Tuesday, 19 August 2014

"Thank you for flying Ieuan Air...."

Poor value for money? Or vital transport link?
The Anglesey-Cardiff "Ieuan Air" service has its critics.
(Pic : Wales Online)

The direct air service between Cardiff and Anglesey has been a political football since it was first introduced. Some consider it a vital public service air link; others consider it a complete waste of money.

The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee undertook a short inquiry into its future role, as well as evaluating its current commercial performance due to the high levels of public subsidy it receives and falls in passenger numbers (pdf).

The Committee's summarised recommendations were that :
  • Data collection should be improved - preferably using an independent source - to avoid discrepancies between what the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and airline operators report.
  • The Welsh Government should undertake research on who uses the air-link and why, as well as research into the long-term passenger number trends.
  • Any future tender for the air-link should include comprehensive marketing plans, and the Welsh Government should try to attract as many bidders as possible in order to maximise the benefits and opportunities of the air-link.

Background & Current Performance

£9million has been spent on the air link since 2007, including
£1.5million on terminal facilities at RAF Valley.
(Pic : anglesey-today.com)
The Anglesey-Cardiff air-link was established in May 2007 (before Ieuan Wyn Jones even became a government minister), and is currently operated by two companies. The marketing and ticket booking services are provided by Manx company, Citywing, while the air service itself is provided by Links Air, based on Humberside. The current contract to provide the service runs until December 2014. The service runs twice a day in both directions during weekdays.

The Welsh Government subsidises the service under the EU's Public Service Obligation (PSO) rules, which allows governments to subsidise services that are key to economic development but are otherwise commercial unviable. The subsidy currently amounts to £1.2million per year.

The Ministry of Defence are also involved as they run the RAF Valley terminus of the flight. Anglesey Council and a company called Europa also fund/run the terminal services at the airbase.

The total cost of the air service from May 2007 to March 2013 was just over £9million. This sum includes the £1.5million to build the passenger terminal at RAF Valley and various grants to Anglesey Council.

65,703 passengers used the service over the same time period, and
the subsidy per passenger is £86. Although passenger numbers exceeded expectations in the first two years, they've since declined by 12.5% between 2011-2013.

There were differences between the passenger numbers reported by the CAA and those provided by the Welsh Government (via the service operator) – the latter's numbers being higher than the CAA's. However, since 2012 these discrepancies have become smaller and didn't cause the Committee any great concern.

As for the reasons why passenger numbers are falling, the University of South Wales' Martin Evans said that passengers were "price sensitive" and even the slightest increase in fares put them off. The Welsh Government, however, pointed towards figures that showed an increase in the number of advanced bookings and overall passenger numbers.

The Welsh Government have commissioned ARUP to review the marketing of the air service, fares strategy and support to maximise passenger numbers. The contract currently grants the operators £20-25,000 per year to market the service. The Committee believe more needs to be done - such as advertising connecting bus services - and all of that should be part of the tendering process.

In terms of the type of passenger, it was said between half and two-thirds of passengers were business passengers, but there was no data on how many of these were public sector workers. The Committee were concerned because public sector journeys would ultimately be paid for entirely by taxpayers, weakening the subsidy's value for money case.

With regard value for money, there hasn't been an evaluation of the benefits of the air service since 2008, and without this information it might be more difficult for the Welsh Government to justify further subsidy. Some of this will be explored further in the ARUP review, which will give a better idea of who uses the service and why, but it was argued it might be difficult to tie economic data to the service.

The Contract

Following the 2011 Cork air crash, there've been concerns raised
at EU level about "virtual airline" arrangements for air services.
(Pic : RTE)

There's a slightly complicated back story as to how the current operators got the franchise.

When the contract was up for re-tender in 2010, the only bidder was Highland Airways. But because the Welsh Government had concerns over the financial stability of the company, they rejected Highland Airways offer and put out an "emergency tender" which was awarded to Manx2.

However, because Manx2 were a "virtual airline" (they outsource all operational roles), this fell foul of EU PSO rules, meaning another company had to be on board at the same time – hence why there are two companies involved in running the air link.

As for the relevance of this, an accident at Cork Airport in February 2011 – which killed 6 people – involved an aircraft operated by the same company Manx2 used to provide the Anglesey-Cardiff link (FLM). The company has since had its aviation accreditation withdrawn, and this dual-company arrangement has been flagged up to the European Commission as a concern which should be taken into consideration when awarding any new Anglesey-Cardiff contract in December.

