Sunday, November 11, 2018

WELSH VETERANS LET DOWN BY TWO GOVERNMENTS


Plaid Cymru calls for improved veterans’ care on Armistice Day centenary

Plaid Cymru’s Westminster Leader, Liz Saville Roberts MP, has said that Welsh veterans are being let down by both the Welsh and Westminster governments.  

In September Plaid Cymru uncovered statistics that showed that across the UK 66,000 veterans are either homeless, in the justice system or suffering with mental health conditions. The information obtained through a combination of parliamentary questions and research from military charities and academic research shows that former armed forces personnel are being let down by the Westminster Government, and are disproportionately represented compared to the general public, in homelessness, mental health and justice system statistics.

Ms Saville Roberts has also campaigned for residential veterans’ care to be made available in Wales. There is currently no residential treatment facilities for veterans in Wales. The only easily accessible facility, Audley Court in Shropshire announced at the end of 2017 that it would stop offering residential treatments.

The Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP has called on the Welsh Government to “put its money where its mouth is” and fund residential treatment facilities for veterans, which are shown to have profound benefits for treating mental health issues and helping veterans live fruitful lives following military service.

Liz Saville Roberts, who will be representing Plaid Cymru at the Cenotaph in London today, said:

“Today we remember the sacrifices made by so many in order for us to be here today. Their legacy will never be lost to history and their sacrifice should never be underestimated.

“It is not just words that best honours their memory – we need actions too. Action so that their fellow servicemen and women are today treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

“It is shocking that in twenty first century Britain 66,000 veterans are either homeless, in the justice system or suffering with mental health conditions. We may not forget those that gave their lives, but for today’s suffering veterans it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.  

“With no residential care facilities for veterans in Wales, and the last facility within reasonable distance across the border closing, the Welsh Government needs to put its money where its mouth is and invest in the services that make a difference to veterans lives.  

“Fundamentally, Welsh veterans are being let down by governments in Cardiff and London.”

ENDS
________________________ 

Notes:
  • The information provided by Plaid Cymru suggests that some 10,000 veterans are either in prison, on parole or under the supervision of the probation service; around 50,000 are suffering with mental health conditions and a further 6,000 are homeless.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

REMEMBERING (REMEMBRANCE)


This Sunday will be the 11th November, at 11am it will be one hundred years to the moment when the Great War - at least on the Western Front came to an end - with the armistice. There are no more living veterans from the First World War, yet people will pause to publically and privately remember the veterans and survivors of more historic and more recent conflicts and particularly those who never came back. 

In Flanders field...
The 947,023 military casualties (with 744,702 of them from these islands) between 1914 and 1918 (by way of comparison with the 264,000 military dead from 1939 - 1945) should still shock us even now.  My family like far too many others in Wales (and elsewhere on these islands) had relatives who served and survived and also relatives who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and other conflicts. 

My lost relatives (and their missing descendants) have been playing on my mind over the last few years - one of my maternal grandmother’s lost two brothers in the First World War and its aftermath. Her elder brother was a regular soldier, who wrote home and told them not to allow his younger brother to join up and to come out to France. It was too late the younger brother had already joined up was killed in action in 1918 and buried near Amiens. My paternal great grandfather (and my grandfather) both served in the First World War and survived but came back as changed men (as did many).

Coming from a relatively large extended close family, I grew up with a generation of older relatives a number of whom had seen active service in the second world war in the Navy, Army, Air Force and the merchant navy. They like many from those generations rarely talked about their actual experiences of the war, and then perhaps save only occasionally to those whom they had served with, who would have understood, because they had survived similar experiences. Younger relatives have also served in more recent more modern conflicts around the world. 

As I have said previously I have absolutely no problem remembering those who lost their lives and the courage, comradeship and their endurance of those who served in the First World War and other more modern conflicts (and not necessarily those who served in the armed forces). What I have no time whatsoever is rose tinted sentimental nostalgic flag waving foot-tapping pap. As has been said elsewhere, soldiers don’t go into conflict aiming to die - not for the politicians, for patriotism or even us - but they often can end up dying with their friends and comrades with whom they served. 

