Tuesday, July 16, 2019

DEVO ROLLBACK?


When a failed Conservative leader starts talking about reviewing devolution and strengthening the Union at a time when BREXT threatens to deliver a rollback of powers then any one who believes in devoting powers to the nations and reigns of these islands should be concerned. It's a bit like foxes taking a position on chicken's rights and hen coop security - it's time to sit up and take notice. 

Despite the spin and the claims to the contrary, devolution is not Teresa May’s legacy, her legacy is political chaos and economic uncertainty, and a use of BREXIT to attempt to roll back devolution and strip away powers from Wales and Scotland and to undermine the devolved institutions and constitutional settlement within these islands. As late as the 2005 Westminster general election the Conservatives (and Teresa May) were still publicly uncommitted to devolution for Cymru / Wales. 

The Conservatives have never accepted or respected devolution - and would I suspect would given the opportunity weaken if not abolish devolution in Cymru / Wales and actively work to weaken and undermine it in Scotland. They have also played fast and loose with the political process in Northern Ireland - something that threatens to undermine the hard won peace process. 

For a conservative leader to talk about constitutional diversity is particularly rich. The soon to be former Prime Minister is correct in one key area, the fact that some Westminster government departments have failed to recognise the reality of devolution. The Conservative party, under Cameron and May has reluctantly paid lip service to devolution, but, many suspect that it will actively work to weaken the powers of the devolved governments post BREXIT. 

Simply revitalising the Scottish and Welsh offices is no longer an option, it’s perhaps merely new post Brexit colonial window dressing for seeking to undermine the devolved institutions. What's needed is a single ministry for the nations and regions, which could in terms of status match the Home Office at cabinet level, and rationalise the relationships between the Westminster departments and the other devolved portions of these islands.

None of this is new, back in 2015, after David Cameroon, won his first Westminster majority, and before he messily ended his premiership over BREXIT, there was, at least from this end of the M4 / A55, a faint brief whiff of what could best be described as devo rollback in the air. As the then unconstrained All Con Conservative government settled in at Westminster, what's was in it for Cymru / Wales - potentially nothing good. 

Scotland, as far as the Westminster unionists may have been concerned may be quietly (and honestly) be perceived as a lost cause (perhaps a literal case of 'when' rather than 'if' in relation to independence). Cymru / Wales on the other hand may yet offer far more constitutional room to meddle with, to tinker with or even rollback parts of our deeply flawed constitutional settlement - something that could take us back to pre 1601 and 'England and Wales'.

Here in Cymru / Wales we have all seen the Westminster wobble in relation to the commitment to complete the electrification of the Great Western line to Swansea, the failure to develop the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, and the threat to cancel promised public borrowing powers after the proposed M4 Relief road was dropped. Our constitutional settlement, such as it is is, even to the disinterested, appears deeply flawed, second rate and simply unfair, not coming remotely close to either Scotland or Northern Ireland when it comes to powers which could be used to influence and shape economic matters. 

The Conservative Party appears to be appealing to the type of nationalism that has seen UKIP grow in the past, and more recently the Brexit Party - it has little place of concern for Cymru / Wales. The ongoing Conservative leadership contest offers little hope or expectation to Cymru / Wales. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are clearly no allies to Wales. Boris Johnson is on record stating that Westminster is an English Parliament. Our nation, is at best an afterthought and more than likely an irritation to whoever wins the Tory leadership contest. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

BREXIT OR THE UNION


We life in interesting times - a YouGov poll of about 900 Tory members found that 63% of those surveyed would prefer Brexit to go ahead even it caused Scottish independence, and suggested 59% would want Brexit even if it led to Northern Ireland leaving the union. Interestingly enough the poll result is consistent with research carried out by academics at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities for the Future of England Study in 2018. Brexit appears to be more important to the bulk of Conservative Party members than keeping the UK united. Such sentiments obviously did not go down well amongst the Tories in Scotland.

Prior to the referendum on independence, perhaps less so since the Conservatives came to power, less and less Scots, can be said to live with the illusion that they had a degree of real partnership within the Union. George Osbourne killed off that illusion, as part of project fear which was rolled out to prevent Scottish independence - rather than indulging in a more rational balanced debate. Scottish election results since 2014 can be said to have reflected a change of attitude towards the relationship and towards those political parties that are based in (and operate out of) Westminster. 

