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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Senedd Watch - August 2014

  • Friends of the Earth Cymru launched a legal challenge against the Welsh Government's decision to approve an M4 bypass of Newport at the expense of an alternative “Blue Route”. Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower), said she “expected a challenge” as part of the “reality of the world we work in”. She later said that, “As far as I'm concerned we will be going ahead”.
  • Unison are due to ballot NHS Wales staff members on industrial action after they were offered a £160 lump sum in lieu of a 1% pay rise by the Welsh Government. Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), said the offer was “fair”, with the lowest-paid NHS staff being paid a £7.65 per hour “living wage” from September 2014.
  • The First Minister attended a commemorative service in Glasgow on 4th August to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of British Empire involvement in the First World War. He said the war, “had monumental consequences that rippled throughout our history”.
  • Jonathan Edwards MP (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) launched Plaid Cymru's “Get Wales on Track” campaign for Wales to receive a devolved proportion of the budget for the High Speed 2 project in England - estimated to be between £2-4billion.
  • The National Assembly's Health Committee wrote to the Welsh Government recommending an regulator to oversee NHS complaints due to a defensive culture within the health service and worries that staff “feared victimisation” for raising concerns. Committee chair, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said, Those making complaints....should feel able to do so without fear that their careers or care could be adversely affected as a consequence."
  • The Wales Audit Office will investigate National Dance Company accounts after a confidential internal report revealed concerns over how their £850,000 per year funding from the Arts Council of Wales was being spent, with criticism aimed at board level decision-making.
  • An Ofcom report said that Wales was "catching up" to the rest of the UK in terms of superfast broadband, with 58% of Wales covered compared to 78% of the UK (on average). However, only three quarters of small and medium enterprises were online, with criticism of unreliable internet connections.
  • A BBC Wales investigation revealed a combined £300,000 had been spent by the Welsh and UK governments as a result of three Welsh laws being referred to the UK Supreme Court. Two of those cases were won by the Welsh Government, who said it was "evidence that the current devolution settlement urgently needs reform".
  • Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) warned consumers to look out for counterfeit alcohol after a Freedom of Information request revealed tens of thousands of pounds of counterfeit alcohol was being recovered and seized by trading standards officers. He said, "counterfeit tobacco and alcohol an have a serious impact on bone fide businesses which follow the rules."
  • Unemployment continued to fall in Wales. In the three months to June 2014 it fell by 3,000, with the unemployment rate at 6.7%.
  • Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central) called for a rescheduling of First Ministers Questions to broaden its appeal, saying "transparency and scrutiny are questionable at the least". The Assembly's Business Committee had undertaken a review of Assembly procedures, while Welsh Labour said the Conservative leader's criticisms "said more about their (Tories) lack of ability to be an effective opposition."
  • The A-Level A*-E pass rate fell slightly compared to 2013 from 97.6% to 97.5%, however the number of A*& A grades rose from 22.9% to 23.3%. Girls continued to outperformed boys except at A* grade, and the pass rates remained lower than the England, Wales and Northern Ireland average. (98* A*-E grades, 26% A*& A grades)
  • The All-Wales Medicines Strategy Group approved the use of a cannabis-based treatment for multiple sclerosis, Sativex. As a result, Wales will become the first part of the UK to do so. The Health Minister said he hopes the drug will "help ease the suffering of some of those who have to live with....MS".
  • A group of 70 businesses criticised the First Minister after a letter sent to him pushing for an extension to small business rate relief hadn't been replied to. Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) said Welsh Ministers had the power to boost high street footfall, but "have announced almost nothing".
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged to scrap Severn Bridge tolls once its current debt had been paid off if they were returned to power in Westminster in 2015. They estimate the annual cost would be £15million, but would boost the south Wales economy by £107million.
  • The latest gender pay gap figures revealed that while the Welsh gap was smaller than the UK average, there was still a £3,771 per year gap between male and female executives. The Chartered Institute of Management said the pay gap "cannot be justified".
  • A joint poll by Cardiff and Edinburgh universities revealed that Welsh people were more likely to adopt a conciliatory approach to Scotland regardless of the outcome of September's independence referendum. 48% of Welsh respondents supported a cut to the Scottish budget if they vote no compared to 56% of English.
  • The gap in the number of pupils receiving at least 5 A*-C grades at GCSE between Wales and England/Northern Ireland closed by 0.2% in 2014. The overall A*-C pass rate of 66.6% was the highest achieved in post-devolution Wales, with improved performance at higher grades. Like A-Levels, girls continue to outperform boys.
  • Student leaders expressed shock at a Welsh Government decision to cut student hardship funds. The Welsh Government blamed UK Government cuts and said higher tuition fees meant universities could now fund similar schemes themselves.
  • Plaid Cymru and leading tourism bodies called for a boost to the Welsh Government's £7million Visit Wales budget, as it stands compared to £47million for the Scottish equivalent and is only £1million more than Jersey's. The Welsh Government said the £7million was “misleading” and the real figure was closer to £20million.

