This site is no longer updated

Please use the links in the sidebar to visit the new sites!

Friday, 31 July 2015

Senedd Watch - July 2015

  • An independent report into University Hospital Cardiff's accident and emergency department described “endemic bullying behaviour”, an “authoritarian” management regime and chronic staff shortages. Cardiff & Vale University Health Board accepted the findings.
  • Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling MP, announced that MPs representing English constituencies – and, in some cases, Welsh-based MPs - would have a veto on legislation affecting England-only (or EnglandandWales). Labour accused the Conservatives of attempting to manufacture a larger majority, while the SNP said it was a “cobbled-together mess”.
  • The Welsh Government launched a green paper on reforms to transparency and openness in the Welsh NHS, including proposals such as "strengthening" community health councils and giving local health boards borrowing powers. It's anticipated legislation would be introduced in the Fifth Assembly.
  • NUT Cymru warned that an (average) £64-per-pupil funding cut for 2015-16 – the first school spending cut in a decade – will come as “alarming news to teachers, parents and pupils.” The Welsh Government said that despite the cut they had met their pledge to keep school spending at 1% above changes to the block grant.
  • Shadow Health Minister, Darren Millar (Con, Clwyd West), called for a Wales Audit Office probe into local health board spending on fruit and vegetables. Some health boards were spending twice the market price for bananas, totalling an excess £390,000 across Wales.
  • Health Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West), announced a national blood and transplant service would be established in May 2016. Currently, north Wales is served by the English NHS Blood & Transplant Service. It's estimated it would save £600,000 per year and create 16 jobs.
  • In the UK Chancellor's emergency budget on July 8th, George Osborne announced a £9-per-hour national living wage would be introduced by 2020, benefits would be capped at £20,000 per household outside London and working benefits would be frozen for four years. It was also announced that devolution of air passenger duty (APD) to Wales will “be considered”.
    • Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), described the budget as “an assault on young people” due to welfare cuts specifically targeting under-25s.
    • Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), said a lower benefit cap outside London was “fair”, saying people should not make more from benefits than they would in work. He hoped private employers would move towards widespread adoption of the “living wage” and promised the Welsh Conservatives would introduce a 6-month council tax exemption for first-time buyers if they won the 2016 Assembly election.
    • The Welfare Reform Bill was approved at first reading by 308 votes to 124 in the House of Commons on July 20th. 48 Labour MPs - including 7 from Wales - rebelled against interim Labour Leader Harriet Harman's calls to abstain in order to “listen to voters” on welfare, which would result in £12billion of cuts by 2020.
  • Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), hosted a summit on the future of opencast mining on July 9th. He said, “I am concerned about the significant and lasting impacts of the failure to restore on communities living in close proximity to opencast sites” adding that he was discussing the issue with the UK Government.
  • The National Assembly's Petitions Committee report into a petition calling for defibrillators to be made available in public spaces recommended more be done to raise awareness of existing machines. Committee Chair, William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) said, There is little doubt that almost everyone is capable of using them to save lives.”
  • The leaders of Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Lib Dems signed a letter condemning proposed cuts to BBC and S4C – possibly amounting to £1.5million a year to S4C alone – and the small amount of English-language programming aimed at Welsh audiences, saying the “future of broadcasting in Wales is now in serious jeopardy”.
  • Welsh Lib Dem research revealed NHS staff made over 10,000 complaints about staff shortages since 2012. Party leader, Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) said, “These figures paint a picture of a Labour-run NHS that is under enormous strain and in desperate need of help”. The Welsh Government said overall staffing numbers are up on 10 years ago.
  • Plaid Cymru energy spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales), pledged Wales would produce all of its energy needs from renewable energy within 20 years if Plaid Cymru formed the next Welsh Government, facilitated by energy efficiency drives and community-owned power schemes.
  • A review into alleged abuse at care homes in south east Wales (Operation Jasmine) suggested the owners of the care homes in question should have been prosecuted. The reviewer, Dr Margaret Flynn, said the “absence of a judgement or legal resolution compounds the families' grief and sense of grievance”.
  • The Finance Minister introduced the Tax Collection & Management Bill to the National Assembly on July 14th. The Bill establishes a Welsh Revenue Authority to manage devolved taxes from April 2018, which includes landfill tax and stamp duty.
  • A Wales Audit Office report into the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) criticised the lack of Welsh Government oversight, suggesting the taxpayer could have lost £15million as a result of undervalued land sales. The Welsh Government said they would consider taking legal action to recover any losses.
  • A public consultation by the Assembly Commission found 53% of 11-25 year olds support lowering the voting age to 16, and 79% believed it was important for young people to learn about politics. Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) said, "This is the biggest ever response we've had to an Assembly consultation and therefore offers an authoritative analysis of the views of young people.”
  • A draft Minimum Alcohol Price Bill was put out for consultation by Deputy Health Minister Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth) on July 15th. The proposals include introducing a minimum per-unit alcohol price of 50p and fines for retailers who don't comply with the law.
  • The Business & Enterprise Committee recommended more job opportunities be created for the over-50s, who are less likely to work than those of a similar age in the rest of the UK. Committee Chair, William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) said, “People are living longer and will have to retire later meaning work is now a necessity not a choice for the majority of this age group.”
  • In a letter to Natural Resources Wales (NRW), the Chair of the Environment Committee, Alun Ffred Jones AM (Plaid, Arfon), was concerned NRW was seen as “too close” to the Welsh Government and “doesn't appear to be clear about its purpose”. According to a survey only 14% of NRW staff believe the merger which formed the organisation in 2013 was well managed.
  • The Welsh Government proposed paying the tuition fees of medical students who commit to becoming GPs in order to stem a shortage as the workforce ages and retires. £4.5million was committed towards staff training and other proposals include flexible working and a GP recruitment drive. Labour previously criticised similar proposals from Plaid Cymru as “unworkable”.
  • Plaid Cymru economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Mon), expressed concern that a recently-announced £600million investment in Phase 2 of the South East Wales Metro was a re-announcement of plans for Valley Lines electrification. He said, "A Plaid Cymru government would take the Metro forward with a real vision....instead of re-badging....public transport schemes as a Metro."
  • Deputy Minister for Farming & Food, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Mid & West Wales), said an EU withdrawal would have "catastrophic consequences" for Welsh agriculture through the loss of £240million of annual CAP payments. UKIP leader in Wales, Nathan Gill MEP, said the UK Government could guarantee continuation of payments with money saved by an EU exit.
  • A short inquiry by the Constitutional & Legislative Affairs Committee into the future of devolved powers recommended a "clear and durable" devolution settlement based on easy to understand reserved powers. The Committee and witnesses were concerned about the current proposed list of reserved powers, which could limit the National Assembly's ability to legislate.
  • The newly-formed Women's Equality Party said they intended to field candidates at the 2016 National Assembly election. UK leader, Sophie Walker, told BBC Wales, "We are going to field candidates and we think we stand a good chance and we think that will form a very good basis going forward to 2020".
  • A Public Accounts Committee inquiry into UK welfare reform recommended that tenants affected by the "bedroom tax" should receive financial help from the Welsh Government. A member of the Committee, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central), criticised the "partisan" foreword to the report by Chair, Darran Millar AM, adding that the Welsh Government lacked resources to help tenants due to austerity.
  • The Health Minister announced a 12 month trial from October 2015 with regard ambulance response time targets, where targets would be scrapped for all but life-threatening emergencies. The NHS Confederation welcomed the proposal, but opposition parties were concerned about "moving the goalposts" and a long-standing failure to hit current response targets.
  • The Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged to create 2,500 "rent-to-buy" homes - which can be purchased without a deposit - if they form the next government after the 2016 National Assembly elections. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said, "if you can afford your rent then we will help you buy your own home".