The first world war was the first conflict when real concerted efforts were made to remember and record all of those who had fallen - particularly because of the decision (taken for a variety of reasons) not to bring the fallen home for burial. One consequence is that far too many literally still lie in corners of foreign fields, are names on war memorials, faded photographs, faded memories or too many literally have no grave at all. 

Speaking of another bloody conflict, US President Abraham Lincoln rightly noted at Gettysburg the fallen had given their last full measure of devotion. And that what we do or say does not really matter in comparison with what the fallen (and those who survived) had done. It may be more true today that the world will little note the current crop of political leader’s lyrical offerings on conflict (recent or older) or long remember them. 

What we should never forget what the former soldiers and veterans did and what they went through. We should not just cherish their memory but should ensure that after their military service they remain fully honoured as is the military covenant. Never again should it be found that dead heroes are cheaper to honour  than live ones. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

REMEMBERING THE CHARTISTS


Last weekend saw the annual commemoration of the Chartists in Newport and across the South East. The Chartists struggle for the vote (and equal rights) was a long one, culminating initially with the Newport Rising in on 4th November 1839. The Chartist commemorations in Newport continue to go from strength to strength - with a combination of public events, marches, concerts, street theatre and an academic conference. 

The commemoration will hopefully continue to grow and develop as I t makes a real and positive contribution to Newport. We should continue to remember the Chartists here in Newport and within a wider context within Wales, the UK and Europe as part of the struggle for democracy and equal rights which is ongoing snd remains relevant  today as our democracy continues to evolve. 

1839 rather than 2018
The well organised and well attended events of the last weekend, fully supported by Newport City Council, contracts starkly with the underhand destruction of the popular Chartist mural, off John Frost Square (in Newport) on Thursday 3rd October 2013 which robbed many Newport residents of part of their personal and cultural history. 

I (personally, and no doubt many others) have fond memories of walking past the mural as children (in may case with my grandmother) and being fascinated by it. Now its gone, merely a memory, reduced to rubble on the (relative) quiet by the Labour Party in Newport, which was anxious to avoid embarrassing scenes as a demo to protest the destruction of the then proposed of the mural was in the offing.

The wining pathetic excuses bleated by Labour in Newport and their persistent refusal to engage and find a way to save the mural just about sums up the way the town of Newport has been treated over the years. Few people are against development or redevelopment but it needs to be sustainable and sympathetic to the needs of the city. The failure to work with local indigenous small businesses in and around Newport is a reality that has done great economic damage to the local economy and weakened our economy.

Gone but not forgotten
Friars Walk was welcomed, but, its struggling and it seems to have sucked the commercial live out of other parts of the town. We have to do something different, the new shopping centre, has promised much but the jurying still out on whether it will deliver much of lasting benefit, in a similar manner to the Kingsway Shopping Centre (back in the 1970's). 

Any shopping development should contain retail opportunities for small local businesses as money spent in local businesses circulates three times as long as money spent in 'UK national chains. Simply filling the development with chains means that what local money is spent will get hoovered up and vanished out of town as rapidly as possible. 

Various attempts to develop or redevelop Newport over the years, largely via the questionable vehicle of Newport Unlimited (more like 'Newport limited') have failed to deliver lasting economic growth. Local council cuts which continue to undermine local services have not helped, but, neither has a complete lack of vision and the contempt which has been demonstrated for the cities inhabitants today over the years.

If we are serious about redevelopment in Newport - then something needs to be done about the longtime empty near derelict Westgate Hotel in the heart of Newport. The former objective of the Chartists should be resurrected and redeveloped as a world class Chartists heritage centre - for both visitors to our city and the also for the rest of us.

