Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.


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


The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.


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

Committee Inquiries

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

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Senedd Watch - January 2015

  • Fresh calls were made to scrap Severn Bridge tolls after fares rose in line with the Retail Price Index to become one of the world's most expensive road tolls. The bridges will return to public ownership in 2018, though Plaid Cymru warned that contract clauses could see the UK Government claw back maintenance costs until 2027.
  • Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), said schools needed extra support to use the “world class” online Hwb+ learning portal, after figures released to the party showed only a third of schools were regularly using the service.
  • The Liberal Democrats accused Plaid Cymru of “astonishing hypocrisy” for campaigning in favour of a widespread introduction of a public sector £7.85 per hour “living wage”, whilst nearly 4,000 workers at three Plaid-controlled local authorities were paid below this.
  • Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP (both Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) called a proposed £446,000 severance agreement with chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James, a “disgrace”. The local co-ruling Labour party said they would reject the proposal – one of a mooted ten options. It comes months after the acrimonious exit of disgraced former chief executive of Pembrokeshire, Bryn Parry-Jones.
    • The Welsh Liberal Democrats said if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, they would introduce legislation putting a £95,000 cap on “golden goodbyes”, mirroring similar Westminster legislation.
    • On January 28th it was revealed by Pembrokeshire councillor, Jacob Williams, that the cost of Bryn Parry-Jones' exit amounted to over £150,000 in legal fees.
  • A Wales Audit Office report revealed Wales was being hit harder by housing benefit reforms (aka. “Bedroom Tax”) than other parts of the UK, with rental debts rising by a quarter. The UK Department of Work & Pensions said they made up to £15million in discretionary payments available.
  • A report from the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) concluded that the flagship Foundation Phase is failing to meet its original aim of reducing education inequality between deprived and well-off pupils. However, other findings in the report suggest the scheme has been welcomed by teachers, staff and parents and is having a “positive impact” on some aspects of learning.
  • Politicians, journalists and members of the public attended an evening vigil outside the Senedd on January 11th to mark the deaths of 17 people in an Islamist terror attack in Paris targeted at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish community. Dr Saleem Kidwai, chair of the Muslim Council of Wales, condemned the attacks without reservation saying, “truth wins over falsehood and light over darkness”.
    • Both Welsh and UK governments were criticised for lowering flags to mark the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on 23rd January, due to the country's appalling record on human rights and political repression. Simon Thomas AM described the act as “sickening” and a “gutless disgrace”. The First Minister said he “in no way condones” human rights abuses, and the Welsh Government would review their flag policy.
  • Estyn reported that progress in improving literacy and numeracy standards under the Literacy & Numeracy Framework, introduced in 2013, was “modest”. They said this was due to insufficient guidance and resources from the Welsh Government.
  • Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), announced the spending outline for £123million allocated to Wales via the UK Government's Autumn Statement. Amongst the proposals, £70million will go towards health, while £35million will be used towards business rate relief.
  • BBC Wales revealed £120million has been spent by the Welsh Government developing a property portfolio of industrial and commercial sites, including £52million on Cardiff Airport. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said the Welsh Government, “should create planning permission and infrastructure improvements, but should not actually own and develop the land”.
  • The latest figures on cancer survival showed a 25% drop in cancer deaths in under-75s and 20% increase in five-year survival rates despite an 18,000 increase in diagnoses. Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the report “sets out the challenges” to improve the number of people treated within 62 days.
  • The National Assembly approved a non-binding motion calling for the Welsh Government to no longer award procurement contracts or grants to companies with no women board members. Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the government couldn't support the motion, as barring awards on these grounds would be illegal. However, the sentiment was supported.
  • 19% of people waited longer than four hours at Welsh A&E departments in December 2014 (target 5%) - the worst treatment time in Wales since October 2009. The Welsh Government said A&Es had experienced their busiest December in five years, with an extra £40million allocated to alleviate winter pressures. The Welsh Conservatives said there was “nowhere for Labour to hide”, while RCN Wales director, Tina Donnelly, called for 1,000 extra acute care nurses.
    • On January 28th it was revealed ambulance response times for December 2014 were "the worst on record”, with only 42.6% of ambulances responding to life-threatening calls within 8 minutes, compared to a target of 65%. In some parts of Wales, like Rhondda Cynon Taf, it was below 35%.
  • The Welsh Government released information on job creation at Welsh enterprise zones following an Information Commissioner ruling in December 2014. More than 2,000 jobs had been created and 3,000 safeguarded at a cost of £70million, but most were in Deeside, Cardiff and Anglesey. Only 94 jobs were created or protected at St Athan and just 8 in Snowdonia. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said the cost-per-job - even in some of the better-performing zones - was up to four times higher than anticipated.
  • A senior Welsh Government civil servant told the Public Accounts Committee that an extra Cardiff-Norwich leg could be provided, on a commercial basis, in the down-time between subsidised Cardiff-Anglesey flights. A new contract with LinksAir is set to run until 2018, but the service has been criticised for not providing value for money.
  • Welsh unemployment fell to a rate of 7% in the three months to November 2014, with 103,000 people out of work. The Welsh Government said the raw unemployment and job-seekers allowance claimant counts were both lower than the same time the previous year.
  • The National Assembly approved a cross-party motion by 29 votes to 21 calling for radical improvements to services for autistic children and adults, and for parties to commit to introducing an Autism Act in their 2016 manifestos. There was criticism of lengthy waits for diagnoses and a lack of ring-fencing of funds by local authorities.
  • Welsh Labour said they will consider introducing legislation to end the “Right to Buy” for social housing tenants, if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, in order to protect dwindling social housing stocks. Shadow Housing Minister, Mark Isherwood (Con, North Wales), said Welsh Labour, “is returning to its outdated socialist dogma of the 1980s”.
  • Plaid Cymru amendments to introduce a “smacking ban” to the Domestic Violence Bill were rejected by the Communities & Local Government Committee at Stage 2. Committee Chair – and supporter of the amendment – Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said she was “disappointed” but hoped an amendment would be proposed at Stage 3, calling on AMs to be given a free vote.
  • In a response to calls for a cross-party agreement on the future of devolution, the Assembly Commission recommended, amongst other things, that the number of AMs increase from 60 to between 80-100, estimating the cost would range from between £9million and £17million. The Welsh Conservatives believed the overall number of politicians would need to decreased elsewhere before an Assembly expansion.
  • Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the first of a proposed two Local Government Bills to the National Assembly on January 27th. The Bill outlines the arrangements for local authorities to merge voluntarily by April 2018. At the same time, he rejected three mooted voluntary mergers, saying he wasn't persuaded by the vision.
  • The National Assembly unanimously approved the Higher Education Bill on January 27th. The Higher Education Act will provide a new regulatory framework for higher education in Wales and ensure “fair access” for Welsh learners.
  • Cardiff University's Prof. Sally Holland was appointed the new Children's Commissioner for Wales, succeeding Keith Towler, who leaves the post after seven years. There had been criticism for the delay in appointing a new commissioner, but the Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister described Prof. Holland as a “strong ambassador” for children's rights.
  • A survey on Welsh language use showed the percentage of fluent Welsh-speakers had fallen over the last ten years from 58% of all Welsh-speakers to 46%. However, use of Welsh socially and in work had risen slightly – though there remained a tendency for Welsh-speakers to use English online and when dealing with authorities.
  • The Welsh Government launched the “traffic light ranking” replacement for school banding on January 29th. 238 schools were ranked the highest grade of “green”, while 81 schools were ranked “red”. Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), said the new system meant, “there is no hiding place for schools that don't deliver for the most disadvantaged pupils”.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

