customers face the lowest increase in average household bills of all water and sewerage companies in England and Wales.

On top of the £338 million pounds spent on infrastructure last year, the company is already committed to spending another £650 million pounds over the next two years, which could result in jobs for around 1,000 construction workers. The company has also reported that their financial reserves amount to £1.6 billion pounds, that's a tenfold increase compared with 2001 when Dwr Cymru was taken over by Glas Cymru. Dwr Cymru's borrowing or gearing has also come down. It now stands at 63% compared with 65% last year and 93% in 2001.

Monday, 17 June 2013


Speaking as an occasional amateur archaeologist I can recall the excitement surrounding the discovery of the Newport Ship (a fifteenth-century sailing vessel) when it was discovered (and excavated) by archaeologists back in 2002. The remains of the ship were found on the west bank of the River Usk, during the construction of the Riverfront Arts Centre. The then Labour in Newport Council had no plans to preserve the ship, which save for a highly effective public protest and the thousands of people who turned up and formed a long and  orderly queue to see the excavations (and to show their support) it would have been quietly turned to matchwood.

Flocking to see the Newport Ship (in 2002)
Faced with protests the decision to excavate and preserve the Newport ship (as it became known) was made – this was (and still is) the correct decision for an artefact of such historical significance. As a result all of the ship's timbers were raised and transferred to a dedicated industrial unit, possibly the biggest wood conservation centre in the UK now that that the Mary Rose project in Portsmouth has been completed. Preservation and research continue, despite problems with future funding, iinitial estimates suggested that the preservation process would cost around £3.5 million pounds, this funding stream came from the Welsh Government, Newport City Council and the from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Newport ship was originally around 80 feet (24 metres) long, which made it more than capable of continental voyages.  Recovered artefacts suggest that the ship was trading with Portugal in the fifteenth century. The abundance of artefacts linked with Portugal argues even that the ship was also built there. Dendrochronology has given a likely felling date of 1465 and 1466 for some of the timbers used in both its construction and its repair. Remnants of a cradle found beneath the ship suggested that it had been berthed for repair but then abandoned.

Waiting to see the Newport Ship (in 2002)
Preservation is only part of the process, as the recovered remains (which include some 1700 ship timbers and the artefacts) are too large to be put on display  in the basement of the new arts centre, the Newport Ship needs a new home. As had been said elsewhere the Ship is one of the Europe's most important pieces of medieval archaeology and is an important piece of maritime history. Some eleven years of hard work has been spent cleaning, recording, conserving and studying it. The Ship should be re-assembled and put on public display in Newport in a purpose built new maritime museum.

A new maritime museum with the Newport ship as a central exhibit should provide Newport with a unique selling point, bringing visitors and jobs when completed. Publically reassembling the ship should be a major tourist and educational attraction. South Gwent has moiré than enough potential exhibits including the remains of the Barlands Farm Romano Celtic boat and the other smaller historical artefacts (including the lifeboat of the Anglo-Saxon) which are currently on display elsewhere or sat in storage.

Excavating the Newport Ship (in 2002)
This should be a real and lasting opportunity to begin the process of regeneration of the city, which despite the attempts of the planners still retains plenty of outstanding historical attractions including the Roman Legionary fortress at Caerleon, the Transporter Bridge, Tredegar House, St Woolos Cathedral, the remains of Newport Castle and the collection of finds from Roman Caerwent. With the process of timber conservation estimated to be coming to an end by 2017, there is a need to commit to planning and building a new maritime museum so with a new museum within the city where the process of re-assembling the Ship can take place.

