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?

Friday, 31 May 2013

Senedd Watch - May 2013

  • The Welsh Government introduced the Further & Higher Education (Governance and Information) Bill. The Bill grants further education colleges powers to merge, dissolve themselves and change their governance arrangements. If passed, Welsh Ministers will also be supplied data relevant to student finance from HMRC.
  • During a Welsh Conservative debate, Shadow Health Spokesman, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), suggested issuing fines for missed NHS appointments. Although Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) agreed the public needed to take more responsibility, other AMs attacked the suggestion as “simplistic”.
  • The Assembly's Standards Committee published a report into lobbying at the National Assembly. They recommended a new code of conduct for AMs' work with lobbyists, rejecting a lobbyist register. They also recommended new rules for Cross-Party Groups to improve transparency and record-keeping.
  • The Standards Committee also recommended a series of changes to sanctions used against AMs - including withdrawal of privileges and suspension without pay - following a review into standards procedures.
  • The Welsh Government suspended a proposed Control of Dogs Bill, opting to work with the UK Government to develop joint legislation. Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), said a Welsh-only bill could be revived if no agreement was reached. Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) – who campaigned for a Welsh law – expressed disappointment at the decision.
  • The delayed Anglesey local council election on May 2nd produced an inconclusive result. Plaid Cymru became the single largest group, winning 12 seats (out of 30), topping the poll with 32% of the vote. However, four Independent groups claimed the most seats between them, winning 14. A coalition deal between Independents and Labour was announced on May 9th. Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), announced Welsh Government intervention in the local authority would end on May 31st.
  • UKIP MEP for Wales, John Bufton - who is standing down in 2014 - claimed his party were capable of winning National Assembly seats following a good showing in English local authority elections. UKIP won 7% of the popular vote in Anglesey, pushing the Welsh Conservatives into last place.
  • Plaid Cymru MP Hywel Williams said Wales misses out on up to £21million in research and development funding annually from the UK's seven research councils. He suggested Wales establish its own research council to work to Welsh priorities.
  • The National Assembly passed a motion demanding action following Prof. Siobhan McClelland's report into ambulance services – which have failed to meet response targets - highlighting critical problems within the Wales Ambulance Service Trust. Before the debate, the Health Minister announced £9.5million of ambulance fleet upgrades.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) announced a £76.5million capital investment package on May 7th, including : £30million towards improving housing supply for counteract any threat from the UK Government's “bedroom tax”, a £25million investment in schools, £10million towards flood protection and £11.5million towards a new railway station for Ebbw Vale.
  • The Queen's Speech outlined proposed legislation to reform Assembly elections, including five year terms, the lifting of a ban on jointly standing in constituencies and regions, and banning AMs from being MPs at the same time. Labour criticised the proposals as a “lucky losers bill” as it would perceivably benefit opposition parties.
  • Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) told the Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee that the UK Government's universal credit threatened entitlements due to eligibility changes. He described it as “a potential car crash”. Plaid Cymru said the Welsh Government's anti-poverty plans were in “disarray” , as it was unclear what the Welsh Government intended to do in response. On May 14th, the minister announced an extra £19million towards the “Flying Start” childcare scheme, which runs 140 projects.
  • Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) suggested the National Eisteddfod could be hosted in an English city as part of the festival's “modernisation” process, taking advantage of ex-pat communities.
  • Plaid Cymru Economy Spokesperson and former Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones AM, became the second senior Plaid politician to announce they were standing down in 2016, having represented Arfon since 2003.
  • Darren Millar AM called on the Welsh Government to scrap plans to reduce the number of A&E departments in south Wales after “unprecedented” demand for emergency services, calling the proposal – The South Wales Programme - “unacceptable”. The First Minister said, “talk of a crisis....is the time to change things. Doing nothing's not an option.”
  • The South Wales Programme was unveiled by five local health boards in south Wales and Powys on May 22nd. The preferred option for hospital reorganisation – out of four - would see Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant lose its specialist A&E, children's and maternity services. The plans are open to public consultation until July 2013.
  • The UK Government published a draft Bill for an “in-out referendum” on UK membership of the European Union, to be held by the end of 2017. Senior Welsh Conservative MPs and AMs – including Darren Millar AM and Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembrokeshire) - said they would vote no if the referendum were held at present. The First Minister said the European debate “hijacked” the Queen's Speech, warning that “Welsh farming would end” if £350million of EU funds disappeared.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 6,000 in the three months to March 2013 to stand at 8.2%, compared to the UK average of 7.8%.
  • The Welsh Government dropped plans to relax film industry rules regarding smoking indoors, following evidence provided to an Assembly Task and Finish Group. Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) welcomed the decision, however the Welsh Conservatives claimed it could harm the creative industries in Wales, saying the Welsh Government had, “caved in to political pressure.”
  • Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) demanded - on behalf of local campaigners - that the Welsh Government block plans for an open-cast mine near Blaenavon, which were provisionally approved by the Welsh Government. Campaigners believe the proposed mine violates the 500 metre exclusion zone in the controversial Mineral Technical Advice Note (MTAN) guidance.
  • The Assembly approved a motion without amendment by Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) calling on the Welsh Government to raise awareness of risks associated with high-caffeine “energy drinks” being available to children.
  • Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) expressed concerns that Welsh democracy was “damaged” by a perceived Anglo-centric focus by the media, reducing coverage on Welsh matters. In the first of a series of conferences, media experts and professionals criticised AMs' lack of engagement during Senedd debates.
  • The Social Services & Well-being Bill was criticised by the Welsh Local Government Association, who believe claims it would be “cost neutral” don't hold up to closer scrutiny. Similar concerns were expressed by the NHS Confederation. Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services, Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) said “transitional funding” would be available, but disagreed that there would be any additional costs.
  • Housing and Regeneration Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), published a White Paper on rent legislation, proposing two simple types of tenancy arrangements, and measures aimed at helping landlords combat anti-social behaviour as well as protect domestic violence victims. Shelter Cymru described it as a “step forward”, however the Residential Landlords Association were concerned that the costs of legislation could be better used building houses.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) announced that parents of regularly truant children will be fined £120 from September 2013. Opposition politicians called the move “lazy” and a “retrograde step”. Teaching unions were also worried it could undermine successful attempts at reducing truancy.
  • The Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee criticised the Welsh Government's handling of changes to council tax benefits in December 2012, saying that there was confusion between the political process and legislative process, as well as a lack of communication between Cardiff and Westminster. The Assembly was recalled from Christmas recess to debate new regulations as a result of the problems.
  • Leighton Andrews said he would explore joint regulation of exams with Northern Ireland after English Education Secretary, Michael Gove, said differences between the devolved nations and England made separate exam systems inevitable. Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) called for an independent Welsh exam regulator to be established “as soon as possible” to “restore confidence” in the Welsh exams system.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones announced that Cardiff University will lead a consortium of organisations and groups that will form a Public Policy Institute, which was originally put out to tender in August 2012 as a 2011 Welsh Labour manifesto commitment.
  • The Assembly's Enterprise and Business Committee published their integrated transport inquiry report, calling for the devolution of certain rail, bus regulatory and infrastructure powers, an integrated ticketing system and the possible creation of Passenger Transport Executives to run public transport.
  • The Welsh Government announced that a non-emergency “111” service for the NHS would be launched in Wales, despite concerns about an equivalent service in England, which has currently failed to cope with demand.
  • Referral targets for urgent cancer treatment were missed, despite a pledge from the First Minister that they would be met by March 2013. 84% of urgent cancer patients saw a specialist within 62 days, despite a target of 95%. The Welsh Government blamed severe weather, and said the overall trend had improved. Targets for ambulance response times were also missed, but with an improvement on previous months.
  • Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood, called for new trains to be provided following rail electrification, rather than “hand-me-down” rolling stock. The Welsh Government said they'll work to, “ensure the best deal for Wales.”