The "anti-austerity alliance" might seem a good idea now, but Plaid seem to have forgotten
the election next year, where such an alliance can't be on such friendly terms for their own sake.
(Pic : The Guardian)
I'm not going full tilt into my House of Commons election coverage until the second half of March, but it's worth looking at an issue that's arisen, also covered by Syniadau, Hogyn o Rachub, Jac o the North (in a backhanded way last year) and Ifan Morgan Jones over at Golwg360.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Local Government Bill : Council mergers edge closer (sort of)

We still have no idea what form local government reorganisation will take. The latest law introduced
to the Assembly will, however, give councils the opportunity to take the initiative themselves
....unless they've already taken the initiative themselves, of course.
(Pic : Wales Online)

A little over a year to the day since the Williams Commission reported on local government and public service reforms, Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the Local Government Bill to the National Assembly on Tuesday (27th January), with the aim of outlining the process for voluntary mergers between local authorities.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Assembly Commission steps up to the oche

Has the National Assembly just made itself a bigger target for anti-politics darts?
(Pic : via

Last week, the Assembly Commission published its response (pdf) to calls from Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), for a cross-party agreement on future devolution arrangements for Wales to be in place by March 1st.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Consult At Your Convenience

Do you often need to spend a penny in Bridgend county?
Then it's worth spending 5 minutes on this public consultation.
(Pic : via Geograph. © Copyright Jaggery and licensed
for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.)

Bridgend Council (BCBC) recently launched a consultation on the future of 13 council-owned and operated public toilets. There's an online survey available here, and responses have to be in by March 9th. Subject to cabinet approval, any changes could come into effect as early as April 1st.

The reason why BCBC look set to act quickly could be that they're trying to change public toilet provision before the Public Health Bill is introduced in the National Assembly (Booze, Bans & Bogs), as the Bill is likely to include new legal requirements.
Eight of the toilets are staffed during opening hours and five are cleaned/visited "on a routine basis". The consultation document (doc) says there's also a star rating system, but due to formatting errors I couldn't see the ratings.

34% of respondents to an online budget simulator/survey (Bridgend's Cabinet Expansion & Cuts Consultation) recommended BCBC review public toilets. That includes myself; but I only agreed because I assumed the scheme to give £500 grants to local businesses which open their toilets to the public
("comfort scheme") was ongoing. In fact it stopped in April 2014 when Welsh Government funding ended.

It's unclear how much BCBC currently spend on public toilets, but judging by the figures mentioned in the budget consultation, I'll assume BCBC are aiming to save up to £50,000 a year.

Location of council-run public toilets in Bridgend County.
(Pic : adapted via Google Earth, click to enlarge)

There's one huge problem with this consultation - BCBC give absolutely no idea what their public toilet strategy is. They ask questions about how frequently you use Bridgend's public toilets, preferred opening hours and opinions on the "comfort scheme" - that's fair enough.Until there's a clear idea of what BCBC would prefer to do though, all that's left is speculation.

The line of questioning implies BCBC are either looking at closures of lesser-used toilets or reduced service levels – whether that means less regular cleaning, shorter opening hours or a reduction in staff. This would presumably be offset by a reintroduction of the "comfort scheme".

Another option is that BCBC could choose to go down the same route as Carmarthenshire (more from Carmarthen Planning and Y Cneifiwr), where the local authority transferred control of public toilets to community and town councils. The process is an ongoing farce as transfer of control didn't come with a transfer of funding.

As you would expect, Carmarthenshire Council are approaching it in their usual open and transparent manner, as the Carmarthenshire bloggers will testify. It's a shame Bridgend appear to be copying them to a certain degree.

This consultation should've started a local debate on why we need local authority public toilets and where they should be. Below, I've included a National Assembly short debate (dated 13.11.13) from Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) on the subject.

Most major supermarkets and transport hubs provide free public toilets, and they're often better used and maintained than some council facilities – so do we even need local authority toilets anymore?

What about the elderly? At Christmas, my grandparents hailed the cleanliness and upkeep of Porthcawl's public toilets - as you do - but it underlines how something most of us may take for granted will be seen as an essential service to others.

What of rural areas and tourists? Their use will be seasonal, but there's no alternative other than bushes. In September 2014, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), Cllr. Ken Watts (Con, Newton) and town councillor Graham Walters (Ind, Newton) joined calls to provide completely new public toilets at Porthcawl's Newton beach. It's unlikely that project would be led by Bridgend Council now.

Should we have fewer, more modern, public toilets with proper facilities for baby changing, menstruation and the disabled?

Should people pay to use local authority toilets?

Should BCBC introduce mainland European-style free-standing urinals?

How should any revamped "comfort scheme" be signed and advertised?

These are all questions BCBC could've asked the public but didn't. It's often what public bodies leave out of consultations like this which worries me; if they don't give you the full picture, they usually have a nasty surprise coming....

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Assembly debates future of autism services

AMs recently debated the need for an Autism Act following the current
failure of a trail-blazing autism strategy to deliver on the ground.
(Pic : National Autistic Society Cymru)
Yesterday, the National Assembly debated a cross-party individual member's motion on autism services. The motion welcomed achievements resulting from the existing plan on autism, but demanded greater clarity on the care and support families dealing with autism require, enshrined in Welsh law via an Autism Act.

This is an issue close to the hearts of a large number of AMs, and the National Autistic Society Cymru (NAS) are obviously one of the more effective lobbying organisations in the Senedd.

As a result, there were an unusually large number of speakers, and many of them repeated the same points. So for the sake of brevity I'll sum up those points first.
  • Wales was one of the first nations to introduce a specific autism strategy (in 2008 pdf), and this was a source of pride for AMs, but they're disappointed in how it has been delivered.
  • There's no ring-fencing of autism funds by local authorities, with some agreeing to do so voluntarily and others not. Current funding arrangements (on a year-by-year basis) mean councils have no opportunity to develop long-term plans.
  • There are very serious problems getting an autism diagnosis – especially children – in the Hywel Dda Local Health Board (Pembs., Carms., Ceredigion) with waits as long as seven years for a diagnosis. This means some children enter secondary school without a diagnosis, which affects access to specialist services.
  • A survey by the NAS showed massive dissatisfaction amongst parents/carers, as well as adults and children with autism. 53% of parents called the diagnostic process "painful", while 96% of autistic adults said there was a lack of professional understanding. Only 16% of patients were satisfied with their transition to social care.
  • There was cross-party support for an Autism Act in the Fifth Assembly (after May 2016), which would enshrine the rights of children and adults with autism, as well as their parents/carers, in law.

