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?

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Senedd Watch - October 2013

  • The National Assembly passed the Active Travel Bill on October 1st. The Active Travel Act 2013 will place statutory duties on local authorities to plan, map and improve integrated cycling and pedestrian networks. Chair of the Assembly's Petitions Committee, William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales), said it highlighted the success of the petitions system, as the law started life as a Sustrans Cymru petition in 2007.
  • Chair of the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), referred a Life Sciences Fund investment to the Wales Audit Office after the chair, Sir Christopher Evans, was revealed to have had an interest in a company which received funding. In a separate matter, a member of the public referred the appointment of former Plaid Cymru leader Ieuan Wyn Jones as head of the Menai Science Park to the Wales Audit Office. It was soon confirmed that there was no breach of rules regarding former ministerial appointments.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), told ITV Wales that consideration should be given to replacing the Welsh Office with a Department of the Nations, saying it would prevent Wales being “marginalised” at UK level. He also suggested the Assembly should have shorter recesses and sit in plenary three times a week.
  • In his annual report, NHS Wales chief executive David Sissling said the health service had made a number of improvements despite criticism and pressures, including from the Welsh Government, who BBC Wales believed raised serious concerns about every local health board bar Powys in August 2013.
  • Estyn expressed concerns about standards at the South East Wales Centre for Teacher Education and Training, in particular literacy and numeracy training and guidance. Plaid Cymru education spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), said more support was needed for teachers when they leave university, and Wales needed to learn best practice from England and Scotland.
  • Opposition politicians said the Welsh economy was in desperate need for growth after tax figures from HMRC showed Wales generated 3.1% of the UK's tax take despite having a population share of 4.9%. The Welsh Government said the figures were “distorted and incomplete” and Welsh tax-take kept pace with UK growth.
  • Estyn's report into mathematics teaching at GCSE level concluded that performances were “disappointing”, with an 11% gap between Wales and England with regard pupils achieving at least a C grade. The Welsh Government said the report highlighted both areas of success and areas where improvements were required.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) unveiled the draft budget for 2014-15, which included a significant increase in NHS spending over three years, but significant cuts to local government and further education. A £100million agreement was reached between Labour, Plaid Cymru and Welsh Libs Dems which included funds for supported housing, health technologies and deprived pupils. The minister also announced a £617.5million capital spending package over the next three years.
  • In response to the draft budget, Cardiff Council's Cllr. Russell Goodway warned some local authorities “could go bust” as a result of absorbing extra cuts on top of existing spending restraint. The Welsh Local Government Association were also critical, saying the Welsh NHS was “squeezing out” other budgets.
  • Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) issued a statement calling for Carmarthenshire Council to be placed in special measures, after a Plaid Cymru councillor was prevented from drawing attention to Wales Audit Office concerns about unlawful payments during the council's monthly meeting.
  • Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood told her party's annual conference that Wales remained at the bottom of too many league tables, promising strong leadership. She outlined policy proposals such as a 20p levy on soft drinks to pay for 1,000 additional doctors, cutting or scrapping business rates for small businesses and creating a not-for-profit energy company to sell directly to Welsh businesses and households.
  • Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) was granted leave to introduce a backbench Financial Education and Inclusion Bill, which aims to improve financial education in schools and beyond, and increase local authority powers to both deal with payday lending and promote financial inclusion.
  • Minister for Housing and Regeneration, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) announced that the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) would be suspended, and placed under direct Welsh Government control, following an ongoing Wales Audit Office and Serious Fraud Office investigation into land sales in 2012.
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee found a Monmouthshire-based drainage board – responsible for ensuring the Gwent Levels don't flood - had potentially put lives at risk through poor management, and also that members took trips abroad without any business case. Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said he was considering merging drainage boards into Natural Resources Wales.
  • The First Minister criticised Network Rail for not consulting the Welsh Government over their scheduling of major works to the Severn Tunnel, which coincided with the opening ceremony of the Rugby League World Cup and the Womex music festival – both held in Cardiff. Network Rail said the work was “vital”.
  • The First Minister defended Hywel Dda LHB's decision to postpone non-urgent surgery in order to increase winter capacity, while trade unions and opposition AMs criticised the decision. Doctors also claimed NHS staff would be deterred from whistle blowing about poor care as the result of new Welsh NHS policy guidelines published in July.
  • Business & Enterprise Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), announced the creation of a group to deliver a metro system in south east Wales following the publication of an executive report. The scheme, if completed in full, would cost £1.9billion between now and 2030.
  • The Welsh Government introduced the Control of Horses Bill, which aims to tackle illegal fly-grazing and abandonment of horses. There was, however, criticism of a decision to bypass the first committee stage from three Assembly committees.
  • The National Assembly agreed unanimously that a decision to create a Welsh national cricket team should be left to cricket authorities following a petition to, and report from, the Assembly's Petitions Committee. Both Glamorgan County Cricket Club and Cricket Wales reject the proposal.
  • There was confusion over Barnett consequentials resulting from the High Speed 2 (HS2) project in England, with Finance Minister Jane Hutt telling the Assembly's Finance Committee in a letter that £35million was added to the Welsh budget as a result project spending. The UK Government denied this, saying HS2 is a “vital UK project” and outside of the bounds of the Barnett formula, but later backtracked, accepting the Welsh Government's view.
  • The Environment & Sustainability Committee criticised Natural Resources and Food Minister, Alun Davies, after accounting errors left £342million of farming subsidies off his department's draft budget sheets. He was also criticised for giving “evasive and contradictory” answers to the committee. The Welsh Government rejected both the criticism itself and its tone, saying it was “simply flawed and inaccurate.”
  • Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) pledged to launch a neglect review into the circumstances surrounding the death of an 82 year old woman in 2012 after two years of on-off treatment at Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot Hospital. Relatives said her treatment was “appalling”, and she was left dehydrated.
  • The Western Mail reported that in a leaked letter to Labour party colleagues, Blaenau Gwent council leader, Hedley McCarthy, savaged the Welsh Government's handling of local government services - in particular placing local authorities into special measures - and questioned current reviews into, and possible expense of, local government reorganisation.

Projects announced in October include : A scheme to guarantee a post-16 education or training place for all young people in Wales out of work by 2015, confirmation of £44million rail improvements in north east Wales that includes redoubling of track between Wrexham and Chester, two new business rate relief schemes to run until 2015 and 2016, a £268million package over several years towards housing for vulnerable people, details of a commemoration of the First World War in 2014 and a new delivery plan for neurological conditions.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Review - The Reformed Union

A federal Britain? David Melding AM makes
his case inThe Reformed Union.
(Pic : Click on Wales)
This would've been posted sooner, but was interrupted by my technical problems. And believe me, myself and technology are going through a rough patch at the moment. You don't realise how close this blog came to disappearing for good today.

Deputy Llywydd David Melding (Con, South Wales Central) recently published a book via the Institute of Welsh Affairs entitled The Reformed Union : The UK as a Federation. It's available here.