Keywords: The Newport Rising, The Chartists, 

Monday, October 29, 2018

A BUDGET FOR FANTASY ISLAND


Plaid Cymru response to the 2018 Budget

Responding to the 2018 Budget, Plaid Cymru Leader, Adam Price said:

“This was a fantasy pre-Brexit Budget based on imaginary numbers. Growth remains below two percent for the foreseeable and with the Brexit cloud still looming large these figures may still be very optimistic.

“Lurching from the top of the growth tables to the bottom, the UK economy teeters on the brink of crisis - a decade after the great recession.

“Wales remains an afterthought for Westminster, with transformative infrastructure projects in our nation scrapped for the sake of feeding the overheating economy of the south east of England.

“The only place austerity is set to end is in the rhetoric of Westminster politicians. The people of Wales will be feeling its impact for years to come.”  

ENDS


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

OUR PLANNING PROBLEM?


Our planning system can perhaps best, if we are being honest, be described as dysfunctional. It's not working particularly well and has become the plaything of central government both in Cardiff Bay and in Westminster. Routine planning business is handled at a local level -  however if planning proposal is rejected or a planning inquiry comes out against a proposed development then there is more often than not another appeal (or perhaps more than one) to Cardiff. 

It could be said that the Welsh government is following the old and much criticised by many Welsh Office model - if in doubt approve. In recent years this has, where there had been concern or doubt or outright opposition (on the ground) to planning proposals - often controversial planning decisions have been rubber stamped by the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff (while many things may have changed this mirrors pretty much exactly what went on when Wales was run by the old Welsh Office). 

In the case of the controversial proposed M4 across the Gwent levels the Welsh government has already made up (and declared) its mind before the public enquiry even began let alone delivered its ruling. Even though this publicly declared position runs contrary to many aspects of public policy for Cymru / Wales. The housing developments proposed around Cardiff (mostly on greenfield) sites are being resisted by local residents, despite the best efforts of Cardiff City Council (and the Labour in Wales government) to railroad them through regardless. 

Westminster ministers during the heady days of the Con Dem coalition openly favoured changing the planning rules (in England) to boost house building to 'revive the economy'. The Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff naturally favoured changing to planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. This is pretty much the same thing and the same end result - the weakening of the already weak planning system and at a more fundamental level the removal or overriding of democratic consent or meaningful democratic oversight from the planning process. 

Ironically that dubious intention / sentiment (in Wales at least) was perhaps aimed specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of concerned local residents) rather than simply putting economic needs ahead of economic, environmental benefits and community cohesion. The green fields around our urban centres are doubly vulnerable to obsessive house building and over development - particularly as there is no designed Greenbelt land in Wales (beyond the occasional green wedge). 

In the last 15 years south Cwmbran has merged  with the top end of Malpas and plans are afoot to fill in the gap between Griffithstown (south Pontypool) and Cwmbran. This may have added some additional affordable housing (but not enough) at the cost of creating a strip of a continuous urban environment from south Newport through to Abersychan and New Inn. This not only failed so solve the shortage of affordable housing, it also did little to improve the quality of people's lives and added nothing by way of transport infrastructure beyond roads (something that added to already grim (at times  traffic congestion). 

Over the medium to long term the continuation of obsessive house building regardless of its impact is fundamentally bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, or Torfaen, who fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention those concerned residents of Carmarthen who have worried about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development and those residents in Cardiff fighting the construction frenzy that threatens to envelope Cardiff and its surroundings.

We need to think outside the box, and look seriously look at the release of public land as self-build plots for affordable homes, to buy and to lease, and allow housing associations to build their own high-quality prefabricated homes as the Accord Housing Association successfully does in Walsall. This would also break the link between housing companies making fat profits and local government approved over development in and around our communities.

Our communities have been consistently (and continue to be) ill served by the planning system, by our local authorities (via the flawed system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by the Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff. With increasing pressure from over development community cohesion is under threat, along with increased demand on overstretched local amenities, our NHS and our green spaces.

