Monday, June 4, 2018

A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION


There may be a faint glimmer, a flicker of hope or perhaps a distant green light as opposed to a red one - in relation to the establishment or perhaps re-establishment of the Ebbw Vale to Newport rail link. The new proposals from the new all Wales franchise holder include a reference to establishing a rail service between Ebbw Vale and Newport by 2021. So far there is not much detail - the resurrection of the connecting bus service (which I see trundle (empty) past me most mornings on my way to work) with more frequent but still empty freshly rebadged buses just won't do! 

Ebbw Vale to Newport by 2021?
A twice hourly rail service (at peak) and once an hour off peak between Ebbw Vale and Newport will be more than acceptable. The extra services (16) a day between Cardiff and Cheltenham must call at Chepstow and Severn Tunnel and the new stations at Llanwern and Magor - if and when they open. It's still not to late for the Welsh Labour government (and our other elected representatives) to extract a commitment to build at station to serve Caerleon / Ponthir - something that has been in both Gwent and Newport UDP's and LDP's since the 1980's. Todays news is definately a step in the right direction but I and no doubt plenty of other people will be interested in the detail. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP?


The Westminster elite from time to time display's an almost desperate desire to retain a publicly perceptible closeness to US interests something that is barely concealed beneath the ever so thin veneer of so called 'special relationship '. This special relationship is worth exploring as it explains many of the decisions (and the consequences of decisions) taken over the last 60 years and much hangs on it for good or for ill post BREXIT.

This relationship in its current form exists in its current form as a direct result Suez. Thwarted by the USA, the Franco-British-Israeli alliance of convenience broke up. After a brief sulk - the Brits and the French then made two very different decisions, the French decided to pursue and independent foreign policy (and an independent nuclear deterrent), if from time to time French and US interests were the same, all well and good, if not then tough - French interests would always prevail even if they put France at odds with the USA.

This side of La Manche, the Brits made a very different decision, British and US interests it was decided would remain forever intrinsically linked - where the US went so would the Brits regardless. This was despite (in not because) of the threat of economic dislocation used by the US to effectively engineer the removal of a very ill Antony Eden from number 10 - something that should have remained relatively fresh in the Brit elites minds. 

In the late 1960's Harold Wilson, publicly (and privately) refused to commit Brit military assets to the on-going war in Vietnam. This reality was that this decision was carefully cleared in advance by Wilson with Washington (who cut the PM some slack) and was taken purely and simply for domestic political reasons rather than being a matter of high moral principal. 

The so-called special relationship was founded from combination of desperation, expediency, misunderstanding, and post war debt management. At the heart of the relationship lies a fundamental misunderstanding of US history and society which remains to this day. 

It's based from the start on a simple but fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of America. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Brit elite imagined that the Americans were basically trans Atlantic English people ( Personified as 'Brother Jonathan' so beloved by 19th century Brit cartoonists especially in Punch magazine ).

While this may have been true to a degree in Mid to late 18th century (to a degree) the opening up of the frontier to settlement (something the Brits had resisted when running their colonies in the New World) had resulted in a surge of European immigrants seeking a better life in the USA. They were joined by Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Swedes, Mexicans, Irish and many others who flooded into America. The retention of the American form of English as a language of communication had little to do with trans Atlantic kinship with England and more to do with simple practicality.

The Brits, were at the end of the 19th century genuinely alarmed at US hostility towards Britain during the border dispute with Venezuela. Forgetting that support from Britain for the Confederacy during the civil war, with military supplies, the supply and construction of blockade runners and naval vessels was freshly and angrily remembered by the generations of US politicians that held power from the civil war until the start of the 20th century.

The USA buoyed up by manifest destiny within the continent, and the Monrow doctrine - a  policy of preventing external inference in both north and South America set out from the 1890's onwards to thwart, undermine and destroy the British Empire - and by and large they succeeded - partially as a result of the First and Second World wars and partially because that was the real price (aside from the hard cash, gold reserves, financial bonds and the sell off cheaply of UK assets within America) to pay for lead lease.

Despite the best efforts of Brit leaders to persuade people within the UK to the contrary the USA's oldest ally is actually France. The French supported the insurgent United States against their former imperial overlords.  The USA is the end result of a vast melting pot of peoples from across and around the globe - a number of whom had little love for Britain. 

Labour in power in 1945 perhaps hoped that by withdrawing from India - they might yet retain the potentially mineral rich in perial territories in Africa. This would help pay if the war debt and lessen the financial consequences of the loss of India. This illusion disappeared pretty rapidly after Suez - with the famous Winds of Change speech  calling down the curtain on the Empire in Africa. The hasty withdrawal from Africa that followed was a direct consequence of economic and political impotence following Suez.

