Tuesday, 15 December 2015


The devolution of control of the rail franchise (back in 2014) was welcomed along with the news that the Welsh Government would actively seek for the rail franchise to be run on a not for profit basis (something that Plaid have been calling for several years). This was important as it meant that we in Wales would be able to choose who operates its own railway for the first time. The not for dividend profit option makes the most sense as any profits made will remain within the franchise area rather than paying share holder dividends.

While that is positive stuff, it may be a case of glass half-full, as yet the element of Network Rail that covers Wales (and the marches) remains under the remit of the Department for Transport. Without full control of that portion of Network Rail the next Welsh Government will face a significant challenge when it comes to preparing for and delivering the next franchise; it is a task that must be accomplished.

One of the key elements in rebooting our economy is infrastructure investment and investing in our neglected railways.  Many of our existing railway stations suffer from some pretty significant gaps in services, and so are underused. The final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport needs to be completed and new railway stations at Caerleon (which has been in the local UDP since the 1980’s), Llanwern, Magor and Little Mill (with secure park and ride facilities) provide local communities with a regular rail service and reduce the ever-increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads.

Over twenty five years ago as a trainee journalist with the Pontypool Free Press, I interviewed commuters on wet and windy mornings at Cwmbran and Pontypool railway stations and  wrote up news stories about the poor service and train overcrowding. I am consciously aware that we have not progressed as far as we could when it comes to developing and sustaining a decent rail service for commuters here in the South East - something which goes someway to explain why so many people chose to drive to and from work.

We need our railway stations to be real transport hubs with fully integrated local bus services and expanded safer secure reasonably priced parking. We also need better facilities at Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow, Pontypool, Severn Tunnel Junction and Lydney railway stations. 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 along with the development of a new railway station at Usk.

Outside of the South East, the next Welsh Government should take a more strategic view and commit to rebuilding and reopening the line from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth and push to redevelop the line north to Caernarfon and Bangor.  In Scotland, significant strides have been made to reopen; redevelop and build a coherent and integrated public transport system, something that we in Wales need to aspire to.

In Wales, we lag significantly behind Scotland, over the last 16 years there have been two successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (which was partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008). Unlike in Scotland here in Wales we have lacked any real political dynamism; as these were largely administrative rather than legislative projects.

Plaid Cymru believes that a revitalised not for profit railway service in Wales can and should lead to more areas of our country being opened up to both new and reopened rail services. This combined with the long overdue electrification of the valley lines no to mention the Great Western mainline to Swansea would be the basis for a decent rail network. Yet the job will remain only half done until full control of railway infrastructure is devolved to Wales so that both the development of the franchise and the development of our railway infrastructure can be planned together.

Friday, 11 December 2015


The UK Westminster Government appears to be entirely set on pushing ahead with TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) regardless of any potential consequences for our public services. Devolution, even the flawed settlement we have, means our public services are devolved to Wales, the devolved government should be granted a veto in order to protect our NHS and other services from sweeping privatisation.

Public services should be in public hands and markets should be democratically accountable for their decisions. Public services such as our Welsh national health service should not be put at risk as a result of shadowy dealings that the UK Government is so desperate to sign up to. We need to ensure that our public services are protected from being plundered for profit by multi-nationals companies and that they remain democratically accountable.

The impending US-EU trade agreement aims to merge the EU's common market with that of the United States, but without any of the built in social and political safeguards, which are at least nominally supposed to exist within in the EU. The problem is that much of the negotiations have been conducted in secret.

Surely if there was nothing to hide then the discussions should be held in full public session and full texts of the proposals published as a matter of routine. For any trade deal to have wider public support, it must unquestionably drop any proposals for a shadow corporate legal system and ensure that the EU’s already existing environmental and social safeguards are maintained.

Any trade deal that does go ahead should definitely not be a large corporation closed shop in relation to trading across the Atlantic, as it most definitely appears at the moment. 99% of Welsh companies are SMEs, they make up the backbone of the Welsh economy - and they deserve as much of a look in with any trade deal as the big companies.

The agreement is highly controversial, the TTIP agreement risks opening up more areas of public services (including within the NHS) to private competition (something which suits the privatisation agenda of most of the Westminster based political parties), particularly those services where there is already non-government provision such as with social care.