The Committee also had concerns about the timing of the tender and contract award, which is supposed to go out (quite literally) now if it's going to be awarded in December. The Committee were worried that the timescales are too tight and there's little room for contingencies.

The Future of the Air-Link

Due to MOD restrictions, the air link can only operate 5 days a week.
(Pic : Royal Air Force)
The Welsh Government haven't given a clear commitment on whether the service will be re-tendered or not. However, the Committee come up with several potential options for any future services.
  • Increasing the size of the aircraft – The current aircraft has 18 seats, but previous tenders included 29-50 seater aircraft. The size of the aircraft was reduced by the Welsh Government due to concerns over air passenger duty and because RAF Valley doesn't meet UK guidelines for passenger aircraft bigger than 18 seats. Increasing the size of the aircraft would mean fewer passengers would be turned away and, if marketed correctly, could boost incomes and make it more commercially viable.
  • More stops? – This might mean adding an extra stop or two (Harwarden in Flintshire and Caernarfon airport were mooted). Harwarden was ruled out due to competition from rail, while Caernarfon would need lots of work to bring it up to spec. A third stop could also put off passengers as it would increase journey times.
  • 7 day a week service – At the moment only a 5 day service is possible due to military restrictions, and any moves to change this will need to be discussed with the RAF.
  • Changes to state aid rules – PSO rules were recently changed which mean there are fewer constraints on what the Welsh Government can or can't do. An example was given where the Cardiff-Anglesey aircraft could be used to make commercial flights from Cardiff-Paris in the downtime between Anglesey flights.

A bit of afters

The inquiry has been criticised for being "too simplistic", and it failed to
draw comparisons with other PSO services in the UK and rest of Europe.
(Pic : via Wikipedia)
As you might've heard, Committee member Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)  got a bit shirty, describing the inquiry as "superficial and simplistic". The Committee only called four witnesses - who all gave evidence on a single day – and received just five pieces of written evidence, three of which were from the same person. That's not unusual for a "short inquiry".

I've read my fair share of committee reports over the last three years or so. The lack of any comparison with other PSO services in the UK (like those in the Scottish Highlands & Islands) was a glaring omission. Mike Hedges was right. I don't think it would've really changed the overall conclusions, but without those comparisons it's hard to say whether the air link is truly under-performing or not.

The Lib Dems have long called for the service to be scrapped, and chimed in again this time, describing the air link as "wasteful and polluting".

The air link currently reduces the NW Wales-Cardiff journey time from 4-5 hours (by car or train) to around 90 minutes. If the service were well-used it could be considered an absolute bargain. The £1.2million per year saved by scrapping the service would do diddly squat to improve north-south transport links, and the Lib Dems have consistently failed to say what they would do with such an enormous bounty. The cost of doubling the Wrexham-Chester railway line is £44million alone.

If money were no object, ideally we would build a floating runway in the Menai Straits off Bangor. That would be the optimum place for a NW Wales-Cardiff air link, and being right next to Snowdonia should provide a steady stream of tourist traffic too. However, like it or not, RAF Valley – despite being poorly located – is the only suitable facility.

It looks as though the air link has an uncertain future, and criticisms about its performance stand up. There's just a danger that through this inquiry we only know the price of it whilst ignoring its value.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Life, Ethics & Independence X - Hunting

Hunting was once a necessity but has since become a hobby (except for farmers)
that stirs strong emotions and strong debate.
(Pic : Wales Online)

Hunting in Wales

Hunting has been going on in Wales for millennia, and if it didn't none of us would be here. Although  hunting would've once been used for food or to control pests, in GB & Ireland it became a "sport" for the landed gentry that not only provided status symbols for the dinner table but practice for warfare – for example, the use of a bow and arrow on horseback, or tracking skills.

With the advent of the gun, and the widespread use of animal husbandry, hunting has almost exclusively became a leisure activity rather than a necessary skill. Though some people no doubt still hunt for food, fur or for pest control.

There are several different types of hunting :
  • Game hunting/Shooting – Shooting wild birds like duck, geese, pheasants, grouse, wood pigeons etc. as well as mammals like rabbits and hares.
  • Deer hunting & stalking – There are several native species of deer in Wales, and they're usually killed from long distances with high-powered rifles. Deer stalking is basically the same thing but done with more stealth.
  • Organised fox hunts – A continuation of medieval tradition of hunting, where large numbers of horseback riders and a pack of dogs flush out and kill a fox. The practice of using dogs to kill foxes was made illegal in 2004.
  • Drag/trail hunting – Similar to fox-hunting except instead of an animal, the hunting party follows a path laid out by using a collection of artificial scents to simulate a traditional foxhunt. Drag hunting with dogs is still permitted despite the Hunting Act.
In other countries – like the United States, New Zealand and parts of Africa – hunting is closely intertwined with their cultures, with an idealised archetype of the rugged "frontiersman/frontierswoman" stalking big game or trying to carve out a living in an untamed wilderness.