Most people in Cymru / Wales if pressed would probably admit that they never imagined that the relationship between Cymru / Wales and England was anything other than one sided. Despite all the bluster from the Conservative leadership candidates about the union - the bottom, must be that either the Union works for all, or it doesn't. If it doesn't then it's not a beneficial, or  fair and equal Union, then it's a Union of unequals, especially where Wales and Welsh interests are concerned.

Let’s take a look at relatively recent history, Welsh companies have missed out on contracts worth £6.6 billion to build the first phase of England’s high speed rail line, HS2. The contracts, which may support around 16,000 jobs, were awarded to mainly English, Austrian, Swedish and French firms. No Welsh firms were shortlisted and no Welsh firms will participate in any consortia. A study by quantity surveyor Michael Byng, estimated that the cost of building HS2 could reach over £100 billion, making it the most expensive railway in the world.

Public spending on England-only projects  would normally have triggered consequential funding for the devolved nations but as the UK Government designated HS2 as an “England & Wales” project, despite every inch of the railway being in England, this was not the case. Wales was designated a HS2 0% rating at the last Comprehensive Spending Review for Barnett Consequentials whilst northern Ireland and Scotland were rated 100%. HS2 may cost £100 billion if reports are accurate, if the project was correctly labeled as an England-only project, then Wales would be entitled to £5 billion. 

Our share could be used to invest in our own transport infrastructure. What’s going to happen is that our taxes are being used to fund a high-speed line that will solely benefit England. A report published by accountancy firm, KPMG, back in 2010 showed that HS2 will have an overall negative effect on the Welsh economy, resulting in 21,000 fewer jobs in Wales by 2040 as a result of jobs shifting to the English Midlands and the north of England. 

As part of this increasingly unequal Union, Welsh taxpayers will make their contribution towards building possibly one of the most expensive railway in the world, even though not one inch of it being in Wales and the fact that the British Government deliberately avoided giving Wales its fair share of investment in return by describing the project as an “England and Wales” investment even though it is actually having a negative impact on jobs and wages in Wales.  And this will be after the Westminster government's decision to cancel the electrification of the railway to Swansea because it cost too much. 

As for HS2 - the Welsh Labour Government should have ensured that Welsh companies were promoted during the procurement process - it did not. Sadly we should not be surprised by this failure, considering that the Labour Welsh Government’s own deputy economy recent admission that Labour hasn’t known what its doing on the economy for the past 20 years, and that it had run out of ideas and was making it up as it went along. 

This candid remark may well explain much - probably more than a few people have already drawn the conclusion that the Labour Party (in Cardiff Bay and elsewhere) clearly appeared to not be able to accomplish much (even with the fairly limited economic tools at its disposal) - now we know the sad truth - they actually didn't have a clue about what they were doing.

While ineptitude and inaction can cover a multitude of sins or inadequacies - but this may be put down to a case of the Labour branch office in Cardiff waiting for Labour to win in Westminster rather than trying to actually improve our economy with the limited tools, economic levers and ideas they have to work with. There can be no excuse for previous Westminster Governments decision to direct contracts to overseas countries, supporting jobs and wages elsewhere instead of supporting our own companies here in Wales. 

The agreement between the Conservative Party and the DUP included a commitment to invest (a blatant bung to everyone else) an additional £1 billion in Northern Ireland over two years. It is worth noting that funding for devolved nations and regions, including northern Ireland, is usually done through the UK Government’s Barnett Formula based on relative population. Under the Barnett formula, spending in one-nation triggers an increase in funding for other nations, based on relative population. 

It’s important to remember that a £1 billion investment in Northern Ireland would equate to a £1.7 billion increase in the Welsh Government’s funding - but of course there were no magic money trees. It would have only been fair that Wales be given its “rightful share” of the money used to “bribe” Northern Ireland. The £1.7 billion figure based on relative population under the Barnett formula using 65.5 million, 1.8 million and 3.1 million as the population of the UK, northern Ireland and Wales respectively.

It should be clear by now to most impartial observers that Westminster is not clearly working for Wales and neither is the Labour Party - whether in Wales or Westminster. Only Plaid Cymru will stand up and fight for Wales to get its fair share of investment from HS2 and work to make sure that Westminster treats Wales fairly. 