The reality is that a strong and very productive trading relationship already exists between the EU and US. And this is a good thing. What the TTIP agreement as it is proposed will do, is give corporations unprecedented power over our public services and seriously threaten democratic decisions in the pursuit of company profit.

By discussing these issues in secret, negotiators from both sides are doing deals behind closed doors, which do not have public support and will remain largely un-discussed and un-scrutinised. We need a full honest and open debate about what TTIP should include, based on what is best for people, not multi-national companies and American trade and our own Welsh government should be standing up for our national interests.

After the financial crisis of 2007/08 and the resultant bail out of the private sector it might have been hoped that the pendulum might have swung in favour of democracy to rebalance flawed corporate power. That said, it is apparent that the Westminster based political parties don’t think so hence their relative silence on the implications of TTIP on our public services.

We need a much more democratic economy, driven and shaped by the needs of the people it serves. The TTIP agreement threatens this basic principle and as is should be rejected. The complete lack of transparency is disturbing particularly as much of the negotiation have ominously been conducted behind closed doors and little has been divulged in terms of the exact content and the level of the risk to our public services.

In its current form TTIP means that Europe will be subject to American-style 'light touch' regulation for corporate take-overs and practices. It threatens to open up our public services to the possibility of aggressive private take-overs. More disturbingly the profits of corporations will be 'future proofed’ so that any changes to laws or regulations by democratically elected governments will be open to corporate challenge.

As if bailing the banks out with public money was not bad enough, this means that all of us taxpayers may end up having to pay to make up for the potential loss of projected corporate profits. That loss of democratic accountability over our public services may well also mean that future decisions will not be subject to review by our own judiciary, but instead referred to private, corporate, closed-door courts.

Sunday, 29 November 2015


Next week there will be a vote on whether or not the UK bombs Daesh in Syria - the vote will probably give David Cameron more than a few sleepless nights. The PM’s real problem is not the real possibility of Daesh atrocities on the streets of Britain along the lines of the appalling atrocities that took place recently in Bamako, Paris and Beirut.

There are deeper or perhaps shallower unspoken motivations, after the Labour (a case of miscalculation rather than design) and Conservative parties failed to get a mandate to bomb Syria (the then Assad controlled bits of it at least) in Westminster last time - Cameron found himself dangerously adrift from US interests and cozy photo opportunities on the White House lawn. If Mr C makes of mess of the forthcoming vote and fails to secure a mandate then he will move from being a partially useful US ally to being a downright liability, at least as far as the White House is concerned. 

Short-term political gain aside the appalling carnage in Lebanon, France and Mali is one grim aspect of an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe has been building for the last two decades. Where we are just now in the Middle East is the result of the end of the Cold War, a whole series of largely failed 'Western' generational interventions, the result of the failure of the Arab Spring and the weakening of the grip of some grim dictators.

If twenty years plus of war and bombing ended up producing Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, we should be entirely unsurprised that the chaos unleashed in Iraq since 1991 had ended up producing Daesh (IS).  Despite occasional weasel-like verbose rhetoric to the contrary - the Brit and American elite probably quietly prefer working with their chosen tyrant(s) they know or in the case of the Brit elite literally went to school with some of them (although these days the despots spawn probably go to school in and around Washington DC) rather than dangerously unpredictable democracies who may end up delivering unpalatable electoral results (at least as far as the West is concerned). 

In relation to the current crisis David Cameron's indecision (he is a natural follower than a leader) is as irrelevant to solving the refugee problem, as is the UK's input in the Middle East. Historically Britain was an imperial power in the region, but, now in reality is a bit player, having squandered any real influence through its self-interested support for despotic regimes. When it comes to intervention, humanitarian or otherwise it can be said that you get what you put in. The UK spent around £326 million pounds bombing Libya (to get rid of Gaddafi) and around £25 million pounds on reconstruction - the end result of which is that the Libyan state ceased to exist.

