Wednesday, 30 October 2013


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


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


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


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


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


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!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Plaid Cymru Shadow Energy Minister Llyr Gruffydd has rightly called for a new Welsh energy company to break the stranglehold of the Big Six energy cartel members on the energy market. Wales needs a ‘not for dividend profit’ company, along the lines of the way Glas Cymru works within our water industry. This would firmly ensure that customers come before shareholders dividends and the City of London. An all Wales ‘not for dividend profit’ energy company  would mean that all the profits would be reinvested back into the energy sector in our country. This would ensure 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. 
Plaid Cymru Shadow Energy Minister Llyr Gruffydd said:
For far too long, the big six energy companies have hiked their prices when the wholesale cost of energy goes up but don’t bring it down when they reduce.
“A Welsh national energy company, an Ynni Cymru, would follow the same successful model as Glas Cymru has done in the water industry.
“This Welsh energy company would buy gas and electricity at wholesale prices and sell direct to Welsh consumers and businesses.
“The company could be set up by the government at arms-length.
“Profits made would be used for protecting consumers from volatile wholesale prices and introducing energy efficiency measures to keep costs down for families and households.
“When we see that gas price hikes were the highest in Europe in 2011, and have risen consistently, then it is clear that families have not been best served by the private energy market.
“Plaid Cymru believes that we should move towards a system where investment and long-term development take priority ahead of shareholders’ profits.
“That is why at our party conference this weekend we will be having detailed discussion about the energy industry, including how we can ensure best value for hard-pressed families and a long-term energy policy for Wales.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


And end to childhood memories in Newport
The destruction of the popular Chartist mural, just off John Frost Square (in Newport) today has robbed many Newport residents of part of their personal and cultural history. I have fond memories of walking past the mural as child with my grandmother and being fascinated by it. Now its gone, reduced to rubble on the (relative) quiet by a by the Labour Party in Newport, which was anxious to avoid embarrassing scenes at a demo planned for the weekend.

The pathetic excuses made by Labour in Newport and their refusal to engage and find a way to save the mural just about sums up the way the town of Newport has been treated over the years. Few people are against development or redevelopment but it needs to be sustainable and sympathetic to the needs of the town. The failure to work with local indigenous small businesses in and around Newport is a reality that has done great economic damage to the local economy and has weakened our economy.

We have to do something different, yet another shopping centre, which promises much but may well deliver little of lasting benefit, exactly as did the Kingsway Shopping Centre (in the 1970's).  Any shopping development should contain retail opportunities for small local businesses as money spent in local businesses circulates three times as long as money spent in 'UK national chains. Simply filling the development with chains means that what local money is spent will get hoovered up and vanished out of town as rapidly as possible. Various attempts to develop or redevelop Newport over the years, largely via the questionable vehicle of Newport Unlimited (more like 'Newport limited') have failed to deliver lasting economic growth. Planned local council cuts of some £34 million pounds won't help, but, neither will a complete lack of vision and the contempt which has been demonstrated for the towns inhabitants today.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


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) lurking at the back of your mind is the prospect of yet another Severn Bridge toll increase. Back in June (2013) the Welsh Government was told by a UK Westminster government minister that any changes in the running of the Severn bridges must benefit motorists in both Wales and England.

Merry Christmas from Severn Crossings PLC - not!
The Welsh government had 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. Just to add insult to injury the old (M48) Severn Bridge is periodically closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which continues to be funded by the Department for Transport, from the public coffers.

At the end of the day, it comes down to money, how much there is? How much there could be? And how much will people have to continue to pay to cross the Severn Bridges? If we are not watching the pennies, then the politicians certainly are. Carwyn Jones has said that any money left over from tolls could go towards upgrading the existing M4 (in Wales) and Westminster Transport Minister Stephen Hammond (no doubt nudged by his civil servants) has said that no decisions (one way or the other) can yet be made over either bridge ownership or the bridge tolls.

The Severn Bridges and the tolls may be out or sight and out of mind to most Westminster ministers (and most MPs) but they loom large in the imagination (and the wallets) of long suffering commuters, businesses and visitors on a daily basis. Part of the problem is that our interests and those of our county are almost entirely peripheral to the Westminster mindset, something that does not help us very much especially the Welsh Government needs parliamentary time at Westminster because of the cobbled together devolutionary settlement.  

This sorry state of affairs has been aggravated because any concept of long term planning has been abandoned to the ‘free market’ as ‘taking the long view’ no longer fits  into the Westminster politicians mindset – this when combined with the current Welsh Governments craven lack of ambition merely makes things worse.

Differences of opinion between Wales and Westminster are not new and will continue as long as the devolutionary fudge continues to exist. Even the Welsh Conservatives have called for control of the Severn Bridges to reside in the hands of the Welsh people. Labour in Wales, has reluctantly said the same thing, although whether or not they would have called for control of the Severn bridges to be passed to Wales if Labour was in power at Westminster is another matter. 

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. Studies into the impact of the Severn Bridge Tolls on our economy are nothing new.

Before that back 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. Under the current stitch up, once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing is paid off less on-going maintenance costs (now potentially sometime in 2018 due to a drop in road usage) then a potentially handy revenue stream may revert swiftly to Treasury coffers in Westminster. 

The various studies are useful, but, to be honest are all grist to the mill, as 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 are already bracing themselves to face yet another bridge toll rise on January 1st 2013. We have had plenty of talk but little sign of any concrete action or a decision, one way or the other and come January 1st 2014 .