Saturday, 22 November 2014

Assembly gives Wales mixed Tripadvisor review

On Thursday, the National Assembly's Business & Enterprise Committee launched its wide-ranging  report into the tourism industry (pdf).

The Committee and Assembly staff undertook a series of away days over the summer, visiting new and established tourism businesses to collate their views. This ranged from the Llechwedd Slate Caverns in Gwynedd, to the National Museum in Cardiff.

The Committee made 28 recommendations, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should create a stronger tourism brand, coordinating their efforts across relevant government departments (like culture), and doing more to promote Wales' unique selling points.
  • Visit Wales should do more to involve tourism businesses in their marketing programmes.
  • The Welsh Government should "maximise the tourism impact of major events", including :
    • an economic impact assessment of the Newport NATO summit
    • a similar assessment for events surrounding the Dylan Thomas centenary
    • an explanation as to how they intend to continue the work of the (disbanded) Wales Music Foundation following WOMEX 2013
  • The Welsh Government should develop targeted strategies for tourism sectors with significant growth potential.
  • Improving the online presence of Visit Wales, and continuing to work to improve access to high-speed broadband.
  • The Welsh Government should work with Visit Britain to improve Visit Britain's promotion of Wales, and set Visit Britain targets to increase the number of visits to Wales.
  • The Welsh Government should provided details of its £20million "total funding" for tourism so the tourism industry can have a better idea of how it compares to the rest of the UK. EU funding opportunities for tourism should also be maximised.
Because the remit of the inquiry was so broad, by Assembly standards this was a long report, so I'm afraid this is going to be a long post as a result.

Tourism Policy & Funding

Whether in the Senedd chamber or up a mountain, you can
guarantee William Graham will be well turned out.
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)

Tourism is currently worth £6.9billion to the Welsh economy (13.2% of gross value added), supports some 209,000 jobs (making it Wales' third largest employer) and since 2005 it's the fastest-growing sector in Wales. In 2013, the Welsh Government set a target of tourism growing by 10% by 2020, and the Committee say they're well on the way to reaching that goal.

For 2014-15 the Welsh Government set aside £12.8million for tourism marketing, and they've also drawn down £36million in EU funding as part of the Environment for Growth (E4G) scheme. There's also a Tourism Investment Support Scheme (TISS) which provides grants and repayable loans for upgrades to facilities.

Contact between tourism businesses and the Welsh Government used to be via four regional tourism partnerships. However, back in April 2014, Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) announced all Welsh Government support for the partnerships would cease, with the responsibility passing to specialist teams within Visit Wales.

Businesses gave a mixed response to the closure of regional tourism partnerships, with concerns raised that some areas might lose out or lose local expertise, but others believing the partnerships duplicated work.

Many respondents were concerned about lack of financial resources to promote tourism, with the Association of Self Catering Accommodation believing current levels of expenditure don't reflect tourism's place in the economy, suggesting marketing budgets need to be closer to £50million. It's said experience has shown them that Wales needs to market first-time tourists (which is often more expensive), as these tend to return.

Others believed Visit Wales were doing a good job with the resources they have, but Westminster spending on tourism elsewhere in the UK made it hard for them to compete.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Culture & Sport, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), said the Welsh Government's total spending on tourism was £20million, with a marketing budget of around £8million. The lack of details made it hard to compare this with figures from around the UK.

E4G funding has been used for six projects, including the Wales Coastal Path and Valleys Regional Park. Wildlife Trust Wales were critical that EU funds weren't used to enhance biodiversity ("natural capital"), which other EU member states – like the Czech Republic and Greece have done (this becomes relevant later on).

The Committee recommended - following comments from the Arts Council of Wales - tailored EU support for the tourism sector similar to that provided by the Welsh Government's Media Antenna (Does Wales make the most of EU opportunities?).

The Performance of Visit Wales & Visit Britain

Visit Wales' website has been criticised for being too slow to update,
while some businesses are unclear what Visit Wales does.
(Pic :
Visit Wales is the Welsh Government branch with responsibility of tourism promotion. Formerly known as the Wales Tourist Board, its functions were taken on by the Welsh Government as part of the 2006 "Bonfire of the Quangos".

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) say it's currently very hard to determine how well Visit Wales are performing due to a lack of published information – they don't even produce an annual report. Visit Wales' budget isn't reported by the Welsh Government either.

Other witnesses believe there was a "lack of clarity" over what Visit Wales does, though Ken Skates argued that specific tourism actions are on the Welsh Government's website for anyone to see.

Visit Wales' website itself was criticised as hard to navigate and slow to update its business information. Cardiff Metropolitan University's Prof. Annette Pritchard was upfront and described it as "very poor in terms of information."

Visit Britain is the pan-UK tourism quango, funded by the UK's Department for Media, Culture & Sport. Its relationship with Visit Wales is described as "close" and Ken Skates said it's "strengthened significantly in recent times". Visit Wales will soon have a marketing manager seconded to Visit Britain's team in London.