Projects announced in May include : £1.6million in European funding towards a seabed tidal energy scheme in Pembrokeshire, £160million from the Welsh Government towards a £400million affordable housing building programme of 7,500 units by 2016, a re-routing of the proposed Caernarfon bypass (which could save up to £10million), £1.5million towards wildlife protection, a £10million Property Development Fund and a £40million 3-16 y.o. “super school” in Neath Port Talbot.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Twinning the Nation II - What can Wales learn?


Following on from the first post, it's time to look at what things Wales can learn from our "international twins".

Finland

Treasure your "Small Nation Stars"The Flotilla Effect noted one advantage smaller countries hold (combined with openness to trade) is enough concentrated effort to develop world-beating specialisms, dubbed "Small Nation Stars". Finland's Nokia is perhaps the pre-eminent example, so too the likes of Skype in neighbouring Estonia. Both are now allied to or owned by Microsoft. The closest Wales has to a Small Nation Star, as I've said in Part I, is probably Admiral Group and maybe Iceland. We've lost several in the form of Anglesey Aluminium, Hyder and others that perhaps could've been the next one.

Despite recent problems, Nokia has shown signs of a recovery due to its emphasis on quick decision making and flexibility - called "The Nokia Way". But it's also something that can be applied to small independent nations as a whole too, due to the "low centre of gravity" in terms of political and economic structures. It's an inherent advantage, but only if used correctly.

Educate for life, not just for tests – In terms of education performances, Finland is towards the top of many world rankings. Wales has adopted some Finnish practises, like Foundation Phase (learning through play for younger children). Further up the academic ladder, however, Wales continues to have a very top-down, target-driven culture.

No uniforms. Hardly any homework. Lots of play and extra-curricular
activities. World-leading in education performance measures.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Finland has almost the complete opposite. Individuality is important for both pupils and teachers. School environments are very informal, homework is kept to a minimum and there's an emphasis on extra-curricular activity. There's still a national curriculum, but teachers are given greater freedom in applying it in practice. There are no school inspections, and hardly any formal examinations or tests until the final years of school.

University education is free for everyone – including foreign students. Finnish universities are also more heavily focused on research, while they still maintain polytechnics for practical application of subjects. Outside this, there's also a comprehensive network of adult education centres, including specialist training centres for sports participants at all ability levels.

You can be small, yet maintain an effective defence policy
– When you take Finnish history into account, you can understand why they have a relatively large and effective military. Some aspects of this could be used in developing a Welsh military policy – which I've covered before – in particular the concept of "Total Defence". That means every part of government and society is involved in planning for defence, without any separate agency for emergency responses. This would be relevant in today's Wales with regard responses to civil emergencies, which the Welsh Government were criticised for recently.

New Zealand

Quoted from Part I : "One big difference would be that New Zealand is geologically active with volcanoes and earthquakes...." He he he. Great timing, eh?

Two different cultures can co-exist peacefully, even after historical wrongs – It's right to say that relations between the Maori and European settlers haven't always been cordial. However, compared to other colonised peoples – especially the neighbouring First Australians – the Maori got off relatively lightly. The Treaty of Waitangi, between the British Empire and the Maori, could be considered similar to the Laws in Wales Acts by granting the Maori "British subject" status in the same way the Welsh became Anglicised.

Following protests since the 70s, many historical claims under the treaty are slowly being redressed by the New Zealand Government. That could be compared, in part, to Welsh language activism over the same period.

Despite all this, New Zealand has never suffered the same levels of ethno-linguistic tensions that other former colonies have. Parts of Maori culture have become as much a part of New Zealander identity to non-Maori, as the Welsh language and Welsh identity have to non Welsh-speakers and immigrants. It's not so much learning from that, just making sure we continue it too – on both sides of the language debate.

You can evolve to become independent – New Zealand never became independent in a "big bang", like a referendum or a unilateral declaration. It was a very slow evolution to de facto independence over the course of several decades. It's very hard to pin down an exact date when modern New Zealand became independent.

It's hard to say when New Zealand became
independent from the UK. Is that an form of
"Devo Max Extreme"? Could it be how Wales
will become independent?
(Pic : via Zimbio)

It could be the (1926) Balfour Declaration – where the "Dominions" were given equal status under the crown. It could be New Zealand becoming a founder member of the UN. It could be the moment New Zealander became a "nationality" under New Zealand law, rather than retaining "British". It could even be when the UK joined the European Union in 1973, which changed the trade relationship with New Zealand.

Even until recently, there were a few constitutional "cheesy pizza strings" tying New Zealand to the UK – via the Privy Council being a last avenue for judicial appeals. If it can happen in New Zealand, it can happen in Wales. In fact, I think it's highly likely, it's just I doubt we can wait until the 2100s for it to happen.

A structure for nurturing and developing sports stars – Domestic sport is much bigger in New Zealand than Wales, perhaps for obvious reasons – not many neighbours to play against. I've mentioned developing a Welsh equivalent of the ITM Cup before, but it goes deeper. They have a much more joined up approach towards developing coaches, for example. They also make a distinction between participating in sport for its own sake and "high performance".

I think we in Wales are too focused on creating successful individual sports stars, instead of organising successful domestic competitions and developing the sports themselves. It always seems like a choice between rugby union or football (or netball and hockey for the girls). However, New Zealand - like most parts of the industrialised world - still has high obesity rates.
 

Montenegro

Nations are never "too small to be independent" – Montenegro's population is not much more than that of the old Gwent, yet there they are with their UN seat, future EU membership, own military (likely to join NATO in 2014 or 2015) etc. They've become a big target for foreign direct investment, and are keen to become an "elite" tourist destination in the future, though both bring problems of their own. What you also have to note is that, for their size, Montenegro punches significantly above their weight in international sport – especially their national football team at the moment.

Attitudes to independence change, sometimes dramatically and unexpectedly – It took Montenegro just ten years to go from union with Serbia, to a loose confederation then full independence. Also, just four years prior to the Montenegrins cutting internal ties with Serbia, 96% voted to remain part of a federation with them. That's quite a dramatic shift in such a short space of time, and it's not entirely unprecedented either.