Projects announced in July include : The launch of an upgraded TrawsCymru bus service in west Wales; a series of events in Cardiff in 2016 to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl's birth; a £19million extension to the Superfast Cymru scheme to reach an additional 45,000 premises by June 2017; a new 5-year plan to address high levels of suicide; £30million for four schemes to boost the rural economy and approval for a £200million gas-fired power station at Hirwaun.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Youth Gone Mild?

The findings of a National Assembly consultation suggest that while a majority of young people
support lowering the voting age to 16, their enthusiasm is perhaps more muted than expected.
(Pic : National Assembly of Wales via Flickr)

Just before the Assembly broke up for summer recess, the Assembly Commission and its youth initiative, Your Assembly, published a wide-ranging report on young people's attitudes towards politics and specific issues like lowering the voting age to 16 (pdf) - see also : The X-Factor and "Devo Wuh?" Young attitudes towards Welsh devolution.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Assembly Requests "Clear & Durable" Devolution Settlement

When the Prime Minister and that-other-bloke-who-used-to-be-important
announced their response to Silk II, it looked like we were due constitutional clarity.
So far it's still a bit cloudy.
(Pic : The Guardian)
The Assembly's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee recently reported back on a short inquiry they undertook into the future of devolved powers. This was done in light of Silk Commission Part II, the fallout from 2014's Scottish independence referendum, St David's Day Agreement and the forthcoming Wales Bill – expected to be introduced in the autumn.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Assembly calls for assistance for older jobseekers

Are the needs of older workers and the older unemployed being neglected?
(Pic : BBC)

They've previously done work on job opportunities for the young (Gissa Job : Assisting Young People Into Work), but last week, the National Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee published a report into job opportunities for the over-50s (pdf).