Visit Britain's GREAT campaign is reported to have resulted in a three-fold increase in overnight stays in Wales amongst those influenced by the campaign, however there were complaints that GREAT was too focused on London and South East England. Prof. Pritchard said Visit Britain's priorities changed, becoming more about boosting visits to London at the expense of the rest of the UK instead of previously trying to get people out of London.

In terms of Visit Britain's wider impact on Welsh tourism, people visiting or seeing their campaigns were twice as likely to spend money in Wales, twice as likely to visit Wales and generated around 1,300 press articles during April-September 2013. But international promotion of Wales via Visit Britain was described as "problematic", with Wales "totally absent from Visit Britain's digital content".

Marketing Wales

Prof. Pritchard said the Welsh tourism brand was at a "tipping point" requiring "greater clarity and consumer and media resonance". Some witnesses even went as far as saying the Welsh tourist brand was "non-existent". The FSB were also unconvinced that smaller tourism businesses were engaging with current tourism branding.

The Ashton Group undertook a review of "Brand Wales" for the Welsh Government between 2012-2014, but it seems hardly anybody has seen the results of the final report. Edwina Hart said the report led to immediate changes; but the then Minister for Culture & Sport, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East), said he wasn't even aware the review was taking place.

Some tourism businesses criticised the recent £4million Visit Wales advertising campaign (TV ad above), as it didn't promote Wales' unique selling points, but instead a "bland sameness". Some were also disappointed with the lack of engagement from Visit Wales, and the fact only one attraction from north Wales featured.

Others were complimentary, saying it was "setting the right tone", while Prof. Pritchard said it was helping to promote a distinctive Celtic heritage.

Welsh Tourist Assets

Castles and heritage sites are clearly very popular with international tourists.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
According to a 2013 visitors' survey, the main reasons for visits to Wales are :
  • to enjoy the landscape.
  • to visit historical sites and/or specific attractions.
  • to take part in outdoor activities.
Going on a tour of Welsh castles was listed as a "dream activity", while National Parks and the coast were also popular amongst international tourists.

It's felt – from Prof. Pritchard and the FSB - that more had to be done to sell Wales' uniqueness, which includes the Welsh language, industrial heritage and historical sites. Unfortunately, "cultural tourism" is usually associated with cities, and Cardiff isn't considered a "cultural destination" (yet).

Heritage tourism is an area of focus at the moment having received a £19million boost from the Welsh Government between 2009-2015 – overseen by Cadw. Six key heritage sites – Blaenavon Ironworks, Caerphilly, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech castles and St David's Palace – were said to each generate £6.95million for local economies.

St Fagans museum is also undergoing a £25million redevelopment, which is hoped will boost visitor numbers from 600,000 to 850,000 a year by 2021.

Major Events

Gold tourism has been boosted by the 2010 Ryder Cup and
the 2014 Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl.
(Pic :

Wales is said to be developing a niche for both internationally-recognised events and "quirky events" like the Bog Snorkelling Championships. Prof. Pritchard did say, however, that these events weren't filtering through to the Wales "brand".

There was praise for the Major Events Unit – set up by the previous Welsh Government – and Ken Skates said the Welsh Government have made "big strides in building Wales' position in the global events industry". Golf tourism has increased following the 2010 Ryder Cup and Senior Open Championship in Porthcawl this year, the value of which rising by 14% between 2012 and 2013.

However, the situation regarding WOMEX 2013 was picked out for special attention. Despite bringing £3million into the economy, the Wales Music Foundation – which helped to host the event – was disbanded when Welsh Government funding ceased. The Committee were worried the momentum for hosting similar cultural events may have been lost.

Prof. Pritchard was sceptical about the benefits of the NATO summit, saying (before the summit was hosted) that there needed to be a "real Welsh presence....otherwise the media just moves the next place". Ken Skates argued the summit provided a platform for Wales, and Barack Obama's comments would encourage Americans to visit Wales (this isn't 2008, Ken).

Maximising Tourism's Value

Poor international connectivity has - yet again - been flagged up as
something seriously holding back the Welsh economy.
(Pic :
In 2013, Wales accounted for 6% of UK tourism spending but just 2.5% of international spending. In terms of total spending within Wales, almost 90% comes from visitors from the rest of the UK. The harsh fact is the number of overseas tourists has declined for five years – though this has happened in all parts of the UK except London. Respondents therefore agreed that domestic tourism should be the focus as that's our "core market".

In terms of the economy, tourism makes up a larger proportion of Welsh domestic productivity compared to the rest of the UK. To meet the aforementioned Welsh Government targets by 2020, tourism visits have to increase by 1.4% a year – described simultaneously as ambitious, not ambitious enough and in the right ballpark depending on the witness - so it's hard to determine whether the target fits or not.

