Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.


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


The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.


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?

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Senedd Watch - January 2012

I've now added an "Independence Index" page in the top bar which will include my current and future posts relating to nationalism, devolution or Welsh independence categorised by subject matter. It also includes a list of future blogposts I'm yet to write and an expected date for when to expect them.
  • Building regulations were devolved to the National Assembly on December 31st. Environment Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) hopes it will enable the Welsh Government to "deliver a 55% improvement on 2006 [carbon emission reduction] requirements for new homes".
  • A row over export figures has broken out, after the First Minister said in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron that 50% of Welsh exports were to the European Union. Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards and Conservative economic commentator Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans have both said that exports to the EU amounted to just 39.9% in the final quarter of 2011, while Wales exported significantly more to North America than the UK average.
  • Nominations for the next leader of Plaid Cymru opened on January 3rd and closed on January 26th. Dafydd Elis Thomas, Elin Jones, Simon Thomas and Leanne Wood will be the leadership candidates.
  • The Archbishop of Cardiff has criticised the Welsh Government's proposed opt-out organ donation law saying that "our bodies are not the an asset of the state." The Church in Wales held a public debate on the issue.
  • Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli) claimed that the A&E department at Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli is being "bypassed" by ambulances - suggesting patients are being transported to Carmarthen or Swansea. This comes as Hywel Dda NHS trust undertakes a review of hospital services in Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
  • The number of district nurses in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board have fallen, while the number of patients has risen according to figures obtained by Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West). He said he was concerned "increasing workloads will take their toll on the health of district nursing staff".
  • UCAS figures show that applications to Welsh universities fell by 9.3% up until December 2011 compared to a whole UK figure of 6.3%. Other figures also suggest that Wales is struggling to retain graduates with 34.6% of new graduates leaving Wales between 2003 and 2007. However the home student rate in Wales was higher than many regions of England.
  • The Welsh Government says that the Welsh NHS will remove and replace faulty breast implants of women based on clinical need. The faulty implants were manufactured by a French company and differing government responses to the potential risks, as well as the role of private clinics, had led to confusion.
  • Four nations : Botswana, Lesotho, Mexico and Liberia, have chosen Wales as a training base for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) said that the training camps would "provide opportunities to develop sporting, educational and cultural exchanges with countries that come to Wales and provide opportunities for children and local communities to get involved".
  • The First Minister criticised the UK Government's decision to use tunnels to ease concerns about the environmental impact of a £32bn high speed rail network in England in the Welsh Secretary's constituency of Chesham & Amersham. The First Minister said that the £500m cost of the tunnel amounted to "buying off" Cheryl Gillan, who threatened to resign from the Cabinet over the issue.
  • The proposed 30 new Westminster constituencies in Wales have been unveiled by the Boundary Commission for Wales. The reduction by 10 MP's is the result of a UK Government decision to equalise Westminster constituency sizes.
  • Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) criticised a 500m "no go zone" around the Millennium Stadium during the 2012 Olympics as a missed opportunity to promote Welsh business. The Welsh Government responded by saying they were tied by Olympic rules which protect corporate sponsors and were a condition to allow Cardiff to host events.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) rejected calls by the National Union of Teachers, and Simon Thomas AM, to abandon plans to introduce school banding for Welsh primary schools. Conservative education spokeswoman Angela Burns (Con, Carms. West & South Pembs.) said that while she was not opposed to school measurements, she was "concerned about the way the categories were weighted." He has also been criticised by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) for deciding to stop producing figures showing a funding gap between English and Welsh schools. This is due to there no longer being a consistent comparison between the two sets of figures.
  • Deputy Minister for Agriculture Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) gave a keynote speech to the National Farmers Union saying that Common Agricultural Policy reform was at the top of his agenda to "meet the needs of farming, of rural communities and Wales as a whole." He also aims to reduce bureaucracy and regulation for the farming industry. He also welcomed the development of a new feed for cows developed at Aberystwyth University that would help produce premium milk all year round. The project will be supported by the Welsh Government via an EU programme.
  • Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) has held talks with her UK counterparts relating to a debt crisis at Cardiff-based clothing retailer Peacocks. Peacocks failed to find new investors and entered administration on January 18th with the loss of 249 jobs. Peacocks is one of Wales's largest private companies, employing 10,000 people in the UK.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 1,000 to 8.9% in the three months to November 2011. Unemployment across the UK rose by 118,000 to 8.4%.
  • There have been calls for Wales to "opt out" of a UK Government proposal for an 80mph speed limit on motorways. Sustainable Transport Cymru says and increase in the speed limit could lead to more accidents and increased carbon emissions.
  • A Plaid Cymru review into their poor election performance in last year's Assembly election  made 95 recommendations, including a possible English-name of Welsh National Party, a new Academy for campaigning and organising and clearer leadership and accountability. Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym, who chaired the review, also criticised the performance of some Plaid spokespeople saying they need to "pull their socks up" and need a "sound understanding of their own brief."
  • A Welsh Government report into support for micro-businesses (that employ under 10 people) has concluded that it's "confusing" and that regulation was "overwhelming". It calls for a single-brand for business support. Edwina Hart welcomed the report and said she intends to "take forward their recommendations".
  • Minister for Communities & Local Government Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) unveiled a Welsh Government target of a 50% reduction in road deaths in Wales - including a 65% reduction in child deaths. High-risk drivers like young drivers will be targeted in particular and officials will launch consultations with road safety organisations and the police.
  • Funding for a race body – All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (AWEMA) – was suspended by the Welsh Government after its chief executive Naz Malik was accused of nepotism and corruption in running the organisation. Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), chair of the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee,  said he would welcome a police investigation due to the nature of some of the allegations.
  • A tourism survey by Visit Wales has found that visitors rate Wales highly, scoring 9/10 in many areas including general satisfaction, friendliness and the natural environment. Edwina Hart welcomed the findings and said that she was pleased that Wales "lived up to the promise."
  • The First Minister joined school children to celebrate the 90th year of Urdd Gobaith Cymru at the organisation's centre at Llangrannog, Ceredigion. Special receptions were also held at the Welsh Office and Downing Street by Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
  • The Assembly's Petitions Committee will allow opponents of energy schemes to put forward their views in a call for evidence after the committee received three separate petitions relating to waste-to-energy plants.
  • The Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee will launch a high-level inquiry into Wales' airports and seaports. It comes as Cardiff Airport saw a 10% fall in passenger numbers in 2010. Committee chair Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said that "if Wales is unable to to connect to the world through it's ports and airports it makes our ambitions much more difficult to realise."
  • School inspectorate Estyn published its annual report and its findings suggest that up to 40% of pupils arrive at secondary school with a reading age below their chronological age. It also found that most pupils feel safe at school, teaching standards were generally good but that disadvantaged and more able pupils were both not achieving as well as they could.

