Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Saturday, August 26, 2017


Prague 1968
Monday (21st August 2017) aside from being another Monday morning in August, was the 49th anniversary of the Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia, an anniversary that almost passed unnoticed. 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 has been 49 years since Soviet troops and most but not all of their Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia on August 21st 1968. The well-planned 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 roll 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. Even relatively recently Russia’s attitude to the invasion can still touch raw emotions, especially in the Czech and Slovak republics.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


Ebbw Vale to Newport - now and then...
The rail link between Ebbw Vale and Newport to all intents and purposes is open – trains run relatively admittedly somewhat irregularly from Ebbw Vale into Newport and vice versa. The rail line and the signalling works fine – what’s lacking is a regularly timetabled service rather than the restoration of infrastructure and signalling.

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 and the rest of the south east from the start – by now even the Welsh Labour government has run out of excuses.

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, Cheltenham and beyond as well travelling slightly more rapidly to Cardiff in the morning and evening.

Driver training on the Gaer spur (Ian Brewer)
By now it is irrelevant as to whether this was a short-sighted ill thought out decision or a deliberate decision. The end result is the same in that commuters have no choice but to drive to work and help to feed the congestion of the overcrowded M4.

The Welsh Government despite the on-going problems with the establishing proposed new rail franchise needs to work to fix the missing rail link. We need an all-party commitment to ensure a honoured commitment to introducing a regular timetabled service to and from Ebbw Vale to Newport as part of the new all Wales rail franchise.

Monday, August 21, 2017


Jobs in Cyber-Security
There is huge untapped potential amongst the people and communities of Gwent, something that has remained largely untapped by successive Welsh Labour governments and largely ignored by more distant Westminster governments.

There are real opportunities for growth and the re-industrialisation of our region, but the Welsh Labour Government continues to be content to remain sitting on its hands, unwilling to properly invest in our future.

Most of us would prefer not to see Newport and the Gwent Valleys become little more than a commuter belt for Bristol and Cardiff. Our communities have an identity and a history of their own that it would be tragic to lose and remain too vibrant to be simply written off.

At present Welsh Government spending on research and development remains far below the European average. We need to be aiming to at least match the EU average level of investment if we are to kick-start a realistic return of industry, manufacturing jobs and research and design.

Plaid Cymru’s Steffan Lewis has rightly called for the establishment of an advanced institute of manufacturing to be set up in the Valleys to bring desperately needed funding to the region. This, if it is done right, could deliver better quality apprenticeships.

The percentage of young people in Wales doing apprenticeships in manufacturing fell from 6% in 2006/7 to just 2% in 2014/15. The percentage of apprentices in engineering fell to 8% of all apprenticeships. This grim statistic should raise the question as to whether we are seriously equipping our young people with the skills they need to thrive in a increasingly competitive world.

To be fair there have been some very positive developments in Newport which could have implications right across our region and beyond. The National Cyber-Security Academy, based in the University of South Wales, for example, is providing students in Newport with highly valued, cutting edge skills.

The Welsh Government has so far failed to seize the chance to build on that legacy by designating Newport as the cyber-security capital of Wales. Where we have strengths, we should be building on them and growing our expertise.

The University of South Wales’s innovative project aims to help address a shortage of cyber security skills and develop the next generation of cyber security experts. The pilot National Cyber Security Academy (NCSA), the first of its kind in Wales and a major UK initiative, has been set up at USW’s Newport City Campus.

The project also involves Welsh digital innovation company Innovation Point and major industry players – including Airbus, General Dynamics UK, Alert Logic, Information Assurance, QinetiQ, Silcox Information Security, Westgate Cyber, Wolfberry and the South Wales Cyber Security Cluster – the NCSA will work to close an expected skills gap in the cyber security sector. <

By 2019 it is forecast that an additional 4.5 million personnel will be needed worldwide. The NCSA builds on plans for a £60m Newport Knowledge Quarter, which would see USW work in partnership with Coleg Gwent to build a new learning campus in the city’s riverbank area.