The FSB underlined the importance of training people to work in the tourism industry, while Llechwedd Slate Caverns said many young people were reluctant to work in tourism as it was associated with seasonal work and limited career prospects.

Several areas were picked out for growth :
  • Nature-based tourism – This is described as "an untapped market" in Wales. Scotland is currently top when it comes to wildlife tourism, but Wildlife Trust Wales said people were currently "unaware of the wildlife wonders Wales offers". To grow this sector it's said investment is needed to improve the whole tourist experience (hence the comment about EU funding earlier).
  • Cruise ships – Again described as "largely untapped", with the Celtic Sea "providing a significant tourism opportunity to Wales" in an area dominated by the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Baltic seas.
  • Activity holidays – This presumably includes things like fishing, hiking, mountaineering and mountain biking. Conwy Council said more more needed to be done to promote "the adrenaline side of the outdoors". Llechwedd Slate Caverns said fishing was worth £150million to the Welsh economy, but doesn't feature on tourism marketing.
  • Faith-based tourism – Churches, monasteries and cathedrals draw tourists, but it wasn't believed it was receiving the support it deserves.

In terms of barriers to tourism growth, two areas were picked out :
  • Transport and connectivity – There were calls for "smooth transportation" to get people out of London. Cardiff Airport was singled out for improvement by witnesses, as well as improvements to internal connectivity, while it's said more needs to be done to promote connectivity between north Wales and Manchester Airport. Signposting (literally meaning those brown and white road signs) was also picked out as an under-reported issue in tourism, as the process to get a brown sign was often bureaucratic.
  • Mobile & broadband signals – This doesn't just affect tourists, obviously. Some businesses went as far as spending £20,000 on leased lines to improve broadband connectivity. WiFi and mobile phone networks continue to be unreliable, and it's often the areas strongest for tourism which were weakest for signals. The Welsh Government are rolling out the Superfast Cymru scheme, and Ken Skates said he expects up to 98% of the population to have access to 4G by the end of the decade.

Tourism : Is it really the future?

Attractions like Bounce Below at Llechwedd Slate Caverns are innovative,
but is tourism enough to build an economy in the long-term?
(Pic : National Assembly Flickr)
Many of the conclusions in this inquiry are very similar to previous inquiries : a weak "Brand Wales", lack of co-ordination between Welsh Government departments, poor infrastructure, not being well-served by pan-UK organisations and, yet again, some curt (perhaps unpopular) decision-making by Edwina Hart.

All these things are becoming running themes and trends to the point that if you bundle the committee inquiries together, it should be more obvious what the problems are in terms of delivering the Welsh Government's economic policies. You can probably boil everything down to communication problems - both from/within the Welsh Government and between Welsh Government and industry generally.

The Committee's recommendations seem to be common sense though, and it's clear that while Wales could be doing significantly better here we're not doing too badly either. So why are there still doubts in my mind as to whether tourism is a good thing to underpin our economy?

Firstly, the jobs really are seasonal and sometimes over-reliant on our unreliable climate. A good summer's results can be wiped out by a bad one.

Secondly, you can reach Wales in hours from the rest of the UK, so it's overseas tourists who are – logically – the big spenders on a per head basis. Limiting tourism promotion to just the UK, even if it's the core market, seems slightly self-defeating.

My other concern would be the lack of quality destinations in Wales and the lack of high quality accommodation. Having loads of two and three-star bed and breakfasts and seaside hotels is all well and good, but we need the four and five star hotels and resorts too.

A five star mountain bike resort would be something that would work to Wales' strengths, and although there were/are plans for something like that in the Afan Valley it never came to pass. Likewise, there are other blind spots in Wales, like the lack of major theme parks (Oakwood is tiddly compared to Alton Towers et al.), zoos/wildlife parks, Michelin-starred restaurants and big indoor leisure facilities (like aqua parks).

So there are huge challenges to overcome if tourism is going to seriously challenge the likes of manufacturing and financial services in terms of economic importance and long-term growth. Despite tourism's importance, Wales has to have "something else" on top, and we can't fall into the trap of putting more eggs in fewer baskets and, at some point down the line, creating 21st Century Rhyls.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Plaid Cymru bed-rocked by Assembly defection

Ffred Fflintstôn's defection to the Serious Business Party has stunned the political establishment.

The National Assembly and the Plaid Cymru group have been left reeling after a shock defection of one of their stalwarts - Ffred Fflintst
ôn AM (Plaid SBP, Llandiafol) - to the Serious Business Party.

A cross-party statement condemned the move as a shift towards political extremism, but the Serious Business Party maintain they have no interest in the mud and large expense accounts of politics, despite seeking political office in a manner more desperate than a virgin in Magaluf.

The defection was so sudden it even took the Serious Business Party by surprise. Their leader in Wales said, "The phone rang while I was kicking a child in the stomach, and laughing at their parents to make a point about European steel-toe boot imports.