An arc of instability stretches from North West Africa, through the Middle East and on through Pakistan, Afghanistan to the western fringes of the People's Republic of China. Some of this instability has been fed by local wars, local repressive dictatorships (historically supported by various sides in the Cold War) and a whole series of unresolved on-going political problems - some of which, but certainly not all relates to the failure to peacefully resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

A significant measure of responsibility lies with the West and it's history of inept irresponsible intervention and self serving foreign policy, some of which dates back to self interested decisions made during the First World War as the Ottoman Empire was dismembered by interested parties up until the emergence of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Refuge wise we have been here before, at the end of the First World War, waves of refugees from Armenia, Greece and what was about to become the Soviet Union fled to find safety and security. At least in the 1920’s the League of Nations managed to create an internationally recognised system of identity / travel documents, known as Nansen certificates for refuges.

A measure of responsibility also lies with the Arab states themselves, initially largely creations of the Imperial powers (Britain and France) - the Arab governments have almost entirely failed to integrate refuges from 1948 into society and choose to leave them to rot in refugee camps on the fringes of society. Repressive Arab governments of various persuasions conveniently raised the issue of the Palestinians and Israel to periodically distract their own oppressed citizens. Quite understandably the current refugees from Syria have no desire to find themselves in the same situation as the Palestinians.

Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have all taken in large numbers of refuges - but it’s time for the Gulf States to fork out some cash to pay for significant no strings attached humanitarian aid in Turkey and Lebanon each of whom have taken in over two million refuges. The Turks are playing their own game, largely allowing the two way transit of people and oil into Turkey and out of the Daesh controlled fragments of Syria and Iraq - something that NATO is probably well aware of – and trying to lump the Kurds in with Daesh. Trying to recreate a unified Syria and a unified Iraq will have to involve a serious commitment of aid and probably ground troops for many years - after the costly failures in Iraq and costly partial successes in Afghanistan - this is probably not an option that can easily be sold to most of the electorates in the West. 

The case for air strikes in Syria remains as yet un-made - there are still too many unanswered questions - as vile as Daesh is (these are the people who brought back enslavement, beheadings, and other appalling atrocities) the case for war has not been made. The PM's claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters on the ground ready to fight Daesh is dubious at best – a doubt shared by the Chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, amongst others. Simply dropping bombs from the air will not lead to the defeat of Daesh. Nor will it secure peace for the people of Syria and Iraq or bring stability to the wider region. What is needed is a UN agreed plan for a process of reconciliation and reconstruction something that can be quantified, measured and delivered.

All governments must redouble their efforts to secure a comprehensive peace deal for Syria and the wider region. World leaders cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of past Western military interventions in the Middle East and we need renewed commitments to support and aid civilians who are suffering as a result of the war, and real pressure on Saudi Arabia and others who are financing Daesh.

Above all there must be practical support for those currently defending themselves on the ground from Daesh such as the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and a commitment from Turkey to cease attacks upon the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. At present UK military action as currently proposed risks further escalation in Syria and runs the risk of making our own communities at home less secure and simply plays into the Daesh narrative.

Friday, 27 November 2015


The tolls to cross the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing into Wales will increase once again from the 1st January 2016, with cars paying £6.60 - up from the current £6.50 - while small goods vehicles and small buses facing a 10p rise to £13.20, and heavy goods vehicles and buses having to pay £19.80, up from £19.60. 

The January 2016 increase makes the toll one of the most expensive per kilometre and hinders economic growth.  In 1966, it cost 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.

One often-ignored fact in relation to the Severn Bridge tolls 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.  

Interestingly enough the Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Conservative Government who have continued to drive the post Thatcherite ‘free market’ ideology into wholly new areas of government. Yet oddly enough they show little inclination to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.

Allegedly 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 (who tend to ask for things they know they won’t get) has called for control of the tolls when the Severn Crossings return to public ownership.

There does 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. 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.

What worries me is that the Department of Transport may find the income from the Severn bridge tolls too useful to let go. The ominous silence from the Westminster on the eventual ownership of the bridge and the potential fate of the tolls should be a real cause for concern to us all. 

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 ASAP.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015


I noticed it again as I was walking home the other evening in the dense fog having been out leafleting. I first began to notice it the winter before last when going to and coming from work. 

It took a while to make the connection, which may relate to a combination of the time I then had to get up to go to work and that grim pre-serious coffee state of mind. It ties in with cold snaps and also the housing stock – the ‘it’ in question is the smell of wood smoke.