Since independence, Montenegro has attracted significant
foreign investment and is trying to boost its tourist industry.
Ten years earlier, it would've all been largely unthinkable.
(Pic : montenegrolcinj.com)

Although the independence referendum in 2006 was a very close "yes" – barely passing the required threshold set down by foreign observers - nobody, apart from perhaps ethnic Serbs, are clamouring to return to Serbia and Montenegro or Yugoslavia.

Very similar arguments were made by "Unionists" then, that are being used in Scotland and will inevitably be used in Wales one day : Serbian family members would become foreigners, the Montenegrin health system would collapse, people wouldn't be able to get jobs because of an elite, social union etc. It didn't work, and you can only play those cards so many times until people see through them - especially if the "union" is being poorly run.


Small can be ugly too – One of the major issues in Montenegro is organised crime and corruption. Montenegro is now one of the main entry routes for human trafficking into the EU, and the Montenegrin government has been criticised for non-compliance with various international standards for clamping down on trafficking – though there've been some improvements. In fact, the Montenegrin government officially denies it even has a significant problem. The Montenegrin Mafia operates in several nations in the Balkans and diaspora, and have been involved in some very ugly activities, going to the very top of government.

Although we don't have problems like that on the same scale in Wales, we should ask questions about how some parts of the "Welsh state" are run. Montenegro serves as an example of what happens if you allow straight-up corruption, cronyism and nepotism to run riot. If people get away with the small things – your small-fry AWEMA scandals, for example – they'll eventually get away with the big things, and it'll be much easier too. You won't find any of this in The Flotilla Effect.

The Basque Country

Co-operative economics works – Mondragon Corporation, blah, blah, blah. We know that mutuals and co-ops are the in-thing amongst the Welsh political class at the moment. It's not just the Basques, but they're the pre-eminent model for this. I think what we should take from Mondragon is the diversity of the companies under its umbrella – companies in sectors Wales significantly falls behind in, resulting in Welsh consumer spending leaching out of the country. I think retail and banking services in particular. But Mondragon is also involved in education, including its own university. We might be able to go further and take co-operatives into public services.


Template for continued revival of the Welsh language - The Basques have had much greater success in maintaining the Basque language's growth, while Welsh continues to flounder. That could be because the Basques have "crossed a threshold" in terms of the number of Basque speakers to cause a self-sustaining increase (for arguments sake, 25% of the population). It could be that they've managed to make the Basque language much more generalised in use, rather than making it a "special case" or a "hobby horse" for activists.

The Basque language has been "mainstreamed"
in a way Welsh is struggling to do so, both in
education and the media. Is Cymraeg stuck in an activist's ghetto?
(Pic : newspaperinnovation.com)
There's also education. There are four categories of school. In three categories, Basque is taught as a subject and in two, Basque is taught as a first language. ~75% of schoolchildren attend the latter two, and at least half are taught entirely in Basque, with Castilian a compulsory subject. It's also worth pointing the strength and plurality of Basque language media, demonstrated on Syniadau earlier this month.

Template for a Welsh media – This isn't related to the language issue, more the media in general. The media of the nations and regions within Spain is highly decentralised. The Basque Country has devolved powers over broadcasting, something that could be on the cards for Wales in the future. The Basque public broadcaster – EITB – has five (in future, six) TV channels and five radio stations, broadcasting in a mix of Castilian and Basque. This is in addition to the various pan-Spain commercial and public broadcasters. So it's wholly viable to have a separate broadcasting service for a devolved nation, whilst retaining pan-union channels and services.

And the others?

Republic of Ireland

You don't need political union to be a good neighbour – They might well have left the Union on less than amicable terms, but most (certainly not all) of the darker recent history of British-Irish relations stemmed politically and (para)militarily from "our" own back garden in the north, not the Republic.

Prior to, and after, the Good Friday agreement, there's been co-operation between the Irish, devolved and British governments via the likes of the British-Irish Council, shared citizenship rights via the Common Travel Area, as well as co-operation in other area of mutual interest like energy. None of that impedes the Republic of Ireland's status as a fully-independent sovereign nation-state. I think that's probably what will happen with the post-UK nations too – the so-called "Social Union".


Make better use of European funds – The Irish have made fantastic use of EU funds over the last 30 years or so, in part because they have full access to all the instruments available as they're a full member state, not a "region". They took a much more strategic, national approach via various National Development Plans, which set out investment running into tens of billions of euros.
The Irish have made much better strategic use of European
and domestic funds to boost infrastructure - attracting greater
foreign investment.
(Pic : rhinocarhire.com)

Although they still use funds for "social projects", they also spent it on lots of hard infrastructure - in particular developing their motorway network. That helped to attract foreign investment to the land that opened up, improving the economy to provide more funds. Ireland has since become - and still is - a major European exporter of big box "blue chip" products like pharmaceuticals. It should've been Wales.

One thing I will point out though, is the Irish rail network (except around Greater Dublin) is archaic and in dire need of significant upgrades.


Never place blind faith in a single party
Fianna Fáil have historically been the broad-base party that bent in the wind when it came to policy, adopting heavy populism as opposed to a single ideological stance. They coasted for decades, and hoovered up ~40-50% of the Irish vote since the 1930s.

Their only real opposition is Fine Gael, but Fine Gael's successes were fleeting. Without that  opposition, they engendered seemingly corrupt and increasingly incompetent administrations - perhaps because they "knew" they could be there "forever". Their position became so entrenched, that it took the collapse of the Irish economy for them to be finally, and convincingly, booted out of office. They trashed what they were supposed to care most about. Sound familiar?

Avoid creating property bubbles – The Irish experience provides a warning about smaller nations building up excessive and unsustainable property portfolios. The "Celtic Tiger" – at the time – was a resounding success, leading to excessive optimism about sustained high levels of prosperity, and subsequently some truly wild residential developments to try and cash in on that.

This wasn't helped by lax planning regulations, and a failure by politicians to properly acknowledge that the bubble had burst. That over-exposure to bad property debt, eventually filtered through into Ireland's disproportionately massive financial services sector – not helped by the 2007-08 crisis in America - and we know the rest. We in Wales need to learn lessons from that and decide what we want housing to be – an investment, or a home first and foremost.

Scotland

How to provide "safe and sustainable" health services
– Scotland spends near enough the same, proportionally, as Wales does on health. Scotland also has a similar number of general hospitals serving a vastly more sparse population than Wales. NHS Scotland is even organised similarly to the Welsh NHS. So why are some aspects of the Scottish NHS - like waiting times, bed availability and staffing ratios - outperforming Wales? I think it's too complicated to answer, but one thing I will say is that Scotland has kept smaller community hospitals largely as they are, while Wales is about to close or significantly downgrade ours. Maybe we should look further north instead of simply trying to compare pencils with England.

Sparsity isn't a barrier to prosperity – It's fair to say that oil and gas plays a big role in Scotland having higher productivity than Wales. But it doesn't end there. Scotland exports more than Wales, has a much larger financial service sector, is much more successful of keeping the Scottish pound in Scotland and attracts many more tourists.

