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?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

They gave their bodies as a book for us to read

Those who've donated their bodies to medical science
have been commemorated at Cardiff University.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Yesterday, a memorial artwork was unveiled at Cardiff School of Biosciences, to honour those individuals who've donated their bodies to medical science. A public fund raising effort was led by anatomy professor and Head of Teaching, Prof. Bernard Moxham, and the memorial itself was created by Royal Society artist, Tom Phillips.

Anatomy has always seemed to balance art with science. Studying anatomy felt like you were serving some sort of renaissance-era apprenticeship. I doubt teaching gross anatomy has changed that dramatically through Galen,William Harvey and Henry Gray - apart from our understanding of what the various bits and pieces do and the methodology itself.

At the same time, anatomists are leading cutting-edge research in areas like dentistry (there's a possibility in the future we'll be able to "grow" natural dentures in a laboratory), stem cells (one of the "holy grails" of modern medicine), sports science & physiotherapy (biomechanics and treatment of injuries) and connective tissue diseases like osteoarthritis (artificial joints and cartilage repair).

The latter would be of particular interest in Wales, where our economy has more jobs with repetitive movements, we have a heavy industry legacy and an ageing population. According to Bevan Foundation statistics, in February 2012 (p6), around 18% Welsh disability benefit claimants at the time had musculoskeletal or connective tissue diseases – the largest single category after mental health.

More recently, anatomy has been popularised, and continues to balance art with science, through the likes of Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibits, where he famously – and somewhat controversially - plastinates cadavers/ anatomical specimens and arranges them in poses.

It even has its influences on music and literature. Anatomical terms are sometimes used to great effect to provoke disgust and fear. Extreme metal bands like Cannibal Corpse or Newport's Desecration often use more gutteral anatomical terms or concepts in their music that could've been cherry-picked from any medical textbook.

Anatomical terms/images are often used in extreme forms
of music to create a sense of dread or horror.
(Pic : Wikipedia)

It isn't a forbidden knowledge, but there's a natural "morbid" curiosity about internal workings. I don't think people like to be confronted with the fact that despite the higher levels of reasoning, humans, as a species, aren't dramatically different to most other animals and (with rare exceptions) no different to each other under the skin.

When you consider the whole host of things that can go wrong at all stages of development, it all suggests that human bodies are nothing more than beautiful accidents. That can be comforting, or if you hold certain beliefs, quite disturbing too.

For blindingly obvious reasons, having an expertise in human anatomy is essential for anyone wanting to practice medicine, dentistry and allied professions. Most medical schools in the UK still use donated bodies to teach anatomy – around 40-50 bodies are donated to Cardiff University annually – and this is (usually) still taught through full cadaveric dissection.

Anatomy has been heavily restricted since the 1830's with the original Anatomy Act, which outlawed the illegal trade in cadavers (aka "grave robbing"/"bodysnatching") and provided legal means for anatomists to obtain cadavers. This was because until the Anatomy Act, only the bodies of executed murderers were allowed to be used for dissection. Dissection was a "fate worse than death", perhaps in part due to Christian beliefs about resurrection. Or, it was considered a form of posthumous execution/punishment, evoking the "hung, drawn and quartered" method of execution.

Following the Alder Hey organ retention scandal, the original Anatomy Acts (1832 and 1984) were supplanted by the Human Tissues Act of 2004, which created a quango (Human Tissues Authority) to oversee and licence the use and storage of human tissues for research, teaching or display. It also outlaws selling organs. Scotland has a separate, but similar, law.

Some newer medical schools now use prosections (preserved or plastinated specimens that have been pre-dissected). Swansea's graduate-entry medical school, I understand, uses a mix of prosthetics, detailed models and things like x-rays. Having said that, as its a 4-year course, they have contact with patients very early on, which means gaining an understanding of practical anatomy is more urgent than those on a traditional 5 year medical/dentistry course.

There are still ongoing arguments over whether prosections or full dissection is the best way to teach anatomy.

It's not nice to look at, but could plastinated models/copies
of human organs be used for teaching at school level?
(Pic :

What I would like to see though, is moulds of real human organs, plastinated and copied for science teaching in schools – in particular GCSE and A-Level courses. I think "real" organs/systems would be better, in some cases, than dissecting animal organs or hard plastic models.

Having plastinated models of diseased organs - for example, a smoker's lung or a cirrhosis liver - might also be of more use in PSE lessons compared to a video or overhead slide.

But none of this would happen, and all our lives will be much, much worse right now, without someone deciding that when they die, they wanted people to learn from their body.

There's strong debate in Wales about the issue of organ donation and presumed consent. Organ doners are, quite rightly, said to be making a selfless gift in death.

It's time we remembered those other selfless individuals too. Those who wanted their whole body to be used to hone the skills of those who were practicing medicine, dentistry and related disciplines. The donors who continue to help those undertaking life-changing scientific research, or simply to provide all of us with an opportunity to understand what's within ourselves a little bit better.

That's important. There's nothing more humbling in the face of a increasingly changing and sometimes scary world, and no greater driving force to try and improve it, than being confronted by your own mortality and natural vulnerability.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

South West Wales NHS changes : What you need to know

This is decidedly more fun than current reorganisations of the Welsh NHS
(Pic : Via Tumblr)
The Welsh Government, via Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) and the local health boards (LHBs) are currently reorganising hospital services across Wales.

In the last few days, the four local health boards that cover southern Wales, launched a consultation on plans to spread services between major hospitals in the region. Some high-level services, such as neo-natal critical care services and accident and emergency services, could be centralised at fewer sites.

I'm not going to focus on the wider south Wales situation now, just on the plans put forward by Abertawe Bro Morgannwg (ABM) local health board , which covers Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea.

There are two key documents:

Firstly, ABM's 5-year plan for 2010-2015.

Secondly, Changing for the Better, which covers the plans for south Wales, and was announced yesterday.

A background : Why they're doing this

There are three main reasons as I see it.
  • Spending cuts – ABM have to make at least £189m worth of savings between 2010 and 2015 (p44) to meet Welsh Government targets, which works out at around £38m of cuts per year. Spread across the southern Wales LHB's, the figures are even higher. Something needs to be done whilst minimising impacts on front-line services – hence spreading specialist services over a wider area.
  • Staff shortages, in particular middle-grade doctors – Some hospitals, in particular Neath Port Talbot, have failed to attract staff in some specialities. A combination of stricter UK immigration laws, EU working time directives, a failure to retain "home-grown" medical students and reductions in spending on (expensive) agency staff has built up to a crisis. The Welsh Government have reacted by launching a series of initiatives to attract doctors to Wales. Obviously, for example, if you had fewer full-time A&E departments, you would need fewer experienced emergency medicine doctors.
  • "The Case for Change" : Improving NHS performance – It's claimed centralisation will lead to improvements in patient outcomes by creating expert "centres of excellence". This has been controversial, as there were suggestions that the evidence to support this argument wasn't independent enough, leading to an unsuccessful vote of confidence in Lesley Griffiths a few months ago.