An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill was missed. The process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) system, which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests is long overdue, especially in relation to the structure of devolved government in Cymru / Wales.

Perhaps before constructing large numbers of new houses which often fail to tackle local housing needs we needs to take a long hard look at the number of empty properties something that remains largely unaddressed in many of our communities (a full Cymru / Wales wide survey to establish the levels of vacant properties within our communities is long overdue). 

We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment (and seeks to create protected green belt land around and within our large and small urban communities). We also need to holistically plan and act for the whole of Wales – something that is just not happening at present. 

All of these things are something we just won’t get without fair funding for Wales, a full range of powers to shape and move our economic leavers. Never mire than now have we needed to change Wales  - that change will not come unless Labour in Wales lose power at the next set of National Assembly elections. We should remember that considering our nation has been effectively ruled locally by Labour in Wales for one hundred years that day can not come soon enough. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

UNFORESEEN CONSEQUENCES?


The long suffering commuters who have been taxed for going to work, and many businesses who have been taxed for simply doing business are understandably looking forward to the pre-Christmas demise of the Severn Bridge tolls, just like the rest of us. The demise of the tolls is to be welcomed, it is in truth well overdue, but there will be some not necessarily unforeseen medium to longer term consequences for all of us. Locally it may well be the estate agents and house builders who really end up cashing in and ordinary people losing out when it comes to affordable housing.

We have all seen the consequences and the impact of purchasing power, between areas of relative affluence and areas that are less affluent in various parts of Wales, particularly if those areas happen to be desirable places to retire too or move to, this problem is not confined to Wales, if affects places as diverse and distant as Cumbria, Cornwall, Friesland (in Holland and Denmark. Once the tolls go house prices will continue to rise and the pressure to build new houses to deal with the demand for cheaper housing from across the bridge. Simply building houses in south Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen in an effort to cash in on the projected housing shortage in the Bristol area is not acceptable - we need a longer term strategic plan. 

A boom is usually followed by an accompanying crash...

The current strategy fundamentally fails to solve the problems of local housing shortage and demonstrates the need for a genuinely balanced new all Wales housing plan. Locally one consequence of the demise of the tolls will be a speeding up the on-going process by which local residents continue to be priced out of the market and their own communties. We have already seen this happen along the coastal belt of Gwent between eastern Newport and Chepstow and around Abergavenny. This has happened partially because some actual and proposed houses have been priced to maximise profits and new housing has been effectively marketed and sold in Bristol ('Get your free bridge tag for 18 months, etc').

Wales needs to have substantially more affordable housing otherwise an entire generation will miss out on the reasonable expectation of having a decent affordable home. The supply of more affordable housing should be met through a combination of bringing empty properties back into use, and new developments of mixed housing in the social and private sectors, but only, when local needs and environmental sustainability have been taken into account.

Our country would be well served by the establishment of a National Housing Company, which could borrow against rents to build a new generation of public rental housing in Wales limited in number only by demand. Whatever Government holds power in Cardiff Bay should support Local Authorities that wish to build new Council Housing. We need to revisit and repurpose the housing associations that have proliferated across Wales since housing was transferred from local authority control to the housing associations. 

Local Authorities should be expected to agree targets for supplying affordable housing, including new social housing, with the Welsh Government, but should be given the flexibility to decide how they would achieve this based upon the needs of their area. Local Authorities will be able to develop joint long term plans with neighbouring local authorities, or work through housing associations or the National Housing Company, if they believed this was the best way to meet the needs of their areas.

We need to look at championing the development of new homes in small-scale housing developments in both rural and urban Wales on ‘exception sites’, where land plots, not covered by general planning permission, will be capped at an affordable price designed to benefit those in local housing need with family and work ties to the area, and whose sale will be conditional on these houses continuing in local ownership in perpetuity.

