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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Senedd Watch - February 2013

  • The Assembly rejected a Legislative Consent Motion from the UK Parliament to close the Agricultural Wages Board – which sets wages for agricultural workers in EnglandandWales. Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) will ask for Wales to be excluded from the respective legislation.
  • The First Minister warned NHS reorganisations were essential to prevent the Welsh NHS from “collapsing”. He repeated that the Welsh Government wanted to create a “safe and sustainable health service”, but said that he doesn't expect Welsh Labour to suffer electorally because of the reforms. A poll for BBC Wales later in the month showed 74% of the public were opposed to the changes.
  • Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) called for a reduction in the number of local authorities to as few as 7 or 5, a reduction in the number of MPs and an increase in the number of AMs. He said the internal governance of Wales needed to be “slimlined”.
  • Opposition parties called a Welsh Government proposal to introduce online health checks for the over-50s a “monumental climbdown” on a Welsh Labour 2011 election pledge to provide a GP-led health check.
  • The House of Commons voted to approve the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill on February 5th, which will legalise/recognise same sex marriages in EnglandandWales. However, 140 Conservative MPs voted against the plans, meaning the legislation was reliant on Labour, Liberal Democrat and nationalist support.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) said the Welsh NHS will “learn lessons” from a report into an English heath trust, which criticised standards and quality of care. She said there were “robust systems in place to ensure quality and safety are at the heart of NHS care.” Partly in response, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams warned Welsh NHS staff faced being “overwhelmed” and that a similar scandal could occur in Wales.
  • Conservative and Lib Dem leaders accused the Welsh Government of “setting a dangerous precedent” by stepping in to fund a Welsh language festival in Cardiff following Cardiff Council budget cuts. Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) said the Welsh Government were “cherry picking good causes to save.”
  • A public consultation into M4 improvements around Newport has been deemed “inadequate” by the Welsh Government's own lawyers according to Friends of the Earth Cymru. It could result in a second consultation being required. Shadow Transport Minister Byron Davies (Con, South Wales West) said that would be a “damning indictment of this Labour government's incompetence.”
  • Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood called for the “fast-tracking” of powers to Wales should Scotland vote for independence in 2014, saying Wales would find itself in a “Tory-governed state.” However, both she and Adam Price said independence for Wales isn't a practical possibility until the economy improves, which “could take 10-15 years.”
  • Deputy Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) suspended eight Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) projects, pending a double internal investigation into handling of land sales in March 2012, which are currently also being investigated by the Wales Audit Office.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones described cuts to the EU budget as “deeply unfair” to the poorest parts of the EU. It could result in a £400million cut in EU funding for Wales between 2014-2020. Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards demanded Welsh Labour MPs “apologise” after backing the cuts in December 2012, despite opposition from the Assembly.
  • Food critic Simon Wright called for improved cooking lessons in schools to help combat childhood obesity rates. Obesity experts warned Wales faces an “obesity epidemic” unless action was taken. The Assembly debated the Change4Life campaign, and the Welsh Government said it would look at how teaching cooking could be improved in schools.
  • The First Minister travelled to San Francisco to discuss trade and meet business leaders in hi-tech industries for four days. He announced the creation of 100 jobs at a water purification company in Carmarthenshire. The Welsh Conservatives called for the trade missions to “deliver real investment for Wales.”
  • The Assembly's Public Accounts Committee warned that maternity staff numbers were falling below recommended levels. The Welsh Government said more midwives were being trained. The committee also called for time scales for phasing out Caesarean section births.
  • Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) accused Welsh Labour of hypocrisy, after UK shadow cabinet members criticised cuts to bus services, while the Welsh Government will make deeper cuts – 25% - to Welsh bus services from April 1st.
  • Chair of the Assembly's cross-party group on eating disorders, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West), called for a specialist residential centre for eating disorders to be established in Wales. The Welsh Government said they spent up to £1million on specialist services since 2010, and that those with highly-specific requirements were provided with services elsewhere in the UK.
  • A row broke out over the Human Transplantation Bill, with an organ donation expert claiming the Welsh Government's evidence that legislation – based on a Spanish example – would increase organ donation was “misleading.” However, Kidney Wales Foundation say that an opt-out system would help save minority ethnicity lives as they need more transplants.
  • An EU-backed job creation scheme – Genesis Cymru Wales 2 – may be wound up a year early, after it was revealed fewer than 800 people were found jobs, despite aims of creating 20,000 jobs or qualified individuals.
  • The Welsh Government's submission to the second part of the Silk Commission called for the devolution of policing, with the devolution of the criminal justice system “in the long term”. The submission also called for the devolution of large energy projects – except nuclear energy. The First Minister said policing was “the only emergency service not devolved.”
  • Local Government & Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) introduced the Active Travel Bill. The Bill will place an obligation on local authorities to link together “key sites” with cycling and pedestrian facilities and map integrated networks.
  • Two local authorities – Merthyr Tydfil and Monmouthshire – should have their education services placed in “special measures” by the Welsh Government based on recommendations from schools inspectorate, Estyn. On February 25th, Merthyr's education services were placed in special measures by the Education Minister, drawing condemnation from NASWUT for “heavy handedness”.
  • Unemployment in Wales rose by 6,000 in the three months to December 2012 to stand at 8.6%. Unemployment across the UK as a whole fell by 14,000 to 7.8%. Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) said economic conditions “remained difficult.”
  • A Wales Audit Office report warned the public sector may not be getting value for money with its £133million bill for external consultants fees. They suggested £40million could be saved by following “best practice”. Local government spent the most on consultants, while the Welsh Government saw a reduction in consultants fees.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) announced Wales will set its own grading system for English Language GCSEs to avoid a repeat of the grade inflation row in summer 2012. The Welsh Conservatives warned this threatened to “devalue” GCSEs in Wales, while Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) said the minister was doing it “without an independent regulator deciding the merits of the case.”
  • Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood called for non-specific legislative measures to create a gender balance in the National Assembly. It follows concerns raised by Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) about a fall in the number of women AMs in 2011.
  • The Welsh Conservatives proposed cutting taxes for high earners if tax-varying powers - outlined by the first part of the Silk Commission - were implemented. They hope it would generate a “spirit of greater enterprise.”
  • Plaid Cymru called for the immediate devolution of several areas including broadcasting, food safety, coastguard services and criminal justice “without delay” in their submission to the second part of the Silk Commission.
  • The Welsh Government rejected new Welsh language service standards drawn up by Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws for being “too complicated” and “unreasonable.” Welsh language campaigners questioned the Welsh Government's rejection of the commissioner's advice.
  • NHS reorganisations in north Wales could be referred to the Welsh Government after widespread protests, and a cross-party campaign, against moving specialist neo-natal services to Arrowe Park Hospital in the Wirral.
  • The First Minister announced that a “St Davids Awards” will be launched in 2014 to honour “ordinary people who do extraordinary things” in Wales, during a Welsh Conservative Senedd debate on a Welsh Honours system.
  • The Wales Audit Office reported that “a vast majority” of hospital consultants in Wales were working more than 48 hours a week, with one in six working at least 46 hours a week. An improved contract was supposed to have set a 38 hour working week for consultants.