By centralising services, some hospitals (including community hospitals) are going to lose some services completely, or see "downgrades" in what they can offer. That's the politics of the situation.

Neath Port Talbot hospital is less than 10 years old, but has
been hit hard by staff shortages and "downgrades".
(Pic : South Wales Evening Post)

Labour are arguing that "creating centres of excellence" would lead to a "more sustainable NHS", whilst the opposition parties say that "downgrading" could put people at risk, or lead to them having to travel further for treatment that's no better than they receive currently.

This week, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) presented a 5,000 signature petition to the Assembly opposing changes at Neath Port Talbot hospital, while protests have taken place outside the Senedd and elsewhere by groups from other LHBs.

Downgrades/centralisation of maternity, children's and accident and emergency services are of particular concern across Wales.

Along with the economy, this is probably going to be the issue that shadows Welsh Labour for the rest of the Assembly term - and not in a particularly good way.

You can't provide the same level of services across all hospitals anymore. People need to ask themselves : Would you rather get heart surgery, for example, from an understaffed, overworked team at your local general hospital? Or would you prefer to get it from a larger, fully-staffed, university-linked, centre of excellence based in one of the major towns/cities?

But the flipside is : If you were involved in a major car crash, or suffered a catastrophic heart attack, would you prefer to go to an A&E department as close as possible? Or would you want to travel (by ambulance or air ambulance) to a "centre of excellence" perhaps up to 30-40 miles further away?

It isn't easy, is it? Both sides have a point, and that's the frustrating thing.

That's why ABM and other LHBs are launching consultations on the issue to gauge public opinion. The Abertawe Bro Morgannwg consultation ends on 19th December and they are hosting public meetings at various venues across south west Wales over the coming months. All the details are available here.

Now it's worth taking a look at the specifics put forward for ABM.

Primary care (GP) services

Expect to hear "Primary Care Resource Centre" a lot in the next few decades. These are large bases with multiple GP's practices under one roof. One in Port Talbot opened a few years ago, and there's currently one under construction/planned in Swansea.

This is likely to be the format of primary care, and possibly
community hospital, services in the future.
(Pic : NHS Wales)

They're able to offer more services to more people in a modern environment, acting as a "one stop shop" for some tests, clinics and treatments in the community.

I think they're a good idea, but it does come across as impersonal compared to the traditional family GP practice. I wouldn't be surprised if we saw one built in the Bridgend area in the next 10 years or so.

Dental services

Dental services aren't covered by this consultation, though there have been very minor improvements there year on year. Oral and Maxillofacial surgical services appear to have been kept at all four main hospitals in the ABM area (see further down), but to varying degrees.

Mental health services

There are separate plans for mental health services, and ABM have invested in new facilities - in particular the Bridgend area – for adolescents as well as walk-in/community care services. Mental health services only get a passing reference in this consultation though.

Community hospitals

Community hospitals (Maesteg, Gorseinon, Cimla & Gellinudd) are likely to lose their beds in the medium-term.

ABM want to provide more ongoing care at home, meaning beds in community hospitals would no longer be required. Community hospitals will become "hubs" for some diagnostic and treatment services that could be delivered locally. I presume that could include : chiropody, GUM clinics, mother & baby clinics, speech therapy, occupational therapy, rehabilitation, weight-loss, asthma clinics, some types of physiotherapy.

I think that's pretty sensible (on paper). Those currently reliant on bed-based services at community hospitals will rightly have concerns, though ABM have already stopped using beds at some community hospitals.

Major/Acute hospitals

Morriston Hospital in Swansea is set to become the major
"centre of excellence" for south west Wales
(Pic : NHS Wales)

All of this is subject to consultation, and is based off ABM's original plans from January 2011. Some of this may have already changed as a result of the wider south Wales plans.

Morriston Hospital, Swansea
  • Emergencies/Trauma : Regional specialist trauma centre/A&E, Major trauma, Emergency surgery
  • Routine Treatments & Diagnostics : Renal inpatients, Dialysis, Paediatric (children's) inpatients, Chronic pain services, Coronary care, Cardiac physiology, Cellular pathology, Microbiology, Day surgery, Artificial Limbs
  • Specialist Services : Medical illustrations, Palliative care, Cardiothoracic (heart & lungs) services, Cardiac intensive treatment unit (ITU), Urology, Colo-rectal surgery, Regional centre of excellence for burns & plastic surgery, Spinal surgery

Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend
  • Emergencies/Trauma : Full-time A&E department, Emergency surgery
  • Routine Treatments & Diagnostics : Dialysis, Dermatology (support), Paediatric (children's) inpatients, Children's development centre, HIV/AIDS services, Day surgery, Chemotherapy, Coronary care, Cardiac physiology, Rheumatology, Gynaecology, Cellular pathology, Microbiology
  • Specialist Services : Obstetrics (maternity services), Neurophysiology, Neo-natal intensive care, Palliative care, Urology, Colo-rectal surgery, Breast surgery, Burns and plastic surgery

Singleton Hospital, Swansea
  • Emergencies/Trauma : Unscheduled general/emergency admissions, Minor injury unit
  • Routine Treatments & Diagnostics : Gynaecology, Childrens development centre, HIV/AIDS services, Day surgery, Clinical haemotology, Lymphodema services, Chemotherapy, Cardiac physiology, Rheumatology, Plastic surgery (day surgery), Orthogeriatrics, Cellular pathology
  • Specialist Services : Regional dermatology centre of excellence, Obstetrics (maternity services), Neo-natal intensive care, Medical illustrations, Clinical Oncology services (i.e Radiotherapy), Breast surgery

Neath Port Talbot Hospital
  • Emergencies/Trauma : Unscheduled general/emergency admissions, Minor injury unit
  • Routine Treatments & Diagnostics : Dermatology (support), Children's development centre, Chronic pain services, Chemotherapy, Orthogeriatrics, Artificial Limbs (as part of neurology services)
  • Specialist Services : Neurology centre of excellence, Neurophysiology, Obstetrics (midwife-led), Urology, Breast surgery

Retained at all four sites
  • Emergencies/Trauma : Critical/Intensive care (full life support only available at Bridgend & Morriston)
  • Routine Treatments & Diagnostics : Medical Assessment capability (downgraded at Singleton & NPT), Radiology (complex services at Morriston only), Pre surgery assessment, Blood sciences (specialists only available at Morriston), Mortuary services (post-mortems only carried out in Bridgend & Morriston)
  • Specialist Services : Diabetology/Endocrinology (outpatients only at Singleton & NPT), Gastroentrology/Endoscopy (emergencies only treated at Bridgend and Morriston), Respiratory medicine, Elective (scheduled) surgery, Cardiology, Orthopaedics (to varying degrees), Vascular services (day/outpatients only at Singleton and NPT), Oral & Maxillofacial surgery (to varying degrees), Ear Nose & Throat (outpatients only at NPT), Opthalmology (outpatients only at NPT)
  • Undecided : Bariatric (weight-loss) surgery (probably Morriston)
  • Not available at any site : Neurosurgery, centralised for Mid & South Wales at University Hosptial, Cardiff

Summary & Conclusions

If you found all the above a little hard to follow, there's an easier guide in the Changing for the Better document (Appendix 2). I think it's best to sum up what I think all these changes mean.