Hunting isn't really seen in the same way in Wales, and fishing – which isn't really considered in the same category as hunting – is often much more popular. However, sport shooting is worth £75million to the Welsh economy according to research from Public and Corporate Economic Consultants.

Hunting Issues

One of the main debates around hunting is whether some methods are
inhumane or cruel to the prey, going against the spirit of a "fair chase".
(Pic : ehow.com)
Hunting and Animal Cruelty – The killing of animals, whether necessary or not, is always going to provoke strong reactions amongst animal welfare and animal rights groups and supporters. Some hunting traps might cause unnecessary suffering to animals, while the use of guns might not always result in a "clean kill". Tradition fox hunting usually left the killing to the dogs, which would be incredibly painful for the fox.

Hunting and Farming – It's been argued that many wild animals in the British Isles aren't significant agricultural pests. However, a 2013 poll from sheep farmers showed three quarters of them said there had been an increase in fox attacks since the Hunting Act. Considering animals like sheep are barely profitable, even the loss of a single lamb or sheep will have an impact. However, it's not only wild animals that attack farm animals. Farmers are allowed to kill any dog that worries livestock.

Hunting and Conservation
– The idea that killing animals can actually save them sounds like an oxymoron, but there's a twisted logic to it. Someone wealthy paying £X to kill a wild animal probably raises enough money to ensure the conservation of 10 other wild animals.

Does hunting wild animals (in small numbers) contribute to the
conservation efforts of a larger number of animals?
(Pic : africageographic.com)
Also, in cases where certain dominant predator species are over-breeding in an ecosystem, managed hunting could reduce them to a number that protects species lower down the food chain (maintaining the carrying capacity). And, of course, sometimes "hunted" animals aren't even killed. Some are tranquilised for research reasons (i.e. to take blood or tissue samples) - what's known as a "green hunting".

Hunting for Food or Clothes – Is it more morally acceptable to hunt an animal if you're going to "use" it? Does "using" an animal make hunting and trapping a basic right rather than a restricted pasttime – as it is in parts of the United States? In polar regions – like Greenland - some traditional subsistence hunting for things like polar bears and narwhals is being restricted, despite the destruction of the animal's habitats being down to climate change brought on by the industrialised world.

Poe's Law?
(Pic : avclub.com)

Hunting for Sport/Recreation – What about killing animals "for fun"? Is there a difference between European royalty being driven up to a herd of elephants in a 4x4 and shooting one, and the principle of the "fair chase" – one person, one weapon, no aides, just pure tracking and stealth ability? You can argue "fair chase" hunting doesn't put a human at a massive advantage over the prey, while having packs of dogs and tens of people on horseback is overkill.

The Current Law

Traditional fox hunting with dogs was outlawed in 2004 - now replaced with
drag hunting, as pictured - but game licences were phased out in 2007.
(Pic : BBC)
Game licences were phased out in EnglandandWales in 2007, but are still used in Scotland.

The Game Act 1831 and Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 specify at what times of year people can hunt for game and larger animals like deer (open season). It's usually autumn to late winter for most species, with the spring and summer kept off limits to protect populations and allow breeding.

Hunting for animals out of season is considered "poaching", punishable by a fine of up to £5,000. Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act it's also illegal to possess or collect wild bird eggs. The Act also includes a list of birds (Schedule 1) and animals which are protected (Schedule 5) and cannot be killed by certain methods (Schedule 6).

Under the 1831 Act, gamekeepers need to be appointed to look after the stock of game and manage the countryside appropriately.

The most contentious legislation in recent time is, of course, the ban on the use of dogs in fox hunting and hare coursing - which was outlawed by the Hunting Act 2004. Scotland brought in a ban on two years earlier with the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002. Breaking this law is punishable by a fine of up to £5,000.

Dogs can still be used in hunts to flush out animals like foxes, it just means the prey itself has to be killed humanely. That, to me, sounds like a perfectly reasonable compromise. There was talk of the Coalition government relaxing the ban, but it looks unlikely.

However, because traditional fox hunting tends to support a small "team" – equestrians, dog handlers, wardens etc. - the ban has been portrayed by groups such as the Countryside Alliance as a battle between "urban bleeding hearts" and "good, honest country folk", and as much an attack on a lifestyle – possibly with class-envy undertones – than ever really being about animal welfare.

