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?

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Senedd Watch - July 2011

  • University leaders agreed to cooperate with proposals for "fewer but stronger" universities in Wales. Higher Education Wales also said that mergers should be a matter for the universities governing bodies to decide. The Welsh Government welcomed HEW's "positive statement".
  • The Welsh Government is understood to be examining proposals to close four smaller regional offices around Wales. The offices earmarked for closure are believed to be in Newtown, Llandrindod Wells, Carmarthen and Caernarfon.
  • The latest crime statistics for Wales show that recorded crime in Wales has fallen by 20% between 2003 and 2009, with the level of overall crime being consistently lower than England. Also, the proportion of detected/cleared crimes was higher than England in 2010. Local Government & Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alun & Deeside) welcomed the fall, and said that it was proof that investing in crime prevention pays off.
  • One of the suspended Lib Dem AMs, North Wales's Aled Roberts has been reinstated to the Assembly following an Assembly vote on July 6th. The other suspended AM, John Dixon, was not reinstated and has been replaced by Eluned Parrott the second Lib Dem on the South Wales Central regional list.
  • Former Welsh Lib Dem leader Lord Carlile said that the Welsh Lib Dems should have continued a legal battle to reinstate John Dixon. A Welsh Lib Dem spokesperson told BBC Wales that there was "very little support for his case in the Assembly".
  • Chief Scientific Advisor to the National Assembly, Prof. John Harries, has been awarded the Distinguished Public Service Medal by NASA - its highest civilian honour - for contributing greatly to the understanding of the atmosphere and climate change.
  • Eight out of ten universities in Wales will charge the full £9,000 tuition fees from September 2012. Welsh-domiciled students will have the fee increase paid for them by the Welsh Government. It's estimated that this will cost the Welsh Government an extra £280million per year.
  • On July 12th, UK Prime Minister David Cameron held a cabinet meeting in Wales at the Royal Mint, Llantrisant and addressed the Senedd, announcing a new package for super fast broadband in Wales and that a new commission would be set up to look at devolution in Wales and what fiscal powers - if any - could be devolved. He said that both his government and the Assembly "share common aims to make life better for the Welsh people".
  • The First Minister formally unveiled the Welsh Government's legislative programme for the next 5 years to the Assembly, outlining 21 bills covering education, health, transport, heritage, public protection, the voluntary sector, planning and governance at both local and national level.
  • The Welsh Government's school building programme, 21st Century Schools, will be reviewed just over a year since it was launched. Local authorities will now be expected to contribute more towards the building of new schools, and many projects could be delayed or cancelled. Education Minister Leighton Andrews blamed capital budget cuts on the move.
  • In a separate move the Education Minster has placed Blaenau Gwent schools into special measures, saying there were "systemic management failures" and that the shortcomings had been "simply unacceptable". An action plan, led by a Neath Port Talbot council task force, is now required for the 34 schools in the county.
  • Andrew RT Davies (Con, South Wales Central) was elected the new leader of the Welsh Conservatives, and subsequently, leader of the opposition by 53.1% to 46.7%. Nick Ramsey (Con, Monmouth) was defeated.
  • The UK Treasury has modified rules relating to Assembly end of year flexibility, this means that unspent funds can now be carried forward to following years. In a separate development, a commission to examine Assembly funding is to start work in the autumn, with the aim of a report in 2013.
  • Environment Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), announced that businesses employing under 10 people will not be required to keep records relating to plastic bags when a 5p charge comes into effect on 1st October.
  • Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones has said he will stand down before Plaid's 2012 Spring Conference. Nominations for the leadership will open in January 2012, with an expected 10-week leadership contest.
  • Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said he wouldn't oppose a coalition deal between the Lib Dems and Labour in the National Assembly.
  • The Welsh Government held a cabinet meeting in Llandudno on July 26th for the first time. The First Minister said "it was only right that the business of government takes place across the country."
  • Rhodri Talfan Davies has been appointed the new director of BBC Wales. Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillen congratulated him on his appointment and hoped he would "continue to strengthen the output that is so vital to Wales and its culture."
  • Welsh language activists Cymdeithas yr Iaith have reacted with bemusement to suggestions that the Assembly Commission are considering using Google Translate to provide bilingual records of Assembly proceedings.
  • A permit for a £1billion gas-fired power station in Pembrokeshire has been halted due to "gaps" in analysis submitted by the Environment Agency.
  • The National Assembly is now in recess until Monday 19th September.
  • Projects announced in July include a £2million expansion of a scheme tackling broadband "not spots" in rural Wales, a UK Government package of £57million to expand super fast broadband coverage, the expansion of a programme targeting families affected by substance misuse, £6million to develop sustainable travel, an £11million tidal energy scheme in Pembrokeshire and £15million targeting up to 4,000 young people in north Wales at risk of falling out of education.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tunnel Vision - Renewed calls for an M4 Newport bypass

The severity of yesterday's fire shouldn't be underestimated,
however the M4 bypass plan refuses to die.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

For the second time this year, the Brynglas tunnels closed due to a vehicle fire, causing massive disruption in and around Newport and beyond. Yesterday's fire seemed to be far more serious than previous ones. Mercifully, nobody was killed or seriously injured, but the pictures and videos clearly indicate that could've easily been a different story.