"At first I asked, 'Is this is a wind-up?' But whoever was on the other end of the line was insistent."

The party leadership hastily arranged a news conference in the nearest massage parlour. The room was cramped, and the masseuse was clearly unhappy with so many people in there, citing fire regulations.

The media - outnumbering party members - huddled around a man lying on a table with a towel over his head (someone they were told was a highly-stressed stock trader) who was in the process of receiving a happy ending. Everyone tried to avoid making eye contact with each other.

Ffred struggled to get through the amassed throng, as he entered to grumbling from the jostling journalists. Squelching noises - accompanied by farmyard grunts - came from the table in the centre. He stood atop a plastic box, as he prepared to explain his Judas-like betrayal.

"I woke up one day with a crippling agony in my head. I thought I was having had a stroke, or my skull had shrunk to the size of an apple, the space filled with nothing but pain - but it turns out I just hate all living things.

"I stumbled around the house, knocking everything off tables and shelves as I screamed. I wanted it all to end. There was only one thing going through my mind; one thing I could focus on as I underwent this brain-melting transformation : Serious Business Party.

"Also, I really wanted to sport a cravat, but the only acceptable neck-wear in Plaid Cymru nowadays is a keffiyeh. What this bold decision means is...."  A glob of what looks like Vaseline does an arc through the air - accompanied by another pig-like squeal - hitting Ffred slap bang in the face.

The press turn to the table as the towel is removed, revealing that it was none other than professional cad, news personality and prospective parliamentary candidate in the Turd-on-the-Wold by-election, Armitage Shanks.
Chinless wonder wears assless chaps.
Armitage Shanks went down a storm at the Serious Business Party autumn conference.

Armitage, still tumescent from all the attention, grabs the microphone from Ffred, laughing like Basil Brush and smiling in a manner reminiscent of a crying baby.

"I think what Ffred is trying to say," Armitage says, as though he's about to finish his sentence each and every time,"is people say we're a protest party. I say, 'Of course we're a protest party. We're a protest against all forms of common decency'.

"We resonate with the ordinary psychopath in the street. The sort of person who gives you a wave in Tesco's but secretly keeps SS memorabilia, has sex with vacuum cleaners and talks people on the internet into being eaten.
We're also the only party that answers the door when the Mormons come round.

"After a news report of a tragedy when they say, 'He was a quiet man; kept himself to himself'. That man is the core Serious Business vote. Who else will speak for him? The bloody Greens!?

"Bring me your sexual perverts. Bring me your xenophobes, shysters and dodgy businessmen with one trouser leg rolled up. WHAHAHAHAHA BOOM! BOOM!"

Ffred placed a hand on The Necronomicon, as he took the solemn oath of loyalty and feilty to the Serious Business Party.

The party's new song was also debuted, which Armitage hopes will storm the charts. People have said the lyrics were racist, sexist, advocated violence against women, animals & children and glorified the Nazis - but a Serious Business Party spokesmonkey said they were only "'aving a laff".
I kidnapped Mr Peabody and his 'WayBack Machine'
When we got there, I sold him to a Chinese restaurant.
I punched every girl I saw in the face,
On the way to the booth to vote for Hitler.

As Ffred was led out onto the streets for the first meet-and-punch with the public, expert in stuff, Prof. Yogi Plopp, contacted the press to reveal the results of a three year study into toxic fumes in the media.

"It's subtle," Prof. Plopp said. "If you go right up to the newspaper or television screen, you can just make out hints of lilac."

Prof. Plopp identified the scent as a legal high called preposterone, released by the angry rustling of newspaper pages, also carried by digital signals directly to the brain via talk radio and current affairs programming
like Question Time .

"It's very sophisticated too," Prof. Plopp explained. "It causes indignant tutting and shouting, which elevates the heart rate and causes heavier breathing - so the person takes even more preposterone in. Preposterone directly affects the limbic system, which regulates emotions like fear, anger and happiness.

"Even Armitage Shanks' baby-faced grin is part of the plot, as it brings out the paternal and maternal instincts of voters, who wouldn't dare ignore the demands of a crying child.

"That bloke you agree with down the pub might sound sensible after you've chucked six pints of warm beer down your throat, but you wouldn't put them in charge of a nuclear arsenal or a social security system, would you? Everything points to a mass drugging the population to make that sound like a sensible option."

Prof. Plopp's research hints that media companies are
creating suggestive subconscious leads during programmes and within stories, deliberately imprinting preposterone into newspaper pages to boost sales and also via click bait website stories.

"It's stories relating to European regulations, politicians behaving badly, immigrants....It's also all those screw ups in public service delivery, which shake faith in institutional politics. But the political class are unwilling to take ownership of and correct such problems, instead coming up with dogmatic platitudes, buzzwords and point-scoring.