Sunday, 19 July 2015

End of Year Report 2015

The curtain comes down on another Assembly year, the last summer recess
before the big boys and girls face their tough examinations next May.
(Pic : The Guardian)

Another Assembly year ends. While AMs start their 9-week summer recess, it's time to reflect on the performance of key personalities over the last year, being the final such report before the 2016 National Assembly election.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Bill Outlining Devolved Tax Arrangements Introduced

The Welsh Revenue Authority will manage devolved taxes
from April 2018 - including landfill tax and stamp duty.
Last week,  Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) introduced the Tax Collection & Management Bill to the National Assembly. It establishes the mechanisms required to ensure that when certain taxes are devolved to Wales in April 2018 they're collected and managed robustly - the clue's in the name (see also : Assembly Calls for Tax Power Accountability)

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap IV : Endgame?

After a wait of years, the Wales Audit Office has finally
delivered its verdict on the RIFW land sale scandal.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
It's been three years in the making, but at long last the Wales Audit Office have delivered their verdict on the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales (RIFW) and the sale of land parcels to an offshore company, South Wales Land Developments (pdf).

It doesn't make good reading for the Welsh Government. At all.

It's so serious it warranted a special episode of Week In, Week Out : The Big Welsh Land Scandal? which will be broadcast tonight at 10:35 (iPlayer link).

A Brief Recap
The core issue is how or why RIFW sold widely-known lucrative development
land (like Lisvane, above) for significantly less than its proper value.
(Pic : Wales Online)

RIFW was established as an arms-length public body by former Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Its primary goal was to sell Welsh Government-owned land to raise match funds for regeneration projects in the EU Objective One area (West Wales & The Valleys).

In 2012, RIFW sold a parcel of 15 pieces of land to South Wales Land Developments (SWLD), which was based in the tax haven of Guernsey. This includes land in Bridgend (Pyle and Brackla Industrial Estate), Lisvane in Cardiff (now being developed as Churchlands), Wrexham and Llandudno Junction.

Former police officer and Conservative AM for South Wales West - now MP for Gower - Byron Davies, referred the sale to the Wales Audit Office (WAO). It was understood the land was sold for a total of just £20.6million.

There's nothing controversial about that in itself; however, because the land was certain to be developed for housing – particularly the Cardiff plot – the actual value of the land would've risen considerably, meaning RIFW (effectively the Welsh Government) sold lucrative land for significantly less than it was worth. From the Cardiff land alone, at the time it was estimated the Welsh Government will have missed out on a potential ~£120million.

There were "claw back clauses" inserted into the deal to ensure that if the value of the land rose, the Welsh Government would get some extra money back, but the exact details were unclear. The implication was that the land was deliberately or accidentally undervalued, the sale was rushed unnecessarily or that someone passed insider information to SWLD.

The Welsh Government suspended RIFW projects in February 2013 (except one in Neath town centre) and ordered two internal investigations. The Wales Audit Office also referred the deal to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

The WAO Report Key Findings

1. The RIFW Concept
  • The RIFW concept was "innovative", but the requirement to sell property distracted RIFW from its core purpose. There's no criticism of the concept, and WAO actually praise it – particularly providing regeneration funding in a period when accessing finance was difficult. Because there were (supposed) deadlines on the EU component of funding, the need to generate funding from land sales should've been acknowledged as a risk and perhaps distracted officials from the task of working on regeneration projects themselves.
  • Progress was slower than expected. The Welsh Government underestimated how long it would take to establish the fund, many projects were not deemed "investment ready", and there were delays as officials worked with interested developers to develop more robust plans – compounded by the economic conditions at the time.

2. Welsh Government Oversight
  • The Welsh Government failed to set out the oversight mechanisms for RIFW as an "arms-length body". RIFW was established as a limited liability partnership (LLP), wholly owned by the Welsh Government, with Welsh Ministers and officials as board members – having obtained legal advice to ensure it complied with EU law.
  • Amber Infrastructure Limited and Lambert Smith Hampton acted as independent fund and investment managers respectively. But because RIFW didn't have a chief executive, it was unclear who was accountable as all executive functions were carried out by Amber. This is described as a "complicated contractual arrangement" which hampered oversight.
  • RIFW would've appeared in the Welsh Government accounts and should've subsequently been subject to scrutiny from the Welsh Government's Corporate Governance Committees – but it never featured at committee meetings.
  • It was unclear where legal responsibility stopped because RIFW crossed a boundary between the Welsh Government and an entirely private company – this should've been cleared up in unambiguous guidance which was never issued.
  • The Welsh Government were represented at board meetings by an "observer", who expressed no concerns over the land sales. This involvement in itself would've compromised the "arms-length" nature of RIFW and could be interpreted as tacit Welsh Government approval of the sales.
  • Further oversight was hindered by departmental reorganisations between 2011-2012 following the 2011 Assembly elections, where responsibility for regeneration shifted and officials who were familiar with RIFW's work were moved. Vital information wasn't transferred with them.
  • RIFW's board was too small, meaning absences impacted performance and the large amount of work the board needed to get through placed burdens on all board members, many of whom were unpaid. An independent board member rarely participated due to a conflict of interest.
  • These weaknesses aren't contained to RIFW, as the Welsh Government internal investigation findings (Lloyd report) are relevant to other "arms-length" bodies.
  • Actions undertaken by the Welsh Government since the issue was raised (i.e. internal investigations and taking direct control of the fund) are described as "appropriate".