Predictably (and harking back to my post on Wales's lack of perspective) there have been calls - by business leaders like David Rosser of the CBI and William Graham (Con, South Wales East) - to resurrect the M4 bypass around Newport.

To quote MH at Syniadau, it's a case of "taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is overkill."

Accidents happen. However frustrating closures of the M4 are, it doesn't warrant a £1billion+ PFI scheme combined with a (possible) double-toll on entering Wales. What message is that going to send to business, commuters and visitors?

If the Brynglas tunnels close due to a fire, that suggests that they need some sort of sprinkler system (to put out fires before structural damage takes hold, and enable quicker clear-ups) which would cost significantly less than £1billion, I presume. In addition, there are probably several more road schemes just as important to the Welsh economy that don't get enough attention because of this notorious pinch point - including completing the Cardiff Peripheral Distributor and widening the Britannia Bridge.

Here's a suggestion. Tell business leaders they can have the bypass. However, only if they are willing to pay for it through hikes in business rates for M4 corridor companies, surcharges on office parking spaces as well as shouldering a big chunk of the PFI debt.

The National Transport Plan has gone largely unappreciated and unnoticed (with the exception of the likes of Syniadau). The previous Welsh Government were right to abandon the Newport bypass. They were also right to introduce variable speed limits and improve the A48 and Llanwern road - hopefully taking more local traffic off the M4.

These are perfectly sensible bang-for-buck projects that fiscal conservatives would otherwise be praising if it were not for the recession, which has reduced everything to zombified, frothing at the mouth "Must! Pwomowte! Gwowff!"

Progress on the crucial Llanwern/Magor improvement has been depressingly slow. That project clearly needs to step up a gear (excuse the pun). At the moment, the Welsh Government are going through one of those tiresome "consultation processes" which are expected to last into early 2012.

Not good enough.

In the longer term, providing more public transport options in and around Newport - including new railway stations, park and rides and bus corridor improvements - are also required. Of course, all this requires capital spending and there's precious little of that about. But "business leaders" seem to think the Welsh Government can magic £1billion out of their backside at their beck and call.

It's said that the M4 is one of south Wales's coronary arteries. A fair analogy. Yesterday's fire should serve as the heart attack that prompts lifestyle changes. Invasive heart surgery is something everyone should want to avoid, and quite often, never solves the underlying problems.


Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Where now for Welsh Rugby League?


Today's (somewhat shocking) announcement of Crusaders withdrawal from Super League won't have surprised those from the M62 corridor who predicted that expanding the top-flight game outside of their "heartland" would be unviable. There'll be plenty of "I told you so's" , though I hope there isn't any schadenfreude.

Crusaders' story sums up the wider Welsh one to a certain extent: impatience, administrative incompetence, not getting the basics right, knee-jerk reactions, glorious failure (last season) and parochialism. Yet somehow they kept going against all odds.

It'll be small comfort to the players and backroom staff who could be losing their jobs, but they've done themselves, the fans and Wales proud. Not necessarily in their results, especially this season, but in the dignified way they've come through some huge challenges through no fault of their own.

We don't yet know if Crusaders will drop into the Championship or Championship 1, joining the Neath-based South Wales Scorpions. What we shouldn't let this do, however, is undermine the good work that's been done in developing rugby league in Wales.

The Welsh national side will compete in the "Four Nations" later this year for the first time. Successful amateur rugby league teams are springing up all over the country - including the likes of the Bridgend Blue Bulls and the CPC Bears based in Carmarthen. Also, Wales' amateur national side - the Welsh Dragonhearts - have a shot at winning the Conference Home Nations.

"Bottom-up" development and getting people playing and interested in the sport, is perhaps a far better long-term approach to building RL in Wales than a token Welsh club being parachuted into Super League with a team of Australasian ringers.

I hope the Welsh Conference, and the proposed North Wales League, can grow organically while  the Crusaders can continue in some form. The 3-year stint in Super League should be looked back upon as a valuable learning experience, with clear standards set for future aspiring Welsh Super League clubs to attain - both on and off the pitch.

