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 . 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

YES WALES CAN

Sunday, September 30, 2018

THE OLD CENTRALIST ENEMY


The recent Old / former New Labour conference might suggest that Labour has got its mojo back and the party now believes that it can win the next Westminster general election. The bearded one has described himself as a democratic socialist - his unionism (not the Trade variety) is never mentioned. 

To be blunt the articulated vision of a democratic socialist UK which does not have a place for our national interest(s) which don't feature on the centralising statist agenda, that’s like something out of the mid to late 1970’s. The problem is that the bearded one's vision / version is neither that democratic or that socialist, at least from a Welsh or Scottish perspective, and neither is is particularly original, visionary  or new - it also never delivered last time, so why should it this time around?

If it were possible to remove the Scottish parliament and our as yet not fully fledged embryonic parliament, I am sure that JC and his Brit Nat centralist ilk would not hesitate for a moment. They would happily lay down their rhetorical lives for Ireland, or Palestine or other deserving blue water causes whilst quietly pining for a centralised British republic; and maintaining an unhealthy patronising metropolitan scorn for any political aspirations aspired too by any of the other nations that inhabit this often rain swept island archipelago.

Yet these so called democratic socialists remain strangely silent when it comes to matters relating to Wales, Scotland or Cornwall or even England for that matter, along with displaying spectacular perhaps Islington or metropolitan centric ignorance or dismissive patronising contempt (worthy of comparison of the rhetoric used by some Russian nationalists with their patronising dismissal of Ukraine and other historic nations in and around Russia) of any and all devolved matters outside of the M25.

Despite the beardy spin, this is the same old centralist enemy - with the same old rebranded statist solutions - which outside of the short term spectacularly failed to deliver for us last time. We, in Wales, have been here before. The centralists have promised much and delivered little that was lasting, save for a faint echos or faint ghosts of long departed industrial and regional development. 

Don’t get me wrong, ending the ideologically driven idiocy that has reduced our railways to a poor dividend profit driven service would / will be a good thing. The problem is that Westminster can not be trusted to leave any rail service to run itself. 

I would prefer the not for dividend profit but independent of day to day, week to week, month to month interference from Westminster, but democratically accountable and democratically responsive model to any Westminster accountable / controlled reborn version of British rail. Personally I would prefer public sector institutions to be run on a not for dividend profit model and firmly at arms length from Westminster.

Our nation, as one of the poorer parts of the European Union, will have received more than £5 billion in so-called structural funds by 2020. The funding from Brussels has been used for a wide variety of diverse infrastructure projects from the Ponty Lido, Swansea University's Bay Campus, the Heads of the Valleys road, Harbour Way link road and the National Sailing Academy at Pwllheli. 

EU funding has also been used to fund educational and training courses and programmes via our Universities and colleges. I still think that the Welsh government should carry out a fully comprehensive review of just exactly on what and how the money has been spent along with examining in detail how the funds were spent and what the end results were - before any future funds are thrown at any potential problems and projects. 

One of the consequences of BREXIT is that this source of funding will cease. The Conservatives have said the new Shared Prosperity Fund is intended to reduce inequalities across the four UK nations. Thats if you believe them, especially considering that they blocked regional aid to Wales in the 1980’s and early 1990’s and considering that one of the underlying feature of the UK has always been that of it's heavy handed unsubtle centralism. 

This centralism has never really gone away despite the roll out of differing levels of devolution to redress the democratic deficit in the late 1990’s.  The civil service, at least in England and Wales, appears to continue to behave as if devolution has not happened. Until there is a Wales based Cymru / Wales focused civil service this state of affairs is likely to continue. 

Some twenty years down the line of all the devolved nations and provinces Scotland still has the best devolutionary deal, followed in second place by Northern Ireland - even in its current suspended state. Wales trails in a poor third - with  a relatively weak devolutionary settlement - something that suits the majority of Labour in Wales representatives in Cardiff Bay and beyond - who lie awake at night dreaming of Labour in Westminster winning and riding to the rescue. 

It’s important to remember that the last time they were in power at Westminster between 1997 and 2010.  Labour had a sizeable majority and pretty much the power to do whatever they wanted to do. Labour in Westminster didn’t come riding to the rescue then, so don't expect them to do so next time. 

