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Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Senedd Watch - January 2012

I've now added an "Independence Index" page in the top bar which will include my current and future posts relating to nationalism, devolution or Welsh independence categorised by subject matter. It also includes a list of future blogposts I'm yet to write and an expected date for when to expect them.
  • Building regulations were devolved to the National Assembly on December 31st. Environment Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) hopes it will enable the Welsh Government to "deliver a 55% improvement on 2006 [carbon emission reduction] requirements for new homes".
  • A row over export figures has broken out, after the First Minister said in a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron that 50% of Welsh exports were to the European Union. Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards and Conservative economic commentator Prof. Dylan Jones-Evans have both said that exports to the EU amounted to just 39.9% in the final quarter of 2011, while Wales exported significantly more to North America than the UK average.
  • Nominations for the next leader of Plaid Cymru opened on January 3rd and closed on January 26th. Dafydd Elis Thomas, Elin Jones, Simon Thomas and Leanne Wood will be the leadership candidates.
  • The Archbishop of Cardiff has criticised the Welsh Government's proposed opt-out organ donation law saying that "our bodies are not the an asset of the state." The Church in Wales held a public debate on the issue.
  • Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli) claimed that the A&E department at Prince Phillip Hospital in Llanelli is being "bypassed" by ambulances - suggesting patients are being transported to Carmarthen or Swansea. This comes as Hywel Dda NHS trust undertakes a review of hospital services in Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
  • The number of district nurses in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg Health Board have fallen, while the number of patients has risen according to figures obtained by Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West). He said he was concerned "increasing workloads will take their toll on the health of district nursing staff".
  • UCAS figures show that applications to Welsh universities fell by 9.3% up until December 2011 compared to a whole UK figure of 6.3%. Other figures also suggest that Wales is struggling to retain graduates with 34.6% of new graduates leaving Wales between 2003 and 2007. However the home student rate in Wales was higher than many regions of England.
  • The Welsh Government says that the Welsh NHS will remove and replace faulty breast implants of women based on clinical need. The faulty implants were manufactured by a French company and differing government responses to the potential risks, as well as the role of private clinics, had led to confusion.
  • Four nations : Botswana, Lesotho, Mexico and Liberia, have chosen Wales as a training base for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) said that the training camps would "provide opportunities to develop sporting, educational and cultural exchanges with countries that come to Wales and provide opportunities for children and local communities to get involved".
  • The First Minister criticised the UK Government's decision to use tunnels to ease concerns about the environmental impact of a £32bn high speed rail network in England in the Welsh Secretary's constituency of Chesham & Amersham. The First Minister said that the £500m cost of the tunnel amounted to "buying off" Cheryl Gillan, who threatened to resign from the Cabinet over the issue.
  • The proposed 30 new Westminster constituencies in Wales have been unveiled by the Boundary Commission for Wales. The reduction by 10 MP's is the result of a UK Government decision to equalise Westminster constituency sizes.
  • Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) criticised a 500m "no go zone" around the Millennium Stadium during the 2012 Olympics as a missed opportunity to promote Welsh business. The Welsh Government responded by saying they were tied by Olympic rules which protect corporate sponsors and were a condition to allow Cardiff to host events.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) rejected calls by the National Union of Teachers, and Simon Thomas AM, to abandon plans to introduce school banding for Welsh primary schools. Conservative education spokeswoman Angela Burns (Con, Carms. West & South Pembs.) said that while she was not opposed to school measurements, she was "concerned about the way the categories were weighted." He has also been criticised by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) for deciding to stop producing figures showing a funding gap between English and Welsh schools. This is due to there no longer being a consistent comparison between the two sets of figures.
  • Deputy Minister for Agriculture Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) gave a keynote speech to the National Farmers Union saying that Common Agricultural Policy reform was at the top of his agenda to "meet the needs of farming, of rural communities and Wales as a whole." He also aims to reduce bureaucracy and regulation for the farming industry. He also welcomed the development of a new feed for cows developed at Aberystwyth University that would help produce premium milk all year round. The project will be supported by the Welsh Government via an EU programme.
  • Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) has held talks with her UK counterparts relating to a debt crisis at Cardiff-based clothing retailer Peacocks. Peacocks failed to find new investors and entered administration on January 18th with the loss of 249 jobs. Peacocks is one of Wales's largest private companies, employing 10,000 people in the UK.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 1,000 to 8.9% in the three months to November 2011. Unemployment across the UK rose by 118,000 to 8.4%.
  • There have been calls for Wales to "opt out" of a UK Government proposal for an 80mph speed limit on motorways. Sustainable Transport Cymru says and increase in the speed limit could lead to more accidents and increased carbon emissions.
  • A Plaid Cymru review into their poor election performance in last year's Assembly election  made 95 recommendations, including a possible English-name of Welsh National Party, a new Academy for campaigning and organising and clearer leadership and accountability. Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym, who chaired the review, also criticised the performance of some Plaid spokespeople saying they need to "pull their socks up" and need a "sound understanding of their own brief."
  • A Welsh Government report into support for micro-businesses (that employ under 10 people) has concluded that it's "confusing" and that regulation was "overwhelming". It calls for a single-brand for business support. Edwina Hart welcomed the report and said she intends to "take forward their recommendations".
  • Minister for Communities & Local Government Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) unveiled a Welsh Government target of a 50% reduction in road deaths in Wales - including a 65% reduction in child deaths. High-risk drivers like young drivers will be targeted in particular and officials will launch consultations with road safety organisations and the police.
  • Funding for a race body – All Wales Ethnic Minority Association (AWEMA) – was suspended by the Welsh Government after its chief executive Naz Malik was accused of nepotism and corruption in running the organisation. Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), chair of the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee,  said he would welcome a police investigation due to the nature of some of the allegations.
  • A tourism survey by Visit Wales has found that visitors rate Wales highly, scoring 9/10 in many areas including general satisfaction, friendliness and the natural environment. Edwina Hart welcomed the findings and said that she was pleased that Wales "lived up to the promise."
  • The First Minister joined school children to celebrate the 90th year of Urdd Gobaith Cymru at the organisation's centre at Llangrannog, Ceredigion. Special receptions were also held at the Welsh Office and Downing Street by Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
  • The Assembly's Petitions Committee will allow opponents of energy schemes to put forward their views in a call for evidence after the committee received three separate petitions relating to waste-to-energy plants.
  • The Assembly's Enterprise & Business Committee will launch a high-level inquiry into Wales' airports and seaports. It comes as Cardiff Airport saw a 10% fall in passenger numbers in 2010. Committee chair Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said that "if Wales is unable to to connect to the world through it's ports and airports it makes our ambitions much more difficult to realise."
  • School inspectorate Estyn published its annual report and its findings suggest that up to 40% of pupils arrive at secondary school with a reading age below their chronological age. It also found that most pupils feel safe at school, teaching standards were generally good but that disadvantaged and more able pupils were both not achieving as well as they could.