Hunting & Independence

Domestic dogs are often as big a threat to livestock - an example
from Carmarthenshire above -  as wild animals like foxes. Does the law need
to be cleared up  to acknowledge "farmer's rights" on hunting pests?
(Pic : Big Cats GB)
Hunting powers are a muddled picture under devolution. Fishing and fisheries are devolved - but often aren't counted as hunting - while hunting with dogs is explicitly non-devolved in Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Hunting in general though appears to be closely aligned to the criminal justice system, which isn't devolved in Wales.

Because hunting is effectively devolved to Scotland already this wasn't included in Scotland's Future. But hunting would be a completely new power if devolved to Wales or through independence.

I'm planning on doing a "Vice Nation" series similar to this one (i.e. single posts spread over a wider time period) to look at issues related to this, like gun ownership, starting next year (if I'm still going).

So what could an independent Wales do?
  • Reintroduce game/hunting licenses. This is an obvious one. It would be an added layer of bureaucracy but it would allow the Welsh Government, and other relative authorities, to manage and monitor hunting a lot better than at present. It could even be taxed to raise funds for conservation efforts.
  • Consideration for some sort of "hunting call-out" for farmers - which had been called for – where farmers who've experienced an upsurge in animal loses to pests can call out a hunting party to track down an animal with dogs and kill them humanely.
  • Debate a lifting of the ban on hunting with dogs - I would be against this, but if hunting were devolved it would be down to the Assembly to debate it. I'd guess that only a few of the Conservatives would support lifting the ban, possibly AMs from other parties that represent rural constituencies too.
  • Professionalise drag hunting – turn it into a type of equestrian "sport", so people who would've considered "proper" hunts have an alternative that can be taken seriously.
  • Farmer's Rights – Clarify what farmers can and can't do with vermin and pests on their land. Perhaps the owners of animals like dogs which attack farm animals should be liable to a harsh fine and compensation payments in addition to potentially losing their dog.
  • Make "Leave No Trace" legally enforceable – Perhaps some aspects of this unofficial ethical code for behaviour outdoors should be brought under criminal law with punishments for violations. Hunting "unethically" would obviously be included.
  • Promote sport shooting that doesn't involve killing animals – via gun clubs etc.
  • Continue to clamp down on the illegal trade in endangered animals - perhaps by introducing much harsher penalties. This will be worth coming to in another post in future.

Arguing over whether people have a "right" to hunt or not is semantics. It's such an ingrained and primal part of human existence it can never be controlled. I suppose most of this will come down to personal views and setting proper boundaries.

My own opinion on hunting probably lines up with the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose stance is quoted as being :
"…the organization itself takes no position either pro or con, on hunting…WWF recognizes that responsibly conducted hunting can be an appropriate wildlife management tool, particularly for abundant game that is maintained on a sustainable basis…WWF opposes hunting which might adversely affect the survival of threatened or endangered species…"

Other than that, I would only add that hunting should be carried out humanely and fairly.

It's not something I would ever consider doing myself unless I had to, but I see no real controversy in the "one person in the wilderness with a gun/sustainable/fair chase" type of hunting. At the same time I see no contradiction in opposing the recreational slaughter of animals like traditional fox hunting, badger baiting or trophy hunting – which I find completely abhorrent.

Like all naturalistic things there's a great need to balance what's taken with what's given back. If we expect to be able to use our natural law rights to take animals at a whim, we should – in kind – treat their habitats and bodies with respect.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Car Parks and Recreation

Here's a round-up of some of the more significant recent planning applications in Bridgend county over the last couple of weeks.

A Welcome Break for Sarn
Sarn Services could soon benefit from the luxury of indoor toilets!
(Click to enlarge)

As many of you might know, Welcome Break's Sarn Park services are run down, outdated, not highly-rated (definitely worth reading the "Dale" story) and probably don't leave a good impression on visitors coming to Bridgend. I'd image most will travel the extra few hundred metres to McArthur Glen.

The Sarn Park site was picked out for mixed use development in the Local Development Plan and the owners have put forward proposals for a major redevelopment of the service area .

The current hexagonal terrapins will be demolished and replaced with an expanded coach and HGV park, with enough spaces for 10 coaches and 30 HGVs. The petrol station is remain pretty much as-is,  with improved landscaping and a recladding.

The service station amenities themselves will be housed in a brand new, fully-enclosed glass and steel building on the current HGV park to the north east of the site. It'll include a WH Smiths outlet, games area, improved toilet facilities, a Starbucks "drive thru" and sit-down outlet as well as a Burger King restaurant.