Highlands & Islands - €4,200 per capita more productive than
West Wales & The Valleys (in 2010). Why?
(Pic : tripadvisor .com)
It's said that sparsity and "smallness" drags back the Welsh economy, but you look at the sparsity in parts of Scotland, and you can see that economic success doesn't come down to cities alone.

Scotland's only Objective One area (Highlands and Islands) is being phased out due to economic success, while West Wales & The Valleys remains in the doldrums. We're clearly doing something wrong in Wales – something the Scots, and even the Cornish are getting right – and it doesn't just come down to oil, gas and financial services.

Make good use of your natural assets – Scotland's seen big investment in renewables – especially offshore wind – and is clearly taking advantage of its position. That's probably because they have the power and will to do so. The Scots could easily be self-sufficient in renewable energy alone, with plenty to spare, within a generation. We neither have the power or will in Wales, just talk of "sustainability" and protests. We can learn a lot from the Scots here.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Twinning the Nation - What nations are like Wales?

Which nations around the world are similar to Wales?
What can we learn from them?
In two parts, I'll try to address both.
(Pic : nationsonline.org)

I'll hopefully look at a Welsh foreign policy, diplomacy and international relations in more detail - a la defence & local government - next year. I suppose the next two posts could be considered a prelude.

In two parts, I want to play the role of "matchmaker" and determine which nations around the world are similar to Wales – our international "twins" - and in particular what we can learn from them when/if we decide to become independent ourselves in the future (Part II).

First of all, it's worth deciding what factors you need to consider.

Would like to meet....

Dominated by liberal/left politics – The largest political party/parties should be centre-left, and the government/executive branch will have been centre-left for a considerable time. This has limits. Wales has few things in common with South American and Caribbean "socialist" states other than an "extractive" economic history.

This isn't Wales. I'll resist this "vision" for
Wales to my last ounce of strength.
(Pic : USA Today)


Temperate climate
– Generally speaking, neither too hot nor too cold. This would rule out desert, polar and tropical nations. Twins of Wales should be "damp and warm" for most of the year, preferably with a maritime-influenced climate.

Export-oriented market economy – Twins should ideally be net-exporters of goods, as Wales is, although that's taken a hit recently. They should also be market economies. You still shop at Tesco, listen and watch commercial TV and radio stations and buy into trends, don't you? Wales isn't East Germany despite claims to the contrary.

A large public sector – By that I mean "large" by regional or international averages. This is neither a good nor bad thing.

Low population density, but with a highly centralised "core region(s)" – Twins should be rather sparsely populated on the whole, ideally with a population in the region of 1 to 5 million. However, this should be balanced with an equivalent of the M4 corridor or Wrexham/Deeside.

An agrarian culture – Historically, the people should've "lived off the land", or been largely agrarian or traditional industrial in terms of culture, diet and outlook. That could mean a "hearty cuisine", a small-c conservatism, a level of stoicism in the face of adversity as well as a slight "introverted/insular" bent.

This isn't comparable to Wales either,
nor should it ever be.
(Pic : ifimages.com)

Protestant and/or irreligious – Wales might not be protestant in an Anglican sense, and becoming increasingly secularised. However, it has an effect in terms of culture between parts of the world, and subsequently, public policy and ideology.

Historically part of an empire - Either as a colony, or a bit part in a larger player. I think this means Welsh nationalists naturally have an affiliation with other "stateless peoples" under the yoke of a larger nation state. Personally though, that doesn't extend to the Palestinian government or militant Irish republicans, both of whom Wales has very little in common with.

Bilingualism/Biculturalism – Wales' twins should have at least two officially-recognised languages – national or regional - or at least two distinct cultures within the territory, in the same way as Welsh and English language culture are different but loosely similar.

Who are Wales's twins?

Finland
Finland's sparsity, economic make-up and linguistic
history have strong parallels with Wales.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
Climate wise – OK, it's not exactly similar. Finland has hotter summers and colder winters than we do, but maybe not to the extent you would expect for a nation that far north. It's also covered in coniferous forests, which are definitely a similar feature to Wales.

Historically, Finland has been a fully annexed part of the Swedish and Russian empires, before forcefully declaring their independence from the latter, and part-repelling the Soviet Union (twice) in the 1930s and 1940s. This could, in part, have led to them being seen as a somewhat insular people.

In terms of bi-culturalism, Finland actually has three – the Sami people, Finnish itself and the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands. The Sami have a measure of self-government, while all three languages are officially recognised. The Finnish for Finland – "Suomi" ("land"/"nation") – is almost exactly the same as "Cymru" in Welsh. Finland is predominantly Lutheran Protestant, and it's said modern Finnish literature didn't start until Mikael Agricola's translation of the Bible – perhaps similar to William Morgan's Welsh Bible translation, which occurred around the same time.

The Finnish language has also faced a similar crisis as Welsh - deciding what role Finnish should play in society, and whether they should keep the "global language" of Swedish, which was enforced on them when they were part of the Swedish Empire.

In terms of politics, Finland's semi-executive presidency has been held consistently by liberal progressives and social democrats. It only changed hands to the right in 2012, along with the Finnish parliament in 2011. Historically, however, the Finnish Parliament has been dominated by several left-leaning green and liberal parties. The largest is the Social Democratic Party, who have have always had some influence on the government, but are on the wane.

In economic terms, Finland is a major exporter of goods, but not a net-exporter overall, which is similar to Wales. Chemicals and manufacturing are their major sectors – like Wales. Their public service sector is actually a bit larger than ours at around 32% in 2008 (Wales ~ 28%). Unemployment is similar to us too – (8-9%).

When you think of Finland, you probably think "Nokia", when you think of Wales, you probably won't come up with anything, but "Admiral" would probably be the next best guess. So we have that in common too, in having only a handful of really "big name" indigenous companies. Finland also has it's own equivalent of the M4 corridor – the Helsinki to Turku and Helsinki to Tampere motorways.


New Zealand

The mountains might be taller, but there's an awful lot
more than sheep and rugby that Wales has in common with New Zealand.
(Pic : pocketinfo.net)

The first two obvious similarities would be an affinity for rugby union and lots of sheep, so I'll get those out of the way now.

Climate wise, New Zealand and Wales are almost identical – maritime influence, rather wet, similar seasonal temperatures. One big difference would be that New Zealand is geologically active with volcanoes and earthquakes, while our volcanoes are extinct. You can definitely say that New Zealanders share the same sense of stoicism and soft-insularity that the Welsh do due to all these dangers in a rather lonely part of the world.

Culturally, you can point to the Maori minority, who make up roughly the same percentage of the New Zealand population as Welsh-speakers in Wales. However, the Maori language – which has official status - is only spoken by around 4% of the total population, much less than the 19-20% of people in Wales who speak Welsh.

In economic terms, productivity in New Zealand is similar to Wales, with NZ edging Wales by around $2,500 (~£2,000) per capita per annum, which isn't much in global terms. Is New Zealand "too poor to be independent"? Nope. New Zealand is a net-exporter, though most of their exports are natural goods. So agriculture is a much more important part of the New Zealand economy compared to Wales. Also, there's a difference in terms of the public sector. The New Zealand health care system, for example, is roughly "four parts public, one part private".