GP's and community health teams are likely to play a much greater role from now on. Maybe that'll be too much work for them to take on, leading to a collision course between GP's and the Welsh Government in the next few years. People in their 80s+ tend to cost more to treat, and tend to stay in hospital for longer - that's a simple fact of life. But one way to reduce costs might be to treat people as much as possible in their own homes, and ABM seem to be moving towards that.

Morriston Hospital and the Princess of Wales Hospital are the "winners" in this, retaining a vast bulk of services.

Morriston is going to be the regional "centre of excellence". If you're suffering from something really serious/complicated, then you'll probably be transferred to Morriston (which happens now anyway). Neurosurgery has been centralised permanently in Cardiff, despite attempts/campaigns to keep services in Swansea.

Keeping services in Bridgend is a no-brainer because of the catchment area and distance from Swansea, but it looks like Neath Port Talbot Hospital in particular has lost out as a result.

Singleton Hospital is playing a lesser role, offering more specialist and diagnostic services, while being the main maternity hospital for Swansea. It's half way between a community hospital and a full  district general hospital.

Neath Port Talbot Hospital isn't even 10 years old yet, but is certainly the "loser". That's been offset (a little bit) by being put forward as a possible centre of excellence for neurology. Not all services have been downgraded - the hospital will still offer many of the services you'd expect. However, if you have something long-term or more complicated then it's likely you'll have to travel to Bridgend to receive treatment. 24-hour accident and emergency services are likely to be covered by the Princess of Wales and Morriston hospitals too.

Consideration will need to be given as to how to get people
between various "centres of excellence", in particular those
areas not currently well supported by public transport.
(Pic : Wikipedia)

I think improved transport between sites is going to be crucial, especially in distant parts of the ABM area (Ogwr & Garw Valleys in Bridgend, Vale of Neath, Swansea Valleys). Morriston is perhaps more awkward to get to if you don't have a car, though there is the Swansea Metro bendy-bus. I'm not sure that's enough. The Welsh Government should seriously consider reopening the Swansea District Line to passenger services – about 1km from Morriston Hospital - at some point in the near future.

The impacts of this could stretch beyond the borders of ABM too. Services could be downgraded at Llanelli's Prince Phillip Hospital, perhaps based on a presumption that patients could be transferred to Morriston or Singleton hospitals. Add in all the possible centralisations across south Wales and it certainly looks like the start of the "turf war" that Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) has cautioned against.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Porthcawl regeneration - Bridgend Council's risky business?

Is regeneration in Porthcawl's central area about to get a kick-start?
Or are Bridgend Council taking an unnecessary financial risk?
(Pic :
Thanks to an anonymous commentator for flagging this up.

Over the summer, Carwyn Jones asked Porthcawl residents for their views on regeneration. The process came up with ideas ranging from a new McDonalds restaurant to long-standing calls for a swimming pool.

It does whiff of Labour wheeling out their biggest gun to stall for time and keep people on side -  but it's still positive. Hopefully Carwyn can use his clout to get a few of the ideas put forward into the regeneration plans. Ultimately though, this is between Bridgend Council, the Evans families (landowners) and the developers (Chelverton Deeley Freed).

I clearly don't agree with everything he's doing as First Minister, but by and large Carwyn's done the role of AM for Bridgend proud from the start and I make a distinction between the two. People elsewhere in Wales (and Bridgend) need to know that he still does "the other job" and takes it seriously – though you can't please everyone all of the time.

There was a major development in the regeneration saga this week. Bridgend Council amended their budget to fund infrastructure at the Salt Lake Car Park site. This could enable regeneration projects there to proceed, following Tesco's withdrawal a few weeks ago.

The Glamorgan Gazette reported this story with a slightly positive spin (from a council perspective), saying that Bridgend Council were "left with a £4.7million bill." That isn't technically true. There were three options on the table (Item 7 here Part 4.2 in the document):
  • Option 1 – Re-market the site with the same conditions as before - the developers fund infrastructure improvements (i.e. roads, utilities, landscaping)
  • Option 2 – Leave the land "fallow" and wait for the economy to improve.
  • Option 3 – The council invests in infrastructure improvements themselves, once they have an agreement from an interested developer/supermarket.

Hypothetically speaking, I would've leaned towards the more conservative Option 1 – keeping similar plans, but aiming for a supermarket that might want to expand into the area. That could be Morrisons - as they are the only one of the "Big 4" that doesn't have a store in the county - or Sainsbury's (I can hear the chuckling in Carmarthenshire from here) who might want to take advantage of Tesco's poor press. Considering Porthcawl's relative wealth compared to the rest of Bridgend, a Waitrose would've fitted, but they're building a new store in Cowbridge. I doubt a value brand like an Aldi or Lidl would've fitted in with the aims of the regeneration plans, but those could change.

Option 2 wouldn't satisfy anyone considering how long this has dragged on for, but at least it could lead to a better development in the long term and allow a re-evaluation of the regeneration plans. It's a bit too "back to the drawing board" and would've been an embarrassing climb-down for the council. This approach has worked for the likes of Newport recently.

Bridgend Council have plumped for Option 3, using £4.7million of unsupported borrowing (Item 7 Appendix) across 2012-13 and 2013-14. They hope they can make the money back by selling the improved site for a similar amount.

Unsupported borrowing has to be paid back by the local authority themselves – like a mortgage. £4.7million is roughly £34 for every person resident in Bridgend County, or £247 for everyone resident in Porthcawl. It doesn't sound like much, but tot that up onto your Council Tax bills (it doesn't work like that obviously).

The Evans families seem to be holding out for the best deal possible. You can't blame them for that. There's a 40/60 split between themselves and the council for the eventual land sale. They might've tied the council's hands - and their ability to attract developers - with some very strict/complicated covenants on land use (including a new community church, I understand. Once again I can hear the chuckling from Carmarthenshire....) and perhaps their own stubbornness. That's not unusual, but it's probably frustrated things.

This isn't really the council's fault. We need to remember that they've been shafted by the developers too.

It's even worse for the people of Porthcawl, who seem to be increasingly ambivalent - even hostile - towards regeneration attempts no matter how well-intentioned those attempts might be. The only big thing to go ahead so far has been the £3.5million marina project, which was announced back in 2010 as part of the creation of a wider Swansea Bay "Adrenaline Coast".

That's great, and is a significant development in itself, but the only other planning proposal relating to regeneration in that "central" part of the town has been some minor landscaping and road improvements (this might be the "infrastructure" the Council will borrow the money for). There are also other smaller projects taking place around the town, but the "crowning glory"  still has to be the Salt Lake site and Coney Beach.

This regeneration process started in 2007. It all feels a bit "Buck Rogers".
New Porthcawl superstore! Grand Opening October 2412. Officially opened by Carwyn Jones' ghost. Come see the hovering red tie – stay for the targ-roast! Q'pla!