Anyone for Tennis?
The proposed National Tennis Academy at Island Farm
(Click to enlarge)
It looked like it was dead, but Island Farm has kicked into life with a planning application submitted for an indoor-outdoor tennis centre and gym. If approved it would be the first part of a whole scale – and highly controversial – redevelopment of Island Farm for a sports village and science park extension.

The application was submitted by prominent local landowners, the Hegarty family, via their property company HD Ltd and construction would be expected to start in 2015. The development includes :
  • 7 indoor tennis courts
  • 12 outdoor tennis courts
  • 8 squash courts
  • 140 car parking space
  • A gym (on the first floor)
  • Retail, cafe, conference and office space

The roof will be made of translucent silicon and the building will be at least part-powered by solar panels. The proposed building looks very impressive indeed.

If constructed it would probably be the most modern tennis centre in Wales – comparable with facilities in Swansea and Wrexham - and comes hot on the heels of Tennis Wales trying to get Virgin Active to reopen the Wales National Tennis Centre in Cardiff.

You've got to assume that Island Farm will be a replacement (it's being titled "Wales National Tennis Academy") – with the implicit backing of Tennis Wales and the Lawn Tennis Association. It certainly looks like it's been designed to be something more than just for locals.

Both Bridgend Town Council (pdf) and Merthyr Mawr Community Council (pdf) have objected to the development for several reasons, which include :
  • Lack of details of proposed roadworks along the A48.
  • Lack of details in terms of the business case (expected attendances etc.) and environmental impact.
  • Concerns that the development could impact Island Farm's LDP allocation as a "special employment site".
You've also got to wonder whether Bridgend Tennis Club will decamp to this facility, and that could mean that the tennis club at Newbridge Fields will be sold off for development.

This one might be worth coming back to in a more detailed blog at a later date.

More houses (....take three guesses where)
The last ever housing development in Brackla?
(Click to enlarge)

An outline planning application has been submitted for 220 homes on land next to the A4061 "New Road" near Brackla Industrial Estate and to the "back" of the Princess of Wales Hospital.

This land was part of the parcel sold to the controversial Guernsey-based South Wales Land Developments, and has a surprisingly chequered planning history.

Tesco had an unsuccessful (and long-running) attempt to build a superstore and petrol station there circa 2000-2003. Then, it was shortlisted as a potential stadium site for the Celtic Crusaders rugby league side in 2009 (as a rival to the Island Farm Sports Village). In 2010-2011, the Welsh Government drafted a plan which earmarked the site for an office and mixed use development.

All that's gone out the window. It's a real shame because it would've been a great site for a bioscience park as it's so close to the hospital. So the only option left is to build houses on it.

I would have concerns. I walk around there every now and again and the land is quite boggy. Although this isn't a detailed planning application, to prevent groundwater flooding I would expect it to need some sort of pond/lake to store water from the Morfa Brook drainage basin – which has been concreted over by the A4061 and Parc Derwen.

I'll stick my neck out and predict that this (along with the proposals at Wyndham Close) will probably be the last major housing development in Brackla, bringing an end to 35+ years of constant housebuilding. After all, it's unlikely the old railway line at Waunscil Avenue will ever be developed and there's hardly any open space left elsewhere on the estate.

Vibrant & Viable Bridgend underway?
(Pic : Visit Bridgend)
I round off with another Hegarty family development.

It might be dull in itself, but it could signify the start of the Vibrant and Viable Places "Rhiw Gateway" scheme – the final details of which are yet to be outlined by Bridgend Council.

HD Ltd propose to demolish the JP Board Seat car dealership opposite Wilkinsons on the Rhiw junction. I walked passed there the other day and it's vacant. HD Ltd will replace it with a surface and (small) underground car park totalling 50 spaces. It'll probably be temporary until another use can be found for the site, and the applicant is willing for it to only be used as a car park for a maximum of 5 years.

Flattening the site it key, because it's long been said/claimed that a department store could go there. The site's perfect as it's slap bang in the middle of the town centre.

The JP Board building is something of an eyesore, admittedly, but I suppose it's a landmark too in a way and it'll be strange not having it there. BCBC and any interested developers will really have to come up with something special for the site to prevent it feeling "empty".  There'll be more from me on that once any plans are put forward.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Aberconwy Funnel-Bebb Spider

"For there is always something down there,
in the dark, waiting to come out...."
(6th August - Devolution : The Failures) : "In fact, blogging's still quite dangerous - even in Wales - and you leave yourself open to getting into disputes when you didn't need to."