The debate started with Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) - who chairs the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Autism. He said (clip) there were up to 30,000 children and adults in Wales with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs). Despite the strategy, he said more needs to be done, with greater statutory duties placed on local authorities. He called upon all parties to commit to introducing an Autism Act in their 2016 manifestos.

Mark said that although the NAS said the strategy was a "world first", people with autism usually only access treatments and therapies if it's presented alongside another medical condition or learning disability, even though autism is a condition in its own right. With problems facing those with autism including "painful" diagnosis processes, postcode lotteries, a lack of understanding by managers and, in schools, illegal short-term exclusions (Whipperines & Class Clowns), any future Act needs to include diagnostic and post-diagnostic support to ensure the "fundamentals are in place first".

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said the strategy was a "good strategy, with broad support" (clip). He said the fault isn't with the strategy but with delivery, which was, "at best patchy, at worse seriously deficient". He highlighted serious issues with autism services in his own area of Blaenau Gwent, and the Assembly specifically has a duty to ensure the strategy is delivered, as it's not just a matter for local government.

Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) said he long supported a need for timely diagnosis (clip), and although there are examples of good practice in Pembrokeshire, waits were excessive (the seven year figure mentioned above) – with an average of two children diagnosed a month. Paul said early intervention was needed to ensure the long-term well being of autistic children as they go through school.

He accepts that diagnosing autism isn't easy as it's down to monitoring behaviour closely. That means teachers need proper training in recognising ASDs. Also, Careers Wales provide vital support to adults with autism looking for work, but they don't have the knowledge to work with these adults. Paul said, "being first (to introduce an autism strategy) isn't the same as being first rate".

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said he had three major concerns (clip); firstly, the lack of monitoring by the Welsh Government of autism services. Secondly, a concern raised by a a constituent about whether teachers are properly trained to deal with ASD pupils.

Thirdly, he raised a good point (often overlooked) about older people with ASD, as people "can't grow out of it" and it remains for the rest of their lives. Lindsay warned this will, "become a serious challenge for health and social care services", and more data was needed on over-65s with autism as part of any future Act.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales), said the Cross-Party Group was "dynamic" and meetings were often very well attended (clip). He paid tribute to the NAS, saying that serious shortcomings in provision were "feeding clamour for an Autism Act", adding that in his capacity as Chair of the Petitions Committee they're dealing with a petition about autism diagnoses in Hywel Dda LHB. He said families were, "showing enormous resilience" and were entitled to have their needs enshrined in law.

Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly), said Wales needs to recognise and support parents and those who work with autistic children (clip). He plugged the Autism Heroes Awards which were established by a constituent. Jeff believes the Welsh Government should compliment their work by engaging with them, but this cannot replace the statutory duties placed on authorities. He wasn't opposed to an Autism Act in principle, but would need to be persuaded of the benefits, and would prefer the current strategy was properly delivered instead.

Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. E & S. Pembs.) described the strategy as "useful" (clip), as it focused minds and concentrated resources. Unfortunately, in too many cases it hasn't helped at all, citing waiting lists in her own area 200+ cases long. Angela said there were too many interim diagnoses, and when schools suspect autism in pupils, there was often a slow response from local health boards.

Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales), gave an example of parents of autistic children in Wrexham who said the bureaucracy was in place, but they were seeing no improvements (clip), with some North Walian councils "skimming" autism funding to finance the bureaucracy and management of the schemes themselves. He described the NAS figures as "frightening", but there needs to be a look at whether an Autism Act in itself would improve the situation.

Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli) said, "raising awareness isn't the greatest issue facing us", but the major issue was strategy at a local and national level (clip). He said in an ideal world they wouldn't proceed with legislation, but this is one area where collaboration between local authorities would benefit everyone.

In response, Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said there was £12million in new funding allocated to support the aims of the autism strategy and improve lives (clip). While he admitted there was always more to be done, he was working with interested parties to refresh the ASD action plan, but said parties were waiting to see how the regulations resulting from the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 and proposed special educational needs legislation would impact their work.

The refresh plan was due to be launched this month but has, as a result of the legislative/regulatory proposals, been delayed. The Minister said that as there are immediate concerns about autism services, he'll introduce an interim delivery plan by the end of March 2015.

Former Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services, Gwenda Thomas AM (Lab, Neath), intervened to say that a child must receive care and support whether there was a formal diagnosis or not, and this was clearly stated in the Social Services Act.

The Minister continued by saying diagnosis is never a fixed process with autism as it responds to individual development, though funding for ASD will be permanently within the block grants given to local authorities. He said there wasn't enough time to take a Bill through the Assembly before April 2016, but parties could include it in their manifestos for the election.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms E. & Dinefwr) summed up what the others had said (clip), but raised his own point about provision being even worse for those seeking services in Welsh. Rhodri said every case was individual and it's hard to generalise ASD, howeverg people said "everything would be fine once Wales had a strategy", but now artificial barriers are being put in place and the challenge is to ensure children and adults alike have access to the services they need.

The motion was agreed by 29 votes to 21.

"First The Worst...."
Stormont and Westminster passed Autism Acts in 2011 and 2009 respectively - mainly
to do in Northern Ireland and England what Wales has already done without a law.
(Pic : Autism Northern Ireland)
OK, Wales has a feather in its cap because we were one of the first nations to publish an autism strategy.

The Welsh Government/Labour have a fetish for doing things though strategies, guidance and regulations, so it's not exactly a shock that - yet again - one of their much-vaunted strategies is failing to deliver on the ground.

One reason why local councils and health boards are under strain is because the detection and diagnoses of autism has radically changed over the last 10-15 years. What would've once been considered an "eccentric personality" is now diagnosed as Asperger's Syndrome. There's an outside chance – backed by 2013 guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association – that ASDs are over-diagnosed.

Despite all that, there's a clear desperate need for all those families and individuals who live with autism to have access to the services they require, and there was cross-party commitment to that in yesterday's debate.

Although it's still more than a year away, we're starting to get an idea of what legislation we might see in the Fifth Assembly – though it's unlikely I'll be around to cover it. It wouldn't surprise me if all four parties end up putting an Autism Act in their manifestos in some form, which will effectively guarantee its introduction.

Are the needs of people with certain diseases best served through legislation though?

