Friday, 29 January 2016

REDEFINING DULL

A close call near Caerleon, near Newport in the lower Usk Valley
It’s been a bad winter for floods, with the north of England and southern Scotland getting particularly badly hit, along with parts of Wales, and we are only halfway through. As has been noted previously there can be no blank cheque for flood defences; we need to make rational and cost effective sustainable choices when it comes to coastal defence. We need to decide how we are going to deal with the weather related effects of a warming world with expanding and rising oceans.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment the wholesale abandoning of large tracts of our country to the ravages of the ocean, although unless climate change is taken on then we may end up facing that eventuality. Rather we need to make rational long-term sustainable choices about flood defence and the development of a comprehensive planning system for our country. At a time when several of our councils are considering building on known flood plains the issue of flooding remains important.

We need to actively build in flood prevention / flood avoidance into as the planning application process and make efforts to avoid building in those areas that are vulnerable (or will be vulnerable in the future) to flooding or at least build to take into account the possibilities of flooding. If we are going to build on flood plains or other areas that are vulnerable to flooding then we must use flood resistant or flood hardened modern intelligent design and building techniques to reduce potential future damage, loss and inconvenience as is done elsewhere. 

The UK mainland has around 5,000 miles of coastline, not all of which is inhabited or at prime risk, but even so, going Dutch with wholesale widespread sea defences would be an expensive option for Wales, let alone the UK. Now those coastal roads and railways that are at regular risk of being damaged by a combination of bad weather and high tides may well need to be re-routed.

In Wales we do need to take a longer view and seriously consider the possibilities of relaying railway lines and building roads away from those more vulnerable coastal areas. Additionally we need to harden our power network and our communities to the effect of severe weather events. That said we are in a much better position to make more rational coastal defence choices than some countries in the developing world and to seriously consider just exactly where we put key infrastructure.

The quick fix (and short term gain) may be one of our biggest problems here in Wales along with the lack of sensible detailed all Wales development planning. Across the border, Westminster’s institutionalised short term view led to the cutting of £500 million pounds from the Environment Agency budget (between 2010 and 2013, and at the time (in 2014) anticipated another ‘saving £ 300 million pounds by 2015 and the cutting of some 1,500 jobs.

The Pacific island nations and Bangladesh will face the potentially catastrophic social, economic and political consequences of rising and expanding oceans before we will.  Even the Dutch have after over 500 years of experience trying come to the conclusion that in some cases it is better to build in flood room, setting aside some coastal wetlands and other land as places that will be allowed to flood to take the pressure of other areas. 

Coastal flooding and bad weather may hit some parts of our country hard, other areas may literally dodge the storm, but we may not be so lucky all the time. Westminster budget cuts mean (which are unlikely to be reversed) that in England (in in Wales) there will be less money, less resources and less people to work to prevent future floods. We in Wales cannot afford that short of dull short term thinking... we need to start the process of better flood prevention now 
before the next time.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

DON’T STAND BY

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, which is commemorated on the 27th January (the date upon which the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp) each year. It is important that we take time to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the HolocaustNazi Persecution and in other subsequent horrors which have followed more recently in CambodiaRwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Syria.

Neither should we forget the genocides inflicted on the Armenians and the Ukrainians. It is only right and proper that we honour the survivors and continue to challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had perished in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps. As Allied troops made progress across Nazi-occupied Europe, they began to uncover concentration and extermination camps. The camp of Majdanek in Poland was the first to be liberated, in summer 1944.

Nazi forces burnt the crematoria and the mass graves in attempts to hide the crimes that had been committed - the Operation Reinhardt camps of Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were dismantled by the Nazis from 1943, and Auschwitz was evacuated in late 1944. The surviving prisoners, weak from starvation and ill-treatment, and poorly clothed against elements were forced to walk into the interior of Germany, away from the Allied armies, many thousands died on the enforced ‘death marches’. 

Soviet soldiers liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27th January 1945, where they found several thousand emaciated survivors, and the smouldering remains of the gas chambers and crematoria (the Nazi’s had attempted to destroy evidence of their crimes against humanity). In the following months, the Soviets liberated Stutthof, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbruck.

In the west, US troops liberated Buchenwald in April 1945, followed by Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen. British Troops liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15th April 1945. It is estimated there were over 60,000 prisoners in Belsen by April 1945. Approximately 35,000 prisoners died of typhus, malnutrition and starvation in the first few months of 1945.