The book's main thrust outlines why the Union works, why it's important, but also why it's in desperate need for reform.

Each of its six main sections explores a different aspect of the Union, including insights into, and short histories of : how the Union came to be, the historical and constitutional importance of parliamentary sovereignty, how unionism and supra-national institutions like the European Union co-exist, fiscal federalism, and the impact of civic nationalism on national and international politics.

You quickly get the impression it was written by a conservative because of the deference to tradition and precedent, but there are few outright political points made. David's clever enough to acknowledge different streams of unionist and nationalist thought, and the book itself could be described as politically neutral. Take out the name, and you could easily have guessed it to have come from one of Wales' many high-profile "wet nationalists".

For example, you look at the UK Conservatives, New Labour and UKIP and get the impression unionism is nothing but about having strong opinions on the EU or being gang masters and armchair generals. On the other hand, when you look at Plaid Cymru, you would think Welsh nationalism is a minor branch of democratic socialism and green politics, with right-wing and centrist nationalists treated as mythical creatures or ignored.

Despite some of the doom-laden language used to generate a sense of urgency regarding the Union's future, The Reformed Union is mostly positive and upbeat. There is, however, a romanticised view of the British constitution within The Reformed Union that borders on sentimentality. There's nothing wrong with that, as I'm sure many nationalists get dewy-eyed thinking about Welsh traditions and culture too.

In terms of his approach to the question of reform, David's very keen throughout to tweak existing British institutions to fit the multi-national reality of the modern United Kingdom, proposing, for example, that the monarch takes the title "Prince(ss) of Wales".

There are problems using British institutions to bind everything together. Using his monarchy example –  however popular the Queen is (even I like Betty Windsor) – it's in dire need of reform in its own right. The interfering Chuckles and dull, over-privileged William are set to follow, while there are so many hanger-on relatives it's hard to keep up with the names and faces.

Great British institutions like the BBC and Fleet Street have been damaged by scandals, while the Great British golden goose – the financial service sector – almost led the UK to penury, and could still yet. Then there's the military; sent to Iraq off the back of a false premise and now being stripped to the bone. One of the world's few, and very expensive, nuclear arsenal's will soon be protected, in the main, by an army of which a large chunk will soon be TAs and reservists.

He addresses – in the most detailed examination (alongside fiscal federalism) - the different approaches taken by different nation states to constitutional reform; ranging from the oligarchical, "elitist" approaches taken by the Scottish Constitutional Convention in the 1990s, the United States Continental Congress and the European Union, to the more pluralistic and democratised approach recently undertaken in Iceland and the Republic of Ireland.

He proposes that a future British constitutional convention should be : time-limited, deal with the issue as a matter of urgency, allow a level of open participation and be decided around the "middle ground" of federalism.

That's pretty much the limit of any concrete proposals. Don't go into this expecting detailed outlines for constitutional reform, it's more an underlying case for reform. Perhaps David feels it's best left to any future constitutional convention, but it would've been nice to have had some idea of what he thinks it should look like.

It's a weakness of nationalists too – though I've tried to articulate my own views on what an independent Wales could look like, and why it matters, however ponderous those thoughts might be. So that's not a criticism of David. It's harder than it looks, believe me, and it's easier to make a case for something than sort out the aftermath of those decisions.

There are, of course, parts I'd outright disagree with. I'd contest David's claim that modern British unionism has an "acceptance of secession". A democratic acceptance definitely, as well as the post-imperial consensus towards de-colonisation.

It's a reluctant acceptance though. There's an ugly underbelly, as demonstrated by some arguments being used by unionists in the Scottish independence debate, as well as the background and legacy of the Republic of Ireland leaving the Union. David does, at least, address the latter at several points without dwelling on it, perhaps as it betrays the picture of a happy British family.

Also, it doesn't automatically follow, as David asserts, that Scottish or Catalan independence could lead to an explosion of secessionism globally. Taking the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union out of the equation because of the extreme circumstances, there've only been three universally-recognised secessions in the last 25 years – Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Divorce" (1993), East Timor (2002) and South Sudan (2012) – none of which setting off a chain reaction in their respective regions.

Democratic secessionism is based on several factors. Scotland, Flanders, the Basque Country and Catalonia likely meet most of them – even many unionists accept Scotland would "survive" as an independent state. Wales, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Gallicia and Wallonia probably don't meet those requirements currently, though it's interesting to note that David says Welsh independence could (emphasis on the could) be feasible one day. Whether that's an attempt to win over nationalists is for you to decide.

Nor does it follow that secessionism leads to global instability. Wars are usually fought between great and regional powers, or via proxies with the implicit backing of those powers. You could argue that getting rid of the global big boys – instead sharing sovereignty though supra-national organisations rather than being browbeaten by regional giants – could increase regional stability, as the EU has done in Western and Central Europe.

I do think he's confused about what "independence" means too, and he's not the only one.

The UK is an independent nation-state, participating in the international community under a single banner and recognised by the world as such. "Wales" is something that only exists on the sporting field or other avenues of "permissive Welshness" like devolution and the language. That's not a "multi-national" identity, but a very rigid single one dominated and shaped by one ethno-linguistic majority - the English - and those from the fringes lucky enough to have made it to the top table.

I want Wales to have autonomy over all domestic and international affairs. I see little benefit derived to Wales in those areas - exclusively as a result of union - other than fiscal transfers; the vast bulk spent on our behalf by an increasingly distant, alien and deep-seated government in London. I don't see military power, permanent UK Security Council seats, the City of London, the Queen, Westminster, BBC or the Olympic team as "benefiting Wales" at all, or (in some cases) exclusively dependant on political union.

It's certainly benefited individuals, and there've been important "one-offs" in addition to fiscal transfers. But what has Wales - as a whole - got out of any of that other than corpses, pomp, peripheral neglect and the satisfying thump of giros on doormats?

That's irreconcilable, so I doubt I'm David's "middle ground" target anyway, but I accept mine is a minority view.


The European Union barely qualifies as a confederation, and doesn't impact its members' ability to have equal standing with non-EU members either in Europe or globally. Slovenia is as independent as Norway, but Scotland isn't as independent as Slovenia, only the UK is allowed to be.

In that respect, David is correct to say that the EU might be seen as a "surrogate union" by nationalists. If it's good enough for the Slovenes and the Dutch, why isn't it good enough for the Welsh, English, Basques, Catalans and Scots?

Why do we - amongst all the nations and peoples of Europe - need to be part of an inflexible, asymmetrical union of four within a weak union of 28, when we can become equal partners #29+ etc. in a loose union that spans the continent and grants everyone (near enough) exactly the same standing and status?

That needn't diminish a British union, in my opinion, as long as there's a good enough proposal on the table. The United Kingdom as a single sovereign nation-state would still have to go, though. It's confederation at a minimum or bust for me.


For a Conservative – and someone who clearly takes the UK's constitution to heart – The Reformed Union borders on radical, yet I'm unsure how strongly David Melding's views are supported within his own party.

