Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Senedd Watch - March 2011

Here's the first of what will become a monthly round up of the major goings on in the Welsh Assembly.


  • The Welsh electorate delivered a decisive "yes" vote in the March 3rd referendum on primary law making powers, by 63.5% to 36.5%. Turnout was poor, but respectable at just 35.2%. Monmouthshire was the only local authority to return a "no", and even then by less than 400 votes.
  • As a result of the yes vote, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg raised the possiblity of future tax- varying powers for Wales, but has ruled out Barnett formula reforms due to the economic climate.
  • The LCO for organ donation has been withdrawn. Since the yes vote, there was no longer any need for it. Health Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) believes legislation should be passed in the next Assembly term.
  • Assembly Goverment statistics released show that almost all non-urgent cancer patients in Wales started treatment within one month of diagnosis, and 93% of urgent cancer patients started treatment (after referral to hospital) within 2 months.
  • Rural Affairs minister Elin Jones (Plaid, Ceredigion) relaid the controversial Bovine TB control order ("badger cull") before the Assembly, extending it's scope to include camelids, deer and goats. The order was subsequently passed by the Assembly.
  • The Independent Renumeration Board comfirmed that AM's pay will be frozen for four years.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend) sent a letter of condolence to the Japanese ambassador after the Sendai earthquake.
  • Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Delyn) announces that Anglesey County Borough Council is to be run by commissioners as a result of ongoing problems in the authority.
  • The National Assembly election in 2015 has been postponed one year to 2016 due to a clash with the UK General Election as a result of a 5-year fixed-term parliament.
  • An Assembly Communities and Culture Committee report suggests that the Welsh Government should set up a fund to bring empty local properties back into use.
  • Home care and non-residential social services in Wales will now have a maximum charge of £50 per week from April following the passing of the Social Care Charges measure by the Assembly and Deputy Minister for Social Services Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath).
  • NHS statistics have shown that dental care in Wales has improved since the 1970's. The Adult Dental Health Survey shows the proportion of adults with no natural teeth has fallen from 37% in 1978 to 10% in 2009. 22% of those surveyed said their choice of treatment was influenced by costs. 91% of adults were able to make and attend a dental appointment.
  • Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd) received the Bernadette Hartley Memorial Award (for promoting fire safety through sprinklers) at the House of Lords for her Member-introduced Domestic Fire Safety Measure (awaiting Royal Assent) which will require new homes in Wales to be fitted with automatic sprinkler systems.
  • Projects announced in March include:
    1. The first phase of a duel-carriageway upgrade to the east of Newport
    2. A new north-south train service via Wrexham
    3. Extra trains between Carmarthen and Fishguard
    4. The devolution of rail management to Wales by Network Rail
    5. A relaunch and upgrade of the TrawsCambria long-distance bus service
    6. The A40 Llanddewi Velfrey-Penblewin bypass
    7. New schools and colleges in Dinefwr (Carmarthenshire), Merthyr Tydfil and Ynysawdre (Bridgend County)
    8. A technology graduate entrapreneurship scheme
    9. A new campus for Swansea University at Crymlyn Burrows and the launch of a new business district in Cardiff city centre.

    Tuesday, 29 March 2011

    Did "One Wales" deliver?

    The 3rd Assembly is to be officially dissolved on March 31st and the election campaign will get into full swing.

    In June 2007, Labour and Plaid Cymru signed the "One Wales" agreement and went into coalition together in the Assembly. The document "One Wales - A progressive agenda for the government of Wales" contained a list specific commitments that the new government pledged to deliver in the Assembly term.

    The document was divided into 10 parts. Let's see how they did.

    Methodology

    I'm counting each bulletpointed note in the original One Wales document as a single pledge. I'm not counting anything that I consider to be preamble, legalese or generally refering to proceedures or guidelines. In total this makes 221 pledges.

    I've divided each pledge into three categories based on outcome:
    • Delivered – A pledge with which it's results can be tracked down easily and readily and has been delivered in its entirity during the Assembly term.
    • Half-delivered – Pledges where there is a strong commitment to carry them through beyond the current term, or pledges which have fallen short of their stated aim, but not through any noticeable mismanagement by the government.
    • Undelivered – Pledges that have missed their stated aim, target or have not been delivered satisfactorily in the Assembly term for whatever reason.
    Summary of One Wales deliveries...or lack there of (Click to enlarge)



    1. A Progressive Agenda For Wales

    Preamble. Waffle waffle progressive agenda, society, radical, deliverable etc.

    2. A Strong and Confident Nation

    The referendum on primary law making powers was delivered (and more importantly won). The Holtham Commission was set up to investigate the funding situation for Wales and submitted a report. There are ongoing reviews of governance and delivery in the Welsh public sector and a Strategic Capital Investment Board was set up in 2010. A good start so far.

    3. A Healthy Future

    Health and Social Services is the biggest spending category in devolved Wales and is almost always at the forefront of political debate because of our aging population and a relatively higher proportion of people with limiting illnesses, both a legacy of industry and economic depression. On the surface of it, not bad at all. One delivery they can really point to as a success is the improvements to public health, exceeding the £190million by £70million and introducing new screening schemes like that for bowel cancer.

    However some crucial pledges, like single-site solutions (neurosurgery) and not-for-profit nursing homes have failed to materialise to any great extent. The most important factor in health is delivery on the ground, and the biggest non-delivery is failing to meet the 26 week waiting time target for all referrals, though they are very close to doing it at about 93-96%.

    4. A Prosperous Society

    Like health, the one big stand-out pledge, 80% employment, wasn't delivered. Even during the peak of the boom employment levels in Wales were, at best, 74-75%. Although regeneration investment is ongoing in the Head of the Valleys and Mon a Menai, the lack of any real return means I'm counting it as half-delivered. Similarly with a pledge to make it easier for small firms to win government contracts. Is it easier? I'm not sure.

    However, again it looks good for One Wales. Many pledges were delivered, like the Single Investment Fund, the Economic Renewal Plan, Assembly relocation, business rate relief (though perhaps not far enough), public procurement that encourages training the unemployed (i.e Church Village Bypass), support for farmers markets and back-to-work schemes backed by the DWP and with Objective One funding.

