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Thursday 31 May 2012

Senedd Watch - May 2012

  • A Welsh cabinet paper revealed that the Welsh Government are to prepare a PR campaign to explain changes to hospital services in Wales, suggesting changes will be “difficult and controversial”.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) was criticised by opposition parties for bringing forward £12.4million in contingency funds to enable Local Health Boards to meet financial targets. She denied claims it was a “bail out”, and the Welsh Government hailed the Welsh NHS “breaking even” as a “magnificent achievement.” It was later revealed by Conservative leader Andrew Davies, that preparations for the contingency funds were made between October and December, despite Lesley Griffiths telling Local Health Boards “not to expect any more bail outs.”
  • A consultation has opened, launched by Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) into a new innovation strategy for Wales. The strategy will encompass intellectual property, research and development, and product development.
  • Undercover investigations into tanning salons suggest that up to a third are ignoring age checks. Under 18s have been banned from using tanning beds in Wales since April 2011.
  • Professor Roger Scully from Cardiff University has suggested that there are too many councillors in Wales, suggesting a cut in the number of councillors and a switch to Single Transferable Vote in local elections.
  • Labour made big gains in the local elections held on May 3rd, taking overall control of ten local authorities – including Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Plaid Cymru lost more than forty councillors, the Conservatives lost overall control of two councils and more than sixty councillors, while the Liberal Democrats suffered particularly heavy defeats in Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham. Independents also suffered heavy losses, but remain in control of Pembrokeshire and Powys.
  • The Wales Coastal Path was officially opened on May 5th, with events held around the country. Wales is now the only country in the World that has a path around its entire boundary. It's hoped the path will become a major tourist attraction.
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths launched a 12-week consultation on a new Mental Health Strategy, which aims to tackle stigma and ensure equal access to services.
  • A campaign has been launched to encourage the Welsh Government to pay a “living wage” of £7.20, instead of the national minimum wage to help tackle child poverty.
  • Grants of up to £3,000 will be offered to student teachers to encourage them to move to further education colleges in time for the 2012/13 academic year. The scheme is aimed in particular towards science, engineering and mathematics subjects.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) has written to every Catholic secondary school in Wales to remind them to “give a balanced perspective” on same-sex marriage. This happened weeks after it was revealed that Catholic secondary schools asked pupils to sign a petition against same-sex marriage laws.
  • The Welsh Government said that there was “no appetite” for an increase in the number of AMs to 80 from 60 after the Llywydd said she was in favour of such a move.
  • The Welsh Government  launched a consultation into its proposed Active Travel Bill, which will place a statutory duty on local authorities to provide safe cycling and pedestrian routes.
  • The Assembly's Task-Finish Group on the Media reported back after an extensive investigation. They recommended the creation of an independent media panel, the possible creation of a Wales-specific Channel 3 licence and wish to keep the future devolution of broadcasting under review.
  • Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain MP, resigned his shadow cabinet position to concentrate on delivering a possible Severn Barrage. Owen Smith MP was appointed as his replacement.
  • Minister for Housing, Regeneration & Heritage Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) has set an “ambitious” target of 12,500 new “affordable homes” to be built over the next four years after unveiling a white paper on housing. Peter Black (Lib Dem, South Wales West) called for greater transparency. Llyr Huws Griffiths (Plaid, North Wales) welcomed the announcement, but questioned how the targets could be met.
  • Unemployment in Wales fell by 1,000 in the three months to May 2012, to stand at 9%. Across the UK, unemployment fell by 45,000 to 8.2%.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews unveiled a new five-year plan to tackle inadequacies in Welsh schools. The National Literacy Plan aims for Wales to reach the top 20 of PISA nations by 2015. This follows criticism expressed by Estyn that basic key skills were “poorly planned” amongst 11-14 year olds.
  • Welsh Language Commissioner Meri Huws has launched a consultation into improving services for Welsh-speakers. It recommends that Welsh-speakers should expect correspondence in Welsh as well as be able to access Welsh-speaking health and social care professionals.
  • Communities and Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) has launched a white paper on the Welsh Government's proposed Local Democracy Bill, which would see a shake-up of the Local Boundary Commission for Wales, improve local election management, improve scrutiny procedures and improve access to information from community councils.
  • Unite Union leader Andy Richards shunned Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood's overtures towards creating a “progressive alliance” against public spending cuts. Welsh Labour also criticised her plans in a strongly-worded statement attacking her leadership and questioning Plaid Cymru's stance on trade unions.
  • Children's Commissioner Keith Towler said the Welsh Government's long-standing plan to eradicate child poverty by 2020 is unlikely to be achieved. Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath) said that Labour remained “committed” to the pledge.
  • Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan unveiled a green paper on changing the election system to the National Assembly for 2016 – expecting to include reducing constituency AMs to 30, with 30 elected via the regional list.
  • Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) has unveiled the Welsh Government's new Infrastructure Investment Plan, which plans out a combined £3.5billion worth of capital expenditure schemes. Opposition parties criticised the number of repackaged announcements.
  • Plaid Cymru accused Labour of “downgrading” the express north-south rail services by reducing the number of services from two to one, saving £500,000. The Welsh Government said the “enhanced” service will now call at Wrexham and Flint.
  • The Welsh Government has laid the Food Hygiene Ratings Bill in front of the Assembly. The Bill, if passed, will require premises serving food to display their rating prominently. Health Minister Lesley Griffiths extended the scheme to include premises that prepare food, but don't serve it to the public.
  • The First Minister set up a task force to investigate improvements to Cardiff Airport, after a series of criticisms aimed at the airport's operators due to significant passenger falls over several years. The Conservatives described the task force as “too little, too late.”
  • The First Minister has released his first Annual Report which is part of his government's focus on delivery. The report lists several hundred indicators and progress, as well as action taken, towards improvements when necessary.
  • The Assembly's Petitions Committee has recommended that “buffer zones” of 1,500metres be placed around wind turbines to protect people living near them from noise.
  • Llywydd Rosemary Butler has presented a scroll as a gift from the National Assembly, with a message, to The Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee celebrations next month.
  • A consultation has been launched into possible changes to qualifications in Wales. It could lead to new types of GCSE and A-Level, a “matriculation” qualification and new vocational, numeracy and literacy qualifications.

Projects announced in May include : A £24million revamp of the National History Museum at St Fagans, a £365million onshore wind farm in the south Wales Valleys and the creation of two new energy enterprise zones in Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Scores on the doors - Food Hygiene Ratings Bill introduced

The latest piece of legislation from the Welsh Government was laid in front of the Assembly earlier this week. With several e-coli outbreaks still casting a shadow, the Welsh Government is taking steps to improve food hygiene. I've mentioned a new strategy on school toilets before, but this is something more significant.