Clearly the council want to do something soon. That's commendable considering the delays and false promises so far. But borrowing to fund infrastructure, without a guarantee of an interested party, is a big gamble.
Maybe they've been told by an interested party, "Build the infrastructure improvements yourselves and we'll definitely, 100%, cross our hearts and hope to die, build something of worth there." I suspect they haven't - I can't prove that one way or another, admittedly - though The council do have assurances from the surveyors and accountants that "risks have been mitigated."

It might pay off.

Because of the numbers involved and the possible complications, this is worthy of further scrutiny by the whole council, Porthcawl town councillors and Porthcawl residents too.

Maybe that's a delay Bridgend Council can't afford. However, if the council are left (in 2015) with an unsellable plot of land with useless roads and utilities, for the princely sum of £4.7million of borrowed money, the Wales Audit Office will want to get involved to.

Then all the fingers will be pointing at Bridgend Council cabinet members and officers. Then it becomes a big deal, and not even Carwyn can ride to the rescue.


Update 24/09/12I have to correct a minor, but critical error. I'd like to thank someone who contacted me via email for pointing this out. I imagine they'll want to remain anonymous. I'm leaving the erroneous bits striked-through and made some very small changes elsewhere.

The £4.7million will only be borrowed, and the work will not go ahead (Part 7.2 in the cabinet report) "until agreement has been reached for the sale of the site at a value that is sufficient to cover the cost of the works and a minimum capital receipt for both owners." I might've given the impression (and even BCBC themselves via the Glamorgan Gazette last week) that BCBC were "left with a bill" and were borrowing before any guarantee of development - which isn't the case. But considering some of the other things this person told me, it looks like Salt Lake could remain as it is for some considerable time to come.

They were heavily critical of the handling and circumstances around the regeneration so far - that it was "based off over-optimistic pre-credit crunch land values" (which I think everyone has sussed) and that there's huge differences between the cost of development and possible returns for potential supermarkets.

They added that supermarkets are interested in Porthcawl (which is a given), but there's no way they'd be willing to pay the up-front costs BCBC (and presumably the Evans families, leaseholders of the Salt Lake site - the deal with them is being renegotiated) are expecting. There's simply no building frenzy anymore.

They suggest that many experts (surveyors, architects) might consider some regeneration projects (especially housing projects) unviable based off the Council's own Supplementary Planning Guidance.

They go on to say that the announcement last week was a "PR disaster" -  BCBC, like local authorities across Wales, still have to make significant cuts in spending over the next few years. Announcing £4.7million of extra spending the way they did is unlikely to go down well in some parts of the county.

Though I still think the council might be being unfairly criticised on some aspects of this regeneration saga as a whole - Ouch!

Friday, 21 September 2012

Oggy Bloggy Ogwr wins Best Political Blog 2012

"Oggy Bloggy Ogwr is not just a political blog in the usual sense of responding to the day’s political events. Rather it is an attempt to explore some of the challenges that face Wales today, and offer solutions.

"It is impressive not only in the number of posts produced but also in the great detail in which they discuss their subject. What makes it stand out the most is that it is an effort to actually improve the country in which we live, rather than simply re-evaluating the day’s news and opinions." - Judges comments.

Oggy Bloggy Ogwr won best Political Blog at the Wales Blog Awards 2012 held in Cardiff last night. A blog awards might not be the most prestigious event in the world, but it goes some way towards acknowledging the breadth of online talent in Wales.

It was great to meet fellow nominees Y Cneifiwr and Carmarthenshire Planning in person, and as Y Cneifiwr summed up, compared to some of the other blogging subjects – ranging from music, sport, fashion and food & drink – political bloggers are "at the arse end of the business".

I'm not suggesting we're Byronic heroes, but most of the time it's a trudge of never-ending bad news stories. It's hard to stand on stage smiling when many of the blogs you write dump buckets of manure over people's heads – even if they deserve it. I hope my acceptance speech showed that you can have a sense of humour about the sheer levels of absurdity that surrounds these serious issues.

I think one improvement is to have separate "Best Writing on a Blog" awards for Welsh and English. I doubt you can judge the quality of writing – word play, nuances etc. - in two completely different languages on the same criteria. I think it's right that the other blog categories are bilingual so we don't reduce Welsh language blogs to token status. I read quite a few Welsh language blogs through Google Translate, which is imperfect, but I know some of best blogs in Wales are written in Welsh.

There were notable omissions from both the longlist and shortlists. Dic Mortimer is one of the best-written and entertaining blogs in Wales right now
, while in the politics section alone you're missing the likes of Jac O the North, Syniadau, Blog Menai, A Change of Personnel, Borthlas, Valleys Mam. Nobody visiting here is likely to agree with John Tyler's views, but he writes on subjects with  intelligence and forethought and that's all you can ask for - believe it or not, I consider Stonemason to be one of my guilty pleasures on the Welsh political blogosphere.

So even though I've won an award, I don't think it's fair to say that the blog awards themselves demonstrate how deep the Welsh blogosphere goes – in all subjects. I was familiar with a few, but not all, of the other blogs beforehand. Many of them are truly remarkable and have been bookmarked – winners, long-listed and short-listed ones.

I think I need to give you an idea now of why I started this blog and how I go about things.

I used to lurk on the Welsh political blogosphere during its "peak" around 2009/2010-ish. I would leave comments, sometimes anonymously, sometimes with my name. Then I realised I was starting to write so much that it warranted a blog of its own. The comment boxes wern't enough anymore.

I'd say that Syniadau, Ordovicius, Welsh Ramblings and Miserable Old Fart were my main "inspirations". I set Syniadau as the standard of blog I wanted to aim for in terms of depth and quality of analysis.

I started the blog with the aim of covering the devolution referendum and the 2011 Assembly elections, then leave it, coming back with bigger posts on issues relating to independence every few months - in effect, taking inspiration from Syniadau's forum on independence ideas and turning it up to 11.

Regarding the name, I knew it had to be catchy to stand out. As one of my favourite blogs was Ordovicius, and The Druid was also well-regarded, this blog was originally going to be called The Silurian – but I think that had already been taken. I thought of a few other names, knew I had to get Bridgend into it somehow – Ogwr – but how could I make that catchy? Hence, via Cornish miners and Max Boyce - Oggy Bloggy Ogwr. Even I get tongue-tied.

My blog hits for several months – were crap. I was going to pack it in sometime in September 2011 as it wasn't working. Then one of my posts was picked up by Duncan and Adam Higgitt of Wales Home fame. I was wondering where all these extra hits were coming from, but it turned out that Duncan Higgitt had been tweeting my posts (I wasn't a member of Twitter at the time – a big boo-boo). I realised there were people who wanted to read long-form posts - and wouldn't find it dull.

I eventually joined Twitter, but it wasn't until February/March this year that things took off. These include March 1st 2036, coverage of the Plaid Cymru leadership election, the defence "five parter" and the Green Investment Bank post. I had a much wider reach than I thought.