    5. Living Communities

    Practically every single housing pledge in the One Wales document has been delivered. These include the housing LCO and increased spending on social housing. The exception is a pledge relating to making it easier for charities to dispose land for affordable housing. That particular one was within Westminster's remit (charity law) and the WAG were merely lobbying. It's hard to tell if anything actually came out of it.

    When it comes to transport, again practically all pledges were met. There were improvements to north-south travel, which is now better that at any point in Welsh history (which isn't saying much). The only exceptions I'm counting as half-delivered are reducing rail travel times between north-south and improving station safety because arguably these measures haven't been that successful. Similarly improvements to Traws-Cambria have only just gone through the consultation process when 2011 was set as a deadline. At least there's a commitment there.

    6. Learning for life

    WAG education policy has been overshadowed by the poor PISA test results. However, once again, the bulk of the One Wales pledges have been delivered including a national youth work fund, a broader Welsh baccalaureate, maintaining tution fees, improved rights for SEN pupils, increased capital expenditure on school buildings and some minor goals relating to school sports. Also included are after-school pilots, called the "Buzz club" which is aimed towards developing talents. There are also more WAG-funded apprenticeships with almost 23,000 people on them in 2010.

    However the Coleg Ffederal is currently going through the motions and a though the commitment is there, it hasn't moved from the planning stage. Class sizes haven't reduced. The "National Science Academy" isn't that at all and just a promotion of STEM subjects in schools, which is a big let down and I'm classing it as undelivered.

    Education is likely to be one of the big topics in the forthcoming election, but One Wales can say they've largely delivered what they promised, even if the big matters, like class sizes and attainment, remain an ongoing problem.

    7. Fair and Just Society

    Although many things have been delivered yet again, this is one of the most disappointing sections in terms of actual policy.

    The target to eliminate and halve child poverty by 2020 and 2010 respectively is looking wildly optimistic. Although it has fallen/stabilised, this was just a wild stab at a policy, not faulting it's ambitions.

    A lot of the pledges in this section were wooly liberal buzz-word type ones. Lots of "inclusion" and "strategy" and "implimentation" but very little hard policy. Some big deliveries were the Children and Families LCO, improvements/reviews to substance abuse policies and those relating to hate crimes. When it comes to hate crime it's actually gone beyond the strategy room and there are now dedicated hate crime services in Wales.

    One important pledge missed was to look into the devolution of criminal justice. It's only now being mentioned post-referendum.

    8. A Sustainable Environment

    The Assembly has a pretty good track record when it comes to the environment and rural affairs (within it's comptency) and it continues through One Wales. Practically all pledges have been delivered including a climate change commission, commitments to reduce carbon emmissions, improvements in farming support, local food production, strategies for energy and rural development and the devolution of building regulations.

    The badger cull, listed in One Wales as bovine TB eradication, I'm counting as half delivered. The will is clearly there, but various legal obstacles have tied the WAG's hands. The only pledge undelivered was to place "maximum restrictions on GM crops". Instead the WAG has adopted a cautious acceptance stance rather than "maximum restrictions".

    9. Rich and Diverse Culture

    A multitude of commitments relating to culture and heritage have been delivered, including the new Welsh Language LCO and Measure, pledges relating to free sport schemes, establishing new art galleries, public ownership of green spaces (Playing Fields measure) and increased investment in libraries.

    A few of the pledges are obtuse, or hard to tell if they actually have been delivered. For example did One Wales really "support Welsh artist participation on the World stage"? Have they "raised Wales's international profile"? Does Golwg360 count as "expanded funding and support for Welsh language media"?

    Some missed pledges include the failed attempt at a "dot.cym" domain, the intriguing "enshrining artistic freedom in Welsh law", and those relating to maximising Wales's global presence. It just hasn't happened really, has it.

    One important pledge kept is relating to UN goals. The UN Rights of the Child have recently become part of Welsh law for example, the first nation of the UK to do so. I haven't listed Huw Lewis as a minister responsible for this brief but he deserves credit for that.

    10. Government Arrangements

    There's nothing in this section I would count as a specific pledge. It mainly relates to how the coalition would work but by and large any pledges here have been delivered. The coalition has been harmonious on the surface of it and I'm willing to bet it's worked a lot better than Labour and Plaid would've expected. It's been stable. There have been no scandals of any real note aside from the usual complains about specifics relating to public service delivery that have been going on for time immemorial.

    Conclusion

    It's very rare that a government can point to delivering 80% of what they promised (90%+ if you include half-delivered pledges).

    However what this tells me is that the One Wales Agreement lacked ambition and looked for easily deliverable, "soft" targets. With the 4th Assembly having new law making powers, it's time for our politicians to step their game up.

    If there is to be any "One Wales – Part II", then not only will there need to be bolder pledges, there will need to be delivery where it really matters – waiting lists, class sizes, job creation.

    That doesn't take away the achievments of One Wales. They can be pleased, proud even, but they have to push themselves now and aim higher. For Wales's sake.

    Thursday, 24 March 2011

    The Welsh Metro

    A few months ago, the Institute of Welsh Affairs together with Cardiff Business Partnership published a "metro system" proposal for south Wales. The cost of the scheme was estimated to be £2.5billion. The scheme involved electrified heavy-rail, bus rapid transit and trams not only connecting the valleys to Cardiff, but the valleys to each other.


    It's a perfectly logical proposition. South Wales is blessed with an extensive heavy rail network for it's population density. The rail network around Cardiff as it is already puts some other UK cities to shame, like Bristol.


    Why should the metro idea be exclusively for Cardiff though?


    In this post I'm outlining 3 separate schemes based on the IWA/CBP report and my own ideas; a Capital-Region metro based around Cardiff, Newport and the south Wales valleys, a Swansea Bay area metro and a Deeside/Wirral metro (largely utilising existing rail services).