The so-called ‘partnership of equals’ between the four constituent nations is a hollow sham. The Union, as is, can be said to offer all the risk and little or no reward - a situation made worse by a Labour Welsh Government that remains content to simply sits on its hands - and wait for an openly centralist Labour Party - that does not understand or perhaps chooses nor recognise the complex realities of devolution in the 21st century - to win in Westminster.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

BROKEN PROMISES?


Plaid Cymru’s Treasury Spokesperson, Jonathan Edwards MP, has raised serious concerns over indications that the Westminster Government could renege on its promise to allow the Welsh Government to borrow money to invest in infrastructure.

In an answer to a written parliamentary question by Mr Edwards, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss said “in light of [the Welsh Government’s] decision” not to go ahead with the M4 relief road, an increase in the borrowing cap will be reviewed.

Increasing the amount of money the Welsh Government can borrow requires the approval of the Westminster Government. Such an uplift in the Welsh Government’s capital borrowing allowances (the amount it can borrow to spend on physical assets such as roads or buildings) was announced in the Westminster Government’s 2018 Budget. At the time concerns were raised over indications that the Westminster Government would make devolution of extra borrowing powers contingent on the development of a specific M4 relief road route.

On 4 June this year, the Welsh Government announced that it would not build any M4 relief road. The concerns raised at the time of the announcement of the cap increase look to be realised, as the Westminster Government is now considering pulling back on the uplift of £300million.

A core principle of devolution is that the money granted to the devolved administration is a matter for the devolved areas over which it governs and the democratically elected National Assembly which oversees it. Linking increases in borrowing capacity to a preferred policy of the Westminster government runs contrary to this principle, particularly considering the project in question – the M4 relief road – sits within the devolved field of transport.

Jonathan Edwards MP said:

“It is outrageous that the Westminster Government is pulling back on its promise to allow the Welsh Government to borrow to invest in infrastructure. Devolution has been in place for over twenty years, but Westminster is still trying to use dirty tricks to undermine it.

“The M4 relief road, was highly environmentally damaging and has been rejected. Westminster cannot dictate what the devolved Government and Assembly should back, simply because they don’t like it.  

“Welsh transport infrastructure is crying out for investment and I am extremely disappointed in the record of the Labour Welsh Government on the issue. The fact that they did not have a plan for alternative investment plans in greener, cleaner options when they cancelled the development of the M4 relief road speaks volumes about their ambition. However, this does not mean that Westminster has any right to undermine the democratic structures of devolution.

“The very principle of devolution is being questioned by the Westminster Government. If they do as they are threatening and renege on their commitments, they will be undermining the fragile constitutional compromise that underpins the relationship between Wales and Westminster.”

ENDS

Notes


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

SLOWLY LOSING OUR BANKS


Bank closures, remain, and are likely to remain at least for the foreseeable future a simple sad fact of life for many communities across much of rural and not so rural Wales. The closures appear relentless and unstoppable, despite the fact that high street banks could and should have a roll to play within the economic life of our communities. We have been here before and will no doubt be back. It should be obvious by now that the big 4 banks don’t care about public opinion or the consequences of the closures on local communities. 

A bank closure notice

There is a recognisable pattern to the process - local political and community leaders rightly kick off and are justifiably angry along with local residents who are often interviewed by local media. As part of this cycle we have the usual weasel words from the bank themselves, but, once the initial fuss settles the closure will roll on – as the large London based banks are pretty much answerable to no one save themselves – certainly not anyone here in Cymru / Wales.

Dropping the spin (about the growth in on-line banking and it’s use – if you have no choice what else are people going to do) this is about nothing more than cutting running costs, the banks have little (or no concern) for their relatively unprofitable personal customers or the concerns of their local business customers or our smaller communities. As has been noted elsewhere, by no less than the US Senate, some banks have other more pressing interests than those of their domestic customers like helping to launder money for drug dealers, dictators and terrorists, so much for being a local bank. 

More than 200 banks have shut in Wales since 2008, leaving towns such as Newcastle Emlyn,  Hay-on-Wye and Llandovery (since 9th June), too name but a few towns, without any banks. The loss of small town banks is not confined to rural areas - it has been paralleled by the loss of suburban banks which have also quietly disappeared from local shopping centres in our cities and smaller valley towns. 