Projects announced in January include : a joint Wales-EU £30million "Skills Growth Wales" fund to improve skills in Welsh companies until 2015, £1.3million towards a flood prevention scheme in Pontypridd, £2million towards the development of a motorsports park in Blaenau Gwent, approval for a £16million revamp of Cardiff Royal Infirmary, a joint Wales-EU £2million fund for "high growth start-up" companies and an £82million fund to train 2,000 non-medical NHS staff.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Linking north and south Wales by rail

Before I'm accused of being a fantasist, this is a "money no object" idea, not a serious proposal. I need to make that crystal clear. And if you think this post is long - just wait until next week!

The Challenge

The economic difference between the lowland east Wales and the highland west Wales is stark. In the latest figures, East Wales (Cardiff & Vale, E Gwent, Powys and NE Wales) had a GVA per capita that was 91.4% of the UK average. In contrast West Wales & the Valleys was just 62.8%. So while there are clear challenges in catching up with the rest of the UK, we have to remember there's a huge chasm within Wales that needs to be bridged to ensure an equal spread of prosperity.

One of the main reasons for this - in my opinion - is because of the sparsity of population in rural Mid Wales and its lack of connections with the surrounding areas. In a national context, the lack of adequate connections between major centres of the north and north west with the M4 corridor and Deeside reduces social mobility, whilst increasing the gap between the wealthy east and the stunted west. Also, yes from a nationalist perspective it does hinder the "unity" of Wales.

The Welsh rail network has often been described as "extractive". After several line closures, what we were left with were three networks. A south and south west Wales one. A mid Wales one linking Aberystwyth and Pwllheli to Shewsbury and Birmingham (as well as the Heart of Wales line). And the North Wales network - linked heavily to Manchester. All lines head east, and are joined by the Marches Line which acts as a "spine". It wasn't always like this though. There was a time when you could travel by rail between Cardiff and Aberystwyth with no problems and even from Swansea to Wrexham without spending much time in England.

The Current Situation

The Marches Line between Newport and Chester is the de-facto "north south" mainline for Wales. Indeed there are direct services between Cardiff and Holyhead – taking a torturous 4 or 5 hours to complete and not linking sufficiently with the major centre in north Wales – Wrexham. I don't think there's any reason to change its role. Indeed improved services via Wrexham are forthcoming once various improvements are made to track between Wrexham and Chester. The Marches Line should still be the "main" north-south line.

It's central and north west Wales that needs the links to the south. Aberystwyth has no direct rail service to Cardiff, and subsequently neither does Machynlleth, Porthmadog, Pwllheli, Newtown or Welshpool. It's perfectly possible to do this via Shrewsbury, but it would likely be a typically torturous 4 hour journey.

This is a huge swathe of Wales "cut off" from its more prosperous parts and its seat of government. As said before, in my opinion, the lack of major centres in rural parts of Wales is one reason why it's being held back economically. I believe that there are certain towns that could benefit from planned expansion - focusing on retaining young people in particular, and ensuring that in many communities Welsh can remain a living language. If we want the jobs, the services and the investment that rural parts of Wales are crying out for, they're going to need improved links with each other and with "East Wales".

A Proposal for North-South Rail

Back in 2008, community organisation Ein Blaenau put forward a proposal for a north-south rail link (more on that at Prof. Dylan Jones Evans). It was fairly ambitious, but the route was torturous travelling north from Cardiff, through the Brecon Beacons, Mid Wales and on to the north Wales coast via Corwen and Denbigh. Although railways like the Clwyd Valley line should be on the list for reopening in the future I actually think there's an "easier" way to link north and south effectively without having to drive reopened lines through the Brecon Beacons or the Clwydian Range.

I'm outlining five separate "big projects" to hopefully fullfil these strategic aims:

1. Improve links between north east Wales, Merseyside and Cardiff.
2. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to the M4 corridor.
3. Directly link major settlements in Mid and North West Wales to Wrexham and Merseyside.
4. Improve connections with major English settlements in the Midlands and North West.
5. Improve rail services for existing settlements in eastern Carmarthenshire, Powys and Ceredigion.
6. Allow direct north-east to south-west rail services (Wrexham-Swansea) not only for passengers but as an alternative freight route (i.e. To/from Milford Haven).

All the screen caps are taken from Google Earth. I'm not an economist, engineer or an accountant so the cost estimates are based largely on existing projects elsewhere.

1. Upgrade to the Welsh Marches Line

  • Electrification and track speed upgrades.
  • Aim of getting Wrexham-Cardiff journey times to as close to 2hr15m as possible, with knock-on improvements to Holyhead-Cardiff journey times.
  • Even better journey times possible with electrification of north Wales coast line.
  • Improved journey times between Marches towns (i.e Hereford & Shrewsbury) and Cardiff, expanding Cardiff & Newport's economic catchment area.
  • Electrification would allow improved rolling stock (i.e. Penedlino), reduced travel times, less wear on the track and improved passenger experience.
  • Possible additional freight or passenger paths.
  • Electrification in the Gwent area as part of a "south Wales metro" between Abergavenny, Cardiff Central and Newport.
  • Estimated cost - ~£200million (based on £0.8m per km of double track electrified)

2. Swansea District Line – West Wales Line Gorseinon Link

Gorseinon Link (click to enlarge)
  • Could be either single or double track, part of the former line between Pontarddulais and Swansea Docks.
  • Allows direct services to Swansea from Heart of Wales Line without having to turn back at Llanelli, improving journey times.
  • New station at Gorseinon, might require relocation of Gowerton station to allow a new junction.
  • Could form part of a wider Swansea/Carmarthenshire metro system including reopening of the Amman Valley line and new stations (i.e. Cockett) pushing Swansea's economic catchment area firmly into eastern Carmarthenshire and southern Powys.
  • Part of the line has been built on, CPO issues. Would require a segregated crossing over/under the A484. Would probably require resignalling in parts.
  • Estimated costs - ~£50million

3. Rebuilt Mid Wales Railway

Moat Lane - Llanidloes (click to enlarge)
Llanidloes- Nantgwyn (click to enlarge)

Nantgwyn - Rhayader (click to enlarge)

Rhayader - Newbridge on Wye (click to enlarge)
Newbridge on Wye - Builth Junction (click to enlarge)
  • Complete reopening of 55km of Mid Wales Railway between Builth Wells and remodelled Moat Lane Junction near Caersws.
  • Could be a mix of single track and double track passing loops to improve line resilience.
  • New stations at Llanidloes and Rhayader – could negate need for Rhayader Bypass and other road improvements.
  • Would allow direct services between Aberystwyth, Pwllheli, Barmouth, Porthmadog and Newtown to Cardiff (via Swansea District Line), Swansea (via Gorseinon Link) and West Wales (via Llanelli).
  • Could also allow direct Llandudno-South Wales services via link between Blaenau Ffestinog and the Cambrian Coast line near Penrhyndeudraeth (link here to Syniadau article)
  • Drastically improved services to/from larger settlements south of Builth Wells (Llandovery, Ammanford, Pontarddulais, Llandeilo).
  • Aim for an Aber-Cardiff journey of 3hrs 20m and Aber-Swansea journey of 2hrs 40m
  • Should be built with electrification in mind.
  • Would likely require improvements to Heart of Wales Line south of Builth Wells and Cambrian Coast Line, including reinstating some double track, for optimum travel times.
  • Direct trains to Cardiff & Swansea shouldn't call at request stops, causing scheduling issues.
  • Some major engineering work required, might not follow exactly the same route as former Mid Wales Railway.
  • Serious environmental, CPO and private access issues. Would likely be strongly opposed by some, welcomed by others.
  • "Nationally and strategically important" but unlikely to have a strong business case.
  • Seat of government in Powys (Llandrindod Wells) effectively left out, would require good connections at Builth Wells.
  • Would require a new bypass of Llanidloes, easily costing £40million+
  • Estimated cost – At the very least ~£400million