3. Value for Money
  • 23 plots were drawn up to be transferred to RIFW in 2009, it was estimated their total value was between £29.8-£35.6million (the higher figure being optimistic/"hope value").
  • The plots were transferred in 2010, however many of them were said to be unready for marketing and sale, plus information was inaccurate with "unresolved issues" at some sites.
  • It's acknowledged that many of the sites had "long-term development potential" if included in Local Development Plans, so a quick sale would minimise returns. RIFW weren't advised to keep hold of high-value land (like Lisvane) and were pressured to sell quickly because of various deadlines (explained later).
  • The Welsh Government published information that became known within the Welsh property industry (i.e. land values, cash requirements) and subsequently weakened their negotiating hand. This information was circulated to six unnamed property companies with interests in Wales, or clients with interests in Wales.
  • There was no December 2015 deadline to sell the land to meet EU match-funding requirements. Some high-value assets could've been held back for the second phase of RIFW beyond 2015. RIFW only had to raise ~£6million to meet the requirement because it was established with £9.4million in cash and had to meet a match-funding target of £15.4million. They were also wrong to assume they needed to invest £55million in the first phase by 2015.
  • The plan for a phased sales was abandoned when they received a written £23million offer from Guernsey-based GST Investments for all of the land. GST were operated by Barclays on behalf of Peter's Foods Sir Stanley Thomas, and were represented in negotiations by Langley Davies. Rightacres also submitted a bid of £17.7million.
  • After torturous negotiations, the sale was agreed for £20.65million, which didn't reflect the market value. Only two voting board members were present at the meeting which accepted the deal. In 2012, the purchaser changed from GST Investments to newly-registered South Wales Land Developments, also in Guernsey - the sale value increasing to £21.75million. These changes weren't properly reported to the RIFW board.
  • There was no independent valuation or open marketing as well as weak professional advice. Phased disposals (instead of selling the sites in one swoop) could've yielded at least an extra £9.2million (£30.9million in total based on District Valuer estimates).
  • The sales agreement didn't allow RIFW to benefit from increases in value. Only sites in Lisvane and Monmouth had "claw back" clauses which entitled the Welsh Government to a share of future profits – potentially worth £20.7million at 2013 prices. It's unclear how much they could've clawed back from other sites which are now being developed, like Pyle and Brackla.
  • The sale of public assets at significantly below market value could be interpreted as unlawful "state aid". The Welsh Government should discuss whether the EU Commission should be informed by the UK Government.

4. Conflicts of Interest
  • Lambert Smith Hampton (Investment Manager) – After the sale in March 2012, LSH were appointed as managing agents for SWLD at some sites, including Brackla Industrial Estate (though that sale was conducted after they were appointed). There's no evidence of improper conduct, but there was a clear conflict of interest which breached their investment manager agreement.
  • Jonathan Geen (Independent Board Member) – As a solicitor he had undertaken work for one of the potential purchasers. He immediately notified the board and left the meeting, though later got permission from the board to act for the purchaser. Again, there was no improper conduct and he took no part in any sales decisions. However, the WAO say it would've been more appropriate to turn down Mr Geen's request to act for a purchaser due to the board's small size.
What does this mean?
If any crime's been committed here it's criminal incompetence.
(Pic : Wales Online)

There were two main scenarios as to what this constitutes : fraud, or incompetence. According to the report, the SFO have decided it's not something which "falls within their remit for investigation" unless further information is brought to South Wales Police or the SFO themselves.

That leaves one other scenario, doesn't it?

I suspect it boils down to the misinterpretation of the December 2015 EU match-funding deadline – the deadline that never really existed in the WAO's verdict. That's presumably why quick sales were pushed so hard and why a sale of all of the sites in one package looked tempting.

RIFW was clearly a good idea which was rendered dysfunctional by its own governance arrangements. SWLD saw an open goal to make money and took it – you can't blame them either. From their end, apart from moral questions that surround being based in a tax haven, everything they've done sounds above board.

The WAO say the value of the Lisvane land, originally estimated by King Sturge, may not be as high as the often-quoted £120million figure because not all of the land can be developed – only about 58-63% can (a proportional £69.6-£75.6million).

