Wednesday, October 16, 2019

WELSH GREEN BELT


The explosion in housing developments around our cities, small towns and villages across Cymru / Wales over the last 30 years - often with little provision for public transport or alternative ways for potential residents to get around beyond using their cars - has also flagged up the rapid loss of green spaces in and around our urban areas. One thing our country lacks, aside from a serious well though out integrated housing structure plan, and any realistic vision or plan for developing our housing, is a lack of green belt.

We have a clear, if not a dire need for the creation of Green belt across all of our country, to fringe our urban areas, to help focus out of town and fringe of town developments, and to protect green spaces between and within some of our urban areas. Green belt, if respected is a useful planning tool, originally introduced for London in 1938, it was rolled out to England as a whole by a government circular in 1955 but interestingly enough it was only enough never rolled out here in Cymru / Wales.

Now the original concept was to allow local councils to designate green belts when they wanted to restrict or control urban growth.  The idea worked and it worked well, as by 2007, Green belt covered something like 13% of England (about one-and-a-half million hectares) despite the best efforts of previous Conservative, New Labour and Conservative–Liberal Democrat Governments it is still remains relatively well protected by normal planning controls against "inappropriate development".

We have one patch of notional green belt (actually a Green wedge) that lies between Cardiff and Newport. Scotland has seven and Northern Ireland has 30 - each has its own policy guidance. The absence of green belt has contributed to urban sprawl and significant out of town and edge of town development - something that has done little to help our communities, economically or socially especially over the last 30 years.

The preservation of green spaces aside, comes down to planning permission, it can be a touchy subject, especially when a development (whether for commercial, housing or energy development) is controversial or the final decision is made against the wishes of local people. We face the same problem across all of our country, be it around Wrecsam, Carmarthen, Cardiff, Swansea of any of our smaller towns and villages. 

A number of these housing developments, which have done (and will do) some pretty serious damage to our environment in the process without any necessary improvements in infrastructure e.g new railway stations with reasonably priced (or even free), adequate and secure park and ride facilities at Caerleon (closed as a result of the Beeching cuts in 1962, in the UDP since 1984) not to mention Llanwern and Magor.

In the south east, along the coastal belt and in and around Newport and Torfaen (not to mention around Cardiff and Caerphilly) and across Monmouthshire the last thirty years has seen a significant if not spectacular growth in the amount of housing, a significant percentage of which has never aimed to fulfil local housing needs. As a result the infrastructure along the coastal belt between Chepstow, Caldicot, Rogiet and Magor struggles to cope with existing developments and this is well before the projected expansion of housing on and around the former Llanwern site (where the proposed railway station was recently cancelled) really kicks in.

Northern Newport has been linked to the south Cwmbran - something that has brought little material benefit to the residents of either urban area but has contributed much to traffic congestion. Similarly linking Cwmbran with Sebastopol will bring scant benefit to local residents - when the housing development is complete - just exactly how much of it will be affordable to local residents?

The removal of the Severn Bridge tolls resulted (as expected) in a bump in house prices as people living in and around Bristol moved to cash in on cheaper housing over here.  This understandably impacted on both affordable and available housing, developers will no doubt pitch their developments accordingly to cash in on perceived higher wages in the Bristol area and perceived cheaper housing over here (and no doubt our local authorities will fall over themselves to accommodate the developers wishes regardless how local people feel).

The National Assembly should have known better and acted accordingly, the institution when established was supposed to have sustainability enshrined in its actions, but, at times you really have to wonder, especially when it comes to the impact of some of the proposed developments on our communities, whether it does. We need to develop and protect our own green wedges around and within our urban communities – because once developed its are gone for good. It should be pretty clear by now to even the most dispassionate of observers that in Wales, we lack a coherent national strategic development plan for Wales judging by the half-baked way local unitary development plans have been put together over the years.

The problem caused by a lack of protection to our Green wedges, etc is aggravated by the fact that what one generation of elected officials (and council officers) envisages as a green wedge, green lane, etc is often seen by later generations of elected officials (and council officers) as either prime land for development or a nice little earner to help balance out the books - this means that there is a real lack of stability and a long term vision for many of our urban areas and impacts on our quality of life. 