Projects announced in August include : £1.25million towards the creation of Welsh language centres to promote its use in social settings; a provisional five-year deal to bring MotoGP to a proposed motor sports park in Blaenau Gwent; a boost in funding for palliative care hospices and a £4million investment in the ambulance fleet to improve patient comfort and service reliability.

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 :
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.

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 budgets under pressure, one option for the future of libraries
is "co-location" - as has happened with Bridgend Library.
(Pic :

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 :
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.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Devolution at 15 : The Future

After reflecting on what devolution has, or hasn't, achieved over the last 15 years, it's worth
getting the crystal ball out and trying to figure out what the next 15 years holds.

The Big Five Policy Challenges

What I believe are the five long-term challenges facing Welsh governments over the next 15 years.
Unhealthy lifestyles – Wales is getting sicker. The numbers of long-term sick and registered disabled appear to be on the decline, but they're going to be replaced by people dealing with long-term, non-limiting illnesses partially caused by poor lifestyle - like diabetes, allergies, mental health disorders and obesity. We might be living longer, but that's not being accompanied with a healthy old age.

Dealing with climate change – It's highly likely the weather's going to get rougher over the coming decades. That means, in Wales, shoring up flood defences, ensuring we don't build on flood plains and considering things like an emergency alert system. We'll probably have to consider alternative/supplementary renewables to wind too – in particular tidal and hydroelectricity - in light of potentially stormier seasons.

Housing – We're not building enough starter homes in rural areas, while in urban areas the housing market remains unaffordable despite house prices remaining below the UK average. The LDPs are right – we need more houses. But those houses have to be built in the right places and have to be supported by infrastructure and jobs; not built wherever housebuilders feel like it or where the land is cheap.

The Generation Gap
– Wales is getting older, with baby boomers set to retire in greater numbers over the next decade. We need fresh blood to shore up the workforce, which means a higher birth rate and increased permanent immigration of young adults – not retirees or transient students. There's the chance we could end up with a labour shortage in Wales in the next 20 years if skills aren't matched to jobs and the brain drain continues.

The Economy – Wales is getting relatively poorer and is being left behind by the rest of the UK. There's only so much tinkering around the edges the Welsh Government can do. I believe they need full macroeconomic powers (aka independence), but at the very least they need the expertise and capacity in government and the civil service to wield economic powers properly. This is probably going to be the most difficult challenge, and Welsh GVA per capita could certainly fall below 60% of the UK average within 30 years if nothing drastic is done. In some parts of Wales it could fall to below <40%.

Powers & Process

It's almost certain that the National Assembly will get more powers over
the next decade. The bigger questions are whether sitting AMs will be
making room for more and if we'll be electing them differently.
(Pic : Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine)

There's not much to say here that hasn't been covered in the two posts above. Some measure of fiscal devolution is on the way in the Wales Bill – though it perhaps didn't go far enough – while we're yet to hear when, or how, any extra devolved powers will arrive as set out in Silk II.

So the National Assembly will become more powerful over the coming years, and I'd expect criminal justice to be devolved in the mid-to-late 2020s (along with the creation of a Welsh legal jurisdiction) bringing a formal end to EnglandandWales.