The only hard figure of how much the Welsh Government "lost" is in the region of £9-15million (the difference between the sale price and the most optimistic actual values); but when you factor in all the parcels of land without "claw back" agreements, plus the potential value of the workable land in Lisvane alone, you're looking at something approaching £90-100million.

The National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee have also announced today they'll hold an inquiry into RIFW, so it's not quite over yet. The current Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), will be in the firing line as the last minister in charge of RIFW, but due to reshuffles he can argue this is something he inherited from others.

Politicians and civil servants are human and will err from time to time - sometimes at great cost. The price we pay for democracy is that the right person for the job won't necessarily be the one elected or appointed.

Is this the worst blunder involving public funds in the devolution era? It's got to be up there.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Kickstarting Welsh Hearts

Petitioners have asked the Welsh Government to consider widening
access to, and awareness of, public defibrillators.
(Pic :
(Owen : Some work is being undertaken on the house over the coming week which may/will result in my internet connection being disrupted - possibly for several days, maybe longer. So if I don't post on my usual schedule that'll be the reason why.)

Following hot on the heels from their previous report, last week the National Assembly's Petitions Committee published a report (pdf) into a petition submitted by nurse Phil Hill which secured 78 signatures. He submitted the petition whilst working on master's degree research into attitudes towards public defibrillators.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

AMs Mock UK's Dodgy Barnett

The Barnett formula - a simple concept, but difficult to negotiate in
practice, especially when it comes to so-called "consequentials".
Earlier this week (8th July), AMs held another member's debate on an issue raised time and time again in Welsh politics – the Barnett formula : the formula used to set budget allocations of the UK's nations, the principle being that it ensures each part of the UK receives a "fair share" of public spending.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Downloading (22% - 2 years left)....

With the Wales Audit Office recently giving Superfast Cymru a thumbs up,
the minister in charge provided an update to AMs on progress to date.
(Pic :

The Superfast Cymru scheme is a £425million partnership between BT and the Welsh Government which aims to provide high-speed broadband (generally defined as somewhere between 20-50 Megabits/second) to every home and business in Wales – particularly those in hard to reach areas.

Good internet connections have become an everyday necessity regardless of where you live, while for rural businesses in particular – who often endure poor mobile and internet connections - it's essential, especially as farming payments have increasingly moved to online-only management (see also : The Green, Green Glas of Home).

In general terms, the scheme focuses on upgrading, or installing new, green BT roadside cabinets with fibre optics connections to telephone exchanges. Fibre optic cables enable much faster download speeds and can carry more information as signals are sent as pulses of light. They're also less susceptible to environmental damage.

Yesterday, Deputy Minster for Skills & Technology, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West) updated the National Assembly on progress being made by the programme.

The Deputy Minister started by saying the scheme meant Wales was moving into a position where every business and home has access to superfast broadband, as outlined in the Programme for Government (clip) - the aim of the scheme being to bring high-speed broadband to areas where the market wouldn't go. With it crucial to becoming a "truly digital nation", a big push is needed to reach the last 3-4% of premises. This includes using mobile technology like 4G, and a new scheme based on this will be launched later this year.

Without intervention, it's said 480,000 premises wouldn't have access to superfast broadband. With 79% of Welsh homes and businesses having access so far, Wales is ahead of the EU average. The scheme has created 250 jobs and provided a number of apprenticeships and work experience placements, while the Wales Audit Office (WAO) have said Superfast Cymru is making "reasonable progress".

The Superfast Cymru website will be revamped to give residents more certainty on when they would be connected. Plus, the contract has been extended to June 2017, with additional public funding of of £19million, in order to target an extra ~45,000 premises (and specifically 2,500 businesses). Swansea is also being used by BT as a testbed for 500Mbits/second ultra-fast broadband (G. fast).

There was a need to ensure people take up superfast broadband. So far, 22% of customers have taken it up within a year of it being available - the highest take-up rate in the UK. The target is for 50% take-up by 2024. Claw back agreements mean that once the scheme breaks even, the Welsh Government get some extra money back.

Shadow Economy Minister, William Graham (Con, South Wales East), said significant problems remain – mentioning issues on Deeside enterprise zone specifically (clip) - though the project demonstrates effective public-private cooperation. He hoped there was no complacency as Wales is likely to be ahead of other countries for only a short period of time, with a number of "not spots" remaining, including in around Cardiff, citing an example of a business leasing a line for broadband at a cost of £20,000.

The Deputy Minister said Wales was second only to Cornwall in take-up though roll-out has been faster than the rest of the UK. She acknowledged difficulties, suggesting alternative technologies could address problems on Deeside. Superfast Cymru only covers areas which are commercially unviable, and it won't be until the end of the programme that those involved will be able to see if something can be done for "not spots" in commercially viable areas like Cardiff.