The National Assembly needs to act like the Welsh Parliament it has become - it should be and take the long view and create Welsh Green belt land with full legal and planning protections. This might go some way to calming things down when it comes to development planning and might introduce a more long-term sustainable democratic element into the process. This is something that could be accomplished by creating Welsh Green belt land, as part of the process we also need an urgent and open debate into the planning process in Wales - something that has been long overdue.

Successive Westminster government’s (in England) talked about getting planning officers "off people's backs" with a relaxation of current rules. When they talked about ‘people’ they meant developers. In true Spiv fashion ‘for a limited period, people were able to build larger extensions on houses (up to eight metres for detached homes and six for others). Shops and offices were also able grow to the edges of their premises as Plan A (harsh Public Sector Cuts) continues to unravel and on the back of BREXIT a note of desperation may creep into Westminster’s attempts to stabilise the economy.

Much of this sounds good; it seems reasonable save for the fact that somewhere amongst the smoke and mirrors the plan has always been reduce developer’s obligations to build proportional amounts of affordable housing and avoiding flood risk will go out the window. The Lib Dems as ubber willing coalition partners with David Camerons Conservatives happily signed up to this. Not that long ago the previous Westminster government rewrote the entire planning framework (for England) despite some fierce resistance from countryside campaigners. No doubt post Brexit Westminster ministers will want further changes to planning rules (in England) in an attempt to boost house building and revive the economy.

Not wanting to be left out (and also perhaps bereft of any fresh ideas), a few years ago Carwyn’s Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff also pursued major changes to planning rules in Wales aiming to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’. That decision was in my opinion aimed quite specifically at overturning those few occasions when our Local Authorities have rejected developments (often at the behest of local residents) rather than putting economic needs ahead of economic and environmental benefits and will do little for sustainable, flood free development to deal with local housing needs let alone preserve our green spaces. It explains much of the housing overdevelopment in various parts of our country and it does not deliver for our hard pressed communities or our country. 

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.

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 and that puts our communities first. This is something we are never going to get from a Labour in Wales government, it’s time to change Cymru / Wales, with a Plaid Cymru government in 2021, for unlike Labour, Plaid believes that  Wales can. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

STILL TAKING BACK CONTROL?


When it comes to 'Taking Back Control' the key question that still should be asked (and answered) is with whom will the 'taken back control' now reside. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is not about taking back control, but, more to the point just to who, we are about to surrender control too? From the perspective of Cymru / Wales the answer may be certainly not with us. 

Previously an over centralised unionist British State (whether nominally socialist, avidly free market capitalist, or desperate to reduce the day to day impact of the state, they all failed to deliver for Cymru / Wales before - so why is it gong to better this time around!  A re-badged re-centralised ubber unionist Brit State 2.0 is even more unlikely to deliver in any meaningful way for us in the future. 

Previously led by Teresa May (once described by a fellow conservative as Enoch Powell in a dress) and now led by Boris - it should be pretty clear that Cymru / Wales as far as Westminster is concerned no longer counts - economically or politically - particularly if it's left to the likes of Boris Johnson, Gove and their ilk. As we approach however ponderously the threshold of some sort of post BREXIT political and constitutional era, we need to more than every urgently clarify the constitutional position of our parliament in Cardiff. 

Devolution is here to stay, the process remains incomplete and our journey continues - the people of Cymru / Wales not Westminster politicians will decide on the length of the journey and our destination. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you cannot be half devolved - you are either fully devolved or you are not devolved at all - there is no halfway house. The latest on-going cluster ruck over delivering BREXIT had exposed the fundamental difference that lies behind, beneath or within the mind set of the politics, that emanates from and revolves around the House of Jaw (Westminster). 

Our National Assembly should have similar powers to those of Scotland - so it can reboot our economy and our communities, deliver social justice and rebuild our transport network after the damage done by years of neglect, indifference and incompetence from Westminster.  The key point here is that at a fundamental level, Plaid Cymru has long believed that sovereignty lies here in Cymru / Wales with the people of Wales. It does not lie with or within that over expensive crumbling gothic monstrosity on the Thames - the Westminster parliament or its inhabitants. 