This latest failure of top-flight rugby league in Wales shouldn't become an excuse to wallow in self-pity, or some sense of injustice, that sets Welsh rugby league back decades.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The lack of perspective that's crushing Wales


One of the most frustrating things about Wales, is the hyperbole, hysteria and lack of perspective with regard everyday controversies. I can understand media outlets need to make things more dramatic than they are to get attention, but it's incredibly annoying - albeit sometimes hilarious.

Perhaps it's because not a lot happens here, so any slight change of course is pounced upon and blown out of proportion. It could be better described as a small-c conservatism combined with stubbornness and a colonised, pessimistic mindset.

At a UK level, would backroom events at Labour, the Lib Dems or Conservatives even warrant coverage in a political almanac, let alone a national newspaper? A new appointment or restructuring might get a paragraph or two in The Times and The Guardian but that's about it.

Yet in Wales, changes within a political party somehow constitutes "turmoil" and some people even suggest that Plaid is "staring into the abyss". Is there something I've missed?

Are Plaid in financial trouble? No.

Are Plaid AMs resigning/defecting en masse? No.

The post of "Director of Equal Opportunities" is going, and they haven't quite decided how to approach an election 10 months away.

Jesus titty-f**king Christ. HOLD THE FRONT PAGE!

To hopefully prove I'm not biased, I thought the whole "Lib Dem Two" thing was just as bad. Elected representatives were barred from taking their seats because of what could only be described as a fairly minor administrative oversight. That's an embarrassment.

In Wales it constitutes a "scandal", in Westminster it would be a minor faux-pas added to a infinitely long list.

A concrete dagger plunging into the heart of Cardiff's lungs - apparantly.
(Pic : Guardian Cardiff)
Want another example? A year or two ago, Cardiff Council built a new access bridge into Bute Park (pictured above)  to enable larger vehicles to access the grounds safely for events (like the RHS Flower Show) and the council's plant nursery . The scheme involved cutting down a half-dozen aged trees, some embankment changes/landscaping and widening some tarmac paths.

Those opposed to it described it as a "huge industrial-style motorway-style bridge", a road going "through Bute Park" and a "monstrosity". Green campaigners even blockaded the new bridge in protest, because the cycle lane didn't give "legally enforceable priority to cyclists crossing the entrance". The bridge "had to be closed until it was made safe for cyclists".

In short, the council painted some lines wrong.

Then we come to things like the economy, where if Wales doesn't experience anything other than Chinese-style growth rates of 10% year on year, it's seen as a "damning indictment of Welsh Government economic policy"  (or something to those ends). There'll be the unfavourable comparisons with the former Warsaw Pact (Welsh Tories love the Cold War) and Rwanda etc.

On education, the recent news that there's a "skills gap" between different parts of the UK shouldn't surprise anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of geography or economics. London and SE England will naturally draw more graduates and those with higher technical skills. That's where the blue-chip jobs are.

In Wales (for once nowhere near the worst region/nation in the UK) it's older workers in their 50's who are unskilled - a legacy of unskilled industry in south Wales that's largely died out. Skill rates amongst the young are rising, and the skills gap is closing and quite quickly. Does this really constitute a "scandal"? More like a very mild underachievement.

Talking ourselves down, opposing things for the sake of it (including housing developments) and twisting statistics to suit political opportunism or not putting them in the right context are what's really holding Wales back.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Why is everyone avoiding the "T-Word"?

Ties between Wales and Norway go back a long way (Photo:BBC)

Norway is a nation Wales should seek to emulate in many ways.

It has some of the highest standards of living in the World and is near the top of nearly every single measurement of prosperity, freedom and happiness. The careful management of their natural resources since independence in 1905 has enabled them to create a beacon of hope that small, sparsely populated countries in Europe can succeed through their own efforts without relying on larger unions.

That doesn't mean that countries like Norway are perfect. Some of the most brutal, face-melting and nihilistic heavy metal music originated there. Black Metal could very well have been a reaction to the near perfect social/Christian democracy that's somehow alienated the young.

There are also active extremist groups on both the far-left, far-right and religious fundamentalists in some of the most unsuspecting places like the Netherlands, Sweden and closer to home.

What's surprising about the attacks in Oslo is the distinct lack of the word "terrorism" to describing it.

It's a "right-wing extremist", a "gunman" and "killing spree".

I imagine the reaction would be different had these outrages been carried out by an Islamist group or on behalf of Colonel Gaddafi.