There are two big issues, somewhat interconnected, that could affect things : the referendum on tax-varying powers, and what happens in Scotland next month.

Our income tax referendum is looking increasingly redundant, especially if/when Scotland votes no in September and if they're granted similar fiscal powers to those outlined recently by the Conservatives. It crucially (from a Welsh perspective) lacks any lockstep provisions. Devolution was set up to go at different speeds in different countries, but it'll cause yet another gnashing of teeth if Scotland jumps a few steps further ahead of us just as Wales reaches a point very close to parity.

In the unlikely event Scotland votes yes, I don't think it'll have as big an impact on Wales as the political class expect it too. Instead of a swelling of support for Welsh independence, I'd expect the appetite for further powers to stall or even go backwards. Mark my words, there'll be full pants all around Cardiff Bay if Scotland votes yes – even in Plaid Cymru.

Why? As has been pointed out by Carwyn Jones, it's the reaction in England in the event of a yes vote that's the real issue, and ultimately Wales' medieval shotgun wedding is more important – psychologically, economically and socio-politically – than the United Kingdom itself. We're just not ready to think seriously about sovereignty yet, and it could be forced on us in the medium term if the English don't like the Scots answer.

If unionists and devolutionists think Wales will automatically be rewarded by the English/British establishment for our "loyalty" , and that there'll be some sort of grand constitutional change, they'd best think again. The UK doesn't work like that and never will.

While those in Plaid Cymru would have to start heavy-duty thinking on how an independent Wales would function and pay its way. I question whether anyone's up to it, and the stuff on this blog is amateur hour compared to the sorts of discussions we would need to have – even if things don't go any further than significant changes to the the Union.

Setting out the case for "more politicians" is always going to be an uphill struggle - despite the Silk Commission's recommendation - so in the absence of a referendum on the issue, I'd guess an increase in the number of AMs from 60 to 80 will be phased in for the Sixth Assembly (2021-2026)....if there's agreement with Westminster. I'd also expect an increase in AMs to only happen if matched with a decrease in MPs - which could prove unpopular with Labour.

AMs may increasingly become the first port of call for the public, while MP roles in Wales will likely be reduced. As a consequence, I don't see Scottish or Welsh-based MPs holding senior UK cabinet positions ever again.

Then there's the issue of how we would elect AMs in the future. The ban on dual candidacy looks set to be lifted under the Wales Bill. Also, new electoral systems have been mentioned – like Single Transferable Vote (STV), multiple non-transferable vote (used in local council elections) or a national list to replace the five regions for the 20 AMs currently elected by proportional representation. I suspect we're going to be stuck with the current system for the time being, simply because Labour stands to lose too much by changing it and have a large blocking vote.

I presume any future extra 20 AMs will be elected proportionally, so if the Assembly is expanded to 80 members we'll probably end up with more electoral regions (perhaps 8-10 instead of 5).

Party Politics

Welsh Labour will likely continue to be the dominant party. The long-term trends points towards them losing their absolute grip, but their support remains, for now, entrenched and tribal. The only way you could see Welsh Labour out of power completely is if they win 20 or fewer seats, probably as a result of a major change to the electoral system that better reflects their share of the vote.

Issues you would've expected to be their undoing due to poor performance – health, education, economy – haven't yet. That could be because the public are comfortable with "the devil they know", while the very idea of "Welsh issues" hasn't settled in people's minds due to high levels of political illiteracy. When those things change, Labour will be in big trouble, as the party never learns from their mistakes and instead becomes defensive and arrogant - as any conservative establishment party would.

Labour should remain the dominant force in Welsh politics,
but they've stored up some serious problems for themselves,
namely a lack of talent and ideas.
(Pic : ITV Wales)

It's hard to tell where Welsh Labour will go ideologically – if they have any ideology at all; we have a civil service-dominated "Welsh Management", not a government - but all the murmurings point towards "co-production" becoming the new "sustainability".

I can't see them shaking off their event-based approach to running Wales, but you could see Labour in England and Wales becoming increasingly different in tone and message if they haven't already done so.