What the Food Hygiene Ratings Bill aims to do

The bill is short, but sweet.
  • "Food authorities" (that is, by and large, local authority environmental health departments) will inspect "food business establishments" and give them a rating (from 0-5) based on Food Standards Agency criteria.
  • "Food business establishments" are defined as registered businesses that supply food direct to the public, or to other businesses.
  • "Food business establishments" will then be legally obliged to inform the public of their rating via a food hygiene rating sticker provided to them. They will have a right to appeal and be re-rated.
  • Stickers will need to be removed and destroyed when they become invalid.
  • It will become an offence, punishable by a fine of £200 payable within 28 days or a reduced £150 payable within 14 days for food businesses to:
  1. Fail to display the food hygiene sticker in the "location and manner prescribed"
  2. Display an invalid sticker
  3. Failing to retain a valid sticker
  4. Hands a sticker over to anyone other than a food authority authorised officer
  5. Fails to notify anyone of their food hygiene rating verbally
  6. Intentionally defacing/altering/tampering with a sticker
  7. Removing/destroying a sticker other than when they become invalid
  8. Food authority officers will have the legal power to enter a food business premises (at reasonable hours) to carry out a food hygiene rating, a re-rating, determining an appeal or enforcing requirements to display the sticker.
  • Fixed penalties will be paid to the Welsh Government, and retained to "improve food hygiene" in Wales.

Beefing up food hygiene in Wales

Now, once again, this isn't the most Earth-shattering legislation ever drawn up, however I suspect it's going to be incredibly effective, while minimising "red tape" to food businesses. It's fairly simple to understand, and Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) has ensured that it will cover all premises that prepare food.

It's expected that the new statutory requirements will come into force sometime in late 2013 if the bill is passed.

The 0-5 scores are already available, and simple to understand – you can find existing local ratings here at the Food Standards Agency website.

0 – Urgent improvement necessary
1 – Major improvement necessary
2 – Improvement necessary
3 – Generally satisfactory
4 – Good
5 – Very good

These ratings are used in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has a different rating scheme – a simpler "pass" and "need for improvement" one.

Forcing businesses to display their food hygiene rating will, hopefully, help drive up food hygiene standards across Wales. "Scores on the doors" is as good as "name and shame". I wouldn't be surprised if this compulsory scheme is replicated across the UK, or even the EU, at some point in the future.

I just hope that it doesn't result in people seeking out those premises marked 0 to see if they can "handle it."

If I could make one change, it's that premises that are rated 0 can be closed down by authorities until they meet the criteria for getting a 1 or a 2.

Monday 28 May 2012

Welsh Government Housing White Paper

Last week, the Minister for Housing, Heritage & Regeneration, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) published the Welsh Government's white paper covering housing strategy, entitled "Homes for Wales".

It sets out several key delivery aims this Assembly term and beyond:
  • 12,500 new "affordable" homes of which:
  1.  5,000 will be empty properties brought back into use
  2.  500 will be cooperatively owned
  • Improve existing homes energy efficiency
  • Improve housing services to vulnerable people, including the vision of ending family homelessness in Wales by 2019

How it will all work

A new Housing Bill is due in 2013 as part of the Welsh Government's legislative programme. The bill would improve the private rented sector and prevent homelessness with the aim of, as I said, ending family homelessness by 2019.

Alternative models of finance are cited, with the £100million redevelopment of the Ely Bridge site in Cardiff – via a not-for-profit partnership if private and public sector companies – given as the flagship for a new form of co-operative home ownership. A "Welsh Housing Bond" is mentioned as a possible way of freeing up extra capital funding to build new homes, in addition to the investment mentioned in the recent Infrastructure Plan.

Several other bits of legislation, and levers are mentioned:
  • Peter Black's (Lib Dem, South Wales West) Member's Bill for Park and Mobile Homes
  • Local authorities will have the power to charge a higher rate of council tax on properties left empty for more than a year
  • Introduce new statutory duties for Gypsy & Traveller camps
  • A definition for "Community Land Trusts"
  • A bill on Tenancy reform sometime in the Assembly term

Recently, as part of the budget deal between Labour and the Lib Dems, the Welsh Government announced that they want to provide 95% mortgage guarantees for first-time buyers of new built homes.

Social housing rents are due to be standardised and more closely regulated. This aims to ensure that people are charged a similar level of rent whether they are renting from a local authority or a housing association.

Specific reforms planned for the private rented sector will include new standards, new licencing for private landlords (long overdue) and compulsory registering of private landlords.

A comprehensive assessment of homelessness services is included, which will require more cooperation and collaboration between relevant authorities, changes in definitions of homelessness and new duties placed on local authorities.

Closer examination

Local authorities already have statutory duties with regard finding accommodation for the homeless, and those with children are a high priority. Technically speaking, family homelessness shouldn't exist.

Aiming to end it by 2019 is a brilliant pledge, but digging below the surface, I doubt there are any families in Wales, or a tiny number, who are "functionally homeless" – that is without any roof over their head. Single people, and couples without children are a different matter.

The idea for co-operative home ownership is novel and wholeheartedly welcome. I'll be posting more thoughts on how Wales can develop its urban areas in the near-term. However, I hope that this new co-operative isn't the fudge of the rather complicated shared equity, which results in a resident paying both a rent and a mortgage. It won't work as long as house prices remain ridiculously high.

Releasing public sector land for just 500 new homes (whoop-de-doo) seems pointless, but every little helps I suppose.

One of the good pledges is to bring more empty properties back into use. 5,000 are earmarked. It's a good start, but it's nothing dramatic or radical.

It's sensible, but we don't know where most of the 22,000 empty private sector properties mentioned are. You have to make sure homes are in places people actually want to live.That in itself is a difficult balancing act:
  • Do you want to retain young people in rural areas?
  • Do you want to move people out of places like Cardiff into the Valleys?
  • Do you want to move people from the Valleys towards the M4 corridor? Or from rural north & mid Wales to the A55 corridor and Deeside?

They mention a pledge to "abolish the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy" (HRAS) system – which leads to Welsh local authorities returning large sums of money to the UK Treasury. However, HRAS is already due to be abolished sometime this year (in England at least). I'm not sure why the Welsh Government are so keen to advertise that they've been slow to act.

It's clear now that there's a cross-departmental link between the capital investment aimed at energy efficiency and housing. That's good, and something I like to see. However, it's ridiculous that a nation that's a net-exporter of energy, and with a massive potential for renewables has such a poor track record on fuel poverty. Aim higher than 100MW, please.

The private landlord reforms are the standout pledge. If they can pull that off, it'll be an excellent development. However, I have concerns – firstly that it might discourage people from becoming private landlords in the first place, possible reducing private rental supplies and secondly that any "fit and proper person" test for landlords won't be matched with a "fit and proper person" test for prospective tenants.

There are aims of tackling anti-social behaviour and domestic violence, but I see these as toothless without criminal justice powers to back it up.

On homelessness, I'm afraid that the Welsh Government's broadly positive aims to reduce it might be exploited by local authorities elsewhere in the UK to "dump their problems on us". Despite the trend of falls in homelessness numbers, the Welsh Government could inadvertently let the UK Government off the hook for their welfare and housing reforms, and being left to pick up the pieces and the price tag.

The key underlying issue not addressed

Housing in the UK, and in Wales, is far too expensive. No amount of state-aid is going to change that.

This week, Shelter Cymru have revealed that tenants face "administration" costs of £600. Hopefully the reforms to private tenancies announced in this white paper can lead to reforms here.