Terrorism can and does originate from anywhere, any political persuasion and any ethnic or religious group. By typecasting terrorists as "jihadis" and using "terrorism" in a completely international context, governments and turning a blind eye to the conditions that might just spur on a coward (or cowards) from within their midst to attack government buildings and murder defenceless children.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Is Cardiff's housing land shortage harming the economy?

The Western Mail reports that the House Builders Federation Wales believes a shortage of housing land in and around Cardiff is stunting the economy of south east Wales.

The Welsh Government's Joint Housing Land Availability Study apparantly shows that Cardiff has just 2.2 years supply of land for housing available based on previous build rates. Local authorities are supposed to have at least 5 years available.

In neighbouring authorities the situation is like this (2010 figures):
  • Bridgend -5.2 years
  • Vale of Glamorgan – 6.7 years
  • Caerphilly – 3.8 years
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf - 7.6 years
  • Newport – 6.8 years

Cardiff City Council, run by a Lib Dem-Plaid coalition, have been reluctant to include greenfield land in their Local Development Plan. Relying on brownfield land for housing supply is laudable, but in order to generate the number of new homes Cardiff needs, Cardiff Council are going to have to open up, not necessarily "green belt" land, but greenfield/natural urban extensions. For example around Pontprennau and Fairwater.

Cardiff isn't a sprawling megalopolis, it's a small city by European standards. As long as the new suburbs are well planned - in particular with good community facilities and public transport links - there's no logical reason for anyone to fear more development. Of course many do. Take the ongoing Llanishen reservoir saga for example.

The Welsh Government effectively forced Cardiff Council to withdraw and restart their LDP and are quoted as saying:
"The Welsh Government is concerned where any local planning authority does not fulfil its statutory duties, as this reduces the degree of control and influence over where future development may come forward.

It is in the interest of all local planning authorities to plan prudently for all aspects of their communities, including the business sector, to ensure that the positive benefits arising from change can be captured for all members of the local community."

People of my generation, who usually would've moved to the larger English cities or even abroad, increasingly see Cardiff as somewhere desirable (even trendy) to live and work, slowly stemming the brain drain.

More flats/apartments just doesn't cut it when you reach your late 20's and early 30's and want to settle down. If they can't get decent family housing in Cardiff, a few will be "pushed" up into the Valleys and commute. Building houses in one place outside of Cardiff doesn't spread any prosperity there, it only creates frustrated commuters living in somewhere that wasn't their first choice.

If these people can be so easily pushed into the Valleys, they're also going to be pulled in increasing numbers to Bristol, London and further afield, being replaced by retirees and others looking to downsize. That'll do the Welsh and Cardiff economies no favours.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Independence Minutiae - Would Cardiff City et al. be forced into the Welsh Premier?

Despite the irony of supporting a Welsh national side that by all rights, shouldn't exist, it's often club loyalties that are the primary concern for Welsh football fans.

While political anoraks like to discuss the bigger issues about independence, it's the smaller issues, like this delicate one, that could very easily put people off the very notion of independence.
Would Cardiff /Swansea/Newport/Wrexham etc be forced to play in the Welsh Premier League upon independence?

Short answer:

A big fat NO.

FIFA and UEFA take a harsh line on what they call "political interference" in the running of the sport, so the Welsh Government has no power to force English pyramid clubs into the Welsh pyramid. Attempting such would be more threatening to the existence of the Welsh national side than Team GB or anything else you can think of.

It's a issue entirely for the football authorities (in this case the FAW and FA) and the clubs. I'm sure there would be a very curt "dim diolch" from the English-pyramid clubs to any invitation to join the Welsh Premier permanently. Fans of those sides can rest easy.

Now for a more detailed/boring look at the issue, read on!

A Brief History Lesson

When many of the big Welsh clubs were established, Wales was still annexed to England. The Football League was originally established without a border - not as an exclusive English league - likely done with the aim of becoming a Great Britain league.

Scotland and Ireland went their own way. Hence Welsh clubs remained in the English pyramid - in some circumstances becoming founding members of divisions within it. Newport County were a founding member of Division Four for example. Nobody batted an eyelid. Even today, despite grumblings about being in "their" league, the Welsh clubs are largely seen as being there on merit, while certain Glasgow-based Scottish sides look on perhaps a little enviously.

The Welsh Cup was the main "national" competition for Welsh clubs - offering a route into the then Cup Winners Cup - and providing some cherished memories down the years, such as Cardiff City beating Real Madrid, Newport County reaching the quarter-finals, Wrexham v Man United and Swansea beating Sliema Wanderers 17-0 on aggregate.

What changed?