    1. Capital Connect

    Capital Connect (Click to enlarge)
    (i) Rail Services


    At the core is a half-hourly "South Wales Commuter" service between Cheltenham Spa and Swansea, calling at all stations along the route. To enable this, the Maesteg service will now run between Bridgend and Maesteg only, using the bay platform to the north of Bridgend station.


    Lines reopened include Aberdare-Hirwaun, Ystrad Mynach-Bedlinog and Llanhilleth-Abertillery. Every line should be double-track where possible or practical. Each line should also aim to have, a minimum half-hourly service, perhaps eventually every 20 minutes with signalling improvements.


    The metro would have 6 distinct "lines".


    • South Wales Commuter – Explained above.
    • Maesteg Line – Bridgend to Maesteg shuttle service.
    • Glamorgan Line – Services from Hirwaun, Treherbert and Merthyr to Barry Island, Bridgend (via Barry) and Penarth.
    • City Line – Clockwise and anti-clockwise services around Cardiff, with a rationalisation Coryton branch stations and a new connection to Radyr via Forest Farm.
    • Gwent Line – Services from Ebbw Vale and Abertillery to Cardiff Central and Abergavenny (via Newport).
    • Northern Line – Services from Rhymney and Bedlinog to Cardiff Bay.




    (ii) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)


    The BRT services wouldn't be "rapid transit" in the strictest sense of the word, more a limited stop bus service, using high-spec buses and stopping at higher quality, "metro branded" stops located at various places in the network.


    Seamless transfer should be encouraged with many BRT services calling at metro rail stations. The BRT services would be vital in connecting communities and facilities (such as hospitals) too far from the existing rail network or no longer able to be reconnected, for example Maerdy and Tredegar.


    In the Capital Connect area there are 2 types of BRT service. Valley Connect services connect valley communities to one another. City Connect connects the valleys to the city region (Cardiff and Newport) and the cities to each other.


    Sections of segregated busway should be constructed where feasible. For example between Fairwater and Beddau (via Creigau). Bus priority measures should be enhanced along BRT routes. The buses and stops themselves should be branded in the same distinct metro brand as the rail services, to distinguish BRT services from local and municipal services.


    Bus services should be more frequent than rail during peak times (every 5 minutes on busy routes) and at least half-hourly at all other times.






    2. Swansea Connect


    (i) Rail Services

    Swansea Connect (Click to enlarge)
    Swansea is disadvantaged by having it's main railway station outside of the city centre proper. This makes planning a metro service around it quite difficult. However there are freight-only railways in and around Swansea that can be utilised for passenger services. Naturally all of the lines involved would be electrified.


    A secondary transport interchange to the east of the city on Fabian Way will be a focal point for both bus rapid transit and new rail services along the Swansea District Line and the Vale of Neath branches. These rail services should use lightweight tram-trains and should aim to run an hourly service at a minimum, with passing loops installed where appropriate.


    Swansea, Port Talbot, Bridgend and Neath will still be served by existing mainline services as well as the South Wales Commuter service mentioned above.


    To the west of Swansea, a new service will operate from Carmarthen to Swansea and the Amman Valley. Stations will be reopened along this route, for example at Lougher, Waunarlwydd and Cockett. Due to limited turnback facilities at Llanelli, only District Line services will turn back towards Swansea, creating a "horseshoe" shaped service for Swansea's outer suburbs.


    The Swansea Metro area will have 5 lines:


    • South Wales Commuter – Explained earlier.
    • Maesteg Line – Explained earlier.
    • District Line – From new Fabian way hub, around the north of Swansea to Llanelli, then on to Swansea station itself.
    • Vale of Neath Line – From Fabian way to Blaengwrach (possibly extended to Aberdare in the future) and Seven Sisters (possibly extended to Ystradgynlais and Pontardawe in the future).
    • Carmarthenshire Line – From Carmarthen to Swansea and Gwaun Cae Gurwen (via Ammanford).


    (ii) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)


    Part of the BRT system for Swansea already exists between Morriston and Singleton Hospitals. 4 more BRT "lines" would be developed, including a significant busway between eastern Swansea and Port Talbot across the Neath estuary. Another busway could be developed to the north west of Swansea from Gorseinon to Pontardulais along a disused railway.


    The BRT should also be extended beyond Singleton Hospital to Mumbles Pier.


    Like the Capital area BRT, bus services would be more frequent than those of rail during peak times.


    3. Deeside Connect

    Deeside Connect (Click to enlarge)
    (i) Rail Services


    The Deeside Connect metro focusses on the Wrexham, Deeside, Shropshire, Chester and Wirral areas. It largely utilises existing rail lines, with new stations constructed at appropriate places (such as Cefn Mawr). All lines will be electrified, though the conflict between third-rail electrification on the Merseyrail network with cheaper overhead electrification would need to be resolved.


    A major heavy-rail project would be the reopening of a line between Gobowen and Welshpool, enabling a metro service to Oswestry, and longer-distance services between Wrexham (or Chester) and Aberystwyth (or Pwllheli) via the Cambrian Coast line. A line between Pen-y-fordd and Mold will also be reopened for metro services.


    The Deeside Connect system would have 4 lines:


    • Borderlands Line – As current, with additional stops and electrification. Services extended to Liverpool.
    • Hotspur Line – Between Shrewsbury and Chester (via Wrexham), with additional stops.
    • Glyndwr Line – Between reopened Oswestry branch and reopened Mold branch.
    • Wirral Line – The existing Merseyrail line between Chester and Liverpool. Could possibly become an extension of the Hotspur Line to simplify things.


    4. Smartcard Travel


    Cardiff Bus recently launched an "Iff Card" to enable ticket less/pre-pay travel on it's buses. Although it's a welcome development it still isn't on the same scale as Greater London's Oyster Card or Hong Kong's Octopus Card.


    A new nation-wide smart card should be launched, with recharging points at every BRT stop and rail station for commuters. The card could be expanded beyond metro services to also be used on local bus services, national rail services and perhaps even vending machines at stations or some stores.

    "Exact change" should be a phrase consigned to the past.



    5. Improving user experience


    Many train stations consist of nothing more than a glorified bus shelter. This doesn't send out the right message about using public transport in Wales.