This side of the pond, the Westminster / Brit elite over the last 50 years despite generating a lot of rhetoric to the contrary have consistently wound down the UK defence establishment to the point where it as shrunk to insignificance and moved the UK from potentially useful Ally to potential liability.

The over reliance on US defence equipment, some of dubious worth in some cases has become self fulfilling as the aerospace and armaments industrial sector had been run down and weakened to the point of destruction. The production of 2 aircraft carriers (which will have no aircraft for the foreseeable future) is merely a blatant example of poor decision making coming home to roost. 

The consequences of 5 defence reviews since the late 1950's rather than cutting our cloth to match realities have merely run the defence sector into the ground and cutting the armed forces to the very edge of impotence. The thousands of jobs in Westland in Yeovil and aerospace in Bristol (and many dependent jobs in the extended supply chain) were sacrificed in plain sight along with the coal and steel jobs in Wales and elsewhere. 

In the last decade the UK has moved from being unsinkable aircraft carrier and useful ally to a modern day version of Austria-Hungary - overblown with pomp and circumstance, politically unstable, unreliable and ill-equipped in less than 25 years. The decline economic and strategic is no doubt perceived as quite shocking in most of Europe's chancelleries. The UK's last 6 sea harriers were retrieved from storage to bomb Ghadafis Libya. Over last Christmas and the New Year all the Royal Navy's 15 surface ships were in home ports - something that had probably not happened since the days of King Alfred. 

The inhabitants of these islands are now going to be living on the edge of Europe, we're the UK (for good or ill) will have little influence having burned our bridges with the EU and irritated the USA by ceasing to be their boy inside the EU tent. Blair and Bush's much trumpeted New World Order, envisaged somewhat triumphantly when the USSR disintegrated has crumbled rather rapidly into a New World Disorder.  

Despite the tabloid and broadsheet headlines / delusions Empire 2.0 is not going to coming riding to the rescue. That ship rather than sailing away was quietly scuttled or abandoned in the early 1970's when the UK joined the then EEC - leaving potential commonwealth partners to sink or swim. Thanks to Brexit (potentially a gift that will keep on taking in so many different ways) the Brit elite finds itself about to be outside of the EU. 

The UK may well be doubly diminished- as its no longer as far as the other European's are concerned the USA's observer / representative in the EU tent. From the US perspective the UK is also diminished in US eyes as it's less useful bring unable to observe or influence events in the EU. Post BREXIT the UK may find itself dependent on the so called special relationship with the US largely because they have not got anyone else to turn too. The Recently steel tariffs imposed by US President Trump may well be just the start...

Thursday, May 31, 2018

CHANGING THE RULES?


The news that SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy) has become the last of the "big six" energy companies to announce early summer price rises, with a 6.7% average increase in gas and electricity bills, won’t surprise many people. This move result in gas prices rise by 5.7% and electricity prices go up by 7.7% on 11 July for SSE customers on variable deals, with an average £76 per year rise for 2.36 million customers.

Here we go again!
All the major domestic energy suppliers have announced some form of price rise in recent weeks - with  some 4.1 million British Gas customers faced a 5.5% hike as of Tuesday, adding an average of £60 to bills.  Scottish Power will increase prices by 5.5%, or £63 on average, for nearly one million people from 1 June. EDF has a 2.7%, or £16, electricity price rise coming into effect on 7 June for 1.2 million customers. 

Npower's 5.3% increase, an average of £64, will hit one million people from 17 June. E.On has made changes to how it bills customers which took effect in April. They will amount to a rise in the average standard variable rate of £22. With no effective means or desire on the part of Westminster to do anything about it - SSE’s move was branded as "unjustified" by the government when it was announced - but that was about as far as it went. 

After years of visionless or perhaps financially compromised New Labour, Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition and Conservative governments in Westminster, who have been hand in glove with despotic oil and gas-producing regimes in the Middle East who have had has little real interest in renewables, it’s no surprise that we have ended up in this mess. Teresa May’s wobbly and unstable Westminster government, along with its predecessors has continued to actively work to pull the rug out from under the renewables sector by cutting the feed in tariff something that has cost highly skilled jobs here in Wales.