The white paper lists that the average Welsh salary is £23,800 and the average house price is £113,000. That's a house price/earning ratio of 4.7, much higher than the long-term average of nearer 3.5. Now if you could get it down to a ratio of 2.5-3, that would be what I would personally consider "affordable".

The new policy of providing 95% mortgages for first time buyers of new built homes, however incredibly specific that is, is short-termism. In the long-term, house prices in Wales, and probably the UK as a whole, are going to have to come down to a more affordable level, instead of using money to prop prices up, and burden first-time buyers with more mortgage debt that they other would be able to afford. It's a policy for house builders, not first-time buyers really.

The thought of taking any sort of action that reduces house prices however fills politicians with dread.

So how do you get the cost of housing to fall without spooking people? I've written on this before, but here's a summary of some ideas:
  • Dramatically increase supply – new towns, planned urban expansion in larger settlements.
  • Cheaper building materials – new forms of prefabricated and modular housing.
  • A planning revolution – Completely discount objections based on property values. A new Planning Bill is expected during the Assembly term, we'll see what happens there.
  • Land Value Tax – To promote development of "fallow land".
  • New models of ownership – Including those mentioned in the white paper.
  • Longer-term private rental agreements – Make renting for 30 years+ attractive. We'll see if the tenancy reform bill mentioned will add greater clout in this area.

Housing should, ideally, not be seen as a financial investment but as something purely functional. That's what happens in nations like Germany, for example. It's something Wales should probably aim to emulate in the long-term, and concentrate on other sectors of the economy besides construction to boost economic growth and prosperity.

Negative equity is a vote loser amongst "upstanding citizens" who have bought into it in good faith, however we don't need to continue to have our politicians prop up the biggest pyramid scheme in existence.

Saturday 26 May 2012

A Cunning Infrastructure Plan

A plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it
a Welsh Government Strategic Framework Analysis Thingy
(Pic : Blackadder Wikia)

Earlier this week, Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) unveiled the Welsh Government's Infrastructure Investment Plan, which outlines £15billion of infrastructure projects for the next ten years.

In addition to £44million of new projects for 2012-13 (listed here at A Change of Personnel), there's a "Project Pipeline" of major investment projects, which is to be "updated regularly".

What's planned?

The Project Pipeline Annex lists every project, with ministerial approval, valued at over £15m and due to start in the next three years. This is the backbone of the infrastructure plan. Some of these projects will have already started, but I'll go into more detail later.
  • At least £400m on next generation broadband
  • £125m on enterprise zones.
  • £200m on two major road projects (A465 Brynmawr-Tredegar & A477 St Clears-Red Crosses)
  • £240m on local authority highways maintenance over 22 years (explained in more detail later)
  • £270m on three major railway projects (Lougher bridge, Wrexham-Saltney & Cardiff Signalling Renewal)
  • £80m on new flood defences
  • £805m on thirteen "waste infrastructure investment" projects around Wales (capital & revenue funding)
  • £158m on three energy projects (Arbed II, Nest & Community energy generation)
  • £327m on three housing projects
  • £75m on regeneration projects in Merthyr Tydfil, Newport and Swansea
  • £456m on nineteen school/education projects around Wales
  • £1.22billion on twenty two health projects

The total cost of every project in the pipeline works out at just under £4.36billion, or £1.45billion each year for the next three years. If you take out the projects "subject to funding availability", then that falls closer to the headline £3.5billion figure - which matches the Assembly's annual capital budget.

Not all of this money will come directly from Welsh Government capital budgets. Some will come from other sources (EU, Network Rail, private investment). Here's the confirmed Welsh Government contribution for each as listed in the Annex.
  • Next generation broadband – To be confirmed
  • Enterprise zones – To be confirmed
  • £200m on two major road projects
  • £240m on local authority highways maintenance over 22 years
  • £84.5m on three major railway projects
  • £60m on new flood defences
  • £404m on "waste infrastructure investment" projects (in capital and revenue funding)
  • £111m on energy projects
  • £235m on housing
  • £11.5m on regeneration projects
  • £334m on education projects
  • £383m on seven health projects, with the other fifteen "subject to available funding".

A total of £1.95billion - or £650million each year - for the next three years. That's likely to rise once the broadband and enterprise zone contributions are worked in.

£3.5billion is something of a mirage.

A closer analysis

What's the difference between capital and revenue expenditure? Here's how I understand it, but I'll be more than happy to be corrected.

Capital expenditure is money to spend on "new things", or "one off costs". In Wales' case, the budget is determined by Westminster as part of the block grant the Assembly receives each year. Wales' capital budget has been cut by 41% as part of Comprehensive Spending Review – the sharpest fall of the devolved administrations.

Revenue expenditure, largely defined/listed as Resource Departmental Expenditure Limits (Resource DEL), is made up of "ongoing costs" and spending commitments – for example the day-to-day running of public services. In the same Westminster review, the Resource DEL budget for Wales was cut by 7.5%. This meant the Welsh Government has had to find equivalent savings.

However the Assembly cannot, under any circumstances, run up a deficit, or borrow like Local Authorities, the UK, Scotland or Northern Ireland can. A unique position in the UK.

How has the money been spent?

There are broadly two types of infrastructure, and the Infrastructure Plan makes the same distinction:

1. Economic infrastructure – Development that aids, generates or sustains long-term economic growth for its own sake. This includes roads, railways, energy schemes, telecommunications, ports & airports and some "hard" environmental schemes like flood defences and sanitation.

2. Social infrastructure – Development that improves quality of life or public services. This includes schools, hospitals, housing and regeneration.

£270million, part of a new borrowing arrangement between the Welsh Government and Local Authorities, is to be used on "maintaining local roads". This is - in my opinion - a worrying development (you can read more on this at Syniadau). I haven't included this as I consider it to be revenue expenditure as it's maintaining existing infrastructure - not creating any new infrastructure. You'll have to keep that in mind for the following.

Of the projects listed in the Project Pipeline Annex, there's a near 50:50 split between investment in economic infrastructure and social infrastructure - with a slight bias towards social infrastructure.

Of the Welsh Government capital actually committed to the projects (WG Support column), it's a 53%-47% in favour of social infrastructure.

Lets see which sectors in particular are benefiting.

Project Pipeline projected total value of capital investment by sector
(Click to enlarge)

This graph shows how spending has been allocated in the Project Pipline. As you can see, the single biggest group is health, closely followed - somewhat bizarrely - by Waste Management projects.

The Waste Management projects, such as Prosiect Gwyrdd in the Cardiff area, have a significant ongoing revenue commitment by the Welsh Government (over 15 years in many cases).

Also notice how little is being allocated to enterprise zones and new transport projects.

Fund (currently) committed by the Welsh Government by sector
(Click to enlarge)

This graph is based on money that's actually been committed (WG Support). Figures for next generation broadband and the enterprise zones are yet to be decided, but presumably won't be different from those estimated (£400m and £125m respectively).

Of the committed funding, it's education spending that seems to be the big beneficiary, with the Waste Management projects retaining with a large chunk and transport being untouched.

