Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

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

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

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

Committee Inquiries

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

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Regulated Mobile Home Sites Bill

Peter Black's Member's Bill on park homes aims to tighten regulations
and prevent site operators from abusing their power.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Although Darren Millar's (Con, Clwyd West), widely-derided, Chewing Gum Levy Bill wasn't approved by AMs a few weeks ago, Peter Black's (Lib Dem, South Wales West) Member's Bill was accepted, becoming the first Member's Bill introduced to the Senedd since the 2011 referendum.

Now it's time to take a look at the proposals in more detail.

The problem

Some 3,400 households in Wales are counted as (permanent) "residential mobile homes". The definition of a "mobile home" usually extends to fixed caravans, but includes holiday caravans. Most of the people living in these will be elderly and subsequently living on a reduced, fixed income.

Several incidents and scandals involving mobile home parks have led to campaigns to improve the regulation and licensing of these parks. The licencing scheme is said to be "outdated", while many park owners have have criminal prosecutions brought against them.

One issue surrounds the sale of mobile homes – in particular buying mobile homes at a greatly reduced price, then selling them for market value.

In the consultation Peter Black carried out before laying the Bill in front of the Assembly, home owners were said to be greatly in favour of reforms, while site operators/owners were hostile towards it. I think that says it all.

What does the Bill aim to do, specifically?

Licencing & management of regulated sites
  • The Welsh Government will regulate how applications for licences are made - and the price.
  • The proposed manager of a regulated site will need to pass a "fit and proper persons test", and either be the person in control of a site, or an employee of someone with control of a site.
  • Licences last for up to 4-5 years, and will be renewable after that, with temporary extensions of up to 3 months available.
  • Licences can be revoked when a person breaches the condition of a licence, is no longer considered a "fit and proper person", or would be unlikely to be granted a licence were it up for renewal.
  • Licence holders will have a right to appeal.
  • The Welsh Government will be able to set codes of practice, and have the power to ensure there are proper management practices in place.
  • "Site rules" need to be submitted with licence applications. Changes to these site rules need to be consulted with residents.

Licencing authorities
  • Local authorities will become the "site licencing agencies" for mobile home sites, with the possibility of collaboration with other authorities.
  • Licencing authorities will be given the power of entry for matters related to licencing.
  • Licencing authorities will decide how many mobile homes can be put on a site.
  • Local authorities will need to keep a register of regulated site licences.

Offences
  • Failing to obtain a licence when it's a requirement
  • Stationing too many homes on a regulated site than permitted by a licence
  • Failure to, or preventing someone from, complying with licencing conditions
  • Preventing an authorised person entering the site (power of entry)
  • Operating unlicensed regulated sites.

Offenders can be punished by up to £5,000 fine in a Magistrate's Court, or an unlimited fine in a Crown Court case. For blocking the power of entry, it's a fine of up to £2,500. Site owners who sell mobile homes or collect pitch fees on unlicensed sites can be ordered to repay any pitch fees or costs incurred. In some cases, a fixed penalty notice may be given.

Sale and purchase of mobile homes


Site operators rent a pitch, but the owner of the mobile home owns the home.

If mobile home owners want to sell their home, they need to seek site owner approval of the new purchaser. Some site operators have "blocked" sales this way, and it's been one of the primary complaints leading to this Bill. Site owners are also entitled to a commission on sales – up to 10% of sale price. It's said that pitch fees would rise by 22% if the commission were removed – so it stays.

However, in this Bill:
  • New owners will no longer need to be approved by the site operator
  • BUT sales/transfers of pitch agreements cannot go ahead until the site operator receives their commission.

Other
  • Joint-owned mobile homes can be taken over by a person for which it's their primary residence.
  • Site owners cannot pass on any costs relating to this Bill via pitch fees.
  • Home owners will be able to make any external or internal modifications to their home, as long as the modifications don't breach any terms of agreement. Permission by site owners cannot be "unreasonably withheld".
  • Unless there's agreement between home owners and site operators, a mobile home cannot be moved without a Residential Property Tribunal unless it's "urgent" (i.e landslip).

Effects of the Bill

The benefits are said to include:
  • A simplified legal process, and making licencing easier to monitor.
  • Result in actual savings for local authorities in enforcing licences in the long-term.
  • Improve standards at sites (obvious).
  • Elderly residents being coerced out of their mobile home should be reduced.
  • Residents won't be faced with picking up the costs for the new scheme via increased pitch fees.

Some of the potential pitfalls are said to be:
  • Banks might be unlikely to led to sites where there's a fixed-term pitch.
  • The extra costs placed on park owners, hitting profitability.

It's said that the financial costs of the Bill are "dependant on how and when the powers are implemented." The initial cost of setting up the scheme, at all levels of government and the site owners, is estimated to be £463,000 – including a one-off £270,000 bill for the Welsh Government. The scheme should cost around £83,000 per year to run after that, with most of that falling on the licencing authorities (local councils).

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Fifty years, thirteen days, one relieved planet

                    


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which, arguably, is the closest the world has come to nuclear war.

The actual US naval blockade of Cuba didn't end until November 1962, but October 28th was when Nikita Khrushchev ordered the dismantling of missile equipment on Cuba, in exchange for US/NATO doing the same in Italy and Turkey.

You can certainly argue - and I agree - that nuclear weapons have kept a peace, but not the peace, since the 50s. It's maintained a balance between the geo-political big players, which meant that direct confrontation between them is/was unlikely.

But pity you if you live in one of the little countries. The two superpowers/superblocs of the Cold War oversaw proxy wars in : Vietnam, Guatemala, Angola, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Grenada, Nicaragua and El Salvador. So "Cold War" is a bit of a misnomer. "Tepid War", or "Oooh, it's a bit hot War" would be more accurate.

You could argue there were fewer deaths as the result of these proxy wars than if the US and Soviet Union went toe to toe - conventional or nuclear. I think it's safe to say that if they had, I, and most of you reading this, wouldn't be here. And if you were - sucks to be you.

Nuclear war isn't the immediate existential threat it was in the 1980s, but since 1962 we've had countless "minor" brushes:
  • January 1968 – A US B-52 crashed in Greenland, setting off an indicator that a successful nuclear attack had taken place.
  • October 1973 – The American government believed the Soviet Union was going to intervene on behalf of the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War, and moved their forces to DEFCON 3. The Soviets picked up these troop/plane movements. A alarm was accidentally sounded at an air force base in Michigan during the tensions, and B-52s were ready to take off....until it was recognised as a false alarm.
  • November 1979 – A full scale missile attack against the US was picked up at all major command posts. No attempt was made to contact the Soviets via the "hot line" established post-Cuban Missile Crisis, and a number of jets were launched. It turns out a drill was accidentally running on the computers. There was, apparently, "panic".
  • June 1980 – A computer chip malfunction showed a missile attack against the US, and bombers were prepped to take off.
  • September 1983 - Early warning alarms were set off in the USSR, but the Soviet commander in charge, Stanislav Petrov, deemed the "attack" a false alarm. It turns out it was sunrays reflecting off satellites. He was never rewarded for his actions.
  • November 1983 – During an NATO military exercise (Able Archer), the Soviets believed that the exercise was real preparation for an attack (due to unrelated ciphered messages between the UK and the US), and readied their nuclear forces to launch a first strike. Soviet fears only subsided once Able Archer finished.
  • January 1995 – A Norwegian weather research rocket was picked up by Russian early warning systems as a possible missile launch. Boris Yeltsin and his defence staff were informed, and the Russian military went into "combat mode", until it was found that the "missile" would miss Russian territory.
  • May 1999 – Pakistan made a specific threat that they would use nuclear/WMD's if the Kargil War extended, following nuclear tests in 1998.
  • June 2002 – An meteor exploded over the Mediterranean during the height of tensions between India and Pakistan. If it had exploded over south Asia, it would've been indistinguishable from a nuclear first strike.