It's a shrewd attempt to build bridges between "Celtic" civic nationalism and British unionism by trying to find common ground and make compromises. For example, I'm sure it would've pained someone with such a idealised view of the British constitution to contemplate ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

The soundtrack is very much Elgar's Nimrod, but you get the impression, very subtly, that this is close to being the long-awaited for "positive case for Union". I still think there are holes, but it's almost convincing. Almost. It just needs some meat on the bones, and I think that's going to be difficult as we'll all have different ideas about what powers should reside where.

It's a must-read for constitutional geeks from all parties who favour constitutional reform, or anyone simply curious about the thoughts of one of Wales' leading constitutional thinkers.

I don't think David need worry too much about the 2014 referendum though. Judging by the polls it looks like everything's alright:
                           

Saturday, 26 October 2013

New law to rein in abandoned horses

A lovely horse, and some not so lovely horses.
The Welsh Government are cracking down on illegal fly-grazing via a new law

There've been instances across Wales of horses being left to fly graze on public land or farmland illegally, and for some time, the Welsh Government have wanted to clamp down on abandoned horses.

Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan are, in fact, picked out as "hot spots" for fly-grazing.


In 2011, more than 250 stray horses and ponies rampaged around Laleston and Coity, some managing to get onto the M4. In 2012, stray horses in the Bryntirion area of Bridgend took over playing fields and invaded both the local secondary school and people's gardens. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) has also raised concerns about ~200 abandoned horses in the Gower.

Horses can be temperamental, so can be dangerous to anyone who isn't used to handling them. It's usually the fire service and police who deal with the horses themselves, but local authorities have complained that the powers they currently have are "inadequate to enable them to tackle the issue."

In response, last week Natural Resources and Food Minister Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) introduced the Control of Horses Bill to the National Assembly.

A bit of controversy

Once again, the Welsh Government have sped up legislation, this time bypassing the first committee stage, which usually includes evidence from interested outside parties and experts. The Bill's fairly short and easy to understand so I don't think they're trying to pull a fast one, but you've got to wonder if the Welsh Government are starting to bypass legislative stages out of habit.

Ironically, Welsh Conservative leader - and farmer - Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), might've provided the impetus by suggesting in previous debates that a fly-grazing law "could be required this winter" if it's harsh enough to put animals at risk. He believed the Welsh Government should "reach out to opposition parties to try to instigate a speedy passage of the Bill".

So they did, and the minister says he received concrete cross-party for it. That's the clear party political view, but - putting aside unrelated criticism of Alun Davies over the last 48 hours for a moment - it's not the view shared by the Assembly's committees.

Respective chairs of the Environment & Sustainability and Finance Committees - Dafydd Elis Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) and Jocelyn Davies AM (Plaid, South Wales East) - criticised the decision at some length during the first debate on Tuesday.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) - speaking on behalf of the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee - said they didn't have a chance to scrutinise the legislation beforehand and that the committee "didn't like working this way."

A William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) amendment to the debate motion "regretting" the decision to bypass the first committee stage failed to pass by just two votes.

What the law intends to do

The law covers "all equine animals".
(Pic : zoochat.com)
Bill here (pdf), explanatory memorandum here (pdf).

The Bill :
  • Gives local authorities the power to seize, impound and dispose of horses which are either :
    • On highways or in public places without lawful authority
    • On land without the consent of the landowner/occupier ("landowner" includes local authorities themselves)
  • Places statutory duties on local authorities to:
    • Give written notice at the point of seizure and to the police within 24 hours.
    • Take reasonable steps to find the horse(s) owner and inform them in writing within 7 days of seizure.
    • Keep a public register of all horse seizures.
  • Will mean horse owners are liable for the costs of any seizure of horses under this law, and the local authority won't be obliged to return a horse until payment has been received in full.
  • Will mean if the horse owner, or someone on their behalf, hasn't been found/come forward with 7 days, local authorities have the power to arrange for the "disposal" of the horse, including euthanasia.
  • Outlines that if money made from disposal falls short of the costs of seizure then the owner will be liable to make up the difference, but also if the disposal exceeds costs of seizure then the local authority will be required to pay the owner the difference.
  • Places a duty on Welsh Ministers to draft regulations for an appeals process.
  • Repeals/supersedes clauses relating to wild horses in previous local government legislation.
"Horse" for the purpose of the Bill is defined as a horse, donkey, pony, mule, hinny (whatever one of those is) and "any other equine animals". Zebras of Wales - not just the Treorchy kind - have been put on notice then, while somewhere there's a zoologist crying.

I know I'm talking theoretically here, but you can imagine what the public reaction might be if a zebra escaped from a travelling circus, zoo or sanctuary, wasn't recovered in time, and was (somehow) set to be put down under this law.

The Assembly's Finance Committee have asked for updated estimates of how many horses the Welsh Government would expect to be destroyed should the Bill become law. It's also said in the explanatory memorandum that the law will be reviewed two years, or sooner, after it becomes law.

What the law means

The explanatory memorandum says the Bill has been welcomed by animal welfare organisations and equine societies such as RSPCA, Redwings and Blue Cross,  who've seen sharp increases in the number of horses seeking re-homing or being abandoned.

The overriding goal of the law is clear cut, and it's obvious the Welsh Government are getting tough with fly-grazers.

Horse owners would have a week to reclaim their horse(s) if seized by a local authority. If not, the horse will either end up re-homed or in a knacker's yard, with the owner facing a hefty bill for their trouble.

7 days might seem harsh – previous limits were 14 days - and it was raised by Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) in the Environment & Sustainability Committee, while Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) had concerns about the potential impact on gypsies and travellers.

You've also got to wonder if disposal is the best solution, when compulsory microchipping of horses - in the same manner as dogs - might be better in the long-term.

Alun Davies told the committee he would expect "any responsible horse owners to check their horses on a daily basis". Negligent horse owners might have also seen the old limit as 14 days of free food for their horse(s) at the expense of someone else's land.

Some existing laws – like the Animals Act 1971 and Animal Welfare Act 2006 – place duties on owners to ensure the welfare of animals they own, and gives landowners the power to detain livestock that stray onto their land. Legislation specific to some old counties of Wales also granted local authorities the power to seize stray animals, however those provisions don't cover the whole of Wales, while the Control of Horses Bill will.

A similar, but significantly more extensive, law was passed in the Republic of Ireland in 1996. I think it perfectly highlights the difference between the sovereign powers an independent nation has and devolution.

The current cost of fly-grazing to the police, RSPCA, councils, equine societies and fire service is said to be a cumulative £1.2million a year.

The average cost – citing examples in Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan – of a horse seizure is around £500 per horse, while other local authorities like Swansea say the costs are between £1,000 and £1,500 per horse.

The costs of the proposed law are mixed. Some local authorities operating under the local laws mentioned above will already carry out some of the functions outlined in this proposed Bill, so it won't cost them anything. For the rest, it might cost around £600 per horse.

To put things in perspective, Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan and Swansea impounded 154 horses in 2012 alone – which is much higher than I had expected, working out at almost three horses a week.