I can see the arguments for and against an Autism Act. There's a precedent in the Assembly for "disease laws" in the form of the Asbestos Disease Bill – though it has a very different aim – but at the same time a law could lead to the Welsh Government and local authorities being forced into making promises they can't keep, especially with a disorder that's often difficult and time-consuming to diagnose and manage like autism.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Making tracks in west Wales

There are growing calls to reopen a railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The railway between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth closed to passengers in 1964-65, with freight services - which still ran along part of the line - withdrawn in the early 1970s. As a result, any attempt to travel between Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion by rail now means a torturous journey via Shrewsbury, Hereford, Cardiff and Swansea.

At the moment, Carmarthen-Lampeter-Aberystwyth is served by the T1 TrawsCymru long-distance bus service, which has been criticised for excessively long journey times. Despite the existence of this service, there has been talk of reopening the line for several years (related 2009 post from Syniadau with a video showing one option for the route), but a formal campaign – Traws Link Cymru – was formed in the last year or so to lobby in favour of the project (website with project overview here).

The campaign is gathering pace, with a official statements of support from : Carmarthenshire Council, numerous community and town councils along the former route and a large number of AMs and MPs. Campaigners are also set to meet the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), at some point. A (relatively) well-attended public meeting was held earlier this month, with plans for further activities in the near future.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) held a short debate in the National Assembly on this issue back in March 2014 (below). Meanwhile, Carwyn Jones has expressed his tacit support for the principle of the project during First Minister's Questions (I remember him saying it at least once but can't remember precisely when, so don't hold me to that). He gave no firm commitment for reasons which will become obvious.

An Irish Case Study
Ireland's Western Rail Corridor is a similar project, but
is it an appropriate direct comparison?
(Pic :

Comparisons have been drawn to the Western Railway Corridor in the Republic of Ireland, which is a proposal to link Sligo and Limerick along Ireland's west coast. At the moment, all lines lead to Dublin in the same way Welsh railways go east-west. A section enabling trains to travel between Galway and Limerick opened in 2010 at a cost of around €107million (£84million at 2015 prices). The total cost of reopening the line to/from Sligo was, in 2004, estimated to be around €366million (£286million [2015]).

Since reopening, there's been criticism of low passenger numbers between Galway and Limerick (Galway alone is larger than Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth combined, while Limerick is about twice the size of Llanelli). The service is subsidised by the Irish Government, with cheap online fares and tax incentives to encourage people to buy season tickets - but it's right to point out that service frequencies are very low indeed with maybe no more than 5 trains a day in each direction.

The crucial difference between Aber-Carms and the Western Corridor section is that, in Ireland's case, large sections of the track were already there and were used as a freight line. All the Irish Government needed to do was (re)build the infrastructure for passenger services (stations, improved track etc.). So the Western Corridor is more comparable to the reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines.

Aber-Carms would be a major engineering project above and beyond that of the Borders Line in Scotland, and would arguably be the most extensive reopening of a railway on the island of Great Britain since the Beeching cuts. The old alignment is just over 90km long (56miles), and almost all of it has been pulled up apart from the Gwili railway on the outskirts of Carmarthen.

The Possible Route
Click to enlarge
(Pic : Adapted from Google Earth)

I would guess stations would/could be built at Glangwili Hospital, Bronwydd, Pencader, Llanybydder, Lampeter, Tregaron, Llanilar and Llanfairian. Some of the smaller stops would presumably be request stops like those on the Heart of Wales line.

The Benefits
Linking three (maybe eventually four) university towns along the western coast could boost economic,
social and research ties, helping to rebalance the Welsh economy away from the M4 corridor.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

The obvious one - it makes it a lot easier to get to Aberystwyth by public transport from the south and vice versa (Swansea, Cardiff and London) whilst reconnecting a large part of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion to the rail network. Considering the relatively poor state of north-south road links in west Wales, journey times are likely to be competetive with road.

The catchment area, although rural, will be physically large with great opportunities to provide park and rides as well as linking with local bus services. Public transport provision is often poor in rural areas, so encouraging people out of their cars there is often ignored, as the emphasis is usually focused on urban areas. Reopening the line would have a knock-on positive impact on pollution and accident rates, with the A44 between Aberystwyth and Llangurig being the most dangerous road in the country and the A487 not faring much better.

Creating "commuter villages" in and around the three larger towns – Aberystwyth, Lampeter and Carmarthen – might spread out development and enable these villages to retain some of their local services like pubs and schools.

If this were combined with a Bangor-Porthmadog link and a re-engineering of Dovey Junction it would eventually connect four university towns. This would guarantee minimum passenger numbers, but also develop economic and academic links right along the west coast to compete with the "city universities".

In the long, long, long term, reopening this line could enable serious consideration being given to reconnecting Newcastle Emlyn, Aberaeron and Cardigan to the rail network.

The Challenges
Do not think for one second that this is going to be a simple case of lobbying
for funds. There are serious challenges facing this campaign that need to be overcome.
(Pic : Network Rail)

Reinstating the old route – Most of the former route is development-free but there are areas where the route has been built on, mainly for homes or cycle paths. The route can be engineered to avoid these areas, but the old route will have been the most logical path in the first place (short of radically new alignments). This is down to the shortsightedness of planning authorities. Though there's a bit more protection for former railways nowadays, it's too late for this project.

Farm access and (negative) environmental impact – The former route is littered with crossings to and from farms. Network Rail are supposed to be phasing out level crossings, as they're not popular with transport unions and are a safety hazard. I don't think they'll take kindly to including so many unmanned crossings. They might have to be replaced by bridges, which is an added expense.

Reopening a railway may not be associated with environmental damage, but obviously there would be as the route crosses or passes near environmentally-sensitive areas.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA)My personal opinion is that regardless of fiscal tests, as many former railways should be reopened for its own sake where practical (before I'm accused of being a buzzkill).Unfortunately, this is the primary reason why it won't happen.

The political will is there, and I suspect if all of the trackbed were still in place Welsh Government backing for the project would be stronger (and the price tag would probably be no more than £100-150million).

A full CBA (or cost-benefit ratio) usually costs around £20,000-30,000. If the ratio on return of investment is below 2:1 (for every £1 spent, there's a £2 economic return), public authorities won't consider it "high value". That's very technocratic, but it's supposed to prevent the creation of white elephants and discourage "pork barrel spending" , even if at the same time it puts a set of concrete shoes on socially-important projects like this.

A potential price tag of £650million has been bandied about, so this would have to (theoretically) have a wider economic impact of at least ~£1billion to get the levels of return on investment necessary to be approved.

Taking into consideration the relatively small catchment area (population wise) and likely low passenger numbers, the Carms-Aber rail link will fail any CBA instantly (as would my idea of reopening the Mid Wales line). You can have as much heavyweight political support as you want, but these tests determine whether big projects go ahead or not.