Many of the health projects fall by the wayside. Why are they included then in the first place? Is it a "this is what you could've had if the nasty baby eating Tories and their Lib Dem little helpers hadn't cut our capital budget by 41%" angle?

It's also noticeable how little is spent on regeneration, with some £20million of private funding expected to be found for the Newport scheme in particular.

But why on earth are the Welsh Government spending proportionally as much capital on waste management schemes as transport? And several times more than enterprise and energy combined.

How to the investment promises stack up?

Comparisons between projected and committed capital funds
(Click to enlarge)

Here's another graph, showing how the Project Pipeline wishlist - including projects subject to funding - compares with what's actually been committed by the Welsh Government. Once again the broadband and enterprise zone funds are to be announced - so don't worry about them.

Look at health and transport in particular.

The Welsh Government are significantly over-promising capital investment in health, and by and large, aren't providing much in funding for new transport projects – Network Rail still controls the purse strings to a great extent there.

They are also, effectively, promising to 100% fund all health capital projects - the only sector that seems to benefit from this approach. In one way, this is good news - it's a sign that the Welsh Government continues to reject PFI.

Many of the waste management, housing, education and regeneration schemes will also have alternative sources of funding – local authority capital budgets for example, EU funds or private investment.

For the Welsh Government to claim that this is a £3.5billion bonanza all of their own doing is rather disingenuous, don't you think?

Which leads us nicely into....


The cunning plan for "growth and jobs" is to wrap up every single major capital expenditure programme announced in the last few years, add a few flow charts and diagrams and re-announce and repackage everything in a single document.

There's absolutely nothing in the Infrastructure Plan that we didn't already know about.

I've made the point before on re-announcing announcements. In some cases there are re-announcements of the re-announced announcements – in particular some road projects.

Many of the projects go back as far as the National Transport Plan in 2008, rejigged slightly by Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) last year. There's quite a few mentions of work the Welsh Government have done since 2007 - in fact, a large chunk of the document is dedicated to regurgitating parts of the Economic Renewal Plan.

A lot of important "economic infrastructure" projects - including thirteen road projects - have been pushed back beyond the next three years. I wouldn't at all be surprised if these things get announced again by the end of the Assembly term.

Plans, strategies, frameworks, white papers, green papers....they just can't get enough.

How will all this boost the economy?

City Academies in England, many built by PFI, were a bold statement
by the previous UK Government on providing "inspirational surrounding" for pupils.
However, not all of them have produced successful educational results.
(Pic : The Guardian)

In short, I'm not entirely convinced it will.

I'm not an economist, but I'll try and explain my reasoning.

Which is better for the economy – that is the economy as a whole and sustained economic growth in the private sector – economic infrastructure, or social infrastructure?

If you build a new hospital, or a new school, you don't need to pay for it again other than running costs. The Welsh Government have taken the sensible direction of abandoning PFI to fund these things. But new schools and hospital replace or upgrade exisiting infrastructure. It's "new", but not "new" in the same way a new road, business park or railway line is.

However, building brand new schools, or hospitals has absolutely no bearing on whether performance in those areas are going to improve or not.

Schools and hospitals are shells - it's what goes on inside them, and how they are run, that will improve pupil or patient outcomes.

If you spent £Xm in capital on a brand new school, but have to make £Xm in cuts to the revenue education budget, what could that result in?
  • The economy is temporarily boosted by the school's construction.
  • Once the school is built, the construction workers are laid off.
  • The contractor picks up the government cheque, moving on to the next project.
  • The cuts in the education budget mean that the pupils - despite their shiny new school -aren't being taught to their full potential.
  • Economic and educational performance falls or stagnates over the longer term, perhaps boosted temporarily by "inspirational" new surroundings.

Now what if you spent it on "economic infrastructure", like a new road, a reopened/electrified railway line, or an airport terminal? In an ideal scenario:
  • The project needs to meet strict "cost benefit analysis" criteria to be considered, meaning some sort of "return on investment" needs to be guaranteed.
  • Improved infrastructure means commuters, business, logistics and tourists can move around more easily, quickly and conveniently.
  • It opens up land for development.
  • Interested developers part-fund new "social infrastructure" like schools, houses, clinics, cycle lanes as part of planning agreements, reducing capital burden on government.
  • The economy is still temporarily boosted through construction, but once the workers are laid off, or move on to the next project....
  • jobs are created in the opened land, economic confidence rises, spin-off services and existing local businesses have their trade boosted.
  • The economy grows slowly and gradually over time.

Now I'm not saying that the Welsh Government shouldn't spend capital on new schools or hospitals - that would be silly.

However, I think one problem is that capital spending in Wales has always been too focused on social infrastructure and social projects instead of key economic infrastructure. If the economy is going to recover - not just be given a temporary panic-induced boost - it needs long-term, strategic thinking.

The closest thing we've had to that is the Economic Renewal Plan, and that wasn't particularly exciting either, despite glimmers of hope like Sêr Cymru.

In public services like education and health, it's probably policy and poor management on the ground - not poor infrastructure - that's hindering performance. All politicians like to make grand "statements", and a new school or hospital is one way to do that, but that's all it is - a bauble.

New buildings won't get kids through their A-Levels or GCSE's and they won't reduce NHS waiting times.
If anything, apart from examples where new buildings and projects are essential, I would've preferred a large chunk of the capital expenditure in these areas redirected to the front lines to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes and transform the curriculum. That would really help economic growth in the long term – not having a new school with too few teaching assistants, crap school meals and tattered text books brought over from the old building.

Also in Wales, there's a tendency to spread investment thinly to make sure no area misses out. That's laudable to a degree, but it results in tiny, piddling projects that will provide nothing other than the equivalent of getting one group of people to dig a hole, and another to fill it in.

This is an infrastructure plan for jobs, certainly – contracted ones in construction over several years, perhaps in services as well.

But growth?

Unless there's a serious change of tact, change of attitude and change of ambition Wales can forget it.

Questions about future borrowing powers

A suitable use for borrowed finance?
(Pic : BBC)

If the Welsh Government attained borrowing powers to get "new money", there's one area they are going to have to focus on to match the project pipeline – those 15 health projects "subject to funding availability" - total estimated value of £840million.

The proposed improvements to the M4 around Newport would be another likely candidate - costing somewhere in the region of £500-800m depending on the options on the table.

So, as well as gobbling up around 40% of the Assembly's annual budget, there's the distinct possibility the NHS could gobble up a significant share of any borrowing the Welsh Government could (theoretically) make.
That's even after all the reorganisations, centralisation proposals, annual savings targets and bailouts....

The Welsh NHS is in danger of becoming a fiscal black hole, with spending directed towards "statements", with no noticeable improvements to patient outcomes.

I don't expect any new "economic infrastructure" with borrowing powers. I expect more "social infrastructure", and borrowing to cover what should be revenue funding - like the Welsh Government are going to do with local authority road maintenance.

Remember what I said about "return on investment" earlier? Well the Welsh Government are setting an alarming precedent with their local authority road maintenance borrowing scheme - I've mentioned Syniadau's piece on this further up.