"Come to think of it, that last reason's probably why so many people are open to the idea of an extreme alternative. I'll just blame the fumes instead."

We approached Ffred to discuss the matter, but he kicked us in the shins, stripped naked and threw what we believe was his own faeces at us as he marched down the street, threatening to chuck a bin through a Poundland window.

We asked Ffred's wife - who dabbed away tears as she watched her husband try to eat a Bischon Frise - what had happened. "I remember him telling me they ran out of The Guardian down the shop, so he had to pick up a copy of the Daily Mail instead.

"I thought he wanted to win a Poirot boxset."

After a successful recapture by the RSPCA and de-radicalisation programme, Ffred was as good as new, de-defecting back to Plaid Cymru.

As Ffred Fflintst
ôn AM (Plaid SBP Plaid, Llandiafol) reconciled with his former, now new, party colleagues - his forehead covered in scars from broken bottles - he was frowned at and had to sit away from them as if he's just shat himself.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Case for Bridgend-Vale merger outlined

Look east or west? Bridgend's position on the boundary of south west and south east
Wales has presented a tricky dilemma when it comes to local authority reorganisation.
(Pic : Wales Online)

As promised, I'm going to return to the issue of Bridgend's proposed voluntary merger with the Vale of Glamorgan.

Following on from the Bridgend Labour group giving its go-ahead last week, Bridgend Council's cabinet discussed the issue in more detail (pdf) at a special meeting today (18th November).

The proposal is reportedly due to go before full council at an extraordinary meeting on 24th November and a formal expression of interest in a voluntary merger will need to be submitted to the Welsh Government by November 28th.

The Options Facing Bridgend

The Williams Commission recommended a reduction in the number of local authorities in Wales from 22 to between 10 and 12. Bridgend was earmarked to either merge with Neath Port Talbot (NPT), or both NPT and Swansea to create a "Swansea Bay" authority.

In July, the Welsh Government's formal response to the Williams Commission recommended the Bridgend-NPT merger. But in September, in a change of tack, the Welsh Government also called for local authorities to pursue voluntary mergers – setting a deadline of November 28th to express interest.

If local authorities agree to merge voluntarily, they'll be given more control over the details of the merger, while the date of the next local elections will be pushed back a year from 2017 to 2018 (giving councillors an extra year in office).

Bridgend is in a unique position in Wales of "having to operate across two distinct regions". Health services, waste services and the Assembly regional AMs work on a regional basis with NPT and Swansea; fire and rescue services, strategic transport planning and some services like civil parking enforcement are jointly-run as part of a Cardiff City region or with the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Williams Commission also recommended that the new local authorities don't cross local health board boundaries. However, BCBC have interpreted the call for voluntary mergers as a sign that the Welsh Government will allow new local authorities to cross local health board boundaries, as long as there's good reason to do so.

According to the cabinet report, a three-way merger between NPT, Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan was considered. Since then, it's been reduced to a simple choice for Bridgend : merge with NPT as outlined by the Williams Commission, or alternatively merge with the Vale of Glamorgan where BCBC already collaborate to run services.

BCBC's case for a merger with the Vale

Bridgend is much more heavily-integrated into the Cardiff city region than Swansea.
(Pic : Metro Consortium via BBC Wales)
  • Bridgend is part of the Cardiff city region – Bridgend is already considered a part of the Cardiff travel to work area, cooperates on a South East Wales basis as part of several regional bodies and currently has no involvement with the Swansea city region. Bridgend is also part of the emerging regional planning framework for south east Wales.
  • EU funding administration should continue with few problems – It's not believed that creating a new local authority that crosses the NUTS2 boundary will affect EU funding, as it can simply be administered to different parts of the authority simultaneously, like Communities First and the Regional Development Plan are.
  • Bridgend is part of the Central South education consortium - ....along with Rhondda Cynon Taf, Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan and Merthyr Tydfil. BCBC believe that switching education consortium to align with NPT will result in a "loss of momentum" in school improvement and have a destabilising effect on the consortium itself.
  • Differences in post-16 education between Bridgend and NPT - NPT operates on a centralised system of post-16 education (nearly all further education courses are provided by NPT College), while Bridgend (and Vale of Glamorgan) still retain sixth forms and only provide vocational courses via FE colleges. Harmonising the systems could be difficult.
  • Bridgend & Vale of Glamorgan are part of the same South Wales Police basic command unit – NPT shares one with Swansea. Merging with NPT could require South Wales Police to reorganise their command structure again.
  • Bridgend and NPT are in different fire authorities – Bridgend is in the South Wales fire authority, NPT is in Mid & West Wales. South Wales Police and South Wales Fire Service are also actively considering creating a joint headquarters in Bridgend. Merging with NPT will either mean being served by two fire authorities or a boundary reorganisation.
  • Merging with the Vale could lead to Council Tax falls in Bridgend – Here's a controversial one. If current Band D council tax rates were harmonised across Bridgend-NPT, they would rise by £58 in Bridgend and fall £63 in NPT. However, the opposite is true with a Bridgend-Vale merger, where it falls by £85 in Bridgend and rises £78 in the Vale.