Ever since then,
there's been a maintained level of interest that lets me know that people actually care about what I write - even established names in Welsh politics. I've also been asked to write articles for Cambria magazine. The first was quite popular, while the second should be out in the next edition, hopefully in the next month or two.

Some of you might wonder how/why I write so many long posts.

Firstly, I have a background in the sciences, so for the best part of a decade I've had to deal with large amounts of data and produce analysis from that. Obviously in politics you usually come to the conclusion, then fit the evidence around it. I try not to do that - even if its obvious I have an agenda. I hope my recent posts on the economy show that even if I support independence quite openly, I'm not blinkered to the reality of the current situation.

Secondly, I'm not bragging, but I'm a fast writer. It took me under 20 minutes to write this.

Thirdly, I tend to break longer posts up into chunks, and write aggressively for short bursts at a time over several days or weeks - around graphs/data etc. when necessary. Most of it is simply good time management, and it's probably easier if you don't have any major responsibilities like children!

I joke about it, but I do have a life outside of blogging - which I see as nothing more than a very serious hobby. I like food & drink, football, gaming, weight-training (though it didn't show in the photo from the blog awards because I have God-awful fashion sense - I'll need to work on that) and I listen to some truly ear
-drum piercing heavy metal. Arsenal's dodgy defence last season probably motivated me most to "write aggressively".

Last but not least - someone has to do it. I don't think anyone, other than Michael Haggett (Syniadau) and a few others, has thought long and hard about the whats, hows and whys of Welsh independence. It's about thirty years too soon to be taken seriously, but I believe I'm "doing my bit" for the cause by stimulating debate and brainstorming options. When the time does come for it to be taken as a serious proposition, there'll be "something on the (virtual) table" for the professionals and policy wonks to work around. In some cases, maybe they could be on the table regardless of independence - media for instance - and I think that's the main reason why I won last night.

I won't be doing this forever obviously, but politics is such an open subject there's always something to write about. I've set a very high standard for myself, and worry that I might've peaked, but I hope I can continue at this standard for as long as possible.

I've only had to delete a single (non spam) comment in 19 months of blogging - out of hundreds of comments - which reflects very well on the maturity levels of readers and commentators. That's been the highlight for me.

I'd like to thank each and every one of you who've visited this blog, e-mailed me, followed me on Twitter/retweeted my posts, joined my facebook page or read my Cambria articles.

Diolch yn fawr iawn am eich cefnogaeth barhaus.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Dirty deeds done dirt cheap?

A number of land sales by an arms-length Welsh
Government body have raised concerns about transparency.
Is this an innocent business deal?  Or something sneakier?
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The backstory

The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) was set up by previous Economy Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon). Its goal is to market and sell Welsh Government owned property to match European Union funds used for regeneration projects in the Objective One area. It's an "arms-length" public body, but is ultimately responsible to the Welsh Government. To date it hasn't done very much.

16 parcels of land across Wales were sold recently by RIFW - total value of approximately £20.6million. The parcels include land in Wrexham, Llandudno Junction, Pyle in Bridgend and land around Cardiff.

Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) referred the sales to the Wales Audit Office a few weeks ago. More on this at Inside OutDaily Post, and BBC Wales.

So RIFW is doing its job?

By the look of things, yes. Land has been sold, and presumably the money will be used in regeneration projects in the future, though as I said RIFW don't appear to have done much with it so far.

The controversy surrounds land price speculation, lack of transparency and tax avoidance. Byron Davies is an ex-detective, and might've picked up the scent of something more serious too.

What's Cardiff's LDP got to do with it?

Before May's local elections, the ruling Lib Dem-Plaid Cardiff Council coalition ruled out developing "greenfield land" for housing - instead wanting to build all houses on urban "brownfield" land. This got them into trouble with the Welsh Government, as population projections showed that there was a need for signifcant housing development in Cardiff. The council were told to rip up their Local Development Plan (LDP) and start again.

The incoming Labour administration didn't mention plans to build on greenfield sites in their local election manifesto. That's probably sensible - they wanted to wait and see. However, Labour vehemently denied they had any plans to "concrete over greenfields" and accused those who suggested such of lying.

Within months of winning back control of Cardiff Council, the Labour administration leaked plans (Carwynisation of Cardiff's LDP) for concreting over greenfields 40,000+ new homes in the pre-proposals for the new LDP.

As you might expect, the value of the land set aside for these housing developments will have risen dramatically. Those who bought the land will be sitting on a nice little earner once the developers come knocking.

One of those lucky buyers was South Wales Land Developments (SWLD) - who were sold land in the Lisvane area by RIFW (as well as all the other parcels mentioned above) before Cardiff Council's "leak". The value of land sold to SWLD in Cardiff alone will have risen from (using quoted figures from the BBC) £1.8million to around £120million.

To avoid accusations of hyprocrisy, I've said on several occasions that opening up some greenfield land for housing in and around Cardiff is the right thing to do – I still think it is - but not under questionable circumstances like this.

Why is this "dodgy"?

SWLD (despite the name) are based in Guernsey, which has low business taxes. In these times of austerity, you have to question why a Welsh Government body will have sold land to them knowing how it would look.

There might be a reason.

The only information that has come out of SWLD so far has been from a former director and company secretary of Cardiff Hub Ltd – Langley Davies – who's involved in other property-related businesses too. That's not to single him out. Considering the company name, I imagine many of the other people involved will have similar business interests. However, there are scant details on SWLD, who appear to have been set up suspiciously quickly and quietly.

Cardiff Hub have/had ambitious plans for a business park and transport interchange in the St Mellons area. At the time, the plans were trumpeted by the Welsh Government and Cardiff councillors, including Lib Dem ward members and current Cardiff Council cabinet member for planning and transport, Ralph Cook.

It's not a big stretch of the imagination that a notional £100million+ could go some way towards funding Cardiff Hub or different projects.

It suggests someone - whether in local government, Welsh Government or RFIW's fund managers - might've "tipped off" SWLD - and SWLD alone - about the land and Cardiff's LDP revisions.

That might qualify as a form of market abuse ("insider dealing"). In extreme cases, it's punishable by up to seven years in prison or an unlimited fine. It might not be illegal when it comes to land sales as far as I know, but it certainly stinks, as land should be sold on the open-market to developers directly.

You also have to question why so many parcels of land were bundled into one deal with one company.

Overvalued land:

  • Could lead to more houses being built than expected
  • Could create an "asset bubble" where house prices are set artificially higher to recoup building costs
  • Could result in communities being planned "on the cheap" with a lack of proper facilities (i.e green space)
  • Impacts a developer's ability to deliver things like affordable housing

What happens next?

The Wales Audit Office will probe what Byron Davies has brought to them and issue their own assessment.

The most likely proposition is that this was a poor (or knowingly poor) sale by RIFW. SWLD could be acting as a legitimate "land bank" and couldn't believe their luck when they saw the parcels on sale for a low price, knowing "instinctively" that Cardiff Council would need the land for housing as soon as they changed the LDP. That still doesn't explain how only SWLD seemed to be interested in such an obvious opportunity.