Projects announced in January include : a joint Wales-EU £30million "Skills Growth Wales" fund to improve skills in Welsh companies until 2015, £1.3million towards a flood prevention scheme in Pontypridd, £2million towards the development of a motorsports park in Blaenau Gwent, approval for a £16million revamp of Cardiff Royal Infirmary, a joint Wales-EU £2million fund for "high growth start-up" companies and an £82million fund to train 2,000 non-medical NHS staff.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Linking north and south Wales by rail

Before I'm accused of being a fantasist, this is a "money no object" idea, not a serious proposal. I need to make that crystal clear. And if you think this post is long - just wait until next week!

The Challenge

The economic difference between the lowland east Wales and the highland west Wales is stark. In the latest figures, East Wales (Cardiff & Vale, E Gwent, Powys and NE Wales) had a GVA per capita that was 91.4% of the UK average. In contrast West Wales & the Valleys was just 62.8%. So while there are clear challenges in catching up with the rest of the UK, we have to remember there's a huge chasm within Wales that needs to be bridged to ensure an equal spread of prosperity.

One of the main reasons for this - in my opinion - is because of the sparsity of population in rural Mid Wales and its lack of connections with the surrounding areas. In a national context, the lack of adequate connections between major centres of the north and north west with the M4 corridor and Deeside reduces social mobility, whilst increasing the gap between the wealthy east and the stunted west. Also, yes from a nationalist perspective it does hinder the "unity" of Wales.

The Welsh rail network has often been described as "extractive". After several line closures, what we were left with were three networks. A south and south west Wales one. A mid Wales one linking Aberystwyth and Pwllheli to Shewsbury and Birmingham (as well as the Heart of Wales line). And the North Wales network - linked heavily to Manchester. All lines head east, and are joined by the Marches Line which acts as a "spine". It wasn't always like this though. There was a time when you could travel by rail between Cardiff and Aberystwyth with no problems and even from Swansea to Wrexham without spending much time in England.

The Current Situation

The Marches Line between Newport and Chester is the de-facto "north south" mainline for Wales. Indeed there are direct services between Cardiff and Holyhead – taking a torturous 4 or 5 hours to complete and not linking sufficiently with the major centre in north Wales – Wrexham. I don't think there's any reason to change its role. Indeed improved services via Wrexham are forthcoming once various improvements are made to track between Wrexham and Chester. The Marches Line should still be the "main" north-south line.

It's central and north west Wales that needs the links to the south. Aberystwyth has no direct rail service to Cardiff, and subsequently neither does Machynlleth, Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Newtown or Welshpool. It's perfectly possible to do this via Shrewsbury, but it would likely be a typically torturous 4 hour journey.

This is a huge swathe of Wales "cut off" from its more prosperous parts and its seat of government. As said before, in my opinion, the lack of major centres in rural parts of Wales is one reason why it's being held back economically. I believe that there are certain towns that could benefit from planned expansion - focusing on retaining young people in particular, and ensuring that in many communities Welsh can remain a living language. If we want the jobs, the services and the investment that rural parts of Wales are crying out for, they're going to need improved links with each other and with "East Wales".

A Proposal for North-South Rail

Back in 2008, community organisation Ein Blaenau put forward a proposal for a north-south rail link (more on that at Prof. Dylan Jones Evans). It was fairly ambitious, but the route was torturous travelling north from Cardiff, through the Brecon Beacons, Mid Wales and on to the north Wales coast via Corwen and Denbigh. Although railways like the Clwyd Valley line should be on the list for reopening in the future I actually think there's an "easier" way to link north and south effectively without having to drive reopened lines through the Brecon Beacons or the Clwydian Range.

I'm outlining five separate "big projects" to hopefully fullfil these strategic aims:

1. Improve links between north east Wales, Merseyside and Cardiff.
2. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to the M4 corridor.
3. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to Wrexham and Merseyside.
4. Improve connections with major English settlements in the Midlands and North West.
5. Improve rail services for existing settlements in eastern Carmarthenshire, Powys and Ceredigion.
6. Allow direct north-east to south-west rail services (Wrexham-Swansea) not only for passengers but as an alternative freight route (i.e. To/from Milford Haven).

All the screen caps are taken from Google Earth. I'm not an economist, engineer or an accountant so the cost estimates are based largely on existing projects elsewhere.

1. Upgrade to the Welsh Marches Line

  • Electrification and track speed upgrades.
  • Aim of getting Wrexham-Cardiff journey times to as close to 2hr15m as possible, with knock-on improvements to Holyhead-Cardiff journey times.
  • Even better journey times possible with electrification of north Wales coast line.
  • Improved journey times between Marches towns (i.e Hereford & Shrewsbury) and Cardiff, expanding Cardiff & Newport's economic catchment area.
  • Electrification would allow improved rolling stock (i.e. Penedlino), reduced travel times, less wear on the track and improved passenger experience.
  • Possible additional freight or passenger paths.
  • Electrification in the Gwent area as part of a "south Wales metro" between Abergavenny, Cardiff Central and Newport.
  • Estimated cost - ~£200million (based on £0.8m per km of double track electrified)

2. Swansea District Line – West Wales Line Gorseinon Link

Gorseinon Link (click to enlarge)
  • Could be either single or double track, part of the former line between Pontarddulais and Swansea Docks.
  • Allows direct services to Swansea from Heart of Wales Line without having to turn back at Llanelli, improving journey times.
  • New station at Gorseinon, might require relocation of Gowerton station to allow a new junction.
  • Could form part of a wider Swansea/Carmarthenshire metro system including reopening of the Amman Valley line and new stations (i.e. Cockett) pushing Swansea's economic catchment area firmly into eastern Carmarthenshire and southern Powys.
  • Part of the line has been built on, CPO issues. Would require a segregated crossing over/under the A484. Would probably require resignalling in parts.
  • Estimated costs - ~£50million

3. Rebuilt Mid Wales Railway

Moat Lane - Llanidloes (click to enlarge)
Llanidloes- Nantgwyn (click to enlarge)

Nantgwyn - Rhayader (click to enlarge)