With some funding from the Welsh Government, the £500,000 pilot initiative involves a cohort of current USW Computer Forensics and Computer Security undergraduates. They will work on real-world projects set by NCSA partners, while also ‘flight testing’ the course to ensure it meets the latest cyber security challenges.

The project will develop as industry partners identify new challenges in the cyber security environment. If the pilot is successful, the University will quickly build up the student numbers through the delivery of a full-time dedicated degree programme in Applied Cyber Security.

I don’t think that it is unreasonable for want everyone in Gwent to have access to the well-paid, skilled, high quality jobs, close to home that they want. If our region is to meet the challenges of the years ahead, we need to be investing now to generate economic development and to safeguard our future.

Far too many of our people living across our region feel, that there aren’t enough jobs nearby and that the jobs that are available are often temporary or on insecure, zero hours contracts. We need to move beyond the vague sound bites of the Welsh Labour Government when it comes to economic development; we need proper planning and some action rather than words.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


When it comes to economic development (sustainable or otherwise) I am no longer sure that the Westminster system of Government or to be honest the National Assembly (at least with the Labour Party in charge) is capable of taking, let alone sticking to any long-term decisions, they take. I have my doubts about the current development model being considered by the Labour in Wales Government (‘pushed’ is far too dynamic a word to be associated with this inert government) in Cardiff Bay. Despite the rhetoric and the speech making I suspect that we have reached that point where there may well be no new ideas, merely recycled old ones.

Splashing the regeneration cash - or our money in their pockets

With the government in Cardiff bay effectively passing itself off as the old Welsh Office in drag, I would not be surprised if we see a new ‘Welsh Development Agency’ launched in the relatively near future. Following old flawed models of economic development planning for Wales (‘one egg, one basket’) just won’t wash anymore, and neither will simply waiting for a Labour victory in Westminster, which might (from a Labour in Wales perspective) start the largesse, baubles and trinkets flowing down the M4 again.

When it comes to economic development and regeneration providing the best conditions to enable our communities to grow and flourish, a sound planning policy is a key component. We should favour local small to medium sized enterprises and need to have much better thought out and far more consistent planning policies for in, out and edge of town retail developments, before our communities are damaged beyond repair.

One, but not the only, potentially key area for economic activity should be our town centres. Over the years regeneration scheme has followed regeneration scheme yet with a few exceptions we have failed to find a way of creating the right conditions for sustainable prosperity in most but not all of our towns. Regeneration has become one of those words that has no real meaning anymore. It is often perceived (and sometimes it is) as being driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies as a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed.

Our communities, towns and cities have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success? This is something that should be a key factor in the regeneration process. This is the question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the regeneration professionals have moved on (having vacuumed up significant funds to distant bank accounts) have the various schemes made a difference?

You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect that ‘regeneration’ is now a lucrative industry in itself and pretty well paid one at that. Beyond any immediate physical improvements to the locality and the local environment, do many of the regeneration schemes make a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme? If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively siphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success? It may certainly go some way to explaining the discontent that was reflected in the sizeable leave vote in Ebbw Vale and other communities.

We need to think well beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised is the community’s greatest resource – is ironically its people. So rather than regeneration and redevelopment professionals moving in and engaging in a token consultation process they should directly talk to local people and find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their communities and then doing it.

Regeneration schemes and projects should be bottom up rather than the top down. The bottom line should be when spending public money, work it extra hard and squeeze out every single possible benefit and maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources, local skills and local input. If you are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished. If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will, with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits to our communities. As had been said elsewhere, regeneration should be a process rather than an event.