Wales has a privileged position as being member of FIFA - despite not being an independent nation - as well as being a permanent member of the IFAB board that sets the rules for football worldwide. Wales was also one of the only nations in the World without a "national" league, despite having regional leagues like the Cymru Alliance. Many nations saw this as - to be frank - taking the piss.

Seeing this as a threat to its very existence, in 1992 the FAW decided to launch a national league - the League of Wales (which eventually became the Welsh Premier). They allowed the Welsh sides playing in the Football League (Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham) to remain there, but took the ham-fisted approach of forcing the 8 Welsh-based non-league sides in England to join the new League of Wales. This led to the farcical situation of Newport and Barry "exiled" and playing home games in places like Gloucester.

Clubs like Bangor City, Barry and Rhyl eventually joined the new set up, but 4 non-league sides (Newport, Caernarfon, Merthyr and Colwyn Bay) won a court case that meant they could remain in the English set up. Caernarfon later joined the Welsh pyramid. The animosity towards the FAW has never really gone away.

In 1995, the Welsh Cup was closed to clubs outside of the Welsh pyramid, which meant Wales' professional sides could no longer compete in Europe via this route, eventually leading to Wales' slide down the UEFA coefficients, as the likes of Cardiff City were replaced by village sides such as Llansantffraid.

Although the standard of the Welsh Premier isn't as bad as often made out (the bigger sides could probably hold their own in the Blue Square Premier); the crowds, media exposure, facilities and money have never been there. With no teams representing the big urban areas, it's no surprise.

Is this arrangement unique in World football?

It isn't even unique in the UK. The New Saints, in the Welsh Premier, are based in Oswestry in Shropshire. Berwick Rangers, based in England, play in the Scottish pyramid and Derry City play in the Republic of Ireland leagues for largely political reasons.

On mainland Europe, all of Liechtenstein's clubs play in the Swiss pyramid, but qualify for European competitions through the Liechtenstein Cup.

There are two Canadian teams in the USA's Major League Soccer, and both nations have a history of having joint competitions in many sports, while retaining their own national competitions as a sort of feeder league.

Likewise, there's a New Zealand based side in the Australian A-League - Wellington Phoenix. That arrangement spans two different football confederations, let alone nations.

What makes Wales unique, is that a country of Wales' size (in Europe) would usually have all of its sides play in its own pyramid, like Slovenia, Denmark, the two Irelands etc.

What if all the exiled sides had joined a Welsh league?

It's an interesting "what if?" I don't think fans of the "exiles" or even those clubs in the Welsh Premier really want to think too much about it though.

I've actually tried this using the editor on Football Manager, creating a Welsh pyramid with all of the Welsh sides in - a 16-team Premier League and a 16-team First Division. It's not accurate of course, but needless to say it's dominated by Cardiff and Swansea in the same manner Celtic and Rangers do in Scotland.

The likes of Llanelli, Bangor and Newport fight for European places and win the odd trophy, while sides in larger towns such as Bridgend, Barry, Merthyr, Cwmbran punch above their weight. Crowds are improved, there are more home-grown players produced (which boosts the national team), there are regular 4-figure attendances even at the likes of Carmarthen Town - and Cardiff and Swansea irregularly feature in the group stages of the Champions League and Europa League.

In terms of league reputation, it's on a par with Norway or Denmark after a decade - but still way behind Scotland and England. The best players end up sold to Scottish and English sides for 6 and 7 figure sums.

If towns like Motherwell and Perth in Scotland can support clubs that average 4-5,000 spectators, then there's no reason towns the size of Llanelli, Bangor or Bridgend couldn't have done so either (in theory) if the set up was there, with the financial backing to make it worth their while.

But one thing Football Manager's editor doesn't take into account is the impact/distraction of the oval-ball game - especially in urban south Wales. There are very few European nations where football isn't the top professional sport, Wales is arguably one of them.

Is there any chance of "All-Wales" competition in the future?


There have already been "All-Wales" competitions, such as the FAW Premier Cup. In the coming season, three "exiled" teams (Newport, Merthyr and Wrexham) have accepted an FAW invitation to play in the Welsh Cup. Whether they will be entered for Europe should one of them win it I'm not sure.

The Welsh Cup is probably the only way we'll see an "All-Wales" competition in any shape or form, but Swansea City and Cardiff City in particular clearly have bigger fish to fry. They'd probably need the carrot of European football to consider taking an invitation seriously. There's no doubt that Welsh Cup ties between Wrexham-Bangor, Cardiff City-Bridgend Town, Swansea City-Neath or Newport County-Cwmbran would be a big draw and financially benefit the smaller side.