My hunch is that the Welsh Government are in the clear. There's claw back arrangements should land values rise. But the heart of the matter is that RIFW/Welsh Government (and by extension, the Welsh public) may well have been diddled out of a potential £100million windfall deliberately.

When you look at it like that, you have to wonder why the Welsh Government have been so coy? Is it embarrassment at having "overseen" a really bad deal? That's my guess. Or is it plausible deniability?

Here's a more outlandish tin-foil-hat suggestion. The Welsh Government - in cahoots with someone with a keen interest in RIFW funds, or a friendly Labour-run Cardiff Council - saw an opportunity to raise money for RIFW projects in Wales – Swansea for instance - while at the same time helping a private company raise funds to invest in Cardiff or elsewhere (because some EU funds can't be used outside the Objective One area).

That's still sleazy, but admittedly it's clever too. There's plenty of opportunities there for Welsh Government ministers and council cabinet members to be photographed in hard hats "saving the economy", plenty of new houses would be built in Cardiff and they can pat the backs of company directors "investing in Wales". Just don't mention the tax-dodging. Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit and going down the route of Machiavellian conjecture there.

Whichever way, someone should be in hot water, and my guess is it's someone at the local government end – whether that's Cardiff or somewhere else.

I wonder who they could be?

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Wales : An Economic Profile VI - Strengths & Weaknesses



"Secure" resources

Industry requires copious amounts of both energy and water. Wales will have both long into the future - as long as the existing resou
rces are not squandered or poorly managed.

I've put "secure" in quotation marks, because fuels like gas (Part I) will need to be supplanted at some point. To paraphrase what MH has said recently on the subject, we need to "use gas more cleverly".

"Secure" also means "safe". Wales is unlikely (but not completely so) to be a target for an act of terrorism, has relatively low crime rates and is in one of the strategically safest places in Europe - if not globally. That could attract some contentious employment – defence research for example, or yes, even nuclear weapons.

An office-based business can base itself anywhere, but this is one of the few trump cards Wales holds over London & SE England. For product development and manufacturing, Wales should be towards the top of many lists, seeing as we have the fundamentals in place. The question now is, what are the other reasons for us not being so?

Relatively high levels of graduates

As I pointed out in Part IV, Wales has a high (by EU standards) percentage of the working age population who have higher education qualifications (though this is still behind the UK average). It's quite likely that many of these are going to be public sector workers, in particular those working in health service professions that require degree-level qualifications (nurses, physiotherapists, radiologists etc.).

Numbers of graduates are likely to have been boosted by
healthcare professions like nursing becoming degree-level jobs.
How can we turn more graduates towards business?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

What this suggests, is that a chunk of Welsh population have a love of learning. What the Welsh Government need to do, is ensure that people are encouraged to aim higher academically for our future economy.

That doesn't mean pushing everybody into the sciences. It also means : better qualified lawyers to scrutinise devolved legislation, better business managers, professionalising the "third sector" (Masters of Social Business Administration), qualified coaches for sport, teachers with higher-level qualifications (Welsh Labour wanted to make teaching a "Master's Level" profession in their 2011 manifesto) and improving skills in the civil service.

I believe that people should learn for its own sake. Although some courses might be "questionable", and going to university shouldn't be seen as a "must", we need to see graduates as a resource. They need to be used effectively in the private sector and not expect the vast bulk of them to go into the public sector.

Cardiff & Deeside

In Cardiff and Deeside, Wales has two significant urban areas which continue to attract significant investment, perhaps for differing reasons. That's not a suggestion that we "put all our eggs in two baskets". We shouldn't ignore the fact that amongst all the doom and gloom, Wales has two well-performing areas economically, even compared to the rest of the UK.

Swansea could easily catch up with the right investment in its city centre, in addition to the university development mentioned in Part IV. There's a strong hub of IT-related companies developing in the Newport/Cwmbran area while Bridgend & Neath Port Talbot have always been major manufacturing centres. Providing better links between the likes of Aberystwyth and Bangor universities and their environs will no doubt boost economies too. There's hope yet.

Good business survival rates

One of the big myths I hoped to bust with this series is the belief that the Welsh are "not entrepreneurial" or "not business-minded". I think we are in a "be your own boss" sense, but Wales doesn't have a big money, individualist, "corporate culture". That can be a good thing, or a bad thing.

Business survival rates might reflect lack of competition
due to fewer enterprises overall, but Welsh survival rates are competitive
at a UK level, and Welsh youngsters are increasingly entrepreneurial.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Although enterprise birth rates in Wales were amongst the lowest in the UK in 2010, enterprise deaths, five-year survival rates and one-year survival rates were either at the UK average or exceeded it. Recently, it's been revealed that young Welsh adults were the most entrepreneurial in the UK.

Maybe this is just because of the plethora of grant and business support schemes offered by the Welsh Government. However, if you start a business in Wales, compared to the vast bulk of the UK, you're more likely to see it last longer and more likely to have your peers starting them too. Add this to the successes in university spin outs (Part IV) and it's safe to say that "failed in Wales" no longer applies.

Strong export record (in goods)

I hate treading old ground, but as I said in Part V if this is a strength of the Welsh economy, then we grasp every opportunity to guide and shape it with both hands.

The only downsides are that many up-and-coming Welsh SME's seem reluctant to look for opportunities beyond the UK, while goods exports are conglomerating in larger groups, becoming less diverse (a point raised in Offa's Gap). These are serious problems that needs addressing, but it's still overall good news.

It's important to note that this is in goods only – physical "things", not services. Wales will need to develop more balance between goods and services if the economy, as a whole, is to function better.


Financial services "blind spot"

Bankers aren't the flavour of the month, but high-end financial services do provide high levels of GVA growth and, more crucially in the independence debate, high levels of tax income (when they pay them). First things first, I'm not advocating a "Welsh RBS". But is it so ridiculous a suggestion to have Welsh banks – based in Wales, investing both here (perhaps in energy projects) and around the world and providing highly paid jobs in Wales?

Wales does have a big success story in Admiral Group, but was it a fluke? Wales needs five or six "Admirals" to close the gap with the rest of the UK. The easy option would be to "bribe" one of the London companies to move to Cardiff. That would be a stop gap. Wales has to play the game (developing new financial service companies) instead of carrying the refreshments (branch functions).

I think insurance is one area Wales could look to build a critical mass in. It's less controversial than banking, we have success stories already, there's guaranteed markets (car insurance is compulsory) and in some cases it's fairly lucrative. Recruitment and training services, as well as niche consumer services like price-comparison websites, are other areas of potential.

Poor infrastructure, poor priorities

This has been done to death, but it needs attention drawing to it again. Wales is probably 20 years away from losing our only major airport if passenger figures continue to slide the way they are. We only have around 75 miles of motorway (though much more is "motorway standard"). We've had to wait God knows how long to have rail electrification put on the agenda. If you can't get goods, people and ideas to major markets quickly and efficiently, you end up being neither heard nor seen. That can even happen within the UK market itself.