    Stations on the rail network that handle more than 100,000 passengers per year should have some form of indoor waiting area perhaps with a retail outlet or vending machines. Stations that handle more than 200,000 passengers a year should be fully staffed and have accessible toilet facilities. Every station should be DDA compliant within 20 years of the metro being up and running.


    To prevent fare evasion every metro rail station (except those with very low passenger usage) should have ticket sale facilities (probably via a machine) ticket barriers and CCTV installed. Cathays station in Cardiff for example is a "bus shelter" rail station yet has ticket barriers on both platforms.


    Car parking provision should be expanded at rail stations on the outskirts of major urban areas, and those easily accessible (less than 5 minutes) from major arterial routes, such as the M4 or A470.


    Bus stops on BRT routes should be of the highest standard with real-time GPS service information and ticket sale/smart card recharge facilities. Some of the busier stops could have refreshment vending machines or even their own car parks.


    6. Improved rolling stock and buses


    London Underground "S-Stock" interior
    The trains currently being used by Arriva Trains Wales are a disgrace, bordering on an embarrassment. With electrification there is an opportunity for new "off the shelf" rolling stock. New trains should maximise space, be clean, bright and enable all users, including those with disabilities to use them effectively.


    The new London Underground "S-Stock" should be the archetype for any new metro trains, retrofitted for use with overhead power lines and fitted with toilet facilities.


    For the South Wales Commuter service, specific, high passenger density rolling stock should be used with an on board buffet/trolley service. For example a retrofitted Class 333, currently used on the Heathrow Express service.


    Buses for the BRT services should be modern, preferably utilising green technology such as hydrogen fuel cells. They should be low-floor, with toilet facilities considered for some longer-distance BRT services. "Bendy buses", such as the current FTR Swansea Metro ones, should only be considered for low lying, shorter intra-city services such as those in and around Cardiff and Swansea.


    Thursday, 17 March 2011

    Build for Wales!

    Plaid Cymru have a habit of having at least one policy in every manifesto that is "fanciful" and as Betsan Powys puts it "leaves the party wide open attack - and even ridicule".

    There were signs that Ieuan Wyn Jones announced "one of those" policies yesterday. On closer examination though, things get interesting.

    Plaid want to raise capital funds for Welsh infrastructure investment - a "Build for Wales" fund - via a city bond issue. Public borrowing is outside of the Welsh Government's remit, so on the surface, it appears to be a complete non-starter. Foolish even. A similar (sounding) proposal put forward by the Scottish Government has already been rejected.

    The three other parties in Wales have (predictably) pounced on the idea.

    However, in this case, the talks with HM Treasury are at an advanced stage. I doubt that they would go into discussions just to humour Plaid when public borrowing is frowned upon. The fact Plaid have decided to sound out their idea with the Treasury beforehand shouldn't raise eyebrows. If anything, it shows a responsible side to Plaid. I think that's what unnerved the other parties more than anything.

    The other parties have been wrong footed and they know it. How often do we hear that "only" Labour can deliver for Wales? How often will we hear about Lib Dems and Conservatives "delivering" at UK level in the coming election campaign? Are Plaid the only party in Wales that shouldn't be allowed to approach Whitehall in this way?

    Betsan Powys later expands on Plaid's idea, saying that the borrowing would be done via an arms-length company, not the WAG itself. What Plaid are talking about is the creation of a pseudo infrastructure bank. Glas Cymru are proof this model can, and does, work.

    Presumably the money could only be used to fund infrastructure that would provide some sort of return. That means big projects like the recently proposed "metro system" (I'll be posting my own ideas on this in the coming days/weeks), improvements to the M4 and A55 and the Cardiff PDR completion. Big bang-for-buck projects that we need to take Wales forward economically but are under threat/review due to unavoidable reductions in capital expenditure.

    There is an issue surrounding what "assets" could be borrowed against. Well, there's the trunk road network in Wales for a start, there's WAG-owned and former WDA land (including some prime real estate like Porth Teigr in Cardiff), there's the Finance Wales stake in companies, there are also things with a significant WAG or WDA stake such as the Ebbw Vale railway.

    Could EU funding be channeled through this model? Would the regional Trunk Road Agencies become an arm of the "new" company/bank for example? Sort of like the National Roads Authority in the Irish Republic.

    I believe these are the key details Plaid need to work out to give the proposal/policy more credence. I'm merely speculating here.

    I still have reservations about Plaid as a whole (Welsh nationalists don't have to be Plaid supporters or members), but I have to say this policy is interesting and one worth exploring in further detail. The more you look at it, the less it seems "pie in the sky" and the more it looks like a creative and grown-up initiative in straightened times, with an important willingness to take responsibility.

    Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems........the ball's now in your court. Let's see what you've got.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    UPDATE:

    The Welsh Lib Dems announced today that they will give 5000 grants a year worth £2000 to businesses that take on unemployed young workers. Wow. That's ambitious long-term thinking. Plaid talks £500million, Lib Dems talk £10million.

    Thursday, 10 March 2011

    Who held back the electric car on Anglesey?

    No, Anglesey Council had nothing to do with it this time.........

    It's estimated that the automotive sector is worth £3billion to the Welsh economy, once the supply chain is taken into account. Automotive exports from Wales were worth £428million in 2009, making it the sixth largest Welsh export group. This is despite falls in the previous year, and early statistics for 2010 show that automotive exports had recovered somewhat.

    Since the 1970's Wales has done well in securing automotive direct investment, second only to the West Midlands in this respect. Many of the big players are still here, for example Ford in Bridgend and Toyota on Deeside. However, Wales has also lost a lot of automotive jobs in recent years, like Visteon in Swansea and TRW in Resolven.

    Car manufacturing may well be big business, but it's no longer labour intensive. In the early part of the noughties, key UK car manufacturers underwent fundamental restructuring, with significant job losses, foreign takeovers and plant closures. Down the supply chain, this will have had an impact on Wales. Wales doesn't manufacture cars, it manufactures car parts.