The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibits all use of nuclear weapons within the signatories jurisdiction. Only India, Pakistan and North Korea have tested nuclear weapons since. The last UK nuclear test was in 1991.

Iran signed the treaty, but never ratified it - along with China, Egypt, Israel and the United States. Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Syria have neither signed nor ratified it.

Would an attack on Iranian conventional
nuclear facilities constitute a "nuclear attack"?
(Pic : Telegraph)

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – supporting disarmament, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy – was signed or ratified by practically every nation in the World, except India, Israel and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew.

Having two ideologically opposed blocs provided the world with a sense of certainty in many respects. Since the end of the Cold War, we've seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, greater European integration, the emergence of China as a superpower and the coming of age of India and Brazil.

The key difference between then and now, is that for all their faults, the US and Soviet Union were kept in check because they have/had measured leaders (obvious exceptions aside). Only a psychopath would've willingly started a nuclear conflict. The doctrine of "Mutually Assured Destruction" works in that respect between superpowers, or superblocs. But now there's another threat.

Learning from the Soviet example, the despotic, unstable and paranoid regimes that have emerged since, saw that to be taken seriously at an international level – or since the 1990s, taken seriously the US - you needed to have nuclear weapons, or the means to develop them.

Instead of having that sense of balance, we now have regimes and terrorist groups with no real fear of "Mutually Assured Destruction". They might even welcome it, or don't comprehend what it would actually entail. Those regimes might be willing to sell or develop nuclear weapons, just to give the Americans (or someone else) a bloody nose, and prove how mighty and strong their regime is. Or they could simply fall into the wrong hands through lax security.

It's no surprise that you also have faded powers, like the UK and France, feeling inadequate. They try to cling on to some sense of glory/prestige by maintaining a notionally independent nuclear deterrent. Though - in practice - these would be part of a US-led nuclear umbrella, which is still relevant due to Russia, and Iran developing missiles that could be capable of hitting European targets.

As opposed to a nuclear holocaust, the threat of a "nuclear attack" is quite real. An expanded definition could include an attack on a nuclear facility (the Israeli-Iranian standoff), a single radiological device/"dirty bomb" or smaller tactical nuclear weapons deployed in an urban area.

You could have thousands of "nuclear deterrents" and it cannot - in any way - protect you from that threat. The only deterrent is good counter-espionage and counter-terrorism.

So, what's the point of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era?

You could, perhaps, justify regional/co-operative nuclear umbrellas. You could even say that nuclear weapons would play a role in protecting the planet from extra-terrestrial threats like meteors. But even then, it still wouldn't justify them being in the hands of single nation-states. There's no fail safe, other than hoping they aren't governed by a psychopath, and no nation state should have that power over - quite literally - the life and death of everything.

You also have to question how expensive they are to develop and maintain, and why they would be used.

If they were used, it would be nothing more than an act of revenge against an equally destructive "first-strike." So instead of losing, whatever was left would be able to call it a draw. Whoop-de-doo.
Now I wonder what the billions of pounds - that will almost certainly - be spent on a Trident replacement could do if it were invested in the UK's conventional forces.

Maybe those being made redundant would have a decent pension to look forward to. Maybe service personnel seriously injured in Iraq and Afghanistan would be getting the latest, ground-breaking artificial limbs. Maybe they would get the latest equipment so prevent casualties in the first place.

Maybe the money could be spent on something more immediate, like boosting infrastructure or even deficit reduction. Maybe we wouldn't have seen the Jones Big Ass Nuke Rental & Storage brain fart. "You gotta sub, I got space."

Carl Sagan certainly wasn't too chuffed about our prospects
post-nuclear war. See the link opposite for more details.
(Pic : Scienceblogs.com)

It's worth getting an idea of what a nuclear attack on the UK would (have) look(ed) like - and what our taxes are going to be spent on to enable the UK Government to do in our name. There's a valuable tool for this.

It's a little outdated now, but it's an optimistic, upbeat tale of struggle against the odds and the enduring human spirit and all that rubbish. A true family-friendly exploration of the issue of nuclear weapons. Includes mild peril. Suitable for young children and insomniacs. Don't worry, there's a happy ending for all to cherish. Threads can be watched for free here.

I was disgusted by the lack of Union Flags and bulldog blitz spirit shown.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists publishes changes to the "Doomsday Clock", where midnight equates to the destruction of humanity. It isn't always, but usually is, related to nuclear weapons.

At the end of the Cold War – 1991 – the doomsday clock was at 17 minutes to midnight.

In 2012, it was 5 minutes to midnight.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Three proposed school changes for Bridgend

The process of school modernisation continues in Bridgend County, and three significant ones have emerged in the least few weeks and months (Items 14,15 & 16). Bridgend Council's cabinet have released the results of consultations on the three.

To BCBC's credit, and to the shame of other rather backward, repressive and dictatorial regimes in Wales at the moment, they've even included transcripts of the consultation meetings.

Unrelated - but possibly affecting this - Parents for Welsh Medium Education (RhAG) recently re-established a branch for Bridgend, and are looking to assess parental demand for WM education in the area, as the existing (four) WM primary schools in the county are oversubscribed.

Coety Primary


As you probably know, there's a 1,500-home "urban village" (Parc Derwen) currently being constructed on the outskirts of Coity to the north east of Bridgend town. When the development brief for Parc Derwen was approved, there was a condition, agreed with developers, that as soon as ~300 homes were constructed, a new school would need to be provided on the site.

I'm not sure if that condition could be interpreted to include the relocation of Coety Primary, which is what BCBC have decided. As an interim measure, Coety Primary is being temporarily expanded to provide schooling for pupils resident on Parc Derwen. I think there's about 200 completed homes at the moment, with another 200 or so awaiting planning approval.

So, the existing Coety Primary will close, and move to a larger school at Parc Derwen, which will open circa September 2015. The report says that BCBC have an agreement in principle on funding a new school with the Welsh Government.

BCBC's consultation was ultimately about how big that new school needs to be. The existing Coety Primary is a small village school of around 150 pupils. The new school will be a significant urban EM primary with the capacity for around 480 pupils.

As you might expect, there are concerns about moving pupils and staff from a small school to a large school. There were also concerns raised about a "Maes-yr-Haul situation" developing (explained later), but the Parc Derwen development is capped at 1,500 houses.

Ysgol Bryn Castell & Pupil Referral Unit



Ysgol Bryn Castell is one of Bridgend's two SEN schools, currently based in Cefn Glas in a rather run down, 1950s-60s building. The county's Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) is based on a small site in Aberkenfig.

Ogmore Ynysawdre comprehensives merged to form Coleg Cymunedol Y Dderwen, and are in the process of moving to a new campus, which is currently under construction, and due to open September 2013.

The Ogmore Comprehensive school site, in Brynmenyn, has subsequently become vacant. BCBC intend to move Ysgol Bryn Castell and the PRU there in Sep. 2014 , after some building modifications (estimated to cost £3.5million). Many Ysgol Bryn Castell pupils live closer to the Ogmore site anyway, and the consultation says pupils are "excited" by the prospect of a move. Modern sports facilities in the area, such as Ynysawdre swimming pool, are also highlighted as a plus point.

Both would remain separate institutions, with some segregation between the two, but share the site. There were concerns raised that surplus playing fields at Ogmore could be disposed of, and the possibility of staff redundancies.