Hopes for an All-Wales league however, involving the exiled sides, are deader than dead barring the expulsion of Welsh sides from the English pyramid by the English FA.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Welsh Government's Legislative Programme

This week, the First Minister outlined the Welsh Government's legislative programme in more detail for the coming Assembly term in a statement to the Assembly (available here at Click on Wales). In my last post on this a few weeks ago, I was critical of the lack of ambition shown. Although I haven't greatly changed my stance since then, there are a few outlined Bills that could turn out to be very good laws.

That doesn't change the fact that many of them are what I would call "administrative". By that I mean they relate largely to the machinery of government and wouldn't have any noticeable impact on the Welsh public. In short, bordering on a waste of time and resources. Micromanagement at it's finest Welsh Labour best. There are obviously exceptions to that.

With no fewer than twenty one proposed bills, I think the phrase "less is more" should be drummed into the skull of every current and future Welsh Minister.

In the First Minister's speech, he clumped the proposed legislation into five bands. Below is a summary of what each bill is intended to be as well as some short commentary.

1. Environment, Sustainability & Heritage

(Click to enlarge)


2. Young People

(Click to enlarge)


3. Protecting Vulnerable People

(Click to enlarge)

4. Health

(Click to enlarge)

5. Improving Government

(Click to enlarge)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Andrew RT Davies - Right choice for opposition leader


It's been a "well hidden" contest, but the results are finally in. Andrew RT Davies is the new leader of the Welsh Conservatives, beating Nick Ramsey by 53.1% to 46.7% on a 49% turnout.

There have been suggestions that this result would please Carwyn Jones more than anyone else. It's unlikely that Plaid Cymru would ever go into a rainbow coalition in the future with a party led by - as Andrew Davies describes himself - a "proud unionist". I think they miss the point that the only way, I at least, could see Plaid doing that is if they were leading it - if they would ever seriously contemplate doing it at all.

Andrew Davies will make an excellent leader of the opposition in the Siambr. He's one of the "characters", he doesn't shy away from things, and although he might be prone to "going off on one" - and even coming across as a little bit haughty - he has a straight-talking common touch. Sadly, from a nationalist perspective, he trumps anything Plaid could currently put up from their current set of AMs.

That's where things begin to break down though. He might turn out to be a good face for the party, but when it comes to policy he's firmly to the right. There is a danger that he could undo all the good work his predecessor Nick Bourne did in detoxifying the Conservative brand in Wales. In his leadership manifesto he says he's "best placed to reach out beyond traditional Conservative territory".

I'm not sure. He's probably the most traditional Welsh Tory of the bunch. Some private education, landed businessman, rural Glamorgan. Welsh Tory members might just have retreated to a comfort zone when they should be reaching out even more.

Nick Ramsey is more of the mould of Nick Bourne, and would no doubt have been a steady, if dull, pair of hands. However, in a Labour dominated Assembly it's time to go on the attack and Welsh Conservatives have elected the leader, IMHO, best placed to do that.

If Andrew Davies makes the mistake of merely becoming a mouthpiece for the Conservatives in Westminster - especially on the back of enacting a few unpopular policies in Wales - he could very well find himself under attack more often than being on the attack.

I congratulate Andrew and wish him well.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Banana Kingdom - NOTW scandal exposes UK's uncomfortable truths

It's said there are "worse revelations on the way" in the ongoing News of the World scandal, which beggars belief. This is what could be described as a "moral event horizon". The bottom of barrels haven't just been scraped, they've been punched through into the stinking mulch underneath.

The great irony in all this, is that a 168-year old newspaper's closure has been sped-up by the cynicism it - and other tabloids - have fermented in the "British" public's psyche. It's also ironic that it was brought down by the classic, tenacious investigative journalism that it used to be known for a long time ago.

It goes without saying that this investigation will expand to include other newspapers as well, the NOTW mess just opened the door.

This scandal has exposed some very good things about "Britain"; how it operates, the public and the entire foundation of its political system. It's also brought an awful lot of bad things to the fore.

Firstly, the relationship between the police and journalists. A sizable section of the "British" public have a blood curdling thirst for revenge - not justice - fuelled by populist UK criminal justice policy, and a runaway media that leaves no stone uncovered in the search for a byline. If this thirst extends to harassing victims families, or hacking dead teenagers phones, so be it. It sells papers.

Since they can't go to the local gallows anymore, the closest thing to that is seeing a villain plastered all over a front page, getting their comeuppance. Even better if it's a "celebrity". It's been alluded to that the only place journalists could get the information is from the police. "Britain's top police force" - the same force considered the most important in "EnglandandWales" - perhaps the whole UK, seems to have a sticky finger or two in this scandal. Can it really be considered fit enough to investigate itself?