Local banks remain useful for the high street and local communities, they help to promote vitality and vibrancy and make it easier for local businesses to operate. Local businesses to a degree benefit from the existence of local high street branches by picking up passing trade from bank customers. Once local bank branches close, the impact will be felt locally especially by older residents and local business owners who have to trek further and further to pay in their taking and the subsequent drop in passing trade. 

Even where banks survive there is a visible trend to replace person centred banking with machine centred banking. In my bank - even if there is no cue customers are regularly referred to machines to pay in cash or cheques or withdraw cash before you get a chance to talk to cashiers. This trend which is also being mirrored in some of the larger supermarkets is not about giving customers a choice or and easier service it's about reducing staffing costs to a minimum - something that will cut jobs and the wage bill. 

This situation has been further aggravated by the demise of many building societies, most by no means all of which were largely hoovered by the banks within a few years of them being floated. It is perhaps a pity that we don’t have some sort of risk free Post Office Savings bank – save for the fact that it was recklessly sold off by a previous Conservative government on the cheap. That said, it is of course important to remember that one result of the demise of the regional banks was the relentless rise of the big 4 banks which led to the growth of the reckless casino banking and cheap credit that brought about the financial crash.

Once you factor in the ruthless Post Office closure programme that was pushed through by the then Labour Government, and continued by the former Con - Lib Dem coalition government prior to it’s privatisation of the Post Office. Which in turn was preceded by the rapid floatation and rapid demise of most of our building societies you can clearly see how we got here - sorting the mess out is not going to be easy – perhaps as has been said before we need some sort of publically owned community owned Wales savings bank or Bank Cambria.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?


The First Minister made the right choice about the M4 Relief road. Personally I have been opposed to the project since the 1990's. It's been dropped more times over the years than a questionable county striker. Whats important now - is what happens next to alleviate the traffic problems that regularly clog up our city - the M4 Relief road would have done little to resolve them - despite the promises. If we are serious about giving people a realistic alternative to the car in and around Newport (and elsewhere) then we need decent integrated reliable public transport - without that nothing is going to change. 

What happens next is now of real significance - there are some small significant and long overdue projects - which would be big wins by way of infrastructure in Newport which should have been completed decades ago. A prime example is that of the proposed re-opening of the railway station at Caerleon - this has been in the structure plan since 1986 - but nothing has been done. Not to mention railway stations at Llanwern and Magor - approved in principle but with no ground broken as the years continue to pass. There are sone relatively simple potentially significant easy wins - which could have a big impact on the congestion problem in and around Newport and on the coastal plain. We need railway stations, with decent facilities and significant park and ride (with sensible walk to routes) at: 
  • Caerleon / Ponthir , 
  • Magor, and 
  • Llanwern 
Across the south east, we can start with the Ebbw vale link to Newport needs to be re-timetabled and the line extended to Aberbeeg (as originally promised). Trains already periodically run on this line into Newport - when maintenance is under taken elsewhere. This reinstated service would enable connecting services to be run into Newport - giving commuters to Bristol and further afield an alternative means of getting to and from their places of work. 

The link to Ebbw Vale...
Within Newport there is a need to develop a decent system of public transport - based around a light rail / tram network which connects Bettws / Malpas, Duffryn and Pill and Alway / Ringland with the city centre and the railway station(s). At present the residents of Bettws, Pill, Duffryn and Alway / Ringland have no alternative but to drive, use the much reduced bus service or walk. Trams are not a pipe dream they are already an important part of integrated public transport systems in Merton (in south west London), Sheffield, Manchester and elsewhere. They would work equally well in Newport, Cardiff and Swansea and feed people into our main line railway stations. 

Elsewhere in the former county of Gwent there is much work that needs to be done. Our railway stations at Abergavenny, Pontypwl and Cwmbran, Caldicot , Severn Tunnel and Chepstow have all seen some degree of improvement but are barely fit for service. All these stations need improvement and need more stopping services and better facilities hand in hand with the development of secure reasonably priced park and ride facilities. There should be a feasibility study into reopening the branch line to Usk (with a station sited West of the River Usk (with decent park and ride facilities). Along with this there is a case for a park and ride railway station at Little Mill (especially with the proposed hoisting development at Mamihiiad). With all of this we need integrated ticketing - with one ticket coverage all modes of transport - it either well elsewhere in these islands - so why not here? 