We need to make sure that we don't get fleeced over our energy bills by the members of the 'Big 6 Energy Cartel' members -  who have made fat profits over the years at our expense with the connivence of Westminster. In Wales we need to change the rules of the game and to create a national energy company for Wales to generate sustainable and reasonably priced energy, which can also be part of the solution to create a low carbon society. We need to establish and develop a national energy company, Ynni Cymru, which should be run as a not-for-dividend company at arms-length from the Welsh Government.

This is a vision for energy and the environment for a Wales that reduces its carbon emissions, harnesses its natural resources sustainably, and seizes opportunities in the low-carbon and circular economies. The link between energy and climate change is clear. A number of actions could fall into the remit of Ynni Cymru, including: reducing the cost per unit of energy to homes and businesses in Wales, reducing the consumption of energy in homes and businesses and helping consumers to make informed decisions based on smart metering technology.

Ynni Cymru should be tasked with funding the mass installation, outsourced to local companies, of solar panels on the roofs of households, business premises and lampposts in Wales, beginning with public buildings and social housing. The company would coordinate and facilitate the use of publicly owned land for renewable energy purposes.

The company could finance the acquisition and development of new large-scale generating and storage capacity, ensuring Wales becomes self-sufficient in renewable energy and becomes a renewable energy exporter. It could boost our energy market by ensuring the development of a national producer cooperative among community energy organisations.

The problem we face is that our energy production and distribution model was restructured to primarily benefit the big 6 energy cartel members, their interests and their (City) profits. From the perspective of energy consumers and smaller scale energy producers, or anyone who wants things to change the problem is that all the Westminster based political parties have quietly bought into this cartel dominated model of energy production and ownership (or perhaps more truthfully were quietly bought).

The reality is that the UK’s cartel dominated model for energy production and distribution is not necessarily the norm everywhere in Europe or around the world. Now contrary to what you might think, and here from Westminster; realistic alternatives exist and actually prosper, a particularly good example of a balanced and healthy energy mix can be found in Germany. Small may very well be beautiful, even with a geographically sizeable state, especially in relation to energy, in 2012 some 22% of the countries energy came from small scale green entrepreneurs.

Community based co-operatives (both urban and rural), farmers and homeowners are part of the 1.3 million renewable energy producers and part of the energy mix. In Germany, citizens’, cooperatives, and communities own more than half of German renewable capacity. Small-scale electricity generation is having a knock on effect encouraging change throughout the energy system.

In Berlin, a cooperative (Burger Energie Berlin – literally Berlin Citizens Energy) continues to strive to take control of the capital's electricity grid with some 35,000km of underground cables. The cooperative is a free, cross-party coalition of citizens who are committed to a sustainable, sustainable and democratic energy policy in Berlin. Members have one vote regardless of the amount their deposit and anyone who wants the power network to be in civil hand, is welcome.

Burger Energie Berlin  / Berlin Citizens Energy
Ordinary Berliners have invested their cash in the venture with the intention of producing a reliable 100 per cent renewable energy supply. The aim is to promote the integration of renewable energy into the grid and to invest a portion of the profits from this directly into the transition to renewable energy. At present the Berlin electricity grid remains run by Vattenfall regularly generates millions in profits, members of the co-operative believe that the profits from the grid operation should flow to Berlin’s citizens.

Grass roots energy generation that has potentially the power to change the nature of the energy supply system (in Germany and elsewhere). They aim to build an energy grid that is better handle the rise of green power and allows local use of locally produced energy. This may well be a case of small being both beautiful and perhaps deeply disturbing from the perspective of Westminster and Cardiff Bay something that it is both community beneficial and community owned.

In Germany, there is a deliberate promoted policy of energy transition (or ‘Energiewende’) – this is a very different approach to what is practised in these islands (at least south of the Scottish border). For a start the ‘Energiewende’ is driven by a desire to reduce and eliminate any dependency on nuclear energy.

The introduction of the Feed-in-tariff (EEG) in 2008 was an important part of this process, along with (post Fukushima) the almost unanimous across the board political commitment to a wide range of targets (in 2011) which included a commitment to reduce energy demand (with a 50% reduction in primary energy use by 2050) and the achievement of an 80% renewable electricity share of total consumption (by 2050). This has resulted in a significant uptake of renewables in Germany.

The real striking difference is that the operation of the grid in Germany means that generated renewable electricity is used first and that distribution network operators (DNOs) are also seeking to reduce demand. This is so radically different from the way the energy is generated, distributed, exported and used here in our country.

A significant difference, aside from the scale and pattern of investment (in Germany), is that small businesses, co-operatives, individual households and local authorities benefit from investment distributed by a network of local banks (something we pretty much entirely lack in Wales). The whole thing is supported by the KfW (state investment bank) to the tune of 23.3 billion euro in the area of environment and climate protection (2012 figures).