They also have a few major centres, focused around the Auckland area, Wellington and Christchurch, with a lot of space in between.

Politically, New Zealand has a unicameral legislature, though it's twice the size of the Senedd. The Labour Party have traditionally hoovered up lots of votes since the 1940s with a few blips, including 2011, but it's hard to say they have dominance. New Zealand overall has a two-party system when you include the centre-right National Party. Tories v Labour, then? Obviously, being a Commonwealth nation and former part of the British Empire, New Zealand and Wales also share a head of state and similarities in things like the legal system.

Montenegro

Maybe a contentious choice, but as Montenegro tries to
find its feet as an independent country, there are certainly
similarities in the challenges Wales would need to overcome too.
(Pic : BBC)

A bit of an "out there" choice, admittedly. What makes Montenegro stand out compared to the others, and maybe the main reason I've included them, is that they have a large minority of people from their largest neighbour – Serbia - living within their borders (vis-a-vis the English in Wales).

Montenegro has been part of the Ottoman Empire, with a brief period of independence between 1852-1918, until it was absorbed into Serbia, then Fascist Italy, and subsequently Yugoslavia. Achieving independence in 2006 – making Montenegro (discounting Kosovo as they haven't been universally recognised yet) "Europe's youngest country" – their ~625,000 inhabitants are a hodge-podge of different ethno-linguistic groups typical of the Balkans. Although Montenegrin is the only official language, there are four other recognised languages.

Montenegro largely escaped the worst of the Yugoslav Wars, whilst supporting the Serbs. However, in 1996-1997 the Montenegrin government severed internal ties with Yugoslavia for a whole host of complicated reasons, remaining in the loose confederation of Serbia and Montenegro. They became more pro-EU in focus, liberalised their economy and governments slowly pushed for independence.

The climate of Montenegro is more humid than Wales, being on the Adriatic, but they boast an impressive biodiversity and a mountainous terrain that puts Wales to shame. In economic terms, they're trying to take advantage of this by building up their tourist industry. Though overall, the Montenegrin economy lags way behind Wales - GVA per capita is less than half ours – a symptom of the transition to a market economy. What's also perhaps familiar to us is historically poor infrastructure, though there are moves to improve it.

Politically, the largest party is the pro-EU Democratic Party of Socialists, who are joined by other centre-left parties in the Montenegrin Parliament. The DPS have effectively won every parliamentary and presidential election since independence.

The Basque Country (Euskadi)

The Basque Country - as a devolved nation - offers Wales so
many lessons   in so many areas it's impossible to leave them out.
(Pic : Federal Union)
You would've expected me to include more stateless nations in this list, but I think the Basque Country fits the bill more than others.

The climate, along the coastal area at least, is almost identical to Wales – wet and Atlantic influenced for most of the year. They also have a very similar topography, with "valleys" being an important part of Basque geography. The area around Bilbao could be compared to the Taff Valley/Greater Cardiff area in Wales, and Donostia perhaps to Swansea, existing as two "poles" along the coast.

One of the big differences between Wales and Euskadi are attitudes to autonomy and the economy. The Basques aren't strongly seeking political independence for the moment, yet have a level of autonomy that effectively puts it on the brink of all-out independence. I think this has helped its economy, which is the strongest of the devolved nations of Spain – another thing we don't really have in common with them then. Euskadi is home to many significant "Spanish" companies, including BBVA bank (along with several other banks), the Mondragon Co-operative and major manufacturers like CAF (trains) and Gamesa (renewable energy). Basque GVA significantly outstrips Wales.

There are roughly around the same number of Basque speakers as there are Welsh speakers - between 700-750,000. However, Basque speakers make up a greater percentage of the Basque population (~27%) compared to Welsh in Wales. The Basque language also has a "separateness" that makes it unique from languages spoken around it, perhaps in the same way Welsh is (as the only widely-spoken Brythonic Celtic language with official status) compared to English, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. The other Brythonic languages being Cornish and Breton, of course, both of which are recognised, spoken and being revived but currently lack official status.

One thing that we also share in common is the impact of civic nationalism on domestic politics (much more comprehensive coverage of Basque politics from Syniadau). However, Wales doesn't share a violent nationalist past – we had no equivalent of ETA. Basque politics is also more mixed than Wales – the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ) are centrist/conservative - but there's a presence of a big centre-left group, including left-nationalists – Bildu - who are perhaps more in keeping with Plaid Cymru. The influence of unionist parties is weaker than in Wales, with the Basque equivalent of Welsh Labour currently only having 16 seats in their (75 seat) parliament.

Close, but not quite

Wallonia – Probably the closest to making it onto the list. Historically, the region was rich in coal and iron, and built its economy off heavy industries like steel-making, until those industries collapsed. Sound familiar? Wallonia has also been historically dominated by the Parti Socialiste, while neighbouring Flanders has been more right-leaning and effectively subsidies them. Sound familiar?


Is Wallonia too similar to Wales to be able to
learn anything from them?
(Pic : postcardstampcollection.blogspot.co.uk)
Wallonia even has the same Germanic root – "Wahl" ("Foreigner") - as Wales and a very similar climate. I think the main reason I haven't included them is that we can't really learn much from the Walloons as they're in the same boat as us on a whole series of matters!


Slovenia – Slovenia only has a single official language (Slovene). Slovenia was also one of the wealthier parts of the former Yugoslavia, which isn't a good starting point when comparing it to Wales. What is similar to Wales though, is that they generally have a mountainous terrain, and Slovene politics is dominated by social democratic and liberal parties. They're also a net-producer of energy and have a significant manufacturing base.

Republic of Ireland – Ireland ticks many boxes, but there are crucial differences. Firstly, Ireland is a majority Catholic country, and this historically meant the main political parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael) are too conservative by Welsh standards for there to be a direct comparison.

Another obvious one left out, but not
without good reason.
(Pic : New York Daily News)

Ireland is also more monetarist/economically liberal, or given the impression of being so, especially during the "Celtic Tiger" years.Their health system, for example, isn't universally free at the point of use, which would probably be intolerable to a Welsh electorate. There's certainly a lot Wales can learn from Ireland though.

Scotland – Similar to Ireland really, but mainly for economic and cultural, not political reasons. Scotland's economic productivity significantly outstrips Wales, but their indigenous culture is perhaps nowhere near as strong as Welsh language culture is. Scotland has also had much more clout internationally in their own right before, and after, the Union. Perhaps – pound-for-pound – they're up there towards the top in terms of historic global influence and recognition.

Part II will look at what Wales might be able to learn from these nations.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Assembly to bare all for the press?

"The National Assembly of Wales - We're changing!
Say 'orrite, butt' to iSenedd 2.0"

(Pic : BBC)
Devastated by criticisms that their debates were "grim to watch", and that there was more chance of David Cameron taking a dump in the Queen's handbag than London newspapers giving them any positive attention, our AMs sulked in silence as they gathered for plenary.

As they sat with their sunken cheeks resting in their palms, a few tuts could be heard. The Llywydd, tapping her desk, sighed and checked the clock. "The National Assembly is now in se....oh, I can't be bothered!" Neither can we.