Tony Blair (the then UK prime minister) once asked Jewish leaders do we need Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain? Jonathan Sacks (formers Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth for 22 years, until 2013) noted that this was the question as Tony Blair in 1999, when it had been proposed that the UK have a Holocaust Memorial Day, and Blair wanted the opinion of British Jewish leaders. They explained that they did not need it as Jews.

When it comes to remembrance Jewish people already had Yom ha-Shoa, their own memorial day, which falls soon after Passover in the Jewish calendar. Every Jew literally (or figuratively) lost family in the Holocaust. For Jews, Yom ha-Shoa is a grief observed. The Jewish leaders said that the Holocaust was not just a crime against Jews and other victims – Roma, Sinti, homosexuals, the handicapped and Jehovah’s Witnesses among them; it was an assault on all of humanity.  As one of the survivors said earlier today perhaps we need an eleventh commandment – Don’t be bystander!

Monday, 25 January 2016

ALL IN IT TOGETHER – NOT!


Tax evasion! Surely not!
The news that Google has done a deal with the Conservative Westminster government over it’s unpaid UK tax bill, might be considered to be a step in the right direction.  Save for the fact that Google is no chain of high-street shops or a supermarket, but a global tech superpower with an annual turnover of close to £40bn with £4bn accrued in the UK. Compared to ordinary tax payers, they’ve got off lightly. Vast numbers of decent and conscientious tax payers and small businesses struggling with a mass of red tape will be understandably aggrieved at the Chancellor’s cosy deal with Google.

These giants excel at avoiding tax; tax which should have been paid over many years. At best the donation of some  £130m in taxes from Google over the last ten years is merely a tokenistic gesture from a Government more concerned with luring multinationals than clamping down on tax avoidance. When multi-national companies avoid paying their fair share of tax, it simply means we end up with a bigger national deficit, a larger burden on hard working people who do pay their taxes and that we end up with less money to spend on our essentials, such as the NHS, schools and rubbish collections.

At a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, and local services are under pressure from government cuts, it is outrageous that multi-national companies and rich individuals are merely getting a slap on the wrist for not paying their taxes. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for years, the point scoring on the back of Osborne’s deal with Google simply means, that probably much to the quiet irritation of David Cameron, that tax evasion is back in the news.  

It may be a matter of semantics and legality when it comes to the differences between tax evasion from tax avoidance, one is a criminal act and one is permitted under the law.  It is a matter of public record that the current PM is against aggressive tax avoidance schemes. He has also been pretty forthright in stating that tax evasion is illegal, and that people can be prosecuted for that, and people can go to prison – so his relative silence and inaction on tax avoidance may be telling

It is also a matter of public record that the former Con Dem and current Conservative government’s are pursuing ideologically driven public sector spending cuts which have seriously cut staffing levels in HM revenue and Customs. The PM interestingly enough was firm enough when it came to rejecting calls for particular individuals to be stripped of public honours for wrong doing. From the perspective of the Westminster elite, if you started stripping individuals of titles and honours for wrong doings, who knows where it might end - even the possibility of former Conservative and former Labour and Lib Dem party donors ending up embarrassed.

Previously various Westminster governments have been more than a little half-hearted when it comes to clamping down on tax avoidance or fiscal consolidation. The PM may have slagged off celebrities, for using a tax avoidance scheme in Jersey, a couple of years ago. Yet he remains reluctant to deal the tax havens that just happen to be UK Crown Dependent territories.  Successive Labour and Tory governments turn a blind eye to this problem allowing the UK's tax gap to grow to an eye-watering £34 billion each year. 

Total fiscal consolidation over the course of the Parliamentary term (2010 – 2015) amounted to some £120 billion pounds, which may indicate the scale of the scandal. The last Labour UK Government (in 2005) merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise and then proceeded to cut a nearly a third of jobs in five years (99,000 to 68,000).   The party formerly known as New Labour also slashed the budget for tackling the tax gap by nearly 50% (£3.6bn to £1.9bn) between 2006-10.

In February 2015, it was a scandal that involved HSBC's Swiss accounts, that made the news, the numbers were quite something:

·                106,000 clients with Swiss bank accounts
·                203 countries involved
·                $118bn total assets held in Swiss accounts
·                11,235 clients from Switzerland held $31.2 billion Dollars
·                9,187 clients from France held $12.5 billion Dollars
·                7,000 clients from UK held $21.7 billion Dollars

Source: ICIJ/Panorama

Now most reasonable people accept that there is a real need to deal on a global basis with the problem of off-shore companies and those individuals who are actively engaged in tax avoidance, tax evasion and / or money laundering. It’s all a little embarrassing as the problem is that the UK is at the heart of the problem and has chosen not to regulate its own crown dependencies let alone the periodically iffy, if not periodic criminal or questionable financial goings on in the City. 