I don't like "blogging about blogging", but due to a row between the slightly off-the-wall Conwy County-based blog, Thoughts of Oscar, and the local Conservative MP Guto Bebb my hand's been forced. It's also been covered in depth by National Left and Miserable Old Fart.

From the outset, I doubt myself and whoever's behind the Thoughts of Oscar blog would agree on anything politically. If someone in the Welsh blogosphere is coming under unjustified attack though, we should do everything we can to support each other as we're going out on a limb through doing this. All for one and one for all etc.

Here's a brief overview of what's happened :
  • Thoughts of Oscar published an open letter by "C. Thomas" which states (correctly) that Guto Bebb MP is one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in Westminster; had received donations from Russian energy oligarch (and Tory donor), Alexander Temerko; had asked parliamentary questions on Israel; and had a few dealings with pro-Israeli lobbying organisations. The author questioned Guto's commitment to his constituents, and dealings with Israelis due to the Gaza conflict.
  • Guto Bebb defended his support for Israel in the Daily Post/Western Mail and Golwg360, and said he didn't wish to "dignify (the open letter) with a comment". Bebb also claimed via Twitter that the Western Mail's political editor, David Williamson, was running a story "based on web libel".
  • Cardiff-based Thomas Simon solicitors sent a legal letter to the author of Thoughts of Oscar (and others) – which Guto Bebb published – refuting several of the points made in the open letter such as : denying donations were related to pro-Israeli views; visits to Israel were purely business; that Guto didn't vote to send troops to Syria (he did vote in favour of military action though, which could've resulted in the use of British military personnel in/over Syria); and inferring that four star Israeli hotels aren't luxury.
  • The solicitors requested that the open letter be taken down immediately (it's still up as of today) and the author of the letter will have 5 working days to substantiate its content. Thoughts of Oscar believes there's a good chance they'll have to close the blog and Twitter account due to the legal threat hanging over them.

So Guto said he considers the open letter to be potentially libellous - a very serious accusation.There will probably be parallels made with Jacqui Thompson (Carmarthenshire Planning), but – and I hope Jacqui doesn't mind me saying this – Bebb has an even weaker case than Mark James.

Looking at this dispassionately - putting aside views on the Gaza crisis for a moment - the open letter was well-researched. All of the sources used in the open letter were credible : The Guardian, Western Mail, Freedom of Information requests and even Guto Bebb himself..
Most of it was left open to interpretation, with no direct accusations of wrong-doing.

For example, the open letter didn't say the Alexander Temerko donation was specifically related to Bebb's support for Israel, just that Temerko has made donations to pro-Israeli MPs. People were left to make their own minds up, though it's hard to tell if it counts as innuendo or not. It's only seems defamatory if you're deliberately looking for/interpreting things as being defamatory remarks.

Defamation laws were updated in the Defamation Act 2013. Three key defences include :
  • Truth – As said, pretty much everything in the open letter was based on information from reliable sources. Guto (or, more accurately, his legal advisers) didn't once publicly deny anything that the letter contained, only disputing the interpretation (what Miserable Old Fart described as "the minutiae") - like the number of stars a hotel has.
  • Honest Opinion/Fair Comment – The letter was an opinion piece regarding a highly-contentious issue. You could argue that the final paragraph damages Guto Bebb's reputation as an MP, but you can – and should in a democracy – consider it a constituent expressing dissatisfaction with the performance of their elected representative, and bringing into question some of their professional associations. These are things we should all have a right to know and do. In fairness, it appears Guto Bebb has always been keen to be transparent - except this.
  • Publication in the public interest – Of course it was. Anything a politician does in relation to their job or representative role is in the public interest and, as said, all of the details in the open letter were covered extensively by several credible sources, then wrapped up neatly in a single open letter. There were no personal insults and no attacks on Guto's character.

The legal letter was, effectively, an indirect reply to everything contained in open letter – a "right of reply" if you will. However, I don't know why Guto or his staff didn't write the rebuttal of a 450-word letter themselves instead of hiring a group of legal professionals to nit-pick. Surely Guto and his staff know what he has or hasn't done and can explain that on request?

There's absolutely no need to call for anyone to remove any blog or shut anything down. If Guto has a right to express his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so does everyone else.

MPs – especially from Labour and the Conservatives - are rather delicate, big-headed souls struggling to find relevance in Wales since devolution. I'm sure many get a kick from throwing their weight around by using their power and privileged position. They need to keep reminding us that they're there.