Post Brexit both the Conservatives and the party formerly known as New Labour will eagerly grasp the opportunity to build their vision of a new centralist aggressively Brit Nationalist union. The Brit Nat drum will be thoroughly beaten to drum up Brit Nat sentiment and sentimentality / nostalgic pap to drown out any criticism - constructive or otherwise. We should remember that direct Westminster-rule failed to deliver for much of Wales (beyond the shirt-term) for most of my lifetime. 

Even before I was born the great hopes of the future proved to GD unsustainable beyond the medium term - British Nylon Sunners (in Mamhilad, north of Pontypool (gone), BSC / RTB Llanwern (a remnant), East Moors, on the eastern fringe of Cardiff (gone), etc. Post BREXIT it appears that things are only going to get worse as Whitehall ‘Britocrats’ scramble to protect the City of London at all costs, while our manufacturers and exporters are left to sink, swim or go under.

The post BREXIT domestic settlement offers from the Brit Nat perspective of Westminster a real opportunity to actively work to roll back, weaken or undermine the devolutionary settlements within the UK. Certainly relatively recent developments in relation to repatriated 'powers' being returned from Brussels to Westminster have shown how important it is that we actively resist Westminster’s attempts to roll back devolution through the Withdrawal Bill. Plaid's attempts lead by Steffan Lewis in relation to the Continuity Bill were a vital step to ensure Westminster does not ride rough shod over our hard-won right to run our own affairs.

Now it's not just a case of moaning about the incompetence and injustice of what's gone on in previous years, under previous governments (whether Labour (New, Old or revamped), Conservative or Conservative - Liberal Democrat - that's just what has gone before - that's just history. The days of simply rattling the bars of the cage and occasionally doing well in the odd are over - it's time to change or rewrite the rules of the game. At the most basic level we need devolution to actually deliver for our nation - economically, socially and politically. 

As I have said previously the nation can no more be half devolved than a nation can be half free. We need the devolutionary full measure and the tools to do the job and to deliver economic change for our country. We desperately need to engender the politics of hope and a real belief that things can change and get better. 

The quiet Westminster dogmas of the past have failed us - they did not deliver last time and rebadged / revamped by the bearded one they are incapable of delivering in the future. We urgently need real change, it's time for a real new deal, it's time to be radical, because only radical solutions are going to deliver for our people and our nation. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

OUT OF SIGHT AND OUT OF MIND!


Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards, responding to the Labour leader's speech, said:

"The Labour leader failed to mention Wales once in his speech, despite the fact that his party is in government in Wales.

"They have been in charge of our NHS, our schools and local authority funding for 21 years and their leader didn't even see fit to mention any of it in his keynote speech - not even a thank you to the departing First Minister, Carwyn Jones. 

"Corbyn repeated his delusional policy of achieving the exact same benefits of the single market without being members of it and once again focussed on his cynical attempts to force another UK election instead of committing to a genuine people's vote on the final Brexit deal. 

“His opposition to giving people a real say, with the option to remain on the ballot paper, plays directly into the hands of the Tories, who will be able to push through a rigged referendum where the only choice would be between their deeply flawed plans and a disastrous no deal Brexit. Why is the Labour Party so keen to support the dirty work of the Tories? They are both as bad as each other.

"It is clear that for as long as both Westminster parties share the same Brexit policies, the only way we can solve this impasse is to hold a genuine people's vote and give the people the final say."

Monday, September 10, 2018

SERVING TWO MASTERS?


The bottom line is that we have an under-fire second rate secretary of state, who has consistently failed to stand up for Wales, let alone fight our corner, who is all out of ideas, who has launched an attack on a Party that has done little else but stand up for Wales since its creation. It is worth noting that since the current Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, took over the post, he has cancelled close to £2 billion worth of investment in infrastructure projects in Wales. As a direct result of these decisions (made in Westminster rather than here in Wales) local businesses, jobs and communities have lost out. Perhaps rather than attacking politicians who put forward solutions, the secretary of state should spend more of his time actually doing his job of developing the Welsh economy. This could go some way to explain why Wales has had to face the cancellation of the Tidal Lagoon and the electrification of the railways whilst he has been in post. Can a man or woman serve too masters well? Wales and Westminster or perhaps Wales and the Conservative Party?  -  the answer is simply no. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

WHOSE NATURAL RESOURCES?