When it is particularly cold the smell of wood smoke in certain parts of Newport can be overwhelming in both the morning and the early evening. The smell of wood smoke rather than a sign of affluence is actually a sign of austerity. It shows that people are up against it when it comes to heating their homes and trying to save money. 

If you are lucky enough to live in an older house, anything pre- 1970’s then you may be lucky enough to still have old fireplaces in situ, which are so I observe increasingly being put back into operation. A resultant increased demand for firewood, may explain what a few friends have said in recent years about periodic spikes in the price of firewood. More people are struggling to pay their heating bills and being reduced to making a potentially grim choice or heat or eat. 

For people who live in rural areas things can be grimmer, then for a start most are not on mains gas, so energy bills can be equally as grim in rural areas as well. Here it can literally come down to a choice of leaving the heating off to save money and choosing to put food on. In Wales around 400,000 customers are not on mains gas, and they often face higher energy prices having very little consumer protection.

Welsh families face the highest energy bills in the UK whilst more than a quarter of households in our country are classified in fuel poverty – this means that they spend a high proportion of their income on heating their homes. The Labour in Wales government promised to eliminate fuel poverty by 2018, but it is widely accepted that this target, like so many others, just will not be met.

The Party of Wales has already announced ambitious plans to help families bring down their energy bills. A Plaid Cymru government would introduce the biggest home retrofitting scheme Wales has ever seen, so that people can access support to better insulate their homes. Under Plaid Cymru’s plans, we can bring families out of fuel poverty, boost the economy and put money back in people’s pockets.

Plaid Cymru has set out its plans to reverse Wales’ status as one of the most fuel poor nations within the UK. Llyr Gruffydd, Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Minister for Environment rightly said that it is scandalous that more than a quarter of households in Wales are in fuel poverty and that energy prices in Wales are up to 10% higher than elsewhere.

This is largely down to poor energy infrastructure, and old housing stock and a failure to tackle abuses in the market.
A Plaid Cymru government, if elected in May, would drive down home energy bills by introducing the biggest retrofitting scheme Wales has ever seen, and establish a not for profit arms-length energy company to drive down market prices.

Monday, 2 November 2015


New plans to build 209 homes on the former paper mill site in Sudbrook have been submitted to Monmouthshire council’s planning department. Harrow Estates plc (who acquired the site in March 2011) now propose to build 209 homes on the 10.7 hectares of brownfield land. Harrow Estates Plc (part of the Redrow Group) which specialises in land acquisition) proposed the development of some 340 houses with new roads and infrastructure, public spaces and landscaping, etc.

After MCC rejected the planning application, Harrow Estates Plc appealed, something that resulted in a planning inquiry. The then Welsh Assembly’s housing and regeneration minister, Carl Sargeant, following a four-day public inquiry, dismissed a subsequent appeal against the decision in 2014. In the new application – the proposed houses will be a mixture of two, three, and four bedroom homes.

Sudbrook incidentally has around 150 houses with the nearest secondary school and shopping area being some 3 kilometres away in Caldicot. Sudbrook, without its paper mill (which closed in 2006) sits in the shadow of the Second Severn Crossing. The village has five buses a day and is about an hour’s walk away from the nearest railway station. 

The scale of the development moved Monmouthshire’s Planning Office to previously object because of the large number of houses in the proposed development. Now don’t get me wrong, there is room for well-planned and integrated (including affordable) housing development even on the increasingly crowded costal fringe of south Monmouthshire.

I question just exactly for whom these proposed houses are for? And how they will be marketed? No doubt (as has happened previously) all sorts of offers will be included with any purchase house (should the planning appeal be granted) including perhaps free bridge tools for a year, etc.  Just exactly what is in for local residents who happen not to work across the Severn Bridges?

This is part of the failure of the Unitary Development Plan based system of planning – which does not fit with devolution as it has developed. Simply building houses in south Monmouthshire, Newport or Torfaen to cash in on the projected housing shortage in the Bristol area is not acceptable; it fails to solve the local housing shortage. Local residents are being effectively priced out of the market as any proposed houses are often priced to maximise profits and effectively marketed and sold in Bristol (as has happened in the past).

It is clear is that we need a sensible properly planned housing strategy, not just for south Monmouthshire and the rest of Gwent, but for all of Wales. Our planning appeal system, historically favours the developers at the expense of local people and local communities. The planning process in Wales is pretty much designed to work in a non-devolved planning environment.