It's also unclear what would happen to the existing Ysgol Bryn Castell site. The consultation responses state it's "likely to be sold off", but that it isn't "prime land". I presume it would be used for housing in the medium term. I also think it could be a potential site of a second WM primary in Bridgend town itself, to take pressure off the EM schools in west Bridgend (like Maes-yr-Haul), and Ysgol Bro Ogwr. I'm sure once there are any sort of concrete plans, they'll be covered on Syniadau.

Bryntirion Juniors merger with Llangewydd Juniors


I don't know how, or why, this happened, but Bryntirion Juniors and Llangewydd Juniors are two separate schools that currently share the same site. That, in itself, seems strange to me, and this merger must've been on the cards some considerable time, surely? I'm surprised it's taken this long, to be frank.

Bryntirion Juniors' intake is from Bryntirion Infants, while Llangewydd's are from Cefn Glas Infants. Once merged, both infants schools would feed into the new Llangewydd Junior.

Bryntrion Juniors have been praised by Estyn for their work with pupils with additional learning needs, but pupil numbers have fallen far enough for BCBC to press forward with a merger. BCBC say it would save £93,000. Bryntirion Juniors is also said to have a budget deficit, but, suspiciously, no similar figures have been released for Llangewydd Junior. This deficit will carry over to the new school.

They argue that 315 pupils on roll isn't enough to split between two schools, and compared to other schools in the county, BCBC are right. They only have funding for one teacher per 29 pupils, but shutting a school is an emotive issue wherever you are.

By law you cannot merge schools (the Welsh Government's School Organisation Bill is making some changes here, but it won't be passed by the Assembly until at least 2013). So, Bryntirion Juniors has to close completely. It means all of Bryntirion Junior's staff will be made redundant and have to re-apply for any new roles that arise at Llangewydd.

There have been concerns about "loss of identity", and the fact there'll be a Bryntirion Comprehensive, Bryntirion Infants, but no Bryntirion Junior. Llangewydd's governors are reported to be considering a re-branding.

There were also questions raised about Maes-yr-Haul Primary. That school became oversubscribed as twice the number of houses were built at Broadlands than originally planned for. Pupils in the north-west of Broadlands will now have to go to Trelales Primary in Laleston in future. Some wonder why the excess weren't transferred to Bryntirion Juniors to boost pupil numbers which is, in some cases, closer than Trelales, and safer to reach.

Monday, 22 October 2012

AWEMA - No Taffioso deals, but some questions unanswered

Last Thursday, the Wales Audit Office published their long-awaited report into AWEMA, following the charity's liquidation. More on this at : National Left, Jac o' the North, Peter Black AM, A Change of Personnel, Inside Out, Betsan Powys and Gareth Hughes.

Firstly, we need to get the Labour issue out of the way. The report found no evidence of outright political interference, saying that although "the full basis of some of the Welsh Government's funding decisions were unclear" there was little evidence of "inappropriate ministerial involvement." (p31)

By that, they mean there were no deals in smoky rooms, or ministers going out of their way – on record - to accommodate Naz Malik. In fact, AWEMA didn't always get what they asked for.

The report highlights who was responsible for what over the period (Appendix 5). Three names feature prominently throughout - Jane Hutt, Carl Sargeant & Edwina Hart – with a few others, such as Carwyn Jones, Sue Essex, Brian Gibbons and Andrew Davies playing minor roles. Also, between 2007-2011, Ieuan Wyn Jones played a significant role as minister responsible for the European funding , but his name doesn't feature as often.

So, this was a primarily Labour-led systemic failure, but neither Plaid, nor the Lib Dems (Mike German's brief involvement circa 2000-2001 & Lib Dem AWEMA trustees), come out of this completely smelling of roses (heh).

Welsh Labour conspiracy theories are entertaining – no doubt harbouring truths - but a scandal would have to be really big and bad to make an impact. It also distracts from the key issue – poor governance. The way to dent a party's credibility, is that when they're crap at the job they're elected to do, it gets reported as widely as possible.

On that, the findings were more damning. You could sum up the rest of the report in one sentence : In handling AWEMA, the Welsh Government, parts of the European Funding Office and civil service have been vain, disorganised and shown poor leadership.

Vain - The report says that the Welsh Government's equalities unit issued advice to Jane Hutt and Rhodri Morgan that they were worried about the "impact on the Welsh Government's reputation among....minority ethnic groups, were it to cease funding AWEMA." (p40)

When the wider scandal broke in 2011, and the organisation's existence was threatened, AWEMA  did play the race card. So civil service warnings were, perhaps, vindicated. So what? Fearing the reactions to "controversial" decisions is no way to run a government or civil service. It's vanity. To quote The Thick of It from the weekend, "This is the result of a political class that's given up on morality and simply pursues popularity at all costs."

Disorganised – The report highlights major errors in grant funding, citing lack of stability in the equalities unit, and brushing aside the findings of a specially commissioned report. Edwina Hart wasn't even sent a submission about new funding arrangements, despite commissioning the review in the first place and being responsible for funding (p41).

The equalities unit "did not rigorously follow up concerns about AWEMA's governance arrangements" for a period of five years (2005-2010) and didn't take allegations, by the chair and acting chair in 2007, into consideration. The European Funding Office had no concerns about AWEMA's EU projects, but "didn't apply sufficient rigour in monitoring these projects."

Poor leaders – The Welsh Government were warned no fewer than eight times between 2000-2011 about AWEMA (Appendix 3), including former Plaid AM, Dai Lloyd and Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) as recently as 2010.

The Welsh Government were satisfied with many of AWEMA's projects, but too lazy in monitoring them – a recurring theme. They didn't respond to specific allegations, had poor communication between departments, failed to follow-up concerns or "get to the heart of issues" when concerns were raised. (p71-72)

The report says that "management of....funding to AWEMA by the Welsh Government....has often been poor." There's praise, however, for how the Welsh Government reacted in 2011 .Shame it couldn't have been said earlier.

It's also unclear how much this has cost. Direct payments from the Welsh Government totalled £7.15million between 2000-2011. The Welsh Government claimed a debt owed to them of around £900,000. AWEMA disputed this, and the figure was reduced to around £545,000. Naz Malik denied there were any missing funds on ITVWales' Sharp End. It's unlikely AWEMA's creditors - including the Welsh Government - will see any of that money again.

Some important questions remain partially, or wholly, unanswered. So this hasn't been flushed yet.

Bethan Jenkins pressed Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) to release documents from the equalities unit, to little avail. The change of Permanent Secretary might be a legitimate excuse for that, and might delay backbench AMs getting answers too.

We partially know why funding kept going to AWEMA – the Welsh Government/civil service didn't want to be accused of racism – but it's worth hearing the reasons from the ministers themselves. We now, also, have a good idea about who was involved. Will we get any apologies?

Other issues and questions I don't think have been satisfactorily cleared up include:
  • What were the precise failings which resulted in the answer to the (2006) written question by Dai Lloyd and Peter Black AM being "incomplete and inaccurate"?
  • Why, despite concerns raised in the 2004-05 report, was funding to AWEMA increased in subsequent years?
  • Why did the Welsh Government "fail to act" in response to the 2007 accusations from the acting chair and vice-chair of AWEMA?
  • What, precisely, did the Charities Commission do in relation to the 2007 allegations?
  • Where are the Home Office  records relating to their £346,000 grants to AWEMA?
  • What was particular about the 2011 disclosures that convinced the Welsh Government to act compared to prior warnings?
  • What actions are the Welsh Government and civil service taking to prevent this from happening again?