The relationship between the two party factions could even become fractious if – as expected – Labour form the next UK Government and continue most of the Coalition's deficit reduction plans and welfare cuts. Would Labour in Wales "stand up for Wales"....against Labour? If not there'll be an open goal and Leanne Wood will be standing with the ball at her feet.

There's one immediate problem looming; Welsh Labour's talent pool is running dry. Their thinking is flat, dull and uninspiring.

Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones might not be perfect,
but this is what we can look forward to in future.
(Pic : The Guardian)
When thinking about "What makes a good First Minister?"  - based on the three people who've held the job - top of the list would be "seen to be a safe pair of hands".

I don't see anyone who has the temperament or abilities to replace Carwyn Jones
whenever he decides to stand down as First Minister (unless he leads Labour out of government before then).

There's a steady stream of new members attracted to power (you pretty much have to be a Labour member to get elected in large chunks of Wales, regardless of your ideology), but nobody screams "potential First Minister", let alone "quality cabinet". The closest Labour had to that was Jane Davidson.

Intelligence, innovative thinking and radicalism is being replaced with party loyalty and ladder-climbing. In the medium to long term, Welsh Labour are likely to head down the same brain atrophy road as their Scottish counterparts.

Turning to Plaid Cymru, at the moment they're the only credible long-term threat to Labour's hegemony as they're the only other party in Wales that could realistically run an administration by themselves or in coalition.

The presentation of their arguments has improved enormously over the last few years, along with the professionalisation of their backroom support. There's a lot of goodwill towards them, they have some very talented individuals working for them or running for office, and they're also a party of "thinkers". They clearly learned their lessons from 2011, and all of the foundations are in place for a major SNP-style breakthrough given the right circumstances.

It's not going to happen though, is it?

Smarter, presentable and proactive. Plaid Cymru have come a long
way under Leanne Wood's leadership, so why do I still have my doubts?
(Pic : Wales Online)

Plaid might appear more polished and vibrant, but they're still lacking a sense of ideological and policy discipline. Putting boots on the ground as activists - combined with a positive thinking "can do attitude" - is fine, but I'm worried it's turned into groupthink at the top.

If people aren't convinced by what comes out of their mouths, the gains will be short-term and the eventual backlash will be fierce. They're making exactly the same mistakes the Lib Dems have down the years.

Plaid still try to juggle too many - sometimes contradictory -  campaigns and bandwagons, and are still trying to please everyone, which makes them appear untrustworthy, desperate and too reliant on protest and radical/fringe votes. Even I'd struggle to name many standing Plaid policies, and they seem to change depending on which part of the country you're in and who you listen to. Whenever they do make a decision to take one side over another, they usually jump in with both feet  without fully objective appraisal.

Until Plaid have a strong core of ideals and policies that they stick to, they'll never be anything other than an amalgam of interest groups held together by nationalism (not their 57 varieties of socialism) struggling to appeal beyond 20% of the electorate.

Their generally high-quality policy documents aside, Plaid don't look or feel like a party that has the confidence or maturity to govern by themselves, only oppose from the fringes. They're not a "Welsh SNP" as the SNP have managed to become a "broad church" without really alienating anyone. Plaid probably have more in common with Sinn Fein, the Greens and the Basque left-nationalists Bildu.

They're not serious about independence either even if, admittedly, it makes some electoral sense. Aside from Adam Price's "Wales Can" a few years back (and academic works like The Flotilla Effect), I'd question how many AMs and senior Plaid personalities have given serious thought to Welsh independence - not the "case", the details.

Plaid Cymru's problem in a nutshell.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
There doesn't appear room in the party for constructive debate either, manifesting itself as bitchy anonymous briefings, cliques and strops amongst senior members and personalities when things don't go their way.

It's a typical left-wing problem that's not unique to Plaid, and probably boils down to  having too many big personalities in the party who don't like having their views questioned by "underlings". They assume they're right because they've always supported the "correct" causes, believe they "deserve" respect through seniority, or have made the right noises within the party's hierarchy.

So Plaid's higher echelons need more devil's advocates to challenge their views and convictions in private
, or those disagreements - as they so often have - end up going public. That's one thing Labour does better than Plaid.