Sunday, 16 June 2013


East Ayrshire Council: left looking at a large hole in the ground?
It can be said that promises are cheap e.g. I will still respect you in the morning, there are 6,000 jobs related to this development, etc. That said the news that that taxpayers (in Scotland) could be left to pay a bill of as much as £62m pounds to restore opencast mines in East Ayrshire should make more than a few people sit up and think. An East Ayrshire Council report which has followed the collapse of Scottish Coal and Aardvark (TMC) reports that there is not enough money set aside to pay for remedial work to restore the mining sites. Bonds put up in place to pay for the post open cast mining clear up have been revealed to significantly less than the projected cost of the restoration work. Coal Action Scotland campaigners are understandably angered and have accused the council of basically failing to enforce and monitor its own rules. After the financial collapse of both companies, liquidators from KPMG were appointed at Scottish Coal in April and at Aardvark in May. Aside from the job losses, East Ayrshire Council have been examining who will have to pay for cleaning up various opencast sites which were previously operated by the open cast coal mining firms. A report to the council's cabinet in May stated that KPMG estimated that total restoration costs for the East Ayrshire sites were "in the region of £48m to £90m". The report noted that the potential value of restoration bonds, which are effectively insurance policies for cleaning up the mines after mining has ceased, were worth around £ 16.1 million pounds for Scottish sites and £ 11.52 million pounds for Aardvark sites. With the world market being flooded by cheap US coal as knock on effect of the collapse of US gas prices due to fracking perhaps it is time for some of our politicians in those areas with existing (and potential) open cast coal mines to start asking some questions? 

Thursday, 13 June 2013


The peaceful good humoured protests in Taksim Square (in Istanbul) ended amid violent scenes as riot police cleared the square with a combination of tear gas, water cannon and brute force. What began as initially a demonstration by environmentalists in protest at the development (a planned shopping mall) of Gezi Park has turned into something far larger and more significant a fight by a coalition of pretty disparate groups for greater freedom in Turkey and a preservation of the country's secular order.

The protestors see an authoritarian a government with neo-Islamist agenda with the highest number of journalists in the world in prison, restrictions on alcohol sales, and massive construction projects which have prioritised over human rights and environmental concerns. The protests show no sign of fading away yet, as demonstrators have regrouped in nearby Gezi Park, the proposed redevelopment of which sparked peaceful protests which have widened into nationwide anti-government unrest.

Taskin Square and Gezi Park
The unrest began back on May 28th as a protest about the plan to demolish of one of Istanbul's few remaining green spaces took place. Gezi Park is part of Taksim Square, which sits in the heart of the modern city. It has long been  a place of hugely symbolic value to many Istanbul residents and those Turks with more secular leanings. The proposed development aims to build a replica Ottoman-era barracks and a mosque on the square, in a city which critics say is pretty well-served by Islamic houses of prayer.

The Ottoman-era military barracks will be rebuilt near the site, and the historic Ataturk Cultural Centre will be demolished. Turkish critics say the decision to go ahead with the redevelopment was made too fast and without proper public and media debate. They also have questions relating to the choice of developer, in this case the Kalyon Group, a company who have close ties with the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party.

The proposed reconstruction of the barracks may have some other symbolic significance as some suggest that it was at these barracks that a failed mutiny by Islamic-minded soldiers with the intention of bringing in Sharia law took place in 1909. The barracks were demolished back in 1940, and the attempt to rebuild them are seen by opponents to have the ring of Islamism. Tempers were already high after police stopped leftist marchers holding a May Day rally on the square this year.

So for the best part of two weeks, the central square in Turkey's biggest city was under the authority of a growing protest movement. The Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told parliament (on Tuesday) that the protest movement was an international conspiracy against Turkey to destabilise its economy. He has lashed out at the foreign press for launching attacks on the country and warned protesters that they were pawns in a wider game – something that will go down well with his supporters rather than being remotely close to the truth.

Turkey is a democracy and while the protest movement has grabbed the headlines around the world, Mr Erdogan's support base is conservative, more religious and better organised than the democratic opposition which is deeply divided. The Turkish PM has won three general elections, he has hugely increased Turkey's international prestige, opened the country's EU accession talks and launched a peace process with the Kurdish minority.

The demonstrators accuse (and not necessarily inaccurately) the Prime Minister of becoming increasingly authoritarian and trying to impose conservative Islamic values on a secular state. Whatever happens from here on in there is a sizeable percentage of the population who feel deeply alienated from the current Turkish  government (something that won’t be helped by the volatile threats being made by the Turkish PM) and they won’t be put off from protesting by clouds of tear gas and baton rounds.

