Monday, 29 December 2014


The toll to cross the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing into Wales will increase once again from the 1st January, with cars paying £6.50 - up from the current £6.40 - while small goods vehicles and small buses facing a 30p rise to £13.10, and heavy goods vehicles and buses having to pay £19.60, up from £19.20. 

Severn Bridge tolls since 1976
 This new increase makes the toll one of the most expensive per kilometre and hinders economic growth. Back in 1966, it cost you 12p to cross the bridge, which would be around £2 pound in today’s money – something that clearly suggests that the toll concession holders are fleecing us for as much as they can get before the franchise expires.

Back on January 1st 2014, the cost of crossing into Wales by car increased to £6.40 - a rise of 20p - small goods vehicles pay £12.80 (a 40p increase) and HGVs £19.20 (a 60p increase). The Severn Bridge operators rolled out the same old tired excuses for their greed saying that the tolls were agreed by a parliamentary order and in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), etc, etc.

When it comes to the Severn Bridge tolls, one often-ignored fact is that the tolls on the Humber Bridge are subsidized by Westminster. When last in office at Westminster, the party formerly known as New Labour chose to quietly (and regularly) subsidise the Humber Bridge tolls, yet made no move what so ever towards doing anything about dealing with the tax on jobs, businesses and commuters which are passed off as the Severn bridge tolls – and our local Labour elected representatives pretty much maintained their silence.  

This may explain why our local Labour MP’s do little save trotting out the same old news releases bemoaning the failure of the Government (when in opposition) to do anything about the tolls. The Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Con Dem Coalition Government, who have driven the post Thatcherite ‘free market’ ideology into wholly new areas, yet show no inclination to curb the Humber Bridge state subsidy or offer to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.

At some point in 2018 ownership of the two Severn Bridges will revert back to the Westminster Government ‘s Department for Transport, once the take from the tolls reach passes the magic figure of £996 million pounds (that is at 1989 prices). The Labour in Wales Welsh government wants to take control of the tolls when the Severn Crossings return to public ownership and would look to reduce them although it believes abolishing them would leave too great a hole in the budget.

Plaid wants the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that 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. Maintenance costs are some £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, Plaid’s priority is to cut the tolls.

A consultants' report (for the Welsh Government) suggested that the abolition of bridge tolls could boost the economic output in Wales by £ 107 Million pounds. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, it has been estimated that this cash cow may have been milked to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. What adds regular insult to regular financial injury is the fact that the old (M48) Severn Bridge continues to be periodical closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which are funded by the Department for Transport, from the public purse.

Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls recommended that the revenues from the tolls should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses 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.

The 2010 study found that transport; construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The study also 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.

There appears to be a general political consensus that something must be done about reducing the Severn bridge tolls – which is nice – but not particularly helpful to motorists. The ominous silence from the Department for Transport on the eventual ownership of the bridge and the potential fate of the tolls is also not particularly helpful and should be a real cause for concern. 

What worries me is that the Department of Transport (and their Westminster based masters) could find the income from the Severn bridge tolls too useful to let go. The ownership of the Severn bridges should be transferred to the National Assembly in 2018, which means that a decision needs to be made now and preparations for the transfer begun  - what we in Wales don’t need is silence from the Department for Transport. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Monday, 22 December 2014


The Conservatives sudden interest in "English votes for English laws” something conveniently happens to put the Labour Party in Westminster an awkward spot, in relation to the status of its Welsh and Scottish elected representatives, may be purely coincidental or it may not. Aside from mixing things up for the Labour Party, one of the main reasons why the Conservative Party has developed a keen interest in all things ‘English’ is because the UK Independence Party has emerged from the shadows calling loudly for the reform of the governance of England – something that has been independently confirmed by the most recent report of the Future of England Survey (FoES).