    An interesting story has emerged from Ynys Mon in the Holyhead and Anglesey Mail. Electric sports car manufacturer Lightning Car Company, based in London, approached the WAG in 2009 with a proposal for a manufacturing plant at Parc Cybi in Holyhead, potentially creating 400 much needed skilled jobs. According to Anglesey Telegraph, the public investment involved was a measly £150,000. Ieuan Wyn Jones has seemingly dithered and issued a characteristically glib response saying he "didn't remember" any meeting on the issue. If you were economy minister and someone offered 400 jobs to an economically depressed area, in exchange for £150,000, you would have to be a bit dim not to take it, wouldn't you?

    Or has IWJ been a lot shrewder than first appears?

    Car making is not only big business, it's expensive business. To get a new car off the ground takes multi-million pound investment (both private and sometimes public), significant marketing and a unique angle in a crowded marketplace.

    In the late 1970's/early 1980's DeLorean opened a car manufacturing plant in Dunmurry near Belfast, with heavy government assistance. This was a significant investment at the time considering the impact of "the Troubles". The car itself (DMC-12) was a flop, selling half the break even figure. DeLorean lobbied hard for even more state backing to remain a going concern but unrelated backroom investigations by the US authorites pushed the company over the edge, hampering efforts to stay afloat. They went bankrupt, taking $100million and 2,500 jobs with them.

    Although not a like-for-like comparison with the Parc Cybi story, it's an example of how hard it is for new car companies to get a foothold. It's even harder when it comes to electric cars.......

    Lightning, as of 2011, have 50 cars "on order". Not bad for an independent company and it's something to build on. They also have the "unique" point, an electric sports car, but do they have the marketing exposure or the kind of background private investment to sustain 400 jobs, or justify public sector investment? I think this is a point those who criticise IWJ, rightly or wrongly, have missed.

    How soon would £150,000 become £1.5million, then £15million, then £50million?

    How soon would 400 jobs become 300, then 200, then 50?


    Stevens Vehicles, based in Port Talbot also manufacture electric vehicles. Crucially relevant to the Parc Cybi story, they actually received Assembly backing. They've found out how difficult it is to get a foothold in the electric car business. Electric vehicles (currently) don't have the range to make them viable for anything other than short urban journeys. There's hardly any way to recharge them in public without a lengthy wait making them unsuitable for medium and long distance travel.

    Until the research and technology is there to make electric vehicles a genuine alternative to petrol/diesel (even perhaps hydrogen) in terms of range and fuelling, it's stuck in a technological cul-de-sac. Stevens Vehicles are rumoured to have only sold 3 vehicles in 2 years and currently don't even have a (working) website. I hope that just means they're positioning themselves for bigger and better things but it doesn't look good on the surface does it?

    And guess who welcomed their move to Wales and the public investment? I don't need to tell you.
    "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice.........."

    No wonder IWJ "didn't remember" anything about the Anglesey meeting.

    IWJ might have pushed Ynys Mon out of the path of what could have been a very costly, and embarrassing, Sinclair C5-shaped bullet. Or he could just as easily be kicking himself (and being kicked by his constituents) down the line. Judging by the record of other independent electric car manufacturers, I doubt he'll be losing sleep over it.

    That doesn't mean that he shouldn't be doing his damnedest to ensure investment on Ynys Mon. It doesn't excuse him (or the DET), but it doesn't condemn him either. If anything he can come out of it better than the headlines suggest in the cold light of day. If this is an "ace up the sleeve" in trying to pile pressure on IWJ in the run up to May, whoever's doing so will have to do a lot better.

    Electric cars won't take off until Jeremy Clarkson is nearing vinegar strokes driving one and you can travel the length of Great Britain quicker than you would in Tudor England (once recharging stops are taken into consideration).

    None of this means that electric vehicles don't have their uses in the present, or that they don't have future potential. It's obvious to anyone with half a brain that oil dependency is a dead end. Perhaps that £150,000 would be best invested in electric vehicle research after all....

    Tuesday, 8 March 2011

    A masterplan for Bridgend town centre


    Bridgend is a growing town. The current developments at Parc Derwen are testament to that. However because it's slap bang in between Cardiff and Swansea, it's often struggled to keep up. The town centre has limited retail choice, while other towns in Wales, such as Carmarthen and Wrexham have managed to attract some of the bigger high-street names and anchor stores.

    If Bridgend wants to keep up, it needs to keep growing sustainably to justify some of the investment we all want to see as well as to catch up economically with it's benchmarks. That means seriously addressing the problems in the town centre itself and continuing some of the good work that has been done to date, such as the Georgian restoration projects around Dunraven Place.

    Bridgend Council and Powell Dobson Urbanists have been working since 2009 on a masterplan for Bridgend town centre, largely supplementary guidance for the Local Development Plan that is still going through the various motions. Previous reports have found that the retail profile of the town centre is out of kilter with the socio-economic profile of the population of the town. The town itself and it's catchment area are a wealthier/more secure than the retail offer in the town centre would suggest.

    This week the council cabinet will meet to discuss the masterplan, which has been released on the Bridgend council website. It's in two (pdf) parts, a technical appendix (here) and the masterplan itself (here).