The National Assembly also needs to work systematically and over the long term to get long distance freight traffic off our roads and back onto our railways. If you are shipping a container from Neath or Newport to Nuneaton or Namur it needs to be on a train not trundling around the motorway network. Successive Scottish government have had done success with encouraging and incentivising the movement of freight from road back to rail. Hand in hand with this initiative there is a real need to fundamentally change the delivery cycle from last minute to more planned delivery cycle. 

We need workable medium term solutions that will fundamentally impact on our options for moving about our city, the SE and the rest of Wales. What we don't need now is inaction, we gave had plenty of that, combined with poor if not down right bad decision making on the part if government at all levels, be it Westminster, National Assembly and local level - the consequences of which we are all living with every day in the south east and across the rest of Cymru / Wales. The tine for excuses us past - what's needed now is action on the ground to begin to sort out our congestion problems and to provide us with decent integrated transport that's fit for the 21st century rather the 20th. 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

TIDE IS TURNING


The “tide is turning” on Welsh independence according to Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price.

Speaking ahead of the first ever March for Welsh independence held today in Cardiff organised by AUOB Cymru, Adam Price said that people were “waking up” to the idea that independence is normal.

Mr Price said that decades of neglect from the UK Government has resulted in poverty in Wales and that coupled with the Brexit chaos was enough to show that Westminster was “not fit” to govern or represent Wales.

He cited the emergence of various grassroots organisations including Yes Cymru, Undod, AUOB and Welsh Football Fans for Independence as a sign that attitudes towards Welsh independence is changing.

Plaid Cymru Leader Adam Price said,

“For many years, our desire to see an independent Wales has seemed distant. But the tide is turning, the marches are growing, and the voices are louder.

“Decades of Westminster neglect have resulted in poverty and under-investment. A third of our children are living in relative poverty and you only have to look at the Brexit chaos to see that Westminster is not fit to govern or represent Wales.

“People are waking up to the idea that independence is normal and that the solution to our problems in Wales is to take our future into our own hands.

“Grassroots organisations like of Yes Cymru, Undod, AUOB and Welsh Football Fans for Independence, the repainting of Cofiwch Dryweryn and the sold-out, thousand strong Yes is More gig shows there is a new-found confidence in Wales’ future as an independent country.

“Imagine what an outward, fairer, progressive and welcoming country, with all the democratic and economic levers it needs and where anyone who wants to be Welsh can call Wales their home, could contribute to the world.

“Today, I will be proud to march alongside my fellow citizens from all across Wales to proudly declare that Wales’ brightest possible future is as an independent nation at the heart of Europe.


Wednesday, May 8, 2019

POST-BREXIT FUNDING FARCE


Plaid Cymru Brexit Spokesperson, Hywel Williams MP, has attacked the Westminster Government for failing to deliver any details over the replacement to regional development funding, despite promising to do so by the end of last year. Mr Williams made the criticisms during a parliamentary debate on The Future of Regional Development Funding in Wales.

Little is known about the so-called Shared Prosperity Fund, which is meant to replace regional funding if the UK leaves the EU, because the Westminster Government failed to meet its own deadline on publishing a consultation by the end of 2018.  

Plaid Cymru have put forward detailed proposals for a replacement regional development funding system in a recent paper Not A Penny Less. Included in their proposals were a call to ensure that Wales does not receive a penny less in funding, that the National Assembly for Wales remains responsible for its distribution and that funds are fairly pre-allocated on need rather than doled out using a competitive bidding process, to ensure the three nations and English regions are not pitted against each other. 

Plaid Cymru supports a People’s Vote and would campaign for Wales to remain an EU member. Research by Cardiff University found that, as an EU member, Wales receives around £245 million more a year from the EU than it pays in.

During the debate, Hywel Williams MP said:

“Two years ago the Westminster Government committed to creating a UK Shared Prosperity Fund, ‘specifically designed to reduce inequalities between communities across our four nations.’ Well, where is it?

“Wales won’t forgive a Westminster Government that can’t or won’t plan the funding on which so many of our communities are forced to depend.

“Decisions on future funding must be timely, we can’t have a government caused funding gap disrupting a proper transition in the delivery of projects on the ground… we need timely planning and proper funding to enable Welsh solutions for Welsh problems.

Mr Williams went on to say:  

“The UK Shared Prosperity Fund must deliver for Wales.  Otherwise ever more of our citizens will conclude, rightly I believe, that we are better out than in. Out of the UK and back in the EU.”