Now "maintenance" should be funded out of revenues. It's an ongoing cost, not something you can spend as a one off - unlike a new road, hospital or school. It should be carefully managed and prioritised year-by-year. It's not "new infrastructure" and it's unlikely to have any sort of significant return on investment, other than delaying the date it needs maintenance again and perhaps reducing some long-term maintenance costs.

Borrowing to cover the cost of something like road maintenance is - to be frank - idiotic.

Local authorities should either find the money through savings, re-prioritise their capital budgets, wait for central grant money, or yes unless it's safety critical – leave it.

Once you start borrowing to cover revenue expenditure - without any return on investment - you start totting up large deficits, then large debts, with little to show for it. This is the path the UK Government have been treading for some considerable time - in particular the John Major, latter half of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown eras. Wales should not, and must not, even think of starting to tread the same path – within the Union or no Union.

"Deficit reduction" is exactly what it says it is – a reduction in the amount the UK is borrowing. But that borrowing is continuing to cover the UK's revenue and capital expenditure. The UK's national debt is likely to still rise despite the "harsh cuts".

Now, can you imagine what would be happening if the UK didn't have the advantage of being able to inflate some of this debt away, or try to boost the economy with sovereign fiscal powers like quantitative easing?

There's another place that's been following a slightly more extreme path to the UK's, taking it to its logical natural conclusion, but without those said advantages:


Tuesday 22 May 2012

The Western Mail, £400k and the backlash

I was going to post something on Bridgend Recreation Centre today, but that can wait as there's been only one story dominating the Welsh cybersphere – and not in a good way.

This morning, the Western Mail, on its front page, published a "controversial" and harshly-worded editorial on possible future translation costs at the Assembly - accompanied by a picture of the dullest line up for Celebrity Squares in known history.

Proposed amendments to the Official Languages Bill - currently going through the legislative process - would require all proceedings to be bilingual - including committees - when at present, only plenary meetings are subject to it. The editorial claims that the projected £400,000 cost is excessive at a time when "budgets are squeezed and public services are being cut".

The Western Mail have been building up to this story over several weeks, publishing article after article on spending at the Assembly. I suspected it was heading in this direction when they mentioned the Assembly "increased spending on itself". I hoped they would keep it in wider context – for example a single paragraph in a list of "spending crimes" - to attract the usual names in the comments section.

They seem to have opted for the ghoulie-grabber, and it's backfired stupendously.

There was an instant firestorm on social networking sites, and the inevitable petition was doing the rounds. The re-tweets and re-sends reached, within hours, more than double the WM's daily circulation. That in itself isn't a particularly good sign for the long-term future of the paper.

I believe I have to do something I didn't really want to do, but feel is necessary – defend the Western Mail. But first I'm going to have to dissect the story itself.

£400k – but where's the meat?

The story is based on conjecture and a figure that "could" happen at some point in the future. It's somewhat shoddy journalism that they should be embarrassed to have splashed over the front page.

Not for the first time, Martin Shipton and his team have placed their trust in anonymous "sources".
We've heard a lot from "sources" recently - including attacks on Leanne Wood from Labour. If these people are vain and arrogant enough to go into public affairs/politics in the first place, surely they should be big enough to show their face or put names to quotes?

To put things into context, £400,000 equates to:
  • About 0.9% of the Assembly's administration costs for 2012-13
  • 0.003% of the entire budget of the Assembly
  • About 3-and-a-bit Local Authority executives (out of God knows how many).
  • One third of the Older People's Commissioner budget.
  • Roughly the cost of 7 AM's annual salaries.
  • Slightly less than the Value Wales budget. (No, I hadn't heard of them before either)
  • £23million less than the Welsh Government have chosen not to use to counteract Council Tax Benefit cuts.

It's next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. I'll be posting on the much-vaunted Infrastructure and Housing Plans in the next couple of days and weeks. Having scanned through them, there's an awful lot of stuff in both that needs exposure. I'm not a particularly happy bunny.

I wish the Western Mail had such a strong reaction to the Green Investment Bank bid, effectively being lied to by the Health Minister, or that the recently-elected Cardiff Council is in the process of ripping apart one of the most ambitious urban development schemes in Wales. There's significantly more than £400k at stake there.

They've noticed that a gnome is out of place in the front garden, while ignoring that the house is on fire. Poor show. They've also made the - near suicidal -decision to weasel-in language like:
"....purist's devotion to an all-embracing bilingualism at any cost...."

How do you think that's going to be interpreted? It's a more erudite version of "monkey language" - entrenching Welsh as second-class to English. Isn't decent translation, in itself, a "public service"?

If cost-saving measures can be introduced, without compromising quality – great. But concentrating on relatively minor administrative details doesn't do any of us any favours.

They also make a distinction between plenary and committee, as though one is more important than the other. I'm sure some AMs - who seemingly do sod-all in the Assembly outside of the committees - in particular Labour back-benchers, will be pretty annoyed with that.

Politics is dull, largely rewardless, thankless, and most of the time seems to consist of saying not very nice things about other people, while believing with all your heart you're right even if you're completely wrong and know it. We expect our politicians to live like monks, and that's why there was such a backlash to the Westminster expenses scandal.

The day-to-day running of the legislature, however, isn't something at the top of most people's concerns I'd imagine. What our AMs do with their time there, and the decisions they make on the wider budget and laws, are far more important.

Overlooking the importance of the committees is more damaging to our democracy than lack of coverage or scrutiny. That's where most of the grunt-work is done in the Assembly.

FMQs is a sideshow in comparison. It's theatre, not politics. We can't afford to reduce public understanding of how the Assembly works to the weekly ego stroking and question dodging.

Having said all that....

We need somebody to keep the Assembly on its toes. Somebody has to go through the spending figures. Somebody has to dig the dirt. Somebody has to break the cosy consensus within the Assembly and provoke debate. Like it or not, the Western Mail is best placed to do that.

Recently I posted on the findings of the Task & Finish Group on the Welsh media. I said:
"With pressure being exerted on Welsh media outlets, for various reasons, it's vital that the perceivable decline is halted and turned around. No media. No accountability. No democracy."

Many are probably hoping that this is the final nail in the coffin of "Llais y Sais". Maybe they deserve it for pulling stunts like this. But that would be a catastrophe for Welsh civic life. There's no replacement - short of the Liverpool-based Daily Post "going national", the even more hysterical South Wales Echo become a low-brow, tabloid replacement, the Evening Post breaking out of south west Wales. Or even someone with a bottomless pit of cash stepping in, and propping up what is to all intents and purposes a dying medium.

It doesn't help when Western Mail attempts to commit seppuku, but I suspect it'll survive this because we have no other alternative other than BBC Wales and ITV Wales. Both of them are bit-players easily subsumed in larger pan-UK institutions. The Western Mail might be too within Trinity Mirror – a profitable part keeping the whole afloat – but they are the only source of highly-detailed analysis of Welsh politics, public life, sport and the economy.

For every editorial like this morning, there's an AWEMA scandal uncovered.

For every over the top headline about unemployment figures, there's a Wales Top 300 list.