    I've only flicked through it, but there are a couple of the key points:
    • An independent/niche retail environment should be maintained, but alongside new modern units to attract new stores. A strategy should be pursued to improve the indoor market. Smaller arcades like Lees Arcade should be enhanced as they are part of the "unique character" of the town centre.
    • A Bridgend Town Centre Parking Plan is needed to help meet the requirements of visitors and significantly improve visitor experience.
    • South Wales Police are reviewing their accommodation, so the Cheapside police station site could be vacated for retail use if it become available, possibly linking in to a redeveloped Brackla Street Centre. A pedestrian link should be provided through the Brackla Street car park to Nolton Street. Most of the focus on potential new retail units appears to be in the Brackla Street/Cheapside area.
    • A mixed-use development at the Telephone Exchange, either employment or residential. This has issues due to the amount of equipment there currently and that BT have no plans to relocate.
    • The existing Rhiw Car Park should be retained and upgraded with improved links to the town centre and Rhiw Centre. The car show room should be redeveloped for retail uses.
    • The stores in the Rhiw Centre are too small to attract major retailers, but any expansion (which has been proposed in the past) may be unviable in the current economic climate.
    • Elder Yard should be the focus of a family-oriented "evening economy". It's currently being redeveloped along similar lines.
    • A "food quarter" facing the river and enhanced riverside public realm on the Rhiw side of the river, including extending the riverside walk towards Newbridge Fields.
    • There are no plans to redevelop the Brewery Field and it will likely be retained for sport/leisure uses as part of a wider mixed-use development, even if it became available. Also a riverside enhancement opposite Quarella Road and an improved "gateway" to the town centre from the Tesco site.
    • A "landmark" development on the Embassy Cinema site that complements the town centre, such as a hotel, office, residential or leisure. It's currently due for demolition for a temporary surface car park until it can be redeveloped. There is, I understand, a 3-5 year time limit for it to be redeveloped properly.
    • Cheapside, Court Road, Derwen Road and Merthyr Mawr Road (to Nolton Church) will all have public realm upgrades. Nolton Street will also, but will become one-way northbound from the Cowbridge Road junction. Funding for these schemes is already in place.

    All in all it isn't a bad set of ideas, albeit some of the suggestions are a little obvious like the Embassy site. How do the council and various other parties make sure this vision can be delivered? Especially with a depressed marketplace and the unlikelihood that anyone is going to want to take big risks on retail for a while yet, especially in a town the size of Bridgend.

    I'm disappointed that it looks as though the Rhiw Centre isn't going to be expanded/redeveloped by any significant degree. There have been similar developments in Carmarthen and Wrexham as noted earlier, so it seems that Bridgend has missed the boat in that regard. It does look as though Brackla Street/Cheapside is going to be the main focus, and if properly linked to Nolton Street would effectively be a Rhiw extension by default.

    If the mooted Island Farm development does eventually come about, and the Ravens and Bridgend Town relocate there, then where will that leave the Brewery Field? I don't think the masterplan effectively answers that, but I guess we need to know something concrete about Island Farm before the council and the other relevant parties look into it in more detail.

    Friday, 4 March 2011

    Not just a yes vote, it's also a confident stamp of nationhood

    607 years in the making

    Harking back to my pre-referendum predictions, I think this qualifies as "pleasantly surprised".

    Wales finally has a "proper" national parliament for the first time in more than 600 years, you could perhaps argue for the first time ever in its history. The yes vote might have only been a tiny step towards that anyway, but it's that significant symbolically. Of course we should've had this in 1997 or even 2006 but we got there in the end, with the backing of the Welsh people (well, those who could be bothered).

    The turnout, at 35.2% nationally, was pretty much as I expected, if anything it's a bit better. The fact some local authorities had turnouts pushing or above 40% like Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire on such a technical question is, in my mind, pretty good news.

    The real standout figure was the swing from no to yes compared to the 1997 referendum. You can argue that it doesn't matter as the referenda were on separate issues but I don't think Wales has been so united, electorally or politically, since the no vote in 1979.

    I don't need to do any detailed analysis of the figures. They speak for themselves.

    This is a first positive declaration of a united nation. There's no "umming" and "ahhing" about it anymore. Wales as a separate political entity is here to stay. There can be no going back to pre-1997 now. UKIP and True Wales take note.

    I bet even the most hardened yes campaigners would never have dreamt that places like Denbighshire, Powys, Pembrokeshire, Vale of Glamorgan, Flintshire and Newport would ever deliver a yes vote or even a moderate swing towards it. Monmouthshire voted no, and prevented a "clean sweep" but even going to a recount there is dramatic enough. I've never been more delighted to be proven wrong in this case.

    What went right for the Yes campaign?

    1. The electorate, largely, understood the question being asked. Nice and simple. I think both campaigns, and I, underestimated them. I predicted a lower yes vote on the basis that people would vote on the Welsh Government's record, local unrelated factors or thinking that there were tax-raising powers coming, or even independence, leading to a bigger no. This didn't happen.

    2. The Coalition factor. Labour and Plaid got their vote out where it mattered, most of whom wouldn't mind poking the eyes of the Tory bwci-bo in Westminster, even if they in London are probably far more preoccupied with Barnsley than Blaenau Gwent at the moment.

    3. It was a genuinely nationwide campaign. Yes campaigners have been far more prominent in and around Wales with some sort of activity pretty much anywhere. A wide network of street and door-to-door campaigners was a big advantage and it paid off. The fact it had the backing of all four main parties and their resources (presumably Labour and Plaid primarily) meant it was always going to be an uphill struggle for True Wales.

    What went wrong for the No campaign?

    1. They did everything but defend the LCO system. Smoke and mirrors and bringing up unrelated arguments didn't really help them. The only people who were ever going to turn out in big numbers in this referendum were those who actually cared about the Assembly one way or another. They were demolished in debates on the "scrutiny" argument by the simple fact that Westminster doesn't scrutinise Welsh laws. Some of the other arguments put forward were batted away far too easily as well.

    2. It was an unofficial campaign.......and it showed. Did True Wales actually believe that turning down a free nationwide mail shot (and most likely a TV shot) was a good thing? I'm willing to bet if they hadn't done so my predictions might've been closer to the outcome. Dragging an inflatable pig, launching into bizarre, and occasionally insulting, rants in the media and playing "Chicken Little" in the debate was foolish. Rachel Banner, an eloquent and intelligent person, would've done better leading a one-woman no-campaign (or at the very least getting someone like Nigel Farage/UKIP on board much sooner) than surrounding herself with some of the "characters" in the rump of True Wales.

    3. They offered no alternatives. If Wales had voted no, the Assembly would've merely been stuck with the current system. "True Devolution" is a philosophical and ideological commentary rather than a set of proposals that could be implemented, or "improve" the Assembly. For example, True Wales could've argued for making the WASC an official second chamber to the Assembly. They could've even proposed more AMs to provide the extra scrutiny they wanted. They didn't. I think the vast bulk of True Wales merely wanted a return to pre-2006 Act "administrative" devolution, but I'm sure some of them would like to see the Assembly abolished. Thanks to the yes vote I don't see that ever happening now.