It's been reported that several urgent questions have been submitted for tomorrow, and today, the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee heard that the Welsh Government had "no way of highlighting that AWEMA was high risk." I think it's time ministers were upfront, or lines will never be drawn under this.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Independence Minutiae : The National Lottery

Nah. Odds are it probably won't be.
But what would happen to the lottery post-independence?
(Pic : Richard Olive Animation)

What is the National Lottery?

"Betting, gaming and lotteries" are reserved powers to Westminster in the Scotland Act 1998, so could be considered another non-devolved matter that Wales would take responsibility for post-independence.

Although general policy with regard gambling and betting is worthy of a more lengthy post at a later date (it took me 4 and a half years, but I eventually got round to it - Vice Nation: Gambling), the National Lottery is the single most significant feature within this category, so I'm looking at it separately.

The National Lottery was established by the Conservative UK Government in 1994. It was the first truly "national" lottery, as before 1994, only smaller, local, lotteries were permissible. Camelot Group were the private company awarded the National Lottery franchise, and have successfully retained that franchise ever since.

One of the more important features of the National Lottery, is the Big Lottery Fund, which raises about £600million to distribute to "good causes" annually.

How does it work currently?

There are numerous games, which generally cost £1 per turn. Roughly 28p in every £1 spent goes to good causes. Around 45p goes to the prize fund itself, with the bulk of that going to the jackpot winner(s). Winnings are tax-free.

You have to be aged 16 or over to play the games, and you can be of any nationality to purchase a National Lottery ticket (though online games are restricted to UK bank account holders only). These rules also apply to syndicates.

You all know how the main feature draws work. You select a series of numbers, which are then chosen at random. Depending on the numbers/sequence of numbers you match, you win a varied cash prize. The main jackpot is usually worth several million pounds, "rolling over" to the following week if no-one wins. Prizes have to be claimed within 180 days of the draw, or the money goes to good causes.

Scratchcards have different rules depending on which one you buy, but usually involve matching symbols/numbers etc.

The National Lottery is regulated by the National Lottery Commission quango, who in turn answer to the UK Department of Culture, Media & Sport.

EuroMillions and the independence debate

The EuroMillions game successfully operates across nine
sovereign nation-states and three different currencies.
(Pic : BBC)

The EuroMillions game, launched in 2004 by lottery operators in France, Spain and the UK, not only operates in nine different nation-states (UK, Rep. Ireland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, Spain & Portugal) but in three different currencies (Pound sterling, Euro and Swiss Franc).The jackpot prizes tend to be huge, running into tens of millions of Euros.

The costs to play differ depending on currency. Due to exchange rates, it's slightly more expensive to play in the UK (£2 per turn) than the Eurozone members (€2, which is currently around £1.60) but it's roughly the same as the Swiss franc (CHF3 per turn = £2).

There's also pan-national lotteries operating in the Nordic and Baltic countries (Viking Lotto) and the bulk of the rest of the EU nations, such as Germany, Italy, Finland, Netherlands (Eurojackpot). Lotteries, based on this evidence, operate quite flexibly across international borders.

So there's no reason - in principle - why a pan-Great Britain/British Isle lottery, couldn't continue as currently.

The issues that would need to be sorted out would be :
  • Regulation – All of the member states of the (Post)National Lottery would presumably want some say in the regulation of the games. There would probably need to be harmonised legislation.
  • Currency – What would the prices to play be if currencies changed in respective member nations? If Wales or Scotland joined the Euro/created a separate currency, would we pay less/more?
  • Distribution of good cause money – Probably the most contentious issue. Would money for good causes be distributed on a needs basis (meaning Wales might get slightly more)? Or on a geographical basis (a guaranteed ~5% [£30million]) for Wales annually, based on current figures?

Creating and regulating Welsh lotteries


As something of a left-libertarian, I'm in favour of liberalised laws/regulations in areas such as gambling, alcohol licencing, the sex industry and drug laws. All those things I'll address in more detail at later dates, but it's worth looking at how "Welsh" lotteries could work.

Alongside the National Lottery, you have to remember there are also smaller "national" ones like the People's Postcode Lottery and the Health Lottery.

There's no reason a "Welsh National Lottery" couldn't be set up, while at the same time, enabling people to play the (Post)National Lottery.

The prizes would likely be much smaller. However, with prospectively fewer players, the chances of rollovers would increase and you might – statistically – have an improved chance of winning. Personally, I would prefer a smaller jackpot prize – perhaps capped at around £500,000 (or equivalent) - with a greater spread of winnings for matching fewer balls if there's a rollover.

Also, any "good cause" money could be spent entirely in Wales. Though, once again, we're likely to be talking small sums – single-figure millions – but every little helps. Lotteries are a fun way of raising an idiot tax small amounts for the national coffers too.

Perhaps the public can vote on, for arguments sake, 3-5 Welsh-based charities, that would receive an equal split of the "good cause" money raised by any Welsh National Lottery for the whole year. We would also be able to decide/regulate how and why that money is used, an issue raised by Syniadau a few days ago.

Lotteries are (sometimes) a good way to raise funds for smaller projects too. Bridgend Ravens run a lottery for example. I don't see any reason why this would change. Regulation, post-independence, should ensure lotteries are carried out fairly, but I wouldn't like to see regulations overburden small organisations so much that it prevents them using lotteries to raise cash.

So, what would the National Lottery look like post-independence?

It's likely to be the same. The bigger issue is whether you'll be using Pounds Sterling, Euros, Bunnoedd Cymreig or local currencies to purchase the tickets. I'll be looking at that issue another time. I've already said that the gambling age should be 16 across the board, so I doubt there would be any change there.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were a "Welsh National Lottery" alongside the existing games, operating similarly to the Irish National Lottery, but with significantly smaller prizes (but also, perhaps, a greater chance of winning). It might, with time, gradually overtake the pan-British lottery as the "main"/"feature" lottery in Wales.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Communities First - Past, Present & Future

Hat tip to Valleys Mam. Although everyone is no doubt focusing on AWEMA at the moment, I'll be looking at that next week.

What is Communities First?

The First Assembly decided concrete action needed
to be taken to tackle deprivation, but had to do so within
their limited powers.
(Pic : cpghr.com)
Every three years or so, an audit's carried out to determine how deprived council wards in Wales are compared to one another across several indicators, including : health, employment, access to services, education and housing - the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation. Similar surveys are carried out in the rest of the UK.

Communities First was established by Rhodri Morgan's government during the First Assembly between 2001-2002. It was set up to tackle deprivation in the 100 most deprived council wards in Wales, which has risen to around 150 today.


The overarching aim, was to provide a "bottom up" way for these communities to combat poverty, by allowing them to take strategic decisions at a local level themselves, using a set pot of money distributed by the Welsh Government.

Around £300million has been spent by successive Welsh Governments, and roughly £40million annually, since Communities First was established. It remains one of the more memorable flagship policies of Welsh Labour since devolution.

The Assembly circa 2001-2002 was a different beast. This sort of thing was, largely, the extent of the Assembly's powers – they could only administrate and make slight changes. Considering that context, Communities First was quite ambitious.


In many respects, it's a little government's big idea.

However, you could argue that - while it's done some good things - it's an example of everything that's gone wrong in Welsh public policy since devolution.

How does it operate?


Communities First areas are designated by the Welsh Government and local authorities. Sometimes they encompass entire council wards, but more often that not, they'll consist of deprived parts within wards called Local Super Output Areas (LSOA's). These could be a rundown housing estate, a former mining village or a deprived area within a wealthy ward.