These developments are a million miles away from the so-called ‘Free market’ for energy that exists in the UK, which is pretty dominated by the ‘Big 6’ energy cartel members. The fact that some former politicians have found rewarding post political career employment within the energy sector may be co-incidental but suggests that there is little desire for improvement within Westminster.

The way the current set up works, it is impossible to envisage ‘a Government’ at most levels (outside of Scotland, Northern Ireland and perhaps Wales with a change of government) in the UK grasping the concept, practicalities and possibilities of genuine community owned beneficial energy generation projects. Pending some real change in the way energy policy works we are all pretty much trapped with a real lack of meaningful choice or realistic alternatives when it comes to customers securing domestic energy from the big 6 cartel members - something that is both unacceptable and inexcusable - something has to change for the better and soon.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

GETTING BACK ON TRACK

The Ebbw Vale line, at least to Cardiff, reopened in 2008 and carried a years worth of anticipated passengers in the first few months. The new rail service failed to connect to Newport from day one - despite the implied promises and suggestions made before and since the railway line was reopened. 

Now, with the anticipated change of franchise holders, the Welsh government and all our elected representatives to demand a commitment to run the long promised services between Ebbw Vale and Newport.

Blink and you might miss it! 
The failure to connect the Ebbw Vale line to Newport means that potential commuters living in communities in the Ebbw Valley remain unable to travel directly to Newport by train and have little choice but to use their cars. 

They are denied the opportunity of catching connecting trains to Bristol, London, Cheltenham and beyond as well travelling slightly more rapidly to Cardiff in the morning and evening. Commuters have no choice but to drive to work and help to feed the congestion of an already at times overcrowded M4.

The missing rail link between Ebbw Vale and Newport to all intents and purposes is already open – trains already runs admittedly by stealth on occasions from Ebbw Vale into Newport and vice versa. The rail line and the signalling works fine – what we need is a regularly timetabled rail service. 

That is a problem that requires a political solution, rather than an economic or infrastructure problem. We need a very public concrete all-party commitment to ensure that a regular timetabled service to and from Ebbw Vale to Newport is included as part of the new all Wales rail franchise timetable commitments.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

AVOID, DEFLECT, ATTACK, IGNORE


In most normal countries and states around the world the state of the nation's railways is understandably a matter of some economic significance, concern and civic pride. Yet the current state of our nations fragmented railways is a source of national embarrassment and collective frustration, rather than boosting our economy, they are literally dragging our economy down. 

Back in the 2016 National Assembly election's one of the Labour Party’s key flagship transport policies was that they would “deliver a new, not-for-profit, rail franchise from 2018”. The current (for how long is an open question!?) Incumbent is Cabinet Secretary for Transport, it was Ken Skates who actually authored that manifesto.

Yet, the current Welsh Labour Government has just handed over responsibility for our national railways to a French-Spanish, for-profit, consortium of transnational corporations – the former made a profit of €313 million in 2016. This means very basically that rail passengers in Wales will therefore no longer be subsidising rail passengers in Germany at least - as is the case under the current franchise with the German state-owned Arriva - we will be subsidising rail passengers in France instead.

The Labour in Wales government in Cardiff Bay could argue that they aren’t able to procure a publicly owned operator under the terms of the Wales Bill - they haven't. The harsh reality Labour in Wales has completely (and pretty consistently I might observe over the years) failed to ensure that the devolution settlement permitted the Welsh Government to procure a not-for-profit rail operator. 

To make matters worse, they then actually choose to vote in favour of this new devolution settlement, in the full knowledge that the settlement would stop them from being able to deliver on this important transport promise. The Welsh Government simply accepted this position, and subsequently has awarded a £5 billion rail franchise to the majority-owned French rail company, Keolis, and Spanish infrastructure corporation Amey to run the Welsh network for 15 years (2033).

As has become the sad norm for this Labour in Wales Government, when faced with awkward or difficult questions in the knowledge that they have lost the intellectual and moral argument, tend to avoid, deflect and evade challenges through personal and puerile attacks - and a blatant refusal to answer questions (as personified by Carwyn Jones's behaviour at First Ministers questions). 

The First Minister, however, as has been noted elsewhere is not alone when it comes to this behaviour. For one thing Labour cannot differentiate between itself and civic government - criticise them and they will attack you for undermining the institution be it in Cardiff Bay or Newport Civic Centre - but they will never directly answer the question or the criticism. 