The Welsh Government do invest in things like roads
and railways, but are they prioritising things correctly?
(Pic : Abayoflife)

I'm not convinced the UK or Welsh Governments take Welsh infrastructure anywhere near as seriously as they have to. I'm not restricting that to the "obvious things" like roads and railways. It includes all the hidden stuff, like a north-south inter-connector for electricity, 3G/4G coverage (now being addressed by the Welsh Government and the private sector - thumbs up) and even things like the structure and functioning of the civil service.

The Welsh Government's Infrastructure Investment Plan was a damp squib that prioritised waste management ahead of new transport links and energy. Using borrowing powers to fill pot holes/cover revenue spending is also rather silly. Their task in the face of swingeing capital spending cuts isn't easy, I'll acknowledge that, but there's no need to make things worse through their own lack of ideas.

Demographic shift to the economically inactive

This isn't just a case of pensionable-age "incomers" moving to rural Wales. It's also a case of younger people moving out of Wales because that's the only way to provide financial security for themselves. Lose the young, keep the old and immobile, top them up with migrant retirees. Pensioners, "good-lifers" etc. might well bring their savings with them - and they should have the right to move anywhere they choose - but they also have an ongoing cost that wouldn't be there otherwise. Wales can't afford to become a care home colony.

I'm willing to bet, per person in employment, productivity in Wales will be near enough the same as most parts of the UK (outside London and SE England).

If the Welsh Government really wants to improve Welsh economic output, they're going to have to come up with ways to retain talented people under 30 to balance things out a little – especially in rural areas. More people producing, production figures improve – simple.

Wales needs to become "noisier", and subtly discourage people from moving to Wales to seek a "quiet life." One way to do that is ensure there are enough well-paid jobs , social opportunities and affordable housing. And yes, we also have to target the levels of chronic long-term limiting illnesses in some Welsh local authorities – but that's more a health and social justice matter.

Over-reliance on "big branch employers" & lack of innovation

Business demographics statistics (2011), show that while 98% of all enterprises in Wales were in the micro and small band (employ under 50 people), 72% of national business turnover (£68.04billion) came from medium and large companies, with £56.1billion of that coming from just 1,580 large (250+ employees) businesses.

I'm guessing that many of those will be a remnant of the WDA glory days. Well, they're not going to be here forever. With every closure of a big grey box on a valleys industrial estate, a large chunk of GVA and national turnover is going to go with it.

Are these jobs worth it? We don't do very much research and development here. We don't do enough to protect and patent innovations here. I think politicians concentrate on reducing unemployment figures, see someone promising to bring 1,000 jobs - while not considering what those jobs entail or what they are paid – and roll out the carpet. Then they leave a few years later for the next sucker economic region whose production costs can increase the margins for HQ .

Wales needs to come up with the products, patent them/licence them, manufacture them and do all the marketing and back-office/HQ functions. That's the recipe for good GVA growth. In terms of independence, it means loyal Welsh "brands" paying healthy amounts of business and corporation taxes into the national coffers. Saying this is easy, doing it is much harder.

Skills shortages

It's another "old chestnut""Employees lacking the prerequisite skills necessary for the modern workplace blah blah blah." I don't think the situation is as bad as it has been – the numbers of school leavers leaving with no qualifications are falling, the numbers of apprenticeships are rising and as mentioned above Wales has a relatively high proportion of people with advanced qualifications. The issue, is whether all these bits of paper are actually worth anything.

It applies just as much to employers. How many Welsh business people have the requisite skills to expand their companies? Do they have the ambition to do so? How many Welsh business people speak a foreign language? Do they have good management skills?

If the business community are stuck thinking in a dull, "numbers on the balance sheet", conservative way, then the whole of the Welsh economy lacks "spark". I think this can improve - and the Welsh Government are taking steps towards that - but it might be too little, too late. It should've been done in the 1980s and 1990s - the moment Conservative and Labour UK Governments decided heavy industries (coal, then steel) had no future. That's the lasting legacy Maggie, John and Tony left us. Gordon left us the bill and Dave moves everything back to square one, ready to repeat itself.


Universities playing a greater economic role

Universities shouldn't become castles for academia in small towns, they should play an active role in developing the economy of those places in more ways than bringing in student money. The Republic of Ireland managed to build its economy based off a steady stream of graduates coming out of a large number of higher education institutions with technical qualifications.

Does Wales need to bring back the polytechnics? Do we need a "Welsh MIT"? Could industrial estates in university towns be used as enterprise zones for spin-outs?

That leads me nicely into....

Harnessing and developing niche specialisms

The Welsh Government, universities and the Welsh business community need to try and identify areas where Wales can develop a European, or world-leading, specialism based on what we have currently. I don't think this is about backing certain businesses or certain sectors. As highlighted on many occasions, successful individual companies can come from anywhere.

What technologies and innovations will
Wales be helping to develop in the future?
(Pic :

I think this is about taking a long-term view about what products Wales can develop over the next thirty years, and whether we can get there before other parts of the world do, or try to stake a claim with other nations – for example pan-EU initiatives.

What could those specialisms be? Wales already plays a leading role in aerospace and automotives that could be expanded (and enhanced at the likes of the new Swansea University campus). There's materials sciences – looking for environmentally friendly building materials and "smart materials". Energy research is another obvious one. Whoever finds a way to store and produce hydrogen safely as a fuel, without as much energy intensity, is going to become very rich too, I'd imagine.

There are still plenty of options on the table

There are plenty of things the Welsh Government could do, within months even, and without requiring the devolution of further powers.

They could turn Finance Wales into an investment bank or a sovereign wealth fund (though they wouldn't be able to regulate it). They could create a regional exchange to help pump capital into SMEs as a stepping stone to the FTSE.
They could turn Communities First clusters into social enterprises, while professionalising them and (hopefully) reducing corruption due to increased financial scrutiny as a result. There are other things mentioned further down.

Admittedly, none of that would provide a solution by itself. It's still going to have to come down to ambition within the private sector and classic entrepreneurship. But, as we all know, the Welsh Government and civil service like to do things a "certain way".

The co-operative sector providing public services

How do you provide key public services - in particular things like health and social care - in sparsely populated areas with dwindling public funds? One solution might be to enact some of the recommendations in The Collective Entrepreneur report and have some services ran by co-operatives and not-for-profits.

I mentioned above that Communities First projects could become community social enterprises. It's a mooted model for the Welsh railways. You could even go as far as spin the NHS out on the Glas Cymru model.

There have been calls for a "not for profit" company to
run Welsh railways, but does this Glas Cymru model
need to stop at transport and utilities?
(Pic : BBC Wales)

There would be clear advantages and disadvantages. It might bring a business-minded approach to providing services (in terms of competition and waste), with those services remaining free/subsidised at the point of access – but it would still be a privatisation. It could lead to smaller hospitals and care homes being being kept open – but there's always the risk that they could close if they don't cover their costs. It would almost certainly lead to the creation of large companies that can compete on a European level to provide services, but is that what you want public services companies to do?