Over the last forty years, we have all seen the commercial hearts of many of our communities have been seriously damaged as a result of a combination of aggressive policies pursued by the larger retail chains and exceptionally poor decision-making on the part of local government and central government indifference. The result of the abject failure or indifference of local and central government when it comes to developing realistic local economic plans leads to a failure to create a level playing field for local businesses and suppliers. This when combined with some very questionable planning decisions over the last forty years, has directly lead to many of our town centre's being "regenerated" to death.

The rise in the number of shops owned by larger retail chains damages the local economy, drains profit out of the area to remote corporate headquarters and reduces local job opportunities. Ten pound spent in a local business circulates in the local economy three times longer than if it is spent in a non-local business. A real side effect of this is a real loss of a sense of community, a loss of local character as our high streets has lost their distinctive local shops which have been replaced by “micro-format” supermarket or chain store branches and any real loss of choice for their customers.

The National Assembly Government has looked to simplify the planning process to held railroad through large developments potentially overturning logical planning decisions and local opposition. Yes, the planning system needs overhauling, but, not at the expense of fundamentally damaging democratic control of the planning process – already weakened by years of National Assembly / Welsh Office indifference to local needs. Any plans to speed up the planning process should not at the cost of creating unsustainable developments that further damage the regional economy, our high streets and our communities.

Oddly enough, poor regulation, stupidity and greed and a desire by Government’s (of most but not all political hues) to look the other way as long as things appeared (on the surface at least) to be working have all contributed to drop us all in it economically. Now here in Wales, our local authorities, certainly not the best guardian of the public interest and our environment were bluntly told, not that long aog, by a Welsh Labour Government, that they should recognise that ‘there will be occasions when the economic benefits will outweigh social and environmental considerations’.

It has been one thing to have ‘a Government of Spivs, by Spivs and for Spivs’ in Westminster, and quite another to have a government of the self-serving inert and inept in Cardiff Bay allegedly standing up for Wales.  Sadly neither the Westminster nor the Cardiff Bay governments appear to have any real interest in sorting out our economic problems.  The rules and regulations are now blamed for the lack of economic growth rather than it being a combination of the banking crash, the bankers recklessness and years of stupidly allowing the so called ‘free market’ to drive economic policy and economic planning and the uncertainty of the Brexit vote. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Monday, August 7, 2017


We need to make sure that we don't get fleeced over our energy bills by the members of the 'Big 6 Energy Cartel' - who have made fat profits over the years at our expense. Here 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.

Its time for a national energy company for Wales
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.
Burger Energie Berlin - literally Berlin Citizens Energy
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.

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.

This is 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 difficult to imagine ‘a Government’ at most levels (at least outside of Scotland and perhaps Northern Ireland) in the UK grasping the concept, the practicalities and real 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.
What we have had is years of visionless New Labour and Conservative governments in Westminster, which 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. Teresa May’s wobbly and unstable Westminster government, along with its predecessor continues 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.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Responding to the Institute for Fiscal Studies' report showing that 1.1 million women are worse off by £32 a week, Plaid Cymru's Work and Pensions spokesperson, Hywel Williams MP said:

“The problem is not that raising the state pension age for women is unfair – most of us agree that the state pension age should be equal for both men and women. The problem is the irresponsible and damaging way in which it is being raised.

“Women born in the 1950s have faced significant changes to the age at which they can receive the state pension without appropriate notification, with very little notice and much faster than expected.

“These women will have planned their retirement based on long-standing government policy which was changed at the last minute. As a result, some of these women are suffering financial hardship. Finding work at last minute, and at such proximity to retirement age is next to impossible and some are forced to rely instead on Job Seekers’ Allowance.

“The government’s contempt and disregard for their plight was betrayed in a recent debate in which I took part. When pressed the Minister remarked that these women could always take advantage of the government’s wonderful apprenticeship provision. 

“While I’m sure the British Government is pleased that it has delivered billions of pounds for them to spend elsewhere, they must recognise the injustice of their actions and the financial hardship it is causing. Plaid Cymru stands with the women affected by this irresponsible change and we will continue to fight for justice.”