4. Rebuilt Gobowen-Welshpool Link

Welshpool - Gobowen link (click to enlarge)
  • Reopen 25km of line through Oswestry, Pant and Four Crosses.
  • Could be built as single line with passing loop at Oswestry and built with electification in mind.
  • A new station at Oswestry (one of the largest towns without a station in the UK), possibly Pant as well.
  • Might negate need for A483 upgrades.
  • Could form part of a metro system in north east Wales, Cheshire, Shropshire and Merseyside.
  • Mainly on the English side of the border, would require cooperation, almost certainly would be entirely funded by Welsh Government as such a link has no strategic value to England.
  • Would allow direct services between Cambrian Coast Line and Wrexham (as well as Swansea via Heart of Wales and Mid Wales Line)
  • Aim for journey time Aber-Wrexham of 2hr, comparable to Shrewsbury and a Wrexham-Swansea journey time of as close to 3hrs as possible (via Mid Wales Line).
  • Estimated cost - ~£60million

5. Reinstated/upgraded Halton Curve

Reinstated Halton Curve (click to enlarge)
  • The most likely of these projects to actually happen.
  • Entirely within England, no Welsh influence but strategically important to North Wales.
  • Would allow direct North-Wales – Liverpool services and possible Cardiff to North West England or Glasgow.
  • Should have a direct Cardiff-Liverpool Lime Street (or Cardiff-Manchester) service via Marches Line as the "premier" North-South rail service, complimenting Cardiff-Holyhead service.
  • Estimated Cardiff-Liverpool journey time (with upgraded Marches line) ~3hrs Wrexham-Liverpool ~40m
  • Estimated cost - £7million (£5m 2004 estimate), more if route is electrified

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Plaid Leadership Candidates

Before I'm asked why I didn't pay as close attention to the Welsh Conservative leadership election last year, I'd say that it was because it was debated largely internally within the Tories and predictable. Obviously I'm going to have a keener interest in who runs Plaid than any of the other parties. That doesn't mean that if the other parties were in a similar situation with such a wide field of candidates I wouldn't be covering it in the same detail.

It's also important from a general political standpoint. With constitutional wrangling likely to rumble on through 2012 in the form of Scotland's independence debate and the Silk Commission, Plaid's role is more important than a third-placed party otherwise would be.

I have to reiterate. I'm not a Plaid member. I'm not a member of any political party and for the time being I have no desire to join a party. I'm not presumptuous enough to "endorse" any one particular candidate and I'm not egotistical to think my opinion could persuade people one way or another. The choice is for Plaid's membership alone. Obviously I do have a favourite but I'll give opinion from as neutral a perspective as possible. Over the next few weeks I'll post on what each leader could offer Plaid as a party in terms of vision and policy and what they could do for Welsh nationalism as a whole.

If there are any Plaid members (or anyone else) who want to leave comments endorsing a candidate or discuss the leadership election then go ahead.

The deadline for applications closes in a few hours. Barring any dramatic last minute announcements these are four candidates for the Plaid leadership in alphabetical order by surname:

Dafydd Elis-Thomas

(Pic : National Assembly)

Age : 65
From : Carmarthen, brought up in Ceredigion and Conwy
Alumnus : Bangor (PhD , President)
Constituency : Dwyfor Meirionnydd
Occupation : University lecturer, chair of multiple organisations, company director, life peer
Political Experience: MP for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy 1974-1992, President of Plaid Cymru 1984-1991, Presiding Officer of National Assembly 1999-2011, AM since 1999
Campaign Website

He might have damaged his chances by being lukewarm on Plaid's constitutional goals but Dafydd is still a candidate with gravitas. He's charismatic, recognisable, has green credentials and a wide range of public and private sector experience. Not only that he has a safe first past the post seat in Plaid's heartland. In many respects he's the ideal candidate.

I don't think it's his ambiguous views on independence or monarchism that could cost him a second run at the leadership. He's mentioned his desire for Plaid to "return to government", presumably in a One Wales II. There's a danger that Dafydd could lock Plaid in as a "nationalist Cooperative Party" - forever affiliated and associated with Labour.

That doesn't mean Plaid's membership shouldn't hear him out, he just has to be careful he doesn't create traps for himself or the party.

Elin Jones

(Pic: National Assembly)
Age : 45
From : Lampeter, Ceredigion
Alumnus : Cardiff (BSc Economics), Aberystwyth (MSc Agricultural Economics)
Constituency : Ceredigion
Occupation : Director of Radio Ceredigion and television production company, economic development officer
Political Experience : Town Councillor 1992-1999, AM since 1999, Rural Affairs Minister 2007-2011
Campaign Website

Elin has long been considered the front-runner, but I'm not sure that's as assured as it might have been a few months ago due to the momentum building for Leanne Wood.

Elin has an advantage in being the only candidate with experience in government, and by and large doing a good job too. The badger cull might be a black mark, stoking the wrath of animal rights campaigners and "good lifers" in rural Wales, but Elin comes across as someone willing to graft. Her background in economics is also a massive professional advantage.

A hardworking, perhaps a little "mumsy", safe pair of hands but someone who's also down to earth, warm and approachable. Elin is the "Sali Mali" candidate - and I mean that as a compliment. If you had a problem she looks like she would listen to you, would actually care and go on and do something about it – not resort to rhetoric. However Elin isn't the best public speaker and probably not that well known outside of the Bay Bubble, Plaid or the farming community. Would Elin be too safe a choice?

Elin's obviously for independence and a republican, but she's not as vociferous as other candidates might be (until recently anyway). A nice balance. Elin has a relatively safe first past the post seat and there's no real chance of her being unseated.

Leanne Wood

(Pic : National Assembly)

Age: 40
From : Penygraig, Rhondda Cynon Taf
Alumnus : Cardiff (MA Social Work, lecturer)
Constituency : South Wales Central
Occupation : University lecturer, probation officer, Women's Aid support worker
Political Experience : Local councillor 1995-1999, AM since 2003
Campaign Website

Leanne Wood is one of the most consistently impressive and formidable AMs, and right this moment some bookies are saying she's the favourite - and I'd agree with that. We all know Leanne has become the standard bearer for the southern socialist-republicans. However, at a time when Welsh politicians in general need to be reaching out to the Welsh private sector, do Plaid want a leader who is - perhaps deep down - hostile to free-market economics?