A water company, Southern Water - which serves customers in south eastern England, has states that customer demand is estimated to be double its available supply by 2020. As a result of climate change, a reduction of the amount of water allowed to be taken from natural sources, and a rise in population demand would outstrip supply. The company's plan for 2020-2025 sets out how it will overcome the deficit  by reducing leakage by 15% and encourage customers to use less water.

This could be good news for Wales, if we had control of our own natural resources and could benefit from a fair price for our water. For amongst our rich resources is the literal stuff of life – water. Water is likely to become a valuable resource for the people of Wales in future years, and who owns, it who controls it, and who benefits is likely to remain one of the key issues, of potential dispute between Westminster and Cardiff Bay. While our country’s voice has been significantly strengthened since 1999, with various Wales related acts, as yet we still do not have the same degree of control of our natural resources as either Scotland or Northern Ireland. 

Not for nothing does the issue of water rightly still understandably raises strong emotions and stirs long memories here in Wales. Some six years ago Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London, lately, after May 2015 an MP, former feign secretary and now with other things on his mind) was wittering on about the need for a network of canals being needed to carry water from the wet North to the dry South (for the ‘wet North’  read ‘Wales).

Cofiwch Dryweryn
Boris's revolutionary thought, not to mention his poor grasp of geography, was not a new idea, back in 1973, what was then the Water Resources Board, a now defunct government agency, wrote a major report that advocated building a whole raft of infrastructure to aid the movement of water, not to mention constructing freshwater storage barrages in the Ouse, Wash and Morecambe Bay, using a network of canals to move water from north to south, extending reservoirs and building new aqueducts, not to mention constructing a series of tunnels to link up river basins to aid the movement of water.

Despite the demise of the Water Resources Board in 1974 (two years before the 1976 drought) and its replacement by regional water management bodies, which were privatised in the 1980’s this issue has never really gone away. In 2006, the Environment Agency produced a report entitled "Do we need large-scale water transfers for south-east England ?" which in a refreshingly honest answer to its own question at the time was an emphatic ‘no’.

That said, faced with a prolonged period of drought in the South East of England, DEFRA itself held a drought summit on the 20th of February of 2012. The then Con Dem Government stated that it remained committed to the remaining legislative measures set out in its Water for Life agenda , which later became the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Act.

The plan for water in 1973
That is as they say history, but whatever Westminster eventually decides to do in relation to water resources, we in Wales still need to have full democratic control of our own resources. Our resources incidentally should include those parts of our country where Severn Trent Plc runs our natural resources for a fat profit.

This process can begin with repatriating control of the Crown Estates and transferring control of lands in (and off-shore) to the Welsh Government in Cardiff. For the life of me I can see no realistic reason why this feudal anachronism cannot be consigned to the dustbin of history.

We need a whole Wales strategy to develop and to conserve our water supplies and our planning regulations will need to be tweaked or rewritten accordingly. We need to take a long hard look at our water resources and what we get for them and how we can develop them.

I see absolutely no reason why the Welsh people cannot fully benefit from any future exploitation of Welsh resources, including our water. Most politically aware people would not have been particularly shocked to discover that coincidentally that the Government of Wales Act (2006) thanks largely to Peter (now Lord) Hain (amongst others) specifically excluded the Assembly from making any laws relating to water supply – hmm – odd that isn't it?

Now such duplicitous behaviour on the part of New or re-born Old Labour is not to be unexpected. The problem is that it does little to engender any trust or visible demonstration of an understanding of devolution or Wales, especially when the bearded one’s version of Labour starts talking about re-nationalising the Water industry.

Putting Tory and Labour spin and rhetoric aside, the bottom line is that all our water resources should belong to the Welsh people, not to Private corporations or to the UK Government. Any future draft Wales Bill should strengthen the powers that we in Wales have over our natural resources and associated planning processes and devolve control of those parts of the Severn Trent water franchise to Wales.