What’s left of our social housing stock that remains under the control of the housing associations needs to remain intact in order to meet the demand for homes. Along with developing social housing stock there is a need to introduce a more rigorous system in the allocation of social housing to give priority to those in local housing need.

This problem has been aggravated because  during the last few decades (on Conservative, Labour and Conservative- Liberal Democrat government) local democracy has been consistently undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Or the process of land acquisition literally begins long before the proposal even goes to inquiry almost as if the decision has already been made (this happens at both local, national and a Westminster level). 

Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whatever the grounds) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and that local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation. My own father (who served as a City councillor in Newport from 1999 until 2012) observed the development of this practice while sitting on Newport city council. 

Part of the problem is that our planning system, along with our almost nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s simply decided to tinker and tweak with existing out-dated legislation rather than reform it.

Our current planning system remains far too focused on railroading through large housing developments that bring little benefits for local people and local communities and often fail to resolve real and pressing local housing needs. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable smaller scale housing developments, which are based on good design and actively promote energy efficiency and good environmental standards.

Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to real local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply out-dated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.

What we badly need is a sensible properly planned housing strategy, not just for south Monmouthshire, the rest of the former county of Gwent and Cardiff, but also for the rest of our country. When it comes to large-scale housing developments, based on previous observations, we can pretty much predict what happens next - in terms of crumbling infrastructure, more congestion, more pollution and a poor quality of life in our own communties.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

SAYING GOODBYE TO TOLLS


The news that the Severn bridge tolls will be gone by Christmas could, if you were in the right frame of mind, perhaps be considered an early Christmas present. Personally I am like many people glad to see the back of the tolls - I have long considered the Severn bridge tools to be a tax - on commuters, on jobs and businesses. 

The concession holders regulations, as they were written, back in the 1990's - no doubt to encourage private enterprise to take over the building project and the tolls, pretty much allowed the lease holder(s) to ramp up the bridge in an annual basis raking in the profits much to the irritation of regular bridge users.  

The Second Severn Bridge - cheap at half the price!
The Westminster based (and focused) political parties took a while to wake up to the reality, and eventually made the usual noises, usually when in opposition, rather than when in power at Westminster. As the toll is about to end, it may wonder or consider whether it was ever worth contracting out the construction of the second crossing (and the tolls) to a private concern in the first place.

Obviously the decision to ' privatise' the construction of the second Severn bridge and to privatise the consortium that ran the concession was one made for openly ideological (political) reasons. We have ended up with a bridge, that cost a lot - to build and an ever greater deal to cross - I suspect if we are being honest, that the answer in no. 

Taking the long view it would have been much more sensible for the state to build and run the bridge - rather than shirk its responsibilities. Had the project been commissioned under New Labour then it would have probably been commissioned via PFI - buy now, pay a hell of a lot later. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, it has been estimated that this cash cow may well have been milked to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. 

Severn Bridge tolls since 1976
Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls recommended that the revenues from the tolls should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, this compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.

The fact that successive Westminster governments have found it impossible to complete a public project on budget, to cost and on-time, should tell us something. This is not necessarily the case elsewhere, a prime example being the the Millau Viaduct (in France) which just happened to be on time, on budget and at cost - the failure to manage to achieve this here regularly in the UK - may tell us more about the incompetence, inefficiency and perhaps the less than transparent aspects of the Westminster based political parties relationship with the city and big business. 

The Millau Viaduct - on target, on time, on budget...
We will probably never find out how and why the relevant legislation and the concession regulations that allowed the tolls to rise so regularly were written (or by who). The end result was that the concession holders were allowed and whether whoever made that questionable decision received any reward - cash or kind. Had the second severn crossing and subsequent toll concession been run by the state, then there is the distinct possibility that the tolls would have remained far lower and wold probably have been reduced and canceled far earlier. We would also probably not have got so regularly and consistently fleeced by Severn Crossings PLC .