AMs and other senior politicians should be well aware of this, but they're not in a position to quibble (because they're pathologically unable to tell the truth and say "no" during an election year) so I'll have to play "the bad guy" for them.

Service levels – It's too early to say what sort of service levels people could expect if it were reopened. You would presume the service would mainly run as a shuttle between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth (due to lack of space on the south Wales mainline) with a few direct trains each day further beyond – probably to Swansea and/or Cardiff (which would make reopening the Swansea District Line for Cardiff-bound trains a higher priority in itself).

The old track alignment between Llanybydder and Strata Florida is remarkably straight and could enable high running speeds. This is offset by some very difficult terrain between Carmarthen and Pencader – though a diversion via Alltwalis has been mentioned. If the line were designed with an average running speed of between 60-70mph then it's possible to get the journey time down to nearly an hour (making Aber-Swansea ~1hr50mins, Aber-Cardiff ~2hrs30mins), but that requires a high quality route that will be expensive to engineer.
Click to enlarge
(Pic : Adapted from Google Earth)
Getting in/out of Aberystwyth (above) – If the economic value for money is the biggest socio-political challenge, this is the single biggest engineering challenge - though there are others elsewhere in the form of reinstated bridges and tunnels. The approach from the south around Pen Dinas and through Llanfairian (above) has been completely built on. The cheapest/easiest option would be to stop the line short of Aberystwyth and build a park and ride, linked to the town centre/railway station by bus. That would defeat the purpose of the rail link though as it would be inconvenient to change modes of transport.

Another option would be to use the path of the Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge railway for a few miles, then create a link to the "main route" south to Carmarthen. This would be rather expensive due to the landscape it would have to cross which requires several deep cuttings and/or short tunnels. It would provide an opportunity to build a station serving the Glanyafon Industrial Estate and with a footpath/cycle path it could link directly to Coleg Ceredigion - but at the expense of stations in Llanfairian and Llanilar.

A further option would be to tunnel under Penparcau, which is certainly doable but depending on the construction method and underlying geology would likely cost £50-60million on its own. This would probably be the best option, but I'm no engineer.

One of the only other options left, therefore, is to CPO the former route, which will mean demolishing several buildings and possibly more than 100 homes (because several blocks of flats have been built on the former line). This means legal challenges, local opposition and a significant additional cost. An alternative would be to allow some limited street-running, but I'm presuming this will be a heavy rail project.

You could create a new route following a ridge around Pen Dinas and going through a caravan park instead (perhaps on a viaduct), but that would be a significant engineering outlay like the tunnel.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Independence Minutiae : City Status

St Asaph - Wales' newest city, population 3,500.
But how would/should we decide city status post-independence?
(Pic : Cadw via Wikipedia)

What makes a city anyway?

The truth is there's no set definition, and different countries have different approaches. What we would consider in Wales to be a minor provincial town would be considered a city in the United States or Canada, for example.

I suppose it boils down to regional and historical importance. Once a town has expanded to such an extent that it "dominates", or provides services for, a collection of smaller satellite towns and villages in a wider region, it's probably earned the right to be called a city. But that doesn't necessarily mean a city has to be a minimum size.

What would immediately spring to mind when a European thinks "city" (a very large, densely-populated urban area with a population in the high hundred thousands/millions) is actually a conurbation - a group of several large cities and towns that have merged into a single highly-urbanised region.

Great Britain and Ireland only have, at most, a dozen true metropolitan areas, like : Greater London, Glasgow, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Merseyside, Tyne-Wear and Dublin. Each one of these areas is made up of metropolitan boroughs or individual city councils. Salford, within Greater Manchester, is itself a city, for example. Similarly Westminster and the City of London within Greater London.

You could probably count the Cardiff city region (Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Penarth, Valleys) as an emerging metropolitan area too.

In terms of emerging conurbations in Wales :

  • Swansea Bay (Swansea, Llanelli, Neath, Port Talbot) is an obvious example.
  • Cwmbran and Pontypool only have a very small patch of green belt separating them (known as South Sebastopol) which has been earmarked for development. Combined, this "Torfaen City" would arguably be the fourth largest settlement in Wales, pushing towards 70-80,000 residents.
  • Wrexham and Bridgend have a large number of satellite towns and villages (Gresford, Brymbo, Cefn Mawr; Pencoed, Sarn, Tondu etc.) that could easily be considered extensions of the urban area.
  • Southern Flintshire (Connah's Quay, Mold, Ewloe, Buckley, Hawarden etc.) is a collection of moderately sized towns and large villages with limited green space between each other, and could become a pretty sizable urban area.
  • The strip of coastal settlements from Prestatyn to Llandudno could also be considered a single urban area too.

How are cities chosen?

Conferring city status usually coincides with a royal celebration.
(Pic : Daily Record)
Traditionally, settlements in the UK which have a diocesan cathedral have had a right to call themselves a city for "time immemorial". That's why Bangor, St David's and (now) St Asaph in Denbighshire are cities, but Wrexham – Wales' largest town – isn't. In fact, St Asaph was the anomaly in not being formally recognised as a city (though informally called such).In 2002, Newport successfully became a city. In 2012, St Asaph acquired (formal) city status, while Wrexham's bid fell on both occasions.

Granting a settlement city status via letters patent is one of the few executive powers retained by the monarch (based on recommendations from the Lord Chancellor's Department). Such letters patent are usually issued to coincide with a celebration, normally a royal jubilee - though Swansea's city status was granted off the back of the investiture of Chuck Windsor in 1969. No settlement can call itself a city without this royal proclamation.

This is why Rochester in Kent lost its city status in 1998 following local government reorganisation, as the former local authority held the city status, but it didn't transfer to the new authority. This is something Welsh local authorities will have to keep in mind post-merger.

Why does city status matter?

It doesn't really. There are no special rights granted to cities in the UK currently – except, perhaps, the City of London (which has a load of unique quirks relating to its governance) - and it's unlikely that would change post-independence.

However, the local council will have a right to call itself a "City Council" (or City & County Council if settlement and local authority are co-terminus) and the Mayor usually holds the title "Lord Mayor". Whether Wales would still use the title "Lord Mayor" depends on whether Wales is a republic or not, I suppose.

Cities are placed higher up the hierarchy of settlements and tend to be considered (psychologically)  more important than towns and villages, usually becoming a focal point for a regional/sub-regional economy and key public services.

Wales has many towns that are de facto cities, as well as many de jure cities that are only classed as such through flukes of history. It's better, post-independence, to have a more rational system for designating cities that doesn't rely on religious architecture or royal prerogatives.

Options for determining city status

(Click to enlarge)
Retain the existing system – Presuming Wales retains the monarch post-independence, city status would still be granted via letters patent, which randomises the process. Theoretically, any settlement could become a city, but the process would be slow.