Projects announced in February include : a £16.3million investment in specialist rehabilitation services for elderly neurological/spinal condition sufferers, the second phase of a £30million Economic Growth Fund and the launch of a “NewBuy” scheme to help first-time buyers onto the property ladder.

Monday, 25 February 2013

How do you get more women into politics?

It's one of those age old bugbears – the question of women's representation in politics - also covered today by National Left. (Edit 26/02/13 : Another take on on this from Miserable Old Fart, much more detailed look at possible legislative and electoral reforms from Syniadau and an interesting post on gender balance at local government level from last year by Penarth a'r Byd.)

A few weeks ago, Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) noted her disappointment in the fall in the number of women AMs from the Third Assembly. Yesterday, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood added to the debate, calling for possible legislative measures to ensure gender balance in the Assembly.

In a triple whammy, The Guardian reported that the numbers of women in positions of power was being "squeezed" in the UK. Just 23% of Westminster MPs are women, which is one of the weakest records in Europe.

Is there that much of a problem in Wales?


As uninspiring as this might sound, a legislature with 44% women is pretty good going compared internationally. The National Assembly is towards the top of the table despite the drop in 2011. We're similar to Sweden and Finland; and ahead of Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

I find it slightly odd that people are worried about this at Assembly level. Two parties in the Assembly are led by women (and the Welsh branch of the Green Party), Plaid are top-heavy with women at senior level, the Llywydd is a woman, many significant government portfolios except First Minister (Health, Social Services & Children, Finance, Economy) are held by women, or have historically been held by women....


It's probably local government and Westminster where the problems lie.


Legislatures should ideally be representative of the electorate - the Assembly already is in terms of ethnic make up. However, in practical terms, will a truly representative Senedd ever be possible? In some cases, is it even desirable?

In terms of actual job performance – which should be a primary concern - I doubt a gender balanced legislature would be any better or worse than one with a minority of either sex. I don't believe women or men have inherent traits that make them good or bad at politics, and it's probably more damaging thinking that either sex do, or that having more women (or men) in the Senedd would "make politics better"

It's hackneyed, but I consider power itself or - as exemplified more recently in certain legal cases - a lack of oversight and scrutiny the most corrupting influence on politicians. Along with things like arrogance and ambition trumping duty, they're general human failings.
As Glyn Beddau also points out, it's no good having more women in politics if they're just going to be a female counterpart to overprivileged, funny handshake, PPE Oxbridge men. I'd be quite happy for some intelligent slime on a distant moon becoming a minister if they could do a decent job of it.

Why are there few(er) women in politics?

I can't speak for women, so I don't know the answer to this, I can only make guesses.

It could be the old chestnut of "leadership" being seen as a "male trait" as a result of traditional gender stereotyping. Older people might be more likely to hold that view, and older people are more likely to vote – hence you might stand more chance of getting selected or elected if you're a man.

That attitude has been conclusively scotched, and will quite literally die out over the next 20-30 years. There must be deeper reasons.

There's the fact that being a full-time politician is probably one of the least family-friendly jobs there is - something I touched on last month. That might put off women, in particular single parents or those with/a desire to start a family, from going into politics. There's little point in coming up with various family-friendly schemes if it's still a 57 hour a week job for an AM - probably more for an MP.

I think one reason that it's a 57 hour a week job is because of presenteeism. That's usually defined as people turning up to work when ill, but it could increasingly include a culture of putting in more hours than necessary for the sake of it. Ministers and senior party officials are exempted from this though as it comes with the territory.

Politicians are more closely scrutinised on "how hard they work" than other professions. There's more pressure on them to be "seen" to give the public "value for money", even if all they do is snooze at a desk or shuffle papers. That drags average working hours up, which might make the job seem harder than it actually is, putting people of both sexes off standing for office. It's not really a male trait, but men are perhaps more likely to do it, especially if family responsibilities are delegated to someone else. You see it in all walks of life.

Women are also caught in an unfair bind. Because there's fewer of them in politics, women are put under greater scrutiny when they reach the top – in any sort of public role - than a man would simply because they "stand out". That means tiny slip ups are pounced on disproportionately, while they have to perhaps work much harder than male counterparts to be respected or get noticed.

There's a flip-side too. As parties want to be seen to be more "progressive" and "inclusive", you might end up with women put in higher positions for their face, not for what they would bring to the table in terms of skills and experience. If they screw up it becomes very hard to remove them because it would be seen, indirectly, as an indictment of women politicians in general, damaging the overall perception. You can kick men out of frontline politics without drawing any attention – barring a scandal.

So, you can see how sometimes affirmative action might damage women's ability to rise to the top. I see it as women not being properly judged in politics by what they can do/have done, more for who they are, especially if they're highly visible.

Related to the above argument, maybe politics is just too nasty. I'm sure many women have gone into it with a sense of wide-eyed idealism only to be ground down by the prevailing political culture of backstabbing, chest-thumping, smears and cynicism. I'd hardly call Assembly politics "macho", but you even see it there from time to time. Maybe women (and men) realise this and don't want to fall victim to it.

It's perhaps why it's increasingly becoming a struggle for parties to find candidates to stand for election. So you end up with more bland, robotic career politicians - who actually want to do it - and unsuitable "paper candidates"  (of both sexes) being elected.

Or, in the case of the 2011 Assembly election, it might simply come down to parties failing to find enough women candidates in the right seats, or a greater turnover of women AMs.

What could be done?


I'm not, personally, in favour of quotas as it goes against the spirit of equality of opportunity. Evidence from nations that have enacted quotas (page 146) points to them not really working either. I think this is probably going to have to be a cultural and attitude change more than anything. That'll take time, but I'm confident it could happen.

Any move to encouraging more women into politics should probably begin in lower tiers of government - getting people used to voting for women freely rather than forced to vote for them. So start with having more women selected to run for council seats, with party mentoring programmes overseen by more experienced female politicians/politicos.

Hopefully, if they get used to it, they would be encouraged to run for higher office, all whilst gaining political experience, creating a "conveyor belt" of sorts. That's how many AMs got where they are regardless of gender.

Being a backbench AM will probably have to become a standard professional 38-40 hour a week job. That would have benefits for all AMs. If you managed to reduce relative workloads to those levels, it could justify paying AMs less too.