Jac O' the North has an excellent piece on this, and although he links it very much to England - perhaps rightly - the anomaly of "EnglandandWales" makes this particular police problem as much ours too.

Secondly, the relationship between the media - especially the print media - and past and current UK governments. What's clear from this scandal is just how spineless MPs have been in standing up to the "Murdoch Empire". It's all very well the likes of Tom Watson and Chris Bryant making a creditable and welcome stand once the worst-of-the-worst is out, and News International is at it's lowest, but why didn't they do this years ago? Vince Cable can certainly consider himself largely vindicated now at least.

It wasn't the Sun "wot" won the 1992 UK Election for the Tories, it was Neil Kinnock's cringe-worthy triumphalism in Sheffield. Labour were never home and dry at any point during that campaign. After that result, Labour and Tories alike believed that, to win elections, you need the Murdoch Media on "your side". They wanted to think that winning elections was as easy as keeping the right red-top on side for a few months every 4 or 5 years. By doing this, they helped create a monster. The ultimate playground bully.

The reactions from MPs the last week have been akin to seeing that rather unpleasant kid in the playground kicked in the bollocks for the first time. Now they're all clamouring (especially Labour) to stick in a boot while they can. They know this is the best chance to "take back some power" for themselves from the press and Rupert Murdoch.

Except they've had the power the whole time. They've just been too cowardly to use it. They've allowed themselves to be far too concerned about how they look. Of course if our MPs and celebrities were better behaved in the first place, they might not have had any reason to "fear" the tabloids.

People like to call Westminster the "mother of Parliaments". It appears as though far too many of our MPs have been infantalised by this, and too busy preening in the mirror to do their job properly. Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and yes - even the devolved administrations - look grown up by comparison. Is Westminster really fit for purpose? Or are they just a bunch of wimps? Wednesday's motion on delaying the BSkyB bid looks set to be a big test of this.

Then there's the amount of power held by elite social circles. Whats been dubbed the "Chipping Norton Set" seems to be involved. All that power and influence held by just just a dozen people, even fewer if you discard the likes of ex-Blur bassist Alex James and Jeremy Clarkson. I've no doubt that similar social circles exist in Wales, but it does put the whole "taffia"/crachach thing in perspective. Getting inducted to the Gorsedd of Bards or wangling a job at S4C aren't on the same scale.

There's the prospect of an establishment civil war over this, a second English civil war if you will. The "Cavalier" pro-market, pro-press/Murdoch, anti-regulation elite versus the "Roundhead" pro-press regulation, pro-BBC, anti-Murdoch elite. Instead of the battlefield, it'll be fought in the corridors of Westminster, social networking and - ironically - the press and broadcasters.

What's disturbing is we could be heading for knee-jerk restrictions on press freedom and we - those who read and buy the news rather than make it - will have very little say on the matter.


It'll be caught up in our convoluted "Westminster" parliamentary system for years. Where there is no clear separation of powers, there are an awful lot of grey areas and back alleys where things can be "lost" or conveniently forgotten about. The "British" constitution should be a few pages absolutely everyone in the land can understand. It shouldn't be a library. Wales has an opportunity to do things differently should we decide to in the future.

If this had happened in some "tin pot" eastern European country (the kind Conservatives in particular like to compare Wales to), some African dictatorship or even the United States, the flag wavers for the British project would be reminding us all how great it is to live in a "free", "honourable", "model democracy".

While they get dewy-eyed looking at the Union Flag at the top of Big Ben, they neglect to mention that the Thames stinks of sewage and has done for some considerable time.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Poverty of ambition hurts Wales most

Some more feel-good news today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Welsh Government's long-held target to eradicate child poverty by 2020 is going to be missed spectacularly if the rate doesn't fall at least four times as fast over the next ten years as it has over the last ten.

In its research, entitled "Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Wales 2011", the findings conclude that:
  • Half of children in poverty in Wales belong to working families.
  • Half of the improvement in child poverty rates has been lost in the last 5 years.
  • 600,000 people in Wales, including 100,000 pensioners are in relative poverty, 23% of the population.
  • One third of adults are disabled or have a disabled partner.

Statistical Tricks


Relative poverty is defined as income falling below 60% of the UK median - once adjustments are made for household size, housing costs and taxation. That median - being a whole UK figure - will no doubt suffer from the "bubble distortion" of South East England and London.

Wales - with average incomes at about 90% of the UK average - is always going to come off relatively badly in these statistics. These statistics also don't take into account the cost of living, which is marginally lower in Wales.