Rhayader - Newbridge on Wye (click to enlarge)
Newbridge on Wye - Builth Junction (click to enlarge)
  • Complete reopening of 55km of Mid Wales Railway between Builth Wells and remodelled Moat Lane Junction near Caersws.
  • Could be a mix of single track and double track passing loops to improve line resilience.
  • New stations at Llanidloes and Rhayader – could negate need for Rhayader Bypass and other road improvements.
  • Would allow direct services between Aberystwyth, Pwllheli, Barmouth, Porthmadog and Newtown to Cardiff (via Swansea District Line), Swansea (via Gorseinon Link) and West Wales (via Llanelli).
  • Could also allow direct Llandudno-South Wales services via link between Blaenau Ffestinog and the Cambrian Coast line near Penrhyndeudraeth (link here to Syniadau article)
  • Drastically improved services to/from larger settlements south of Builth Wells (Llandovery, Ammanford, Pontarddulais, Llandeilo).
  • Aim for an Aber-Cardiff journey of 3hrs 20m and Aber-Swansea journey of 2hrs 40m
  • Should be built with electrification in mind.
  • Would likely require improvements to Heart of Wales Line south of Builth Wells and Cambrian Coast Line, including reinstating some double track, for optimum travel times.
  • Direct trains to Cardiff & Swansea shouldn't call at request stops, causing scheduling issues.
  • Some major engineering work required, might not follow exactly the same route as former Mid Wales Railway.
  • Serious environmental, CPO and private access issues. Would likely be strongly opposed by some, welcomed by others.
  • "Nationally and strategically important" but unlikely to have a strong business case.
  • Seat of government in Powys (Llandrindod Wells) effectively left out, would require good connections at Builth Wells.
  • Would require a new bypass of Llanidloes, easily costing £40million+
  • Estimated cost – At the very least ~£400million

4. Rebuilt Gobowen-Welshpool Link

Welshpool - Gobowen link (click to enlarge)
  • Reopen 25km of line through Oswestry, Pant and Four Crosses.
  • Could be built as single line with passing loop at Oswestry and built with electification in mind.
  • A new station at Oswestry (one of the largest towns without a station in the UK), possibly Pant as well.
  • Might negate need for A483 upgrades.
  • Could form part of a metro system in north east Wales, Cheshire, Shropshire and Merseyside.
  • Mainly on the English side of the border, would require cooperation, almost certainly would be entirely funded by Welsh Government as such a link has no strategic value to England.
  • Would allow direct services between Cambrian Coast Line and Wrexham (as well as Swansea via Heart of Wales and Mid Wales Line)
  • Aim for journey time Aber-Wrexham of 2hr, comparable to Shrewsbury and a Wrexham-Swansea journey time of as close to 3hrs as possible (via Mid Wales Line).
  • Estimated cost - ~£60million

5. Reinstated/upgraded Halton Curve

Reinstated Halton Curve (click to enlarge)
  • The most likely of these projects to actually happen.
  • Entirely within England, no Welsh influence but strategically important to North Wales.
  • Would allow direct North-Wales – Liverpool services and possible Cardiff to North West England or Glasgow.
  • Should have a direct Cardiff-Liverpool Lime Street (or Cardiff-Manchester) service via Marches Line as the "premier" North-South rail service, complimenting Cardiff-Holyhead service.
  • Estimated Cardiff-Liverpool journey time (with upgraded Marches line) ~3hrs Wrexham-Liverpool ~40m
  • Estimated cost - £7million (£5m 2004 estimate), more if route is electrified

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Plaid Leadership Candidates

Before I'm asked why I didn't pay as close attention to the Welsh Conservative leadership election last year, I'd say that it was because it was debated largely internally within the Tories and predictable. Obviously I'm going to have a keener interest in who runs Plaid than any of the other parties. That doesn't mean that if the other parties were in a similar situation with such a wide field of candidates I wouldn't be covering it in the same detail.

It's also important from a general political standpoint. With constitutional wrangling likely to rumble on through 2012 in the form of Scotland's independence debate and the Silk Commission, Plaid's role is more important than a third-placed party otherwise would be.

I have to reiterate. I'm not a Plaid member. I'm not a member of any political party and for the time being I have no desire to join a party. I'm not presumptuous enough to "endorse" any one particular candidate and I'm not egotistical to think my opinion could persuade people one way or another. The choice is for Plaid's membership alone. Obviously I do have a favourite but I'll give opinion from as neutral a perspective as possible. Over the next few weeks I'll post on what each leader could offer Plaid as a party in terms of vision and policy and what they could do for Welsh nationalism as a whole.

If there are any Plaid members (or anyone else) who want to leave comments endorsing a candidate or discuss the leadership election then go ahead.

The deadline for applications closes in a few hours. Barring any dramatic last minute announcements these are four candidates for the Plaid leadership in alphabetical order by surname:

Dafydd Elis-Thomas

(Pic : National Assembly)

Age : 65
From : Carmarthen, brought up in Ceredigion and Conwy
Alumnus : Bangor (PhD , President)
Constituency : Dwyfor Meirionnydd
Occupation : University lecturer, chair of multiple organisations, company director, life peer
Political Experience: MP for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 1974-1992, President of Plaid Cymru 1984-1991, Presiding Officer of National Assembly 1999-2011, AM since 1999
Campaign Website

He might have damaged his chances by being lukewarm on Plaid's constitutional goals but Dafydd is still a candidate with gravitas. He's charismatic, recognisable, has green credentials and a wide range of public and private sector experience. Not only that he has a safe first past the post seat in Plaid's heartland. In many respects he's the ideal candidate.

I don't think it's his ambiguous views on independence or monarchism that could cost him a second run at the leadership. He's mentioned his desire for Plaid to "return to government", presumably in a One Wales II. There's a danger that Dafydd could lock Plaid in as a "nationalist Cooperative Party" - forever affiliated and associated with Labour.

That doesn't mean Plaid's membership shouldn't hear him out, he just has to be careful he doesn't create traps for himself or the party.

Elin Jones

(Pic: National Assembly)
Age : 45
From : Lampeter, Ceredigion
Alumnus : Cardiff (BSc Economics), Aberystwyth (MSc Agricultural Economics)
Constituency : Ceredigion
Occupation : Director of Radio Ceredigion and television production company, economic development officer
Political Experience : Town Councillor 1992-1999, AM since 1999, Rural Affairs Minister 2007-2011
Campaign Website

Elin has long been considered the front-runner, but I'm not sure that's as assured as it might have been a few months ago due to the momentum building for Leanne Wood.

Elin has an advantage in being the only candidate with experience in government, and by and large doing a good job too. The badger cull might be a black mark, stoking the wrath of animal rights campaigners and "good lifers" in rural Wales, but Elin comes across as someone willing to graft. Her background in economics is also a massive professional advantage.

A hardworking, perhaps a little "mumsy", safe pair of hands but someone who's also down to earth, warm and approachable. Elin is the "Sali Mali" candidate - and I mean that as a compliment. If you had a problem she looks like she would listen to you, would actually care and go on and do something about it – not resort to rhetoric. However Elin isn't the best public speaker and probably not that well known outside of the Bay Bubble, Plaid or the farming community. Would Elin be too safe a choice?

Elin's obviously for independence and a republican, but she's not as vociferous as other candidates might be (until recently anyway). A nice balance. Elin has a relatively safe first past the post seat and there's no real chance of her being unseated.