It would probably be difficult, but not impossible. The Liberal Democrats are mooting "job sharing" for MPs. However, I think that would be too awkward - especially if two "partnered" MPs ended up disagreeing with one another on policy.

If you increased the number of AMs it might take even more workload pressures off, and parties would have more opportunity to put more women onto ballots - especially if there was a wholescale shift to a proportional voting system.

There are two equally important broad "themes" to AM's work - the advocacy side of it, and the legislative side of it.

I think most AMs enjoy/prefer the advocacy side, where you help people directly and highlight issues of local or national importance whether via campaigning or in the Senedd.

The legislative side is the day to day grind of Assembly paperwork and bureaucracy and looks incredibly tedious. Sometimes it may even be a complete waste of time. I think it's this aspect that needs to be worked on.

Individual AMs have support staff working on this sort of thing. Parties in the Assembly could also delegate the minutiae of legislative stuff to specialist backroom teams (things like scrutinising legislation, budgets, regulations, committee evidence) freeing up AMs to spend more time working with constituents, guiding and shaping policy or on general portfolio matters.

Committee work could be done collectively by party groups (or groups of AMs within party groups) instead of individual AMs, with more flexible delegation of tasks and attendances when appropriate - spreading the workloads between more AMs and staff.


You would still expect AMs to pay close attention to details, but they might spend less time doing so - knocking some working hours off and reducing travel. There should be enough technology around now to enable AMs to work, perhaps even vote or contribute to debates, distantly (in some cases) as well.

I think the overall issue of more women political candidates will have to remain the domain of individual parties. I don't think the solution to this lies in legislation, because once you open the door to gender balance by statute you'll have to – morally - do it for a whole host of other things. I think socio-economic background is still the biggest barrier to people getting actively involved in politics full stop.


If you want a Senedd that truly represents Wales :

  • The average AM's salary should fall by 50% from £53,900 to £27,000, with women AMs being paid £25,160.
  • 15-16 AMs should hold no qualifications.
  • Only 14-15 AMs should hold degree-level qualifications.
  • Only 11 or 12 AMs should be Welsh-speakers.
  • 13-14 AMs should have children living in relative poverty.
  • 15-16 AMs should have some sort of limiting disability.
  • And there should be significantly more AMs below the age of 30 and older than 65 – with at least one or two of those being women aged 80+.
Gender balance in the Assembly is important, because gender is the primary distinguishing feature between people. It's the first point people start to splinter into "groups", and gender balance is most fundamental way to ensure you can represent everyone fairly.

However, it's worth pointing out that AMs have got a lot of other things to sort out - look at that list above - if they really want to to be representative.
Ever.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Census 2011 : National Identity & Ethnicity

Is Wales significantly less "British" than commonly believed?
It looks like it.
(Pic : Clive Morgan via theimagefile.co.uk)

How "Welsh" is Wales?

This has been covered before by both Syniadau and Welsh not British. All the data I've used to compile this is available here. I couldn't link to them directly.

2011 was the first census year you were able to officially record yourself as Welsh, English, Scottish etc. so there are no previous figures from 2001 to judge any changes.

% of population giving some form of Welsh
identity in the 2011 census
(Click to enlarge)

So, how "Welsh" is Wales? For this exercise I'm counting "Welsh only", "Welsh and British" and "Welsh and another identity" as "describing themselves as Welsh".

Only two local authorities – Flintshire and Conwy – had less than 50% of the population giving no Welsh identity. Flintshire probably due to close interconnections and cross-border commuting to/from the Wirral, Merseyside and Cheshire. Conwy probably because of retirees and, yes, people moving from the large conurbations of NW England to live by the sea. Denbighshire also came close to having 50% or less. Powys, Ceredigion and Monmouthshire also have what could be considered "weak" Welsh identity.



The strongest Welsh identity is in the south, in particular the former coalfields. RCT and Merthyr have joint highest levels of Welsh identity at 82.2%, with all valleys local authorities (including Swansea and Carmarthenshire) having Welsh identifying populations of 70%+.

Cardiff - as you might expect - falls just short of a 60% Welsh identifying population. I imagine all national capitals are more "international" than their respective nations with the exception of Pyongyang. Newport and Vale of Glamorgan have similar figures, presumable as they are "overspill".

% of the population giving NO British identity
(Click to enlarge)

Nationally, 65.8% of the resident Welsh population gave some sort of Welsh identity, and the clear majority of them (87.3%) considered themselves exclusively Welsh.


But what about "British" identity? It's probably best to highlight how many people gave NO British national identity in the census – that would include people describing themselves as English, Scottish etc. It's actually quite startling.




A clear majority in every single Welsh local authority didn't consider themselves "British" at all. Again this sentiment is stronger in the south Wales valleys, but even in supposedly Anglicised areas it's the same trend, just less pronounced.

It ranges from 81.4% in Merthyr Tydfil to 65.9% in Monmouthshire – and Monmouthshire is the lowest. You're looking at an average 26% of people per local authority considering themselves British or (Something) and British. That's outstripped by Welsh identity and, in come cases, English identity.

The English in Wales

Although the numbers of Scots, Northern Irish and Irish are recorded, they don't make up any significant percentage of the Welsh population. What's clear, and what you probably already knew, is that the English are the largest "minority" in Wales.

% of the resident population giving some form
of English identity
(Click to enlarge)

"Minority" is key. Nationally, just 13.8% of the resident Welsh population identified themselves as wholly or partially English.



English identity ranges from 31.7% in Flintshire, to just 4.5% in Merthyr Tydfil. There's no English majority in any local authority, and doesn't appear to be on the cusp of happening any time soon. The average percentage of people identifying themselves as English (one way or another) per local authority is a paltry 14.9%.

If anyone still thinks Monmouthshire's "a part of England" – 21.8% of the population considered themselves wholly or partially English. Judging by the numbers in the Gwent Valleys – also part of the former county of Monmouthshire – it's probably best the English Democrats stay away from canvassing there. They would be better off trying Connah's Quay and Mold instead. However, I suspect Flintshire isn't "nice" enough to be annexed.


In terms of people born in England, the pattern's varied. 20.8% of the resident Welsh population were born in England in 2011. However, it's heavily skewed towards Powys and Flintshire, with large English-born populations in Ceredigion, Conwy and Denbighshire.

% of the resident population born in England
(Click to enlarge)

Elsewhere in Wales, especially the south, the numbers of English-born are low, barely rising above 10% in Valleys areas. Only 14.1% of Swansea's population were born in England and just 12.2% in Bridgend. Even Cardiff doesn't break the 20% barrier. It's only Monnmouthshire in the south that stands out.

The numbers of Welsh-born living in England amounts to 1% (or 561,000 people, perhaps more) of the English population. The number of English-born in Wales (20.8%) amounts to 637,200 people. So there's clearly been net "English" in migration, but it's a difference of just 76,000 people compared to those leaving. And not all of them will be "English".