It's safe to say that the "real" relative poverty marker in Wales - 60% of the Welsh median incom -, is lower than that of the rest of the UK. That's probably the same case in other nations and regions as well - for example, the North East England and Northern Ireland.

£290 a week for a couple with two children in Merthyr Tydfil will go further than £290 in Berkshire, yet both will be classed as in relative poverty. Surely "relative poverty" should take these "relative" national and regional differences into account.

The good news we shouldn't ignore

Before we all hang our heads and browbeat ourselves about how we're all failures (the too poor, too thick, too sick gambit) the research also has some good news.

Firstly, that child poverty has fallen and remains lower than in 2000 - despite a recession rebound.

Qualification/skill levels in Wales are massively improved, with more people in Wales aged 25-44 possessing qualifications above Level 3 (A-Levels and degrees) and a big drop in those with qualifications below Level 2 (5 GCSE's A*-C). The unemployment rate in 2010 for those with Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications was lower compared to 2000.

Recent ONS statistics also showed that Wales has the lowest rate of workless households of all the Home Nations at just 1.3%. This will no doubt include a large number - of what the report describes as - "part-working families", for example, a single parent working part-time for the minimum wage. It's these people that have been let-down, as half of children in poverty in Wales belong to a "working household".

Could this be another distortion of the statistics?

Remember that the relative poverty line for a couple with 2 children is £300 per week after deductions. In many parts of Wales, for example the industrial estates of the Valleys, that would be considered a fairly average private sector wage and it would probably stretch a fair bit as well once cost of living is factored in.

I doubt many people in the wealthier parts of the UK would get out of bed for that money. It's a sad indictment of the "race to the bottom" in terms of wages, rising inflation and additional burdens on families such as the VAT rise.

Setting Impossible Targets


"Eradicating child poverty by 2020" is going to be engraved on Welsh Labour's tombstone.

Those parties that decided to ride along with it in the May election should be breathing a sign of relief that they don't have to deliver that pledge - despite foolishly including it in their manifestos.

The report states that "full (time) working" would need to become the norm, the child poverty rate would need to fall four times faster than it has in the last ten years and there would need to be significant policy changes both in Wales (over devolved matters) and in Westminster on things like tax and welfare.

Good luck with that, Carwyn.

The report describes this pledge as "extremely ambitious". I'd describe it as insane.

Relative poverty isn't going to go away. By definition there'll always be a section of the population that have an income below 60% of the median (even if incomes dramatically increased) through no fault of their own. Sadly, children will be caught up in this as well. The recession almost wiped out any progress made in this area in Wales. One of those benefits of being part of the UK, eh?

Having said that, I can't fault the ambition. It's a bit like wanting Wales to win the World Cup. The FIFA World Cup.

Poverty of Ambition


Wales is locked in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy and depression. We're naturally pessimistic as a people. We lack confidence and vision. Worse of all, we don't know how to handle success, only manage failure. This is an attitude that's prevalent in our media, our public debate, our homes and to a certain extent our levels of government as well.

There are certain communities in Wales that have been severely let down by the powers that be and by themselves. It isn't a human rights violation to travel from the Valleys to Cardiff to work (if there are jobs in the first place). Likewise it's not right to expect them to do so on scatty, inefficient public transport - only to earn slightly more than they would on benefits.

People shouldn't allow themselves to fall out of education, likewise they should have opportunities to learn to their strengths and not forced down narrow, academic routes.

If we are going to break this cycle, it's not going to be done through reports and commentary from various groups who mean well but tell us what we already knew. Wales needs action, and it doesn't stop at the steps of the Senedd or Westminster, but in every single household of the nation.

Only Wales can better itself - nobody is going to do it for us. We can all aim higher, but we don't have to lose sight of the ground in doing so by aiming for impossible goals or making wacky pledges.

Sometimes it's as simple as trying something new, learning a new skill or taking a new idea to people who can make it a reality.

Government can enable it, but ultimately it comes down to personal responsibility and self-respect - not just as a nation but as individuals that still have something to offer one another no matter how hard times might be.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Island Farm scheme clears another hurdle

A full session of Bridgend Council today (July 4th) has voted to approve the outline plans for the Island Farm sports village and science park extension scheme, which cleared the planning committee stage last week. 22 voted in favour, 10 against with 1 abstention.

With the backing of Bridgend councillors now assured, the proposal will move to the Welsh Assembly planning inspectorate as the development is a deviation from the adopted unitary development plan. This shouldn't be a problem but as always it "ain't over til it's over".

The Western Mail report that a petition in favour of the development was received - with nearly 4,500 signatures - more than double the number of objections.

I'll post more details on the full plans for the sports village, and the outcome of any planning inspectorate decisions, as and when they happen.