The scale of the on-going off-shore tax avoidance problem may leave you breathless. The Cayman Islands were home to some 12,000 corporations yet have a resident population of 50,000. They were home to around 70% of the planets hedge funds (as of June 2012). The British Virgin Islands with a population of some 22,000 people just happens to be home to some 823,502 registered companies.

General Electric who paid no tax in 2010, made a $14.2 billion dollar profit. Barclay's had 181 subsidiaries (as of June 2012) registered in the Cayman Islands and paid little UK tax on its worldwide profits. News Corp managed to base 152 subsidiaries in tax havens across the planet (according to the US Government) and yet managed to pay no UK corporation tax between 1998 and 1999.

US President Obama was 100% right to suggest that the governments of the world should jointly tackle the issue of tax evasion and tax havens. By tackling the tax havens, the tax avoidance and the questionable dealings of the derivative traders, hedge funds and the off balance sheet trading then we might go so way towards dealing with the consequences of the worldwide financial crash. Yet that nice Mr Cameron and the other 18 millionaires in the cabinet (in 2015) pretty much stalled when it came to closing tax loopholes.

The scandal of HSBC’s Swiss accounts was but the tip of a large iceberg. The British Virgin island (BVI) incorporated over one million such offshore entities since it began marketing itself worldwide in the 1980s (with the convenient connivance of HM Government). Company owners' true identities are never revealed. Even the island's official financial regulators normally have no idea who is behind them. The British Foreign Office depends on the BVI's company licensing revenue to subsidise this residual outpost of empire, while lawyers and accountants in the City of London benefit from a lucrative trade as intermediaries, claiming that the tax-free offshore companies provide legitimate privacy.

In November 2012 a National Audit Office report noted that HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) was struggling to curb aggressive tax avoidance schemes that were costing the UK billions of pounds in lost tax. No doubt much to the embarrassment of the then Con Dem Coalition Westminster Government, and the now Conservative Westminster Government , tax evasion and tax evaders and the hunt for their concealed cash remains a big issue in the USA.

In the UK the impression that we are left with is that the Conservative Westminster government (and perhaps the Party formerly known as New Labour) sincerely hope that the issue of unpaid tax, will quietly go away. The US government continues to actively pursue tax evaders, both foreign and domestic, yet in the UK, the then Con Dem Government quietly reduced the number of staff in Revenue and Customs from around 100,000 to 65,000 and hoped to further reduce the numbers to around 50,000 by 2015.

The UK Government remains firmly up to its neck in it when it comes to tax evasion; it’s heavily involved in aiding and abetting tax evasion worldwide. British Overseas territories, including the Cayman Islands, help to hide around trillions from pounds from the different nation’s tax authorities. Deep in the belly of the beast lies the City, which may explain Cameron’s reluctance to do anything about the problem as some of the city banks are hand in glove with drug dealers, dictators, rogue states and terrorists when it comes to money laundering and perhaps offers comfy lucrative seats on the board to former Westminster politicians.

Plaid Cymru will not compromise on its commitment to tackling tax evasion. Tax evasion, tax avoidance or fiscal consolidation has resulted in vast sums of money being squirrelled away. Plaid believes that taxes should be collected properly and invested in vital public services such as health and education. The Westminster based parties, perhaps seeking future post Westminster employment, may wish to appease the City bankers and their wealthy backers, but Plaid Cymru believes in putting Welsh communities first.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

50,000 NEW APPRENTICESHIPS


Rather than promising nothing and delivering even less – as per the current trend for Westminster governments and Labour administrations in the Bay – politics at a very basic level should be about making deliverable public commitments. This is why Plaid is right to commit to a landmark investment in 50,000 new apprenticeships for young people in Wales over the next five years. These 50,000 extra apprenticeships can be funded with Wales’ share of the UK apprenticeships levy, which is worth £150m each year. A Plaid government will be committed to ensuring that no young person in Wales is not in education, employment and training while between the age of 16 and 24, and in order to improve prospects for the next generation. At the moment 12,200 young people between 16-18 years old in Wales – one in every 10 - are not in education, employment or training, which most people will agree is far too many. Apprenticeships can offer an equally valuable route into employment as university degrees, and is committed to securing parity of esteem between these two paths in future.