At national level, a contract for secure accommodation for seized horses would cost around £450,000 to set up, and £300,000 per year afterwards. It'll cost the Welsh Government £11,000 to issue the appropriate statutory guidance.

I'd also propose another, less politically correct, solution to the problem:

         

I don't understand why people are squeamish about eating horse meat. It's eaten across Asia and mainland Europe – especially France, Italy, and northern Europe - we have loads of them, it's better for the environment as horses fart less methane than cows and they're all free range. It's also completely legal, just unfashionable.

It might encourage those thinking of abandoning their horses to sell them instead. You have to wonder if there would be a market for Welsh boucheries chevalines.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Look East? : Where should Wales target its exports?

The latest export figures, and an RBS report, highlight the increasing importance
of the Middle East, Asia and South America to European exporters - and in the
case of the Middle East, Wales in particular.
(Pic : oceanbasket.com)
I've covered Welsh exports in some detail last year, but the export figures for Quarter 2 2013 were recently released by HM Revenue & Customs.
  • Total value of goods exports (in 2013 so far) - £7.09billion
  • Total value of goods imports (in 2013 so far) - £3.72billion
  • Net export of goods from Wales in 2013 (so far) - +£3.37billion

So, currently, Wales exports almost twice as much goods as it imports - services are a different matter. Despite overall exports being down 6.4% on Q2 2012, and a relatively low number of exporting companies, if the trend continues then we could be looking at a big rebound on 2012's disappointing figures, possibly heading towards the highest exports in a calendar year for some time.

The figures also show Welsh exports are diversifying slightly. In the last few years, Wales has been too reliant on too few export sectors. That's still the case, but there's been a clear boost to manufacturing exports in particular.

First Minister Carwyn Jones was understandably pleased, saying :

"Businesses in Wales have benefited from one of the highest increases in the value of exports since 1999 while the value of exports from Wales this quarter are at their highest level since 2011.

Not only are we working with businesses to develop existing and new export markets, but we are also setting the pace in terms of attracting inward investment projects to Wales – with the number of investment projects increasing by almost 200% last year, according to latest UKTI figures.”

“International trade clearly remains a priority for us and we continue to provide assistance to Welsh businesses at all stages of their efforts to increase exports. This includes a comprehensive programme of overseas trade missions and exhibitions, where we will be taking businesses to markets such as Qatar, China, India, Germany, Russia, Brazil and the USA."

In terms of where the exports are going, it makes interesting reading.

Although the EU is on course to remain Wales' single largest import-export market, the Middle East is the fastest-growing, almost doubling compared to 2012 figures. The United Arab Emirates is now Wales' fourth largest export partner (p10) – exports grew by 31.2% - and Wales is the only UK nation or region to have a Middle Eastern country in its top 5 export partners.

Wales (43%) remains less-reliant on the EU for exports than England (49%), but not to the same extent as Scotland (40%). Northern Ireland remains more reliant on the EU for exports than the rest of the UK (57%) perhaps because of cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland.

And, once again, only Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and North East England are net-exporters of goods.

So the current picture is rosyish, but it's worth considering where Welsh business should target its exports in the future and where new or expanding markets for Welsh products could be.

Istanbul has been a key link between east and west for centuries, and looks like
Turkey should be an increasingly important market for Welsh businesses.
(Pic : goturkey.com)

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) produced their own concurrent report – In search of export opportunities (pdf) – which aims to identify "the best non-traditional markets for UK goods exporters".

RBS weighed several key characteristics, including : trade compatibility, growth rankings, GDP per capita and ease of exporting.

As a result, they put "non-traditional markets" into four broad categories : attractive and large, unattractive and large, attractive and small and unattractive and small.

India is (surprisingly) categorised as an unattractive market, said to be due to widespread income disparities, low trade compatibility (they don't need the things we export) and barriers to exports like high tariffs and taxes.

China, Brazil, Taiwan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and South Korea are – unsurprisingly – seen as large and attractive markets. Turkey is also included, which might influence the debate on future European Union membership, and would explain why the First Minister has been making trade visits there.

The surprise "large and attractive" market though is Mexico, based on good compatibility with UK exports and good growth prospects, being described as a "dark horse". Despite the drug cartel wars being particularly vicious, clearly it's not having a massive effect on the wider Mexican economy.

In terms of the small and attractive markets, you have mostly Gulf States – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and emerging markets like Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and South Africa.

The small and unattractive nations are mostly politically unstable nations like Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Algeria, and perhaps two surprise inclusions - Venezuela and Vietnam.


However successful Hugo Chavez's social policies were, his failure
to tackle things like corruption and rampant inflation are starting to bite,
with shortages of basic essentials.
(Pic : Reuters via BBC)
Venezuela's inclusion is understandable. Compared to Hugo Chavez, his replacement Nicolas Maduro is a hard line ideologue (and that's saying something) currently seeking to rule by decree. Despite their oil wealth, there are said to be serious structural problems within the Venezuelan economy, and Chavez's social reforms – while popular and somewhat successful – are likely to damage the economy in the long-term.

The country has become almost entirely dependent on oil exports; while being reliant on imports for practically everything else has sent prices of everyday items - including food and things like toilet paper - skyrocketing. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is on its last legs and will probably be judged by history to be a failure.

I think Vietnam will be one to watch in the long-term though. It's been predicted for several years that Vietnam would be one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Despite undertaking reforms similar to China under Deng Xiaoping (called
Đổi Mới), the Vietnamese are still waiting to reap economic rewards on the same scale. They still have some way to go, but they have a lot going for them, including a Latin alphabet, the fastest growth rate of all of the nations RBS assessed (~11%) and huge amounts of foreign direct investment in manufacturing.

Despite their disgraceful treatment of migrant workers, Qatar might be increasingly important too. I'd imagine steel and chemicals will be high on their list of priorities due to the construction of Lusail City and venues for the 2022 World Cup. Order books in Port Talbot might be buoyant as a result.

The picture you get from the RBS report is that the best nations to target exports at are "nearly developed" ones – nations that aren't full members of the developed world yet but rapidly on their way to reaching that status. The economic centre of power is shifting east and south, with Asia and South America becoming increasingly important to European and North American exporters – Wales included.


Exports and currency strength are inextricably linked.
Is Sterling holding Wales and Scotland back?
(Pic : Click on Wales)
There is a problem though, as many of the nations listed are themselves generally net-exporters. You wonder if there's any logic in net-exporters trading with other net-exporters.

You know I'm obliged to bring up independence, and one of the big economic arguments in its favour is related to this.

Net-exporters, generally, should have a weak currency as it makes their products cheaper to buy and imports more expensive, boosting domestic production, domestic consumption and external trade.

A Welsh currency, or even the euro (because it's weaker than the pound), should on paper – along with the right economic policies - boost Welsh exports/exporters and the wider Welsh economy. It could also lead to Wales retaining more service sector spending due to currency staying within Wales.