There appears to be no joined up housing plan or housing strategy for Wales, other than to carry on mostly rubber stamping and approving housing developments that bring little benefit to local people and local communities, certainly not affordable housing.

Local democracy has been undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Or the process of land acquisition literally begins before the proposal even goes to inquiry almost as if the decision has already been made.

Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whatever the grounds) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and that local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation.

Westminster ministers during the heady days of the Con Dem coalition were in favour of changing the planning rules (in England) to boost house-building to revive the economy. The Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff similarly favoured changing to planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’.

Ironically that sentiment was perhaps aimed specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of concerned local residents) rather than simply putting economic needs ahead of economic, environmental benefits and community cohesion.

Over the medium to long term this is fundamentally bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, or residents of Torfaen, who have fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention the concerned residents of Carmarthen who have worries about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development.

Over the years our communities have been ill-served by the planning system, by our local authorities (via the flawed system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by our own Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff. With increasing pressure for development community cohesion is under threat, along with increased demand on overstretched local amenities, our NHS and our green spaces.

Perhaps before constructing large numbers of new houses which fail to tackle local housing needs we should take a long hard look at the number of empty properties – something that remains largely unaddressed in many of our communities. We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment (and develops protected green belt land) and looks sustainability at the whole of Wales – and we need it now…

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


While Wales's voice has been significantly strengthened since 1999, we still do not have the same degree of control of our natural resources as Scotland or Northern Ireland. Amongst our rich resources is the literal stuff of life – water. Water is likely to be a valuable resource for the people of Wales in future years, and who controls it, one of the key issues, of dispute between Westminster and Cardiff Bay.

The issue of water understandably raises strong emotions and stirs long memories here in Wales. Three years ago Boris Johnson (then solely Mayor of London, but, after May 2015 an MP) started wittering on about a network of canals being needed to carry water from the wet North to the dry South (for the ‘wet North’ read much of ‘Wales).

Now Boris's revolutionary thought, was no new idea, back in 1973, the then Water Resources Board, the government agency (now defunct) produced a major report that advocated building a whole raft of infrastructure to aid the movement of water, not to mention constructing freshwater storage barrages in the Ouse, Wash and Morecambe Bay, using a network of canals to move water from north to south, extending reservoirs and building new aqueducts, not to mention constructing a series of tunnels to link up river basins to aid the movement of water.

The plan for water in 1973
Despite the demise of the Water Resources Board in 1974 (two years before the 1976 drought) and its replacement by regional water management bodies, which were privatised in the 1980’s thise issue has never really gone away. In 2006, the Environment Agency produced a report entitled "Do we need large-scale water transfers for south-east England?", in answer to its own question at the time was ‘no’. 

Yet faced with a 
prolonged period of drought in the South East of England, DEFRA itself held a drought summit on the 20th of February of 2012. The then Con Dem Government stated that it remained committed to the remaining legislative measures set out in its Water for Life agenda, which later became the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Act.

That is as they say history, but whatever Westminster eventually decides to do in relation to water resources, we in Wales still need to have full democratic control of our own resources. We could begin the process with repatriating control of the Crown Estates and transferring control of lands in (and off-shore) to the Welsh Government in Cardiff. For the life of me I can see no realistic reason why this feudal anachronism cannot be consigned to the dustbin of history. 

This needs to be followed up by taking a long hard look at our water resources and what we get for them and how we can develop them. I see absolutely no reason why the Welsh people cannot fully benefit from any future exploitation of Welsh resources, including our water. We need a whole Wales strategy to develop and to conserve our water supplies and our planning regulations will need to be tweaked or rewritten accordingly. 

Cofiwch Dryweryn
Most people will not be particularly shocked to discover that coincidentally that the Government of Wales Act (2006) thanks to Peter Hain (amongst others) specifically excludes the Assembly from making any laws relating to water supply – hmm – odd that isn't it? 

The bottom line is that our water resources should belong to the Welsh people, not to Private corporations or to the UK Government. Whether or not the new draft Wales Bill to strengthen the powers that we in Wales have over our natural resources and associated planning processes remains to be seen…