When Welsh sport stories consist of a small column, tucked away in the back pages of the British press, it'll make the front page or back page of the Western Mail.

They can do better than this, and they've proven that more than once before. They've picked the wrong target. They'll probably need to apologise, or explain in more detail, their slight against the Welsh language to prevent the palpable anger turning into something that could affect the long-term survival of the newspaper.

However, they should never apologise for doing their job.

If anything, this "incident" highlights the need for greater plurality in our media, a rethink of how we want to hold the Assembly to account (and for what reasons) and some pretty determined actions by our politicians to make it so - as a matter of urgency.

Thursday 17 May 2012

Leanne's Greenprint for the Valleys

The core message of Leanne Wood's greenprint is self-sufficiency
- something the Valleys desperately need.
(Pic : United Welsh)

I've been meaning to do this for some time, but my break finally allowed me to get around to it. Seeing as Leanne Wood is appearing on Question Time tonight, now's as good a time as any to post it.

Back in March 2011, Plaid Cymru launched a consultation document, authored by Leanne Wood, called "A Greenprint for the Valleys". It wasn't a detailed policy document and is actually pretty short, but it does give you a good idea of what Plaid's economic vision for this part of Wales is.

The Rationale

There are 4 key parts that underpin the Greenprint:

  • The co-operative history in the Valleys
  • Peak Oil & resource shortages – prompting a focus on "sustainable development"
  • Locally-sourced goods and energy (as a result of Peak Oil)
  • A new mutualism – in particular finance

It also points out that there are many examples of good projects already – food co-ops and time banks for instance. However due to a reliance on grant funding, these schemes are unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term due to general cut-backs, or resources being spread too thinly across a wide area like the Valleys.

Time and Money

There are three examples of alternative financial models given :

  • Mutual loans to businesses that "make positive contributions to the community"
  • Local currencies – backed by sterling – that can only be spent in the local economy
  • Time banks – people receive credits for every hour they spend volunteering, that can be spent in the local economy

My criticism would be that, however good these schemes sound, I don't see how it would generate any tangible wealth in GVA terms. It would, at least, increase economic activity and see reinvestment of time and money in areas that badly need it.

That might trump the need for traditional wealth generation in the short to medium term. As confidence in these communities builds, so would the enterprising spirit, combined with with a far more cooperative, team effort. A friendlier capitalism could start here.

What can government do?

The paper suggests several things the Welsh government could do to stimulate this "new economy." Obviously these powers, time-scales and abilities would be enhanced by independence - just thought I'd add that.

  • Tailor public sector contracts to small local businesses – incorporating clauses for apprenticeships, environmental criteria, and making contracts smaller to enable local cooperatives, social enterprises and small businesses to bid for work. A point made in The Collective Entrepreneur.
  • Set "carbon budgets" linked to council tax to provide incentives to local councils to meet green targets. Hopefully this would lead to things like power stations being more spread out and improved recycling rates.
  • A programme to bring heritage and disused buildings back into public use as community facilities (i.e churches, chapels, pubs, schools, abandoned businesses). Set a target for every community of 10,000 to have a "fully accessible community building" running services, courses etc.
  • A legally binding action plan to protect wildlife, countryside and ecosystems.
  • Pilot areas, where measurable environmental aims are set (i.e a percentage of homes to be 0% carbon emitting within an Assembly term) – starting off small, then gradually increasing over time.

Green Infrastructure

It's important that this new "green economy" has the right infrastructure in place to enable it to function.

Renewable energy cooperatives are cited, with the The Green Valleys project in the Brecon Beacons given as the main example. A community-owned hydroelectric scheme is expected to produce 82% of the community's energy needs, will reduce its carbon footprint by 137% and was constructed and maintained entirely by community volunteers - led by a steering group with a "wide range of expertise".

The potential for schemes like this in the Valleys is enormous due to its geography : plenty of publicly owned forestry land, upland areas and fast-flowing rivers.

During the leadership campaign, Leanne Wood also produced a policy paper on renewable and clean energy, which you can read at Syniadau (along with a link to an academic paper from Cardiff University's Dr Calvin Jones).

The Greenprint also proposes:

  • New models of finance, including pooling of borrowing powers, EU funding and credit unions to create an Investment Fund to provide low cost loans towards micro energy generation and energy efficiency.
  • Promotion and support for local currencies (mentioned earlier).
  • A "community land bank", where the Welsh Government can offer long-term leases for food co-ops or energy generation – with a clear assessment of suitable sites.
  • Integrated transport – partially coming to fruition with the recent support for a "South Wales Metro". The re-opening of disused railway tunnels is also mooted, but it's unclear if it's for new rail links or for pedestrians/cycling.
  • A shift in car parking towards town centres by discouraging free parking at out of town sites.

Skills and Participation

An expansion of apprenticeships is highlighted, preferably via the new cooperatives, with the aim of contributing to "long term self-sufficiency". Also the creation of a "Green Construction College" linked to the University for the Heads of the Valleys initiative.

Funding for valley-based universities should be partially dependent on their support and co-operation with the new green economy.

 The Communities First network should be reformed and help coordinate local volunteering teams, putting "like-minded people in touch with each other".

Several examples are given of successful food-related projects that meet these ideals, including :

  • A direct-to-consumer food company in Scotland
  • Todmorden – a town in West Yorkshire that "aims to be self-sufficient in food by 2018"
  • Riverside Community Market in Cardiff, which has established a weekly farmer's market, food co-op and expanded to include new land in Cowbridge.

The creation of a open-to-all "green social network" is seen as a way to maximise participation, with a democratically elected board to oversee and drive projects. The paper says that government would need to be less tribal, more "hands off", open-minded and supportive – acting as an "enabler" instead of a top-down "enforcer".

Is it time for the Welsh Government to "back off"?
(Pic : Click on Wales)

I think this has been the big flaw since devolution in Wales – a top-down, managerial government in Cardiff, that has very narrow goals, and is far too focused on its own pet-projects that it's blind to innovation and "big-picture" thinking. Reforming the civil service (or more its attitude) would help.

Is it viable?

Traditional supply-side economics has let the Valleys down, leaving them look like - in economic and social terms - the victim of an ugly assault. This "greenprint" isn't an economic panacea. I don't see it generating wealth in the traditional sense, but what it could give is priceless – hope and a sense of ownership.

Both things have been taken away by the economy, Cardiff Bay and Westminster over a period that stretches far beyond 1979. If you can increase activity, get people working (even if it's voluntary) and create a new sense of purpose in the Valleys, then it could at least lead to a social recovery, if not an economic one.

What could be both a positive development and a problem is the creation of a two-stream economy in Wales – an economy based on traditional economics in the M4 corridor and the north East and a cooperative one in rural parts of Wales and the Valleys. This could widen the prosperity gap between West Wales & The Valleys and East Wales - while increasing economic activity and giving communities their self-respect back. Is that a trade-off that's worth it? Maybe it's not as simple as that.

While it's important to support those producing new supplies of food, retrofitting homes and building new power schemes, you have to remember all those grey factories and offices that dot the Valleys. They need help and support too - and perhaps - should even be encouraged to join the greenprint.