Communities First Partnerships oversee the scheme at community level. These are specialist community regeneration teams, who coordinate projects and provide a level of professionalism. They're supposed to anyway.

The Welsh Government oversees a Communities First Trust Fund, which provides grants and loans to the Communities First Partnerships for projects in their areas.

For example, the funds could be use for : local litter clean-ups, equipment, environmental schemes, sports schemes, food co-ops, job matching schemes or to fund other unrelated community groups. Locals would come up with an idea, or an issue, and the Communities First Partnership would bring the right people and organisations together, source the funding, and make something happen.

A
s deprived areas gain a greater sense of control over their own communities, they might take more pride in themsevles and community. They might find a job, seek out help they need, or re-skill – knowing they'll get Communities First support and minimal interference from Welsh and local governments, neither of which they might necessarily trust.
Positives & Negatives
One big plus from Communities First has been improvements
to the physical environment of some communities.
(Pic : Communities First Llangeinor)

Most of this is based on anecdotal evidence, but I believe most of it would stand up under closer scrutiny.

Positives
  • It's made a noticeable difference – I live next to a Communities First area in one ward, and there's also a Communities First area within my own council ward. The physical changes in ten years are, in some cases, quite remarkable.
  • It's given some pride back – Some of the people in these communities who worked with Communities First Partnerships are now local or community councillors, or have run for office. I do think the scheme has given people a sense of ownership – if still reliant on the Welsh Government.
  • It's impacted crime – The area I live near to was once a very run down, drug-ridden estate with serious problems. It's still has problems, but thanks to things like Communities First, the residents stand up to criminals a lot more now. Things like drug offences and anti-social behaviour are treated more seriously, and a level of trust has built up between residents and the police/authorities that wasn't there before.
  • It's improved the environment at community level – This has been one of the big plus points, in particular work with the likes of Groundwork, Tidy Towns and Keep Wales Tidy.

Negatives
  • It's open to corruption/cronyism – There are well known cases at Plas Madoc (Wrexham) and now in the Cynon Valley too. That's not to say the whole thing should be judged by a few isolated cases, but personally, I think it's the tip of the iceberg. There seems to be very little oversight, and the Partnerships – if they wanted to – could become a cliquey law unto themselves.
  • It's "top down", just at a lower level – Communities First schemes are ultimately led by "missionaries", spreading the good word of the Welsh Government. They usually have small teams of administrators and coordinators. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I wonder how much money and effort has been spent administering the scheme instead of on outcomes?
  • It spreads funds thinly - £40million a year spread between 140-150 areas works out at roughly £260,000. Take away the costs of employing the staff mentioned above (for arguments sake, four people earning an average of £16,000 per year) and that falls to £196,000. It's not as clear cut as that, obviously. The Welsh Government are changing this (see further down), but I'm willing to bet most local authorities spend that on pavement repairs each year.
  • It hasn't tackled many of its core aims – Time to investigate that further....

The wider issue : Does it work?

Communities First was set up to work towards the "strategic outcomes":
  • Prosperous communities
  • Learning communities
  • Healthier communities

There are no definitions of what would constitute "success" here. If you go by raw deprivation figures (2005, 2008, 2011), the answer to the question has to be no.


The areas are, generally, as deprived now as they were when the scheme started. However, thing have improved in a few cases. Butetown was the most deprived council ward in Wales in 2005, it's now "fallen" to 68th (so it's still amongst the most deprived wards). Very few areas have come out of Communities First after ten years.

The same names crop up year after year at the top : Rhyl West & Rhyl South West (Denbighshire), St James (Caerphilly), Gurnos (Merthyr Tydfil), Riverside (Cardiff), Townhill (Swansea), Tylorstown & Penrhiwceiber (RCT), Pillgwenlly (Newport)....

In Bridgend, you have : Caerau, Sarn, Blackmill, Llangeinor, Bettws, Morfa (Wildmill Estate) and Cornelly – joined in 2008 by Brackla (Meadows Estate). Of these, only Blackmill and Llangeinor have made noticeable progress on the deprivation index.

Ten local authorities had more than half their LSOA's in the 50% most deprived areas of Wales in 2008. Four (RCT, NPT, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent) had more than 70%. This hasn't changed in 2011, and I'm willing to bet it hasn't changed much since 2005. In fact, probably due to the recession, the situation has worsened in some authorities.

Things like education attainment levels have improved - the numbers leaving school without qualifications have fallen. That's likely down to national initiatives, not Communities First.

Maybe ten years just isn't enough time, or maybe the Welsh Government's flagship anti-poverty scheme just isn't working. The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee found in February 2010, that Communities First "wasn't providing value for money", criticised the lack of leadership from the top (which it wasn't supposed to do anyway, in fairness) and the lack of progress indicators.

Like many measures to tackle Wales' big issues, Communities First looks like another well-meaning initiative, that promises a lot, but perhaps wasn't set up the right way to do its job. Another tinker measure, from a government of tinkerers.

What's Communities First's future?

The Plas Madoc scandal in Wrexham has been symptomatic of some
of the problems relating to Communities First, which the Welsh Government
now hopes to tackle.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

The Welsh Government undertook a review of the scheme between 2011-2012.
Communities First areas will be clustered, so they cover larger areas and larger populations (up to 15,000), creating economies of scale. The idea is that management structures will be simplified, there'll be stricter guidelines to receive funding from the Welsh Government ( i.e.better delivery plans, guaranteed positive outcomes) and they're going to take other factors other than the deprivation index into account (i.e. school & hospital performance, rural sparsity).

I think the Welsh Government have realised, perhaps pushed by the Plas Madoc scandal, that Communities First couldn't continue as it was. I wouldn't be surprised if the scheme is re-branded post-2015, or leadership handed over to local authorities. Labour are unlikely to admit defeat on this, opening them up to claims that they've wasted up to £300million of public money, which would be harsh - they tried at least - but accurate.

I think there's a quiet acceptance that it hasn't worked out as planned. The new proposals will reduce administration and promote more "joined up thinking" between Welsh Government, local government and various public bodies. I'm not sure that would make that much of a difference.

The only other proposal to match Communities First's aims, so far, has been Leanne Wood's Greenprint. On paper, they sound similar.

The difference between Communities First and the Greenprint, in my opinion, is that Leanne has been specific in the Greenprint's goals (communities benefiting from the green economy), and sees potential from a co-operative and perhaps an entrepreneurial perspective - not just an anti-poverty measure.

The Greenprint seems more "permanent and self-sustaining", while Communities First is always going to be reliant on Welsh and Local Government for funds, and "appointed experts" for leadership.

I think, if there's going to be a replacement for Communities First post-2015, the Welsh Government (whatever the colour), would do well to take some of those points on board.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Draft Road Safety Plan for Wales


The Welsh Government are reviewing speed limits on trunk roads,
and are encouraging local authorities to do the same for their roads.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Local Government and Communities Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), recently launched the Welsh Government's Draft Road Safety Plan. A consultation on the proposals is out, and responses are due by 13th December 2012.

One area successive Welsh Governments can point to success is road safety – or more specifically, reducing road casualties. Wales now has some of the safest roads, not just in the UK, not just in Europe, but on the planet.

The draft plan sets the open-ended, but ambitious, target of zero road fatalities "in the future". They say it should be a "government aspiration to tackle avoidable deaths." It's hard to disagree with that.

The plan itself

The Welsh Goverment have successfully smashed every single one of their 2010 targets. For example, in terms of "slight casualties", they saw a 40% reduction, when they targeted 10%. Despite occasional spikes in road deaths (2003, 2004 and 2011 stand out as bad years) it's a downward trend across the board.