The survey’s findings don’t make comfortable reading for the Conservative part of the Con Dem coalition government. The study has noted a clear and growing dissatisfaction among English voters at the way the UK’s most populous nation is governed and a preference for an England-wide political institution to represent English interests. Although the current Conservative leaders preferred option of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) has the most widespread support, it is short of a majority and, when voters in England are asked who best represents the interests of England, both Mr Cameron and the Conservative party are well behind Nigel Farage and UKIP.
Yet when it comes to finding an answer to the English Question, voters continue to place concerns over the governance of England well behind worries about the influence of the EU. However, there is a clear dissatisfaction with the current arrangements for governing England – with no more than a quarter preferring the status quo. The study noted that if somewhat more tentatively; the support for EVEL appears to be the preferred choice of voters – again short of a majority – and has gained popularity compared to the earlier FoES studies in 2013 and 2012.
Support for an English Parliament is of the same order of magnitude as support for the status quo whereas support for localism either in the form of regional assemblies or enhanced local government remains very low. While David Cameron’s suggested answer to the English question may be slightly ahead but there is growing evidence that neither he nor his party is trusted to deliver it. When asked “Which party best stands up for the interests of England?”, the Conservatives ironically came fourth (16%), behind UKIP (23%), ‘None of the Above’ (19%) and Labour (17%), although well ahead of the Lib Dems (4%). Much the same pattern is seen in terms of the party leaders.
Interestingly enough when asked which leader best stands up for English interests, Nigel Farage was voters’ first choice (22%) his nearest rival though isn’t even another party leader, it was the ‘None of the Above’ option which came in second place, with 21% of the survey’s 3,705 respondents in England dismissing all of the available political leaders. Mr Cameron is third on 15%, just ahead of Ed Miliband on 13%. The Deputy Prime Minister’s rating matched those of his party and, at 4%, slightly behind Boris Johnson on 9%.
The Con Dems in Westminster have now issued a Command Paper with a number of different options in relation to the problem of English votes for English laws an issue that which been quietly rumbling away in the background since the 1990’s. William Hague’s Command Paper included four main options:

  • Simply excluding Scottish and Northern Irish MPs from any role in English and Welsh bills and limiting England-only bills to English MPs
  • Basically allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills during their committee and report stages, where amendments are tabled and agreed, before allowing all MPs to vote on the final bill
  • Allowing only English MPs, or English and Welsh MPs, to consider relevant bills at committee stage and giving them a effective veto in a separate vote before their third reading
  • There was even a Lib Dem plan for the establishment of a grand committee of English MPs, with the right to veto legislation applying only England, with its members based on the share of the vote.

These, to varying degrees subject to safeguards cold be said to be reasonable options and despite the bluster from Westminster and the Labour Party, potentially sensible and fair solution which could be worked out, given sufficient time and effort on the part of the Westminster based and focused political parties. The problem is that the on-going row over the issue could result in the real issue of the legislative imbalance between the different nations and regions within these islands continuing to remain unresolved.

Part of the problem can be put down to the overly complex nature of legislation, as bills that appear to relate to England only can include some well buried clauses that relate to Wales, some of which could have significant and potentially unforeseen consequences for our country. The way the budget works at the moment, means that if Welsh MPs are excluded from voting on English measures there could be a real negative impact on the Welsh budget. At a very basic level this would be both unfair and unjust.  

What’s needed is the implementation of a much more sensible and balanced devolution settlement whereby the four constituent parts of the British State have the same legislative and executive powers. Unless this happens then any drift (and drift may be a fair description) towards developing “English Votes for English Laws” would be pretty difficult to enforce and could result in the existence several different tiers of MPs.

The consistent failure over the last 15 years to address the imbalance between powers and funding in constituent parts of the UK along with cumulative nature of the fudged and bodged nature of the devolution settlement can no longer be ignored. The way things stand at the moment the Westminster based and focused political parties are treating Wales as a second-class nation and will they may pay for this at the ballot box next May, at least in Wales.

Friday, 19 December 2014


Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and leader of the Green party in England and Wales Natalie Bennett have stated that all three parties will unite whenever possible to battle the Westminster parties’ obsession with austerity. Meeting at Westminster the three party leaders said that with no end yet in sight to the failed austerity agenda of the Westminster parties, the General Election next May is an opportunity to change UK politics for the better.
Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said:

"Plaid Cymru and the SNP provide an alternative to Westminster’s promise of austerity and cuts to public services. As the only parties, together with the Greens, to reject the cuts consensus, it is unjustifiable and undemocratic to exclude our three parties from proposed leaders’ debates during the forthcoming UK elections. I reiterate my calls for Plaid Cymru’s inclusion in those debates in order to ensure the people can exercise their right to question and scrutinise all major parties.
"The people of Wales face a real choice at the election. All three Westminster parties are committed to slash and burn economics.