Eroski is a supermarket subsidiary of Mondragon - a Basque corporation
made up of hundreds of smaller, worker-owned co-operatives.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
It can work, and it can be serious business. It's been proven in the Basque Country. Mondragon Corporation – a federation of 200+ companies and co-operatives, employing some 84,000 people, had a €15billion turnover in 2010. It does everything from making consumer goods, banking, architecture, supermarkets and even has its own university.

That doesn't mean that this is some "utopian" solution to our own problems – Mondragon has enough problems of its own and is not free from criticism, usually from the left (see : Sharryn Kasmir's The Myth of Mondragon). Once a co-op reaches the size of Mondragon, does it "sell out"? Does it lose the sense of "ownership"?

Imagine if the Valleys had a Mondragon?

A banking arm based in Merthyr Tydfil, a manufacturing arm HQ'd at Ebbw Vale, an affiliated university, an energy company HQ'd at Hirwaun, a supermarket chain based in Caerphilly, a fashion chain in the Rhondda, an IT company in Cwmbran and a landmark headquarters north of the M4.

Now that would be something to see, wouldn't it.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Future of the Welsh media report

The Assembly's inquiry into the future has reported back -
with some interesting suggestions.
(Pic : Wikipedia)

It's a point raised time and time again – does Wales have the media necessary to hold our civic institutions to account?

With pressure being exerted on Welsh media outlets - for various reasons - it's vital that the perceivable decline is halted and turned around. No media. No accountability. No democracy.

The cross-party Task & Finish Group on the "future outlook for the media in Wales" reported back last week.

There were 23 recommendations, summarised as:
  • The establishment of an independent media forum, drawing on expertise from across the sector, to advise on all matters relating to the Welsh media. The devolution of broadcasting should be "kept under review". The forum should also consider alternative business models for the Welsh print media.
  • The Welsh Government should fully engage with the UK Government on matters such as the Communications Bill and non-devolved broadcasting issues - including introducing specific Welsh-language duties to Ofcom and laws relating to intellectual property rights.
  • The Welsh Government should make representations to the UK Government regarding the Channel 3 (ITV) licence, with the existing requirements to be kept as an absolute minimum for any company to be awarded the licence. The introduction of a Wales-specific Channel 3 licence should be considered.
  • The Assembly should keep the amount of political coverage provided by BBC Wales, and the funding arrangements for S4C, under review.
  • The Welsh Government should ensure, via the UK Government, that there is 97% digital radio coverage in Wales before any switchover, and they should continue to support community radio stations.
  • The Welsh Government should work with universities to foster innovation, define a purpose for the Creative Industries Sector panel and continue to implement the recommendations of the Hargreaves Review (about gaps in the creative industries sector).

Many of the responses to the group reveal interesting nuggets of information and ideas, including :
  • Issues surrounding the "fragmentation of audiences" with innovations like Smart TV
  • Broadcasting hasn't kept pace with the realities of devolution
  • The lack of accountability with regard the media in Wales
  • The negative impact of budget cuts at the BBC and changes to the running of S4C

Print Media

A lot of the publicity around this report surrounded the future of the print media. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) were pessimistic, saying Welsh newspapers were "fighting for survival". There were a wide range of views from publishers, some suggesting reading habits have simply changed, while others trumpet weekly local newspapers as the future. Cymdeithas yr Iaith continue to call for a daily Welsh-language newspaper.

There were concerns expressed that newspapers have been far too optimistic when chasing online revenues, so consumers have now come to expect "free media".

Bloggers - sorry, "citizen journalists" - get a nod. We're "inadequate", and will never have the ability to "replace professional public interest journalism." I agree with that. Hobbies never trump something you get paid to do.

Golwg360 say that they aim to try and "combine professionalism with citizen journalism" and provide a "multi-media platform". That would be fantastic for the Welsh-language media, but we really need a counterpart (or several counterparts) in English.

The NUJ suggests that newspapers be considered "public assets" to which the Welsh Government can step in to rescue when threatened with closure. Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) suggested something similar on Wales Home, which prompted my last piece on this. Something I suggested then – a public subsidy for the press based on the Norwegian model – is given short shrift by the Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), who says it would be a "difficult arena to become involved with." However, he doesn't rule it out, saying it could be "possible in the future."

Cuts, Broadcasting & Devolution

Could a Wales-specific "regional" ITV
licence be making a comeback?
(Pic: TV Ark)

On budget cuts, Huw expressed his concerns that the BBC's local services in Wales are under a "potentially disproportionate threat" in the broadcaster's "Delivering Quality First" initiative. More interestingly, he doesn't believe that the development of a media hub in Porth Teigr is "justification" for this reduction in investment.

There were particular concerns raised about S4C, Huw Lewis calling for a joint Welsh-UK independent review into the channel (not an entirely unwarranted suggestion), but remaining sceptical of "local TV", saying that it "detracts from what should be the centre of our concerns (national coverage)."

On accountability, many witnesses believed that it was important that public service broadcasters reported to the Assembly (it's suggested annually).

The recommendation of "keeping the devolution of broadcasting under review" is something of a cop-out. The NUJ expressed tacit support, Prof. Tom O'Malley (Media Studies, Aberystwyth University) called for the devolution of "a large part" to the Welsh Government, Prof. Ian Hargreaves (Digital Economy, Cardiff University) talked of a "federal opportunity" to reflect the "fact of devolved governments". Tinopolis' Ron Jones said that "meaningful and expressive scrutiny is best achieved at a local level". In his oral evidence, however, he said that devolution of broadcasting was, "not going to be politically deliverable" but that the current arrangements could be modified over several years in a way that "works for you (Assembly)".

Huw Lewis remained coy on the prospect of the devolution of broadcasting, giving a rather verbose deflection, tying the issue up in knots with typical Labour finesse without directly saying that he didn't want the powers (page 19 of the report) – Who? What? Where? Why? When? Johnny Ball reveals all.

A lot of what Huw Lewis said or suggested became recommendations in the report. For example, it was his suggestion that there needed to be 97% digital radio coverage before any switchover, and that the current minimum provisions in the Channel 3 licence should remain as a condition for licence renewal.

The suggestion of a Wales-specific ITV licence is interesting. It happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland (STV and UTV respectively), it's long overdue in Wales. Could the old HTV be making a comeback in the long term?

Creative Industries and the Economy

Could Porth Teigr in Cardiff compete with Media City UK?
(Pic :
Wider economic issues are also addressed in the report, mainly referencing what the previous Welsh Government did regarding creative industries. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid, Ynys Mon) established a Digital Wales Advisory Board, a Creative Industries Sector Panel (as part of the Economic Renewal Plan) and a Creative Industries Team to take this work forward. All this was largely in response to Prof. Ian Hargreaves report (linked above in the summary of the recommendations) which identified gaps in Welsh creative industries.

Many witnesses are described as being "concerned with the progress made by the Welsh Government". Cube Interactive said that the "pace of change has been slow by private sector standards." The lack of support for the Welsh film industry is also highlighted, with calls for an independent production fund. The current Business Minister, Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) highlighted several of her own priorities for the creative industries in Wales, largely ensuring there was "bang for buck" from investment.