This would probably be too controversial to consider in the short term. However, if public spending is going to be squeezed, maybe it should be kept on the back burner until more detailed studies are carried out.

Fiscal sovereignty

You'd expect me to list this, wouldn't you? Can you can improve the economy within the current arrangements? The evidence over the last twenty years suggests this is going to be an uphill struggle, and Wales is going to need a significant change of tact. Or, do you need all the tools to create the conditions necessary to improve the economy? There's no guarantee that would work, but at least you'll be able to work to strengths and react quicker to shocks.

These two pieces by Russell Lawson over at the Walesbusiness blog (Wales' way out of the economic mire & Small is beautiful), list : accommodative monetary policy, fiscal policy focused on medium-term consolidation, tight grip on public debt, capital buffers, prudential bank lending policies, regulatory quality, enhanced liquidity in Europe and easing personal debt.

Hardly any of which Wales would be able to do without fiscal sovereignty or Independence – perhaps a separate currency too.


A continuing spiral of peripheral neglect

It's too risky for the UK Government to spend public money when there are no guaranteed of "returns". So instead of investing to provide jobs in Wales, they provide job replacements in the form of JSA and incapacity benefit – then some have the cheek to remind us that we're not pulling our weight.

The Welsh Government in turn acts like a palliative care nurse – focusing on quality of life – accepting that things are never going to improve dramatically economy wise.

Wales needs it, London gets it. It's a familiar story, but
you can't blame the UK Government for wanting returns on
big investments.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Preventing Wales falling into destitution is seen as "better for us" than having a fully functioning economy that can stand on its own legs - even within the UK. It's about stopping things from becoming worse, rather than taking risks (or responsibility) needed to create something better

Despite spending more per head on economic development than other parts of the UK, Wales shows no sign of rising off the bottom of varying "league tables". The likelihood is that it's being spent badly, on the wrong things, for the wrong reasons. I'm no longer convinced it's a money issue anymore, but down to a case of poor economic policy - and that goes for all parties, not just Welsh Labour.

It's always "someone else's problem", and we don't want to take the harder path because we don't know if it'll work or not. That's toxic.

Inward investment drying up

In 2011-12, only 23 inward investment projects, out of 1,406 in the UK, took place in Wales – just over 1.6%. Although these projects seem to be pretty big, protecting/creating some 2,800 jobs (remember what I just said about big employers).

We need a desperate change of tact here. We're so used to "someone else doing it", that we've become timid about going out to other markets, or obsessed with the internal market within the UK. Welsh businesses are probably going to have to do more outward investment, or target new export markets, than expect inward investment to travel very far down the M4 from Heathrow.

Our competitor isn't England, but all those small nations who can take extra steps to attract investment. In the future, we'll need to measure success by looking to Welsh companies taking over English/wherever companies - not the other way round. The question is, are Welsh businesses up to the scale of that challenge? I don't know.

"Mad" economic policy

Economic policy in Wales can be boiled down to a few simple tenets:
  • More jobs, regardless of how well they are paid, highly-skilled or what the job entails, is better than no jobs.
  • It's better to play a bit-part (making components) instead of coming up with new products and IP-protecting them.
  • Everything has to be led by the government because the private sector is too small/can't be trusted.
  • See what England is doing. Ignore what the rest of Europe or the world is doing. Try to copy what England is doing because you have no ideas of your own/it's obviously the "right way". Hilarity ensues.
  • Come up with fantastic new strategies and plans, then when they don't work, rearrange the words slightly.
  • "Insert sector of the economy here" is the future! Then don't look at qualifications, case studies, necessary infrastructure, long-term projections, competition at home and abroad, fast growth businesses within Wales in the sector, constitutional powers, fiscal'll "just happen"! (Yes, I've probably just done that too.)
  • Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Desperation, short-termism and pessimism

Let's say you were the CEO of a foreign business looking to invest in two areas.
The first has good international links, a fairly decent ratio of public spending to GVA and a reasonable level of public sector workers. They have major centres of renown and an ambitious government that presents themselves with confidence. They assure you that you can find everything you need (if you want it). They have established companies is high-value added sectors and have a good track record in economic theory and promoting themselves abroad.
Scotland has managed to become successful within the UK,
and not entirely down to oil. Perhaps we should be asking
questions as to why Wales hasn't?

The other has no solid international links, has as much spent on it by the government as it produces each year and has low numbers of jobs created overall. They have a government either practically begging you to set up there - almost suffocating you with the amount of support or grants – or they hardly make any effort. You're not entirely convinced the government are serious, as they seem just as keen to promote links with other places, than concentrate on their own unique selling points.

One looks like an up and coming, business-friendly destination. The other looks as it it doesn't have any economic mojo at all. Now call them "Scotland" and "Wales".

I'm going to contradict myself, but equally damaging is the belief that we can't do anything right, and that there's something inherently wrong about the Welsh. Anecdotally, that's an incredibly depressing and commonly held belief within Wales – even if the evidence says differently. Talk about a colonial mindset.

Fiscal sovereignty

Having full economic powers is a double-edged sword. I mentioned earlier there would be opportunities, there would also be significant, potentially disastrous, risks too.

Fiscal sovereignty doesn't mean independence. But, with public spending as such cripplingly high levels, any measures that could see a reduction in the amount of pork heading our way would be opposed (see Mike Hedges recent comments on tax devolution). Quality of life could well sharply fall (i.e. harsh reductions in public spending). Though we wouldn't fall into the abyss - as the economy as a whole would likely remain exactly where it is. Public spending isn't the same thing as production.

The risk is this. Wales will have all these wonderful new powers, but then wouldn't use them "correctly". We might create more barriers to business, increase the amount of red tape, screw up business rates reforms or general business taxes (or even shy away from using them) and carries on micromanaging little schemes that they can't bear to put down because they don't want to be seen to be "wrong".

The gap between east and west Wales doesn't narrow, businesses lose confidence in economic prospects as well as the Welsh government, Welsh public policy and our civil service remain stuck in a nepotistic and innovation less-time warp and our economic figures fall through the floor.

It might even go the opposite way and become embroiled in a neo-liberal race to the bottom. It's not too ridiculous a suggestion - considering some of the things that go on here already - that we could end up with a Welsh Charles Haughey or Bertie Ahern.

Theoretically speaking, if that happened post-independence, people like me swing from lampposts or get put up against walls and shot.
Now read that dystopian economic commentary again.

If we wouldn't tolerate it post-independence or under devo-max, why have we tolerated it for the last thirty years?

I hope you've enjoyed this series of blogs. What I wanted to show was that the Welsh economy certainly has weaknesses, but they are not all attributable to the Welsh as a people. We also have many success stories, but we really need to get a grip on these wider issues if Wales is to succeed economically.

That might mean taking more fiscal responsibility for ourselves, it might come down to one person having a brilliant business idea and having the assistance to take it forward.

At some point early in 2013, I'll look at local government and independence, which I was originally going to do so this time around.