"Why don't they like us?" asked one AM.

"What we know," Carwyn said, "is that the current situation is unsustainable. The question is, how do we change things?" His question was met with more silence and bemused looks.

"We could all try running the country better," said Leanne Wood. But that was only met with derisive, dismissive sighs from the Welsh Labour benches.

"Typical Plaid with their blue sky thinking!" Carwyn responded. "Besides, we only get coverage if we do something wrong. It's the Welsh Tories turn, I believe." He produced a hat containing loose bits of paper dares scribbled on them.

"Right," Carwyn said, drawing a lot. "One of you lot has to knock a disabled child out of their wheelchair and fart in their face. When the police and Western Mail turn up, be sure to mention our exciting and vigerous housing policy debates, won't you?"

Deciding that their attempts at attention-seeking had finally gone too far, a cross-party task force was set up - engaging with key stakeholders in the entertainment and PR industries - to turn around the democratic deficit. After a short recess, the new arrangements were introduced to the public under the branding iSenedd 2.0.

Weekday morning viewers watched as a suited man was loaded into the end of a large cannon on the steps of the Senedd.

"Hi, I'm Peter Black, welcome to Jackass!" he said, before being fired through the air into a paddling pool filled with tears, as his Lib Dem colleagues watched and applauded - a stunt called "Below the Belt".

Senedd TV was re-branded as a "Live Stream", with AMs miked up, and cameras installed all around the Assembly estates.

"Day 112 in the Business and Enter....Bling Committee Diary Room. Nick is lookin' for something."

"Eluned, have you seen my pen?....I'm sure had it on the table.Is that....my pen....you're chewing there?"

"Can't you just get another one?"

"Yeah....Yeah, suppose so."

"Nick exits the Diary Rooooom."

"Byron!?....By!?....She stole my f**king pen!? Seriously! She's sitting there all, 'nuuuuur, can't you just get another one.' And she's chewing it! Chewing my my f**king pen! So if she asks you about me asking her about my pen...."

"Well call da po-lice, blud!.....Hold on. Is you yuring shouting? I fink it's comin' from da tea room."


"Nick and Byron arrive on scene to see Elin and Kirsty ripping each others' hair oot. Byron tries to restore oor-der."

"Woah! Woah! Woah!.....Woah!....What's all dis, eh? You two is profesh-nuls, ya get me?"

"Tryna block my amendment on the tourism and heritage motion, is it!?"

"I dunnah what your tawkin' abaht, Elin. I really dahn't."

"Seriously!.... Seriously, now!.... Stop putting on 'at f**king accent, you're not in London yet! Driving me up-a wall, it is!"

John Griffiths grew a goatee, shaved his head and took to living in a camper van. His bright yellow haz-mat suit made him stand out, but his exposure to harmful chemicals reduced his life expectancy significantly. He wouldn't shut up about it either, like his small, but growing legion of fans.

Edwina Hart launched her Youtube channel – Let Us Style Our Hair In Accordance With Socialist Lifestyle. In the first episode, she trialled Clairol's Nice 'n Easy, whilst lecturing the terrified-looking stylist on dialectic materialism.

Others took to wearing ink blot jumpers and walking around in the dark, trying to solve crimes. They didn't take kindly to suggestions that it's basically the the plot of Scooby Doo rather than Scandinavian televisual feasts.

Dafydd Elis-Thomas wore a spinning dickie-bow tie, while Llyr Gruffydd was seen stuttering "Good game, good game!" and "What bad luck!" as he practised his "Thinker Pose" in the corridors.

Draft Assembly Bills, and Committee Reports, were made more accessible by including topless models, while Assembly elections were to be known as Public Elimination Finals from 2016.

Experience points - redeemable at the Assembly gift shop - were offered for each achievement you unlock on the Assembly website. Reading Petitions Committee minutes is worth 10 points, understanding how a Welsh Government framework would work in practice is worth 100 points.

A trading card game was also launched. Children up and down Wales were desperately trying to swap their shiny Welsh Lib Dem logo for three Antoinette Sandbach's and a Lindsay Whittle. Headteachers banned the game, after fights broke out over the rare Janice Gregory.

Tonypandy professional clotheshorse, Chuggley Quim, was appointed Deputy Minister for Getting S**tfaced in a cabinet reshuffle, while a video of Jane Hutt chasing a dog through a park whilst explaining her capital spending programme went viral.

First Minister's Questions was jazzed up too. AMs were given their own entry music as they took their seats each Tuesday afternoon. Andrew RT Davies chose War's "Why Can't We Be Friends", while the First Minister plumped for the saxophone solo from Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street".

After entering to Drowning Pool's "Bodies", the Education Minister - wearing a rather unflattering tight black t-shirt and sunglasses - paused in the centre of the chamber, clutching a microphone. He thundered that he be known as "The Leighton" from now on, before hitting Simon Thomas over the head with a folding chair, as they competed for the favour of Julie James as part of an ongoing storyline.

The Leighton tapped his tag-team partner - Sgt. Carl - on the shoulder, who made his way to the top of a ladder in his camouflage gear, before taking an acrobatic swan dive into the Welsh Conservative benches. A memorial service for the Welsh Conservatives will be held as soon as someone can be bothered to fit one in. "What bad luck!"

Fleet Street still declined to report anything. An editor of a popular red top tabloid said, "I applaud that the National Assembly has got with the times and provided a fantastic display of tits. Tits and arses - Westminster or anatomical - currently get more column inches in the British press than Welsh politics.

"Try telling the public that some Z-lister, collapsed with their bum out on Caroline Street, is somehow less important than Marine Conservation Zones. We're not here to sell news, we're here to sell newspapers.

"Would any AM really want to share page space, talking about hospital reorganisations or PSE lessons, with cleavage shots of Helen Flanagan, or Michael Gove's Pob-like features?

"Isn't that a bit like wanting to publicise your manifesto in The Viz or The Beano? Maybe the lack of coverage in the UK press is a compliment disguised as an insult."

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Bridgend regeneration reaches halfway point


Back in 2010, the previous "One Wales" Welsh Government announced a £7.7million package of European, Lottery and Welsh Government match-funding to improve the physical environment of a half-dozen streets in Bridgend town centre. This has coincided with other developments, like the redevelopment of Bridgend Recreation Centre and Elder Yard.

I think it's safe to say that the regeneration works are around the "halfway point" now, and are expected to be completed by 2015. Ever eager to provide a "multimedia experience" to the dozen of you who read this, I decided to provide an update of the works myself.

Court Road


(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)



Status : Completed

The old pavements have been replaced with hard-wearing stone. As this street is home to many legal and financial service firms, lay-bys for workers have been provided that compliment the new pavements. New modern-looking lamp posts and street furniture have been provided too, as well as a few planters. I think it compliments the existing architecture – like the Old Post Office - relatively well.

