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Wednesday 31 August 2011

Senedd Watch - August 2011

  • The First Minister signed a memorandum of understanding with the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee, who have chosen Cardiff as a training base for their athletes in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics.
  • The National Assembly's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee is to hold and inquiry into how powers are handled and transferred between the UK and Welsh governments - including Legislative Consent Motions which allow UK ministers to legislate on devolved matters as well as issues surrounding the transfer of powers to Welsh ministers via UK legislation.
  • The Assembly Commission is drawing up a bill that will make the Assembly officially bilingual. The Official Languages Bill will mean that Welsh and English must be treated on an equal basis in the Assembly. Llywydd Rosmary Butler said that the Assembly should provide "exemplar bilingual services".
  • Concerns have been raised about changes to a "first responder" scheme in rural Wales that trains fire crews in medical emergencies - if they are first on the scene. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said that the Welsh Ambulance Service had "scaled back the scheme without consultation".
  • Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd) described claims by Redrow Homes Steve Morgan that mandatory fire suppression systems would put developers off building homes in poorer areas of Wales as "reckless". She also rejected Steve Morgan's costing of the systems at more than £3500, saying they would cost between £1000 and £3000 and builders can make adjustments to offset the costs.
  • Six areas of Wales will be able bid for local TV services as part of UK Government plans for a network of 65 "Channel 6" community TV stations. Cardiff, Carmarthen, Haverfordwest, Mold, Swansea and Bangor were shortlisted. Up to £40million of licence fee money will be available for start-ups.
  • First Minister Carwyn Jones has condemned rioting in England, saying that it was "a tragedy that there are people in some parts of the UK who have such little respect for others who live in their own community." South Wales and North Wales police forces had sent assistance to London along with more than 30 other forces in England, Scotland and Wales.
  • The National Assembly is half-way towards meeting its target of reducing its own carbon emissions by 40% by 2015. Peter Black AM said that it was "pleasing", and that he was confident that there would be further innovations and ideas for the future.
  • Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams backed a campaign for the voting age to be reduced from 18 to 16.
  • Unemployment in Wales rose by 10,000 to stand at 8.4% in the 3 months to June, higher than the UK average of 7.9%. All of the home nations saw rises in unemployment over the period.
  • Former police officer Byron Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) has revived calls for a single national police force for Wales, saying that it was a realistic option in the face of public spending cuts.
  • There was a slight rise in the number of A*-E passes at A-Level in Wales with 97.2% of students entered achieving a pass in 2011, compared to 97.1% in 2010. There was also a rise in the number of "good" (A*-C) A-Level passes. However there was a fall in the number of A*'s awarded in Wales, falling short of both England and Northern Ireland. In addition more than 8300 students were awarded a Welsh Baccalaureate, the Advanced Diploma being considered the equivalent of an A-grade at A-level by UCAS as well as many, but not all, universities.
  • GCSE results showed another modest improvement on 2010 with a 98.7% pass rate at A*-G and 66.5% of entries earning an A*-C grade. Both figures remain behind England and Northern Ireland although the gap narrowed between Wales and England/Northern Ireland for high grades (A*-A).
  • A BBC Wales Freedom of Information request shown that Welsh ambulances failure to meet a 20-minute turnaround time at hospital accident and emergency departments has cost the Welsh NHS as much as £10million.
  • The Rarer Cancers Foundation charity has warned that cancer patients both Wales and Scotland are more likely to miss out on new cancer drugs - with patients in Wales five times less likely to get such treatments than those in England. The medical director of the Welsh NHS, Dr Chris Jones, has said that he saw no need for a separate cancer drugs fund, with Wales spending £5 per head more than England on cancer treatment and that NICE approved drugs were more readily available in Wales than England.
  • A report by the Chartered Management Institute has shown that Wales has the smallest gender pay gap of all the UK's nations and regions, with men being paid on average £2,441 more than women compared to the UK average of £10,564.
  • Projects announced in August include a 3-year, £125million Work Based Learning initiative part funded by the European Social Fund, a £2.8million skills fund for those working in criminal justice in Wales and a £5.4million revamp of Llandudno railway station.

Monday 29 August 2011

The Welsh are monkeys - forgive us if we can't take a joke....

"The Welshman's dishonest and cheats when he can
A little and dark, more a monkey than man"
Hat tip to Glyn at National Left.

I hadn't written anything on Roger Lewis's review in the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, mainly because it hadn't really generated that much in a way of "controversy" and had been largely ignored. I honestly couldn't decide if it was a satire on stereotypical English views of Wales/Welsh culture or just a wind up designed to draft as many hits as possible to the Daily Mail website.

We Welsh can be a bit precious and touchy at times - I'll admit that - but it's usually not without good reason. We can take the mickey out of each other, but generally don't like others taking the mickey out of us, especially if they come from our nearest neighbour.

We definitely don't like a Dic Sion Dafydd doing it. A certain kind of metropolitan/"civilised" Welshman/woman who feels it's their solemn duty to save us from ourselves without sparing the rod.

This isn't about racism, and we really need to stop crying "racism" whenever something nasty is said.

This isn't a freedom of speech issue either. Roger Lewis and the Daily Mail can print whatever they want as long as they - and the rest of the media - are willing to acknowledge that what's said/written might cause offense, and the reasons why it would.