Plaid Cymru economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said it was right to aim for universal roll-out to ease the transition into a digital economy (clip). He suggests his constituents would be surprised by the WAO's positive assessment as they, and other rural areas, wait for upgrades. He asked : Could 4G services be brought into Superfast Cymru instead of relying on mobile companies? Whether the extension to 2017 includes the whole scheme or just the 45,000 additional premises? We should aim for greater take-up than 50%, but is there a danger Wales could lag behind once faster broadband speed benchmarks are set?

The Deputy Minister said the additional premises wouldn't disrupt other parts of the programme. 4G is being looked at, as well as other technologies, to produce superfast speeds. She accepted the point on take-up, but Wales was doing well compared to other countries.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) stressed the importance of delivering broadband to businesses, with particular concerns over business parks in his area (clip), especially those which are surrounded by residential areas eligible for Superfast Cymru but are themselves being left out. He asked what speeds people can expect and whether the new infrastructure can deliver 500Mbit/s in the future? Also, which ISPs provide superfast broadband to ensure businesses have a choice?

The Deputy Minister explained the business park situation by saying that because EU funds are being used, a "market failure" has to be proven to justify state intervention, so that's why business parks are last in the queue not first. On speeds, there's a floor of 28Mbit/s but businesses can pay extra for faster speeds. Superfast Cymru is being delivered as wholesale with individual ISPs providing services (in the same way as energy companies).

It's not just rural areas suffering from poor broadband speeds. Some parts of Cardiff just a
stone's throw from the Assembly are "not spots" but are ineligible for Superfast Cymru.
(Pic : The Guardian)
Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) said the programme was a lot like "trying to hit a moving target" as things change quickly and it needs to be future-proofed (clip). Eluned suggested that mobile technology might not be suitable due to poor mobile coverage in parts of Wales, as well as planning issues surrounding mobile phone masts. She added that parts of Cardiff, including her own regional office in Roath, have connection issues meaning her staff are "devastated" that they can't watch her on Senedd TV. One other issue raised was the fact many new-build estates aren't covered by Superfast Cymru because despite the lines being installed, BT's broadband department haven't been told and don't realise the new homes exist.

Julie said future-proofing was one of the reasons for the claw back agreement so BT and the Welsh Government can keep re-investing. Following meetings with mobile operators, she expects widespread 4G coverage "within the next couple of years", though planning issues are very complicated and need discussions with the UK Government. She finished by saying that BT aren't the only company rolling out infrastructure improvements as there are other commercial operators – like Virgin Media - doing so too.

Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) asked two questions (clip) : why information on specific premises falling outside the scope of Superfast Cymru wasn't available? And what the budget was to market superfast broadband? Julie explained that information was based on postcodes, not individual addresses, and £1.5million was available for marketing.

Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) said "no other issue causes as much frustration in Ceredigion" than poor broadband (clip). She was pleased the website was being updated, but wanted to know if premises in her constituency would be updated by 2016, or whether they would be part of the additional 45,000 premises set to be upgraded by 2017?

The Deputy Minister said 41.35% of premises have been completed in Ceredigion, so BT weren't even halfway yet. The website would be updated to include accurate information based on distance from cabinets.

As a former Deputy Minister for Skills & Technology, Jeff Cuthbert AM (Lab, Caerphilly) said he was familiar with the problems (clip), such as trying to locate cabinets in urban areas. He asked for confirmation that "disadvantaged communities aren't overlooked" by the scheme?

Julie said a successor to the Communities 2.0 programme is up and running, and the Welsh Government were working to ensure no communities are left out.

Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), wanted to ensure the information (clip) on the website is "useful" as she's struggled to get answers on from BT on behalf of constituents, but in particular Dan yr Ogof Showcaves, who developed an app on the presumption that broadband would be available this year, but will be delayed until 2016. She also said cabinet upgrades had led to poorer internet speeds in some areas.

The Deputy Minister pledged to look into problems as a worse performance was certainly not intended. She agreed on the need for useful information, and as the scheme progresses it's becoming easier to provide information based on distance from a cabinet. Julie added that BT sometimes had to deal with situations beyond their control and can't always give accurate timescales for broadband upgrades. However, she's asked BT to be more specific when telling the public about difficulties they're having (i.e planning delays).

Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) asked what steps were being taken to consult with the community, citing an example where residents in Dolwyddelan (clip) were quoted £2,000 by BT to move a new cabinet to another location as it was close to community planters and chapel gates. The Deputy Minister said she couldn't comment on individual cases.

Finally, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) asked (clip) about superfast broadband for rural schools and whether rural schools are a priority, to which the Deputy Minister said primary schools aren't part of Superfast Cymru but a separate programme.

Will widespread instrastructure upgrades lead to better offers for consumers?
(Pic :
Superfast Cymru isn't without critics – in particular the Pirate Party (Pirate Party : Hoising the Jolly Roger above Wales), who've criticised the technology and high prices of superfast services.