What would a merger with the Vale mean?

Decisions over where the new authority will be based are likely to be made during
advanced negotiations. A merger could also have much wider-reaching political impacts.
(Pic : Penarth Daily News)
All the details like where the authority would be based, possible redundancies/staff reorganisations and even things like the name will happen during any formal merger discussions.

What I expect will happen is that senior officer posts will be merged, but the authority would retain some split-site operations in Bridgend and Barry. Some services will probably still be provided along the existing local authority boundaries – they'll just be held to account by a single set of councillors and committees led by a single cabinet with a single budget.

The Williams Commission proposed that the number of councillors in the merged authorities be capped at 75, meaning a net loss of 26 council seats between the two authorities. Based on current proportions of seats, you would expect 14 seats to go in Bridgend and 12 in the Vale.

In political terms, on current seats the new authority would still be dominated by Labour – though perhaps not as much as a Bridgend-NPT merger. The Vale of Glamorgan also has a much stronger Conservative and Plaid Cymru presence than Bridgend, and the Conservatives stand to lose the most through a merger, as the strong Labour block vote in Ogmore constituency wards will give Labour a massive head start in local elections.

Having more Plaid Cymru councillors in the new authority council (from the strongholds of Barry and Dinas Powys) might boost Plaid in Bridgend. Although there's a small core of committed individuals, their visibility and presence are pretty poor at present, despite carrying more Plaid votes (on the last Assembly election's regional list) than the two Swansea seats. On current trends I'd be surprised if that held up in 2016.

Likewise, Independents could be set to gain big, as Porthcawl is becoming an Independent stronghold in a similar manner to Llantwit Major.

Then there's the impact on the Assembly – especially regional members. A Bridgend-NPT/Swansea Bay merger wouldn't cause any problems and might make the lives of regional list members easier as they'll only have to deal with one or two local authorities instead of three.

A Bridgend-Vale merger would cross the South Wales West & Central boundaries. This might create confusion over where and when a regional AM can intervene in terms of casework.

This sometimes happens already and presents few issues, as anyone representing the Vale will have to take an interest in Bridgend's Princess of Wales Hospital, for example, as it serves the western half of the Vale.

But if it expands to more services then it's going to cause problems.

For example, if social services across Bridgend & Vale were run from Bridgend post-merger (South Wales West), but someone living in Barry wanted one of their regional AMs
(South Wales Central) to take up their social services casework, would current rules allow that regional AM to take up the casework, or would it have to be passed to a regional AM representing South Wales West - who are (AFAIK) currently banned from taking up casework from outside their region?

So at a minimum there would have to be a rethink of the Assembly's Standing Orders, and at most there might have to be a rethink of Assembly constituencies and regions as well - perhaps with (the current) Bridgend County joining South Wales Central, which would elect 5 regional AMs, and South Wales West electing 3 regional AMs. Or, create two super regions covering south Wales, each electing 6 AMs.

That probably means the Welsh Government and AMs will (still) favour a Bridgend-NPT merger.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Total Recall

If people darken my door demanding my signature because an AM has broken
wind in a child's face or double parked, I might decide to get my ass to Mars.
(Pic :
During a lecture held by the Electoral Reform Society Wales earlier this week, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), proposed a new policy which would allow the public to force a by-election in the National Assembly, or force a regional list AM to stand down and be replaced.

The Welsh Lib Dem's full policy document, Paying Down the Democratic Deficit - which includes plenty of other ideas like increasing the number of AMs, reform of the Ministerial Code in Wales and widespread adoption of PR - is available here (pdf).

The issue of "recall" of MPs is currently in the news as a Bill is going through Westminster to introduce it there (more from the Assembly Research Service). Recall is also used in the United States, where it (in)famously led to Arnold Schwarzenegger becoming Governor of California.

At the moment, the only way to remove an AM from office and/or force a by-election is if they're sentenced to prison for 12 months+, resign voluntarily or die. Even if an AM is suspended or expelled by a party – for whatever reason – they're entitled to see out their term of office as an Independent.

Kirsty Williams proposes that if 20% of the electorate in a constituency sign a petition within a 2 month window (not two weeks?), a referendum for a recall by-election will be held, and if there's a yes vote, a full by-election will be triggered within another 2 months.

For regional list AMs, if 20% of the constituents in each and every FPTP constituency in their region sign a recall petition, the AM will be forced from office and replaced by whoever was next on the party list.

The principle is that if an AM does something we don't like - but falls short of offences which would see them forfeit their seat anyway (like being sent to prison for more than a year) - we can "throw them out".

Is that really fair, though?