Like many people in the public eye, they don't like it when anyone - let alone an uppity blogger - flags potentially embarrassing things up for all to see.

The main thing the open letter did to harm Guto Bebb's reputation is hold a mirror up in front of him. If Guto feels he's been defamed, that's because his own documented actions and associations down the years have defamed himself.

I doubt hair-trigger tempers are considered a useful trait for a politician; so any politician in that position should probably consider taking up a more sedate job, like flower-arranging or dog grooming; perhaps even selling cocktails by the sea in Eilat.

If it were left to the courts to decide who's telling the truth in politics - based solely upon interpreting minutiae and reading between the lines of the statements they pump out - about 95% of British politicians would be dragged through the streets clapped in irons.

Guto Bebb was one of the few MPs I had a high opinion of, and Miserable Old Fart has said himself that he puts the work in at constituency level. He has his good side.

It's a shame really, but toys need to be put back in their pram.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A bunch of AMs walk into a library....

....and asked where the crap punchlines were.
They were pointed to the correct section.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)

Just before the summer recess, the National Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee reported back on their wide-ranging inquiry into local libraries in Wales, which was launched at the new Caerphilly library (pdf).

With local government budgets under strain, libraries are coming under increasing financial pressure. The inquiry's aims were to determine : whether the Welsh Government were living up to their promises, the financial state of library services and what role they play in the community.


The Committee made 10 recommendations, in broad terms being :
  • The Welsh Government should publish an annual report on libraries and make available data on library use based on demographics.
  • A modern definition of "comprehensive and efficient library services" as a statutory obligation on local authorities, which should include free-of-charge internet access.
  • More Welsh Government support and guidance for : library service collaboration, voluntary accreditation for libraries, general promotion of library services, and to ensure libraries "pursue all available funding opportunities".
  • Core library services should remain free of charge, but alternative revenue-raising methods should be explored by local authorities.
  • There should be more financial support from the UK Government for libraries in light of the increasing use of online-only welfare administration.

Welsh Government Commitments

Library visits have risen considerably in Wales over the
last ten years, while there's been a decline in England.
(Pic : National Assembly via Flickr)
The Welsh Government's Programme for Government made specific commitments to widen access to local libraries and museums, and ensure local authorities meet statutory requirements with regard library service provision.

The initial findings were good. Library visits are up 11% on 2002-03, rising from 13.25million to 14.72million in 2011-12. England saw a 5.3% decline over the same period. Direct Welsh Government grant funding to modernise libraries was also praised (I'll return to that in more detail later).

However, some local authorities – Swansea, Conwy and Powys – as well as the Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) said libraries don't feature as prominently in the Programme of Government as they should. The SCL said, "the role public libraries have to play in relation to key national policy areas (education, health, Welsh language, digital inclusion) should be more widely recognised and acknowledged."

The Public Libraries & Museums Act 1964's provisions mean local authorities have a statutory duty to provide "comprehensive and efficient" library services to the public whether they like it or not. There was no support for replacing this Act, though some local authorities and the WLGA believed the definition of "comprehensive and efficient" needed updating and greater clarity.

Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), acts as a library superintendent by setting down national library standards via the Welsh Public Library Standards and Assessment Framework, which was introduced in 2002.

These standards were considered helpful by respondents, with the WLGA saying they ensured, "a more consistent and better quality of library service across Wales". The WLGA (and local authorities) did, however, add that there needed to be a "change of focus" towards what libraries actually do so local authorities have a better idea what sort of services people like to use and where they can innovate.

The main concern here was, unsurprisingly, about budget cuts. Pembrokeshire Council described the current environment as "challenging" while Powys Council said the long-term future of libraries will be dependent upon "levels of community support and alternative delivery models".

The Culture Minister said he launched an expert review of library services in 2013 (which was supposed to report back last month). He added that he saw the 1964 Act as being "fit for purpose". A new set of library standards came into force from April this year, and was based more on outcomes (as many organisations giving evidence wanted).

The Minister said he was willing to publish an all-Wales report on library standards (local authorities already have to publish their own separate annual reports).

Finances & The Future of Local Library Services

With budget's under pressure, one option for the future of libraries
is "co-location" - as has happened with Bridgend Library.
(Pic : welshlibraries.org)

Funding for libraries isn't ring-fenced despite it being a statutory duty. It was widely-accepted that local authorities will need to come up with new ways to provide library services in light of budget cuts – though the WLGA say that due to collaborative efforts through the likes of CyMAL, those cuts haven't hit as hard as they could've.

Some of the options put on the table by councils include : collaboration, community-managed libraries, relocation/adaption of libraries and revamped mobile libraries.