Simon Thomas

(Pic: National Assembly)

Age : 48
From : Aberdare, Rhondda Cynon Taf
Alumnus : Aberystwyth (BA Welsh & PgD Librarianship)
Constituency : Mid & West Wales
Occupation: Library curator, local government researcher, rural development manager
Political Experience : Local Councillor, MP for Ceredigion 2000-2005, special adviser to Plaid Cymru in the Assembly, AM since 2011
No campaign website as yet

It's timing that's Simon's problem here. If he had been in the Assembly 4 years earlier he might have been a shoo-in. I once thought it was pretentious that a recently elected AM stands for a leadership. However, Simon has qualities that would make him a good leader.

Like Dafydd Elis Thomas he has parliamentary experience, and by all accounts stood out in London as a pretty good MP. He's obviously used to "rough and tumble" politics and he has impressed in the Senedd so far, seemingly keen to focus on "bread and butter" issues.

His stance on independence as a gradualist is sensible, but he's in danger of treading in too many of Dafydd Elis-Thomas' footsteps. He also seems to have more centrist views on matters Plaid have been to the left of Labour on. Whether that could divide the "Hwntw" socialist-republicans and the "Gog" cultural/green-nationalists or open up a third sect of technocratic "functional nationalists" (probably what I would describe myself as) is an issue. Nobody in Plaid apart from Simon seems keen to target that "centre ground" or the "ordinary voter".

Simon's arguably the closest thing Plaid in the Assembly has to an Alex Salmond type figure if that's what they want. However, of all the candidates, Simon's probably the most likely to "do a Nick Bourne" and lose his seat if Plaid did particularly well in FPTP seats.

Leanne Wood

(Pic : National Assembly)

Age: 40
From : Penygraig, Rhondda Cynon Taf
Alumnus : Cardiff (MA Social Work, lecturer)
Constituency : South Wales Central
Occupation : University lecturer, probation officer, Women's Aid support worker
Political Experience : Local councillor 1995-1999, AM since 2003
Campaign Website

Leanne Wood is one of the most consistently impressive and formidable AMs, and right this moment some bookies are saying she's the favourite - and I'd agree with that. We all know Leanne has become the standard bearer for the southern socialist-republicans. However, at a time when Welsh politicians in general need to be reaching out to the Welsh private sector, do Plaid want a leader who is - perhaps deep down - hostile to free-market economics?

She's by no means a "wet" on independence or republicanism. She's galvanised Plaid's younger members (and many older socialists). Good. But she wouldn't get away with, for example, boycotting a royal visit as a party leader compared to being a backbencher. I would hate to see Leanne lose her "edge" by becoming a party leader - something she might have to do - even if the likes of Bethan Jenkins are already there to fulfil Leanne's "niche" as a campaigner, rabble-rouser and digger of dirt.

Leanne's supporters might be over-estimating how progressive the Welsh electorate actually is. From anecdotal evidence, the Welsh are left-leaning but small-c conservatives to the point of pig-headedness. That's an incredibly frustrating combination for any politician of any colour, but a particular problem for a "radical".

Leanne is saying a lot of the right things and I'm more impressed with her leadership campaign than I was expecting. She would obviously be a choice outside of Plaid's "comfort zone" of a first-language Welsh-speaker, Bro Cymraeg, FPTP candidate – a big, big plus - and she should be safe in her regional list seat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Wire and Wales

Despite being labeled the hand-wringing Guardianista's favourite TV show, I don't think there's ever been a grittier depiction of post-industrial decay than HBO's The Wire. Created by former journalist David Simon - with assistance from past members of the Baltimore Police Department - what starts out as a bog-standard police procedural, ends up becoming a wider examination of a society that's lost its way.

It's a society that's lost its sense of purpose, but not its soul. It's also lost confidence in the systems and institutions that are supposed to bind that society together. Whether it's through corruption, nepotism, sheer incompetence or the seemingly insurmountable crises affecting Baltimore : gang culture, crime, drugs, a burgeoning underclass who can only see a future in the black market, deindustrialisation and the effects of globalisation.

The two seasons with relevance to Wales are the second and fourth. The second season is set in the Port of Baltimore. It deals with the fallout of post-industrialisation and globalisation and the decline of the traditional unionised working class.

Warehouses are turned into swanky apartments, work becomes scarcer due to competition at home and abroad and expensive technology is required to maintain a competitive edge – whether it's with other ports or even to keep politicians and investors onside. It also introduced viewers to one of the shows most tragic and sympathetic characters – docker's union leader Frank Sobotka. His desperation to keep his workplace going, when the writing is on the wall, as he's being taken for a ride by the powers that be – both official and unofficial - is something I'm sure many people in Wales can relate to. Albeit not having the same outcomes.

In the fourth season – by far the best – the focus is on the school system and the fate of a group of boys, each of whom end up following different paths. Not only is there a lack of discipline and focus in the city's schools, there's also a crushing bureaucracy which focuses on box ticking over learning (sound familiar?). In the absence of real learning and engagement the kids end up making their own curriculum, as one character put it, they're "learning for the street". It also shows that an inspired, motivated teacher can really make a difference and that teaching is more a vocation you're "called to" than just another job you can plonk whoever you like into.

From a Welsh perspective, it's also interesting that the Mayor of Baltimore – a single US city - seemingly wields more political and economic power than our First Minister. Despite possessing an arsenal of powers that - in a few respects - would make Alex Salmond jealous, even the Mayors of Baltimore can't make water go uphill.

When Bunny Colvin - a police commander - tries a radical solution to the War on Drugs – the system, the society, the institutions, crush it despite it largely achieving a positive outcome. It was an autonomous local solution to a local problem, but because the "federal" government leaned on Baltimore it was abandoned forcefully.

In The Wire though, nothing is ever as simple as black and white. Even with this solution there were shades of grey. It was a perfect example of "the road to hell being paved with good intentions". For want of comparison, Baltimore is about the same distance from Washington DC as Cardiff is from Swansea. You get the impression they may as well be a thousand miles apart.

Yet there remains hope in parts, and the people of Baltimore keep on going somehow. The city keeps on ticking. I think that's what Wales has effectively been doing for the past century. Coasting along, accepting whatever fate, federal governments, Tommy Carcetti's and the forces of a changing global economy throw at us. Too many Clay Davis's, not enough Bunny Colvin's.

What The Wire is, is an eye-opener. It's stimulated debated about the "War on Drugs". It highlighted how political, economic and institutional systems that are broken can have a massive negative impact on people.

This doesn't mean that many of the experiences of the people of Baltimore in The Wire reflect directly on any experience in Wales. Wales doesn't have much in the way of gang culture, crime is low and there's an obvious difference between a single urban setting and a whole nation.