Place of birth

In 2001, there was a local authority average of 26.9% of the population born outside Wales. In 2011, that's risen to 29.2% - which is slightly higher than the Welsh national figure (27.4%). This is because the actual figures across Wales vary wildly on a county-to-county level.

% of resident population
not born in Wales
(click to enlarge)


Only two local authorities – Conwy and Denbighshire – saw a fall in the numbers born outside Wales.

However, in Powys and Flintshire, half of the resident population were born outside Wales, with the likes of Conwy (45.5%) and Ceredigion (44.5%) close behind. In fact, the numbers born outside Wales are heavily skewed towards rural parts of the country with the exception of Carmarthenshire.

Now, most of the people reading this are going to immediately point to English in migration. But....


The numbers of people in Wales born in England – outlined further up - have remained relatively stable. There's no evidence of a "mass influx", and in the south the numbers born in England have flatlined or even fallen slightly. Nationally, the English-born population of Wales has only risen by 0.5% compared to 2001, and the bulk of that can be accounted to Powys, Carmarthenshire and Neath Port Talbot. Even Cardiff has only seen a 0.6% rise.

Change in the % of residents born in England
2001-2011
(click to enlarge)

The evidence points to the increase in people being born outside Wales being driven by migrants from the European Union (post 2004 enlargement) or elsewhere, perhaps mainly international students. This was a point I made in the Welsh language post.

Wrexham (+2.6%), Ceredigion (+1.4%), Cardiff (+1.8) and Carmarthenshire (+1.3%) have all seen a rise in EU-born residents that completely outstrips English-born once non-EU born are added to that. It's a similar pattern in every local authority.

At local authority level, there's an average 2.2% increase in the numbers born outside Wales. Up to 1.95% (88%) of that is down to EU and "other" immigrants. It's almost identical to the average fall in the number of Welsh-born residents.


So if you're determined to want a migratory reason as to why the percentage of Welsh-speakers have fallen, you'll have to look much, much further east than Offa's Dyke.

Change in the % of residents not born in Wales
2001-2011
(Click to enlarge)

It's also fair to point out that being "born in England" doesn't mean you're not Welsh, or vice versa.Quite a fair number of Welsh babies in border counties like Powys will have been born in English hospitals I'd imagine – the Royal Shrewsbury is closer than Bronglais. 20.8% of the Welsh population may have been born in England, but only 13.8% of the population consider themselves wholly or partially "English."

Oh, and under those definitions I'm not Welsh either. I count in the census as someone "not born in Wales." If you're going to judge nationality by birthplace alone, I guess I'm going to have to "bugger off home" with a Cantonese dictionary tucked under my arm and leave Wales for the "proper Welsh."


Race in Wales

Outside the cities and university towns, it's safe to say that
Wales remains (relatively) mono-ethnic.
(Pic : BBC Asian Network)

There's little point analysing Caucasians. The average "white" ethnic population per local authority was 96.6%. Bears in woods. Compare that to the 86% total for EnglandandWales.

That means in terms of people from mixed, black, Asian or other (i.e Arab) backgrounds, the all-Wales average is just 3.4% - and that's been dragged upwards by a handful of local authorities.

The only local authorities that can point to having anything close to a multi-ethnic population are Cardiff and Newport. In Cardiff, 15.3% of people are from a mixed or minority ethnic backgrounds, while it's 10% in Newport. Swansea comes in fairly close behind them, but even there 94% of the population are from white ethnic groups.


The largest minority ethnic group across Wales are Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Asians. This broadly corroborates my last census post on religion, where Islam and Hinduism are the two largest faiths outside Christianity.

% of the resident population from a mixed,
black, Asian or other minority ethnic background in 2011
(Click to enlarge)

The largest Chinese communities are in Cardiff (1.2%), Swansea (0.9%) and Gwynedd (0.7%).

The Black-Welsh population though, barely registers outside Cardiff (2.4%) and Newport (1.7%). There's an average black population of 0.38% per local authority. In Merthyr Tydfil there were, in 2011, no black residents (or so few they barely reached .1 of a percent). Several local authorities - in particular across north Wales, the Gwent Valleys and Pembrokeshire - recorded just 0.1%.

Outside Cardiff (2%), Swansea (1%) and Newport (1%); Ceredigion (0.5%) and Gwynedd (0.7%) recorded the largest populations of "other" resident ethnic groups.

What could this mean?

British identity in Wales is soft – It's unclear what impact last summer's successful London Olympics will have had, but it's worth pointing out that the census was taken around the same time as last year's other "Big British Bash" Billy Whizcopter and Kaff getting married. It doesn't appear to have made any impact. I'm not sure what this means for nationalism. It could be a good thing - for obvious reasons. Or, it could equally mean the Welsh are comfortable with multiple nationalities to spend too much time thinking about it. But when they do think about it, they'll perhaps be more likely to lean towards "Welsh" (or English) than "British." Everything points to there being polarisation between a majority Welsh identity and a large minority English identity.

Reinforcing the common bonds of "British identity"? Or excuse for a piss up?
You got to say - based on the evidence - excuse for a piss up.
(Pic : BBC)


The English are not "swamping" Wales (as a whole) – Aside from Flintshire, Powys and the Costa Geriatrica, there's no real sign of any mass influx. Judging by the figures, quite a few English people in Wales may now consider themselves Welsh. Good. Why shouldn't they? What matters is how old they are, and I'll be looking at demography another time.

Wales is becoming more "European" – With 88% of the change in people born outside Wales driven by non-British immigration – especially EU enlargement nations - Wales has become ever so slightly more cosmopolitan. It's unclear if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully it could lead, in the long-term, to more trade opportunities or university co-operation.

Link between universities and minority ethnic residents – It's fairly probable that having a university in your local authority boosts the numbers of people from minority ethnic backgrounds by attracting international students. That would explain why Ceredigion, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Gwynedd have proportionally larger minority ethnic populations than somewhere like Bridgend or Blaenau Gwent.

Are a large chunk of minority ethnic residents
in Wales international students?
(Pic : The Guardian)
Question marks over Third Sector economies of scale – When AWEMA wound up, there were three or four other race-related charities ready to step in and take over. You have to question - given the small populations of minority groups in Wales – why there's so many of these bodies? Surely it would be better to have a single body/charity with clout, instead of six or seven competing for their own slice of pie? A similar point was raised in the recent arts participation report from the Assembly. By proliferating into ever smaller organisations, competing for ever smaller pots of money, are Third Sector bodies doing minority groups a disservice?