She's by no means a "wet" on independence or republicanism. She's galvanised Plaid's younger members (and many older socialists). Good. But she wouldn't get away with, for example, boycotting a royal visit as a party leader compared to being a backbencher. I would hate to see Leanne lose her "edge" by becoming a party leader - something she might have to do - even if the likes of Bethan Jenkins are already there to fulfil Leanne's "niche" as a campaigner, rabble-rouser and digger of dirt.

Leanne's supporters might be over-estimating how progressive the Welsh electorate actually is. From anecdotal evidence, the Welsh are left-leaning but small-c conservatives to the point of pig-headedness. That's an incredibly frustrating combination for any politician of any colour, but a particular problem for a "radical".

Leanne is saying a lot of the right things and I'm more impressed with her leadership campaign than I was expecting. She would obviously be a choice outside of Plaid's "comfort zone" of a first-language Welsh-speaker, Bro Cymraeg, FPTP candidate – a big, big plus - and she should be safe in her regional list seat.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Wire and Wales

Despite being labeled the hand-wringing Guardianista's favourite TV show, I don't think there's ever been a grittier depiction of post-industrial decay than HBO's The Wire. Created by former journalist David Simon - with assistance from past members of the Baltimore Police Department - what starts out as a bog-standard police procedural, ends up becoming a wider examination of a society that's lost its way.

It's a society that's lost its sense of purpose, but not its soul. It's also lost confidence in the systems and institutions that are supposed to bind that society together. Whether it's through corruption, nepotism, sheer incompetence or the seemingly insurmountable crises affecting Baltimore : gang culture, crime, drugs, a burgeoning underclass who can only see a future in the black market, deindustrialisation and the effects of globalisation.

The two seasons with relevance to Wales are the second and fourth. The second season is set in the Port of Baltimore. It deals with the fallout of post-industrialisation and globalisation and the decline of the traditional unionised working class.

Warehouses are turned into swanky apartments, work becomes scarcer due to competition at home and abroad and expensive technology is required to maintain a competitive edge – whether it's with other ports or even to keep politicians and investors onside. It also introduced viewers to one of the shows most tragic and sympathetic characters – docker's union leader Frank Sobotka. His desperation to keep his workplace going, when the writing is on the wall, as he's being taken for a ride by the powers that be – both official and unofficial - is something I'm sure many people in Wales can relate to. Albeit not having the same outcomes.

In the fourth season – by far the best – the focus is on the school system and the fate of a group of boys, each of whom end up following different paths. Not only is there a lack of discipline and focus in the city's schools, there's also a crushing bureaucracy which focuses on box ticking over learning (sound familiar?). In the absence of real learning and engagement the kids end up making their own curriculum, as one character put it, they're "learning for the street". It also shows that an inspired, motivated teacher can really make a difference and that teaching is more a vocation you're "called to" than just another job you can plonk whoever you like into.

From a Welsh perspective, it's also interesting that the Mayor of Baltimore – a single US city - seemingly wields more political and economic power than our First Minister. Despite possessing an arsenal of powers that - in a few respects - would make Alex Salmond jealous, even the Mayors of Baltimore can't make water go uphill.

When Bunny Colvin - a police commander - tries a radical solution to the War on Drugs – the system, the society, the institutions, crush it despite it largely achieving a positive outcome. It was an autonomous local solution to a local problem, but because the "federal" government leaned on Baltimore it was abandoned forcefully.

In The Wire though, nothing is ever as simple as black and white. Even with this solution there were shades of grey. It was a perfect example of "the road to hell being paved with good intentions". For want of comparison, Baltimore is about the same distance from Washington DC as Cardiff is from Swansea. You get the impression they may as well be a thousand miles apart.

Yet there remains hope in parts, and the people of Baltimore keep on going somehow. The city keeps on ticking. I think that's what Wales has effectively been doing for the past century. Coasting along, accepting whatever fate, federal governments, Tommy Carcetti's and the forces of a changing global economy throw at us. Too many Clay Davis's, not enough Bunny Colvin's.

What The Wire is, is an eye-opener. It's stimulated debated about the "War on Drugs". It highlighted how political, economic and institutional systems that are broken can have a massive negative impact on people.

This doesn't mean that many of the experiences of the people of Baltimore in The Wire reflect directly on any experience in Wales. Wales doesn't have much in the way of gang culture, crime is low and there's an obvious difference between a single urban setting and a whole nation.

Although drugs are certainly prevalent in parts of Wales it's more a case of it being just as much a public health concern as a criminal one. However, the economic issues raised are as relevant to Dai Phillips in Merthyr Tydfil as they are Frank Sobotka in Baltimore. The political issues are as relevant to Carwyn Jones as they are Tommy Carcetti . With the coming of elected Police Commissioners, those institutional elements could be as relevant to Alun Michael or Elfyn Llwyd as they are to Ervin Burrell or Bill Rawls.

And of course Wales has its own Bubbles. Its own Bodies. Its own Naymond Brices, Dukie Weems' and Randy Wagstaffs.

Wales needs its own "Wire". But, unlike the HBO version, it doesn't need to open anyones eyes but our own.

We need something so provocative, so real, that we'll all take a good look around at ourselves, our communities, our public institutions and public servants and ask the question "how long are we going to put up with this?"

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Science in Welsh schools

Wales has been a branch manufacturing outpost for the best part of 40 years. With ever increasing global competition in terms of wages, production costs and skills – Wales needs to adapt faster than ever before and start to think hard about the quality of the products we produce. If we want Wales to attract, create and retain highly-skilled, high-IP potential, high value added jobs in research & development it has to start at the bottom.

We need a critical examination of the science and technology curriculum in our schools to ensure Wales can remain competitive. From a nationalist perspective, this could also help Wales become ever more self-sustaining economically.

In 2010 the previous Welsh Government announced that a "National Science Academy" would be set up, led by the then Deputy Minister for Skills (and current Health Minister) Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham). As a scientist (and a day dreaming idealist), I naïvely thought when it was mooted that this would literally be a bricks-and-mortar science academy that would attract the best-of-the-best from within Wales and abroad.

We didn't get that.

What we did get, was a £2million promotion of science subjects in schools.

"Science Academy" is pushing the envelope as a description. A "proper" National Science Academy would've been nice but even I accept that it's unlikely in the face of budget cutbacks.

The good news is that this modest approach does seem to be paying off to a certain extent. The number of separate science GCSE entries in Wales rose in 2010 according to the Western Mail, with the biggest rise in physics. Science of course isn't just confined to the traditional "big three" but can also be expanded to include maths, IT, engineering, (academic) PE and even subjects like geography and economics – so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects.

So what else can be done?

In the critical "middle phase" of Key Stage 3 (years 7-9) science should be as engaging as possible if we want pupils to take science subjects beyond GCSE level. If you lose the pupils here, you lose them for good. At present, the science curriculum includes several cross-cutting skills such as use of ICT (Leighton Andrews has been singing the praises of ICT in schools in Twitter recently), numeracy, literacy & communication, as well as Curriculum Cymreig (which adds a Welsh/everyday life element).