This simple all encompassing principle needs to be clearly stated and articulated as often as necessary.  Post BREXIT before the Westminster based centralisers get to work wrecking and undermining our developing democracy (and the other devolved administrations) we seriously need to consider a declaration of sovereignty for laws passed in Cymru / Wales by the National Assembly. This simply is a declaration that will give laws passed in Cymru / Wales ( ‘our own laws’ ) precedence over those that emanate from Westminster.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

BURYING BAD NEWS


If the Welsh Labour Government in Cymru / Wales was looking for a good day to bury bad news for the people of Newport then perhaps Wednesday 28th August was probably a good day. 

I mention this because back in April 2017, a list of 12 potential new and revived railway station sites was made public which would go a long way towards adding connectively to various parts of our country’s poor railway network and potentially reducing road congestion. 

On the 28th August 2019, it was revealed that the original list of 12 has now become  4  - when another list of 4 was published. Now this is not a definitive list, and there are no guarantees that  these 4 prospective railway stations will eventually be built or re-opened as they have to go on for yet further assessment in Westminster. 

The lucky 4 prospective railway stations are: 

  • Ely Mill/Victoria Park in Cardiff
  • St Clears in Carmarthenshire
  • Deeside Industrial Park/Northern Gateway
  • Carno in Powys

The railway stations which did not made it through the assessment are:

  • Llanwern
  • Newport Road/Rover Way
  • St Mellons
  • Cockett
  • Landore
  • North Wrexham
  • South Wrexham
  • Llangefni

It is important to remember that control of our railway infrastructure investment is not devolved to Cymru / Wales - a decision largely made by the then Labour Government in Westminster.  it still remains with the UK Westminster Government, all the Welsh Labour Government does is draw up a short list of suggestions.

All potential stations go through three stages of assessment.

  • The first looks at Welsh Transport Appraisal Guidance criteria and consideration of the Wellbeing and Future Generations Act.
  • The second looks at the strength of the financial and economic case for a new station and advice from Network Rail on deliverability.

  • The third is "development and assessment of the highest priorities".

To help narrow the list down, station demand forecasts were drawn up which are designed to give a likely viability of proposed stations. This may actually sound a more scientific and rational process than it is. It is worth remembering that the anticipated number of passengers who were expected to travel on the reopened Ebbw Vale line to Cardiff in 12 months travelled on the new service in the first 4 months. 

A word of warning - please don’t hold your breath in anticipation of any regular train service from Ebbw Vale to Newport - we may yet have along wait. The 7,000 + householders who will end up living on the Llanwern site will have no option but to use their cars or the bus service to get to and from work. Not pushing for a railway station at Llanwern will directly impact on the congestion in an around Newport, on the SDR and the existing M4. 

Any proposal will only be successful with "a sound business case" and the assessment "increases the ability of station proposals to be in a position to benefit from funding calls" - and that decision will be made in Westminster rather than here in Cymru / Wales. A Welsh Government spokesman said: "The stations that scored the highest in the assessment will now be taken forward. The proposals for the remaining stations will be considered when additional resources become available."

It is also worth noting that the process is ongoing and there is no date for any potential reopening of any station. Considering that for the last 3 years Westminster has been tearing itself apart over BREXIT it would be a safe bet that it may be a while before any Westminster government focuses on Cymru / Wales and our national interests. Decisions about railway infrastructure development need to be made here in Cymru / Wales, not in Westminster.

Monday, September 2, 2019

SAVE THE ORB


Welsh Government must do “all it can” to prevent “devastating” closure

Responding to the news of the closure of the Orb Electrical Steels base in Newport, Plaid Cymru shadow minister for the economy Rhun ap Iorwerth AM said,

“This really is devastating news for the workforce and their families, and its terrible news for steel-making and the wider economy of Wales. Orb is a specialist steel maker, which could be a major contributor to potential emerging industries in Wales including renewable energy and electric vehicle production.