In a recent debate in the National Assembly the Transport Secretary just refused to answer a crucial question that would at least have measured the sincerity of his vision for a Welsh not-for-profit rail operator. It was possible to introduce a ‘Break Clause’ to this franchise agreement which would allow the Welsh Government to end the contract before the formal contractual end date - this was not done. 

This would at least have bequeathed some future Welsh Government potential wiggle-room / freedom of movement to actually deliver a not-for-profit rail franchise if there was a change in the law made by a so minded Westminster Government. No such assurances were sought - this means the Labour in Wales Government have effectively bound the hands of not just the next administration, but the one after that, and, indeed, the one after that.

A recognisable pattern about decisions that bind the hands or limit the options of future Welsh governments may have emerged. This decision also mirrors the potential financial consequences of a commitment to the M4 Black route - which would tie up fresh acquired borrowing powers with significant loan  commitments that could effectively tie the hands of future Welsh governments (Labour in Wales or otherwise) for  years. 

The very borrowing powers themselves may have been reluctantly conceded by Westminster (by George Osbourne) with this in mind.  Now in relation to the rail franchise this could be down to a number of reasons: a lack of vision or desire from Labour in Wales, poor (if not downright questionably impartial) advice from the civil service, a lack of attention to detail, simply not being up to the business of governance with a deliberately badly designed system of devolution, or perhaps just not actually simply not being that good at what they do.

Now it can be argued that this could be down to arrogance, complacency, cynical indifference or a recognition of the realities of the current electoral system.  The partially proportional electoral system can be said to have largely been designed to deliver Labour majority government. 

It is more than possible that Labours duly elected representatives in Wales cannot envisage a non Labour dominated (minority or majority) government ever being elected. And at this moment in time who could say that they are not correct in this belief. If you were so minded, that the Labour minority government's that have been elected (periodically since 1999) have been a result of the electorate casting their votes despite the electoral system - which may say a great deal about some of the shrewd choices made by electors in our nation from time to time.

That said the Labour in Wales Cabinet Secretary questionably argued that this new for-profit franchise will deliver outcomes for passengers - something that very effectively undermines the Labour Party’s position at Westminster on nationalisation in its entirety. Plaid Cymru has long believed that Wales needs a publicly owned railway to ensure that dividends and profits are reinvested back into the Welsh rail services that have been starved of funding by successive Westminster governments. 

Recently the great leader (JC) spoke of the need for a people's railway, yet here, the only national government the Labour Party controls, are busy celebrating their achievements by brazenly and slavishly following the Conservative Party’s privatising agenda. A case of do as I say, not as I do? We have a long way to go in our country but for certain Labour in Wales is not the answer we are looking for…

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE COMPANY THAT YOU KEEP...


Personally I prefer my politicians to be chosen from the ranks of those who ask and answer questions (awkward and otherwise); from those who inquire, who have open minds and who tend to actually think (coherent) thoughts. Not to mention ones that tend not to come from parties that have been in receipt of donations from Russian and Serb businesspersons or are very happy in the company of filthy rich oligarchs. 

Teresa May's conduct as Home Secretary deserves scrutiny as the failure to hold an inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko - there were a number of suspicious deaths amongst the Russian emigre community (and associates) during a certain person's tenure as Home Secretary. The decision not to investigate because it may have been prejudicial to business / city interests remains questionable to say the least. 

The Brit (and City) elite are too comfortable not asking questions (let alone answering them) particularly those related to where the cash has come from. This is something that has been noted by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee has reported that London was being used to hide the "corrupt assets" of President Vladimir Putin and his allies. It's also been noted that despite the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter it remains "business as usual" for the City.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

ANOTHER DIFFICULT ANNIVERSARY!


Forgetting anniversaries is a very human thing, we can all occasionally do it - its when the State has selective absences of memory that are deliberate and that it can become a problem. I wonder if the 13th April 2019 will be doubly underlined in the diary of whoever is sitting in 10 Downing Street next year - I suspect that it won't be underlined. The 13th April 2019 will be the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar massacre - which was somewhat half-heartedly referenced by then no doubt somewhat embarrassed PM David Cameron as a 'shameful event' -so much for making an attempt at a sincere if somewhat belated apology (back in 2013). Whatever you choose to call it - murder is still murder, an atrocity is still an atrocity, even if it was 99, a 100 or 101 years ago.  Perhaps in the aftermath of BREXIT (more than ever) there is a real need to temper the wave of post imperial Brit nostalgia for empire with some post colonial responsibility.