Each case of "bringing the Assembly into disrepute" should be judged on its own set of circumstances. Determining that is currently the job of the Assembly's Standards Committee and the independent Standards Commissioner - that's what they're there for.

That doesn't mean this recall process will be too easy to trigger. The bar is set very high indeed - 20% of the electorate in the Bridgend constituency, for example, is around 12,000 people. It also makes it next to impossible to recall regional list members, as 20% of the electorate in each FPTP constituency in a region is easily 70-80,000 signatures. Turnout in a recall by-election or referendum will probably be incredibly low too.

Considering the political apathy in Wales, an "incident" would have to be really, really bad for the public to demand a by-election; so bad that an AM would have to resign anyway. No AM has come near generating those levels of bad publicity for themselves.

I also doubt blowhards who leave comments on Wales Online will risk catching hypothermia going door to door, drumming up signatures because of whatever AMs have done to offend them this week - like breathing at taxpayers' expense, or eating the wrong crisp flavour.

Not being able to please everyone all the time is something politicians have to live with. But as long as a politician who's been caught out by the rules shows remorse for what they've supposedly done, and works to rebuild trust, that should be enough and we can move on.

Unfortunately, politicians - as a group - try to create an impression of sanctimonious infallibility, so their role ends up being given more respect and deference than it deserves. This results in an awful lot of shallow hair-shirting, and it's this that gives those who would like to send them crashing back down to Earth a licence to look for even the slightest chink in their armour.

We can all think of occasions when AMs have done or said something that's pissed us off; but I'm willing to bet those same AMs have done good too, and away from the spotlight will be genuinely decent people who make bad decisions from time to time – like the plonker who likes their plonk (I find it hard to believe an AM could have their head that far up their backside, and I suspect someone was having a giggle at the Western Mail's expense).

If politicians aren't up to the job, we can deselect them (if you're a party member) or we can vote for someone else, based on policies and what they stand for, not their brain farts.

The reaction to misbehaviour in the Assembly often resembles the levels of righteous indignation you'll find on a school playground.
Judgements are always quick, the punishments harsh and there's little room for forgiveness - but it's also (sometimes) quickly forgotten. So my concern would be that we'll end up with constant calls for such-and-such to stand down for cracking open an egg the wrong way, something they said on Twitter or for hanging out in bars frequented by women with three breasts.

That wouldn't be "democracy in action". Instead it's a bit pathetic. The last thing we need to do is give the sort of anti-politics populism that's pumping up the UKIP beach ball more credence than it deserves.

There's an old adage, "We get the politicians we deserve". So h
alf the responsibility for creating a higher standard of politics in Wales falls on the electorate. We have to raise our own game.
The first step towards that is to stop getting wound up by stupid things, and stop placing too much emphasis on how politicians act instead of what they do.

"Recall" is, at the end of the day, a euphemistic way of saying "holding a referendum to sack someone".

To do justice to the AM in question there has to be a concrete reason for any recall based on job performance, past standards of behaviour, gross hypocrisy and the level of seriousness of any rule breach. Not liking them or their lifestyles shouldn't count.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

National Assembly debates veterans support

People who leave the armed forces after active service are sometimes at greater risk of
developing mental illnesses, falling foul of the criminal justice system and homelessness.
(Pic : UK Government)
On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated Welsh Government support for armed forces personnel, which coincided with Armistice Day.

Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), started by underlining the importance of 2014 due to the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. He said it was also important to remember veterans of more recent conflicts : Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each local authority has signed a community covenant and has appointed a designated armed forces champion. In terms of what the Welsh Government are doing, Leighton said Veterans NHS Wales was the only national veterans' service of its kind in the UK, and veterans were satisfied with the service they received.

New guidelines will ensure veterans have a right to housing advice, and this will be backed by £2million for those leaving the armed forces. In addition, council tax reductions were introduced in April 2013, and these don't include veterans' benefits when means-testing. Leighton also said veterans were a priority group for the all-Wales re-offending prevention scheme, and that future support for veterans will need to take reservists into account, as UK Government reforms will mean reservists will have a more front line role.

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales), said it was "good news" the the UK government accepted part of British Legion's manifesto where spouses will be able to keep military pensions for life even if they have a new partner. Mark welcomed the work of both governments in signing up all 22 local authorities to the military covenant.

However, he said there was a need to protect real-terms funding for health services for ex-service personnel, and few veterans were aware of the services. Mark also highlighted the importance of peer mentoring of ex-services personnel, as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be complex and might require residential treatment. Mark was concerned that the Welsh Government didn't support residential-based services.

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said debates like this were, "an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution of armed forces". The Welsh Lib Dems would prefer, what he describes as, a "seemless service" for veterans with mental health issues caused by active service.

He said helplines and websites were not always the best way to deal with such problems, and the Welsh Government weren't doing enough to address mental health issues, with serious treatment and diagnostic delays. Peter also made the important point that PTSD of this sort isn't just confined to the armed forces, but applies to the emergency services.