A seat of local government/county town
- How this would be approached in a post-merger Wales is a different question, as some of the merged local authorities could have two, maybe even three, seats of government. It's probably best, therefore, to base this on the current 22 local authority system. Or,  it might be appropriate to restrict city status to the largest settlement in the merged local authority. This method provides a nice geographical spread and has some surprising conclusions like Llandrindod Wells (Powys), Tonypandy (Rhondda Cynon Taf) and Usk (Monmouthshire). But it also means some significantly-sized towns like Neath, Llanelli and Cwmbran miss out.

A seat of local government and/or a diocesan cathedral – As above, but retaining the current historical diocesan cities like Bangor and St David's.

A seat of local government and/or a diocesan cathedral and/or a university – Universities are  the 21st century equivalent of cathedrals, and this option means Lampeter and Pontypridd would be included. Again, it provides a nice geographical spread. All in all, I'd say this is the best option.

Minimum population – For argument's sake, 30,000 people (~1% of the population). Once local authority wards within a statistically-defined settlement reach this combined figure, the town/community council will have a right to call itself a city.

The problem with this is that it's heavily skewed towards the south, as it's unlikely many settlements outside south and north east Wales will realistically hit this figure, even though they have great regional importance - like Carmarthen or Aberystwyth. It also means current smaller cities would have their city status revoked (Bangor, St. David's, St. Asaph).

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Women's Own

Do high-flying Welsh women need an extra hand from the Welsh Government
to break the glass ceiling? The National Assembly debated it yesterday.
(Pic : RBS)

Yesterday, the National Assembly held the first Member's debate of 2015, with a motion noting progress (or lack of) made in gender equality since almost 100 years of women's enfranchisement and the forthcoming 40th (sic, it's actually 45th) anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970.

The debate's main focus surrounded the headline-grabbing proposal that the Welsh Government should no longer award procurement contracts or grants to companies that have no women board members.

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) started off by saying (clip) there was still some way to go towards gender parity in the workplace, noting the National Assembly's 50:50 gender split between 2006-2011 (which has since gone backwards), stating that the "modern workplace benefits from having women at all levels".

Antoinette said Wales can "learn from what our European neighbours are doing" to promote gender equality. In 2013, the European Parliament and Commission approved plans to impose a 40% quota on the number of women board members in publicly listed companies by 2020 (the FTSE100 currently has around 23%). She believes this vote means any legal arguments against using the Welsh Government's £4.3billion recruitment spending to push for greater female representation may no longer apply.

Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) – chair of the cross-party group for Women in the Economy – said (clip) she was unsure of the legality of imposing the restrictions called for in the motion, even if she supports the principle. She said the question should be, "Can we afford not to (promote women to board level)?", believing it was a necessity as it's healthy for the economy, citing academic research which shows companies with women board members are more effective.

Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) - one of the few AMs who've run a business before entering politics – said (clip) targets boost women's share of board seats. She paid tribute to women role models who show that you don't need to "act tough in a man's world" to success in business – citing her own role model, Marjorie Scardino (publishing), Karen Brady (football), Hayley Parsons (former CEO of and Jacqueline Gold (Ann Summers).

Angela produced one of the more memorable quotes, saying, "Our society does teach little girls that they're either Cinderellas or kittens and there's not much in between". She suggested vocational courses that are popular with girls should teach business skills, as she has experience of being told that her daughter could be trained to perform a role but not aim higher and run a business.

Angela abstained because of the proposal relating to grants rather than procurement. She knows herself how hard it is to "put everything on the line to start a company", while the dynamics within start-up and small businesses (which often are the recipients of grants) are often different to bigger companies.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said (clip) women "still suffer discrimination in the workforce", especially younger and older women, who are often targeted because of pregnancy or are trapped in low pay. During an exchange with Antoinette Sandbach they both said that high-profile women are always asked about work-life balance resulting from children. Julie said unemployment amongst women aged over-50 has risen faster, and they earn 18% less than men. Generally speaking, sectors which employ women – what she called "The Three C's : Caring, cooking, cleaning" - are also amongst the biggest users of zero hour contracts.

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said (clip) that although women make up 51% of the Welsh population,  "in no avenue of working life, public or private, do women exceed that figure" except in the National Assembly previously * - and the situation isn't changing quickly enough.

A Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) report says FTSE100 companies are now slightly exceeding (20.7%) a 20% target, but further down the FTSE250, women's board representation remains low. Bethan believes this limits talent, and it might be a confidence issue where women are themselves failing to recognise the skills they could bring to companies. Bethan doesn't believe positive discrimination would be "patronising to women" as such actions wouldn't need to be in place forever, only until it brings about a cultural change.

Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) make a connection between under-representation of women in politics and under-representation elsewhere (clip). She said how public money was spent is part of combating that.

Eluned did, however, wisely caution that although changes to procurement may be effective, this is only the "start of the conversation" and more details were needed on precisely how such a policy would be developed, with a clear understanding of precisely what it would mean (turnover thresholds, companies without directors etc.) to prevent unintended consequences arising. She finished by saying she wants her daughter to, "assume the world is open to her".

Responding on behalf of the Welsh Government, Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) said (clip) the government wants to ensure Wales is a country with a diverse workforce. They were committed to introducing and supporting modern, inclusive work practises, improving work-life balance and tackling gender stereotyping – which causes gender segregation in some industries (like natural sciences) with men and women dominating certain sectors.

Lesley said the Welsh Government has the most robust equal pay commitments in the UK, and aims to achieve a 50% gender balance in senior civil service posts by 2020. However, the Welsh Government could not support the motion, despite supporting the sentiments, as it would be illegal to bar procurement to companies that have no women board members.

Rounding off the debate, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) underlined (clip) that this was a "very intractable issue". 40 years (sic) after the Equal Pay Act, women still generally earn 82p for every £1 a man earns.

Jenny believes this is linked to women's role as child bearer and primary carer, where some companies avoid appointing women of childbearing age, which affects career aspirations. She believes having more women on company boards would stop this institutional discrimination.

Jenny said there's an assumption that progress is being made, but that's "not necessarily the case" – it's gone backwards in NHS Wales senior posts, the number of female council leaders (just one AFAIK – Ceredigion's Ellen ap Gwynn) and no female Police & Crime Commissioners in Wales. She did, however, point to Admiral Group as a sign of changing attitudes as more than 60% of their board members are women.

The motion was passed, but not without considerable reservations – 21 votes for, 1 against, and (an extraordinary) 32 abstentions. If this were a binding vote then it's likely it would've been rejected.

(Pic :
* After talk of kittens, Bethan Jenkins said she "prides herself on being compared to a terrier"; well I can be a Rottweiler when it comes to politicians doing their homework. It's not the worst thing in the world, and I'm presuming it was just a result of sloppy drafting as Bethan's normally more astute than this, but it only took three minutes to disprove her claim : nursing (~90% women), teaching (74.4% women), headteachers (57.2% women), dentists and doctors aged under-30 (61% women - so the workforce is changing pretty quickly), retail (58% women, but 37% managerial and likely to grow).

