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…