Some local authorities – like Flintshire and Carmarthenshire – are already collaborating across the "information sector" (further & higher education, health) to provide training, marketing and inter-library loans.

Newport Council were, however, sceptical of the savings made through collaboration. They prefer co-location (English : libraries and other services [i.e. leisure] under the same roof) to save money and attract new visitors. Bridgend library has relocated to the Recreation Centre (now dubbed "Bridgend Life Centre"), and Bridgend Council say it's resulted in 3,000 extra visits per month.

In terms of community management of libraries, it's a growing trend in England but received a mixed response here. The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) said it's resulted in a lack of support for volunteers from local authorities who are dumped with complex responsibilities.

Pembrokeshire Council said community-managed libraries "don't work in all communities and....standards of service....are highly variable." They also say there's a lack of diversity amongst staff in volunteer-run libraries, who are overwhelmingly white elderly women.

The use of volunteers wasn't completely dismissed. Merthyr Tydfil Council said the use of volunteers, "adds value not only to our service but to the wider community". The consensus was that volunteers should be used to supplement the work of professional staff; a sentiment the Culture Minister agreed with.

Some of the respondents were worried that co-location and volunteerism won't meet the budget cut requirements, and it's inevitable that some libraries will close. However, because library services often make up a small percentage of local government expenditure (around 1%), many organisations believe libraries shouldn't be disproportionately hit with cuts as it wouldn't really save much money.

Grant funding from the Welsh Government (i.e. to improve or upgrade libraries) is said to be key. Many respondents said these grants had made a significant difference. However, some local authorities – like Conwy and Pembrokeshire – said they might struggle to meet the Welsh Government's match-funding requirements in future. The Culture Minister said there were many alternative sources of funding – like the Lottery and EU – and these would be explored further.

Understandably, alternative ways of raising an income have been considered, such as room hire. However, there was little to no support for charging for core library services, which is said would defeat the purpose of open access.

The Future Role of Local Libraries

One important role libraries play according to the
inquiry is widening access to the internet.
(Pic : thisiswiltshire.co.uk)
The feedback from the inquiry's focus groups and library organisations implied that libraries are more than book depositories and often act as mini-community centres. When well-run they can  also support other local services, in particular health (information) and further/higher education. Open University said libraries "offered informal learning opportunities" through free online courses, for example.

Therefore, libraries also play an important part in widening access to the internet and digital services – in particular for older people and the disabled. Disability Wales said libraries act as a "gateway" to enable people without home internet access to access online services for free, meaning local authorities can save money by providing services online.

There was one area picked out, and that's UK Government welfare reforms, which has meant many welfare services have moved to online-only management – in particular Universal Credit. The WLGA said libraries have taken on "a more direct role" as a result. Disability Wales said the changes could impact the disabled who will be expected to be "digital by default" - being offline will no longer be an option.

The Culture Minister said the Welsh Government told the Department of Work and Pensions that they would expect them (DWP) to provide funding for "digital by default" welfare to cover staff training and wider funding issues.

Another, perhaps overlooked, role of libraries is to prevent loneliness amongst older people and other vulnerable groups by providing social opportunities.

A neglected community friend?

Libraries are seen as an important part of a community's identity, so much
so that many are willing to take extreme steps to protect them - like Rhydyfelin.
(Pic : Wales Online)
It's clear libraries are highly-valued by those that use them regularly, and the Welsh Government deserve credit for some of their support and grant schemes - which have made a difference.

It's obvious from the evidence given that libraries are about much more than books. They are - in effect - mini centres of learning, widen access to local and national services and also double up as de facto community centres.

Deciding precisely what a "comprehensive and efficient" library services means in the 21st Century is a conundrum, but one obvious part of that is providing free internet access as more services move online.

In serendipitous timing, maintaining some sort of free internet access (with welfare reform in mind) is something being addressed as part of Bethan Jenkins AM's (Plaid, South Wales West) Financial Education and Inclusion Bill.

The future of smaller libraries is still in the balance, perhaps best illustrated by proposals in Rhondda Cynon Taf. Glyn over at National Left has mentioned plans to close Beddau Library; while back in June, protesters campaigning against library closures chained themselves to bookshelves at Rhydyfelin Library in Pontypridd – and managed to get the decision overturned.

Big, modern libraries (like those in Cardiff, Caerphilly and Bridgend) are fine; but like all things in Wales there's a sense of attachment to the local that – even if it's parochial – does seem very hard to replace once lost.

It's not as if these things are reopened once they're shut.