At the moment, the UK economy is geared towards imports, with a strong currency based around a strong service sector. That's totally out of kilter with what Wales and Scotland need based on our respective economic strengths, and it's probably damaging the Welsh economy, playing a big understated role in the widening of Offa's Gap.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

School shake-up planned for Garw valley

Two new schools are set to rise from the ashes of Betws Primary
in a reorganisation of English and Welsh medium education in the Garw valley.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Bridgend Council's cabinet recently considered a proposal (doc) to replace two English medium primaries in the Garw valley and address Welsh-medium demand across the central and north eastern parts of Bridgend county.

The plans are to build two new schools on the current site of Betws Primary :
  • A merged English-medium primary (Betws + Tynyrheol) – to be built by September 2016.
  • A 255 (210+45 nursery) capacity Welsh-medium primary to replace Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Cwm Garw – to be built by September 2017.

The Reasoning

Relocating Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Cwm Garw

YGG Cwm Garw, based in Pontycymer, is an old Victorian building located on a hillside within narrow terraced streets. It's judged to be in a "poor condition", with a backlog of £700,000 in repairs and maintainence.

Its capacity is 223 pupils, but there's currently a surplus of places at both Welsh-medium primaries serving the northern half of Bridgend county (YGG Cwm Garw and YGG Cynwyd Sant in Maesteg). Although demand is expected to grow at both schools between 2013 and 2021, YGG Cynwyd Sant has a more managable surplus of 7, while YGG Cwm Garw would still have a surplus of 49 places (currently 84).

Meanwhile, the two Welsh-medium primaries serving the south of Bridgend county (YGG Bro Ogwr in Brackla and YGG Y Ferch o'r Sg
êr in North Cornelly) are oversubscribed, with mobile classrooms currently being added to cater for the extra demand. The goal of this proposal is to reduce pressure on YGG Bro Ogwr in particular, while it's said BCBC are currently exploring separate options for the west of the county.

YGG Cwm Garw is towards the top of the Garw valley, so moving it to a more central location like Betws could help serve demand in the Sarn/Bryncethin/Tondu area, where many children might currently attend YGG Bro Ogwr as it's easier to get to.
I suggested in my look at the 2011 Census that the central part of Bridgend county could be one area where you would expect demand for Welsh-medium education to increase or is currently poorly served.

The new school would be larger, with 210 pupil places, plus 45 full-time equivalent nursery places. It would initially be single-form entry but is said would be "flexible enough to meet any increase in demand for Welsh-medium places in the area".

Merging Betws & Tynyrheol Primary Schools


The junior part of Betws Primary was destroyed by a serious fire in June 2012, and has been moved to temporary buildings, so a new build school for the area has been on the cards for a while and perhaps BCBC have decided to kill two birds with one stone.

The school is one of these flatrooved 1960s monstrosities and, like YGG Cwm Garw, the condition – even of the parts not destroyed by fire - is said to be poor, with a £250,000 backlog in repairs and maintenance. There are no capacity issues, with the number of surplus places expected to fall from 49 in 2013 to just 4 in 2021.

Tynyrheol Primary, which serves nearby Llangeinor, will be oversubscribed by 2021. It's a small school, located on the main Garw Valley road, with only 69 pupils on roll in September 2013. The current headteacher is retiring next year, so BCBC have decided that the time's right for a change.

The plans are for Betws and Tynyrheol schools to merge as a single, split-site school (sharing a head teacher) in September 2014, then move to a new build school at the Betws site in September 2016. The new school would presumably have a capacity of around 320.

Sharing sites between English and Welsh medium primaries isn't that unusual in Bridgend either, YGG Y Ferch o'r Sg
êr shares a site with Cornelli Primary for example.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Change desperately required at the FAW

An abyss of nothingness, consumed by the the roar of endless woe.
(Owen : I've been on an enforced break due to technical issues that have - hopefully - been resolved. Nothing happened to me, and nothing died except my router. So some of the upcoming posts might be a little behind the curve, and those of you who've sent me e-mails or tweets, I haven't ignored them, I just never received them.

I was going to post something on Plaid Cymru's proposed soft drink levy. Instead of posting that now, Syniadau's pretty much covered what I was going to say myself.)


The Assembly's Communities, Equalities & Local Government Committee are currently undertaking an inquiry into sports participation.

Towards the end of September, the Football Association of Wales' (FAW) Chief Executive, Jonathan Ford (as well as the chief executive of the Welsh Football Trust and FAW research manager), gave evidence to the committee – including evidence relating investment in 3G pitches and increasing participation amongst women and minorities, two issues raised during the Assembly's last inquiry into Welsh football.

Governance at the FAW – long criticised for a whole host of reasons I'll come back to - was also raised, with Jonathan Ford submitting the FAW's recent report into governance arrangements along with his oral evidence (pdf).

The Issues at the FAW

Many FAW Council members have been very active in the Welsh
football grassroots, but are they up to the challenges facing modern football?
(Pic : McDonald's)
Plenty of anecdotal evidence of the problems at the FAW was provided by the committee's AMs.

During the evidence session, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) pointed out that "turkeys don't vote for Christmas", meaning that despite major issues the FAW Council are unlikely to vote themselves out of existence. She also pointed towards bullying and self-interest within the FAW in relation to Llanelli and Barry Town's exclusions from the Welsh Football League (overturned by the High Court).

Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) highlighted significant local weaknesses in governance where 80 children in Conwy were excluded from playing football for 18 months because they weren't allowed into the local league (for some unclear reason). She had concerns about the standard of the investigation and said there were delays when it came to publishing reports.

Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) was a bit more complimentary, saying many FAW Council members will have done a lot of grunt work at the grassroots level before making their way up the ladder. Jonathan Ford acknowledged the FAW Council members contributions - they're all volunteers - but questioned whether members were up to the challenges being placed on modern football (finances, legal requirements, professionalism etc).

Other issues highlighted in the FAW report itself include:
  • 72% of FAW Council members believed that there was a need for change in governance arrangements as :
    • People were elected based on seniority.
    • There was a need for an age limit as elderly council members were "falling asleep at meetings".
    • Parochialism, cliques, self-interest, bullying and North-South rivalries.
    • Lack of key skills (i.e running a business).
    • Life members retain a vote but have no mandate.
  • 72% of FAW Council members also believed that decision-making powers were poor or average, with processes taking too long and the FAW Council itself and individual committees holding too much sway, with the Council retaining an ability to effectively "veto" committee decisions, using Standing Orders to derail things (sounds familiar).
  • Some believed that decisions were not made in the interests of Welsh football, but based on local considerations. There's no balance between looking out for individual clubs and the needs of the Welsh game as a whole. A minority of council members placed club/league loyalties above national ones.
  • There's a belief that the FAW spends too much money on administration and staff, but there was no consensus on how funds should be spent.
  • There was a need for "better communication and working" between the FAW Council, FAW and Welsh Football Trust.
  • Ground improvements – while FAW Council members felt it worked well – should be geared towards strategic "community hubs" (as raised in the previous Assembly inquiry) with stricter qualification criteria for funding.