Cart before horse?

Would it be better to support more women to come forward for
senior roles before enacting more punitive measures?
(Pic : National Assembly for Wales Flickr)
When I saw the Assembly would be debating this, I was worried it was going to be a bunch of privileged, middle-class women pulling the drawbridge up behind themselves to look after the interests of their own kind. While there were hints of that, it was good there was some emphasis on the problems that still face women further down the food chain.

I'd also be very careful about believing correlation implies causation when citing anything about gender balance boosting company performance. Some of the findings from these reports have negative connotations too, implying companies with more women executives are more risk-averse and less decisive.

Promoting more women to the top in business (especially those who've climbed the career ladder properly) may help those at the bottom; but it just as likely won't, as free enterprise is hardly the most conducive atmosphere for equality.

Though this was a non-binding vote, there's no point focusing too much on the specifics of policy implementation (as there was nothing on the table) or the legality – it's quite clear this procurement policy, as proposed, would be illegal. As a principle though, gender equality in all areas of public life is sound – as I've said before, gender is the primary distinguishing feature between groups of people and the easiest way to ensure everyone is represented fairly.

There's no problem (morally) with the Welsh Government setting whatever criteria they want when awarding procurement contracts. The trouble with proposals like these is that there are always unintended consequences if there aren't very clear guidelines on what's acceptable or not – which both Antoinette Sandbach and Eluned Parrott touched on.

Angela Burns (clip) hit the nail on the head. As the pace of change in women's representation on boards has been so slow, many companies which otherwise provide a good standard of service won't have caught up yet – especially Welsh companies (99% of Welsh businesses are SMEs that may only have one or two directors, even those with a big turnover). Under this proposal these businesses may miss out on procurement contracts and grants awarded by their own government because they don't tick a box.

If there were no legal qualms, the National Assembly itself - as a separate body from the Welsh Government – could enact this policy too, and could probably do so immediately. But, of course, that would affect AMs directly. They might struggle to find an electrician, plumber, or even someone to take away the rubbish based on these rules.

Boosting women's representation using targeted support measures – like the good work Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) and organisations like Chwarae Teg are doing - before instituting "strong arm" policies like those proposed yesterday, might be better. That way it does minimum harm to businesses and women start to make their way to the top on their own merits. It'll take some time, but everyone wins.

After all, the National Assembly hasn't become one of the best places for LGBTs to work through quotas and statutory measures, has it?

My personal preference is that senior appointments should be diversity-blind (no information on age, gender, race, disabilities or sexual orientation) so the best people for the job will be shortlisted in each and every case without prejudice. If it's then down to equally-qualified male or female candidates, and the company is under-represented in one or the other, then a choice based on gender would be justified.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Libraries, Bus Cuts, Schools Moves & Parc Slip II

Bridgend Council's (BCBC) first cabinet meeting of 2015 was held yesterday afternoon, and some interesting items appeared on the agenda. I return to the Parc Slip open-cast issue later too.

BCBC Cultural Services To Be "Outsourced"?

Bridgend's libraries, adult education, and major arts venues like
Porthcawl's Grand Pavilion are set to be handed off to a new not-for-profit.
(Pic :

I doubt many of you remember, but late last year, BCBC launched a public consultation on their forthcoming budget proposals. One option on the table was to outsource cultural services to a not-for-profit company (Bridgend's Cabinet Expansion & Cuts Consultation).

This has already happened with leisure services, with BCBC entering into a similar agreement with Halo Leisure in 2012. At the moment I'd say the partnership is going reasonably well, with Halo investing in the ongoing redevelopment of Bridgend Life Centre, for example.

BCBC propose (pdf p223-293) to develop a business case to create a new not-for-profit distributing organisation (NPDO) to run cultural services. These services include :
  • Public libraries
  • Theatres and venues (including Porthcawl's Grand Pavilion)
  • Community arts projects
  • Community centres
  • Bryngarw House & Country Park
  • Adult learning
The proposal, in principle, was agreed in May 2014, but a more detailed plan is yet to be devised. BCBC also put forward three alternatives to an NPDO : 
  1. Do Nothing. Services listed above remain part or wholly run by BCBC, which will require £3.87million a year. BCBC say this "cannot be recommended".
  2. Cuts. £625,000 cuts would be passed on to cultural services, which means reduced access to the arts, staff redundancies, possible failure to meet Welsh library standards and closure/mothballing of public buildings.
  3. In-House Efficiencies. BCBC would retain its functions, but would review opening hours, staff and housekeeping. BCBC say this would be, "very difficult to deliver without reducing the quality of services" – some £310,000 has already been "saved" from library services, for example, and it's unlikely they'll be able to squeeze more.
So the preferred option is a new NPDO. I'm not going to go into the technical details, but consultants drafted five not-for-profit models which could be used, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

It looks like the preferred option is a completely new charitable NPDO, similar to Celtic Leisure which runs leisure services in Neath Port Talbot. BCBC estimate it would save £633,000 by 2017-18. There are specific advantages in terms of VAT and business rates, though the company will still have to run cultural services on a commercial basis. However, any profit would have to be re-invested.

Surprise, surprise, there'll be another bloody committee for councillors and local people of good standing to sit on and badge to add to their blazers, with talk of a board of 11 trustees.

If approved, this process will start very quickly indeed; the transfer to the NPDO could happen as early as October 2015. Other items of interest include :
  • Maesteg Town Hall (which is run by an independent company) would/could also transfer as the operators are considering surrendering their 99-year lease.
  • The council would be asked to act as the guarantor of the NPDO pension fund.
  • The council will set fees for core services and events, which can't be changed without their consent. BCBC will remain responsible for structural maintenance, replacements and major repairs.
  • The management agreement for the NPDO will last 20 years with a review every 3 years.

Further Bus Shake-Up On The Way

BCBC intend to introduce a departure charge at Bridgend Bus Station,
while several subsidised services will be withdrawn altogther.
(Pic :
Two changes to Bridgend county bus services were up for discussion.

Firstly, BCBC are considering introducing a 30p departure charge at Bridgend Bus Station (pdf p145-147). BCBC need to save £100,000 in running costs over the current two financial years, and they considered alternatives like reducing security, putting a shop in the station or reducing opening hours.

As Bridgend is one of the few major bus stations in Wales that's doesn't have a departure charge, BCBC opted for that instead. £60,000 has already been saved elsewhere, and it's estimated a further £43,000 would be raised by introducing the departure charge, as well as installing vending machines in (which would raise an extra £3,000). As the bus station is fairly well-used, I'm sure passengers would welcome the latter.

The second bit of news is more serious (pdf p149-152). Last year, BCBC withdrew subsidies for six Sunday bus services (Babies, Buses, Bro Ogwr & Bikes), though they managed to find agreement with bus operators to retain four of them on a commercial basis.