Outside the Plaid "tent", you have wannabe folk heroes who try and one-up each other by claiming to be "more ideologically-pure than thou" in a manner that verges on a Messiah complex.

Just to prove I'm willing to criticise myself, this is probably where I fall in.

He's still dead.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

Although I'm arguably one of the "friendlier" supporter-cum-critics of Plaid Cymru, I suspect all nationalists who aren't members (for whatever reason) are looked at with some suspicion by the party - perhaps all Welsh parties. That's understandable. If someone supports the aims of a party but might try to undermine them publicly, it's worth questioning their motives.

There are some Plaid policies I flatly disagree with that aren't related to nationalism at all. For example : opposition to GMOs, the principle (rather than the specifics) of TTIP and, yes, their "stance(s)" on nuclear energy. There are also, of course, plenty of policies I support, and if I didn't then I wouldn't write about them.

I'd like to think I'm helping by remaining neutral/independent so nothing I say sticks to Plaid or its members - like my call for drugs legalisation - but I can understand why prominent non-affiliated nationalists will be seen as a "problem", and it would be pointless to take that personally or overstate our influence. I don't have a "beef" with Plaid at all and that should be obvious.

That's not the same case for all of us "outside the tent" though.

It's reasonable to say that Plaid Cymru are effete when it comes to nationalism and that's frustrated those who are Nationalist before anything else. I don't have as big a problem with socialism as other non-affiliated nationalists because I'm fairly left-leaning myself, albeit more libertarian than Plaid. But, again, it's reasonable to say that sometimes the "socialist cause" isn't always in the "national interest". The SNP have balanced that much better, though it would be fair to say Leanne Wood's made a conscious effort to ensure Plaid are more enterprise-friendly.

However, I feel like banging my head against a wall every time a new "nationalist movement" emerges from the windswept bracken-covered hills. Either try and reform Plaid from within via a "ginger group", getting the party machine behind you in order to actually bringing about change. Or, avoid party politics and say whatever you like without fighting over the same small pool of voters, accepting never being seduced by Plaid's brand of gradualism, or fall victim to Plaid's "Mind Guard" inquisition.
My problem - and the problem with others like me - is an undercurrent of political narcisissm in that political parties have to be absolutely perfect and present manifestos that 100% match up with our/my own political beliefs. If everyone thought like that we probably wouldn't have any political parties. So those nationalists outside Plaid Cymru have to learn to compromise and bite our tongues sometimes, accept some policies we might disagree with, and let Plaid figure out what they should do by themselves.

May 2011 will be looked back upon fondly by Welsh Conservatives. I suspect the loss of Nick Bourne and Jonathan Morgan has hit them harder than they'd care to admit and if they ever lose David Melding it would be like giving the Welsh Tories a frontal lobotomy. There were points down the years where you were sure they were a "Welsh" party, but it's becoming clear they're firmly under the thumb of their MPs.

There's a core Tory vote in Wales that holds up in elections and is larger than Plaid's core, based mainly in "British Wales" and affluent parts outside it in southern Bridgend, Pembrokeshire and Swansea.

Is this something the Welsh Conservatives
should seek to emulate?
(Pic : Litost Publishing)

The Conservative problem is that they have almost zero mass appeal outside this demographic and will find it nigh on impossible to ever be in government in Wales. None of the other parties (except perhaps UKIP) will want to touch them with a bargepole for ideological/baggage reasons, and it's unlikely the Tories will win enough Assembly seats to form a minority administration or lead a coalition. They'll be in opposition forever.

So you've got to wonder whether the Tories might ditch the brand altogether and cut out a different path – a "Meldingite" centre-right, small-n nationalist party that backs self-determination and is open-minded towards, but not supportive of, independence; something similar to the CiU in Catalonia, EAJ in the Basque Country or NVA in Flanders.

It's not likely, but it could present a serious challenge to the "cosy lefty consensus" in Cardiff Bay and it might make them a more palatable coalition partner to Plaid Cymru. Or, as is more likely, they'll stick to what they know, waving their little Union flags until they're all greyed out.

They'll continue to send a respectable cohort of AMs to Cardiff to provide often effective opposition; but single-figure numbers (of AMs) will be the long-term norm if they continue to slip into their old bad habits by opening up divisions over Europe and devolution, and if UKIP manage to stick their foot in the door and keep it there.

People have been proclaiming the death of the Liberal Democrats for years and it's always failed to materialise. It does, however, look as though this cat is running out of lives. Kirsty Williams and Mike German have both been keen to demonstrate that the Lib Dems "aren't like the others"....except they've proven beyond doubt that they are, and in some cases worse.

The Lib Dems - more deaths than Sean Bean.
(Pic :

The Lib Dems are no longer a party of protest, but perhaps not seen as a serious party of government either; more a stop-gap that's elected on a wave of popularity (or, more accurately, unpopularity of governing parties) then ditched when people get bored of them – a political f**k 'n' chuck.

Plaid found out what that's like in 2011, but they didn't suffer the same levels of electoral toxicity as a result of their time as junior coalition partners.

Lib Dems are used to losing, but they always seem to mount a recovery. Having said that, you've got to wonder how much damage their time in Westminster will do to them.

They never ever seem to benefit from their times in office at local, national, or now, UK level. It's such a record that you've got to question if there's something fundamentally wrong with the party, not the electorate.

What's the point of the Welsh Lib Dems? And I ask that as someone who thinks many of the best AMs in the Assembly's history have worn yellow rosettes. If we want a semblance of the old rural liberal radicalism we can vote for Plaid Cymru, and why vote for Orange Book Tory-lite when you can have the real thing?

While the electorate might've once turned to the "left" in times like these, radical and activist-led left politics has fermented into something for the chattering classes and academics, as arguments have been over-intellectualised and increasingly stage-managed to promote personalities not policies - as well as keeping whoever manufactures SWP placards in business.

Labour have absolutely crushed any sense of progressive radicalism in the Welsh electorate in order to manage expectations and crowd out debate on reform, meaning new ideas from outside "the firm" are automatically written off as either "half-baked", "not based on evidence" or "uncosted". They've created a conservative electorate and civil service that expects failure when things change, so are now resistant to all change. No party appeals to that sentiment more in Wales (other than Labour) than UKIP.

Modern politics has also lost the art of being able to explain things in layman's terms without being patronising.

UKIP are street smart pub philosophers, offering a plain-speaking alternative and ready scapegoats for the world's ills (the EU and immigrants [heh]). Voters lost to UKIP don't care much for the constitution, don't understand Assemblese and probably care even less about industrial relations and "sustainability". Also, managing to convince vast swathes of people who would likely suffer most under their policies to vote for them is political genius.

UKIP's raison d'etre - except they want you to vote for them, of course.
(Pic :

So get used to the idea of UKIP AMs. Their Welsh base is small, but there's a lot of people (the "silent majority") who see them as a new way to register a protest vote. The "silent majority" have a point too. You can't argue against the bare facts that health and education are under-performing in Wales, can you? Their arguments are just poorly articulated or tied to association fallacies, usually involving the Welsh language. So they're very hard to take seriously in "serious discussion" – but that's how UKIP like it.

However, while some people now like to say they're going to vote UKIP, in Wales few have bothered to do so outside of European elections. UKIP's performances at local government level are abject and will need significant improvement if they're going to establish the infrastructure to enable themselves to become "The Fifth Party".

UKIP will attract voters who want to send a message to politicians they don't like (i.e. all of them), but ultimately only know what they're voting against, not what they're voting for. That sort of negative politics never lasts in the long-term. I suspect UKIP's May result in Wales will be their peak, but they tap in to such an entrenched sentiment it's hard to argue that they're not here to stay.

I'm worried about the long-term future of the Green Party in Wales. They haven't fully come to terms with devolution yet, and much, much later than UKIP which is absolutely astonishing. You would've expected them to have made an electoral breakthrough by now - especially at local level in Cardiff - and they've come close once or twice in the Assembly. But you can't tell if people were voting Green as a left-wing "protest vote against the protest vote parties" (Lib Dems and to a lesser extent Plaid) or because of specific environmental concerns. They give the impression of being slightly colonial "green-flighters" and self-righteous luddites. They're more "dark green" than "bright green" (which is probably where I fall in).

On the surface, in ideological terms the Greens and Plaid Cymru overlap and that might've stunted the Greens growth in Wales. When you add nationalism, culture and specific issues (like Wylfa B) to that though they're in different places. It might've sounded sensible to have had a Plaid-Green/EFA joint ticket in May's European elections, but it wouldn't have made a difference and I don't see that working at Westminster, local or Assembly level. I would only see there being a formal pact if the Welsh branch of the Greens followed the example set by the Scottish Greens. I don't see that happening as the Welsh branch is simply too small, too radicalised and seemingly too British to devolve themselves fully.

It's unlikely we'll see Independents/other minor parties in the Assembly again, barring defections, suspensions or a popular "ringer" standing in a constituency seat with a three or four-way split. The Assembly seems a hostile place for freethought and isn't really set up to allow it. I do, however, believe the Llywydd should sit as an Independent in the same way the Speaker does at Westminster.

Likewise, I doubt there's any chance of a new party forming as it's a crowded market haggling for fewer customers.

Though with UKIP adopting a more realistic (albeit sceptical) approach towards devolution, there's the outside chance an anti-devolution party could form if they can get the backing. Many anti-devolutionists are already allied to existing parties though – predominantly UKIP and Conservatives – or are anti-politics and won't have the discipline to form a party. The only new parties you could see forthcoming are further "People's Front of Judea" splits on the hard-left, more temporary "People's Voice"-style internal Labour splits (possibly as a fall out from local government reform) or more wannabe Owain Glyndwrs.

In order to secure maximum publicity in constituency seats, it's likely
political parties will increasingly select personalities already
well-known  to the public to stand in them.
(Pic : Daily Post)

Party memberships will continue to be moribund for a whole host of reasons that I won't go into but deep down I'm sure most of you know. Welsh parties will become increasingly reliant on organisational support, and I suspect state funding for political parties (including at Westminster) - and ties to trade unions and business - will probably be the next big conversation in terms of reform once voting systems and the number of representatives are sorted.

As a result, parties could struggle to find suitable local candidates in the long term, so I suspect we'll increasingly see well-known personalities "selected" - by all parties - to run in constituency seats, leaving regional lists for party loyalists and to ensure gender balance.

So over the next couple of terms I'd expect more people to move from the arts, media, academia and sport into Welsh politics. Rhun ap Iorwerth is likely to be the start of a long-term trend, but I'm not convinced politics will be any better off for that.

The "I-word" and Wales

This is probably the closest you're going to get to seeing Wales
mentioned in the same sentence as an independence campaign.
(Pic : via Facebook)
I might be one of the hardcore supporters of independence out there, but I'm not blinkered. Wales won't become independent before 2029, though when Scotland votes no in September and comes back to the question in the 2020s or 2030s (where they'll vote yes) it might be talked up. Westminster never learns.

I'd be surprised if it happens this century, not that it'll matter as everyone reading this will be long gone. The most likely scenario is that Wales will become "independent by default" in the same way as New Zealand and Australia - it won't happen in some big bang referendum or unilateral declaration. We've only just started the process.

If you wanted to compare it to the Irish, at this moment I'd say Welsh independence is currently in the Home Rule Movement phase. If you consider the Anglo-Irish Treaty the equivalent of a yes-vote in September, we're
at least 40-50 years behind the Scots, perhaps longer. A no-vote would be a bit like the First Home Rule Bill failing and would push things back another 10-20 years.

There's been some hubbub about polling which puts support for Welsh independence at around 14% - a jump in the usual figures of 7-10%. I couldn't understand why people were getting excited. Instead of being supported by "f**k all", it's now supported "a little bit". Call me again when the figure reaches 30-35%, as that will count as a significant development and we nationalists really can get excited (or worried if you are so inclined).

That's not to suggest these things don't change. Less than 10 years ago, support for Catalan independence in multi-option polls was very similar to the levels shown in Wales – 10-15%. It's now likely that if there were an independence referendum held tomorrow in Catalonia, the yes vote would win comfortably.

The mechanics are, of course, very different in that Catalonia is one of Spain's relatively wealthier constituent nations, while Wales is one of the relatively poorest in the UK. Economics and "bread and butter" concerns can make a huge difference towards attitudes to independence as proven in Scotland; it's not all about flags, languages, social justice and culture.

Also, needless to say, my Independence Index is the most popular page on this site and my independence-related posts generally outstrip all others in terms of hits. There's definite interest in Wales, but it's nothing to build upon....yet.

At least three things would need to happen to get Welsh independence on the agenda as a serious proposition :
  • The economy would have to improve dramatically, along with an expanded tax base and a more favourable worker-dependant ratio. It's wrong to set a ceiling or floor, but Welsh GVA per capita would probably have to hit 85-90% of the UK average to make the jump to independence comfortable once cost of living is taken into account. That means nationalists have a narrative in that they alone have a vested interest in expanding the Welsh economy, but it's easier said than done.
  • Plaid Cymru will have to lead a government for two terms or more – whether in coalition, majority or minority – and have a mandate (and internal support) to call an independence referendum. Support for independence would probably have to reach (as aforementioned) 30-40% with a large number of undecided. Good luck with that. It's highly likely the argument for independence will ultimately be made by unionist parties – directly or indirectly.
  • Scotland or Catalonia (perhaps in future, the Basque Country, Flanders etc) would all have to become independent and make a success of it in order to make the "leap" into independence much more palatable, with difficult questions (currency etc.) answered beforehand. The Welsh electorate are too small-c conservative to think about these things ourselves for the time being, while our nationalist party is AWOL on these issues.

The bigger question here in terms of sovereignty is any possible referendum on the UK's EU membership by 2017. That's an entire topic in itself.

In a nutshell : Little things right, big things wrong

When the rotten British branch breaks,will Wales sink or swim?
(Pic : via Youtube)

The National Assembly has failed to capture the public's imagination as a political institution, but as a symbol of national and political identity it's fulfilled its role successfully. The challenge ahead is to prevent a generational problem whereby cynicism turns into apathy, which turns into ignorance, which turns into a fatally-flawed democracy.

There are plenty of reasons to feel devolution has been a disappointment. I'm sure everyone reading this can point to examples where we've been let down personally by decisions made in Cardiff Bay. You can, however, look to Scotland - perhaps even Greater London and Northern Ireland - and see that devolution can deliver a "dividend". Whether it does or not comes down to politics, policy and process – not the institution itself. Any failures in Wales at present are, ultimately, Labour's failures.

Most people it seems– and it's shown in surveys – are generally satisfied with how devolved services are run and, perhaps with little enthusiasm, support the Assembly having extra powers and are more likely to trust AMs over MPs and MEPs. Though I'm sure all of us – regardless of our opinion on the institution itself – think they can do better than they are currently. We just have different ideas on how to get there.

You can liken it to learning to swim.

Those of us who support independence want to throw us in at the deep end in a short sharp shock in order to force politicians to deal with the situation modern Wales finds itself in and not hide from it.

Devolution is a little like paddling around with a float near the shallow end – and that's where Wales is now. Federalism is somewhere in between, but doesn't equip you to deal with swimming in open water, it just gives you the illusion that you're a confident strong swimmer.

Those who oppose devolution want to knock the swimming pool down and give up on learning to swim as they believe we'll never be able to master it and would prefer to save the entry fee.

At one end, Wales drowns through lack of experience, lack of skill and panic; at the other, Wales drowns through lack of effort and giving up the opportunity to learn and grow. The middle way, however appropriate and sensible, takes too long and is an illusion of competence in seriously challenging water - but it's "safe".

The Assembly has won some small victories, but is losing some big ones.

Sometimes the solution means more powers. Sometimes it means making better use of the powers we have. Though if we want a different Wales, we'll need to elect a different colour government in Cardiff, or at the very least we need to step up when it comes to thinking about Welsh politics and our engagement with the Assembly itself.

It's not going away. Policy doesn't stop because nobody cares, and as soon as we all get that through our thick skulls maybe we'll start electing the politicians we need, rather than the ones we deserve.