Although drugs are certainly prevalent in parts of Wales it's more a case of it being just as much a public health concern as a criminal one. However, the economic issues raised are as relevant to Dai Phillips in Merthyr Tydfil as they are Frank Sobotka in Baltimore. The political issues are as relevant to Carwyn Jones as they are Tommy Carcetti . With the coming of elected Police Commissioners, those institutional elements could be as relevant to Alun Michael or Elfyn Llwyd as they are to Ervin Burrell or Bill Rawls.

And of course Wales has its own Bubbles. Its own Bodies. Its own Naymond Brices, Dukie Weems' and Randy Wagstaffs.

Wales needs its own "Wire". But, unlike the HBO version, it doesn't need to open anyones eyes but our own.

We need something so provocative, so real, that we'll all take a good look around at ourselves, our communities, our public institutions and public servants and ask the question "how long are we going to put up with this?"

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Science in Welsh schools

Wales has been a branch manufacturing outpost for the best part of 40 years. With ever increasing global competition in terms of wages, production costs and skills – Wales needs to adapt faster than ever before and start to think hard about the quality of the products we produce. If we want Wales to attract, create and retain highly-skilled, high-IP potential, high value added jobs in research & development it has to start at the bottom.

We need a critical examination of the science and technology curriculum in our schools to ensure Wales can remain competitive. From a nationalist perspective, this could also help Wales become ever more self-sustaining economically.

In 2010 the previous Welsh Government announced that a "National Science Academy" would be set up, led by the then Deputy Minister for Skills (and current Health Minister) Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham). As a scientist (and a day dreaming idealist), I naïvely thought when it was mooted that this would literally be a bricks-and-mortar science academy that would attract the best-of-the-best from within Wales and abroad.

We didn't get that.

What we did get, was a £2million promotion of science subjects in schools.

"Science Academy" is pushing the envelope as a description. A "proper" National Science Academy would've been nice but even I accept that it's unlikely in the face of budget cutbacks.

The good news is that this modest approach does seem to be paying off to a certain extent. The number of separate science GCSE entries in Wales rose in 2010 according to the Western Mail, with the biggest rise in physics. Science of course isn't just confined to the traditional "big three" but can also be expanded to include maths, IT, engineering, (academic) PE and even subjects like geography and economics – so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects.

So what else can be done?

In the critical "middle phase" of Key Stage 3 (years 7-9) science should be as engaging as possible if we want pupils to take science subjects beyond GCSE level. If you lose the pupils here, you lose them for good. At present, the science curriculum includes several cross-cutting skills such as use of ICT (Leighton Andrews has been singing the praises of ICT in schools in Twitter recently), numeracy, literacy & communication, as well as Curriculum Cymreig (which adds a Welsh/everyday life element).

Science also helps in PSE, presumably sex education in the main. At KS3 the main focus of study is on the "interdependence of organisms", "sustainable Earth" and "how things work".

The science curriculum has become more about rote learning facts and ticking learner progress boxes – making the subjects appear an awful lot harder than they actually are. While knowledge of theory and scientific facts is vital, what's also as important is developing practical skills, objectivity, logic and independent thinkers. Science is as much about that than equations, diagrams and periodic tables and probably the only reason it's a core subject at GCSE level anyway. Those skills are also transferable to many other subjects.

Science should attempt to answer questions. Open-ended individual investigations, a scientific "question of the week" and regular practical sessions could be one way to keep interest levels high. Only when the subject is taught in-depth at later stages should a more rigid science curriculum come into play. For example teachers could spend a week on "how mobile phones work" – indroducing wave physics, digital signals & technology and geosynchronisity. Go easy on the box ticking and tests, focus on the knowledge.

Science should be fun and hands-on. Yes that means it should be slightly "dangerous" and exciting. I'm not convinced that pupils need to be wrapped in cotton wool to protect school staff from frivolous law suits. Science teachers already need nerves of steel and the patience of a saint to let teenagers near gas taps, animal parts and chemicals. It might come down to a simple case of schools lacking the right resources, staff and equipment. It's great to have brand new science blocks springing up all over the place but not so if the store cupboards are empty. Developing practical scientific skills is as important as the theory. When I was in school (not so long ago) I don't believe we did anywhere near enough practical work. If practical skills aren't up to scratch by Key Stage 4/GCSE then it does seriously hinder your progress through A-Levels, university and employment. There's no better way of learning anatomy for example than actually feeling the structures and seeing what you are studying instead of a picture in text book or on a computer screen.

Science should develop independent thinkers.
Although there are plenty of black-and-white answers in scientific subjects there are also plenty of grey areas. If you can provide thoroughly researched, credible evidence to back up a theory then it's hard to be dismissed out of hand. Those pupils who think "outside the box" or read around the subject, or introduce cross curricular evidence – however wacky - are as good at science as those who know A Brief History of Time by heart. I mentioned open-ended investigations earlier – an approach taken in Scotland – and in younger year groups I think it would be a great way to develop scientific talent and scientific curiosity. That spark of curiosity today could lead to the products that Welsh companies and universities are IP-protecting and exporting around the world tomorrow.

I don't think there's that much wrong with the underlying principles of science education in Wales. At Key Stage 3 , the focus on sustainability and interdependence is very relevant to the modern World and impacts on pupil's everyday lives. But to get kids hooked on science and pursuing science into higher qualifications, the subject needs to be the highlight of the timetable.

Science shouldn't become a subject defined by political objectives (sustainability). It should be felt. It should be smelt. It should inspire and turn kid's natural curiosity into knowledge and equip them for the economic challenges the rest of the 21st century will throw at their generation and Wales.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Peacocks in crisis : An opportunity for "new capitalism"

Peacocks faces an uncertain future, but could it be the
test bed for the UK Coalition's recent drive for a "new, responsible capitalism"?
(Pic : BBC)

In one of the biggest blows to the Welsh economy since the collapse of Hyder in 2001, clothing retailer Peacocks entered administration yesterday, threatening as many as 10,000 jobs across the UK and some 2,000 of those in Wales – not only the HQ in Cardiff but at major distribution centres at Nantgarw near Pontypridd and other sites in the Valleys. There'll be 249 immediate redundancies in Cardiff, though for the moment it's "business as usual" in the stores.

In the latest Top 300, Peacocks is listed as the 6th biggest company in Wales, with an end year turnover of £527m in 2010 and pre-tax profits of near £40m. All of this, however, is submerged in the company's debts. Estimates for the debt hover around the £600m mark with some £240million+ of that being loans at suicidally high rates of interest. Those debts were acquired as the result of a leveraged buy out when Peacocks delisted from the Stock Exchange in 2006 and was "taken private". Another company "enhanced" by private equity.