The Key Recommendations
The Welsh Football Trust - which helps deliver ground
improvements - will have a closer relationship with the FAW.
(Pic : Neath Port Talbot College)
FAW Executive Committee

  • Will be a new body to lead the FAW in terms of policy, strategy and finances.
  • Should include "a mixture of business and football skills".
  • Will be limited to 10 members, with 4 members included from the FAW Council.

The FAW Council, Committees & Boards

  • Will be restructured to 35 members (including 12 club members), including representatives from both the Welsh Premier League and Welsh Women's Premier League. The current Treasurer position would be replaced by a full-time Financial Officer at Executive Committee level from 2016.
  • Should introduce an age limit of 80 years old for FAW Council members, and any new members up for election should be aged under 70 in 2016 and under 65 in 2020.
  • FAW Council terms will be extended from 3 years to 4 years (in line with international competition cycles).
  • Life members of the FAW Council will retain membership privileges, but lose voting rights.
  • A Scrutiny Committee will be established to scrutinise "the activities of all boards and committees".
  • The six current Standing Committees will be replaced by 3 Game Boards (Community, National, International) each covering a coherent list of policy areas.

Welsh Football Trust, Ground Improvements & Finances

  • Working relationships between the FAW & Welsh Football Trust (WFT) will become closer, stopping short of a formal merger, with FAW representation on the WFT board.
  • The WFT will be re-branded the "FAW Trust" to prevent confusion over the roles of the two organisations.
  • Ground improvements should be approved against strategic objectives.
  • Finances should be targeted at over-16s to increase participation levels, working with Sport Wales where appropriate.

Area Associations

  • Area Association governance arrangements should be "professionalised", possibly including the employment of full-time/part-time staff.
  • Grants to Area Associations could be dependent on meeting strategic objectives.
  • Similar age limits proposed for the FAW Council should apply to Area Associations.
  • Area Associations and FAW should harmonise disciplinary procedures across Wales, review the structure of the season for young players, promote non-traditional forms of football (i.e Futsal/5-a-side) and encourage clubs to make use of local facilities, including those provided via the FAW's 3G pitch programme.

Miscellaneous

  • People involved in decision-making should abstain if there's a conflict of interest.
  • Improved transparency and communication, with FAW meeting minutes and voting records published promptly online.
  • FAW should involve retired players in ambassadorial roles.
  • Football should be used to promote health, social well being and employment.
  • At least one member of the three-member Disciplinary Panel should have a legal background, with a pool of independent Disciplinary Panel members created, reviewed every 4 years.
  • The use of discriminatory language by anyone attending or participating in a match will be banned and a new disciplinary offence created.

So long to the "Blazer Brigade"?


The changes outlined are comprehensive by FAW standards, but I don't think they would address issues like parochialism and self-interest by themselves.

Former Assistant Manager of the men's national side, Raymond Verheijen, has been outspokenly critical of the management of the game on and off the pitch, saying there was a "jobs for the boys culture" (or, to use the political equivalent term, a "revolving door issue").

Rule by seniority and tyranny by standing order are culturally Welsh problems, probably stemming from trade union practises. It belongs in the 20th century, but it's something we'll just have to live with until more modern management arrangements become the norm.

If this report didn't have any references to the FAW or football, the issues raised here could easily have come out of a local authority or community group. They just as easily apply to rugby too, as I covered earlier this year, except there the national team is doing well and the clubs struggling. In football it's the other way around.

With regard the Assembly inquiry though, the question comes back to participation and the role governance plays in that.

The report said that around 9% of funding goes to the women's game (in total), a combined 25.4% to the men's national teams and a further 16.1% to the (men's) domestic game and (presumably mixed-sex) grassroots. I wouldn't expect 50:50 funding for men's and women's football - you would in an ideal world - but you would expect the ratio to be a bit closer, as women's international Jess Fishlock said recently.

As the report highlights (p68), in primary schools, between a third and a half of all football participants are girls. In secondary school it falls to around a fifth or less. That could be down to not enough women coaches or officials as much as lack of funds. That needs to start at the top with more women members on the FAW Council (there's currently one) and proposed Executive Committee.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Draft budget sends chill across local government

As you know, Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) unveiled the draft Welsh budget for 2014-15 to the National Assembly on Tuesday. All the relevant figures and details can be found here, but it's worth giving the overall picture compared to the supplementary budget for 2013-14 (total expenditure, including annually managed expenditure) based off the budget tables (pdf).

Department Draft Budget 2014-15 Change from 2013-14 Supplementary
Budget plans (total spending)
Health & Social Services £6,545million +£136million
Local Government £4,613million -£95.9million
Education & Skills £1,987million -£46.6million
Economy, Science & Transport £977.2million +£37.1million
Housing & Regeneration £464.6million +£92.4million
Natural Resources & Food £418.6million +£23.2million
Central Administration £349.7million -£731k
Communities & Tackling Poverty £212.7million +£375k
Culture & Sport £139.9million -£1.1million


The Good News
The clear winner is the Welsh NHS, with other areas
- like transport - receiving extra capital spending boosts.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
It's easier to make out the red numbers in the budget than the black, but there are clear winners, particularly in terms of capital spending (one-off investments). Revenue budgets (operating budgets) across all areas except health don't make as nice reading.

There's an extra £225million in revenue and capital funding for delivery of NHS services, and the total cumulative extra funding is said to be around £570million over the next three years.

Local libraries received a £3.7million capital boost. There's also a £35million capital boost for programmes to mitigate climate change and tackle fuel poverty, an extra £7.5million towards flood defences, while post-16 learner support received a £30.9million capital funding boost too.

An extra £13million of capital funding has been made available for sustainable travel schemes - perhaps in response to the Active Travel Act - alongside an extra £30.7million for road and rail schemes and £8.2million for trunk roads. However, there've been cuts of around £19million to transport revenue budgets.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Welsh Government announced a £100million agreement with Plaid Cymru and Welsh Liberal Democrats, the specifics of which include :
  • The Pupil Deprivation Grant has been increased by £35million (to £918 per pupil).
  • The creation of a £50million Intermediate Care Fund to increase the number of patients being treated in the community instead of hospitals.
  • £5.5million has been pledged to mitigate against cuts to the Supporting People Programme (supported housing for vulnerable adults), the budget being cut by a lesser £2.2million to £134.4million for 2014-15.
  • An additional £9.5million for robotic cancer treatment (Da Vinci) and telemedicine in north and south west Wales.
Jane Hutt also announced £617.5million in general capital spending priorities over the next three years on Wednesday, including :
  • £62million towards the proposed South Wales Metro.
  • A combined £97million towards A465 duelling, Brynglas tunnels improvements and A55 improvements.
  • £170million towards shared equity schemes and other housing projects.
  • An extra £82million for Finance Wales.
  • £38million towards Phase 2 of the Noah's Ark Children's Hospital, Cardiff.
  • £90million towards Arbed energy efficiency and flood defences.