Tuesday, 19 January 2016

HELP WELSH STEEL WORKERS


Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards has accused the UK government of singularly failing to protect the Welsh steel industry from market volatility and called on the Government to implement measures such as an employer’s national insurance contribution break for West Wales and the Valleys to support against the impact of job losses. 

Following an urgent statement in the House of Commons, Jonathan Edwards MP said,

Today’s announcement is a devastating blow to the workers and communities of Port Talbot, Llanwern and Llanelli. The steel industry supports thousands of workers across the region, with Tata Steel contributing around £3.2 billion annually to the Welsh economy.”

The UK Government has singularly failed to protect the steel industry from the volatility of the markets, despite repeated warnings. Artificially cheap steel is being dumped every week from countries such as Russia and China, drowning the UK market and undercutting Welsh-produced steel.”  

The dumping of Chinese steel is one of the biggest contributors to this crisis. But the UK Government has done little to help the flailing steel industry at home, choosing instead to promote China’s bid for market economy status which would further decimate our steel industry.”  

Ensuring market fairness for our steel industry should be a top priority for the UK Government. It should be pursued with the same drive as we saw when the banks were bailed out in 2008.”

"The UK Government should also be pressing to implement measures such as an employer’s national insurance contribution break for West Wales and the Valleys. This area is one of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Western Europe and contains the steel plants at Trostre and Port Talbot. Measures such as this would support against the impact of these job losses and provide a boost for the area."

Plaid Cymru has put forward constructive proposals to save the steel industry in Wales and called on the Welsh Government to urgently consider all options, including taking a temporary stake in Tata Steel to protect workers and guard this key industry, a backbone of the Welsh economy, against these challenging economic conditions.”           

So far the Welsh First Minister has chosen to ignore these calls, including those made by his own party leader, choosing instead to treat Welsh steelworkers as pawns in a political blame game between the Welsh Government and Westminster.”

Whilst the Tories and Labour refuse to step up to the plate, Plaid Cymru will press both the UK and Welsh Government to do all they can to protect the jobs of our steel workers.”

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

PROFITS BEFORE PEOPLE

Bank closures often by stealth have become a fact of life for many communities across rural and urban Wales – on January 11th HSBC announced that branches in Ruabon, Chirk, Amlwch and Menai Bridge will close in April. Back in June 2015 Natwest announced plans to close 11 branches in north Wales in September (St Asaph, Denbigh, Corwen and Llangollen in Denbighshire, as will the branches in Abersoch, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Tywyn in Gwynedd and those in Abergele and Rhos-on-Sea in Conwy, Buckley in Flintshire and Rossett in Wrexham).
This is nothing new, at the end of October 2014 Lloyd’s announced that it would close 150 branches (7% of its 2,250 branches) and shed some 9,000 jobs (the bank has incidentally already shed 43,000 jobs since the largely bank driven financial crash back in 2008).  In October 2014, Vince Cable, the then Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was apparently going to write to UK banks to demanding that the banks commit to keeping ‘the last branch in town’ open. Sadly was probably a little late as a growing number of communities in Wales, which already have no bank (28 as of December 2015), and the forty-seven which only have one bank, as noted by the Campaign for Community Banking Services.
The problem of closing banks affects all parts of Wales, while it is more readily identifiable in rural communities; but it also affects our urban areas as well – inconveniencing both personal and business customers. Bank closures proportionally hit older people harder as they may have problems with access to regular public transport. Age Cymru also noted that having a local bank that was convenient for older people was "vital" for ensuring they did not become socially isolated and that older people were at increased risk of financial abuse because of the branch closures.
Locally in Newport there has been a stealth-like closure of local high street banks -Caerleon’HSBC branch in Backhall Street (closed on 2nd November 2012) – despite a campaign to save the small town’s only bank from closure, which had gained the support of hundreds of people who signed a petition against the closure.  HSBC had already closed the next nearest branch to Caerleon, on Caerleon Road, in St Julian’s (which was closed June 2011) – so much of listening to their customers. 
While Lloyds in 2011/2012 was in the frame for a raft of closures, HSBC had already systematically closed branches across much of Wales - Presteigne, (which closed on Friday 9th March 2012) despite over 500 people signing a petition against the closure), and Blaenafon, in Torfaen (which closed on the 11th May 2012) despite over a 1,000 people signed a petition against the closure of what was literally the last bank in the town). The excuse was that both banks had seen a significant decline in the numbers of customers using their services and the branches were no longer commercially viable.