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) described his 5 day stint in Afghanistan, saying that when he was waiting to leave Kabul, all service personnel had in terms of readjustment to demobilisation was a 10 minute video.

He said veterans are more likely to face homelessness, fall foul of the criminal justice system and suffer  mental health problems. As many of the services often have to be sought out by the person themselves (self-referral), Lindsay believes this meant many "slip through the net". He argued that as so much money was spent on training recruits for combat, similar resources should be available for readjustment.

Lindsay criticised the Ministry of Defence, saying they had a "duty of care" to veterans, and they should stop expecting the "overstretched" Welsh NHS to pick up the tab.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North), said a new British Legion drop-in centre had over 1,000 contacts in the short time it's been set up, and she was impressed by the range of help offered, and the fact it was easily accessible. She raised concerns about people leaving the armed forces before their minimum service requirements (usually 4 years), as they're not always able to access the same levels of support.

Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly) said that as the last British troops were being withdrawn from Afghanistan, there's a more critical need to look at veterans' support; even if defence policy isn't devolved, aftercare is. He believes the Welsh Government should continue to report on their package of support annually.

He raised the issue of finding veterans employment after they've left the services, as they're often young, have transferable skills, and can show teamwork and communication skills. He would, therefore, also like updates on re-employing veterans and the training they receive.

The motion noting the Welsh Government's support for armed forces personnel and calling for ongoing support was unanimously passed.

Policy Responses

There've been two policy announcements from Welsh parties to coincide with Remembrance events.

Firstly, outgoing Plaid Cymru MP, Elfyn Llwyd, launched the party's own set of commitments to helping the estimated 250,000 veterans living in Wales. Their proposals include special Veterans' Courts to deal with criminal justice cases involving veterans, ensuring people leaving the forces have access to information on housing, health and employment and an audit of the numbers of ex-forces people in prison.

Though after what's happening in Scotland, political parties should be very careful about calling something a "vow".

Secondly, the Welsh Conservatives debated their own proposal for an Armed Forces Commissioner yesterday. The Commissioner would be tasked with holding public bodies to account to ensure they live up to their commitments under the military covenant.

The Welsh Conservatives have also long supported an Armed Forces Card, which would provide concessionary or free services, or bump them up waiting lists.

Soldiers are for life, not just for Remembrance Day

The biggest mark of respect we can pay members of the services is
ensuring they're only put in harm's way for the right reasons.
(Pic : Getty Images via Financial Times)
I'm glad the Assembly discuss things like this, but as someone with a strong military pedigree - on both sides of my family - even I feel there's a sentimentality about veterans and remembrance that's bordering on a complex.

Although it was inevitable it was going to go into overdrive this year (and will again next year and in 2018), it's become noticeably stronger over the last decade, and I think it's collective guilt.

Large numbers of us feel guilty about Iraq (perhaps other wars too) – some of us didn't do enough to stop it, others backed it when they shouldn't have, others – like the Labour Party – are forever stained by it. By questioning it we think we're "letting veterans down", so we overcompensate by excessive parades, commemoration and glorification of a modern toy soldier.

That's all very solemn and respectful, but it doesn't address the bigger issues.

First of all, let's dispel the myth that the modern UK military are "defending the country", because they're not. That's rarely their job anymore.
The imminent dangers the UK face are severe weather, flooding and disruption to energy supplies, not a foreign military power.

What the military actually do is implement the forceful side of the UK's foreign policy, whilst also playing a role in international development, counter-terrorism abroad and policing. They're also a de facto further education college for many kids who are otherwise hard to reach, and are amongst the biggest purchasers of goods and services in the public sector.

It's never wrong to question defence or foreign policy, or question whether it's right to send troops into various situations. Doing so doesn't do anything to take away any sacrifices service personnel make, and it might prevent it happening in the first place, which is more respectful than seeing them as disposable heroes.

But we don't force tens of thousands of teenage boys to their deaths anymore and the modern military is highly-skilled, highly-trained and – most importantly of all – voluntary. That's despite it sometimes being an employer of last resort for those who can't find jobs elsewhere, or need the discipline and camaraderie a military career often provides.

In terms of dangerous jobs, you're more likely to be killed or seriously injured on a farm or fishing boat than in the military; while a significant proportion of service personnel will be killed on the roads compared to active service.

Lindsay Whittle hit the nail on the head. Defence isn't devolved. It's the Ministry of Defence and UK Government who should clear up the problems their little sojourns abroad leave the men and women they so actively ask to serve their interests. Or, at the very least, they should make sure the Welsh Government have everything they need to do the job they've largely abandoned.

That's not to understate the mark serving in the armed forces leaves on individuals. The adjustment to civilian life can be incredibly difficult for some, especially if you're used to regimented routines and having everything you need provided for you.

Outside the military, the only other place you get that is prison.