I'm clearly not an expert, but the underlying business doesn't seem too shabby at all. The Guardian says Peacocks Group had sales of £720m in 2010 and as mentioned the company is still "profitable". The company even reported a increase in like-for-like sales of 17% over Christmas, bucking the general trend. It's only when the company's debts are taken into account do the underlying cash flow problems become apparent – and the losses start to mount.

Royal Bank of Scotland has emerged as the "enemy" in all this, by withdrawing support for a debt restructuring deal (so are we expecting banks to prop up debt-laden businesses now?) However Barclays have said they are still "committed to Peacocks", even RBS are reported in the Western Mail as saying they hope a deal can be done.

Though clearly RBS withdrawing from negotiations was the "last straw" I don't think the banks aren't the "big bad" here. The blame, in my opinion, should fall on private equity and leveraged buy outs. The UK has come close to losing some of its biggest names in previous years - in particular football clubs - thanks to this form of finance. Sometimes it's done with the best of intentions like a management buy-out to save a company, other times for what seems like nothing other than vanity. Load a profitable company with debt then walk away while it burns and creditors sift through the wreckage looking for anything of value.

I'd be astonished if Peacocks went into liquidation, and I don't think anybody is predicting that. It'll still be a player on the High Street. I imagine a slimmed down Peacocks with fewer stores, fewer workers and many bruised egos is the likely outcome. Bad news, but not catastrophic. Of course it could be saved by another company or another buy out but that would likely means profits (and probably the HQ) exiting the Cardiff and Welsh economies.

We've heard a lot about "responsible capitalism" the last few weeks as well as the benefits of cooperatives (I'll be looking in depth at Prof. Kevin Morgan & Adam Price's "The Collective Entrepreneur - Social Enterprise and the Smart State" over the next few weeks).

Perhaps the "New Peacocks" can emerge as a test bed once stabilised– adopting a John Lewis model – to insure that in the future the company's workers benefit from any profit, not hedge funds, private equity firms or banks. Indeed Dr Jonathan Deacon of Newport Business School has suggested to Radio Wales that this could be one route the company could take.

Exactly how this can be done, while easing the debt burden, would be critical. For a back of a fag packet example - employees could "buy into" the company by purchasing a partnership/shares at a fixed price - for arguments sake £10 per share - and the money raised used to pay off a chunk of a renegotiated debt. After that a ring-fenced percentage of post-tax profits can be distributed back to "partners" as a John Lewis style "Annual Bonus" or a commission based on sales performance at individual stores. The running of the company could be democratised in a similar manner.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sustainable - what does it actually mean?

The Welsh Government is one few in the World that has a legal obligation to pursue "sustainable development" and it underpins all its policies. This has many benefits, but also many drawbacks.

As Grangetown Jack posted recently, one of the areas successive Welsh Government's can point to considerable progress in is the environment – in particular waste management. The recent push by Environment Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) to get Wales over the 50% recycled waste mark should be applauded by everyone across the political spectrum. Wales is genuinely leading the way in recycling – credit should be shared between Sue Essex, Carwyn Jones (previous Environment Ministers) but in particular Jane Davidson.

John Griffiths looks as though he's making the right noises too, sticking with an ambitious target of 70% of waste recycled by 2025 and a "zero waste Wales" by 2050. Also a new Sustainable Development Bill and national body are proposed in the next few years.

In Wales "sustainable" is becoming a very funny word. It appears to mean many different things to different people.

"Taking out as much as you put back."

"Self-perpetuation with minimal impact to the environment."

"Good stewardship of the planet."

In recent times it appears "sustainable" has expanded to include proposals and schemes such as :
Do we want sustainable development to mean responsible stewardship? Or do we want it to become a buzzword put on planning applications to inflate the egos of elected officials and grease "un-green" proposals through?

Carwyn, John - please don't mess this up.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Religion in an independent Wales

People have different ideas about what constitutes a cult
or a religious extremist. How would an independent Wales
deal with the issue?
(Pic : Blogging Los Angeles)

This started off as an "independence minutiae" post, but obviously there's too much here to justify that tag. It's not really that important, but how a nation handles religion is part of how it projects itself to the rest of the World.

I'm well aware I've picked up extra readers since joining Twitter who might be interested in Welsh independence. Here's some links to other posts I've made on the subject and its (possible) practical applications:

I know some of that subject matter is really dry stuff (I'll be posting "specials" on meatier topics like defence and local government over the next few months). However, I believe nationalists have failed in Scotland - and certainly in Wales - to outline exactly how independence can change the lives of ordinary people for the better, and make a Welsh state "work" better than at present. We're very good at ideology, not so good at the practical stuff. I hope I'm "doing my bit" by posting these. Think of them as a personal pre- independence manifesto, wish-list or (very) amateur green paper.

Now on to the main event.

Religion in Wales

Statistics on religion in Wales are pretty scant and date back to the 2001 census so these figures are probably out of date now. We won't have a clearer picture until the first findings of the 2011 census are published.

Religion/Belief Numbers Percentage of Population
Christianity 2.08million 71
No religion/Not stated 771,000 27
Islam 22,000 0.7
Hinduism 5,400 0.2
Buddhism 5,400 0.2
Judaism 2,300 0.1
Sikhism 2,000 0.1
Other 6,900 0.3

In 2001, just 10% of the population considered themselves regular church goers. I'm not sure if this figure includes non-Christians (church goer meaning a regular worshipper) but it does present a problem for the Christian churches. The vast majority of people in Wales identify as Christian, but don't practise. Where have they gone?

What also stands out is how small the non-Christian religious population in Wales really is with only Cardiff, Newport and Swansea have anything approaching a sizable non-Christian community. Some of these communities have problems too. Recently there have been concerns that the Welsh Jewish community could disappear within 20 years due to migration to more established English communities.

You could conclude that Wales is a fairly homogeneous non-practising Christian nation. In fact the statistics for Wales are very similar to those of Norway, Denmark and Scotland. England however, stands out in the UK for having larger non-Christian communities and a marginally larger church-going population but that's to be expected, I'm not trying to make a "nat" point there.

When examining individual Christian denominations, there are noticeable differences between the Home Nations. Scotland and Northern Ireland have larger Catholic communities than England and Wales, while Wales has much more plurality, like Baptists– a legacy of Welsh non-conformism.

The Relationship between State and Faiths – A Secular Wales?

  • There should be separation of church and state in Wales.
  • Religious and secular charities should have equal status under charity and tax laws.
  • Soft secularism/constitutional secularism – no banning of "Merry Christmas", holidays would still based around Christian calendar etc.
  • A new council - an expansion of Inter-faith Wales and including humanist and secular organisations - could be established to act as a "national conscience", debate community issues and resolve differences when they arise.