The Assembly accurately reflects Wales' ethnic make up
– There's one AM for approximately 1.7% of the population. Having two AMs from minority backgrounds – Mohammad Ashgar (Con, South Wales East) and Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff South & Penarth) – is pretty much representative, so well done us. So that's a far cry from the hand-wringing that the devolved administrations aren't doing enough here. Maybe positive discrimination here should concentrate instead on gender balance and, in Wales' case, disabilities – my next stop.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Active Travel Bill introduced to the Assembly



 
After a wait of 5 years, an unpassed LCO, and a referendum
a "law governing cycle lanes" has finally made it in front of the National Assembly.
(Pic : Richard & Gill Long via Flickr)

One of the main arguments against the Legislative Competence Order (LCO) system, prior to the yes vote in the 2011 referendum, was that it meant the National Assembly had to ask for permission "to make laws on cycle lanes".

It took THREE YEARS for an LCO relating to cycle lanes - amounting to 3 sheets of A4 - to negotiate Westminster and the Assembly – and it didn't even pass before the referendum date! The frustration and delay led to cycling charity Sustrans ultimately coming out to back a yes vote, with the director of Sustrans Cymru, Lee Waters, being one of the more prominent yes-campaigners.

Since the yes vote, the Assembly now has the power to make a "cycling lane law" unimpeded. Yesterday, Local Government & Communities Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) formally laid the Active Travel Bill in front of the Assembly.

"
Introducing a Bill" sounds like they throw some sort of debutante ball with light
canap├ęs every time a new piece of legislation is drafted, but "laid in front of the Assembly" sounds....voyeuristic.

The Bill itself is very short – in fact it's only 8 pages long. The explanatory memorandum is more extensive. If anyone reading this is interested in how laws are drafted in Wales, but don't want to sift through loads of pages, this might be a good one to follow.

What does the Active Travel Bill aim to do?

Firstly, the aim is to place a duty on local authorities to create maps of "integrated active travel routes" (pedestrian/cycle lanes) within three years of any Act being passed – submitted to the Welsh Government for approval. The local authority will be able to decide themselves what counts or doesn't count as such a route.

Welsh Ministers will have the power to order local authorities to "revise" these maps if they're not up to scratch. Local authorities will be able to change any approved map, but they have to submit a new map (as I understand it) every three years. These maps will also, seemingly, be available to anyone who wants one.


It'll place a duty on local authorities to outline potential future routes, and improve the "range and quality" of such routes. For example, linking "key destinations" (i.e schools, hospitals, public transport hubs, employment areas) via good cycling and pedestrian facilities.


It's similar to something I tried myself last year for Bridgend (Getting Wales on its bike).

Local authorities will have to plan "related facilities" – that includes cycle parking, toilets, showers and pedestrian/cycling crossings.

It'll also mean having "regard to the desirability of.... provision made for walkers and cyclists" when new highways are constructed. There's also provisions to allow Welsh Ministers to issue guidance to local authorities on things like mobility scooters and electric cycles using cycle lanes.

Benefits and Costs

With beefed up monitoring of cycling/pedestrian facilities,
any newlaw may help take traffic off the roads and improve
public health -  possibly safety too.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Ultimately, this Bill wants to encourage more of us to walk and cycle by placing statutory duties on local authorities to monitor/upgrade cycling and pedestrian facilities to make them more attractive to use.

The explanatory memorandum says that walking and cycling may be seen more as a "leisure activity" than a mode of transport. It's hoped these maps will make it easier for local authorities – especially urban areas – to publicise safer cycling and walking routes.

That would have obvious health and environmental benefits by encouraging exercise and reducing traffic on the roads.

Sustrans estimated, based on scenarios from academic studies, that getting people to walk or cycle regularly could save the Welsh NHS £517million over 20 years (~£26million per year). A "conservative estimate" put the figure at £125million (£6.25million per year).


If local authorities addressed facilities "deficiencies" it may also help reduce road casualties. Although Wales generally has safe roads, the number of pedestrian and cycling casualties in Wales increased slightly between 2010 and 2011. Each road fatality was estimated to cost £1.65million in 2010.


There are economic benefits too. Each additional cyclist is estimated to "add value" to the tune of between £538 and £641 per year – the vast chunk of that through health gains. For every £5million invested in cycling infrastructure, you need to generate an extra 969 cyclists each year for 15 years for that investment to "break even" .

It's estimated the cost of local authority mapping exercises will be around £500,000 over 15 years.

Obviously, the cost of any extra cycling facilities will be significantly greater than that, but it's unclear what would be needed until the local councils carry out the surveys.

To get a rough idea, there's a list of illustrative costs of cycling/walking improvements from Cardiff Council on page 27 of the explanatory memorandum. Here's some highlights:

  • A square metre of footpath - £150
  • 20mph zone signs - £1,000
  • Dropped kerbs & studs - £2,000
  • Pedestrian refuge - £2,500
  • Covered/secured cycle stands - £4,000
  • A new "controlled crossing" - £25,000

Conclusions



My initial reaction to the Bill was – "Is that it!?" It's the first legislation of its kind - so it is a "trailblazer" of sorts - but I'd hardly describe it as "groundbreaking."

However, when you delve deeper into the explanatory memorandum, you realise that there's been quite a bit of thought behind it. Maybe, due to the grand-sounding title, I was expecting something with a little more "oomph".


I suppose, in a way, I'm pleased. It seems as if a bit of what I outlined in "Getting Wales on its bike" has ultimately appeared in the Bill (minus stuff on traffic regulations etc. for obvious reasons). Technically speaking, the point I made about "grading" cycle/pedestrian facilities has made it in as local authorities will be obliged to monitor facilities every few years.


I would be concerned if some local authorities went into over-kill mode and started putting in facilities for the sake of it. The map I made last time, for example, should be considered a wish list rather than "do everything scenario". Obviously, due to budget constraints I doubt any local authority in Wales will do that.

I don't think local authorities will have a hard time mapping, because they already need to produce/keep a "Definitive Map" for rights of way anyway. There are also existing cycling improvement/promotion schemes like "Safe Routes to Schools." If you were unkind, you could sum this Bill up as a cycling/footpath ordnance survey.

Or, you could describe it as a start towards bringing cycling and walking into the mainstream as transport options by treating them with a bit more (official) respect.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Watching what we eat

By letting others decide the ingredients in our food via
modern food processing, have we lost touch with
precisely what we put into ourselves?
(Pic : bristolfoodie.co.uk)

I'm a little late coming to this, but as you know there's a scandal involving horse meat entering the food chain. It's currently being investigated by food authorities and police – at British and European levels.

It's also hit closer to home, as it appears a meat processing plant on the outskirts of Aberystwyth - involved in butchery of horse meat - has been implicated.