Cheapside

(Click to enlarge)
Status : Completed

One of the first projects to be completed. The re-branded Bridgend Shopping Centre has been (modestly) updated, and I understand there's planning permission for an apartment development and expansion of the centre at the "ASDA side", where this photo was taken. Whether any of that will actually get built or not in the current economic climate remains to be seen.


The works include a lay-by and modern bus shelters opposite the police station, as well as a "square" on the infilled subway between the shopping centre and the multi-story car parks. Clearly, when the police station moves to Bridgend Industrial Estate it should be a prime development site to compliment all these works. Could we finally see the long-desired department store there?

Merthyr Mawr Road North
(Click to enlarge)
Cae Court, viewed from Angel Street
(Click to enlarge)











Status : Completed, Cae Court ongoing


There's a noticeable improvement here. Footpaths have been widened on this rather cramped road, that's always been rather busy due to Nolton Church, Riversdale Surgery as well as being a main walking route to Brynteg Comprehensive. Black, Victorian/Edwardian style lamp posts have been put in, and lay-bys have been provided to prevent snarl ups that used to be commonplace.

The refurbishment of Cae Court – which is being turned into a residential home for the elderly – is still ongoing, but nearing completion. Considering the building - a former registry office and GPs surgery - was rather neglected, the contractors and developers have done a good job of giving it a new lease of life, even if it doesn't quite fit in with the modern extension of Riversdale Surgery next door.

Derwen Road

(Click to enlarge)

Status : Under construction, roughly 50% completed

Derwen Road has always been rather windswept, as every building seems to have its back to it, with the exception of Tabernacl Penybont. The major businesses are Cody's and Bowlers (or whatever it's calling itself this month). The developers of Cae Court – HD Ltd - are working on an office/cafe development at the former PH pub. Obviously though, there are big gaps along the road - currently being used as private car parks - that could be developed if the street's improved.

The Rhiw

(Click to enlarge)

Status : Under construction

Works started on The Rhiw last week, and the road will be closed to traffic for up to 9 months. The Rhiw Car Park is still accessible via Angel Street. I'm not entirely sure what's planned here to be honest, but I think the one-way system is being reversed (to go downhill), making it easier to get to the car park from Brackla Street and Nolton Street.

Nolton Street

(Click to enlarge)


Status : Construction imminent

It's one of the the major projects, though work hasn't started yet. Nolton Street is due to become one-way (in the opposite direction to which the photo was taken) from Cowbridge Road to the town centre. Like other parts of town, the footpaths will be widened and lay-bys/loading bays provided.

You can probably tell that this is one of the grungier parts of the town centre – not exactly a good first impression - and it's hoped the improvements will make the stores along here more attractive. Though in fairness, there are quite a few independent stores and businesses along here already with very few gaps. It also has a lot of footfall, as it's another route to and from Brynteg Comprehensive.

Elder Yard

(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)











Status : Building refurbishments ongoing, no street works yet


Another HD Limited development. It's going to become an "evening entertainment quarter", with the former Elder Yard cottages (Grade II Listed) developed as a restaurant, alongside a courtyard with smaller retail units dotted around it. The former Victoria Inn is due to become a Filco Foods store I believe, with the heritage features kept intact.

3 Cross Street has been completed it seems, and there's a bridal ware business advertised on the ground floor.

It doesn't look like much now – there's a lot of work to be done - but if it's pulled off as the developers want it to be it could be quite impressive.

Bridgend Recreation Centre

(Click to enlarge)
Status : First phase (near enough) completed

I could see people using gym equipment through the windows, so I think it's fully open or close to being so. The only thing left of the first phase, it seems, is an extension to the car park. The second phase will include a spa and retail unit in the current main entrance building. It looks a little blander than the artist's impressions, but I suppose blue and white are Bridgend colours. It's definitely an improvement though, fair play.

Bridgend Transport Interchange

(Click to enlarge)
Status : Postponed indefinitely

The transport interchange will eventually run from where the steel fence is next to the ticket office through to Brackla Street. It'll be accompanied by improvements to the station forecourt.

The idea – as far as I know - is that buses will be able to call directly at the railway station then travel up/down Station Hill, improving integrated transport (I'll be coming back to that soon). It'll also mean people walking by foot from Brackla, for example, won't have to walk all the way through town to the entrance (since Arriva Trains Wales closed the Ogmore Terrace access to prevent fare-dodging).

The project was postponed last year due to land disputes between the various parties, including BT, Network Rail and Bridgend Council. I think Network Rail claimed they'll need the land for electrification works. It's been suggested the interchange could be delayed into the 2020s, which is absolutely ridiculous, but not the council's fault. It's a shame, as I think it would be a major improvement and a big "missing link".

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

South Wales hospital changes revealed

The Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant is set to lose its
full-time A&E, children's inpatients and maternity services as part
of a Welsh Government reorganisation of hospitals in south Wales.
(Pic : NHS Wales)
For at least a year, the five local health boards (LHBs) that run the NHS in south Wales and Powys have been working on plans to reorganise key services - concentrating them on fewer sites - as part of the Welsh Government's national hospital reorganisation strategy.

The South Wales Programme was formally unveiled earlier today. It's proven contentious, as it was unclear which hospitals would be downgraded and which services would be moved. Closer to home, there were particular concerns about the future of some services at Bridgend's Princess of Wales Hospital, leading to a protest march back in February.

The Welsh Government have long said that changes were needed for a variety of reasons, namely the lack of highly-qualified medical staff, in addition to budget constraints. Concentrating experts in fewer places could improve access to them - as long as people get to them quickly - instead of spreading them out thin.

Opposition politicians have claimed that some of the changes could put people at risk, as A&E departments have come under increasing strain – reducing them isn't going to make things better, on paper - while ambulance services continue to under-perform.

The full consultation documents will be released tomorrow (23rd May), but the consultation press release revealed the LHBs' desired option.

What is the desired option?

The following services :
  • Consultant-led maternity and neo-natal care
  • Children's inpatients
  • Emergency medicine (full-time A&E departments)

Will be concentrated at the following hospitals :
  1. University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff
  2. Morriston Hospital, Swansea
  3. Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend
  4. A new Critical Care Centre to be built between Newport and Cwmbran (unclear when)
  5. Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil

The changes could also mean:
  • The Royal Glamorgan Hospital, Llantrisant will have its full-time A&E department "downgraded" to a minor injuries unit (similar to Neath Port Talbot Hospital).
  • Planned surgery, and acute (specialist) services, might move from the Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend & University Hospital, Cardiff to the Royal Glamorgan.

The formal public consultation on these proposals starts tomorrow (23rd May), and ends on July 19th 2013. A series of public meetings will also be held. In Bridgend County, these will be held on :
  • June 3rd – 6:30pm, Court Coleman Manor, Pen-y-Fai
  • June 10th – 6:30pm, Heronston Hotel, Bridgend
  • June 20th – 6:30pm, Maesteg Town Hall
  • June 25th – 2pm, Brewery Field, Bridgend

The possible impact of the choice


The Princess of Wales Hospital should retain its A&E department, but could still lose services to the Royal Glamorgan, effectively "compensating" for the loss of their A&E. Most of those services are likely to be pre-planned and routine, so nothing that would put anyone at risk.