The Bad News
Everyone knows local councils took a big hit, but we shouldn't
 overlook the scale of cuts made to post-16 education.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

The widely-expected deep cuts to local government have arrived, and will make grim reading for local authority finance departments, making it even harder to explain away tax-friendly pension schemes and  taxpayer-funded legal bills.

Local government support funding has been cut by £127.9million alone, with total cuts to local government services said to hit the £460million mark over the next three years – an average of £20.9million per council, though many will fare worse than that, few better.

The WLGA are - unsurprisingly - not pleased, describing the cuts as potentially "casting local public services as the poor relation of the Welsh public sector" and criticising the increased spending on the NHS. Cardiff Council's Cllr. Russell Goodway goes as far as to say some local authorities "could go bust", suggesting that two unnamed local authorities are in serious financial trouble.

The Western Mail report that the WLGA's Chief Executive told the Assembly's Communities, Local Government and Equalities Committee earlier today that local authorities should be able to absorb the cuts over the next few years, but if austerity drags on for much longer, then councils may struggle to provide services, warning that Russell Goodway's harbinger of doom statements were "fair comments."


It should be pointed out that while there are big spending boosts to health, that's offset by a £168.2million cut to targeted NHS services. Substance misuse and children's social services have had their revenue budgets frozen. Mental health policies and legislation have seen a £3.7million cut, while adult social services have seen a £36.1million cut.

A total of £77.6million of cuts have been made across education, in particular post-16 (-£49.1million) and universities (-£20million) offset mainly by the Pupil Deprivation Grant. There's another £7.2million of cuts to skilled workforce schemes too, in addition to £27.2million of cuts to programmes to boost education participation and reduce inequalities.

A total of £3.26million of cuts have been make to supported housing, including homelessness, offset somewhat by the Intermediate Care Fund and the smaller than planned cuts to the Supporting People Programme.

Arts Council for Wales funding and sport activities funds have been cut by £2.2million and £1.2million respectively. Science and innovation have taken a £1.7million hit (offset by a 200%+ increase in capital funding for science in the 2013-14 budget) while Rural Development Plan programmes have seen a £18.1million cut to revenue budgets.

Despite being in the midst of welfare reforms from Westminster, the Communities & Tackling Poverty budget has effectively been frozen, seeing £3.6million in revenue cuts and a £4million extra capital funds. That's unlikely to achieve anything significant.

The Assembly and Welsh Government face up to their own own cuts, with £13.7million in savings made to general running costs.

Winner - NHS. Loser - Everything else.
Plaid and the Lib Dems managed to get valuable and practical things
from their negotiations, but it's small beans in the wider budget context.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

There are loads of different methods for working out how good/bad the figures are, but my sub-heading seems to be the general consensus reached by everyone who glanced over said figures.

This is likely to be the last big splurge on the NHS until the block grant starts to rise again (unlikely this side of 2020). Although I'm sure Welsh Labour love splashing the cash on health, and the Welsh NHS will continue to deliver complex services, it's in danger of becoming a poorly-managed fiscal black hole. Something has to change or I think even the Welsh Government will start to lose patience with LHBs. I covered one minor measure earlier this week.

The local government cuts were no surprise, but I was shocked at the depth of the cuts to education. It looks as though a sizable chunk of post-16 and university funds have been sacrificed for the Pupil Deprivation Grant. I remain sceptical as to whether that actually works because of how it's being spent, not the principle of the fund itself. Schools certainly win, FE colleges and universities lose.

It seems the economy department has been hit too, but via a lot of smaller revenue cuts offset by capital funding boosts. You've also got to question what the point of the Communities and Tackling Poverty department is without policing in its portfolio, as it seems to be Social Services+1.

In political terms, the good news for the Welsh Government is that, obviously, passing the budget will be a formality without any long, drawn-out process as last year or the year before. Plaid and the Lib Dems will abstain on the formal budget motion whenever it's presented to the Assembly over the next few weeks.

As to whether the two parties got a good deal, I'd say it's reasonable, but far from brilliant when you take all of the numbers into consideration. Many things, like the Intermediate Care Fund, you would've expected the Welsh Government to have considered anyway. You suspect Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams simply gave them a nudge.


On the other hand, although you would expect it, the Welsh Conservatives are left twiddling their thumbs. While their Westminster colleagues dilly dally over fiscal devolution, you would think that the Welsh branch would be pushing for tax powers ASAP to create a narrative for themselves.

Their response so far has been limp and predictable, with Shadow Finance Minister, Paul Davies (Con, Preseli Pembs.), saying that Plaid and the Lib Dems had propped up a "tired and lazy Labour government" and that only the Welsh Conservatives would protect the NHS blah, blah, blah etc.

One of their major bone of contentions – cuts to the Welsh NHS – has been blown out of the water this year, while the other opposition parties have managed to get tens of millions of pounds in agreements (some pretty significant, like the deprivation grant and expansion of apprenticeships) out of Welsh Labour over three budgets now.


The clear benefits of a lefty consensus, you could say.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

NHS Finance Bill - A much needed flexible friend?

On the same day the draft budget for 2014-15 is announced, will the National Health
Service Finance Bill stop local health boards running to the Bank of Mark?
(Pic : Wales Online)
One running theme in Welsh politics is the funding of Local Health Boards (LHBs) and their management of said funds. They got a boost today, and I'll come back to that later this week.

The First Minister said in FMQs last week that the public are satisfied with the NHS. As shown in the recent BBC Wales poll, they certainly are with regard services (doctors & nurses etc.) and expectations. The area where there was clear dissatisfaction (Q4 in the poll) relates to how the Welsh NHS is being run and managed by health boards. Utimately, the buck is supposed to stop with the Welsh Government, but I digress....


At present, LHBs are legally obliged to have a balanced budget at the end of every financial year. As we know, they struggle with that, occasionally (and rather embarrassingly) being bailed out by the Welsh Government due to a mix of cost overruns and external pressures.

In response, Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) has introduced the NHS Finance Bill in order to change to how LHB budgets are managed. The first debate to approve the general principles of the law is being held in the Senedd as I post this.

The meat of the Bill itself (pdf) is only 2 pages long :
  • LHBs will now have a three-year accounting period instead of the current single year period.
  • It maintains statutory requirements for LHBs to "balance their books", just over a three-year period instead of at the end of each financial year.
  • It repeals section 176 of the NHS (Wales) Act 2006 which prevents LHBs from exceeding their allocated funds in a financial year.

Why is the law necessary?

Three Assembly committees – Finance, Health & Social Services and Public Accounts – all agreed that the Welsh Government should look at legislative measures to improve financial planning and flexibility in the Welsh NHS.

Managing their budgets on a year-by-year basis reduces the amount of financial flexibility LHBs have, as they can't overspend by even the slightest amount without breaching their statutory duties as laid down by the NHS (Wales) Act 2006.