They want to "learn lessons from both successful and unsuccessful activities", with improvements in monitoring the effectiveness of things like road safety campaigns (which are not always measurable).

The Welsh Government and police will lead things at the national level, while regional transport consortia lead things at a regional & local level through road safety partnerships.

Areas of concern

Motorcyclists

Motorcyclists are said to account for "1% of road traffic, but 39% of fatalities and seriously injured." The plan says that most of them are "men, riding during the summer months."


I think everyone in Wales will attest for that. Although Powys is likely to be the hotspot, I've seen some really bad motorcycling, even in Bridgend. I don't know if it's a false sense of security amongst day-trippers - that it's "only Wales, therefore it can't hurt you" - or complacency on familiar roads.

Other road users don't help matters either. The report says that "motorcyclists aren't necessarily at fault for collisions they're involved in". It's the whole "Think Bike" thing, and it's probably poor driving that accounts for many (pedal) cyclist casualties too.

Young drivers

Young people (16-24 y.o) are said to be "disproportionately at risk of being killed or seriously injured....making up 23% of casualties in 2011." However, the numbers of young drivers involved in collisions fell by 41% compared to the 1994-98 average.

The Welsh Government already part-subsidises Pass Plus Cymru, a post-driving test course, that covers more advanced practical handling and theory.

Vulnerable road users

This includes : older drivers (70 y.o.+), children, pedestrians and cyclists.

Wales will have proportionately more older drivers in the future. Accidents involving older drivers are increasing too. However, the Welsh Government doesn't want to take older drivers off the road, only provide better assessments. They note the "independence a car gives them."

There's been a "significant reduction in the number of children killed/seriously injured in the last decade". The focus with regard children is, unsurprisingly, on road safety education and safer school transport. The Assembly passed the Learner Travel Measure in 2008 and the Safety on Learner Transport Measure in 2011, which set standards of behaviour on school buses, and will make seat belts compulsory on school buses from 2014. This is in addition to Safe Routes to School.


Although pedestrian casualties have fallen, they still account for 21% of all road casualties. Cyclist casualties increased in 2011 - and I've mentioned that before (Getting Wales on its bike). The aim here, is to improve matters through legislation – the Active Travel Bill – which I'll cover in more detail when introduced in the Senedd. Road workers and people driving for work are also included, when they're often overlooked. 11 people were killed/seriously injured whilst working on Welsh motorways or A roads between 2005-2011.

The Welsh Government want to achieve, by 2020 :
  • A 40% reduction in serious road casualties and fatalities
  • A 25% reduction in the number of motorcyclists killed/seriously injured
  • A 40% reduction in the number of young drivers killed/seriously injured

Judging by their performance to date, they might yet do it, or even exceed it. It's very rarely you can say that.

Prevention

The Welsh Government favour reducing the legal drink drive limit, but they have no powers over that. Personally, I'd prefer a zero-tolerance approach - where you get reduced points/fine/mandatory training course - if you've been drinking but aren't over the limit. Unfortunately, roadside testing for drug-driving is in its infancy.


The Welsh Government are reviewing trunk road speed limits, and want local authorities to do the same for A and B roads. They issued new guidance to local authorities in 2009.

Personally, I'd want mandatory 20mph limits outside : schools, care homes, leisure centres and playgrounds. That won't always be appropriate, of course.

The Welsh Government supports UK Government proposals to raise fines for careless driving. Pity they don't want the power to do that themselves.

Despite jumpy headlines at conspiracy sites about bilingual roadsigns causing accidents, it appears the signs themselves are more likely to kill you than what's written on them. These pose a particular risk to motorcyclists. The Welsh Government want to encourage the use of "crash friendly" street furniture (signposts, barriers, lamp posts), which are now de rigueur on the Welsh trunk road network.

The Welsh Government grants, on average, just £10million per year to various road safety authorities. Considering casualty reductions in that time, and the cost savings from accident prevention (i.e. hospital stays, accident investigation), that's excellent value for money.

Conclusions

Would devolved criminal justice powers
make a difference to road safety?
(Pic : Via Flickr)

I'm fortunate enough never to have been involved in a road accident, but I agree that road casualties are avoidable – whether that's through better education, better manufacturing or simply better driving.

Devolution of the criminal justice system could give the Welsh Government a more powerful toolkit to reduce road casualties (I would say that, wouldn't I) by changing penalties for road traffic offences. I've said before that the learning to drive age in Wales should be lowered to 16 (with stricter post-test conditions). I've also suggested that devolving traffic regulations would be another powerful tool.

Having said that, perhaps contradicting myself, I'm personally in favour of having no mandatory speed limit on motorway-standard roads (unless explicitly signed/controlled like the M4 around Newport). I'll look at the road network in relation to independence at a later date.

Car manufacturers, anti drink-driving and anti-speed campaigns as well as strict EU safety guidelines, have all played a critical role in reducing road casualties. Successive Welsh Governments and relevant authorities (such as the police and local authorities), have been too modest about their own contributions.

I don't think there'll be a day where there are zero road fatalities, however the Welsh Government have gone some way to ensure that road deaths are tragic exceptions rather than the norm. For overseeing a dramatic decline in road casualties in such a short time, the Welsh Government and National Assembly should take a bow.

Bethan Jenkins arrest

Due to recent events, the above is probably more satirical (and perhaps darkly humourous) than I intended it to be, but I think this highlights perfectly why I feel let down - especially the last few paragraphs. I'll delete any comment relating to Bethan Jenkins' arrest, or her future, as she hasn't been charged. This is going to be my only say on the matter.

AMs private lives are none of our business, until they make it our business. People are killed or seriously injured because of drink-driving every day. But I'd rather a driver gets arrested (and humiliated) before they hurt anyone else or themselves, than something worse. In the end, thanks to the police, no real harm's been done.

Here's a heads-up for any AMs reading this (if there are any). If any of you die in office, I've got a monochrome banner. I'll turn the site black. I'll find a flattering photo to put in the top right corner. I don't want to do that for a sitting AM because of their own stupidity. Nor do I want to write about AMs sitting in prison cells. I want to stick to good news stories or constructive criticism thank you.

The reason we hold politicians to a higher moral standard, is because they set the moral and legal standards for the rest of us. There are plenty of gunts and beer bellies on display in the Senedd, there are well-documented cases of alcohol problems – this is just the latest. I'm willing to bet quite a few of them are heavy smokers. Some will no doubt have dabbled with narcotics in their past or got up to hi jinks that could be considered criminal.

So they're just like the rest of us then, and maybe we should go lighter on them when they make errors. But the point is, if AMs (and health professionals for that matter) can't take care of themselves, how do they expect the rest of us to take calls for healthier lifestyles seriously?

I've suffered from suspected cyclothymia since I was a teenager. It's mild enough to not seek professional help, but when it's bad – it's bad. Look over my three Green Investment Bank posts and you'll notice it. I know how crippling depression is. During that, and the "high" immediately afterwards, you do things you wouldn't usually do. We allknow that, we just don't like talking about it. The worst thing you can use while depressed is a depressant.

I hope Bethan gets the right support, including from Plaid and the National Assembly, as they have a duty of care. It's still no excuse for what she did, obviously.

The fact she's admitted her wrongdoing, and resigned her portfolio with the minimum of fuss, will stand her in good stead. Speaking personally, for doing that instead of dragging it out she hasn't lost my respect. Despite that, this is a tough lesson that should've been avoided.

Bethan's a politician you want fighting your corner – whether you're Visteon pensioners or trade unionists walking to London to protest cuts. However grave this is, she's strong enough to bounce back.