Science also helps in PSE, presumably sex education in the main. At KS3 the main focus of study is on the "interdependence of organisms", "sustainable Earth" and "how things work".

The science curriculum has become more about rote learning facts and ticking learner progress boxes – making the subjects appear an awful lot harder than they actually are. While knowledge of theory and scientific facts is vital, what's also as important is developing practical skills, objectivity, logic and independent thinkers. Science is as much about that than equations, diagrams and periodic tables and probably the only reason it's a core subject at GCSE level anyway. Those skills are also transferable to many other subjects.

Science should attempt to answer questions. Open-ended individual investigations, a scientific "question of the week" and regular practical sessions could be one way to keep interest levels high. Only when the subject is taught in-depth at later stages should a more rigid science curriculum come into play. For example teachers could spend a week on "how mobile phones work" – indroducing wave physics, digital signals & technology and geosynchronisity. Go easy on the box ticking and tests, focus on the knowledge.

Science should be fun and hands-on. Yes that means it should be slightly "dangerous" and exciting. I'm not convinced that pupils need to be wrapped in cotton wool to protect school staff from frivolous law suits. Science teachers already need nerves of steel and the patience of a saint to let teenagers near gas taps, animal parts and chemicals. It might come down to a simple case of schools lacking the right resources, staff and equipment. It's great to have brand new science blocks springing up all over the place but not so if the store cupboards are empty. Developing practical scientific skills is as important as the theory. When I was in school (not so long ago) I don't believe we did anywhere near enough practical work. If practical skills aren't up to scratch by Key Stage 4/GCSE then it does seriously hinder your progress through A-Levels, university and employment. There's no better way of learning anatomy for example than actually feeling the structures and seeing what you are studying instead of a picture in text book or on a computer screen.

Science should develop independent thinkers.
Although there are plenty of black-and-white answers in scientific subjects there are also plenty of grey areas. If you can provide thoroughly researched, credible evidence to back up a theory then it's hard to be dismissed out of hand. Those pupils who think "outside the box" or read around the subject, or introduce cross curricular evidence – however wacky - are as good at science as those who know A Brief History of Time by heart. I mentioned open-ended investigations earlier – an approach taken in Scotland – and in younger year groups I think it would be a great way to develop scientific talent and scientific curiosity. That spark of curiosity today could lead to the products that Welsh companies and universities are IP-protecting and exporting around the world tomorrow.

I don't think there's that much wrong with the underlying principles of science education in Wales. At Key Stage 3 , the focus on sustainability and interdependence is very relevant to the modern World and impacts on pupil's everyday lives. But to get kids hooked on science and pursuing science into higher qualifications, the subject needs to be the highlight of the timetable.

Science shouldn't become a subject defined by political objectives (sustainability). It should be felt. It should be smelt. It should inspire and turn kid's natural curiosity into knowledge and equip them for the economic challenges the rest of the 21st century will throw at their generation and Wales.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Peacocks in crisis : An opportunity for "new capitalism"

Peacocks faces an uncertain future, but could it be the
test bed for the UK Coalition's recent drive for a "new, responsible capitalism"?
(Pic : BBC)

In one of the biggest blows to the Welsh economy since the collapse of Hyder in 2001, clothing retailer Peacocks entered administration yesterday, threatening as many as 10,000 jobs across the UK and some 2,000 of those in Wales – not only the HQ in Cardiff but at major distribution centres at Nantgarw near Pontypridd and other sites in the Valleys. There'll be 249 immediate redundancies in Cardiff, though for the moment it's "business as usual" in the stores.

In the latest Top 300, Peacocks is listed as the 6th biggest company in Wales, with an end year turnover of £527m in 2010 and pre-tax profits of near £40m. All of this, however, is submerged in the company's debts. Estimates for the debt hover around the £600m mark with some £240million+ of that being loans at suicidally high rates of interest. Those debts were acquired as the result of a leveraged buy out when Peacocks delisted from the Stock Exchange in 2006 and was "taken private". Another company "enhanced" by private equity.

I'm clearly not an expert, but the underlying business doesn't seem too shabby at all. The Guardian says Peacocks Group had sales of £720m in 2010 and as mentioned the company is still "profitable". The company even reported a increase in like-for-like sales of 17% over Christmas, bucking the general trend. It's only when the company's debts are taken into account do the underlying cash flow problems become apparent – and the losses start to mount.

Royal Bank of Scotland has emerged as the "enemy" in all this, by withdrawing support for a debt restructuring deal (so are we expecting banks to prop up debt-laden businesses now?) However Barclays have said they are still "committed to Peacocks", even RBS are reported in the Western Mail as saying they hope a deal can be done.

Though clearly RBS withdrawing from negotiations was the "last straw" I don't think the banks aren't the "big bad" here. The blame, in my opinion, should fall on private equity and leveraged buy outs. The UK has come close to losing some of its biggest names in previous years - in particular football clubs - thanks to this form of finance. Sometimes it's done with the best of intentions like a management buy-out to save a company, other times for what seems like nothing other than vanity. Load a profitable company with debt then walk away while it burns and creditors sift through the wreckage looking for anything of value.

I'd be astonished if Peacocks went into liquidation, and I don't think anybody is predicting that. It'll still be a player on the High Street. I imagine a slimmed down Peacocks with fewer stores, fewer workers and many bruised egos is the likely outcome. Bad news, but not catastrophic. Of course it could be saved by another company or another buy out but that would likely means profits (and probably the HQ) exiting the Cardiff and Welsh economies.

We've heard a lot about "responsible capitalism" the last few weeks as well as the benefits of cooperatives (I'll be looking in depth at Prof. Kevin Morgan & Adam Price's "The Collective Entrepreneur - Social Enterprise and the Smart State" over the next few weeks).

Perhaps the "New Peacocks" can emerge as a test bed once stabilised– adopting a John Lewis model – to insure that in the future the company's workers benefit from any profit, not hedge funds, private equity firms or banks. Indeed Dr Jonathan Deacon of Newport Business School has suggested to Radio Wales that this could be one route the company could take.

Exactly how this can be done, while easing the debt burden, would be critical. For a back of a fag packet example - employees could "buy into" the company by purchasing a partnership/shares at a fixed price - for arguments sake £10 per share - and the money raised used to pay off a chunk of a renegotiated debt. After that a ring-fenced percentage of post-tax profits can be distributed back to "partners" as a John Lewis style "Annual Bonus" or a commission based on sales performance at individual stores. The running of the company could be democratised in a similar manner.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sustainable - what does it actually mean?

The Welsh Government is one few in the World that has a legal obligation to pursue "sustainable development" and it underpins all its policies. This has many benefits, but also many drawbacks.

As Grangetown Jack posted recently, one of the areas successive Welsh Government's can point to considerable progress in is the environment – in particular waste management. The recent push by Environment Minister John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East) to get Wales over the 50% recycled waste mark should be applauded by everyone across the political spectrum. Wales is genuinely leading the way in recycling – credit should be shared between Sue Essex, Carwyn Jones (previous Environment Ministers) but in particular Jane Davidson.