I'll come out and say it - an independent Wales should be a secular state. What does that actually mean, in practice? Technically, Wales hasn't had an established church since 1920, so we're there, right?

Sort of. Religious charities have a clear position in UK charity law, while secular charities don't. In an independent Wales, secular and religious charities should enjoy the same rights under the law. There should also be a requirement for charities not to deny aid based on belief, or promote views that are unconstitutional or breach civic rights.

What sort of secularism could Wales follow? I'd prefer a "soft" version that acknowledges Wales has a Christian culture but doesn't promote one particular belief. Wales could still have holidays at Christmas and Easter – and call such festivals what they are – because they are a part of what Wales is and what its citizens are used to, not (officially) for religious significance.

There might even be an opportunity to reintroduce or promote older Welsh festivals like Calan Gaeaf, St Dwynwen's Day, Calan Awst as well as traditions that haven't quite died out like the Mari Lwyd (photos of it here at Eye On Wales).

Discourse between different faith groups and secular groups is vital to maintain community cohesion. Inter-Faith Wales and Cytun fulfill this role to a large extent. Can there be a bigger role though? Norway for example has a "state philosopher". Could a broader "Philosophical Senedd", which includes academic ethicists, philosophers and secular groups like the Humanist Association alongside religious leaders, be a possible Welsh version of this? Their role would be to remind politicians and the public alike of issues beyond politics and much bigger than ourselves. All those grey areas like the nation's ethos, ethics at home and abroad and general morality.

All we should really expect of one another - faithful or faithless - is tolerance. A secular "blank slate" in Wales might be the best environment to foster it.

Protecting Religious Freedoms and Freedoms from Religion

  • People in Wales should have a right to adhere to a faith, change faiths or have no faith.
  • Religion should be defined as a "matter of conscience". Welsh citizens should have a freedom to practise faith as long as it doesn't infringe on the religious freedom or civic rights of others. This is in line with Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
  • Outlaw "aggressive proselytising". Defined as preventing people from otherwise going about their business to convert them to a new faith (i.e door-to-door calling, cold calling). Public preaching and passive proselytising like leafleting should still be allowed.
  • There shouldn't be any limitations on religious garments, icons or items in public or the workplace unless it makes a person a danger to themselves or others – removing bangles or religious jewellery near machinery etc. Exemptions should still exist where the garment is deemed a fundamental religious necessity (i.e. Sikh turban).

I might be an atheist and a humanist but I'm not militant about it. I've always been fascinated by different belief systems from an anthropological perspective. I accept that faith plays an important part in certain communities, and faith - though not necessarily organised religion - can change a person's life for the better. As we probably all know, one of the only reasons the Welsh language survived the 19th and early 20th centuries was due to the influence of non-conformist chapels.

Elizabeth I is famously quoted as saying she had "no desire to make windows into men's souls" and however anachronistic that sounds, and however much she didn't live up to these high ideals, I think it's a good place to start.

Religion should be an entirely private matter and a matter for it's adherents. The state shouldn't interfere in how faiths organise themselves, how they practise or what they believe – however once those practises cross the line into breaching the principles of how the state organises itself, runs itself or the rights it grants it's citizens – the state should have primacy.

Faith and belief shouldn't be used as an excuse to infringe on another person's or group's rights. I'd call this religious prejudice rather than religious hatred as defined in existing law.

If a religion opposes abortion, then only its adherents need to, not everyone else. If a religion believes homosexuality is immoral they can think it or say it but can't act on it - "love the sinner, hate the sin". If a religion believes the world is flat or that evolution doesn't exist, again that's fine – but it'll be confined to the place of worship and won't be allowed anywhere near a geography or science classroom.

Faith Schools and Faith in Schools

  • Parents should reserve the right to choose to send their children to a faith-based school.
  • The requirement for a daily religious observance should be abolished in non-faith schools, and instead appropriate arrangements made for religious pupils to practise their faith if/when they want to.
  • Religious Education (RE) should no longer be a compulsory subject in non-faith schools post-14. The RE curriculum should be modified to be more philosophical in scope and explore religion as part of a wider critical examination of metaphysics, culture(s) and society.

A parents choice to send their child to a faith-based school should be defended. I do think one area that needs to be looked at is state-funding of faith-based schools. Faith schools are exclusionary and selective to a certain extent – therefore public spending on faith schools should be tied to secular/whole community benefits. A good example is the new Archbishop McGrath Catholic School in Bridgend which doubles as a sports centre for Brackla. Ideally, this is a model all secondary schools – faith-based, private, Welsh-medium and English-medium can follow.

Clearly if a parent is sending a child to a faith-based school, the child should be expected to follow a faith-based curriculum. It shouldn't be expected of secular non-faith schools to do the same.

Daily collective "Christian" worship is compulsory in schools and a black mark in inspection reports if the schools don't provide it. Many schools ignore it - at my old secondary school presumably because there simply wasn't the space to do so for 2,000 pupils. It's a requirement that attempts to force a faith or moral outlook on people who are old enough to decide for themselves. For example in Germany, children reach an age of "religious majority" to varying degrees between 10 and 14. Currently in Wales, only sixth-formers can opt out by themselves.

However, religious education - as a subject - does have a valuable role in all schools by introducing pupils to different cultures, different ways of looking at the world and different moral outlooks - as well as the reasons behind such. If the subject were to take on a more anthropological and philosophical bent, then it could play a huge role in helping Welsh children develop their curiosity, tolerance and think more about the big issues objectively. Personally, I think that's far better than collective worship.

I don't believe the state or school authorities should stop anyone who wants to practise a faith from doing so and non-faith schools should make arrangements – like a room or hall set aside for the purpose – to enable religious pupils to practise when they want (within reason).

Religious Extremism and Cults

  • Religious extremism and cults would require a proper legal definition. Such groups should be proscribed as a last resort if they incite religious hatred, treason, terrorism or sedition.

With a few obvious exceptions, it's a subjective matter for what you or I would define as religious extremist or a cult. Some would only use it to describe certain sects in larger faiths, others might go so far as to include evangelical Christian denominations in it. This isn't a particularly easy subject to tackle as the definitions of an extremist or a cult can blur the lines between orthodox adherence and full on religious terrorism.

If the state were to define an "extremist" or a "cult" it should be based on practises - not ideology or belief. Such definitions should protect the religious freedoms of well-meaning "new religious movements" and emerging denominations.

I'm not claiming to be a legal expert but my own definitions of both would be:

Extremist – A group would have knowingly committed, planned or be planning to commit acts in Wales or friendly nations that were treasonous, seditious, unconstitutional, infringed the fundamental rights of others or incite religious hatred.

Cult – A group's practises would have to make it difficult or impossible for members to leave without retribution, require extraordinary donations of money, labour or property and otherwise manipulate or control it's members with the potential for harm.