Broadly-speaking I'd say it's a good idea, though I'd share concerns over whether this will be outdated 10-15 years down the line when, presumably, becomes the norm. The clawback agreement is, therefore, a sensible part of the scheme.

The issue is take-up. 22% doesn't sound that impressive on the face of it (though I was actually surprised it's that high). Households and businesses have to actually sign up to the superfast (often advertised as "fibre") services which come at a premium, sometimes being three times more expensive than cable broadband, the latter of which might come free with a subscription media package.

Hopefully once the infrastructure is in place the ISP subscription costs will come down, and I'm going to presume cost and usage limits are currently the biggest barrier to take-up.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Metro a Go Go

The Welsh Government have announced a £600million second phase of the Cardiff capital region Metro,
as well as a new not-for-profit company to run the Wales & Borders rail franchise from 2018.
(Pic : Vale of Glamorgan Council)

As you probably already know, Business & Economy Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) made a major announcement on the future of the South Wales Metro on Tuesday (30th June).

The Minister told the National Assembly her department has made "significant progress" on the Metro and Wales & Borders franchise (Future of the Wales & Borders Rail Franchise). Phase 1 of the Metro is already being delivered via capacity enhancements to the Ebbw Vale line and the recent opening of Ebbw Vale Town station.

Highlights from the announcement (clip) include :
  • The Metro will be a high quality integrated transport system (see also : Assembly Integrated Transport Inquiry), with rapid, frequent and reliable rail services linking in with the bus network.
  • Passengers will be able to move seamlessly from one form of transport to another using integrated payment methods (i.e a Welsh Oyster Card).
  • South Wales mainline electrification "must be delivered in line with previous announcements". A procurement process for Valley Lines electrification will start next year, with work possibly beginning in 2017-18.
  • The Metro and Wales & Borders franchise will be run as a single contract and as a "not-for-dividend" company (Welsh Government Transport Company). The Welsh Transport Company has already been incorporated, and aims to emulate Transport for London. It will probably be run as a concession with a profit cap, meaning more money will be available to invest in services.
  • The Welsh Government are "keeping an open mind" on the details of how the Metro would be delivered (i.e. tram-trains, heavy rail, trams), but there are "red lines" :
    • no low-quality rolling stock
    • capacity and reliability must improve
    • efficiency must increase to allow more frequent services
  • Local authorities will help shape the final version of the Metro through their Local Development Plans.
  • Extra powers need to be devolved, particularly bus regulation.
  • Phase 2 of the Metro will see investment of between £500-600 million by 2020. £125million has been secured from the UK Department of Transport, while £150million is being sought from the EU Regional Development Fund. "Good progress" has been made finding other capital funds. Local authorities will be able to draw some funding from developer (S106) contributions.

Shadow Economy Minister, William Graham (Con, South Wales East), greatly welcomed the announcement (clip), saying it would improve communication and social cohesion, providing a "catalyst for the capital region". He was particularly pleased about the rolling stock commitment, but wanted assurances it would be delivered on time and on budget, as well as details on the fare structure and the impact Metro would have on the M4 Newport bypass.

The Minister said rolling stock was a key issue raised by interested parties, describing current trains as "absolutely appalling". She said the not-for-dividend model could lead to changes in fare structures, though consultation on the final Metro routes would continue. Transport models showed the Metro wouldn't make much difference to M4 traffic and she would share this with the relevant Assembly committee.

Plaid Cymru's economy spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid, Ynys Môn), said the Metro investment and M4 projects shouldn't make other regions feel they're being left out (clip), asking for a final estimated capital cost. He also asked if the M4 black route was holding back investment in the Metro and wanted assurances the Valleys would benefit economically so the impact isn't concentrated in Cardiff.

The Minister told him it's an "aspirational project that needs to be delivered", but it was clear the industry were "up to the the challenge of an integrated franchise". She said 42 companies had expressed interest, and rolling stock companies were looking for manufacturing sites in Wales. She stressed that the Metro wasn't just for Cardiff but the wider capital region, but it was up to local authorities to look at possible new station sites. A forthcoming new All-Wales Transport Plan will make clear commitments outside SE Wales.

Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) described the project as "inspirational and aspirational" as well as economically and socially transformational (clip). He asked specific questions on the Beddau rail link and massive housing proposals in the Taff-Ely area, also whether there had been further discussions with the European Investment Bank (EIB)?

It was confirmed that Finance Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) was working with the EIB. The Minister said the map was a "first stab" and the final proposals will be worked upon, with more detail in the autumn. She stressed the importance of linking housing and industrial areas to public transport, going as far as suggesting planning permission should be refused where there isn't a proper transport assessment.