John Griffiths looks as though he's making the right noises too, sticking with an ambitious target of 70% of waste recycled by 2025 and a "zero waste Wales" by 2050. Also a new Sustainable Development Bill and national body are proposed in the next few years.

In Wales "sustainable" is becoming a very funny word. It appears to mean many different things to different people.

"Taking out as much as you put back."

"Self-perpetuation with minimal impact to the environment."

"Good stewardship of the planet."

In recent times it appears "sustainable" has expanded to include proposals and schemes such as :
Do we want sustainable development to mean responsible stewardship? Or do we want it to become a buzzword put on planning applications to inflate the egos of elected officials and grease "un-green" proposals through?

Carwyn, John - please don't mess this up.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Calling Salmond's bluff or Unionist browbeating?

The UK Cabinet met yesterday and the at-some-point-but-we-don't-know-yet referendum (Owen : Alex Salmond has just announced it'll be held in autumn 2014, which I imagine was most people's guess) on Scottish independence was high on the agenda. There are several lines from my last post "Saving the Union – impossible without unity?" that might be relevant and reinforce my own view that creating a New Union – one based on sovereignty at a lower level than Westminster, united by popular consent and a culture shift in unionist thinking - is going to be an uphill struggle for a whole host of reasons.

"There's browbeating of the Celtic Fringe that sounds like the threats a fat, bald, middle-age husband would make to a divorcing wife. "

David Cameron - " is unfair on the Scottish people themselves (Won't someone pleeeease think of the children?). It would be desperately sad if Scotland chose to leave the United Kingdom (Go on, see if I care!)....Let's not drift apart....I think he (Alex Salmond) knows the Scottish people at heart do not want a full separation...(Let's give it one last try.)"

DC – "If Alex Salmond wants a referendum on independence, why do we wait until 2014? (You don't tell me what to do! You're not my mother!)"

Danny Alexander - "The idea that we should decide the fate of the UK on the basis of the date of a medieval battle...."

June 24th is also the anniversary of the English destroying a French fleet at the Battle of Sluys, the start of the Great Siege of Gibraltar, a successful British-Native American victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams in the War of 1812, the preliminary bombardment that starts the Battle of the Somme, the start of the Berlin Blockade and the granting of self-government to Zanzibar by Britain.

Every day is the anniversary of something, Danny.

"There's also those who want to "play the ostrich". It's 'all a diversion from the important issues of the day'
. "

DC - "The uncertainty about this issue is damaging to Scotland and Scotland's economy. "

Danny Alexander - "....when we are in the middle of a financial crisis and youth unemployment of one in four would be laughable if it wasn't so serious."

.....damage and crisis of partially your own making guys. Who holds the economic levers again?

"All we're hinted at getting is a typical Westminster fudge that patches over problems until said patches wear out....A British Constitutional Convention – bound to be a needed - could rumble on for years. It would almost certainly open up the whole EU in-or-out debate at some point."

DC - "Then we need a proper debate where people can put forward their let's clear up the legal situation and then have a debate about how we bring this to a conclusion."

"Let's have a debate" – New Labour's favourite line. Not very original, Dave.

There's been an inevitable backlash from the SNP who see Westminster as "dictating" to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. That's a charge David Cameron resolutely denies and he goes further by acknowledging that it'll be the people of Scotland who decide it's future.

The Scottish Parliament has no competence on the constitution. The "Union between Scotland and England" is a specifically reserved matter to Westminster in the Scotland Act 1998. As I post this Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has said that any referendum would require Westminster's authority.

However, as usual, there are potential ways around. All referenda are consultative – so no referendum is ever legally binding. Also, due to parliamentary sovereignty, any action approved via referendum can be repealed (though that's political suicide). The Scottish Parliament does, as far as I know, have the power to carry out consultative referenda. Whether it has the authority to do so on a "reserved matter", without Westminster's say so, is the issue. I don't think David Cameron is suggesting the Scottish Parliament can't press ahead with a referendum, he just wants it done on Westminster's terms to try and regain some control over proceedings.

Most independence referenda usually authorise a negotiation between governments on a settlement that would lead to independence – if there's a yes vote - followed by a confirmatory referendum after those negotiations are completed. So in most cases it's consultative anyway – never a straight case of in-or-out. What's more interesting is if Westminster tries to block, or prevent, the Scottish Government putting a "devo-max" option on the referendum ballot. In my opinion that really would be interfering in Scottish affairs but there's always the threat that a multi-option referendum would confuse the electorate.

I don't think there's any chance of Westminster blocking or changing a consultative referendum on independence or nullify any yes vote for "legal reasons" - the fall out from such a move could have the opposite effect Unionists want. What should worry unionists more in this instance is that a key part of an Act of Parliament (that the constitution and union between Scotland and England are reserved matters) in practice isn't worth the paper it's written on. As a result parliamentary sovereignty and the supreme authority of the UK Government, both cherished by unionists, is undermined just by the Scottish Government considering a referendum, let alone eventually having one.

David Cameron is well within his rights to press the issue but there's not much the UK Government can do in this situation without coming across as arrogant, condescending bullys. Perhaps the SNP will cave in and hold a referendum as early as mid-2013, but perhaps they won't.

I return to another line from my last post.

"It might irk conservatives but some of those cherished traditions might need to go out the window to ensure a New Union happens – in particular Westminster's primacy."

Dave, give it up butt. Stop expecting the worst.

If you love someone, let them go.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Saving the Union - Impossible without unity?

Carwyn's new relationship with the UK

Back in November, the First Minister gave the Welsh Politics Annual Lecture at Aberytwyth University on devolution (more on this at Borthlas, Welsh Ramblings and Click on Wales). In his speech he said that should the Scottish people vote for independence, then Wales's relationship with the rest of the UK would need to be reformed or reworked.

Carwyn Jones outlined three "tests" that he believes are key considerations to warrant the devolution of further powers:

1. That the new powers are potentially beneficial to the Welsh public

New powers are neither beneficial or unbeneficial to the Welsh public. It's how they are used that determines that - so a matter for individual party policy and subsequent application. The same can be said of a whole raft of constitutional arrangements including independence.

2. That the new powers can be accommodated in the existing Welsh Government structures

Carwyn has a point - but this could automatically rule out new powers that could be beneficial to the Welsh public - like policing - because there's no Welsh "Department of Justice" or legal jurisdiction (yet). It's a bit of a cop-out (excuse the pun).

3. The impact of new powers on the wider UK is limited

Existing devolved powers and policies that are "beneficial" to the Welsh public might not always be beneficial to the rest of the UK or vice versa – free prescriptions, single use bag charges or differing tuition fee policies for example. It also means that Carwyn could technically be ruling out powers over areas like energy, water resources and even the railways (contradicted in part by Network Rail's "devolution" to Wales in the last few months) because of cross-border impacts.