Plenty to ponder there I'm sure.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Llynfi biomass plant "recommended for approval"

A new biomass power plant off the A4063 near Coytrahen (between Tondu and Maesteg for the unfamiliar) has been recommended for approval by Bridgend councillors – subject to a Section 106 agreement. A link to the monthly planning report is here.

The reason planning officials gave to recommend approval is because the plant "complies with Welsh Government aims in delivering sustainable development and reducing carbon emissions" and will "make a significant contribution to the provision of sustainable energy generated within Bridgend County Borough."

The 25MW plant would use imported woodchips (from Latvia or North America apparently) and is estimated would power more than 50,000 homes. The plans are highly controversial in the local community and have met fierce resistance, illustrated by the number of objections listed in the monthly report - including written objection from Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West).

It's estimated around 20 jobs would be permanently created at the plant (not including construction jobs).

Although I'm not a fan of "nimbyism", I don't think anybody would want a power station built near them. Personally I've been on the fence about this proposal. We need more sustainable forms of energy in the coming decades but the fact that the woodchips will be imported, transported by road (until a rail head is built) and – ultimately it's just burning wood - doesn't make this some ultra-green "sustainable" project.

Network Rail believe a rail upgrade is possible before the plant becomes operational so that's a bit of good news I suppose. Until then woodchips will arrive at Newport Docks and be transported by road.

The Environment Agency will still have to issue a permit, but the appraisal says that the carbon footprint of the new plant (between 0.091kg KWh- 0.11kg KWh) will be significantly less than UK standards set by DEFRA (0.54 kWh).

The Section 106 agreement requires the developers contribute to improvements to the A4063, restrict output capacity to 50% of maximum until a rail head is built and only use a Class 66 locomotive (which is quieter).

There are also 36 other conditions.

Bridgend Council's planning committee is scheduled to meet tomorrow (Jan 12th).


UPDATE : 19/01/2012

According to the Glamorgan Gazette the application was approved by Bridgend Councillors, but there was a "fierce debate" and strong opposition from Cllr. Mel Winter (Ind. Aberkenfig) and Cllr. Bob Burns (Ind. Oldcastle) in particular.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Calling Salmond's bluff or Unionist browbeating?

The UK Cabinet met yesterday and the at-some-point-but-we-don't-know-yet referendum (Owen : Alex Salmond has just announced it'll be held in autumn 2014, which I imagine was most people's guess) on Scottish independence was high on the agenda. There are several lines from my last post "Saving the Union – impossible without unity?" that might be relevant and reinforce my own view that creating a New Union – one based on sovereignty at a lower level than Westminster, united by popular consent and a culture shift in unionist thinking - is going to be an uphill struggle for a whole host of reasons.

"There's browbeating of the Celtic Fringe that sounds like the threats a fat, bald, middle-age husband would make to a divorcing wife. "

David Cameron - " is unfair on the Scottish people themselves (Won't someone pleeeease think of the children?). It would be desperately sad if Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom (Go on, see if I care!)....Let's not drift apart....I think he (Alex Salmond) knows the Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation...(Let's give it one last try.)"

DC – "If Alex Salmond wants a referendum on independence, why do we wait until 2014? (You don't tell me what to do! You're not my mother!)"

Danny Alexander - "The idea that we should decide the fate of the UK on the basis of the date of a medieval battle...."

June 24th is also the anniversary of the English destroying a French fleet at the Battle of Sluys, the start of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, a successful British-Native American victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams in the War of 1812, the preliminary bombardment that starts the Battle of the Somme, the start of the Berlin Blockade and the granting of self-government to Zanzibar by Britain.

Every day is the anniversary of something, Danny.

"There's also those who want to "play the ostrich". It's 'all a diversion from the important issues of the day'
. "

DC - "The uncertainty about this issue is damaging to Scotland and Scotland's economy. "

Danny Alexander - "....when we are in the middle of a financial crisis and youth unemployment of one in four would be laughable if it wasn't so serious."

.....damage and crisis of partially your own making guys. Who holds the economic levers again?

"All we're hinted at getting is a typical Westminster fudge that patches over problems until said patches wear out....A British Constitutional Convention – bound to be a needed - could rumble on for years. It would almost certainly open up the whole EU in-or-out debate at some point."

DC - "Then we need a proper debate where people can put forward their let's clear up the legal situation and then have a debate about how we bring this to a conclusion."

"Let's have a debate" – New Labour's favourite line. Not very original, Dave.

There's been an inevitable backlash from the SNP who see Westminster as "dictating" to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. That's a charge David Cameron resolutely denies and he goes further by acknowledging that it'll be the people of Scotland who decide it's future.

The Scottish Parliament has no competence on the constitution. The "Union between Scotland and England" is a specifically reserved matter to Westminster in the Scotland Act 1998. As I post this Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has said that any referendum would require Westminster's authority.

However, as usual, there are potential ways around. All referenda are consultative – so no referendum is ever legally binding. Also, due to parliamentary sovereignty, any action approved via referendum can be repealed (though that's political suicide). The Scottish Parliament does, as far as I know, have the power to carry out consultative referenda. Whether it has the authority to do so on a "reserved matter", without Westminster's say so, is the issue. I don't think David Cameron is suggesting the Scottish Parliament can't press ahead with a referendum, he just wants it done on Westminster's terms to try and regain some control over proceedings.

Most independence referenda usually authorise a negotiation between governments on a settlement that would lead to independence – if there's a yes vote - followed by a confirmatory referendum after those negotiations are completed. So in most cases it's consultative anyway – never a straight case of in-or-out. What's more interesting is if Westminster tries to block, or prevent, the Scottish Government putting a "devo-max" option on the referendum ballot. In my opinion that really would be interfering in Scottish affairs but there's always the threat that a multi-option referendum would confuse the electorate.

I don't think there's any chance of Westminster blocking or changing a consultative referendum on independence or nullify any yes vote for "legal reasons" - the fall out from such a move could have the opposite effect Unionists want. What should worry unionists more in this instance is that a key part of an Act of Parliament (that the constitution and union between Scotland and England are reserved matters) in practice isn't worth the paper it's written on. As a result parliamentary sovereignty and the supreme authority of the UK Government, both cherished by unionists, is undermined just by the Scottish Government considering a referendum, let alone eventually having one.

David Cameron is well within his rights to press the issue but there's not much the UK Government can do in this situation without coming across as arrogant, condescending bullys. Perhaps the SNP will cave in and hold a referendum as early as mid-2013, but perhaps they won't.

I return to another line from my last post.

"It might irk conservatives but some of those cherished traditions might need to go out the window to ensure a New Union happens – in particular Westminster's primacy."

Dave, give it up butt. Stop expecting the worst.

If you love someone, let them go.