A few weeks ago, I touched on obesity in Wales. One thing I said might be a contributing factor towards rising obesity rates is an unawareness of what goes into processed foods. We generally don't make things "from scratch" as often nowadays and, by choosing convenience over food security, we have little idea about precise ingredients.

In food processing, raw ingredients – in this case meat – are sourced across European free market,  broken down, remoulded in a factory process, loaded with chemicals like preservatives, then neatly packaged, marketed, sometimes frozen, and transported to supermarket shelves across Europe. Like a common piece of machinery.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with that as it generally keeps prices down and provides greater choice, but food is supposed to be a "natural cycle" of sorts – chemicals constantly being turned over in nature. Thanks to modern food processing, humans have managed to break that cycle and we've probably lost touch with our food as a result. That has knock on effects.


A point raised by an anonymous commentator on the obesity post are levels of things like salt, fats and sugars in food and their regulation. Maybe if there were tighter regulation of these it would help - not necessarily cut obesity - but prevent harmful side effects. Salt, for instance, increases the risk of strokes.

I'm surprised there hasn't been any statutory regulation of "harmful" ingredients in processed foods – even if it'll need to be led at a EU level due to the globalised nature of the food industry. The reason there hasn't is probably because these ingredients are seen as "essential" (i.e putting taste/marketability ahead of quality) – even at harmful levels.

I also doubt anyone picking up a "culinary delight" like a microwave lasagna is concerned about salt and fat levels, more the price tag. If the horse meat scandal had never broken, I'd predict most people would happily continued eating them, blissfully unaware that half a Epsom Derby card were in there.

There are at least three sides to obesity - diet, exercise and eating disorders (in the news recently, but in this case - binge eating/compulsive overeating).

On the diet side of things, the Assembly recently debated the Welsh Government's "Change4Life" campaign, which aims to ensure families make healthy choices when buying food.

It was noted that many poorer families are excluded from healthy options by cost and are increasingly reliant on things like food banks. An amendment to the debate motion was passed, calling for the Welsh Government to "address the link between poverty and poor diet." I'm aware some Communities First areas run food co-operatives to provide fresh fruit and vegetables, so there's something happening there already.

Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) held a short debate in January on a "Nutritional Recession" - rising food prices and its impact on lower socio-economic groups.

Also related to this, the Food Hygiene Ratings Act will establish a compulsory "scores on the doors" system to display food hygiene ratings at food establishments across Wales. Hopefully, it'll make the public more aware of such things.

At the risk of repeating myself from last time, the Welsh Government are trying at least and that's a good thing. It's just going to be very difficult for people used to buying/eating cheaper processed foods to switch to something different, perhaps more expensive too.

The Welsh Government funds projects like this "Cooking Bus"
that tours primary schools. But is this really enough?
(Pic : Gladstone Primary School)

Changing that will have to start in the education system. When I had cooking/home economics lessons, we generally ended up making something like a cake or a pizza – neither of which really qualifies as a healthy choice. That situation has likely improved, and the Welsh Government funds a "Cooking Bus" (well, lorry) that travels to primary schools to teach cooking. But is it enough? More concerns were raised on that recently.

I don't mean to go Jamie Oliver, but there's little point in all that if the food they're served or bring it at lunchtime is junk. It was recently highlighted in the Glamorgan Gazette that Parc Prison inmates have more spent on food – per head – than Bridgend County schoolchildren or Princess of Wales Hospital patients. That's probably because inmates live there 24/7, and patients and schoolchildren will have other meals provided for them at home (presumably at greater cost). However, the point remains valid.

So yeah, it needs money and there's not an awful lot of that around. But we need to teach children that food really does grow on trees - with a lot of hard work behind it - and doesn't appear out of thin air in a vacuum sealed factory package.

As I've pointed out before, the meat industry is important to the rural Welsh economy. It's fair to say that Wales has some fine natural produce. So why aren't we using it properly? We should be able to – quite easily – produce as much beef lasagna here as we need without Red Rum making his way into it via the supply chain.

There's still room for free (and more importantly, fair) food trade as we can't get what we want from Wales alone all year round. However, we could have strong food security in Wales if local supply chains were strengthened and we all took more care in deciding where we get our food from. That's a point raised by Leanne Wood recently.


I don't eat much meat, but I don't see how any meat eater – myself included - could be squeamish about eating horse. It's healthier than other meats – as long as it isn't loaded with chemicals. Other "exotic" meats are also healthier : ostrich, crocodile, alligator, kangaroo, insects of varying descriptions. All probably doing less environmental damage than cows. But if you're going to eat meat, it's strange to choose based on how cuddly an animal is, or whether it'll come home on an each way bet in the 3:50 at Chepstow.

I don't believe there's any moral high ground with regard food as ultimately it's all doing damage to something. It's probably best to treat food (and by extension, yourself) with a bit more respect. One part of that is understanding where it comes from and what's in it.

This horse meat scandal is a case of organised criminal fraud and trade descriptions violations than a threat to health. People will always try to cut corners, and as long as most of us remain hypocrites or ignorant when it comes to sourcing food it's going to happen.

But, for heaven's sake, if you buy something labelled as beef it should contain cow.

So instead of issues surrounding the meat itself, maybe this issue highlights the importance of well-funded and well-staffed environmental health, trading standards and veterinary services.

On a side note, one of the meat processing companies involved in this scandal is called Draap Trading – based in Dutch-speaking Flanders. Flip the name backwards to "Paard". In Dutch that means....horse.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Assembly Arts Participation Inquiry

                                
                                               The arts are for everyone. An Assembly inquiry recently
                                                looked at arts participation in Wales in a time of cuts.


The Assembly's Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee recently reported back on an inquiry into arts participation in Wales.

There were 8 recommendations in total, summarised as :
  • The Welsh Government should create an action plan that should identify areas of inadequate provision, and marginalised groups, while increasing participation.
  • The Arts Council for Wales should review its funding policies, including providing arts organisations with information on alternative funding.
  • The Arts Council for Wales should form a strategy to get extra funding from businesses.
The need for an inquiry

The arts (presumably meaning : theatre, musical groups, dance, creative writing etc.) are often seen as "low hanging fruit" during times of austerity. When times are good, funding's usually buoyant as people feel good about themselves and want to express it. When times are bad, it results in difficult choices - local and Welsh governments included.

That becomes more acute when various "disadvantaged groups" are taken into consideration. For these people, some form of arts participation may be the only structured social activity any of them get involved in.

What are the barriers to arts participation?


Do schools take the arts seriously enough?
(Pic : BBC)
Transport in rural areas – Those in rural areas, without arts venues nearby, may have to travel long distances to see/participate in arts activities from areas poorly served by public transport. Some vulnerable adults – i.e. those with learning difficulties or the elderly – may be uncomfortable about travelling long distances at night.