    What happens next?

    Well there's an election in two months.............

    I'm sure the policy wonks are busy shortlisting suggestions (conditional on a yes vote) for their manifestos as I type this.

    The Welsh Government (whoever that is in May) can now make fundamental and radical changes in how Wales's devolved public services are structured and delivered, without needing to hold back in fear of MPs reaction. We will have to wait and see what sort of ideas come out of it but I imagine there will be far more emphasis on delivery than on process and micromanaging from now on, which is a good thing for Welsh politics and public interest in Welsh politics.

    Some of the Measures that have come out of the Assembly thus far have been dealing with minutiae but now we will start to see Westminster and Scottish-style Bills and Acts (it feels great to finally be able to say that) covering wider ranging, even cross-department issues.

    As for the no camp. I wouldn't at all be surprised if we see (future Dr) Rachel Banner again, perhaps I'm just being magnanimous in victory, but she would make a good AM and would probably stand a chance of being elected on a regional list seat as an Independent. Could we even be seeing the start of a True Wales Tea Party? They may have lost by a large margin, the pseudo-abolitionist stance rejected, but they will be worth keeping an eye on.

    Make no mistake, the devolution journey certainly doesn't end here. But right now and for the next Assembly term at least, it's time for the AMs to repay the trust the electorate have placed in them.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    I'm delighted that Bridgend county returned a massive "yes" vote of 68%!



    Thursday, 3 March 2011

    Referendum (#1) Predictions

    They're cuddling up to Carwyn now - but will the knives come out before the election campaign?

    We won't know until tomorrow afternoon whether the Welsh electorate have (or haven't) endorsed a move from Part 3 to Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 (yawn).

    All recent official polls indicate that Wales will, in all likelihood, vote yes and by a comfortable margin. "Porci" the inflatable pig (one of the only stand-out symbols of the campaign to be fair to True Wales) hasn't been taken to the electorate's heart it seems.



    My Referendum Predictions (Click to enlarge)


    1. Turnout will be atrocious, despite the nice (if chilly) weather. I'd predict as low as 30-35% nationally, perhaps even lower in individual constituencies. Postal votes might raise the figure.


    When I went to cast my vote this morning, the officials were marking the numbers on sheets of paper, with around 20-30 spaces per sheet. My number was 2 or 3 down on the sheet marked "2" and it was a pretty thick pad. Bear in mind this was early in the day, but after the rush hour. Referenda are, in some respects, more important than elections. It's the people's chance to influence decisions directly and it's something we take for granted.

    Those who would seek to artificially lower the turnout, for example, by not applying for official campaign status and then go on to claim that low turnout renders the result illegitimate, should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

    2. The Local Authorities voting "yes" and "no" will be similar to 1997, but the proportion voting yes in pretty much every LA will be higher compared to 1997.

    The "Costa Geriatrica" in north Wales, the more "anglicised" areas of Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Vale of Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire and Powys will return a no-vote. The south Wales Valleys, Swansea and Y Fro Gymraeg will vote yes.

    I do predict that Wrexham will change from "no" to "yes" more convincingly.

    3. Cardiff and Torfaen will deliver narrow "yes" votes, Newport and Ynys Mon will deliver narrow "no" votes.

    Cardiff voted no in 1997, I'm predicting a yes this time. However local factors, for example the reorganisation of primary schools in Whitchurch, will inflate the numbers voting no (wanting to kick the WAG) and the result could go either way. Cardiff voting no would be embarrassing to the yes campaign even if they ultimately win the day. I don't really need to explain why.

    Similarly I think Torfaen will narrowly vote yes, which will be embarrassing to one prominent member of True Wales in particular. I'm also predicting a Caerphilly "yes", as in 1997.

    Blackwood is still in Caerphilly county and not the Chartists Republic of Gwent, am I right? *chuckle*

    Newport is a punk-spirit city and likes to demonstrate it's individuality in the shadows of Bristol and Cardiff. I'm predicting a (disappointing) no-vote from Wales's third city, based on the ongoing M4 situation(s) and the perceived lack of any benefit or spin-off from prominent Assembly-backed events like the Ryder Cup and delays to things such as a replacement for the Royal Gwent Hospital. It may be a close run thing though.

    Now we come to Anglesey and perhaps my boldest prediction. Again it could go either way, the island is so unpredictable. Perhaps, as a pre-election wake up call to Ieuan Wyn Jones and the WAG over the local government "situation", I'm going to stick my neck out and say Mon Mam Cymru will narrowly vote no, probably only by a few hundred vote margin.

    4. Wales will vote "yes" by a margin of under 10%.


    Based on (the mean of) my predicted LA vote percentages I'm calling it as Yes 53% No 47% on a 32% turnout. That's not a convincing victory and will probably give the no campaigners more cheer than they deserve, but it'll be enough and I think all yes campaigners will take that result.

    Perhaps I'm just being realistic, not getting my hopes up to avoid disappointment and the electorate will deliver a yes vote closer to that of the polls (60%+ yes).

    I cast a yes vote with pride this morning. It's a very technical, very boring referendum for all concerned but win or lose I can say I used my right to vote, and did the most important thing a yes supporter could do.

    I hope this weekend has a pleasantly surprising start, and a pleasantly surprising one in Wales.

    Wednesday, 2 March 2011

    Steering the good ship Cymru to prosperity?


    (Pic : BBC Wales)

    In the 1990's, American businessman and one of the founders of Churchill Insurance, Henry Engelhardt and several others wanted to strike out on their own in the car insurance business. The choice of location came down to Brighton or Wales. The Welsh Development Agency offered a £1million grant, swaying the decision and so began one of modern Wales's great private sector success stories.


    Today, Admiral Group posted record pre-tax profits of £226million for 2010, with turnover breaching £1.5billion. The only other company in Wales that even approaches or exceeds this level (as far as I know) is the supermarket chain Iceland.