The headline will be/is the Royal Glamorgan potentially losing its A&E, children's and maternity services. The LHBs can try and sugar coat that all they want by saying it's not a "downgrade", but I imagine
in most people's eyes it'll be considered a pretty significant downgrade. However, it's said only 20% of A&E admissions are for "life-threatening emergencies", and most people will still be treated for things like serious cuts, sprains, fractures, burns etc. as well as other hospital services.

It won't be too much of a problem somewhere like Pontypridd, as you can whip up or down the A470 to Cardiff or Merthyr in an ambulance relatively quickly.

If you're suffering a serious life-threatening emergency - or an illness that could cause one - in the mid Rhondda valleys however, then you would have every right to be concerned. Even in good conditions, it's likely to add at least 10 minutes, probably more, to an ambulance journey to an A&E department.

Let's take a hypothetical heart attack in Penrhys.

First, the ambulance would need to get there – 8 minutes is the target for the Welsh Government, and only around half of ambulances currently reach that. In many cases that'll be enough, but lets say it's serious enough to require a consultant.

The shortest trip to the Royal Glamorgan is just under 10 miles - via Rhondda Fach, Porth and Tonyrefail - along reasonable quality A-roads. An experienced paramedic should be able to do that in 5-7 minutes. If the plans are approved, they won't be able to do that anymore.

The journey to the Princess of Wales, via the "Bwlch", Blackmill bends (a notorious accident black spot) and Brynmenyn would be 17 miles. Via Hendreforgan and the (bendy) Blackmill-Tonyrefail road its 16miles, and via the M4 (going past the Royal Glamorgan in the process, but along better quality roads) its 23 miles.

To Heath Hospital via Pontypridd (A470) its 17 miles, slightly longer than the journey to Bridgend but via faster roads. Via Llantrisant (again zipping past the Royal Glamorgan) and the M4 – 21miles. And remember that North Road is amongst the most congested parts of Cardiff at peak times.

Now, let's say the Heath is overcrowded - and the Princess of Wales too - because of all these extra emergency cases being redirected there. Also, there's a problem with people not paying attention to Welsh Government advice about going to A&E. Paramedics have to opt for Prince Chuckles instead.

Via Pontypridd and A470, that's a 24 mile trip. If the paramedics were a bit dim, they could try the Maerdy-Aberdare road - that journey would be between 19-20 miles - but along poor quality roads and whilst driving through Ferndale and Aberdare town centre really, really fast. And the longer ambulances are on the road transporting people to hospital, or sitting in queues outside A&E departments, the longer they can't respond to other emergencies.
That's a worst case scenario, admittedly, but all that's before throwing the emotive issue of children's and maternity services into the mix.

I'll leave you to decide if that's "safe and sustainable" or not.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Active Travel Bill - Learning lessons from elsewhere

"Build it and they won't come?"
Is the Active Travel Bill a missed opportunity to match education - and
incentives to push modal shift - with improved cycling facilities?
(Pic : roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com)
The Active Travel Bill was introduced earlier this year, and is currently making its way through the first committee stage, which is due to finish this week.

To recap, the Bill intends to place a duty on local authorities to map and plan "active travel routes" (English : Cycle and pedestrian lanes), allowing them to identify gaps, improve facilities and hopefully provide better quality routes to encourage walking and cycling.

Amongst the issues raised in committee is whether legislation is required, as opposed to a new strategy instead. There's also some confusion over departmental responsibilities – Culture Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) is the lead minister for the Bill, even though it's a transport responsibility - as well as the exact guidance local authorities will be issued with if the Bill is passed.

Another concern was that the legal requirement to carry out the mapping exercise might only apply to settlements with more than 2,000 residents – which would affect rural parts of the country, and bypass 23% of the Welsh population. That's not to mention the overarching issue of funding too.

I don't think you can deny that one of the main concerns about cycling (or walking) is safety. The main way nations, citing examples elsewhere in Europe, have tried to overcome that is by developing fully-segregated cycling facilities.

Sustrans recently announced plans for a segregated cycle route between Cardiff and Newport, which is estimated would cost just £500,000. That would buy you a few metres of motorway or half a railway station. So these things are relatively cheap, it's just a matter of finding the money and having the levels of use to justify spending it.

The Bill, as it stands, spells out that local authorities will need to "secure continuous improvement" to active travel networks. It's unclear if that means prioritising segregation over things like (cheaper) painted cycle lanes, we'll have to wait and see. Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) has a short debate in the Assembly on this issue on Wednesday.

However, there are warnings about going whole hog in developing cycling facilities without the underlying "nudge factors" to get people on their bikes in the first place.

There's one town in the UK which is, arguably, the ideal template for creating and sustaining a cycling culture. It has a fully segregated cycling and walking network, linking residential areas to major employers, the town centre core, as well as key transport infrastructure – the sort of thing the Active Travel Bill wants to encourage Welsh councils to develop.

Except, despite all that, it's been a massive failure. At its peak, it's reported only 14% of people used cycles as their main form of transport, and now the figure's just 3%.

Welcome to Stevenage

Does the fact things like this are seen as "radical" in the UK, highlight
the uphill struggle the Welsh Government and Sustrans have?
(Pic : The Telegraph)
Stevenage was developed as a new town in the 1960s and 70s, so we only have Cwmbran as a direct comparison in Wales. We can't apply the same criteria to most Welsh towns, which are older and have different geographies, but I think the underlying themes are still relevant.

Despite everything being designed from the outset with cyclists and pedestrians in mind - including traffic-free routes, underpasses and segregation between pedestrians and cyclists - it never caught on. People still opted to use their cars for short journeys, even if the facilities available were up to the standards of the Dutch.

So, even if you provide some of the best cycling facilities possible, if you don't get people to think "bike before car" – whether that's through discouraging car travel deliberately (i.e. low speed limits, speed humps, car park charges), or through education – it probably won't work.

Recent developments in London are another example of the uphill climb facing the Welsh Government and Sustrans. London has already developed a network of "cycle superhighways", and is now experimenting with Dutch-style cycle-friendly roundabouts (where cyclists have right of way when crossing the exits) and cycle traffic signals.

I think it highlights how backward the UK is when it comes to cycling when developments like these are flagged up as "radical innovations", so mind-blowing, that they need to be confined to the academic bubble for further study as if they were alien concepts. They've been used elsewhere in the world for decades.

I still think, broadly speaking, the draft law is a good one. It just falls short of what it could have been. Judging by some of the committee evidence, I think others feel the same way deep down.

One of the big let downs in the Active Travel Bill is that it's heavily focused on the practical mapping exercise, with little emphasis on the "softer/social" changes required to encourage people out of their cars – just like Stevenage.

It should've had provisions in there for things like cycle proficiency training, speed limits and minimum standards for cycling facilities. Of course, all that could be included in any official guidance drawn up by the Welsh Government.

We can do better than just monitoring cycle lanes, ticking a box for each new metre of tarmac put down. Tarmac that – without the right cultural shift – is unlikely to be used as intended.