Saturday, 30 November 2013


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

Wednesday, 27 November 2013


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

Thursday, 21 November 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 November 2013


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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 November 2013


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

Friday, 8 November 2013


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 2 November 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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