This year, there's another – more significant - round of bus subsidy cuts, this time covering weekday services that "are not cost-effective", which in practical terms means those services which have a subsidy per passenger of £5+.

The affected services are :
  • No. 3 Bridgend to Betws via Sarn (Mon-Sat between 8-9am)
  • No. 15 Bridgend to Betws (Mon-Sat)
  • No. 56 Wildmill/Litchard to Brynteg Comprehensive (Mon-Fri term-time only)
  • No. 128 Betws to Nantymoel (Mon-Fri)
  • No. 152 Sarn to Aberkenfig (Mon-Fri Schools/term time only)
The following service was part of the same contract as No.56 and will be re-tendered and retained :
  • No. 61 Nottage-Porthcawl (Mon-Sat)
BCBC believe ending subsidies and/or re-tendering contracts for these services would save £120,000. The council will have to give 12-weeks notice to bus operators, though it's likely the school services (Nos. 56 & 152) will be withdrawn in September 2015.

Brynmenyn Primary Outgrows Itself

To deal with over-subscription at neighbouring schools, proposals are
being drafted to move and enlarge Brynmenyn Primary School.
(Pic : Brynmenyn Primary School)
After last week's post on the Betws Primary replacement, this week sees another new school proposal in the central part of Bridgend county, with a consultation set to be launched on plans to enlarge and relocate Brynmenyn Primary to land next to Coleg Y Dderwen in Ynysawdre (pdf p189-202).

BCBC believe the new/enlarged school is needed to cater for demand due to housing developments in the "Valleys Gateway", with the three primary schools in the area (Tondu, Bryncethin, Brynmenyn) already over-subscribed. It looks like the aim is for this new school to serve a large bulk of Sarn as well as Brynmenyn.

The new school will be significantly larger (420 places) than the current Brynmenyn Primary (136 places). Also, changes will be made to school catchment areas to ensure a more even spread of pupils. This is because there are concerns about Tondu Primary in particular (which absorbed Pandy Infants School in the last few years) which will struggle to operate on its small single site due to overcrowding.

The current Brynmenyn Primary is less than a mile away from the proposed site, so it's unlikely to have much opposition.
If all goes according to plan, subject to consultation the new school will open in September 2017.

Return of The Parc Slip Monster

Bridgend Council's planning committee recently discussed the situation at
Parc Slip open-cast, with two proposals on the way forward recommended.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Days after my last post on this, BCBC's Development Control Committee held a meeting where the future of the Parc Slip open-cast site was discussed. The report provides more detail on the background to the scandal, and it gives clearer reasons why restoration hasn't happened.

Here's a round-up of the most important points from the report (pdf p32-44) :
  • Authorities refused permission to extend mining in 2008, but various appeals prevented BCBC and NPT enacting enforcement notices - on advice of legal counsel - as it could've affected the outcome of the appeals, which were eventually thrown out by the courts.
  • Planning Contravention Notices (PCN) were served in February 2013, which confirmed Oak Regeneration's ownership of the mine and Celtic Energy's position as mining licence holder.
  • Planning officers from BCBC and NPT would prefer to see the site completely restored as originally agreed, despite proposals for a "garden village" by Oak Regeneration. In total, Oak Regeneration and Celtic Energy presented 18 different proposals, ranging from projects that require extensive additional mining, limited mining or wholly residential-led development.
  • Restoring Parc Slip will cost £30-40million, but the owners only have £5.7million to cover the work. This money would be used up pumping the water out with nothing left to cover the costs of backfilling the hole.
  • Water levels are being monitored, with the aim of keeping it at a depth of 40m. At the moment it's slightly above this, though pumps are ready to be installed to keep it at a "safe" level. If water levels reach 51m, there's a risk it'll overspill and cause flooding.
  • Network Rail said they may take legal action if flooding affects operation of the Tondu-Margam branch line (which is used for diversions between Bridgend and Port Talbot).
  • Natural Resources Wales are monitoring pollution in the water, and have no serious concerns, but BCBC say, "it's too early to tell if any a risk to watercourses".
  • BCBC say that although there's an expectation from the public and elected representatives that a single enforcement notice would solve the problem, the process is "not always straightforward with regard to complicated sites". The likelihood of successful legal action against an off-shore landowner is "low" (though no explanation is given).
  • There may be a joint NPT-BCBC public meeting on this held sometime "early in 2015".

The report presented five options to councillors :
  1. Do Nothing. Oak Regeneration have been silent, while Celtic Energy have washed their hands with it as they say they no longer own the site - though there's a commitment to pumping the water out on "a temporary basis". This scenario will lead to the workings filling with water over and over again, putting the stability of the mine's retention bunds at risk.
  2. Serve an enforcement notice. Only NPT can pursue enforcement as the mine workings lie within their borders, even though the negative effects will be felt by Bridgend county residents in Kenfig Hill. It's certain that enforcement would fold Oak Regeneration (possibly Celtic Energy too), and costs would then fall on local authorities, who don't have the money either.
  3. Alternative restoration with further coal mining. Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration propose further extraction of 800,000 tonnes over three years. The restoration would then be residential or leisure-led, with BCBC preferring a resort similar to that proposed at East Pit. There's likely to be "considerable political and public opposition" to further mining.
  4. Alternative restoration without further mining. The hole will be filled by material that's already on the site to create a shallower lake, while former roads and paths will be reinstated. The rest of the land would then be used for leisure or energy, but it won't resemble what it once looked like.
  5. Restore the site using the current available funds (£5.7million). As mentioned this is will only cover the cost of pumping the water out, though engineering works could be undertaken to keep the water at a safe level when it inevitably refills.
BCBC officers recommended options 4 or 5, which would mean the land will never return to exactly how it was.

Both local authorities and the Welsh Government deserve some criticism for this – though not as much as I previously suggested - for a distinct lack of leadership and being overly concerned with proper process when they should've grown a spine (take note of what I said here). There's absolutely no excuses for them not seeing this coming.

Most of the blame and responsibility should now be focused at Celtic Energy and their dodgy offshore subsidiary Oak Regeneration. Not wanting to repeat myself from last time, but they've taken local residents and officials for fools and have acted appallingly. It's all well and good saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but they should never have been awarded mining licences if they were unable to afford restoration works, and the way by which ownership of the mines transferred should be illegal (even if it skirted the edge of legality anyway).

I suppose Option 4 is the best one on the table at the moment, but that's dependant on the cooperation of Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration, who've said sweet FA on this since June 2014 (until the AMs intervened last month) and are still pushing for a residential-based development, which would run roughshod over Bridgend's Local Development Plan.

I don't know if there's a way to punish the two companies, but the onus must now be on the Welsh Government to prevent this happening again elsewhere in Wales.

Based on their track record on open-cast, don't hold your breath.