Gaps in provision – The groups highlighted are : the disabled, older people, the young and people living in rural areas (in particular mid & west Wales). Disabled people, for example, may need specialist provisions and would be affected by budget cuts to "accessibility". It's noted that Welsh-speakers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds tend to participate the arts proportionately more than other groups.

Deprivation and costs – Some arts activities are going to be relatively expensive to participate in. One dance group said that Communities First no longer had sufficient funds to buy services from them. It's said many arts companies "charge what they like" instead of charging concessionary fees.


Education/Schools programmes
– There've been significant cutbacks here. Theatre Gwent estimated up to 20,000 pupils in their area may have been "denied access to Theatre in Education programmes." One organisation commented that the education system "doesn't value the arts enough." Presumably this extends to local authority schools music programmes too.


Facilities & Professionalism – It's said not enough is made of schools as arts venues. Blaenau Gwent Council note that, despite people there actively trying to get funding to participate in the arts, they've had trouble getting arts professionals to travel to the Valleys. This is pure conjecture, but – in Blaenau Gwent's case - could that be a legacy of the 2010 Eisteddfod about to go pop?

What the Welsh Government and Arts Council for Wales (ACW) can do

The Welsh Government's "Programme of Government" had several commitments to increasing arts participation via the body responsible – the Arts Council of Wales.

There's said to be a "general lack of awareness" with regard the relationship and responsibilities shared between organisations. Some cite the fact that funding decisions were not the responsibility of the minister in charge – Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) – as "disgraceful". Other groups felt it was correct, as it would prevent the Welsh Government being dragged into individual cases.


Most respondents were, however, happy with the "arms length" principle of the ACW, and simply want more scrutiny and transparency. As usual with these things, there's more calls for a "joined up approach" as well as greater participation by arts organisations on the various boards/panels that make these decisions. They also want more "networking" between various organisations (amateur, voluntary and professional).


There are calls for greater professionalism, perhaps linked to the networking calls above. For example an amateur arts organisation could shadow a professional one in some way. Voluntary arts organisations are said to be "very active in deprived areas", but the "standard/quality of work is often poor."

Many respondents weren't aware of any equalities duties, and some of them appear to be exempt or don't fall under that umbrella. Some arts organisations were against increasing this element as it would just add bureaucracy while not really changing participation levels.

Funding issues

All the main funding bodies (ACW, WLGA etc.) say art will continue to be made regardless of funding, but cutbacks would inevitably have an impact. Arts organisations say that supply is insufficient to meet demand, and although budget issues aren't having an effect in participation levels now, they might have a long-term impact.

There's a mixed-response to targeted funding, with some organisations worried they might have to turn away people who didn't match the groups being targeted. Targeting funding at "NEETS" in particular is cited as drawing funding away from other groups. It's said that targeted funding does have a positive impact in deprived areas.


There's a split in opinion on short-term grants versus long-term funding, a slight majority of arts organisations preferring long-term funding. Blaenau Gwent Council say too little is known about smaller pots of money, and propose some sort of arts equivalent to Sport Wales' "Community Chest". Other organisations say not enough's known about alternative finance – presumably things like sponsorship, charitable donations and private investment.

Competition for funding has increased, meaning it's harder to secure long-term funding. That's not just because of budget cutbacks, but because too many charities chasing a smaller and smaller pot of money. So expansion of the "Third Sector" seems to be – on paper - having a (contradictory) negative impact on their areas of focus.

What future for arts participation in Wales?


The committee's recommendations sound sensible. I doubt there's any need for significant reform to the Arts Council for Wales. However, I think many arts organisations will find it difficult to secure private funding, sadly – especially in already deprived areas.

It's also worth pointing out, considering recent figures on overall health in the Valleys in particular, that participating in artistic/creative activities could be seen as therapeutic. So maybe there's a health dimension in this too that's worthy of further investigation.

This is perhaps the only area of public policy where Welsh-speakers genuinely do have an "advantage" over English monoglots, simply because they can interchange between English and Welsh arts activities. There's nothing wrong with that, but Welsh-speakers – by being bilingual – are effectively getting a 2 for 1 deal.

I believe judging whether art is "poor" or not is subjective. For instance, what I consider music would probably be considered an assault by many people. Thinking that a Treherbert street dance troupe needs to aim to be the next Bolshoi is rather snobbish in my opinion. It's that sort of attitude that leads to the situation in Blaenau Gwent noted further up – arts professionals being reluctant to travel to the Valleys to oversee projects.

That makes the whole situation genuinely quite upsetting. Imagine if you're a kid from a deprived background, who would like to participate in something, only to be told nobody can be bothered to travel to work with you – perhaps because what you want to do isn't "good enough" for them.

It should be about participation first and foremost, but there should be ways for the most talented to move ahead – perhaps go professional or semi-professional - if they want to.

Like sport, schools are important. Instead of formal arts subject lessons in schools, I would prefer to see them become completely extra-curricular, with the focus of finding and developing talent rather than teaching it for its own sake, with pupils having some choice over which one to go for.

If teaching arts moved from a set "taught" curriculum to a bit more fluid and loose I think it would foster a creative atmosphere a bit better and encourage take up. It would become more than just another rigid "boring lesson."

I
n music's case, I don't see why a wider range of styles and instruments couldn't be provided in the long-term – perhaps in partnership with amateur and professional music organisations – to take some pressure of schools music services - an issue raised by Nick Ramsey AM (Con, Monmouth) today coincidentally. Then Cardiff Council, for example, end subsidies for similar schemes.



Ultimately this comes down to money. When local or national governments are weighing up all sorts of public services in a time of cuts, it's very easy to put arts and culture towards the bottom of the list. They'll be asking themselves - do elderly people want meals on wheels or to learn how to tap dance?


But the arts have their place. Actions by the likes of Cardiff Council look extreme. That's not because they're "cultural philistines" taking away pet arts projects. It's just that they seem keen to make everything as dull and grim as possible for kids who might want to learn to play a musical instrument, write poetry or learn how to dance. You know, put a bit of colour in their lives and have some fun. Knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing - a very Conservative attitude for a Labour council.

A nation without art is a very boring nation indeed. We might as well paint everything grey and eat nothing but boiled rice and cabbage. Make sure you're aiming downwind towards the likes of Russell Goodway, because if the rest of Wales follows his example, the only wind instruments in the Valleys would be farts.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Digging deep into deals done dirt cheap

A brief recap

Back in March 2012, the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) – an "arms-length" Welsh Government body - sold a bundle of 18 plots of publicly-owned land across Wales to a Guernsey-based company called South Wales Land Developments (SWLD) for £20.6million. RIFW's aim is to raise money through land sales to match fund/loan to companies working on urban regeneration projects in West Wales & The Valleys.