We're fairly used to getting ribbed about the Welsh language. There are some very funny jokes that don't involve comparing Welsh speakers to lower forms of ape. There are even perfectly legitimate criticisms about how the Welsh language is taught, how it's promoted and its role in modern Welsh culture and society.

Criticising a language itself however is moronic. It's hard to get my head around someone criticising how somebody communicates. Where are the jokes about Slovene, Basque, Flemish and sign-language?

Hebrew shares strong phonological similarities with Welsh, Polish also shares the Welsh affinity for vowels, yet you can bet your life that nobody in the UK press could get away with calling either Hebrew or Polish a "monkey language". The antisemitism accusations alone would finish their career.

"Monkey language". It's that specific phrase that makes this different from anything else that's preceded it. It implies that Welsh is a language for and spoken by monkeys. There's the only issue for me, as for the rest of the review – meh.
The Irish were often depicted as ape-like creatures in magazines like Punch
even as the Great Famine killed thousands.

What images and phrases does "monkey" evoke in this particular context?

"Savage", "sub-human/not quite human", "un-evolved", "uncivilised", "unclean", "primitive", "unenlightened", "backward", "porch monkey", "the Irish monkey" and several stronger epithets that don't need mentioning here.

All thoroughly unpleasant and leading us down roads towards some very, very ugly places.

Roger Lewis chose one word to describe -directly or indirectly -people who speak a specific language, implying they were a selection of the things listed above. It's the sort of chauvinism that belongs in the 19th century. Although I keep hoping it's been eliminated in 21st Century "Britain" here it is once more.

Well-educated and otherwise respectable people are telling us to "laugh it off", "lighten up" or that there was "no malicious intent". All rather depressing, but predictable.

The message coming from the likes of Peter Black and Chris Bryant is clear – if you're a minority and someone implies that your differences make you inferior or unacceptable to the majority you need to "take it on the chin". They don't like a grass.

I look forward to hearing their views on school bullying, religious bigotry and homophobia in the future. In the case of Chris Bryant, his comment about "running to the police" is absolutely priceless given recent and past events.

What were we supposed to think "monkey language" meant, and why are we supposed to find it funny?

Thursday 25 August 2011

Andrew RT Davies - The good and the bad

It's been a quiet summer on the Welsh politics front, but there are stirrings of activity as AMs prepare to return to Cardiff in a few weeks time. Our new leader of the opposition in the Assembly has been  vocal the last week or so, locking horns with Leighton Andrews on exam results, and speaking out on the UK Government's promise to hold a vote on repealing the fox hunting ban.

The Good

"What is social justice? A millionaire getting paracetamol [free]? Or a terminal cancer patient getting a cancer drug that could prolong her life? I think the answer is very obvious, it's the cancer drugs fund we need in Wales."

- Regarding the case of bowel cancer patient Lorraine Redmond from Cardiff, who is considering moving to England to receive life-extending drugs that have been denied to her by Cardiff & Vale NHS Trust.

The Conservatives did have a pledge for a national "Cancer Drugs Fund" in their May manifesto, and even if he gets ahead of himself sometimes, I don't think anyone can doubt his commitment to health.

A sign of consistency in policy.

"I do believe that if politicians make a commitment they should do all in their power to see the commitment through. If politicians say something and put it in writing, they should endeavour to deliver on that."

- His call for the UK Government to honour their election pledge to vote on the hunting ban.

I don't think the issue matters much to many people and personally I think a ban should remain in place. This does show he isn't afraid to stand up (or be seen to stand up) to the UK Government.

Whether he will do so in an issue that actually matters to Wales in the future remains to be seen.

I couldn't picture a Welsh Labour leader doing the same thing if Labour were in power in Westminster.

Good on him.

The Bad

On A-Level Results:

"Regrettably we are propping up the league table on A* and A grade A levels."

Getting facts wrong – check.

"Sadly, the grade levels in Wales are further behind the rest of the UK and there is a further gap between boys and girls."

Talking Wales down/"Six Nations" comparison– check. Wales outperformed some regions of England.

"It is regrettable and it does strike you almost of a former Eastern European dictator denying the obvious. [re. Leighton Andrews]"

Obligatory comparison with Cold War Europe (why oh why do the Welsh Tories keep doing this!?) – check.

"....." (as far as I know)

....on rising unemployment, and warnings that Wales could be "effectively back in recession" on the back of public spending cuts and weak economic growth at UK level.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Enterprise Zones - Do they actually work?

It's one of the ways the UK Government intends to re balance the English economy and promote sustained economic growth. It's been suggested that Wales follow suit, with huffing and puffing that the Welsh Government are dragging their heels.

Does this blast from the Thatcherite past really cut the mustard? Did it ever?

The Enterprise Zone Concept

It's pretty simple.

Land is set aside (currently there are as many as 30 proposed enterprise zones in England) by bidding local authorities - for example, prime development land, part of an industrial estate or an area in need of regeneration. Planning conditions would be relaxed/the process sped up, high-speed broadband would be made available and business rates would be reformed or discounted.

The plan is to create as many as 30,000 jobs. That's that many in the grand scheme of things when you consider unemployment has risen by 38,000 in the UK in the three months to June alone.

The intention is that these 30,000 new jobs would be highly-skilled, blue chip jobs by growing "British" companies. Effectively, these enterprise zones would act as a petri dish for the up and coming companies in growth industries.

What many fear - not without foundation - is that all that will happen is that jobs will simply move from London and the South East to the new zones to take advantage of the relaxed restrictions. In effect, there'll be no net jobs created, just a shift which might have a (negligible) positive impact with regard spreading wealth out from the London/South East England bubble.

If they build it, will they come from Wales?

One of the fears expressed by those finger wagging at the Welsh Government is that Welsh companies could be enticed across the border to one of these enterprise zones if a similar policy isn't enacted in Wales. A major enterprise zone is planned for Bristol, as well as Hereford, the Black Country and Birmingham.

I'd question the viability of any business that moves based on cheaper business rates, fast broadband or relaxed planning rules. I doubt any company is seriously going to set up in one of these zones based on any of these factors. It comes down to more fundamental issues:

Regional skills, access to markets and access to influence (power).

The profiles of Bristol and Cardiff are very similar, with Cardiff coming out of top in many respects such as : numbers of graduates, cheaper office space, and lower cost of living. Bristol however has a superior airport, two better regarded universities, a wealthier hinterland and is closer to London.

Cardiff's ace however, is what the business community is criticising – the Welsh Government.

Bristol has a local council with minimal economic powers and a distant "national" government that has to juggle several large cities. Cardiff has an ambitious local council and is home to a national government that (mind-boggling bureaucracy aside) has always been flexible towards business assistance. The only problem is who's in charge of the Welsh Government and Welsh economy at the moment - at both ends of the M4.
  • All of the Welsh parties were committed to some kind of business rate reform in the May election.
  • The Welsh planning system is due to be reformed off the back of the Economic Renewal Plan, and the Welsh Government's legislative programme.
  • Cardiff has plans for a "Central Business District" of its own, with the previous Welsh Government and Cardiff Council committing a combined £60million towards the project (and it's fair to say that even this isn't enough). That sum dwarfs the £10m that Wales would receive via Barnett formula consequentials for enterprise zones.

These are many of the highlighted benefits of the enterprise zones, of which a large chunk would apply across all of Wales.

Prof.Dylan Jones Evans made a characteristically good case for enterprise zones back in June as a way to promote growth sectors in some parts of Wales. However, as I pointed out in a post a few weeks ago about Cardiff and Swansea, both cities are gradually specialising their respective economies without the need for enterprise zones and with Welsh Government and private sector support.

I wouldn't be packing the bags for Hereford just yet.

The track record of enterprise zones

The idea isn't a new or radical one.

The United States also set up "Urban Enterprise Zones" in the 1980's. Globally, there are numerous examples of "free trade zones" or "special economic zones".

Enterprise zones have worked in the past. Most of Wales' large industrial estates, like Treforest and Bridgend, were set up in the post-war era and the still remain large centres of employment.

In the 1980s, the then Conservative government followed the same tact. Centre for Cities research suggests that these 1980s enterprise zones were far too expensive, with every job created costing £26,000. A few enterprise zones ended up as shopping centres, like Dudley. They didn't create the kind of jobs that were expected, or in the numbers needed, to make an impact on unemployment. The obvious exception to this is the London Docklands, which became a global centre of financial services.

The question we should be asking is how would we measure success?
  • Is it the number of business births on EZ's?
  • The number of jobs moved from London and SE England?
  • The number of completely new jobs created on EZ's?
  • The value added of EZ businesses?
  • The types of jobs created on EZ's?

The UK Government haven't made it clear what would qualify as a successful enterprise zone.

Skepticism isn't limited to amateur commentators like myself. After this year's budge,t the Institute of Fiscal Studies are quoted as finding that the 1980s precedent "was not encouraging as the extra firms and jobs created were mainly due to firms relocating from nearby areas."

Different options for Wales?

Here's a few of my own ideas:
  • Use some existing industrial estate units as incubators for university and FE College spin-out companies, with discounted rents, business mentoring and focused government support. Treforest estate for example could be used by Glamorgan University, UWIC and Cardiff University.
  • Extra Welsh Government assistance/funding for IP protection via Finance Wales.
  • Properly investigate a Welsh stock exchange.
  • Have some sort of national "high growth company" strategy, focusing on business franchises, businesses rapidly seeking expansion both within the UK and abroad, high value added exporters and high-value mergers between Welsh companies.
  • Encourage and assist employee takeovers/cooperatives of companies outsourcing/relocating outside of the EU.
  • The long term replacement of business rates with a tax based on ability to pay, not ratable values of property (i.e. Local sales tax, local income tax).

Thursday 18 August 2011

A new town centre for Talbot Green

The Proposal

In the 1960s-1970s, there were plans for a "new town" at Llantrisant - in the same manner as Cwmbran - and linked to Cardiff by a duel carriageway. Hansard records from 1972 show that up to £300million of public and private money was to be invested. Not a small sum in 70's money.

For whatever reason, the plans by the UK Government never went through. However, the area did develop as a key commuter "town", with no coherent strategy and piecemeal housing developments. The whole Pontyclun/Talbot Green/Llantrsiant area is a bit of a planning mess to be honest.

In the last few weeks Valad and Scarborough Developments unveiled outline proposals for a new £200million "town centre" that is hoped will provide much needed focus to the area, and provide up to 1,900 jobs. The development will include:
  • A replacement store for Leekes and new supermarket
  • Up to 40 other high-street stores, including at least one large department store
  • 2 multi-storey car parks
  • A cinema complex
  • A "restaurant/cafe quarter"
  • A hotel
  • Apartments and townhouses
  • Offices and civic facilities
  • Improvements to cycling and bus facilities

Potential Issues

The site, next to Y Pant Comprehensive, is slap bang in the middle of the "new town" and would be a natural location for such a development. However welcome the jobs and development is, there are a number of concerns.

Firstly the impact on traffic. Valad and Scarborough are also involved in a mooted business park at Mwyndy Cross which has been controversial locally. Their plans there include a grade separated junction on the A4119. However, nearer the new town centre, the roads are unlikely to cope with additional traffic without further upgrades. It's an important route from the Rhondda and Ely Valleys to the M4, in addition to traffic being funnelled from Beddau and Church Village.

In addition, the new town centre is more than a mile away from Pontyclun railway station - and there's no timetable for the (proposed) reintroduction of passenger services on the railway to Beddau (planning permission is being sought to turn it into a cycle path currently). The fact there are two multi-story car parks hints that this isn't going to be a "sustainable" development, transport wise.

Also Talbot Green already has two large "big box" retail parks a stones throw from the new town centre. Lessons need to be learned from nearby Pontypridd. There's currently a redevelopment of the Taff Vale Centre as well as multi-million pound public realm improvements as part of the towns regeneration. The anchor store for the new Taff Vale Centre is...........Poundland.

I don't think it's a good sign when Poundland and anchor store are mentioned in the same sentence.

Could Talbot Green be the first new shopping development entirely housed by charity shops and pound shops? There is a critical mass needed to sustain certain chain stores and judging by the vote-of-little-confidence given to Pontypridd, who's to say it won't happen in Talbot Green?

Sign of a bigger Valleys southward shift?

Could Talbot Green actually attract the bigger chains and could this be part of an inevitable "M4-ing" of the valleys, with people and businesses in Rhondda Cynon Taf shifting southwards.

I believe that people should be "pulled" (economically) from the heads of the valleys area towards the M4. The days of bribing big foreign companies to set up a branch factory in the valleys are long over.

Instead of trying to develop the areas economy (with the exception of indigenous companies and entrepreneurship), the focus should be on quality of life, transport and a gentle depopulation in favour of larger housing developments, key economic developments and larger conurbations in the southern half of the Valleys -  places like Talbot Green, Bridgend, Caerphilly, Risca and Cwmbran/Newport. The area defined as the "Connections Corridor" in the Wales Spatial Plan.

Schemes like this hint that developers realise the trend and think they can make some money out of it. When will tub-thumping Valley politicians "get it" as well?

All in all though, an interesting development well worth keeping an eye on. I'm also slightly jealous as this is the sort of development Bridgend town centre has been crying out for for the best part of a decade. Time for a developer to raise the stakes in Bridgend methinks.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

The Western Mail - Unemployment hysteria redux

Dramatic news today – "Wales has the highest unemployment rate in the UK" screams the headline at Walesonline.

"Surely, not," I thought.

"If unemployment in Wales has risen that much - to top the North East and London - then we have problems. That's got to be at least another 35000 on the dole in Wales."

Unemployment figures Western Mail style (click to enlarge)

Not to my surprise, the first sentence of the article was the factually correct but still misleading "Wales has the highest unemployment rate of any of the UK nations". Although unemployment in Wales has risen sharply by 10000 - bad news in anybody's book - it's also risen sharply in many English regions too. The UK Government should be worried by this (and the Welsh Government to an extent).

I hate having to tread over old ground, but back in April I made the point that unemployment statistics are only ever collected on a nations and regions basis. Ironically unemployment in Wales is marginally lower now than it was in April, despite this unwelcome rise.

The less dramatic "normal" looking unemployment figures (click to enlarge)

We live in a globalised world, and are part of a powerful supra-national state in the form of the EU. If the Western Mail really want to use the national angle, they should do so in it's proper context, that is comparing it with the rest of the EU, not just the "British Bubble".

If not, stick to the ONS's nations and regions, of which Wales is far from the worst performing one.
Welsh unemployment in an international context - yet again (click to enlarge)

I realise bad news sells, but Wales isn't going to get a wooden spoon. This isn't the Six Nations.

There are many good things about the Western Mail in particular its business coverage and it's domestic politics coverage.

I just can't take the paper seriously when it keeps doing stuff like this.

Monday 15 August 2011

Cardiff v Swansea : Inter-city rivalry can drive mutual prosperity

Swansea University has ambitious expansion plans that could be
worth £3billion to the economy of south west Wales
(Pic: ITV Wales Blog)
In most nations, there are rivalries between the top two cities. One will be the elder child - the "capital", whether economic or administrative. The other will be the "heart", the down to earth spirit that sums up the nation. Wales has Cardiff – the smug cosmopolitan trendy capital that can't decide if it's Welsh or not, and its sidekick Swansea – the neglected laid-back industrial "town" that encapsulates the tortured, pessimistic Welsh soul.

There are fewer more instantly recognisable lists of towns and cities in the World than the English Premier League. Defying everybody's expectations, the first Welsh club to get there wasn't from the capital, but the sidekick, less than an hour down the M4. The ultimate act of sporting one-upmanship that brought scenes of unbridled joy to Swansea City fans all over while those of Cardiff City focus intently on more "what ifs" and another season in an increasingly competitive Championship.

Unfortunately, Swansea has a big inferiority complex. It's not any politicians fault that High Street is one of the worst gateways to a city centre in the UK, or that brutalist architecture dominates the skyline. The Luftwaffe should shoulder the blame for that. Swansea has never really taken to the "city" designation mentally. This can be endearing, and foster a greater sense of community, but the moaning, like that of Swansea Council's leader, Chris Holley, in a letter to Vince Cable last year (one of the most cringe-worthy incidents by an elected official in Wales in the last decade) do little but strengthen the impression that Swansea has a big chip on its shoulder. Wales is guilty of this in general at a UK level as well.

The rivalry between Cardiff and Swansea should be a driving force for good, not enmity or jealousy. Although more dependent on big public sector employers, and still vulnerable to UK government cuts, Swansea is establishing itself as a city of brains. Swansea University is in the early stages of a new £400million campus development in partnership with BP and the Welsh Government, which will house its engineering, scientific and technical departments. It's claimed the development would be worth up to £3billion to the local economy.

In the last week, university spin-out company Haemair announced additional funding from the Welsh Government for the continued development of artificial lungs due for clinical trials in the next two years. This follows in the footsteps of other successful Swansea-based technology companies like lighting specialists Photonstar (formerly Enfis), Acuitas Medical, Allerna Therapeutics and IT companies like Small Planet Technology. They're starting small, but there's no reason they couldn't grow given the right conditions.

Swansea's natural city-region hinterland is huge, encompassing both its urban neighbour Neath Port Talbot as well as Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and southern parts of Ceredigion and Powys. It may be mostly rural, but the population must be pushing 700,000+. Taking advantage of these large hinterlands is a challenge Swansea, Cardiff  - and to a lesser extent Newport and Wrexham - need to rise to in order to fulfill their potential.

Cardiff is using its capital status in a different way. The Porth Teigr development in Cardiff Bay hopes to make Cardiff a hub of media and creative industries - one of the sectors listed in the Economic Renewal Plan for special focus. A strong financial, property and legal services base is beginning to find a home there too - with work on Admiral Group's new HQ imminent and expansions by the likes of Capital Law, New Law and Hugh James. Property developers like JR Smart are transforming the capital's skyline. The best part is all these companies are Welsh and don't lack ambition or risk-taking. Wales is finally developing the indigenous enterprises we need to push forward into the economic big time. For the foreseeable future, most of these sorts of companies will come from, or base themselves in, Cardiff.

Both cities are specialising their economies to a large extent. Both cities, although competitors, can also readily compliment each other. This is especially true if competition moves off the football and rugby pitch and into architecture, economic development and regeneration. Trying to get one over on each other in these respects would do wonders for the Welsh economy.

I've been to both Swansea and Cardiff over the summer on (rare) sunny days. Both cities have different feels about them. Cardiff is confident, moneyed but a little bit bland and lacking definition. It feels like a American-inspired 20th century boom city like Portland or Seattle rather than a European capital.

Swansea definitely feels more "Welsh" in a south Wales sense, but were it not for the poor state of the pavement, my walk up Walter Road could easily have been San Francisco while the beach area felt stereotypically southern California - spoiled only by poor seafront architecture. I'd even go far as to argue that Swansea's dock redevelopment trumps Cardiff's. It all felt a bit more organic and coherent. Then again everything looks good in the sun!

Make no mistake, with enough will, planning and determination, Swansea will be able to look Cardiff in the eye confidently at all levels and a lot sooner than people think.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Dai Jones Index - Time for a Welsh Stock Exchange?

Proposals for a Welsh "regional" stock exchange have been mooted several times down the years, and reared it's head once more in the Western Mail this week. It was in the Lib Dem's manifesto for the last Assembly elections, with Jenny Randerson being a vocal proponent during the last Assembly. Earlier this year, the previous Welsh Government were offering economic research grants of up to £20,000 towards various projects - including a feasibility study for a Welsh stock exchange.

In the current economic climate, it's vital that the Welsh Government assist businesses in finding alternative ways of raising capital. The banks are seemingly neglecting their responsibilities in lending to SME's while the Economic Renewal Programme commits the Welsh Government to move away from business grants towards repayable loans – in large, the right decision.

In addition Wales also has Finance Wales - which makes commercial investments in Welsh businesses - and there's also a (rather complicated) cobweb of various schemes aimed towards entrepreneurs and business mentoring like Menter a Busnes and EU schemes such as JESSICA.

A Welsh exchange is another way that extra funds can be raised without additional burden on the state. Though it's not without its own pitfalls.

Dr Eurfyl ap Gwylim, of Principality Building Society and Plaid Cymru's economic advisor, says that it wouldn't be "at the top of his list of priorities". I tend to agree with him. There are bigger structural problems with the Welsh economy at the moment - such as those relating to infrastructure, both physical (i.e. transport) and related to business (i.e. Business rates). However there's no harm in looking at the proposal in more detail.

If we use the likes of the West Midlands regional exchange (Investbx) and the Irish Stock Exchange as template, a Welsh exchange would likely need around 50 companies on board to be viable. At the moment, on both the FTSE and AIM indices, there are only 12 Welsh companies listed.

However, if we look at Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans's Top 300, there are certainly enough medium to large companies to support an exchange with some clout, with 103 Welsh companies having an end-year turnover of £50million+ in 2010.

There is, for some reason, a reluctance amongst Welsh companies to list.

Could an exchange closer to home, readily accessible and with some government backing change that?

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Reading the Riot Act

(Pic : BBC News)

Perhaps I'm tempting fate, but IMHO we've probably seen a peak of the rioting in London.

The bigger issue now, is whether copycat looting and rioting spreads in any meaningful way to other large cities in England over the coming nights.

It's been said that the Metropolitan Police make up a quarter of all police resources in the UK. Yet last night, on an ordinary working day, they visibly lost control of parts of the UK's capital. I don't think there are any excuses on their behalf, they were caught with their trousers down and outmaneuvered by "feral" inner city thugs and criminals via social media.

The police are also no doubt tired, cranky and overstretched by now. The London Fire Brigade also. We have to remember there are ordinary people behind the riot shields and fire engines. They're not super humans.

What can the UK government and/or London Mayor do to restore order?

The relevant legislation is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

One of it's definitions of an "emergency" is an "event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in the United Kingdom".

Some of the Act's provisions have already been enacted. The England friendly versus the Netherlands has been called off, as have several other mid-week football games. There are also provisions for curfews, limiting movement and protecting key buildings and services.

Is drafting in outside forces sustainable if the rioting spreads?
If we see similar scenes like we have in Croydon in other cities - even with the cancellation of police leave and the drafting in of extra resources from other forces - then the UK Government may have no other option than use full emergency powers.

Recalling parliament is a futile and pointless gesture. At the moment there needs to be leadership, not debate or political opportunism. That can wait until the situation is under control.

The "hang-em, flog-em" brigade are calling for baton rounds, water cannons and the army to be put on the streets. Although I don't believe for an instant that these options will be taken off the table, they're only worthwhile as an absolute last resort.

Using plastic bullets and water cannons would set back public-police relations in these so-called "communities" a generation, while using the army is an admission of failure/defeat by the police.

This isn't Grand Theft Auto.

Troops on London streets less than a year before the Olympics? It was never going to happen. No doubt that will disappoint armchair generals like Nigel Farage and the 24-hour news channels.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Differences between Wales and England - The Higgitt Question

Over on Wales Home last week, an interesting debate broke out in the comments section of an article by Adam Jones of Blog Banw. Adam Higgitt asked an unrelated, if interesting, question.
What are the differences between Wales and England and why do they warrant a separate constitutional settlement?

Believe it or not, this is actually the short version..........get the coffee.


1. Wales is a centre-left nation. England isn't "right wing" by default, just a greater predisposition to vote Conservative and more marginal seats.

Yeah, it's a lazy one. The assumption is that Wales is dominated by centre-left politics, for good or for bad. Labour effectively run a one-party dominant system over large swathes of Wales. Next you have Plaid Cymru who are ideologically to the left of Labour. Even our Conservative and Lib Dem parties are a bit closer to the centre on policy than their UK counterparts.

England swings by a larger margin towards or away from ruling parties and there are far more floating voters. Wales's elections are far more predictable and by and large, we'll vote in a centre-left majority.

Why should Wales be beholden to policies from parties we don't vote for? Devolution has answered this one to a large extent, though, of course, nationalists will argue that it should extend to every single policy area.

2. Welsh (and Scottish) nationalism is less eurosceptic than English and British nationalism.

Plaid Cymru's long-term constitutional aim is "independence within the European Union" - similarly the SNP. Far from being cave-dwelling 19th century romantics, Welsh civic nationalism embraces cooperation at European level. There are certain to be English nationalists who share this also, of course, but there doesn't seem to be any outlet for them - except perhaps the Greens or to an extent the Liberal Democrats.

Does English Democrat, BNP or UKIP policy on international cooperation end at the English Channel? The loudest opponents of the EU seem to come from east of Offa's Dyke. Though that doesn't mean euroscepticism doesn't have a role in Welsh politics, it doesn't seem to have made much of an impact bar a single MEP and some disappointing Assembly results.

Does Wales have a different outlook on foreign policy and what our international role should be compared to the rest of the UK? The answer -if we compare it to other policy areas - is a likely yes, but we don't have avenues to express it because foreign policy isn't devolved.

3. Welsh public policy is based around equal access to public services, England's is based on choice and competition as a means to promote excellence.

This is where policy between Wales and England is diverging most, and certainly warrants a separate constitutional settlement. In a sparsely populated country like Wales, there's very little "choice" in what school or hospital you use for topographical reasons. Policies like foundation hospitals and academies would've been largely fruitless. In Wales, the onus is on providing a sustainable level of public service for everyone.

You can argue from performance data that this has led to mediocrity and complacency compared to the English system of choice, flexibility and competition. Of course, in a nation of 50million+ with large metropolitan areas (and many sparsely ones too it must be said), such policies can be made to work and can be popular. Which approach is the right one is a matter for debate.

Will the English, via the UK Government, be happy to continue subvention towards increasingly different systems from their own? The answer is probably no. This isn't in itself a case for independence or further devolution, but once more raises questions about how Wales would approach non-devolved issues based on a distinctly Welsh public policy.

Political incompatibility that has no avenue for resolution leads to escalated tension.


1. "Middle Wales" less upwardly-mobile and more public-sector oriented while "Middle England" (and the UK as a whole) is private-sector oriented and shape, rather than make, public policy.

In Wales (and some parts of England) the only stable, highly paid work has traditionally been in public sector roles such as teaching, civil service, nursing, medicine, dentistry etc. As a result, the Welsh middle class are more likely to be unionised and at the forefront of public policy at all levels.

Wales also has a "working class mythos" that's hard coded into our national story, and acts as a social leveller. In Wales, the head of government could be seen pushing a pram down Adare Street. That just doesn't happen at the UK level.

There is a distinctively Welsh "social" egalitarianism - it could even be described as a matriarchy - that doesn't exist elsewhere in the UK. There's far more consultation and far less grandstanding, which means that big projects sometimes move at depressingly slow rates compared to England.

Does this happen in England? Of course. However, the English middle class are far more likely to have jobs in the private sector, far more likely to travel in general for business and leisure and will read different newspapers, have marginally more disposable income and support different cultural events. The howls of outrage from the London cultural elite when Zaha Hadid's Opera House in Cardiff was dropped for the "parochial" Millennium Centre is an example of this difference.

They are treated more as a massive focus group rather than a group that is at the heart of policy delivery.

The bigger question is can Wales, and it's needs, ever be taken seriously at the UK's top tables when we have broadly different ideas about what sort of people should be sitting there?

Here's a question for Unionists; will someone representing a Welsh constituency ever hold one of the UK "Great Offices of State" ever again?

If the answer is no, then is the UK truly a "union" in the proper sense of the word? Is there an emerging Malay-style privilege in favour of the English or is it just a natural reaction to devolution?

If it's the latter then England will need its own constitutional settlement separate from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland if the union is to survive in the long term.

2. The Welsh economy is based on exports and low-level manufacturing like other smaller European nations. England by itself is a global economic power with foundations built on global financial services. It's a complete mismatch and a one-size-fits-all macroeconomic policy can hurt Wales.

Wales lacks high value added jobs in business, finance and the quaternary sector. These kind of "megajobs" rarely base themselves outside of "global cities". England has several : London , Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham. Scotland has one, Edinburgh. Belfast probably sneaks in as one too.

Cardiff doesn't come close. Swansea can forget it. Absolutely anyone can set up a small business making car parts - Wales does well at this kind of thing. We're even pretty decent at energy generation, supply line processing, some specialised areas of high-technology (such as optronics, some aspects of IT and aerospace) and we are finally building a more solid financial and legal services base.

Being in a unitary state where one nation's wealth generation vastly outstrips that of the others, disproportionately makes Wales look bad for investment and as an economy - even if that's not the case on the ground. It's an unfortunate but crippling side effect. Wales will always be aiming for an economic target completely beyond our reach.

Does the UK's macroeconomic policy help the Welsh economy? Or will it always maximise tax-revenues and growth in the most productive parts (London and SE England)? Does Wales need its own macroeconomic policy - that works to our economic strengths -which are clearly different from England and by extension the UK?

3. Wales has a romanticism about a "cradle-to-grave" government role. England as a whole is much more flexible and open towards public sector reform and the rule of law is more important than "being ruled".

Wales has never been weaned off the role of big government (economically or psychologically) and the Welsh turn to government because - for some reason, perhaps born out of industrial hardships - government (whether UK, Welsh or Local) is seen as part of a grander "safety net" that protects the Welsh people from adversity (part of the working class mythos). The NHS for example, is seen as Wales' baby. Private interests in public services are met with some suspicion in Wales. It could be a legacy of past poor labour v capital relations that's integrated into Welsh history in a way not seen in England as a whole.

In England, in times of adversity the people are more likely to turn to the rule of law. The police and courts are held in higher regard than government generally. Organised labour and big capital are equally mistrusted and that means reforms to government and public services are much easier to sell to the English public than the Welsh. England doesn't have a romanticism about the government's role because they - as a nation - have never needed government as a crutch.

If there's a big problem in England, they look to the courts, inquiries etc. If there's a same problem in Wales, they'll turn to the local council, form a committee, go to an MP/AM or the relative public body.

If the view of the role of government is fundamentally different, then isn't there a need for different governments? Why create needless tensions for the sake of keeping one "symbolic" sovereign parliament?


1. Cymraeg
Despite loan words from English, or English words that have been "Welshified", Welsh is completely different from English in almost every single way. Different alphabet, different syntax, different linguistic evolutions.

We should be proud that it's lasted thousands of years against the odds, and I believe the majority of Welsh people support the language even if they don't speak it - including myself. It's a massive part of what defines us as a nation and our shared history.

Likewise, England should be proud of English - its greatest export. It's produced some of the world's greatest literature and poetry, and provides a means of communication for billions globally.

Wales is the only officially bilingual part of the UK. That makes us very different indeed from England. Wales has two avenues of expression in addition to all the other minority languages of various immigrants down the years. That's absolutely priceless in an increasingly homogeneous US-dominated media and entertainment industry.

As Cymraeg is inherently Welsh, shouldn't Wales have the ultimate custodianship of it at all levels?

2. Wales and England have different attitudes towards high culture and sport. There are also distinctly different attitudes towards pursuing them.

Wales and rugby union. England and football. It's not as clear cut as that but there are underlying differing attitudes towards sport and culture.

Wales takes performing arts quite seriously, but less formally, compared to England. It's that old "land of song" stereotype but Wales does produce more than it's fair per-capita share of singers, actors etc. Katherine Jenkins is something of a national icon in Wales. If she were English she would probably just be another opera singer confined to Times and Guardian reviews. Performing arts in Wales are at a level playing field as long as you have the talent.

In England it does seem to be something for the middle classes and a skill that to be honed to the highest level. It goes back to the differences between attitudes to public services : equal access v competition and excellence. England doesn't really have an equivalent of the Urdd or the Eisteddfod for example, though Scotland has the Mod. England's high culture, however, if far more avant garde and cutting edge/innovative while Wales is more traditional and grounded - although that's changing.

When it comes to sport in Wales, it's about participation at the expense of elite performance. We have tons of sports clubs, spreading talent thinly - but as long as every village can put out a team, we're happy. Wales also has an enviable record of producing world-class disabled athletes.

In England, it's about excellence on an globally fair playing field. If the English football team were ranked 112th in the World it would be a national scandal, in Wales, we tut and moan but don't do anything about it, we even accept it. It might be a different case with the rugby team of course!

Culture and sport are about projecting all that's good about England (and using England as a vehicle for the UK or Great Britain) to the World. In Wales it's about entrenching identity and belonging, maintaining a semblance of cultural difference in a top-heavy union. Wales protects. England projects. Introversion vs Extroversion. Night and day.

One thing Wales, England and the rest of the UK share is a sense of "fair play". This doesn't mean that how we approach things like culture, broadcasting and the media are the same across the UK. Seeing as Welsh culture is a more important stamp of national identity, should Wales set the political policies and priorities as a distinct nation with a distinct culture?

3. Welsh Nonconformism v Church of England

This difference in thought on one of the most basic matters – religion, probably did more to re-establish Wales as a separate nation within the UK until the creation of the Welsh Office. The Welsh Revivals also brought the Welsh language back to the heart of Welsh cultural life, shoring it up despite repeated attempts to snuff it out.

The (at the time controversial) disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales was one of the the first times since the Laws in Wales Acts and the Wales and Berwick Act that a separate "Welsh way of doing things", like the Sunday Closing Act, was formally acknowledged by the UK government, long after Scotland and Ireland.

Would this have even been considered had there not been a nonconformist Welsh Prime Minister at the time? Or would it have been "too controversial" to pass? Why should it have been when there was a clear difference between Wales and England?

Legal & Geographic

1. Wales is developing a distinct body of Welsh law.

A separate legal jurisdiction from England is unavoidable if these laws are to be enforced effectively. Wales' border will be locked in permanently, and any changes to the delivery of services will have to take place within Wales's borders, not on an "England and Wales" basis or technocratic cross-border super-regions.

2. Wales and England need different approaches to climate change and the environment based on geography, climate, their relative economies and topography.

One of the areas devolution in Wales can point to some significant success is the environment.

In Wales, there isn't an immediate threat from rising sea levels or coastal flooding (with a few very obvious exceptions). Likewise, Wales' more maritime and upland climate makes drought a much lesser concern than some parts of England. You can even argue - as Rhodri Morgan once did rather ham-fistedly - that climate change could, to a certain degree, benefit Wales in terms of agriculture and tourism. Personally I'd rather not live in that world.

In Wales the environmental policy emphasis should be (and largely is) on better management and stewardship - for example : reducing carbon emissions from industry, reducing waste, public responsibility and more renewable energy. Being a net-exporter of electricity, Wales can help England go some way to meeting its own targets, but only if Wales has control over it and aims to meet the Welsh Government's own ambitions. Similarly for other natural resources.

England has several more deeper and fundamental issues that don't get anywhere near the attention they deserve : overcrowding in the south east, drought and pressure on resources (again largely in the south east). Also along the east coast of England in particular, issues such as coastal erosion and coastal flooding on a scale far beyond that of Wales. In addition, being an energy importer brings into question the security of those supplies.

Flooding and extreme weather in general is another big environmental concern that affects Wales and England equally, but Wales has a landscape and geography far better equipped to deal with significant rainfall changes than England on the surface of it.

There's a chance for mutually beneficial cooperation on the environment in a post-devolution (or post-independence) world, but it will have to be on a government to government, equal-to-equal basis.

3. Wales has an east-west divide, England has a north-south divide.

Based largely on topography and a "extractive" transport network, Wales is divided along east-west axis rather than north-south. The eastern half of Wales (Powys, Deeside, coastal Gwent, Cardiff and the M4 corridor) are the wealthier areas containing the economic "powerhouses" while the west contains the sparsely populated parts of Wales and the de-industrialised Valleys. It mirrors perfectly the EU's NUTS2 area for Wales.

England's situation is far more complicated. There are northern areas that are major regional centres - such as Manchester and Leeds - likewise there are areas in the south that are economically deprived - like some inner-city London boroughs and coastal towns like Hastings.

There's a clear and growing gap between the north and south in England, with no real attempt to close it, leading to the overheating of the south east and London. The regions of England are on their own by and large and this has led to a few successes but nothing to close the gap in any real terms.

In Wales however, there have been decades-long attempts to bridge the "east-west" gap - from EU funding through to social programmes and transport projects. It comes down once again to Welsh equal access v English competition and excellence. It's seen as a failure in Wales if a region - for example Ceredigion - cannot access the same services or economic opportunities as Cardiff, however unsustainable that might be. In England it's more about spreading prosperity out from successful areas - for example enterprise zones and high-speed rail. Clearly different approaches to a similar problem.