    Admiral Insurance employs around 4000 people in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Admiral has since expanded abroad, into Spain, Germany, France and the United States. Admiral has also created several sub-brands as part of their group including Elephant (exclusively online insurer), Diamond (women drivers), Gladiator (commercial vehicles), Bell (multiple, including home insurance) and Confused.com (price comparison).


    The impact Admiral has had on the wider Welsh economy shouldn't be underestimated either. For example the successful price comparison company started by a former Admiral Group employee Hayley Parsons, Gocompare.com (turnover £75million in 2010). The tenor may be annoying, but here is an example of another Welsh brand, a spin-off on one of our better known ones, making an impact on rest of the UK. In addition other unrelated price comparison website, moneysupermarket.com (based in Ewloe, Flintshire) recently posted record turnover of £149million, an increase of 9% on last year. It certainly looks on the surface that Wales is developing an important niche industry as people try to look for bargains in straightened financial times.


    There is however a shyness amongst Welsh companies with regard listing on the London Stock Exchange. Admiral Group is currently Wales's only listing on the FTSE-100, floating in 2004, while a handful of other Welsh "brave souls" are listed on the wider FTSE-250 or Alternative Investment Market. Why is this?


    Could it be that because Wales is constantly put down in terms of business success, because we don't really sing the praises of our entrepreneurial success stories enough, because Wales is always having to play catch up to completely impossible targets, that our business brains, or potential business brains, are put off from taking that bold first step.


    It's yet unclear just how the recent European Court of Justice ruling on the discrepancy (or discrimination depending on how you look at it) between male and female insurance premiums will impact the car insurance industry, or Admiral itself (seeing as Diamond is one of their brands). But these kind of rulings tend to push prices up rather than towards an equilibrium.


    It won't stop Admiral though, having unveiled plans for a new HQ in Cardiff, a stones throw from the £675million redevelopment and expansion of the St Davids Centre.


    Did we just get lucky?


    Are there also historic warnings for Admiral?


    Hyder was once Wales's largest private company, in a position similar to Admiral today. It was destroyed by a combination of (UK) government interference (a windfall tax on utilities companies, the rights and wrongs of which are open for debate) and their own decisions (taking on heavy debts to expand, including the purchase of SWALEC).


    Is there a shot across the bow in this also, a warning, to future Economy and Transport ministers in Cardiff that successes and failures don't confine themselves to specific sectors of the economy.


    I'm completely confident that Admiral, a well-run, successful, expanding company with a well-motivated (and most importantly by all accounts a well looked after) workforce will be a permanent fixture of the Welsh economy, one of the main flag bearers for Welsh enterprise, for the long haul.


    Where the next Admiral is going to come from though remains a mystery.


    I will add this though. I think it's a damned shame that an American has put a lot more faith in Cardiff and Wales than some Welshmen (and Welshwomen) do.


    You know who I mean.

    Tuesday, 1 March 2011

    Pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad


    St David's Day 2011 - Cardiff (Guardian Cardiff Flickr)
    I'm not a patriot.


    "Devotion" to a piece of land contained within a line of a map is quaint and anachronistic.


    Odd sentiments for a nationalist, I know.


    But the land doesn't matter. The people do.


    The people of Wales are the constant throughout it's history, from the days of warring principalities, the dark days of penal laws and annexation, revolutions in agriculture, industry and society right through to devolution. Wales is what it is today because of their stories, their hard graft, their contributions and decisions both individual and collective.


    The Britons, Normans, Flemish, English, Scottish, Irish, Italians, Americans, Canadians, Somalis, Yemenis, Nigerians, Ashkenazi, Persian, Turks, Chinese, Japanese, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Indians, Poles, Lithuanians, Slovakians, Czechs, Romani and many others have made Wales their home. Most, if not all of them were represented, regardless of how many generations down the line they were, in the centre of their capital city today.


    Wales is defined and shaped by them and us, one and all. Wales isn't an abstract concept, it isn't a fiefdom of an aristocrat or a single political party nor is it an appendage of a larger nation. It might not be the nicest house in the street, it might "need some renovation", but it's ours nonetheless.


    Whether they are a Fitzgerald or an ap Gwynfor, a Mohammed or a Sidoli, a Jenkins or a Wong, Wales's destiny rests in their hands. We all have different opinions and ideas about which direction Wales will go in the future but the people of Wales have proven throughout history that they have the courage, conviction and confidence to ensure Wales will endure whatever fate; political, philosophical and ideological; throws at us.


    Sometimes that means shining a light on our failures. Confronting our clear weaknesses and overcoming them isn't just part of the rough and tumble of national life but something for all individuals in society as well. We can and must do things better, whether it's improving our own lives, those of our communities or those of our national institutions.


    Only the Welsh people have the power to ensure the best Wales possible is bequeathed to the future. Nobody else is going to do it for us. It can't be given as a gift by MP's, it can't be promised in a manifesto, nor can it be magicked up through constitutional frivolities.


    Wales isn't perfect. We don't have all the answers ourselves. However if we have even an ounce of the drive of our ancestors, whether they died in a pointless border skirmish in the 9th century, bore the scars of industry to provide for themselves and their families or became a millionaire by 25, Wales can get there eventually.


    Wales is part of a global community, a European community and a community of nations sharing an archipelago. We have a uniqueness that is to be celebrated, not idealised, nor reserved exclusively to stadia. A uniqueness that should include, not exclude. A uniqueness that has influenced and been influenced by those other unique communities around us. One day Wales will play a full part in each of those wider communities. Whether it's 10 years from now or 100 years doesn't really matter. But we can only do that when we accept ourselves for what we are and are prepared to make the hard decision to step out of the shadows with confidence, as many other communities in Europe and the rest of the World have done in the past century. Let's hope that when we do, we do so with humility, like the humility of our patron saint, wanting to have a positive influence on the global community and truly cherish and celebrate the gift of determining our own path. In our own time. On our own terms.


    Devotion merely blinds you to the imperfections.


    That's why I'm true to my nation. A nationalist, not a patriot.


    .........pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad..........


    Happy St. David's Day. Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus.