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Saturday, 31 January 2015

Senedd Watch - January 2015

  • Fresh calls were made to scrap Severn Bridge tolls after fares rose in line with the Retail Price Index to become one of the world's most expensive road tolls. The bridges will return to public ownership in 2018, though Plaid Cymru warned that contract clauses could see the UK Government claw back maintenance costs until 2027.
  • Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), said schools needed extra support to use the “world class” online Hwb+ learning portal, after figures released to the party showed only a third of schools were regularly using the service.
  • The Liberal Democrats accused Plaid Cymru of “astonishing hypocrisy” for campaigning in favour of a widespread introduction of a public sector £7.85 per hour “living wage”, whilst nearly 4,000 workers at three Plaid-controlled local authorities were paid below this.
  • Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM and Jonathan Edwards MP (both Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) called a proposed £446,000 severance agreement with chief executive of Carmarthenshire Council, Mark James, a “disgrace”. The local co-ruling Labour party said they would reject the proposal – one of a mooted ten options. It comes months after the acrimonious exit of disgraced former chief executive of Pembrokeshire, Bryn Parry-Jones.
    • The Welsh Liberal Democrats said if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, they would introduce legislation putting a £95,000 cap on “golden goodbyes”, mirroring similar Westminster legislation.
    • On January 28th it was revealed by Pembrokeshire councillor, Jacob Williams, that the cost of Bryn Parry-Jones' exit amounted to over £150,000 in legal fees.
  • A Wales Audit Office report revealed Wales was being hit harder by housing benefit reforms (aka. “Bedroom Tax”) than other parts of the UK, with rental debts rising by a quarter. The UK Department of Work & Pensions said they made up to £15million in discretionary payments available.
  • A report from the Welsh Institute for Social and Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) concluded that the flagship Foundation Phase is failing to meet its original aim of reducing education inequality between deprived and well-off pupils. However, other findings in the report suggest the scheme has been welcomed by teachers, staff and parents and is having a “positive impact” on some aspects of learning.
  • Politicians, journalists and members of the public attended an evening vigil outside the Senedd on January 11th to mark the deaths of 17 people in an Islamist terror attack in Paris targeted at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish community. Dr Saleem Kidwai, chair of the Muslim Council of Wales, condemned the attacks without reservation saying, “truth wins over falsehood and light over darkness”.
    • Both Welsh and UK governments were criticised for lowering flags to mark the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on 23rd January, due to the country's appalling record on human rights and political repression. Simon Thomas AM described the act as “sickening” and a “gutless disgrace”. The First Minister said he “in no way condones” human rights abuses, and the Welsh Government would review their flag policy.
  • Estyn reported that progress in improving literacy and numeracy standards under the Literacy & Numeracy Framework, introduced in 2013, was “modest”. They said this was due to insufficient guidance and resources from the Welsh Government.
  • Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), announced the spending outline for £123million allocated to Wales via the UK Government's Autumn Statement. Amongst the proposals, £70million will go towards health, while £35million will be used towards business rate relief.
  • BBC Wales revealed £120million has been spent by the Welsh Government developing a property portfolio of industrial and commercial sites, including £52million on Cardiff Airport. Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said the Welsh Government, “should create planning permission and infrastructure improvements, but should not actually own and develop the land”.
  • The latest figures on cancer survival showed a 25% drop in cancer deaths in under-75s and 20% increase in five-year survival rates despite an 18,000 increase in diagnoses. Deputy Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the report “sets out the challenges” to improve the number of people treated within 62 days.
  • The National Assembly approved a non-binding motion calling for the Welsh Government to no longer award procurement contracts or grants to companies with no women board members. Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), said the government couldn't support the motion, as barring awards on these grounds would be illegal. However, the sentiment was supported.
  • 19% of people waited longer than four hours at Welsh A&E departments in December 2014 (target 5%) - the worst treatment time in Wales since October 2009. The Welsh Government said A&Es had experienced their busiest December in five years, with an extra £40million allocated to alleviate winter pressures. The Welsh Conservatives said there was “nowhere for Labour to hide”, while RCN Wales director, Tina Donnelly, called for 1,000 extra acute care nurses.
    • On January 28th it was revealed ambulance response times for December 2014 were "the worst on record”, with only 42.6% of ambulances responding to life-threatening calls within 8 minutes, compared to a target of 65%. In some parts of Wales, like Rhondda Cynon Taf, it was below 35%.
  • The Welsh Government released information on job creation at Welsh enterprise zones following an Information Commissioner ruling in December 2014. More than 2,000 jobs had been created and 3,000 safeguarded at a cost of £70million, but most were in Deeside, Cardiff and Anglesey. Only 94 jobs were created or protected at St Athan and just 8 in Snowdonia. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) said the cost-per-job - even in some of the better-performing zones - was up to four times higher than anticipated.
  • A senior Welsh Government civil servant told the Public Accounts Committee that an extra Cardiff-Norwich leg could be provided, on a commercial basis, in the down-time between subsidised Cardiff-Anglesey flights. A new contract with LinksAir is set to run until 2018, but the service has been criticised for not providing value for money.
  • Welsh unemployment fell to a rate of 7% in the three months to November 2014, with 103,000 people out of work. The Welsh Government said the raw unemployment and job-seekers allowance claimant counts were both lower than the same time the previous year.
  • The National Assembly approved a cross-party motion by 29 votes to 21 calling for radical improvements to services for autistic children and adults, and for parties to commit to introducing an Autism Act in their 2016 manifestos. There was criticism of lengthy waits for diagnoses and a lack of ring-fencing of funds by local authorities.
  • Welsh Labour said they will consider introducing legislation to end the “Right to Buy” for social housing tenants, if they form a government after the 2016 Welsh Assembly election, in order to protect dwindling social housing stocks. Shadow Housing Minister, Mark Isherwood (Con, North Wales), said Welsh Labour, “is returning to its outdated socialist dogma of the 1980s”.
  • Plaid Cymru amendments to introduce a “smacking ban” to the Domestic Violence Bill were rejected by the Communities & Local Government Committee at Stage 2. Committee Chair – and supporter of the amendment – Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) said she was “disappointed” but hoped an amendment would be proposed at Stage 3, calling on AMs to be given a free vote.
  • In a response to calls for a cross-party agreement on the future of devolution, the Assembly Commission recommended, amongst other things, that the number of AMs increase from 60 to between 80-100, estimating the cost would range from between £9million and £17million. The Welsh Conservatives believed the overall number of politicians would need to decreased elsewhere before an Assembly expansion.
  • Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the first of a proposed two Local Government Bills to the National Assembly on January 27th. The Bill outlines the arrangements for local authorities to merge voluntarily by April 2018. At the same time, he rejected three mooted voluntary mergers, saying he wasn't persuaded by the vision.
  • The National Assembly unanimously approved the Higher Education Bill on January 27th. The Higher Education Act will provide a new regulatory framework for higher education in Wales and ensure “fair access” for Welsh learners.
  • Cardiff University's Prof. Sally Holland was appointed the new Children's Commissioner for Wales, succeeding Keith Towler, who leaves the post after seven years. There had been criticism for the delay in appointing a new commissioner, but the Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister described Prof. Holland as a “strong ambassador” for children's rights.
  • A survey on Welsh language use showed the percentage of fluent Welsh-speakers had fallen over the last ten years from 58% of all Welsh-speakers to 46%. However, use of Welsh socially and in work had risen slightly – though there remained a tendency for Welsh-speakers to use English online and when dealing with authorities.
  • The Welsh Government launched the “traffic light ranking” replacement for school banding on January 29th. 238 schools were ranked the highest grade of “green”, while 81 schools were ranked “red”. Education Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), said the new system meant, “there is no hiding place for schools that don't deliver for the most disadvantaged pupils”.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

The "anti-austerity alliance" might seem a good idea now, but Plaid seem to have forgotten
the election next year, where such an alliance can't be on such friendly terms for their own sake.
(Pic : The Guardian)
I'm not going full tilt into my House of Commons election coverage until the second half of March, but it's worth looking at an issue that's arisen, also covered by Syniadau, Hogyn o Rachub, Jac o the North (in a backhanded way last year) and Ifan Morgan Jones over at Golwg360.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Local Government Bill : Council mergers edge closer (sort of)

We still have no idea what form local government reorganisation will take. The latest law introduced
to the Assembly will, however, give councils the opportunity to take the initiative themselves
....unless they've already taken the initiative themselves, of course.
(Pic : Wales Online)

A little over a year to the day since the Williams Commission reported on local government and public service reforms, Public Services Minister, Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda), introduced the Local Government Bill to the National Assembly on Tuesday (27th January), with the aim of outlining the process for voluntary mergers between local authorities.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Assembly Commission steps up to the oche

"OOONE HUNDRED OR EIIIGHTY!?"
Has the National Assembly just made itself a bigger target for anti-politics darts?
(Pic : via digitalspy.co.uk)

Last week, the Assembly Commission published its response (pdf) to calls from Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), for a cross-party agreement on future devolution arrangements for Wales to be in place by March 1st.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Assembly debates future of autism services

AMs recently debated the need for an Autism Act following the current
failure of a trail-blazing autism strategy to deliver on the ground.
(Pic : National Autistic Society Cymru)
Yesterday, the National Assembly debated a cross-party individual member's motion on autism services. The motion welcomed achievements resulting from the existing plan on autism, but demanded greater clarity on the care and support families dealing with autism require, enshrined in Welsh law via an Autism Act.

This is an issue close to the hearts of a large number of AMs, and the National Autistic Society Cymru (NAS) are obviously one of the more effective lobbying organisations in the Senedd.

As a result, there were an unusually large number of speakers, and many of them repeated the same points. So for the sake of brevity I'll sum up those points first.
  • Wales was one of the first nations to introduce a specific autism strategy (in 2008 pdf), and this was a source of pride for AMs, but they're disappointed in how it has been delivered.
  • There's no ring-fencing of autism funds by local authorities, with some agreeing to do so voluntarily and others not. Current funding arrangements (on a year-by-year basis) mean councils have no opportunity to develop long-term plans.
  • There are very serious problems getting an autism diagnosis – especially children – in the Hywel Dda Local Health Board (Pembs., Carms., Ceredigion) with waits as long as seven years for a diagnosis. This means some children enter secondary school without a diagnosis, which affects access to specialist services.
  • A survey by the NAS showed massive dissatisfaction amongst parents/carers, as well as adults and children with autism. 53% of parents called the diagnostic process "painful", while 96% of autistic adults said there was a lack of professional understanding. Only 16% of patients were satisfied with their transition to social care.
  • There was cross-party support for an Autism Act in the Fifth Assembly (after May 2016), which would enshrine the rights of children and adults with autism, as well as their parents/carers, in law.

The debate started with Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) - who chairs the Assembly's Cross-Party Group on Autism. He said (clip) there were up to 30,000 children and adults in Wales with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs). Despite the strategy, he said more needs to be done, with greater statutory duties placed on local authorities. He called upon all parties to commit to introducing an Autism Act in their 2016 manifestos.

Mark said that although the NAS said the strategy was a "world first", people with autism usually only access treatments and therapies if it's presented alongside another medical condition or learning disability, even though autism is a condition in its own right. With problems facing those with autism including "painful" diagnosis processes, postcode lotteries, a lack of understanding by managers and, in schools, illegal short-term exclusions (Whipperines & Class Clowns), any future Act needs to include diagnostic and post-diagnostic support to ensure the "fundamentals are in place first".

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said the strategy was a "good strategy, with broad support" (clip). He said the fault isn't with the strategy but with delivery, which was, "at best patchy, at worse seriously deficient". He highlighted serious issues with autism services in his own area of Blaenau Gwent, and the Assembly specifically has a duty to ensure the strategy is delivered, as it's not just a matter for local government.

Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) said he long supported a need for timely diagnosis (clip), and although there are examples of good practice in Pembrokeshire, waits were excessive (the seven year figure mentioned above) – with an average of two children diagnosed a month. Paul said early intervention was needed to ensure the long-term well being of autistic children as they go through school.

He accepts that diagnosing autism isn't easy as it's down to monitoring behaviour closely. That means teachers need proper training in recognising ASDs. Also, Careers Wales provide vital support to adults with autism looking for work, but they don't have the knowledge to work with these adults. Paul said, "being first (to introduce an autism strategy) isn't the same as being first rate".

Lindsay Whittle AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said he had three major concerns (clip); firstly, the lack of monitoring by the Welsh Government of autism services. Secondly, a concern raised by a a constituent about whether teachers are properly trained to deal with ASD pupils.

Thirdly, he raised a good point (often overlooked) about older people with ASD, as people "can't grow out of it" and it remains for the rest of their lives. Lindsay warned this will, "become a serious challenge for health and social care services", and more data was needed on over-65s with autism as part of any future Act.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales), said the Cross-Party Group was "dynamic" and meetings were often very well attended (clip). He paid tribute to the NAS, saying that serious shortcomings in provision were "feeding clamour for an Autism Act", adding that in his capacity as Chair of the Petitions Committee they're dealing with a petition about autism diagnoses in Hywel Dda LHB. He said families were, "showing enormous resilience" and were entitled to have their needs enshrined in law.

Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly), said Wales needs to recognise and support parents and those who work with autistic children (clip). He plugged the Autism Heroes Awards which were established by a constituent. Jeff believes the Welsh Government should compliment their work by engaging with them, but this cannot replace the statutory duties placed on authorities. He wasn't opposed to an Autism Act in principle, but would need to be persuaded of the benefits, and would prefer the current strategy was properly delivered instead.

Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. E & S. Pembs.) described the strategy as "useful" (clip), as it focused minds and concentrated resources. Unfortunately, in too many cases it hasn't helped at all, citing waiting lists in her own area 200+ cases long. Angela said there were too many interim diagnoses, and when schools suspect autism in pupils, there was often a slow response from local health boards.

Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales), gave an example of parents of autistic children in Wrexham who said the bureaucracy was in place, but they were seeing no improvements (clip), with some North Walian councils "skimming" autism funding to finance the bureaucracy and management of the schemes themselves. He described the NAS figures as "frightening", but there needs to be a look at whether an Autism Act in itself would improve the situation.

Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli) said, "raising awareness isn't the greatest issue facing us", but the major issue was strategy at a local and national level (clip). He said in an ideal world they wouldn't proceed with legislation, but this is one area where collaboration between local authorities would benefit everyone.

In response, Health Minister Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West) said there was £12million in new funding allocated to support the aims of the autism strategy and improve lives (clip). While he admitted there was always more to be done, he was working with interested parties to refresh the ASD action plan, but said parties were waiting to see how the regulations resulting from the Social Services & Wellbeing Act 2014 and proposed special educational needs legislation would impact their work.

The refresh plan was due to be launched this month but has, as a result of the legislative/regulatory proposals, been delayed. The Minister said that as there are immediate concerns about autism services, he'll introduce an interim delivery plan by the end of March 2015.

Former Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services, Gwenda Thomas AM (Lab, Neath), intervened to say that a child must receive care and support whether there was a formal diagnosis or not, and this was clearly stated in the Social Services Act.

The Minister continued by saying diagnosis is never a fixed process with autism as it responds to individual development, though funding for ASD will be permanently within the block grants given to local authorities. He said there wasn't enough time to take a Bill through the Assembly before April 2016, but parties could include it in their manifestos for the election.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms E. & Dinefwr) summed up what the others had said (clip), but raised his own point about provision being even worse for those seeking services in Welsh. Rhodri said every case was individual and it's hard to generalise ASD, howeverg people said "everything would be fine once Wales had a strategy", but now artificial barriers are being put in place and the challenge is to ensure children and adults alike have access to the services they need.

The motion was agreed by 29 votes to 21.

"First The Worst...."
Stormont and Westminster passed Autism Acts in 2011 and 2009 respectively - mainly
to do in Northern Ireland and England what Wales has already done without a law.
(Pic : Autism Northern Ireland)
OK, Wales has a feather in its cap because we were one of the first nations to publish an autism strategy.

The Welsh Government/Labour have a fetish for doing things though strategies, guidance and regulations, so it's not exactly a shock that - yet again - one of their much-vaunted strategies is failing to deliver on the ground.

One reason why local councils and health boards are under strain is because the detection and diagnoses of autism has radically changed over the last 10-15 years. What would've once been considered an "eccentric personality" is now diagnosed as Asperger's Syndrome. There's an outside chance – backed by 2013 guidelines from the American Psychiatric Association – that ASDs are over-diagnosed.

Despite all that, there's a clear desperate need for all those families and individuals who live with autism to have access to the services they require, and there was cross-party commitment to that in yesterday's debate.

Although it's still more than a year away, we're starting to get an idea of what legislation we might see in the Fifth Assembly – though it's unlikely I'll be around to cover it. It wouldn't surprise me if all four parties end up putting an Autism Act in their manifestos in some form, which will effectively guarantee its introduction.

Are the needs of people with certain diseases best served through legislation though?

I can see the arguments for and against an Autism Act. There's a precedent in the Assembly for "disease laws" in the form of the Asbestos Disease Bill – though it has a very different aim – but at the same time a law could lead to the Welsh Government and local authorities being forced into making promises they can't keep, especially with a disorder that's often difficult and time-consuming to diagnose and manage like autism.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Making tracks in west Wales

There are growing calls to reopen a railway between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
The railway between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth closed to passengers in 1964-65, with freight services - which still ran along part of the line - withdrawn in the early 1970s. As a result, any attempt to travel between Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion by rail now means a torturous journey via Shrewsbury, Hereford, Cardiff and Swansea.

At the moment, Carmarthen-Lampeter-Aberystwyth is served by the T1 TrawsCymru long-distance bus service, which has been criticised for excessively long journey times. Despite the existence of this service, there has been talk of reopening the line for several years (related 2009 post from Syniadau with a video showing one option for the route), but a formal campaign – Traws Link Cymru – was formed in the last year or so to lobby in favour of the project (website with project overview here).

The campaign is gathering pace, with a official statements of support from : Carmarthenshire Council, numerous community and town councils along the former route and a large number of AMs and MPs. Campaigners are also set to meet the Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb MP (Con, Preseli Pembs.), at some point. A (relatively) well-attended public meeting was held earlier this month, with plans for further activities in the near future.

Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) held a short debate in the National Assembly on this issue back in March 2014 (below). Meanwhile, Carwyn Jones has expressed his tacit support for the principle of the project during First Minister's Questions (I remember him saying it at least once but can't remember precisely when, so don't hold me to that). He gave no firm commitment for reasons which will become obvious.




An Irish Case Study
Ireland's Western Rail Corridor is a similar project, but
is it an appropriate direct comparison?
(Pic : paulsalveson.org.uk)

Comparisons have been drawn to the Western Railway Corridor in the Republic of Ireland, which is a proposal to link Sligo and Limerick along Ireland's west coast. At the moment, all lines lead to Dublin in the same way Welsh railways go east-west. A section enabling trains to travel between Galway and Limerick opened in 2010 at a cost of around €107million (£84million at 2015 prices). The total cost of reopening the line to/from Sligo was, in 2004, estimated to be around €366million (£286million [2015]).

Since reopening, there's been criticism of low passenger numbers between Galway and Limerick (Galway alone is larger than Carmarthen, Lampeter and Aberystwyth combined, while Limerick is about twice the size of Llanelli). The service is subsidised by the Irish Government, with cheap online fares and tax incentives to encourage people to buy season tickets - but it's right to point out that service frequencies are very low indeed with maybe no more than 5 trains a day in each direction.

The crucial difference between Aber-Carms and the Western Corridor section is that, in Ireland's case, large sections of the track were already there and were used as a freight line. All the Irish Government needed to do was (re)build the infrastructure for passenger services (stations, improved track etc.). So the Western Corridor is more comparable to the reopening of the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines.

Aber-Carms would be a major engineering project above and beyond that of the Borders Line in Scotland, and would arguably be the most extensive reopening of a railway on the island of Great Britain since the Beeching cuts. The old alignment is just over 90km long (56miles), and almost all of it has been pulled up apart from the Gwili railway on the outskirts of Carmarthen.

The Possible Route
Click to enlarge
(Pic : Adapted from Google Earth)

I would guess stations would/could be built at Glangwili Hospital, Bronwydd, Pencader, Llanybydder, Lampeter, Tregaron, Llanilar and Llanfairian. Some of the smaller stops would presumably be request stops like those on the Heart of Wales line.

The Benefits
Linking three (maybe eventually four) university towns along the western coast could boost economic,
social and research ties, helping to rebalance the Welsh economy away from the M4 corridor.
(Pic : The Telegraph)

The obvious one - it makes it a lot easier to get to Aberystwyth by public transport from the south and vice versa (Swansea, Cardiff and London) whilst reconnecting a large part of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion to the rail network. Considering the relatively poor state of north-south road links in west Wales, journey times are likely to be competetive with road.

The catchment area, although rural, will be physically large with great opportunities to provide park and rides as well as linking with local bus services. Public transport provision is often poor in rural areas, so encouraging people out of their cars there is often ignored, as the emphasis is usually focused on urban areas. Reopening the line would have a knock-on positive impact on pollution and accident rates, with the A44 between Aberystwyth and Llangurig being the most dangerous road in the country and the A487 not faring much better.

Creating "commuter villages" in and around the three larger towns – Aberystwyth, Lampeter and Carmarthen – might spread out development and enable these villages to retain some of their local services like pubs and schools.

If this were combined with a Bangor-Porthmadog link and a re-engineering of Dovey Junction it would eventually connect four university towns. This would guarantee minimum passenger numbers, but also develop economic and academic links right along the west coast to compete with the "city universities".

In the long, long, long term, reopening this line could enable serious consideration being given to reconnecting Newcastle Emlyn, Aberaeron and Cardigan to the rail network.

The Challenges
Do not think for one second that this is going to be a simple case of lobbying
for funds. There are serious challenges facing this campaign that need to be overcome.
(Pic : Network Rail)

Reinstating the old route – Most of the former route is development-free but there are areas where the route has been built on, mainly for homes or cycle paths. The route can be engineered to avoid these areas, but the old route will have been the most logical path in the first place (short of radically new alignments). This is down to the shortsightedness of planning authorities. Though there's a bit more protection for former railways nowadays, it's too late for this project.

Farm access and (negative) environmental impact – The former route is littered with crossings to and from farms. Network Rail are supposed to be phasing out level crossings, as they're not popular with transport unions and are a safety hazard. I don't think they'll take kindly to including so many unmanned crossings. They might have to be replaced by bridges, which is an added expense.

Reopening a railway may not be associated with environmental damage, but obviously there would be as the route crosses or passes near environmentally-sensitive areas.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA)My personal opinion is that regardless of fiscal tests, as many former railways should be reopened for its own sake where practical (before I'm accused of being a buzzkill).Unfortunately, this is the primary reason why it won't happen.

The political will is there, and I suspect if all of the trackbed were still in place Welsh Government backing for the project would be stronger (and the price tag would probably be no more than £100-150million).


A full CBA (or cost-benefit ratio) usually costs around £20,000-30,000. If the ratio on return of investment is below 2:1 (for every £1 spent, there's a £2 economic return), public authorities won't consider it "high value". That's very technocratic, but it's supposed to prevent the creation of white elephants and discourage "pork barrel spending" , even if at the same time it puts a set of concrete shoes on socially-important projects like this.

A potential price tag of £650million has been bandied about, so this would have to (theoretically) have a wider economic impact of at least ~£1billion to get the levels of return on investment necessary to be approved.

Taking into consideration the relatively small catchment area (population wise) and likely low passenger numbers, the Carms-Aber rail link will fail any CBA instantly (as would my idea of reopening the Mid Wales line). You can have as much heavyweight political support as you want, but these tests determine whether big projects go ahead or not.

AMs and other senior politicians should be well aware of this, but they're not in a position to quibble (because they're pathologically unable to tell the truth and say "no" during an election year) so I'll have to play "the bad guy" for them.


Service levels – It's too early to say what sort of service levels people could expect if it were reopened. You would presume the service would mainly run as a shuttle between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth (due to lack of space on the south Wales mainline) with a few direct trains each day further beyond – probably to Swansea and/or Cardiff (which would make reopening the Swansea District Line for Cardiff-bound trains a higher priority in itself).

The old track alignment between Llanybydder and Strata Florida is remarkably straight and could enable high running speeds. This is offset by some very difficult terrain between Carmarthen and Pencader – though a diversion via Alltwalis has been mentioned. If the line were designed with an average running speed of between 60-70mph then it's possible to get the journey time down to nearly an hour (making Aber-Swansea ~1hr50mins, Aber-Cardiff ~2hrs30mins), but that requires a high quality route that will be expensive to engineer.
Click to enlarge
(Pic : Adapted from Google Earth)
Getting in/out of Aberystwyth (above) – If the economic value for money is the biggest socio-political challenge, this is the single biggest engineering challenge - though there are others elsewhere in the form of reinstated bridges and tunnels. The approach from the south around Pen Dinas and through Llanfairian (above) has been completely built on. The cheapest/easiest option would be to stop the line short of Aberystwyth and build a park and ride, linked to the town centre/railway station by bus. That would defeat the purpose of the rail link though as it would be inconvenient to change modes of transport.

Another option would be to use the path of the Vale of Rheidol narrow gauge railway for a few miles, then create a link to the "main route" south to Carmarthen. This would be rather expensive due to the landscape it would have to cross which requires several deep cuttings and/or short tunnels. It would provide an opportunity to build a station serving the Glanyafon Industrial Estate and with a footpath/cycle path it could link directly to Coleg Ceredigion - but at the expense of stations in Llanfairian and Llanilar.

A further option would be to tunnel under Penparcau, which is certainly doable but depending on the construction method and underlying geology would likely cost £50-60million on its own. This would probably be the best option, but I'm no engineer.

One of the only other options left, therefore, is to CPO the former route, which will mean demolishing several buildings and possibly more than 100 homes (because several blocks of flats have been built on the former line). This means legal challenges, local opposition and a significant additional cost. An alternative would be to allow some limited street-running, but I'm presuming this will be a heavy rail project.

You could create a new route following a ridge around Pen Dinas and going through a caravan park instead (perhaps on a viaduct), but that would be a significant engineering outlay like the tunnel.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Women's Own

Do high-flying Welsh women need an extra hand from the Welsh Government
to break the glass ceiling? The National Assembly debated it yesterday.
(Pic : RBS)

Yesterday, the National Assembly held the first Member's debate of 2015, with a motion noting progress (or lack of) made in gender equality since almost 100 years of women's enfranchisement and the forthcoming 40th (sic, it's actually 45th) anniversary of the Equal Pay Act 1970.

The debate's main focus surrounded the headline-grabbing proposal that the Welsh Government should no longer award procurement contracts or grants to companies that have no women board members.



Antoinette Sandbach AM (Con, North Wales) started off by saying (clip) there was still some way to go towards gender parity in the workplace, noting the National Assembly's 50:50 gender split between 2006-2011 (which has since gone backwards), stating that the "modern workplace benefits from having women at all levels".

Antoinette said Wales can "learn from what our European neighbours are doing" to promote gender equality. In 2013, the European Parliament and Commission approved plans to impose a 40% quota on the number of women board members in publicly listed companies by 2020 (the FTSE100 currently has around 23%). She believes this vote means any legal arguments against using the Welsh Government's £4.3billion recruitment spending to push for greater female representation may no longer apply.

Christine Chapman AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) – chair of the cross-party group for Women in the Economy – said (clip) she was unsure of the legality of imposing the restrictions called for in the motion, even if she supports the principle. She said the question should be, "Can we afford not to (promote women to board level)?", believing it was a necessity as it's healthy for the economy, citing academic research which shows companies with women board members are more effective.

Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W & S. Pembs.) - one of the few AMs who've run a business before entering politics – said (clip) targets boost women's share of board seats. She paid tribute to women role models who show that you don't need to "act tough in a man's world" to success in business – citing her own role model, Marjorie Scardino (publishing), Karen Brady (football), Hayley Parsons (former CEO of gocompare.com) and Jacqueline Gold (Ann Summers).

Angela produced one of the more memorable quotes, saying, "Our society does teach little girls that they're either Cinderellas or kittens and there's not much in between". She suggested vocational courses that are popular with girls should teach business skills, as she has experience of being told that her daughter could be trained to perform a role but not aim higher and run a business.

Angela abstained because of the proposal relating to grants rather than procurement. She knows herself how hard it is to "put everything on the line to start a company", while the dynamics within start-up and small businesses (which often are the recipients of grants) are often different to bigger companies.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) said (clip) women "still suffer discrimination in the workforce", especially younger and older women, who are often targeted because of pregnancy or are trapped in low pay. During an exchange with Antoinette Sandbach they both said that high-profile women are always asked about work-life balance resulting from children. Julie said unemployment amongst women aged over-50 has risen faster, and they earn 18% less than men. Generally speaking, sectors which employ women – what she called "The Three C's : Caring, cooking, cleaning" - are also amongst the biggest users of zero hour contracts.

Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) said (clip) that although women make up 51% of the Welsh population,  "in no avenue of working life, public or private, do women exceed that figure" except in the National Assembly previously * - and the situation isn't changing quickly enough.


A Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) report says FTSE100 companies are now slightly exceeding (20.7%) a 20% target, but further down the FTSE250, women's board representation remains low. Bethan believes this limits talent, and it might be a confidence issue where women are themselves failing to recognise the skills they could bring to companies. Bethan doesn't believe positive discrimination would be "patronising to women" as such actions wouldn't need to be in place forever, only until it brings about a cultural change.

Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) make a connection between under-representation of women in politics and under-representation elsewhere (clip). She said how public money was spent is part of combating that.

Eluned did, however, wisely caution that although changes to procurement may be effective, this is only the "start of the conversation" and more details were needed on precisely how such a policy would be developed, with a clear understanding of precisely what it would mean (turnover thresholds, companies without directors etc.) to prevent unintended consequences arising. She finished by saying she wants her daughter to, "assume the world is open to her".

Responding on behalf of the Welsh Government, Communities & Tackling Poverty Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) said (clip) the government wants to ensure Wales is a country with a diverse workforce. They were committed to introducing and supporting modern, inclusive work practises, improving work-life balance and tackling gender stereotyping – which causes gender segregation in some industries (like natural sciences) with men and women dominating certain sectors.

Lesley said the Welsh Government has the most robust equal pay commitments in the UK, and aims to achieve a 50% gender balance in senior civil service posts by 2020. However, the Welsh Government could not support the motion, despite supporting the sentiments, as it would be illegal to bar procurement to companies that have no women board members.

Rounding off the debate, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) underlined (clip) that this was a "very intractable issue". 40 years (sic) after the Equal Pay Act, women still generally earn 82p for every £1 a man earns.

Jenny believes this is linked to women's role as child bearer and primary carer, where some companies avoid appointing women of childbearing age, which affects career aspirations. She believes having more women on company boards would stop this institutional discrimination.

Jenny said there's an assumption that progress is being made, but that's "not necessarily the case" – it's gone backwards in NHS Wales senior posts, the number of female council leaders (just one AFAIK – Ceredigion's Ellen ap Gwynn) and no female Police & Crime Commissioners in Wales. She did, however, point to Admiral Group as a sign of changing attitudes as more than 60% of their board members are women.

The motion was passed, but not without considerable reservations – 21 votes for, 1 against, and (an extraordinary) 32 abstentions. If this were a binding vote then it's likely it would've been rejected.

(Pic : 1funny.com)
* After talk of kittens, Bethan Jenkins said she "prides herself on being compared to a terrier"; well I can be a Rottweiler when it comes to politicians doing their homework. It's not the worst thing in the world, and I'm presuming it was just a result of sloppy drafting as Bethan's normally more astute than this, but it only took three minutes to disprove her claim : nursing (~90% women), teaching (74.4% women), headteachers (57.2% women), dentists and doctors aged under-30 (61% women - so the workforce is changing pretty quickly), retail (58% women, but 37% managerial and likely to grow).


Cart before horse?

Would it be better to support more women to come forward for
senior roles before enacting more punitive measures?
(Pic : National Assembly for Wales Flickr)
When I saw the Assembly would be debating this, I was worried it was going to be a bunch of privileged, middle-class women pulling the drawbridge up behind themselves to look after the interests of their own kind. While there were hints of that, it was good there was some emphasis on the problems that still face women further down the food chain.

I'd also be very careful about believing correlation implies causation when citing anything about gender balance boosting company performance. Some of the findings from these reports have negative connotations too, implying companies with more women executives are more risk-averse and less decisive.

Promoting more women to the top in business (especially those who've climbed the career ladder properly) may help those at the bottom; but it just as likely won't, as free enterprise is hardly the most conducive atmosphere for equality.

Though this was a non-binding vote, there's no point focusing too much on the specifics of policy implementation (as there was nothing on the table) or the legality – it's quite clear this procurement policy, as proposed, would be illegal. As a principle though, gender equality in all areas of public life is sound – as I've said before, gender is the primary distinguishing feature between groups of people and the easiest way to ensure everyone is represented fairly.

There's no problem (morally) with the Welsh Government setting whatever criteria they want when awarding procurement contracts. The trouble with proposals like these is that there are always unintended consequences if there aren't very clear guidelines on what's acceptable or not – which both Antoinette Sandbach and Eluned Parrott touched on.

Angela Burns (clip) hit the nail on the head. As the pace of change in women's representation on boards has been so slow, many companies which otherwise provide a good standard of service won't have caught up yet – especially Welsh companies (99% of Welsh businesses are SMEs that may only have one or two directors, even those with a big turnover). Under this proposal these businesses may miss out on procurement contracts and grants awarded by their own government because they don't tick a box.

If there were no legal qualms, the National Assembly itself - as a separate body from the Welsh Government – could enact this policy too, and could probably do so immediately. But, of course, that would affect AMs directly. They might struggle to find an electrician, plumber, or even someone to take away the rubbish based on these rules.

Boosting women's representation using targeted support measures – like the good work Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) and organisations like Chwarae Teg are doing - before instituting "strong arm" policies like those proposed yesterday, might be better. That way it does minimum harm to businesses and women start to make their way to the top on their own merits. It'll take some time, but everyone wins.

After all, the National Assembly hasn't become one of the best places for LGBTs to work through quotas and statutory measures, has it?

My personal preference is that senior appointments should be diversity-blind (no information on age, gender, race, disabilities or sexual orientation) so the best people for the job will be shortlisted in each and every case without prejudice. If it's then down to equally-qualified male or female candidates, and the company is under-represented in one or the other, then a choice based on gender would be justified.




Monday, 12 January 2015

Foundation Fazed

Is the Welsh Government's flagship Foundation Phase all its
cracked up to be? Despite the headlines, it probably is.
(Pic : Twyn School)
Last week it was reported that a review of the Foundation Phase by WISERD has shown it's failing to live up to one of its key aims, which is to reduce the gap in performance between children from well-off families and poorer families.

All of the relevant documents are available here, but you're not going to go through all that, are you? You're not stupid or masochistic enough to do that. Luckily for you, I am.

As you can tell, the report and its supporting documents are much more extensive than the bite size account given by the BBC and Western Mail, so it's worth taking a closer looks to see what impact Foundation Phase - which remains one of the more memorable and radical policies introduced since devolution – is making.

Foundation Phase : An Overview

The Foundation Phase takes children out of the classroom and
allows them to learn through self-directed and structured play.
(Pic : Carrog School)
The Foundation Phase was launched during the Third Assembly by the then Education Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), but its origins lie in a ten-year education plan - one of the first such strategies developed after the National Assembly's establishment.

The original Foundation Phase report, published in 2003, underlined a number of shortcomings in educational attainment for pupils aged 3-7 (Nursery up to and including Year 2).
  • Pupils were spending too much time on desk-based activities.
  • Pupils weren't spending enough time developing creative and communication skills, and in some cases were introduced to formal literacy lessons before they were ready.
  • Insufficient staffing levels for younger age groups.
  • Pupils weren't given enough independence to learn.
The review believed this was a direct result of an over-formal approach to early years teaching, which in areas like reading and writing was said to be "counter-productive". Pedagogical research showed the most effective ways for children to learn at this age involve, "problem-solving, exploration, active involvement and language development through play".

The Nordic Countries (in particular Sweden and Finland) have a much more relaxed approach to early-years education, where formal literacy and numeracy lessons doesn't start until much later in school life. These nations often have exceptionally higher attainment rates too.

The Welsh Government decided they were going to come up with a Welsh version, hence Foundation Phase, which would involve "learning through play" in order to meet developmental needs of children as individuals.

In practice this means younger children are guided to figure out certain concepts for themselves, with teachers and supervisors structuring the play – whether indoors, outdoors or through formal lessons. This has resulted in a whole host of different lesson plans and activities being made available either by the Welsh Government or outside organisations.

The Learning Wales website lists the sorts of activities Foundation Phase pupils do. For example, they learn basic mathematical concepts using toys (i.e. number of toy cows in a field) or through activities like cooking (which introduce concepts like measurement); while literacy and communication skills are developed through something called "circle time" (American-style "show and tell") or discussing favourite books.

It sounds a bit "wishy washy new age teaching" but it does have a certain logic behind it. These school days sound significantly more enjoyable and engaging than anyone reading this will remember, and I suppose you can say it tricks kids into learning.

The Review's Findings

Jobs for the girlos. Foundation Phase has resulted in a dramatic improvement in staff:pupil ratios,
and has been broadly welcomed by both teachers and parents alike - though not without specific concerns.
(Pic : Swansea Council)
The findings themselves (dated from the 2011-12 academic year) were split up onto several categories on separate documents, so I'll only pick out the most important conclusions.
  • Parents support the principle of the Foundation Phase and have a firm grasp of what it's all about, though 72% would like further information and few parents were involved in day-to-day running. There's also a link between increased enjoyment of school and the teaching methods deployed during the scheme.
  • Staff : pupil ratios have changed from 1:19 to 1:10, though only 50% of schools met the recommended 1:8 ratio for 3-5 year olds and 1:15 for 5-7 year olds. The numbers of staff with the prerequisite qualifications has also exceeded expectations, and there are more qualified staff in Wales compared to England. There was resistance amongst a significant minority of staff when Foundation Phase was introduced, and this existed more amongst Welsh-medium staff than English-medium staff and pilot schools. Teachers were generally satisfied with the levels of training and support their received, but there were concerns about "mixed messages" from the Welsh Government which means some teachers are calling for more specific advice.
  • There were mixed feelings about the Foundation Phase has on pupils transfering to to Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11), with 19% of teachers saying Foundation Phase was having a negative impact on KS2 (compared to 25% who thought it was positive) . Although there were no major qualms about end of Foundation Phase assessments, there are concerns about levels of uncertainty. Despite this, 85% of parents were happy with reading and numeracy tests taking place in KS2.
  • There were no variations between how English and Welsh-medium schools implemented Foundation Phase. 42% of Foundation Phase staff believe that the scheme has improved Welsh-language skills amongst both EM and WM pupils – even use of Welsh when no adults were present. It's said children who don't speak Welsh at home are benefiting the most from Foundation Phase, but EM pupils' English skills had improved more compared to their Welsh.
  • Schools spent £15,000 on average improving their indoor environments and £18,000 outdoors (used on average 2/3 times a week, sometimes every day) in preparation for Foundation Phase. Schools said funding would be the factor they would change most about the scheme, particularly for outdoor activities. There was a link between learning outdoors and children being more physically active.
  • Schools said their approach to Foundation Phase was "evolving", with some introducing formal literacy and numeracy lessons in the morning to ensure children perform well in KS2 literacy and numeracy tests - with gender gaps persisting in subjects like English and Maths.
  • There was broad agreement that Foundation Phase is having a "positive impact" on pupils' well being, attendance levels, attitudes to learning and confidence – in particular boys. However, there was less of a consensus on the positive impact towards literacy, numeracy and amongst more-able pupils.
  • The Foundation Phase hasn't done as much to combat social inequalities as it aspired too, with no significant changes (except in isolated cases). There's continuing under-performance in attainment and attendance amongst children who receive free school meals and those with special needs. Focused and targeted intervention, instead of universal programmes like Foundation Phase, are "generally accepted" as better.

A foundation to build on

For the love of all that is holy, this report SHOULD NOT be used
as an excuse for another round of education policy tinkering.
(Pic : Wales Online)
As much as you would like me to pick holes in the policy I'm not going to as even the report says the findings aren't "fully conclusive".

Despite some of the slightly-critical reports being produced on the effectiveness of this programme (most have, in fact, been well-balanced between good and bad points), policy-makers are on to something and it's still too early to judge.

Although It's clear this hasn't yet been the transformative magic bullet in early years education the Welsh Government would like it to be, one of the key problems in education policy over the last 5-10 years is that if something doesn't work immediately there's a panic and then a clamour to alter it straight away.

Politicians and civil servants then try and chop and change on the hop, meaning teachers end up bogged down in ever changing guidance and pointers. That goes against the whole ethos of Foundation Phase - while attainment is very important, it isn't the main aim of this - and I hope the Welsh Government resist the temptation to tinker this time.

I suppose the only people who have the levels of knowledge and experience to make a proper judgement on Foundation Phase are primary school teachers/support workers themselves. Judging from the full range of key findings from WISERD, there are probably more positives than negatives – but positives don't make headlines, do they.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Is Wales a post-political country?

In some ways, Wales has been a global trend-setter.

Wales was one of the first industrialised countries, and then became one of the first post-industrial countries. We could be setting a trend by becoming one of the world's first true post-political countries too.

"Post-politics" is a specific term meaning a rule by consensus, with an entrenchment of ideology (in Wales' case a market economy with a reddish hue). Wales might even be moving towards a post-democracy, where despite holding free elections, decisions are almost always a foregone conclusion, being taken by a near aristocratic elite.

There are several signs Wales is heading in this direction if not already there.

(Pic : Quazoo.com)

A lack of political choice – This is a natural result of consensus-based politics. It's why political parties often sound and look the same, as ideologically-charged left and right politics are no longer relevant. Everything is settled on a liberal economic model where parties chase moderate floating voters "in the centre" on a near-scientific constituency-by-constituency basis. The firebrand stuff of the 1970s and early 1980s might look kitsch nowadays but at least they stood for something.

The Welsh "centre" might be further left than the rest of the UK (Where's the centre ground in Welsh politics?) meaning all Welsh parties have a leftish twang. Though even if the parties disagree on big issues like welfare, in terms of devolved politics there's often broad agreement on major policies, with the fight often over "who came up with the idea first" and the presentation itself rather than the justification and details.

It's almost certain that if a party reacted to this by producing a manifesto that was "radical" and contained loads of ambitious, borderline undeliverable, pledges they would be (rightly) laughed at.

Anti-politics sentiment is rising across Europe, but is
maybe more advanced (if less obviously so) in Wales.
(Pic : The Guardian)

The rise of populism : Being anti-politics is trendy, even encouraged – In a truly political country that would be like being against air or education. In Wales, you can rail against "politics" without sounding like an idiot. Your views are listened to or fuelled as a core constituency in some cases (especially by the press) to the point you can vote for an anti-politics party in the form of UKIP.

The great ideological battle at present, and in the forthcoming House of Commons election, isn't between left and right as such, but between "the head" (professional politics – evidence-led policy) and "the gut" (populism – what people would like to happen).

For example, debates over immigration and renewable energy are often split along these lines. We need secure and renewable forms of energy and sustained levels of immigration of young people (to combat demographic decline), but large chunks of the electorate don't like renewable energy projects or immigrants - left and right wing.

You can argue Clement Atlee's premiership and Thatcherism successfully balanced the two. But since spin won during the Blair years, modern politics has become a bubble of experts based around "the head". The two poles have become estranged to each other to the point of becoming a "them" and "us" : politicians sneer at "common concerns" which don't match their worldview or expert advice, while the masses think politicians are an over-professionalised, borderline corrupt, out of touch elite.

As a result, there's an alarming lack of faith in established democratic processes. With no alternatives available, the only way for an ordinary person to push against such things is to reject politics and everything associated with it. It's a message UKIP and Russell Brand are using to garner support - existing as two cheeks of the same arse - as it's not as if their respective supporter bases are critical enough to look into claims for themselves.

You can also do it by not voting ("none of the above") or basing your politics on single causes and issues that aren't tied to a particular party – which is what many young people, who generally don't vote in high numbers, do.


(Pic : thepessimist.com)
A lack of leadership and long-term goals - We don't really have "leaders" in Wales outside of business, and our political leaders act as a chair of a board reacting to single and ongoing events. That makes sense because if everything's going to be done by consensus then we don't really need leaders, do we? Except we're absolutely crying out for someone to steer the ship and give Wales a sense of direction and momentum.

This is the biggest weakness in Welsh politics, perhaps Welsh society as a whole. It's the old proverb which surfaced just before Christmas when analysing Carwyn Jones' year : "A fo ben, bid bont" ("To be a leader, be a bridge").

I'd interpret that as encouraging consensus-based politics aka. "bringing people together". There's nothing wrong with that, but bring together the wrong people (i.e. surrounding yourself with those who only agree with your point of view, are dependent on a certain outcome of decisions, or think you're fantastic) and it's a recipe for....modern Wales.

You can argue that doing things this way is more inclusive and decentralises decision-making, but it also slows things down, with a problem of trying to bring too many, sometimes contradictory, views together into a single coherent policy.

It also allows a small number of people to dominate a decision-making group without ever being freely-elected, as happens in Carmarthenshire and amongst floating voters in marginal FPTP constituencies. This year's UK election, for example, may be decided by as few as 500,000 people, while we already know Carwyn Jones will be First Minister until he gets bored.

We don't necessarily need to move to an executive system of government like the United States, but lack of directly-accountable leadership doesn't foster democracy, does it?

A centuries-old Shakespearean fiction perfectly captures
a modern, much less funny, trope about the Welsh.
(Pic : Globe Theatre)
Process over policy – One of the perennial stereotypes about the Welsh goes back to Shakespeare's Henry V. Fluellen, a senior officer in Henry's army at least partially based on notorious turncoat Dafydd Gam, is portrayed as overly-sensitive, cap-doffing, pedantic "windbag", obsessed with rules and procedures to comedic levels.

It's so true it hurts.

Welsh politics has an obsession with how things should be done not what should be done. We're forever bogged down in consultations, task and finish groups (more from the Welsh Conservatives), standing orders, constitutional arguments and regulations. It's enough to give you the impression that our decision-makers are terrified of actually making decisions.

Comprehensive public consultations (as opposed to quick-fire surveys and public meetings) are mostly a waste of time, especially the more popular a consultation becomes. That's not cynicism, but a logical conclusion. If a consultation receives several hundred or several thousand responses, it's not as if someone's going to sit down and read them all. Even in the Assembly, oral evidence sessions seem to guide committee reports at least as much as, if not more so, than hard written evidence.

Our politicians and policy makers want to be "seen" to do something, and the easiest way to do that is to get lots of important people around a table with bits of paper and cups of coffee in front of them and then "start a public debate". But in the end they don't do anything, just talk about how they're going to do something at some undetermined point in the future (....city regions, the metro, community health councils, maybe up to and including local councils themselves).

Meanwhile, even our media are obsessed with points of process, and nothing is guaranteed to make the headlines faster than a rule breach or (relatively minor) overspend.

Let's go back to November 2014. Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) was discussing local authority and Welsh Government cuts ripping musical instruments out of the hands of young people – a very serious topic.

BBC Wales were more interested in where Eluned's hands were. Eventually the Western Mail picked up on it and indignatos on social media dubbed it "Hipgate" (done in such a way you couldn't tell if it was tongue-in-cheek or not) – though the Western Mail made up for it in the end.

Llywydds and their deputies tell people to shut up (politely) all the time. It's their job to keep decorum and it's hardly remarkable when they do so, but it's depressing that a technicality can overshadow something a million times more important and relevant.

I'm of the (it seems radical) opinion that the substance of what someone says is always more important than how they say it. AMs should be able to do an entire Rocky Horror Picture Show routine dressed up as Frank-n-Furter as long as they're making good points.

I know how hard it is to write a story about Welsh politics that will be read by as many people as possible, but this should go down as one of the most embarrassing manufactured outrages in the Assembly's history. There'll be more, you can guarantee it, because people read and respond to stories like that – I'm doing it now!

Nothing boils the blood more than politicians being either officious or badly behaved, because it looks like they're making work for themselves or wasting time at our expense. Unfortunately, that's how vast swathes of the public like their politics because, in Wales, how something looks and the moral implications of such are usually more important than the substance – a definite hallmark of a post-political society.


Are those of us who desire fundamental change in Wales
always going to face a massive uphill struggle?
(Pic : BBC)
There's no hope – One of the main reasons I don't get as wound up about many of the things that pass as scandals in Wales (compared to other commentators) is because when it comes to Welsh politics, I keep expectations low. That way I'm pleasantly surprised when something extraordinary happens. That's not the fault of those directly involved as they're decent people trapped by a bad system.

The Scottish independence campaign has inspired the political class to such an extent that they would like to replicate the incredibly high turnouts and levels of political engagement we saw then in as many future elections as possible. Replicating the turnout isn't the message they should be taking away from it though, as a high turnout doesn't necessarily mean the population is "engaged".

The independence campaign offered Scots hope and a chance of real, tangible change. Yes Scotland weren't just an alternative to the other parties, but an entire political system. We have nothing approaching that in Wales. In fact, Wales is arguably heading in the opposite direction to Scotland – not necessarily on constitutional terms, but attitudes.

There's a pessimism and fatalism about politics that's perhaps always been more tangible in the Celtic nations and north of England because our power was based on industry and collective action, which has slowly been sucked towards London or broken up, leaving us with very little in its wake.

The referendum was like a breath of fresh air north of Hadrian's Wall which cleared out the stuffy room which Labour have happily guffed in for decades. Helping this along is the fact Scotland produces charismatic, well-read leaders who can explain things in ways ordinary people understand, in addition to possessing a civic society that Wales can only dream of. This means the SNP have become a very effective counter-weight to the metropolitan technocrats in London and Brussels.

Also, the underlying political infrastructure in Wales is remarkably stable and unlikely to be seriously challenged in the same way the SNP and Greens are doing in Scotland, so political discussion here is often superficial and highly-specific as there's no great clash over the future of the country.

Welsh politicians carry themselves like middle managers and social workers, who generally tred the same route into politics, and act as though there's a higher manager above them looking over their shoulder (Westminster). They tend to play it safe, and Welsh politics is often about keeping things the way they are, or looking to the past for answers, instead of aiming for something better and innovating.

I don't think there's a lack of desire for change in Wales, it's just people can never see it being delivered as we're used to having decisions forced on us. In 2011, nobody gave the Welsh Government a mandate to pursue local government reorganisation for instance.
With no hope of an alternative, the people, by and large, accept their lot in life, shrug their shoulders and move on - the natural end result of which being disengagement from politics.