With much of the focus on rail, there were concerns buses were being
overlooked despite carrying more passengers than trains annually.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Lib Dem economy and transport spokesperson, Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central), said there was much to agree with (clip), but several maps had emerged over the years without a "definitive" final map. Costs can't be properly evaluated without one, while passengers, investors and businesses want to know what the final Metro will look like. Eluned was concerned that rail was taking too much priority over buses and active travel. She asked if the Welsh Government Transport Company would have powers to borrow independent of government (like any other business), why there was an integrated contract (she believes the Metro and rail franchise should be kept separate) and what had changed to make smart ticketing possible now when it was supposed to be introduced by 2014?

The Minister said as there were too many technical questions – an example is given where the Caerphilly Tunnel might have to close for lengthy periods during electrification works – the Welsh Government had to go to the market to get opinions on what needs to be done first. The integrated franchise makes it more attractive to investors as it's a big contract and she wants to avoid having different contracts and arrangements which have "caused chaos" on the rail network elsewhere.

John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) asked for an update on passenger services between Ebbw Vale and Newport (clip) as well as the format of park and ride facilities in Monmouthshire. He also stressed the importance of affordable fares as a priority for those with strained finances.

Edwina said the Welsh Government have "got to look at fares", and suggested that new park and rides could be multi-story car parks as opposed to smaller 30-40 space car parks. On Ebbw Vale-Newport services, timetable studies are underway and there would be an update in the autumn.

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central), wanted guarantees that the project would be at an advanced stage by 2020 (clip).

Edwina said it would be the "start of a system", but won't be "all singing, all dancing" by 2020. She did, however, appreciate the cross-party support.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North) asked if projected population growth in Cardiff had been taken into account (clip), whether there had been discussions with Cardiff Council on how the new bus station would fit in and how the public would be involved?

The Minister welcomed news on the bus station, saying population growth has to be taken into account. On bus services, she said Wales needs powers over bus regulation. Many of the rail groups she's worked with "had a better understanding of timetables than Arriva", adding there had been no final decision on the role of the Cardiff city region with regard the Metro.

Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) said that the Metro would "drive sustainable growth in the heads of the valleys region", but too many stops would make the service less valuable and it should be seen as an inter-urban service rather than a commuter service. (clip) He asked if there were timescales on Ebbw Vale frequency enhancement and extensions to Abertillery, and how Network Rail's route plans would be factored in? Edwina said there would be a further update on works in the autumn and the relationship with Network Rail will be discussed to make sure they're working to the same agenda.

Finally, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said the latest map had connections to Ebbw Vale and Chepstow but not Monmouth itself (clip). The Minister said initial discussions on including Monmouth had taken place, and it's on the agenda for an upcoming meeting with the leader of Monmouthshire Council.

Call me Nostradumbass?
(Pic : Me, click to enlarge)

I wrote The Welsh Metro in March 2011, about a year before the original announcement of the project was made. It consistently remains one of my most popular blogs. My speculative "Capital Connect"  map (above) is even similar to the one produced for the Metro project a few years later - it's a case of the potential being obvious, I'm not suggesting I had any influence.

I'm delighted there's some real progress being made, but I'm going to be nothing more than cautiously optimistic until there are shovels in the ground. We've had a lot of talk, and a lot of involvement by consultants and committees so far, but little action.

The most positive announcements are confirmation that there would be a smart ticketing system, rolling stock will be upgraded (with hints they could be replaced by new build trains in the longer term) and that both the rail franchise and the Metro will be run as a not-for-profit – which means, potentially, a greater focus on service investment instead of profit-making.

Despite this, as Eluned Parrott pointed out we still don't have a final map of the project (in particular bus rapid transit routes) and we still don't know what the Metro would look like – Will there be trams? Will it be a heavy rail S-Bahn system (as it is currently)? How will buses and cycling be properly integrated? There's still quite a lot of work to do, so this isn't a "green light" but still a big step forward.

Also, "South Wales Metro" is a bit of a misnomer. It should probably be called Cardiff Capital Region Metro. That shouldn't take away anything from the announcement, but Wales is Wales and if someone can find something moan about they will moan about it.

There's scope for some sort of integrated transport system in NE Wales and Merseyside. Plus, with the bendy buses/FTR being withdrawn from Swansea, there's the potential to explore a tram system along the same route, perhaps utilising existing freight-only rail lines to include Port Talbot, Neath and the Neath Valley. That's one for the medium to long-term though.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Fun at Junction 41 Ends (For Now)

The trial partial closure of Junction 41 of the M4 in Port Talbot has been lifted, and
a detailed analysis of the impact was recently released by the Welsh Government.
(Pic : South Wales Evening Post)

It's been about a year since I first wrote on the partial trial closure of Junction 41 of the M4 in Port Talbot (Junction 41 Fun). The trial involved closure of the westbound sliproad during peak times (07:00-09:00 and 16:00-18:00 every weekday).