"That means cuts for the sake of cuts rather than balancing the books by investment and spreading opportunities.

"It is likely that there will be another hung parliament after the election. In that scenario, Plaid Cymru could hold the balance of power alongside our colleagues in the SNP.

"Should that happen, Plaid Cymru will seek a rebalancing of power and wealth in the UK: transferring powers away from London to Wales so more of our fate is in our own hands; spreading investment away from the booming City of London to areas in most need of investment.

"If the people of Wales return a strong contingent of Plaid Cymru MPs in May, then Wales will be best placed to secure an outcome to improve the prospects of our people and communities."

First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said:
"There is no end in sight to the Westminster cuts that are already hitting Scotland hard - the Autumn Statement earlier this month set out another £15bn of cuts that are coming our way. Not only will these cuts continue to hit hard-working families, women and the vulnerable hardest – they will also put growth and competitiveness at risk.

"But despite the deeply damaging impacts of failed austerity, the Tories and Labour have made crystal clear their determination to carry on regardless.

"And after four years propping up the Tories, the Lib Dems have no credibility. It is time for a new approach to UK politics - and for our parties to use our influence to bring about progressive change at Westminster.

"Following the referendum in Scotland, the political landscape has changed utterly. The SNP is now the third biggest political party in the UK in terms of membership.

"Last month we sent this message to the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 - to exclude the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru from general election TV debates would be to wilfully ignore this new political landscape. Put simply, it is just not on.

"Electing a strong group of SNP MPs will ensure that Scotland’s voice is heard at Westminster. Along with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party, we will work to do everything possible to tackle inequality and bring about sustainable economic growth."
Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, said:
"I am delighted to have the chance to catch up with two other female leaders of anti-austerity parties in the UK. Together, we represent, with the Scottish Green Party, a new way of doing politics, a move away from the business-as-usual model of the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems that no longer represents public opinion.

"We are the voice of real change - a voice that must be represented in the leader debates next year.
"The ‘Green surge’ that has seen membership in England and Wales more than double, and Scottish Green Party membership leap more than 625% in 2014 is a sign of the shifting political landscape.

"Collectively the Green parties will be standing in more than 75% of seats in the UK, reflecting the advance of our political philosophy that rejects austerity and believes that everyone should have access to the resources for a decent quality of life, with certainty, without fear, while we all live collectively within the limits of our one planet.

"And in thinking about future financial stability, we have to focus on the reason for our current difficulties, the near-collapse of our fraud-ridden, reckless, over-large financial sector.

"Green MP Caroline Lucas is an outstanding MP. Electing more Greens next year will help to bring about a peaceful revolution in British politics, towards a government that works for the common good, not just for the few."

Thursday, 18 December 2014


When in comes to mining, the people of Wales (and elsewhere) can be said to have paid in full and paid in blood. Coal owners and redevelopers promises can be said to be cheap e.g. I will still respect you in the morning, there are 6,000 jobs related to this development, we will restore the landscape after the open coal mining is finished, etc. That said in both Wales and Scotland (and no doubt other former coal mining areas) the promises in relation to afterwards were no doubt laid on thick.

The actions of a judge who in relation to the responsibility for clearing up afterwards should alarm those communities who are living with on-going open cast coal minin operations or like the residents of north Torfaen have potentially this experience yet to come. The case, which revolved around the collapse of a fraud case also indirectly relates to whether or not a mining firm should accept moral responsibility for restoring two opencast sites.

The Serious Fraud Office had accused six people, including two former directors of the firm, of trying to avoid paying the restoration costs. Celtic Energy transferred ownership of mines at Margam, near Port Talbot, and East Pit in Amman Valley to a firm in the Caribbean. Basically the Judge ruled nothing unlawful had taken place and an attempt to re-open the case back in October failed. When coal extraction ceases companies are obliged to restore opencast sites.