Campaigners against bank closures rightly claim that businesses in an area where a bank closes suffer and that residents (especially the elderly) who are reliant on public transport to bank in a nearby town are disadvantaged. Just for the record HSBC had closed six branches in Wales between September 2010 and December 2011, including Llandysul, Ceredigion, and Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys.

The company has closed 17 "under-used" banks in Wales (since 2009) in both urban and rural areas. HSBC, Barclays and the rest have been quietly closing small rural banks in recent years, and NatWest and Barclays have also reduced bank-opening hours. The British Bankers' Association says more customers now go on-line and banks must examine branch-running costs. 

Despite the spin (about the growth in on-line banking and it’s use – if you have no choice what else are people going to do) this is about nothing more than cutting running costs, the banks have little (or no concern) for their relatively unprofitable personal customers or the concerns of their local business customers or our smaller communities. As has been noted by the US Senate, some banks have other more pressing interests than those of their domestic customers like helping to launder money for drug dealers, dictators and terroristsso much for being a local bank. 

Local banks are good for the high street and local communities, they help to promote vitality and vibrancy and make it easier for local businesses to operate.  Local businesses to a degree benefit from the existence of local high street branches by picking up passing trade from bank customers. Once local bank branches close, the impact will be felt locally especially by older residents and local business owners who have to trek further and further to pay in their taking and the subsequent drop in passing trade – this situation has been aggravated by the demise of many building societies. 

It is of course important to remember that one result of the demise of the regional banks was the rise of the big 4 banks which led to the growth of the reckless casino banking and cheap credit that brought about the financial crash. When you factor in the ruthless Post Office closure programme that has been pushed through by the then Labour Government, and the Con - Dem coalition government prior to it’s privatisation of the Post Office which in turn was preceded by the rapid floatation and rapid demise of most of our building societies you can clearly see how we got here - sorting the mess out is not going to be easy.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

A GREEN BELT FOR WALES?

There is a need for a Welsh equivalent to Green belt, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, not to mention helping to protect green spaces in and around some of our urban areas. It's worth noting that 'Green belt' is a useful planning tool, which was introduced for London in 1938 but then ended up being rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955 but not to Wales.

The original idea was that the opportunity to develop green belt which would allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict urban growth.  The idea worked and worked well, as by 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (around one-and-a-half million hectares) which despite the best efforts of previous Conservative and New Labour Governments it is still relatively well protected both by normal planning controls and against "inappropriate development" within its boundaries.

Wales only has one patch notional green belt, and that lies between Cardiff and Newport, Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance.  The preservation of green spaces aside, it comes down to planning permission, which can be a touchy subject, especially when a development (whether for commercial, housing or energy development) is controversial or the final decision is made against the wishes of local people by a fairly distant and indifferent authority.

It's pretty obvious that we lack a coherent national strategic development plan for Wales judging by the half-baked way local unitary development plans have been put together over the years. A number of which are focussed on housing developments, which have done (and will do) some pretty serious damage to our environment in the process.

In the south east, along the coastal belt and in and around Torfaen (not to mention in and around Cardiff) the last twenty five years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which has never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor is struggling to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site kicks in.

The north of Newport has now effectively been linked to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to the residents of either urban area but has contributed much to traffic congestion. Similarly linkng Cwmbran with Sebastopol will bring little benefit to local residents. Even if eventually housing is built on the land just exactly how much of it will be affordable to local residents?

Now the National Assembly should know better and act accordingly, the institution is supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities. We need to protect the green wedges around and within our urban communities – because once developed they are gone for good.

The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas.

If the National Assembly took the long view and created Welsh Green belt land with legal and planning protections then, we might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and also manage to introduce a more long term sustainable democratic element into the process. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.

The Westminster government (in England) refrain over the next few years will be about getting planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. When they talk about ‘people’ they actually mean developers. In true Spiv fashion ‘for a limited period, people are able able to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices will also be able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) unravels and a note of desperation creeps in Westminster ministers seek to boost the economy.

These sounds good; it seems very reasonable save for the fact that somewhere amongst the smoke and mirrors the plan will reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing and avoiding flood risk will go out the window. Not that long ago, a matter of a few months, the previous Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. Now Westminster ministers want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house building and revive the economy.

Not wanting to be left out, the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff has also pursued major changes to planning rules in Wales aiming to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This decision may be aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits and will do little for sustainable, flood free development to deal with local housing needs let alone preserve our green spaces.