There's only so many times you can do that though, and for victims of drunk drivers, sometimes you don't get the one chance.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Kings of their castles

Marchons, marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

(Pic : Webbaviation.co.uk)
In the old feudal system, an overlord would grant tenures to a vassal in exchange for loyalty or service, known as a fiefdom. The lord handed this responsibility would become the dominant power within that fiefdom, a system that's only slightly modified today.

Wales is divided into 22 fiefdoms, each with their own feudal baron(ess). That's before you include all the petty fiefdoms : the charities, the third sector bodies, the quangos, the local health boards, the housing associations, the community organisations....

Nobody elects them. Yet they, and other unelected officers, hold real power. Sometimes they command budgets – part or wholly public money – running into tens, if not hundreds, of millions of pounds.

Your elected councillor holds a rubber stamp, and is generally told where and when to stamp it. They do so because what the baron says usually goes.Yessir massa. AMs, MPs, and MEPs have slightly more sway. The Welsh Government generally act on advice they're given by experts and civil servants.

The barons are usually amongst the highest-paid people in government full stop. Sometimes, they might have control over how much they - or relatives/friends who just so happen to be working alongside them - get paid.

We don't know how or why they get the jobs, just that they're (presumably) worth the large salaries because they're (presumably) good at said jobs. That's why, for example, Welsh local authorities, are such bastions of transparency, efficiency and good practice.

You won't notice a good feudal baron. They'll handle public money wisely, they won't try to make a name for themselves by being controversial and they won't upstage the elected (or uncontested) representatives of the little people.

If you do notice them, then it's usually because something's gone horribly wrong.

Once certain actions or motivations cross certain lines, you no longer have a faceless feudal baron. You have a dictator.

Now people might think that a dictatorship is something that happens to entire countries. That isn't necessarily true. "Dictator" just means someone wielding power in an unrestrained manner, whilst being answerable to nobody but themselves – a local authority chief executive for example.

You can elect dictators. You can even have dictators with a friendly face and a benevolent attitude to their people and property. But is a dictator of an entire country, any worse than little dictators in their fiefdoms?

You can have strong dictators, who wield absolute power. You can also have weak dictators, who manipulate events, procedures and political scenarios like a chess grand master.

In many respects, the weak dictators are more dangerous. They have a plausible deniability in what they say or do – a constitution for example. They can argue that anything they do is "constitutional", though usually the constitution is beyond anyone's understanding, and changes depending on the situation. They'll use this to entangle opponents in points of order or due processes.

But both strong and weak dictators display the same characteristics.

They, in a position of power and responsibility, don't like criticism, and might try to silence those who do criticise them – even elected representatives. The sneakier ones do it through the courts.

They'll sometimes hide behind "good works", or "awards" as an appeal to authority.

They have wide spheres of influence. They'll have plenty of sock puppets - people acting as a legitimate, public-facing front - while they control things behind the scenes.

They'll be paranoid. There'll be heightened security around them, or their workplace – police, security guards – and they'll use them if they decide it's necessary. They'll only trust those people similar to themselves, whether they're from the same political party, or run similar regimes. They'll form cliques, societies and associations to lock everyone else out.

They might make excessive use of propaganda, or lean on journalists and publications to report things a certain way. They might even have influence in how the news is reported. They could use money to do this, or they could simply use force of will. That could mean running/owning a newspaper, or counting journalists within their inner circles.

They'll have a high opinion of themselves, awarding themselves grand titles, fancy cars and carry themselves in a certain manner.

They'll be overtly concerned about their public appearance. They want to control how things are presented, or how much people can know. They'll have disproportionately large PR departments.

They have a resolute belief that they are always in the right. They'll turn every tiny bit of good news into a magnificent achievement, and they'll call catastrophic failures mere setbacks, or just won't accept any blame at all. They can do no wrong, and they'll always promise jam tomorrow.

It all starts the same way. It starts with political banter and petty insults. It starts with politicians being censured for asking the inconvenient questions. It starts with white lies. It starts with posters being defaced, or placards being ripped out of front gardens.


Then it becomes scaremongering, or accusing others of scaremongering. Then they create strawmen threats that never existed, vowing to step in and provide strong leadership during tough times.

Then it snowballs further. It becomes arrests for filming meetings. It becomes false accusations, court cases, fines, jail sentences for wanting nothing more that the truth.

It leads to overriding the "authority" of the elected representatives, and taking powers for themselves - drip by drip, week by week, year by year. Their authority becomes increasingly unquestionable and resolute.

Then - perhaps most damning of it all - it becomes a bad government.

It usually ends the same way too. All the little people who helped them – whether it's for personal gain, or a sniff at power – are standing alongside them in front of the proverbial firing squad. It might take one term, it might take decades, but it usually does happen at some point.

These people have always been in the background, waiting for the right time, building up decades of experience, manipulating events or climbing greasy ladders. Or maybe they've simply been in the job too long and it's gone to their head.

We've created, and tolerate, a political system that allows these people to not only remain in place, but thrive. It keeps a leash on them and it gives them solid boundaries - granted. But what it doesn't give us all, is the freedom to challenge or to choose them.

It's a price we pay for delegating tough decisions to others. It's supposed to prevent us ending up in a situation like the United States, where common sense and rationality is sometimes sacrificed in the name of democracy. When it works well, it works well. When it's broken, we all suffer for it.

As a system, it's a wall not unlike another famous wall. You could also consider it a threat to our liberty - our right to know who is in charge of what, what they do, and our freedom to criticise, analyse or simply know the truth and come to our own conclusions.

I don't care who does it. It could be Mr Sargeant. It could be Mr Jones or Mr Cameron. It could be Ms Wood one day, who knows?

But somebody please, tear down this wall.

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

BBC Wales' current affairs programme, Week In, Week Out has an episode relating to a long-running planning dispute in Carmarthenshire to be shown on Tuesday (16th October) at 10:35pm. It'll include interviews with the Public Services Obundsman, Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr) and the chair of a public inquiry into the case.

"Trisha and Eddie moved to Carmarthenshire in 2003 for a bit of the good life. They were going to start a cattery and animal sanctuary on a small holding. But those plans went up in smoke when they discovered that their neighbours were running a haulage business without planning permission.

They complained to Carmarthenshire council in 2004 but the authority failed to stop the lorries. In fact, they denied the couple’s claims and even accused them of faking evidence.

But now the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales has vindicated Mrs Breckman and her partner Mr Roberts with a damning report on how Carmarthenshire council handled their complaints. The authority has been found guilty of maladministration.
"

Thursday, 11 October 2012

No stay of execution for the Berwyn Centre


The Berwyn Centre is an arts, entertainment and community centre in the village of Nantymoel in the Ogwr Valley. Originally a Miners' Welfare Hall, it was saved from closure in the 1970s. After falling into a state of disrepair, the centre is to close at the end of the year, and be subsequently demolished.

A special meeting was held by Bridgend Council cabinet on Monday to discuss the matter, following a decision by the committee responsible to call it in. The cabinet decided against postponing demolition "until a full intrusive survey" is carried out "to establish beyond doubt the structural integrity of the building."

The Glamorgan Gazette report that the council cabinet believe enough surveys have been done already.

Efforts will be made "to secure and safeguard paintings and artifacts within the building that were of value and significance to the community."

It's claimed that the centre has fallen into disrepair to the tune of £800,000. You have to ask how this was allowed to happen in the first place, especially if it's now so bad, it poses a (supposed) risk to the public. BCBC have said it would cost £400,000 to make the building immediately safe, with another £400,000 on top of that needed to secure its longer term future.