The cost of reinstating the two Welsh sites has been estimated to be around £150m, but less than £10m has been set aside so far. The owner, Oak Regeneration, which just happens to be listed in the British Virgin Islands, says it cannot meet the restoration costs and Neath Port Talbot (NPT) council said it understands the company would go into liquidation if it tried to force payment.

Restoration, after years or noise and pollution, is often linked to questionable post coal extraction developments. Certainly Oak Regeneration has plans on both sites, which include housing at Margam and a hotel at East Pit. As elsewhere, both plans relate to yet more mining, something which has provoked strong local opposition in the past.

Now, none of this should be news - taxpayers (in Scotland) may also be left to carry the can as they may have to cover 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 written after the collapse of Scottish Coal and Aardvark (TMC) reported that there was not enough money set aside to pay for remedial work to restore the mining sites.

Restoration bonds put up in place to pay for the post open cast mining clear were revealed to be 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 lost local jobs, 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 East Ayrshire Council council 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. 

Back in 2013 the world market for coal was being flooded by cheap US coal as a knock on effect of the collapse of US gas prices due to fracking. Quite how coal prices will fare in a time (however temporary) when oil prices are crashing is as yet an unknown. When it comes to open cast mining and the post mining clear up operations, the time is long overdue for serious questions to be asked of the pen cast mining companies and their promises.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014


It’s not much of a choice, especially when you consider that by polling day only 40% of the Con Dems cuts will have taken place. Before the Autumn Statement, Plaid warned that the Government’s spending plans for the next parliament would take us back to the 1930s if the proposed reductions in public spending were pushed through.
The Labour party understandably attacked the Tories for their plans to reduce spending on public services to levels not seen since the 1930s, at 35% as a share of GDP. Yet, what should alarm people is that the Labour parties’ economic plans are essentially the same. Labour’s plans would see spending on public services at roughly the same, 37% of GDP – reducing it to a level that we have not seen since the 1930s, a time before the creation of the NHS and when people left school at the age of 14.
If nothing else, this reveals that there is little or no difference between any of the larger Westminster parties, with Labour lumped to the Tories’ ideological plan to shrink the size of the state and intentionally hack at our public services. At the next Westminster general election, the real choice being offered the people of Wales is between the Westminster parties who all offer more austerity and more hardship, or Plaid Cymru - who, in the forthcoming hung parliament where every vote counts, will demand an end to austerity and fight for the need to invest.
Plaid Cymru has set out its plans to increase investment infrastructure by 1% of UK GDP annually. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Confederation of British Industry have noted that for every £1 invested it produces £2.50 - £3.00 in the real economy. This would be an investment of around £16 billion at a UK level, bringing £800 million to Wales to invest in schools, hospitals, and other works to improve the economy.
This investment would help us to tackle the deficit over a much longer period. Investment is the perfect antidote to the cosy Westminster Parties’ consensus, which seeks to inflict ever greater levels of austerity on our people. Austerity will ensure that places like Wales suffer as they seek to balance the books on the backs of the poor.

Friday, 12 December 2014


The announcement that Mabey Bridge has begun a consultation on the planned closure of its business in Station Road, Chepstow, where 150 people work, is shocking, especially as the news has broken just before Christmas. The Welsh Government needs to urgently step up and see what assistance can be given to the firm, especially as a buyer is being sought for its renewables section in Mathern, Chepstow, which employs 180 people. The company's infrastructure section makes highway bridges, railway bridges, footbridges and sign gantries while its renewables division builds wind turbine towers and carries out work in offshore renewable energy, the production of which would help with infrastructure investment and developing the renewable energy sector in Wales.

Thursday, 11 December 2014


Whether you live in the old West, the old East for the Middle and Far East, the problem of press freedom and the need of an independent free press is universal. The continued consolidation of media outlets, for whatever reason – economic or political – means that there are fewer and fewer independent media outlets. Most people still take their news from the larger, often state or media mogul run, news outlets rather than ‘independent news sources.’ Providing you are aware of the element of ‘spin’ this should not be problem. Yet recent evidence in relation to the scale and weight of spin and the narrowness of news outlets reportage has been provided by the questionable coverage of the Scottish referendum and subsequent political developments. If your message is not popular with the media moguls or the state run (or controlled) media outlets then despite the presence of the internet and social media getting your message out or providing independent scrutiny of governmental decisions is increasingly difficult. What’s going on in Tomsk, in Siberia is typical of what is going on around the world.