Saving the Union from itself

Nation states made of nations (as opposed to non-national federal units) vary wildly in their longevity - Austria-Hungary, the various pan-Scandanavian unions, Yugoslavia, the USSR, the United Arab Republic, Spain, Belgium....etc.

The constitutional flux the UK is currently in, could be part of a natural "untying" phase peculiar to these nations-of-nations that can lead to various places including : federalism, more formal centralisation (as in France or the UK historically) or independence.

What we now call the UK is radically different from what it was 20 years ago - let alone at the turn of the century. A UK existing at the end of the decade isn't guaranteed - neither is a break up - but in all likelihood, the UK is going to be as different in 2030 compared to the present as it was in 1990. Hardline Unionists are going to have to accept that.

I do believe Unionists are unnecessarily pessimistic and dour - both in terms of how they see the referendum in Scotland going, and the arguments they currently present for Scotland to remain in the Union.

A positive case for union, accompanied by significant changes to the relationship between the Home Nations (including a proper answer to the England Question) can win in Scotland. They can save the Union by transforming it into an ever evolving relationship between sovereign states – a mini-EU on steroids.

Things can't go on as they are. There's browbeating of the "Celtic Fringe" that sounds like the threats a fat, bald middle-age husband would make to a divorcing wife. There's a struggle to define civic "Britishness" due to identity politics - not only in the Celtic Fringe but in England too. Proper "British" institutions seem confined to Auntie Beeb, a distant and haughty Westminster, English benevolence towards sponging Scots and whinging Welsh, the Windsors and an increasingly deified military.

There's also those who want to "play the ostrich". It's "all a diversion from the important issues of the day". Stick your head in the sand if you want, cover your ears going "la la la I'm not listening" but having a well-oiled, properly functioning nation-state certainly helps provide solutions to all those bread and butter issues "ordinary people" concern themselves with. I might be giving them too much credit, but our politicians are smart enough to deal with day to day things alongside the big picture issues.

Throwing "British" into every sentence and Union Flags into every picture with a plodding, middle-of-the-road Elbow soundtrack does not a Union make. The cake, pride of place at the centre of the party - draped in red, white and blue icing - is a lie. It's been hollowed out. What's the point of icing without a delicious cake underneath it?

What a bangin' party! Turn off the Steps Greatest Hits CD, burst the balloons, chuck the sausage rolls in the bin. It's over.

You could blame the chubby, charismatic Scot in the corner with chocolate around his mouth.

You could blame the massive elephant in a St Georges Flag making everyone claustrophobic.

Or you can blame the cooks who took their position for granted, expecting cake to always be under the icing by the grace of God, well away from that cheeky scamp Alex. The cooks can stand around moping and shouting at everyone, steadfastly denying the cake's gone, or they can bake a new one. One the likes of Alex won't try to scoff quite so quickly.

"That'll do" won't do anymore

Wales's foremost federalist - David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) - has consistently said that sovereignty over Wales, within the Union, should rest with the people of Wales constitutionally. The Welsh should remain in Union with the Scottish, English and Northern Irish by popular consent, not because of due deference to the tradition of parliamentary sovereignty or because "it's the way it's always been".

In his recent Wales Home article, David Melding says there needs to be a "mega-political big deal". I'd agree that any New Union will need to be "uniquely British" due to the political system and practices. However, I also think it will have to be rigid to a certain extent – perhaps not allowing organic development down certain avenues - or we'll just return to this conversation again at some point in the future. It might irk conservatives, but some of those cherished traditions might need to go out the window to ensure a New Union happens – in particular Westminster's primacy.

There's a stubborn reluctance to properly address England's sheer size and economic clout in the Union, England's constitutional position as well as the status of Cornwall, Greater London and the Crown Dependencies. All we're hinted at getting is a typical Westminster fudge that patches over problems until said patches wear out (English votes for English laws).

Despite all the hard graft David Melding has put into creating a new purpose, vision and underlying justification for a New Union, what he's saying appears to be falling on deaf ears where it matters. I might not agree that the Union - at heart - is really worth saving, but I think he's earned the respect of everyone who ponders these grander constitutional issues by putting in the effort in the first place.

He's one of the cooks who notices a new cake recipe is needed, but sadly, is David Melding the Cassandra of British Unionism?

The reason? MPs and Lords (maybe some devolved politicians too) won't like some of the possible answers to, or fallout from, the following question.

What power should Westminster retain?

There's nothing particularly exciting about constitutional change. With a hollowed out Britishness – and a potential big transfer of sovereignty down to the Home Nations - only a bland, mundane, constitutional, administrative and institutional United Kingdom can really survive. Before Unionists get too depressed, or say it can't work, or that it would dilute "Britishness", I'd say it works brilliantly in Switzerland.

David says that Conservatives and Labour need to unite to provide an "exciting alternative to Celtic nationalism". That makes the job of unionists, and the creation of a New Union, much harder than it need be. Just look at the difference between Carwyn Jones and David Melding on the issue – a box ticking exercise vs a brand new form of federalism. That's just two people. Ask all 60 AMs the same question and you'll probably get 180 different answers from Dafydd Elis-Thomas alone.

Just declaring something a federation doesn't make that so either. The changes will need to be
tangible. The UK might even have to become a confederation rather than a federation (yes, there is a difference) to properly stem nationalism – a seismic change to the UK's constitution and the relationship between the Home Nations. Unfortunately, I don't think that outcome is something many unionists would have the stomach for. Can you picture a scenario whereby Carwyn Jones effectively wields more power than David Cameron within the UK?

That brings us right back to the main question. How does the constitution evolve to keep a strong "core Britain" at Westminster while devolving as much sovereignty as possible to the federal/confederal units to stave off nationalism and secessionism?

How do you get the balance right?

Where do you draw the lines?

David Melding believes that the welfare state led to the centralisation of the UK and "it's multi-national identity subdued". Logic doesn't necessarily follow that welfare be devolved - partially or wholly - within this New Union. However, without considering devolution of the "big time" powers like welfare, wouldn't a unitary state just continue wrapped in name-only federalism? That's just a re-branding exercise (or from a "nat" perspective detoxification) not a grand New Union.

In a 2007 poll by University College London on attitudes to devolution, 59% of respondents said that the Welsh Assembly should make decisions on benefits. The annual St David's Day BBC polls over the last four years suggest that around 60% want the Assembly to have "the most influence over Wales" compared to 25% believing Westminster should. Obviously you can't properly judge public opinion by a small set of polls but the view that Wales should have more sovereignty – but not independence - has some consistency.

Those on the left might oppose devolution of some aspects of welfare – I'd picture Welsh Labour opposing such a move with every fibre of their being. Meanwhile, those on the right might resist certain economic or criminal justice powers being devolved. The Lib Dems have long been supporters of federalism, but the likes of Peter Black have argued - not without reason - that even something as basic as teachers' pay and conditions shouldn't be devolved. Nationalists will always find some powers that "need to be devolved" and are unlikely to stop pressing for secession even in a New Union, although "post-nationalists" might be satisfied with a federation or confederation.

That's just the politicians. Just wait how hard it'll get when the public are asked.

A British Constitutional Convention – bound to be a requirement - could rumble on for years. It would almost certainly open up the whole EU in-or-out debate at some point. Meanwhile Alex Salmond is checking his watch and looking towards the door.

We nationalists often tie ourselves in knots umming and ahhing over the finer points of independence, including trying to decide what the word actually means. Well now it's the Unionists turn. These discussions are an awful lot easier within one party or one movement broadly united around social democractic principles. Where do unionists, from across the political spectrum and not speaking in one voice (ironically), start with this beauty?

Answering the Question

Firstly, I haven't gone all "Dafydd-El" and I still believe that independence is the optimum constitutional settlement for Wales. However if I were to have my own preconditions for a New Union it could be simplified to the outline below.

1. Each of the Home Nations should have the same powers (symmetrical devolution, federalism or confederalism) clearly laid out in a written constitution.

2. Residual reserved powers and budgets directly related to existing devolved areas should be devolved.

For example in health – Abortion, Xenotransplantation, Euthanasia, regulation of health professions.

Peculiar to Wales - the devolution of Network Rail funding in line with Scotland.

3. Reserved powers would be defined as those powers that have to be applied consistently across the whole of the United Kingdom with no scope for variation, using other federal/confederal system around the World as a template.

For example – regulatory bodies, financial regulations, employment law, "federal" voting system, the Supreme Court, weights and measures.

4. The UK should retain powers that have to be applied consistently for the United Kingdom to meet common definitions of a nation state and ensure international obligations are met.

For example – defence, intelligence, immigration & identity, foreign affairs, currency, the constitution, human & civil rights, VAT.

Again what could be included or removed depends entirely on how you would interpret these preconditions. What I've listed isn't set in stone and is just back of a fag packet stuff. It could raise as many questions by itself.

Should Cornwall and the Crown Dependencies be considered separate devolved nations? If not, why not? How would they fit into the constitution? What would be the constitutional status of Greater London? (Conflicts with Precondition 1)

Would devolving "residual powers" in existing devolved areas leave the Federal/Confederal Parliament too weak to hold the union together? (Conflicts with Precondition 2)

Should there be a return to a pan-UK NHS – how would the theoretical "repatriation" of powers from the Home Nations to the UK be handled without fuelling nationalism? (Conflicts with Precondition 3)

Would devolving drug laws (for example) make it hard for the UK to meet international obligations on things like smuggling? (Conflicts with Precondition 4)

Creating a New Union sounds easy enough - but it most certainly isn't.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

More than just a game - missed opportunities for the Welsh economy?

Video games have come a long way since the arcades of the 1980s. Far from being a pastime for spotty geeks hunched over a bleeping screen in darkened rooms (ahem), it's now a mainstream medium. Last year the computer games market was estimated to be $74billion and in 2008 UK sales amounted to $6billion – one of the largest markets in Europe.

Indeed the games industry is estimated to have become the leading form of entertainment globally sometime between 2005 and 2007. Growth in the industry continues to exceed expectations after a gaming renaissance in the early 2000's and the success of next generation consoles like the Xbox 360.
The demographics of games has changed too. Although being seen in the past as a largely male pursuit, 40% of gamers are female as of 2010 and the average age of a gamer was as high as 37 in 2011 according to an American study by the Entertainment Software Association.

This doesn't mean that the gaming industry has "survived" the recession – games sales fell consistently throughout 2011, buoyed only by the release of "blockbusters" like Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. If you want a comparison with the film industry, one of the largest game companies - Activision - is cited in the New York Times as saying combined box office revenues for 2011 was $9.4billion.

Modern Warfare 3
sold $1billion worth of copies alone in just over a fortnight. Only 10 films have grossed more than that in cinematic history. Gaming is serious business.

Game "franchises" like The Sims or MMORPGS like World of Warcraft can easily sell millions of copies. Groundbreaking games like LA Noire are beginning to blur the boundaries between scripted entertainment and immersive interaction.

Meanwhile major film studios churn out sequel after sequel hoping the fickle public are guaranteed to like them. This is something the game industry is in danger of repeating it has to be said – franchises and series games are vitally important to major game developers. Indeed many smaller game developers have been swallowed by giants like Electronic Arts (EA), Activision and Take-Two Interactive down the years, especially if they get into financial difficulty after "flops". There are also long-established "survivors" like Sega and Nintendo who usually make their own consoles as well as the games.

The UK capital of game design is arguably Dundee, which spawned Grand Theft Auto publishers Rockstar (since decamping to Edinburgh). There are also noticeable hubs in Liverpool, Manchester and....Guildford. The nature of games design used to mean that a company can set up anywhere. The ever successful Football Manager franchise (formerly Championship Manager) began life in a bedroom. However with increasing complexity of game mechanics and demands from consumers, many new games now require large teams of highly-skilled designers, coders and engineers.

Developing these high-end skills is critical. In Wales this has been damaged by the University of Wales, Newport's decision to axe it's Games Development and Artificial Intelligence degree early last year, although they retain a general Game Design degree. Aside from Newport, four other Welsh universities (Aberystwyth, Swansea Metropolitan, Glyndwr, and Glamorgan) offer some sort of game design degree. Far from being a doss subject or a hobby degree – the figures I listed earlier should underline the importance games are to creative industries at present let alone the future.

Wales can't keep missing out but has a blind spot to software development - in particular gaming - despite being home to big IT companies like Logica in Bridgend and EADS in Newport. There are exceptions to this. Cwmbran has a noticable cluster of software companies like Comtec, Tribold, Isca Networks and CIS Healthcare. The skills and expertise are there to a certain extent.

While there are glimmers of hope with an emerging group of Welsh "indie" game developers, the fact remains that Wales doesn't have much of a games industry. For example it's rather ironic that Mabinogi - a MMPORPG based on the medieval Welsh literature classic Mabinogion – was developed in South Korea. It's since become a hit and spawned a spin-off as well as a sequel currently in development.

The popularity of mobile games like Angry Birds and stripped down Facebook games like FarmVille shows that demand for "casual" on-the-go entertainment shows no signs of slowing down despite the economy. While Wales might have missed the boat when it comes to traditional console and PC games, we are at least playing a role in the development of smartphone apps.

At the University of Glamorgan, a £5million Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services (CEMAS) was established by the previous Welsh Government and EU Convergence funding to take advantage of the growing use of smart phones. CEMAS aims to help SME's take advantage of phone apps or assist in developing new ones and is a example of productive collaboration between higher education and business. Could CEMAS turn to mobile games too?

While it's all well and good that the Welsh Government and business brains focus on big-box, high-tech manufacturing, they also have to help Wales claim a slice of this ever more lucrative, and foolishly ignored, part of the technology and creative sectors.

I'm not suggesting that cheap Android and iPhone games are a magic bullet. With the news that Wales struggling to retain graduates compared to other Home Nations it's important Wales and Welsh business create and sustain these highly-skilled, highly-relevant and potentially well rewarding jobs.

Well it'll be easier than space wouldn't it?