In Turkey and elsewhere in the world the questioned of democracy, planning and balanced development remains a contested issue. Whether we are talking building on a park, increasing the size of proposed housing developments, on shore wind farm development or building on agricultural land (Wales effectively has no green belt) the question remains just exactly who is it for? who will benefit? And how does the local community in Caernarfon, Cardiff, Carmarthen or Cwmbran or Istanbul actually benefit?

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


Oops - a case of forgetting that they are in Government?
It can rightly be said sometimes that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here we have a group of Labour AMs and MPs protesting about the threat to the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. While there is nothing wrong with that, they are protesting against their own government in Cardiff’s polices. This is classic Labour in Wales having their cake and eating it. While there may be a faint whiff of hypocrisy about it, there is nothing new here, more locally the Labour MP for Newport East spoke out in Newport against Post Office closures while quietly voting in the lobbies in Westminster to support the closure programme and hoped that no one would notice. Likewise, in relation to the resignation of Gwent Chief Constable we have had a row of Labour in Gwent MPs lining up to condemn the elected Police Commissioner should be put in its proper context, had such an event taken place under the rule of an elected Labour Police Commissioner I suspect that all we would have heard was silence.  

Monday, 10 June 2013


The news that the latest sets of questionable plans for a £25 billion pound barrage across the Severn Estuary have been kicked into touch by MPs at Westminster should be welcomed. The House of Commons' Energy and Climate Change Committee criticised a "lack of information and noted a perceived lack of transparency" about the proposal.

The MPs stated that the case for the barrage is "unproven" and that Hafren Power had failed to provide robust and independently verified evidence of the economic, environmental and technological viability of the project. The MPs were warned about the potential of job losses in nearby ports, and came to the conclusion that the barrage scheme did not provide a solution to meeting renewable energy targets and it should not go ahead in its current form.

Hafren Power wanted to build an 11-mile barrage between Lavernock Point near Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, and Brean near Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. In their report MPs said Hafren had failed to make the case that it would be good for the economy or the environment.

This is a sensible decision on the part of MPs in Westminster should, mean that the way is clear to consider more sustainable less environmentally damaging energy schemes. There are plenty of potential options out there including tidal lagoons (as proposed for Swansea Bay), tidal fences and wave power projects which could produce far more energy over a far longer period (and generate sustainable jobs).

When it comes to generating energy and jobs (here in Wales) it is well worth noting that both New Labour and the Conservatives failed to honour their Welsh general election manifesto promise in 2011 to increase the 1 MW limit for off-shore and 50 MW for on-shore threshold for planning for energy projects – something that does not help us here in Wales. This failure effectively threatens to prevent the development of potential energy schemes above that threshold as they have to be decided in Westminster rather than in Wales.

Back in January 2012, Plaid MP Jonathan Edwards called for energy powers to be transferred to the Welsh Government; his bill would have given the Welsh Government powers over energy generation in Wales. The bill (which was blocked by Labour and Conservative MPs, defeated by 239 votes to 44) would have ensured equality with Scotland and Northern Ireland and would have meant that Wales would have been better placed to fight fuel poverty with responsibility for our own resources.

I have for some time had serious concerns about any proposed Severn Barrage, it does not generate enough energy over a long enough period to justify the cost and it would be environmentally damaging. A more logical solution would be to build tidal lagoons, the one proposed for Swansea Bay would be ideal to test out the technology. Previous attempts to develop this technology (here in Wales) have been repeatedly stalled and delayed by a hostile Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and then powerless (but now vision-less and clueless) Welsh Government.

The last thing we seriously need to do is limit the amount of sustainable energy we can develop, we need to maximise the period of generation well beyond the 3 hour energy pulse offered by all previous incarnations of the barrage. A combination of tidal lagoons and other energy schemes could offer release energy for a far longer period than 3 hours and minimise any damage to the environment. By using a variety of options we could generate sustainable jobs and make Wales a world leader in developing the energy generation technology.

Friday, 7 June 2013


And speaking of shinning a little light, this long term Labour related scandal from the North has rattled more than a few bars inside the belly of the Labour beast. This story has exposed them (the Labour Party in North East Wales) for exactly what they are...and what they are like. It's not much better down here in the South East). In any other democratic country investigative journalists (of which we have few in Wales) would have been falling over themselves to dig deep on this one.