One of those parcels of land, in the Lisvane area of Cardiff, was earmarked
– something of an open secret - by the incoming Labour Cardiff Council administration for housing as part of their changed Local Development Plan.

If you had the money, and were involved in property development, you would've had to have been brain dead not to show interest. It appears as though potential buyers - including SWLD - were "canvassed" directly rather than the sites going out on open sale, which is rather strange. In short, it wasn't a completely open tendering process.

As everyone knows, land values are based on a number of factors including planning consent or strategic land use plans. In this case, the value of the Cardiff land sold to SWLD will have risen from just under £2million to ~£120million because of Cardiff Council's outline proposals for housing.

Former police officer Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) noticed that this was "odd" and referred the matter to the Wales Audit Office for investigation last September. Things began to steamroll, and eventually the WAO expanded the scope of the investigation.

Nearly five months on, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) ordered a double internal investigation into both the handling of the sales and how RIFW operates. Eight RIFW projects (except one in Neath town centre) have now been suspended.

Who's diddled who?


"Claw back clauses" were inserted into the deal to ensure that if land values rose, some money could be claimed back by the Welsh Government (or "taxpayers" i.e you and me). That's perfectly sensible.

However, as BBC Wales' Nick Servini pointed out, we don't know much about these claw back arrangements, which parcels of land they apply to, or how much the Welsh Government could expect to make back.

There's the possibility that, from the Lisvane land alone, if there wasn't some significant claw back agreement then RIFW (and by extension, the rest of us) could've missed out on up to £100million, possibly on purpose due to the "closed" tender.

An anonymous commentator on my last visit to this linked to a European Investment Bank presentation on RIFW. Some of RIFW's goals (slides 13-14) included :
  • A seemingly immediate need to "meet cash flow requirements for (their) investment profile".
  • Targeting up to "£55million of private sector investment in 2011/12".
  • "Securing planning consents to add value to (RIFW's assets)".

Securing planning consents? How about insecure ones like several thousand houses on the outskirts of Cardiff? That would certainly "add value to assets" - whether houses actually get built or not.

We all know how finicky the EU are about tendering processes. This might come close to falling under the definitions of some sort of fraud – perhaps "failure to disclose information when required to". That's before mentioning all the other unanswered questions about SWLD, RIFW projects themselves (or lack of) and the fund managers' handling of this.

As the anonymous commentator also pointed out, there didn't seem to be any requirement to get the best possible price. That's probably so regeneration projects can get started immediately – even if RIFW weren't doing very much at the time. I'm not business-minded, but although that might make political sense, it doesn't make much business sense.

They also claimed that the land was marketed at a 2009 valuation, not a March 2012 (point of sale) valuation - which is more than a little "odd".

If you have an asset - unless you don't have the option of negotiation (i.e liquidation) or you want a quick sale - you sell it for the best price you can get. And sometimes to get the best price you need as many people bidding as possible. Neither of those things appears to have happened - and this is, essentially, many millions of pounds of public money at stake.

Even if SWLD were in negotiations for up to a year before the sale, it would've been blindingly obvious to anyone with half a brain that ANY open land around Cardiff was going to be worth a fortune because of housing requirements. So why were RIFW so keen to sell it for such a "low" price, bundled in with so many other pieces of land (some of which equally valuable), to a company based in a tax haven, that was set up rather quickly and quietly, with more than a few "local connections"?

Land bank, anyone?

Even if they're not directly responsible for RIFW, the Welsh Government are certainly accountable. These "internal reviews" tend to mean answers are slow to come by. There's plenty of questions to answer for all involved. Especially :
  • Who valued the sites?
  • What were those valuations based on?
  • How was the land marketed?
  • Why the urgency to generate cash flows despite RIFW being practically dormant?
  • The details of alternative tenders.
  • What prior knowledge did anyone involved have about things like Cardiff's LDP?

Both Inside Out and Glyn Beddau have pointed out other possible talking points – too many to go into here. These things usually turn out to be less suspicious than first presumed, but I think this one's smelling rather ripe.

This could've been the case of rushed, lazy sale that's potentially lost millions of pounds in match funds for regeneration (gross incompetence). Or, it could've been a knowingly bad sale to benefit "someone" ("market abuse"/insider dealing, possibly fraud). It could even be a combination of the two – which could potentially make it one of the worst scandals of the devolution era.

Beth yw "cute hoor" yn Gymraeg?

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, please! Make it stop!
(Pic : BBC Wales)

There've been other questionable, but unrelated, planning and development proposals in Wales over the last few years too. More recently - in Gwynedd - the sale of a failed arts centre to private owners. That's also been referred to the auditors.

But in the Powys, Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend area, you can point to developments involving open cast mines. They were actually quite "impressive" proposals. Impressive in a "yeah, right" way.

One involved a "resort" in the Amman Valley. The second involved building some sort of Smurf village/Teletubbyland in a big hole on the outskirts of Kenfig Hill on the Bridgend-NPT border.

Gwenda Thomas AM (Lab, Neath) asked for the Amman scheme to be called in because of the scale/impact. Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) has often warned that these schemes are a "front" to smooth through extensions to mining licences - which are due to run out over the next few years. AMs have campaigned for more robust exclusion zones around open cast sites since the Assembly was founded. So the mines have a PR problem then.

Local councillors' responses were mixed. Some (understandably, but somewhat hastily) welcomed the prospect of jobs and investment, while others shared similar concerns to the AMs.

When the Kenfig/Margam scheme was revealed, first of all I had to check the date. Second, when I tried to blog on it I couldn't write as it was so funny. The thought of council cabinet members smiling, wearing Bob the Builder hard hats, as they looked over these plans was too much. It may as well have been a base on the Moon.

I wouldn't object to spending quality time with Christina Hendricks and Salma Hayek on a sweltering tropical paradise island. So sweltering, that it would mean they walk around in tight, but revealing clothing, while I occasionally get diverted with fruit, monkey butlers and grilled seafood.

Someone could offer me that, and bring me some flattering artist's impressions of what such a glorious undertaking would look like. But in order to obtain that dream, I would have to wash jock straps by hand at their Central Asian salt mine for 30 years. Also, they can't guarantee the desired outcome – more a loose promise/I.O.U.

"But look at the artist's impressions!" they'll say. "Look what you could have! Just sign here!" If you were a dopey guy easily mesmerised, you might ignore the fact that by the time you're free, Christina and Salma will have free bus passes.

A similar thing almost happened with these open cast mine projects, which would've prevented them being returned to their natural state. That's not so funny.

It's lucky some people still have their heads screwed on, because several people leading these open cast schemes, also involved in the sale of them – involving offshore-registered companies - were recently put on trial for conspiracy to defraud.

Hmm. Sounds familiar.