By managing their budgets over a rolling three-year period, it'll allow LHBs to overspend (within reason) without breaching those statutory duties. That's money that can be spent on services, or spent to enable LHBs to break even over a longer period of time - to use the WAGese term "Invest to Save". Though they would have to make up for any overspend in one year with savings in a following year.

The extra flexibility should minimise the risk of significant further LHB "bail outs" by the Welsh Government.

Benefits, Costs & Risks

The in-depth details of the background and key outcomes/proposals of the proposed law are outlined in the explanatory memorandum (pdf).

The obvious benefit is greater flexibility on a year-to-year basis, allowing LHBs to incur larger one-off costs to develop services. That's seen as preferable, by both the Wales Audit Office and LHBs, to the current "short-term thinking" where there's a rush to meet budget deadlines at the end of each and every financial year. This could improve things like workforce planning and enable NHS services to be planned over more realistic and practical timescales.

It's worth pointing out that despite the new flexibility in managing their budgets, it won't change the money available to LHBs. They'll still be obliged to balance the books, just over every three years instead of every year.

There's a risk that should LHBs breach their budget limits under the new arrangements (if the law's passed), then the Welsh Government could breach their own budget limits – set down by HM Treasury – in order to bail LHBs out.

Any breach of the Welsh Government's budget would need to be approved by a National Assembly vote, lead to an application for emergency funds from the UK Consolidated Fund and would need to be explained to HM Treasury - with costs likely to be reclaimed the following year. It would be a PR disaster for the Welsh Government and would likely have serious repercussions, both politically and personally.

So there's still likely to be pressure from Cardiff Bay on LHBs to keep overspends within reason (we're talking single-figure £millions), and that's perfectly sensible. As a result, LHB 3-year financial plans will have to be scrutinised and approved by Welsh Government officials.

In terms of the costs of the new law, it's estimated the Wales Audit Office would require an additional £119,000 per year, while it would cost the Welsh Government just £2,500 to issue new guidance to LHBs.

Because the Bill is so rudimentary, it's being fast-tracked through the Assembly - not as emergency legislation but because there's so little to debate - set to become law in April 2014.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Newport's M4 coronary bypass

The public are now being consulted on options for
an M4 Newport bypass. Again.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

A public consultation on the proposed M4 relief road around Newport was launched by the Welsh Government in the last fortnight.

Woah!....Hang on a minute....I'm getting a strange....feeling....of
déjà vu.

Because of the M4's vital importance to the whole of south east Wales, the consultation appears to be open to everyone (not just Newport, Cardiff, Torfaen & Monmouthshire residents), and responses are due by 16th December 2013. You can find out more information, and the consultation documents, at this website.

A brief history

You all know why there's continued calls for a Newport bypass : accidents and congestion around the Brynglas tunnels and low speed limits due to the curvy nature of the M4 through Newport. Problems said to "clog the arteries of the south east Wales economy etc."

Initial plans for an M4 relief road were scrapped in 2009 due to concerns about costs. Some modifications and upgrades were made to roads around Newport instead, including a duel carriageway to the south of Llanwern steelworks which opened recently.

Then, the Welsh Government went back to the drawing board, and between 2011 and 2012 launched another consultation. This time, the emerging plan was for the current M4 to be widened, including the Brynglas tunnels themselves. However, Friends of the Earth Cymru described the process as "shambolic". Some aspects - in particular some data used to support the project - potentially left the Welsh Government open to a legal challenge. Those plans were quietly sidelined.

With borrowing powers on the table, and with Westminster keen to prove they're friends of Wales, we've finally come full circle to option one – an M4 Newport bypass. Costs don't seem to be concerning anyone this time, even though the question of how they're actually going to pay for it is, as yet, unanswered.

Will there be a toll? Will the toll gates move from the Severn bridges to the new M4 (more on that from Plaid Monmouth)? When will we know if the Welsh Government will even get borrowing powers?

Current cost estimates, AFAIK, are still around the £1billion range, with the South Wales Chamber of Commerce estimating a new M4 would boost the Welsh economy by £2.1billion.

The Options

The (latest) three options for the M4 Newport bypass
(taken from M4Newport website, click to enlarge)
The draft plans present three options (illustrated above) :
  • Black Route (the preferred option) – Leaves the M4 at Castleton, dips south of Duffryn and the Docks Way landfill site, crosses directly through Newport Docks/River Usk, south of Llanwern and Glan Llyn, rejoining the M4 at Magor.
  • Red Route – Leaves the M4 at Castleton, passes closest to Duffryn, north of the Docks Way landfill site, crosses Newport Docks/River Usk further north than the black route, then follows the same route to Magor.
  • Purple Route – As the red route, but crosses the River Usk further north and is a bit further away from Duffryn.

All three go through the Gwent Levels site(s) of special scientific interest.

There would also be several complimentary measures included alongside the bypass :
  • Improvements to traffic management on the current M4 (which would presumably become the M48 once any bypass is completed).
  • A new link road between the M48 and B4245 in Rogiet to serve a future Severn Tunnel Junction park & ride.
  • Unspecified improvements to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

What if the bypass isn't built?

This is described as a "do minimum" scenario. If the bypass is rejected, the Welsh Government believe it would result in; unspecified negative effects on the economy of south east Wales, longer journey times thus reducing the travel to work area, higher levels of noise and air pollution near to the existing M4 and a greater risk of accidents (mostly due to rear-end shunts in stop-start traffic).

It's worth pointing out that keeping things the way they are would have a negligible impact on current levels of greenhouse gas emissions, nor would it have any additional impact on either the wider Newport environment (except right next to the M4) or the Gwent Levels.

Why aren't alternatives included in the consultation?


If you have artery problems, a visit to the heart surgeon is to be avoided,
not put to the top of the list. You try the lifestyle changes first.
(Pic : livestrong.org)
I still maintain that a completely new M4 bypass is excessive (more for costs than the principle of a new road), so I'm inclined to oppose this. If I had to choose, I would've stuck with the "coronary stent option"  - the 2011-2012 plans to widen the existing M4 - or at very least remodel the M4 through Newport to discourage local traffic from using it (closing slip roads etc).

As Freshwater PR's Steve Howell pointed out in the Western Mail on Monday, you have the South Wales Metro and SEWTA's plans for the Gwent area, both of which have hardly got a look in within this consultation.

The report says 43% of journeys on the M4 around Newport are for less than 20 miles. If a public transport system was developed in and around Cardiff, Newport and Bristol that could beat the car in terms of journey times, then logically, enough traffic could be taken off the M4 during peak times to avoid needing an M4 bypass in the first place.

And you might be able to do that for a lot less than £1billion.

When you have a blocked coronary artery – as the Newport M4 is sometimes described as - you don't immediately rush to go under the knife for a operation that carries severe risks, you usually make an attempt at lifestyle changes first.

Even if you do go under the knife, if you don't change your lifestyle alongside it, a bypass doesn't last very long. Yes, lifestyle changes would be difficult but you would have to face up to it at some point.


Think of lorries and cars as lard pies; think of buses, trains, walking and bikes as salad.