The cabinet report says that, while the original cost of demolishing the centre was priced at £100,000, that figure didn't include the costs of asbestos removal. BCBC will now pick up any demolition costs above £100,000, and councillors have requested that none of that comes out of the £200,000 earmarked towards a replacement centre.

There are concerns that no "interim (community) facilities have been identified for all user groups" as "a matter of urgency". The £200,000 will only part-fund a new centre, other funds would need to be found too (i.e. lottery and charity funding). This isn't expected be found until 2015 – BCBC have extended the timetable to secure funding to reflect that.

So Nantymoel could be waiting until 2016-2017 at the earliest for a proper replacement, and only if BCBC can secure the funds. BCBC will now seek to set up a "representative community group" (committee's – the Welsh solution to everything) to bid for funding, and possibly run any new centre.

BCBC will also be obliged to "give commitments to the community" should any bid for funding "be unsuccessful", which you'ld expect them to.

You also have to wonder - if it would cost £400,000 to make the building safe immediately, why don't BCBC just match their £200,000 with another £200,000 from elsewhere? That's cheaper than building a completely new centre, isn't it? But maybe they're concerned about ongoing viability, or deep down, acknowledge that a new centre won't be built.

The story also has a personal significance for BBC Wales' Vaughan Roderick. The Berwyn Centre was named in honour of his uncle, Berwyn Roderick. He was a teacher, and indirectly save the centre from closure in the 1970s, by encouraging Cambrian Theatre Company - who took over the centre - to go into acting in the first place.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the Berwyn Centre is "iconic", but it's the first significant building you see when you come into Nantymoel from "over the Bwlch". It's fair to say - the art deco frontage at least - is a local landmark.

You can't really blame the council for doing this when they have to find millions of pounds in savings over the next few years. If the building's unsafe, it's probably best for it to go.

The Berwyn Centre is just another casualty of austerity – the arts, culture and leisure are soft targets when cuts are made, as highlighted by today's report from the WLGA. Standing aside education and social services, you can understand why.

It's also the slow, lingering death of proudly self-contained communities. When you think about what has replaced that - from the 1930s right through to the present - it's rather depressing.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A farce that shouldn't have happened

Who should have the power to confirm changes to dog shit fines in Wales?
The "noblest court in the land" is debating it.
(Pic : BBC)
This week, the UK Supreme Court start deliberations on the "legality" of the Welsh Government's Local Government Byelaws Bill, which was passed by the Assembly in July this year.

The Bill itself, as I noted when first introduced, isn't a mind-blowing bit of legislation. At heart, all it does, is make creating byelaws a bit easier (and less bureaucratic) for local authorities, and changes arrangements for setting and collecting fines.

It was the first Bill introduced to the Assembly following the March 2011 referendum, and was the first bill passed by the Assembly. So to have it "called in" is immensely embarrassing for all concerned.

Why was it called in?

The Bill, as passed, changed functions of UK Secretaries of State with relation to local byelaws. It cuts them out of the process altogether (Welsh Government ministers too), but pre-Bill, they retained a say in matters.

The problem is, the Assembly doesn't have the power to amend or remove the functions of UK Secretaries of State - even in devolved areas like local government. The UK Attorney General took issue with it, believing it was - in effect - "above the Assembly's pay grade", and blocked the Bill moving to Royal Assent.

The Supreme Court needs to make three determinations:
  • Did the Bill remove/modify Secretary of State Functions in "Clause 6" (byelaws no longer requiring confirmation by Welsh Ministers/SoS)?
  • Did the Bill do the same for "Clause 9" (power to add/remove specific byelaws no longer requiring confirmation)?
  • If the answer's yes to either, is this within the competence of the National Assembly as stipulated in the Government of Wales Act 2006?

You can read a more thorough analysis of the situation by Manon George at Click on Wales, as well as Alan Trench at Devolution Matters.

How did this happen?

The buck, ultimately, has to stop with : the First Minister, the minister in charge – Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) - and the Welsh Government's chief legal adviser (Counsel General), Theodore Huckle QC.

The latter has to decide whether a Bill is within the Assembly's competence, and Carwyn Jones would count as a legal expert considering his professional background. As my title suggests, this should never have happened - but not necessarily because of any screw ups in Cardiff.

When this story was first reported back in July, the First Minister was quite right to say that this was a "totally uncontroversial piece of legislation." I mean, don't Welsh Secretaries have better things to do than deal with the minutiae of local byelaws? If the Secretary of State involved had simply consented to the changes, we wouldn't have had this court case.

Since 1999, the power to confirm byelaws has been held jointly between the Welsh Assembly/Ministers and the relevant Secretary of State. However, things have changed quite a bit since then.

In March 2011, those who bothered to vote, gave the National Assembly full law-making powers within 20 areas by a crushing majority. The Welsh Government can legitimately say that they have "a popular will" to be the sole local government legislator for Wales. Obviously, from a nationalist perspective, I'd argue that involving a UK Secretary of State is outdated and perhaps a little insulting.

The Welsh Government have argued that removing Secretary of State powers "was consequential upon, or incidental to, other provisions in the Bill."

I think that means (in English) : We didn't need to ask the Secretary of State's permission, as we were taking the same powers away from both ourselves and the SoS at the same time.

The UK Attorney General argued that just because the Bill removes powers from the Welsh Government, it doesn't mean the same powers can be removed from a UK Secretary of State.

What this means

Because of unnecessarily complex law-making and devolution provisions in Wales, I doubt this is going to be the last case of an Assembly law being "called in" - until we have legal parity with Scotland. This is an inter-governmental squabble that highlights the inherent weaknesses of the Welsh devolution settlement - and you could argue, the childishness of the Tories and Labour.

Despite the 2011 referendum result, this reeks of a belief that Wales still needs hand-holding, even to make soft Bills like this one. It's EnglandandWales' death rattle, and it's an exemplar argument in favour of a Welsh legal jurisdiction (I'll be looking in more detail at that next month).

In my opinion, joint Welsh Government/Secretary of State functions (within devolved areas) should've been removed in the Government of Wales Act 2006 as part of provisions for a referendum yes vote. It would've made things clearer, and might've saved us going through this. Thanks Peter!

How much has all this cost? And to what ends? Does David Jones really need the power to confirm changes to dog mess fines in Torfaen?

On the flipside, a "subordinate" legislature shouldn't be able to change the functions of a superior one as a matter of principle. The Welsh Government could be opening all sorts of doors by "testing the waters" here. They're probably not making friends in London either, which will come back and haunt them when they try to pass more controversial legislation like the Human Transplantation Bill.

The Welsh Government have been cheeky scamps, but they're logically (on paper) "in the right." But being morally right rarely counts for much in court. Obviously, for the sake of devolution's credibility, I hope they win.

Lose, and it'll be the biggest embarrassment for the Welsh Government and Labour since devolution, and would seriously undermine the credibility of the National Assembly as a legislature. If they can't pass a law on local byelaws because of their own errors, or you could say Westminster interference, how can they be trusted to pass laws on something "serious" like organ donation?

Big questions would also need to be asked about Welsh Government legal advice. This borders on gross incompetence. A loss would be "vote of no confidence" territory.

If the Bill is thrown out (that might not happen, even if the Welsh Government lose), it's possible that one, or both, of Theodore Huckle and Carl Sargeant would need to go. That would be harsh, but considering the wider issues, it would hard to see either stay in their posts. However, as I warned in the summer, the opposition parties have wasted that card, so neither need lose any sleep.

Even if the Welsh Government win, it would certainly mean a re-evaluation of law-making in Wales - all because UK Secretaries of State aren't willing to give up a rubber stamp.

Thanks again Peter! Cheers Cheryl!