“I’ve repeatedly called for a major summit on Wales’s economic future. This is further evidence of why it’s more important than ever to have the clearest possible focus on the threats facing us, and the opportunities that need to be sought out at this time of unprecedented uncertainty.”

“Plaid Cymru is asking Welsh and UK Governments to investigate all possible interventions – from joint investment to even taking it into public ownership, such is the importance of keeping this specialist capability.”

Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for South Wales East Delyth Jewell added,

“This is terrible news for the committed steelworkers and my heart goes out to all affected by today’s announcement. The Welsh Government needs to do all it can to try to save these jobs and should consider taking the plant into public ownership, as the specialist products the plant produces could play an important role in the development of the strategically vital renewables sector in Wales.

“They should also demand an immediate top-level meeting with Tata chiefs in order to press on them their responsibility to uphold prior commitments they’ve made to their workforce, since it was only last year that workers agreed to accept less generous pensions provisions in exchange for a guarantee they could keep their jobs. While I understand that workers will be offered a chance to relocate, this simply isn’t possible for many who have deep roots in the area and lack the financial means to uproot their lives at short notice.

“There are questions to be raised once again about how the Welsh Government appears to have been caught unaware by an announcement of job losses within the manufacturing sector in Wales, and I will be asking for an explanation from the Economy Minister about what he’s been doing to try to protect these jobs over the past few months."

DIWEDD / ENDS

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

TAKING BACK CONTROL - PERHAPS NOT...


It may all comes down to numbers in the end, one way or the other for Boris As a result of the cuts to police numbers introduced by the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition since 2010 there are at least 500 fewer police officers are on our streets in Cymru / Wales. Boris's promise of 20,000 extra police officers - is nice, save for the fact that we are already 19,704 police officers down since 2010. Boris would basically take us back to were we were in 2010 - with a next gain of 296 police officers in England and Wales. Save of course that they are not all coming to Wales, so even if we got 5% of them (say 25) that would still leave down by 480. If policing was devolved and funded on a population basis as is the case with other policy areas our Welsh police forces would receive upwards of £20 million more per year. Policing is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, making our National Assembly the only devolved legislature not to have any control over its nation’s police forces. Once again, we remain the poor relation amongst the devolved institutions across these islands. Perhaps it’s time to take back control…from Westminster.

Friday, August 23, 2019

THE BACKSTOP TO BREXIT?


It's that man again!
One of the key lines being continually pushed by the Brexiters is that the backstop (draft emergency provisions to ensure no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland) is fundamentally undemocratic and it has to go. Oddly enough it's not perceived as undemocratic in Northern Ireland - where pretty much every elected politician is in favour of it. Political opposition from within Northern Ireland to the Brexiters position may be one of the reasons why successive Conservative governments have dragged their feet when it comes to helping to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland that and their parties on-going cash induced relationship with the DUP - who themselves have their own reasons for avoiding local democratic scrutiny.

If nothing else this position in relation to the Irish backstop has exposed a few hard truths. It's very clear if not obvious that Brexiters (many of whom hail from a particularly narrow and actually quite unrepresentative narrow elite) have never had any meaningful or realistic understanding of Ireland - North or South or other matters. Not that long ago I can recall overhearing conversations (in another place for want of a better phrase) openly and genuinely bemoaning the fact that Ireland had left the UK and that Hong Kong had to be (sadly) returned to China, etc. This sort of thing, if nothing else displays a lack of understanding of recent and not so recent history, and is perhaps this is the backstop too Brexit. 

What's certainly true is that Ireland never appeared on this elites radar before or during or initially after the referendum campaign - one of the possible  consequences of a return to a hard border is the undermining of the peace process. Then late and very deeply missed Steffan Lewis flagged this up some years ago. Looking dispassionately at the Conservative and Unionist Party's often tortuous relationship with the Irish political dimension in these islands - it's clear that they have been happy from time to time to play the unionist card - with scant of little thought toward the short, medium or longer term consequences - particularly for Northern Ireland or the rest of us.