Independent Siberian TV Channel Faces Shutdown

By Robert Coalson
December 09, 2014
A protester expresses his support for Tomsk TV-2 
When the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve this year, audiences in the Siberian city of Tomsk will likely lose a familiar, independent source of information.
Tomsk TV-2, which is widely seen as one of the most respected and professional regional television stations in Russia for the last 23 years, has been informed by the city's state-monopoly television broadcast center that it will cease transmitting the channel's signal as of January 1.
Although the reasons behind the threatened shutoff remain murky, it comes against a background of state pressure against activists, nongovernmental organizations, and nonstate media in Russia by both national and local authorities.
The announcement by the Tomsk Regional Broadcasting Center violates the terms of the contract with TV-2 itself, as well as Russian antimonopoly legislation, says the station's lawyer, Anastasia Olgovskaya.
The station has said it will appeal the decision. But Melani Bachina, a Tomsk TV-2 presenter and producer who is also a freelance correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service, says she suspects this may come to nothing.
"No one is trying to be in contact with us," she says. "No one is making any effort to talk to us about anything. No one has given us any argumentation for why this is happening." The lack of any effort to resolve the issue makes her feel the decision to close down TV-2 "has already been made."
Nowhere To Appeal
TV-2 representatives do not know what the reason for the transmission center's decision is, but they are convinced the impetus for the impending closure came from someone else.
"It is perfectly clear that the transmitters are only the middlemen in this, that someone else stands behind this decision," Bachina says. "But who is it? Of course, we have suppositions, but since we have no facts or evidence, there is nothing that we can do and we cannot appeal to those people or to that person."
TV-2 editor Viktor Muchnik agrees. "Our story, like so many stories in our country, is unfortunate in that the person acting against us is anonymous," he says. "We are always dealing with some sort of intermediary who says: 'I don't know anything. They tell me from above what to do and I do it.' We can only guess who is pulling the strings. But I know that the mere existence of this channel over the years has been a problem for many people."
Earlier this year, the transmitter stopped broadcasting TV-2's signal for about six weeks, claiming that some TV-2 equipment had damaged equipment belonging to the transmission tower. That blackout prompted the Russian Justice Ministry's national media register to warn TV-2 that it would lose its license if it did not resume broadcasting. Although the dispute was resolved, activists saw it as a warning to the channel.
Bachina says she has no idea what will become of the station's 300 employees, adding that there is little chance TV-2 could switch to cable or Internet broadcasting.
"The majority of our audience is elderly. They are people who have been watching TV-2 for years," she says. "These are people who, in one way or another, become the subjects of our reports. These are people who do not even have cable TV -- they receive us through terrestrial broadcasting. So, what is the point in talking about switching to the Internet? These people will be deprived of this source of information."
Last Independent Voices
The impending shutdown of Tomsk TV-2 comes against the background of a similar assault by the authorities on the popular independent television channel Dozhd TV. That channel was removed from cable and satellite networks in February and has been forced to ask viewers for payments.
Dozhd has been evicted from its Moscow offices twice in recent months and, according to the BBC on December 8, is currently broadcasting from an employee's residence.
The liberal national radio station Ekho Moskvy was involved in a dispute last month between its journalists and its owner, Gazprom-Media, in which the latter briefly threatened to fire the station's chief editor and revamp its news and talk format.
TV-2 editor Muchnik says independent regional channels are far more vulnerable to the whims of local officials.
"Of course, this is a very bad precedent," Muchnik says. "It is particularly bad because the economic situation in the country is getting worse, tensions are increasing, especially in the regions. Of course, any local official is going to be at odds with any local media that doesn't relate the news according to his script. And this conflict is going to be twice as bad or three times as bad under these growing tensions."
"If this can happen to us, then it can happen anywhere -- in Kuban, in Krasnoyarsk, in Yekaterinburg -- anywhere," he adds.
Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current TV