It should be clear to most people by now that if Boris Johnston had a clear Conservative majority in Westminster and was not dependent upon the support of the DUP then he would have been pushing even harder for a No deal - regardless of the consequences for Northern Ireland and the rest of us. None of this bodes well for the future of devolution in these islands, if the Conservatives don't understand Northern Ireland, are surprisingly indifferent to Scotland and genuinely don't even perceive Cymru / Wales, then they are very different in outlook to their pre 1979 conservative predecessors who could be said to have spoken for the Union as a whole.  

The Brexiter Conservatives are perhaps for the first time in the modern era (or at least since the early 17th century) quite openly focused on England (and its a particularly unrepresentative narrow view of England at that) or perhaps a Greater England. The problem is we are no longer living in the 17th century - the world and these islands have changed. At a very basic level the failure to understand the complexities of situation in Ireland is quite revealing. Unfortunately it masks (barely) what I believe to be a complete failure to accept or understand devolution (or a deliberate choice) in its varied formats across these islands. It gives a focus perhaps to the quietly as yet unarticulated politics and vision of the UK post Brexit - a unitary centralised non devolved state - which is not good for the rest of us on these islands. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

51 YEARS ON


Thursday 22nd August 2019 will be the 51st anniversary of the Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia, it’s an anniversary that increasingly passes largely unnoticed save perhaps in Prague. Now that the Soviet Union is history, even with Russia on the rise in the east, people have plenty of other things to be concerned about.  It’s been 51 years since Soviet troops and most but not all of their Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21st 1968

Prague street scene - 51 years ago
The Warsaw Pact invasion crushed the political and economic reforms known as the Prague Spring, led by the country's then new First Secretary of the Communist party Alexander Dubcek.  Leonid Brezhnev and other Soviet hard-liners in Moscow, probably correctly in the light of later events between 1989 and 1991, at least from their narrow perspective, saw the reform movement as a serious threat to the Soviet Union's hold on the Socialist satellite states, they decided to act. In the first hours on the 21st August 1968 Soviet planes began to land unexpectedly at Prague's Ruzyne airport, and shortly Soviet tanks would soon be trundling through Prague's narrow streets.  

The Soviet-led invasion helped establish the Brezhnev Doctrine, which Moscow said allowed the U.S.S.R. to intervene in any country where a Communist government was under threat. The Soviet backed occupation of Czechoslovakia lasted until the velvet revolution brought an end to the Communist dictatorship in November 1991 as the Cold War ended. It was always contested - the reformist communists were finally defeated in the mid 1970's just as detente created the Helsinki accords which inspired Charter 77. Russia’s attitude to the invasion can still touch raw emotions, evens in the Czech and Slovak republics. 

Tensions in the relationship between the Czechs and Slovaks (and other nationalities) has existed since the republic was formed in 1918. The perception that Prague (and the Czechs) ran the republic touched a raw nerve in different parts of the republic. Ironically the Communist dictatorship which was resisted by dissidents, former reformist communists and ordinary citizens, kept the lid on tensions within Czechoslovakia between Czechs and Slovaks. 

The West's focus on Prague, the Czechs and the former Czech dissidents meant that tensions between Prague and Bratislava were largely, but, not entirely missed. The welcome regular pronouncements about curbing the arms trade and arms exports did not go down well in Slovakia were a significant portion (but not all) of arms production was based. With the dictatorship gone, it took only a few years for the former state to split into the Czech and Slovak republics - both of whom became independent states on January 1st 1993, joining the the EU in May 2004 as they returned to Europe.

Now the Velvet revolutionaries are well into middle age, as are the rest of us who watched the fall of the wall and communism in Eastern Europe. Now the visible symbols of communism are long gone, the unemployed and the homeless, invisible under communism are back as are the gleaming shopping centres and the well stocked supermarkets are part of normal life rather than the preserves of the communist elite. 

In Prague the Communism museum is increasingly difficult to find, and perhaps healthy or irrelevant to younger Czechs. More importantly perhaps a generation of Czech and Slovak voters have grown up with democracy and no fear or a personal understanding of the fear of the secret police, the knock on the door in the night, or border guards and informers. They also don't have to worry about any consequences of expressing their opinions in work, education or at leisure and they have also have no limits on their no freedom of movement (beyond costs) within the EU - all of which has to be the ultimate positive.