Edwina also said that the Welsh Government's high-speed broadband scheme was at the procurement stage, but that it should ensure 30Mb across Wales instead of "being sidetracked....into an immediate need for 100Mb."

The Institute of Welsh Affairs and Huw Lewis seemed excited by the possibility of a single "media hub" at Porth Teigr in Cardiff Bay, suggesting that it needs to be more than just "bricks and mortar" and needs to become a "critical mass" comparable to Media City UK in Manchester. There were reservations from Ron Jones, implying that media companies shouldn't be forced to base themselves in a single place because the government tells them to.


Co-operatives like Port Talbot Magnet prove
that alternative models of media ownership are viable.
(Pic :
This is a pretty extensive, detailed and highly readable report. I recommend that if you want more expansion on my own summary, and other bits I haven't covered, then you should read it yourselves to make up your own mind.

Most of the recommendations are positive. The Assembly is now taking the issues and problems affecting the Welsh media much more seriously than any of us probably expected them to. There's broad agreement that "something needs to be done" and many of the witnesses - in particular Golwg360 and the Port Talbot Magnet - have shown that alternative models of media ownership are completely viable.

What I hope though, is that the Assembly and Welsh Government don't consider this report as "job done".

A lot of it comes down to money. Huw Lewis said himself that Wales is likely to be "disproportionately" affected by cuts to BBC local services. If anything, that should be a motivator for the devolution of broadcasting in the medium term. But as I said, the committee seemed reluctant to come out and say it, preferring instead to "keep it under review".

We also have to remember that "creative industries" and the "media" encompasses much more than TV, radio and newspapers. It includes films, gaming (which I've blogged about before), music/music production, advertising, general web design and classics such as magazines and literature. Those areas probably should have been included in more detail within the scope of the report.

The Welsh are a relatively creative people, but sadly we've always looked eastwards for vehicles of delivery, or to seek justification or approval. That doesn't mean that there needs to be a drawbridge mentality when it comes to the Welsh media. I think what we want most of all is to be noticed. It's a pretty damning indictment that nobody from the "British" print press - by which most Welsh people get their news - seems to have been called, or responded, to the committee.

Until the realities of devolution are acknowledged at the UK level, I don't think we'll ever get the kind of coverage we need to hold the Assembly, or other civic institutions, to account. Therefore, like many other things, we're probably going to have to do this one ourselves. That's better than waiting forever and a day for validation from the London Bubble, but it brings its own set of problems and issues that need addressing before we can think about devolving broadcasting or separate Channel 3 licences.

This report could - in the medium to long term - form the foundations for a Welsh broadcasting and media policy, but as always it comes down to will, incentives and innovation – both political and economic.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Getting Wales on its bike

Although there's been successes in promoting leisure cycling,
what can be done to make cycling a mainstream form of transport in Wales?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Cycling is a cheap, efficient and enjoyable way to get around. Wales also has a fairly underplayed cycling heritage, producing World-class cyclists such as Nicole Cooke and Geraint Thomas. We also possess some truly fantastic mountain bike facilities, such as those in the Afan Valley, and more than enough opportunities for leisure cycling.

However, as a form of transport - not as a leisure activity - cycling isn't mainstream in Wales. Public transport is often the focus for attempts at "modal shift" from cars compared to cycling or walking. This has a wider impact on society beyond commuting.

There are several places in Wales - especially in the south - that are being closely monitored for air pollution. This BBC report from 2010 highlights fears that most of this is caused by car traffic. Air pollution is a major aggravator of respiratory illnesses. Could a wider shift to cycling improve all-round heath as well as reduce pollution?

It's a stereotype of sorts, but the Netherlands is often seen as the torch bearer for cycling society. In 2010, cycling accounted for 27% of all journeys, and the cycling rate was as as high as 59% within some urban areas like Groningen.

It wasn't always like this, as you'll see in this Youtube video that covers the history of cycling there. It took major social change and protest to see the kind of investment and infrastructure that sustained cycling's popularity in the Netherlands through the age of the car.

What could Wales do to get people out of cars and on to bikes?


The Welsh Government is currently consulting on an Active Travel Bill, which would place a statutory duty on local authorities to maintain cycle and pedestrian paths. I'll cover that in more detail when the Bill is formally introduced. The Safe Routes to School initiative has seen significant investment in upgraded cycling and pedestrian facilities across Wales. In addition to this the Welsh Government has funded personal travel plans to promote new ways of getting around.

To date, much of the focus in Wales has been on developing interconnected long-distance cycle paths, usually but not always following disused railway lines. Some of these projects, like those in the Garw and Ogwr Valleys, have been community-led initiatives. Sustrans also have plans for developing something similar in the Ely Valley. These long-distance routes are fine, but I'm not sure if it's the right priority.

Cardiff was picked as a "Sustainable Travel City" by the previous Welsh Government. They have developed their own cycling strategy called "Enfys" (English : "Rainbow"). Being a relatively flat city, you would think that cycling would be a popular mode of transport – but it isn't really. Although the Enfys report states that car ownership levels are lower than the Welsh average, just 5.8% of people commuted by cycle in 2008. That's still way higher than the Welsh average (1.8%) which is the joint lowest level in the UK. Only around 1.7% of school pupils in Cardiff cycle to school.

It's hoped the development of "core routes" in Cardiff, in collaboration with Sustrans, will link schools, "major trip attractors" and residential parts of the city together. One of the things that stood out in the Cardiff plan, is how difficult many respondents to the survey felt cycling to the city centre was.

I imagine this is a similar situation in every major urban area in Wales and it's a big problem.


Cycling is arguably one of the most efficient form of transport for short journeys – for instance shopping, school or college, in many cases commuting too. In 2010, 71% of the working population of Wales worked in their home local authority, with the average commute being around 22 minutes – amongst the shortest commuting times in the UK. Travelling by cycle needs to be at least as quick and as hassle-free as this to really take off.

There are several things that stand in the way:

Climate – It rains a lot. People don't like to get wet. It's bad enough if you're on foot, but it's even worse if you're in the road getting splashed (or expecting to get splashed) by buses and cars. Having said that, the Netherlands isn't exactly a dry place either. Is this too lazy a suggestion?

Topography – You would think that the valley floors would be ideal for cycling, and indeed that's where most of the cycle paths are. However the streets are usually clinging to the side of the valleys and in some cases just too hard to ride a push bike up.

Street & Urban Design – The Active Travel Bill will likely address this, and there are several documents and strategies out there on street design. Unfortunately many of our older towns have archaic street layouts, with poor visibility for cyclists, pedestrians and motorised traffic.

Convenience –  Sitting in the comfort of a seat, pushing a few pedals, encased in a tonne of metal is far easier than pumping your legs trying to get up a hill. We also don't see many "utility cycles" capable of carrying baggage or groceries as we might on the European mainland.

The Times launched a campaign for safer cycling after
 journalist Mary Bowers was left in a coma following an accident.
In Wales, cycling road casualties remain erratic.
(Pic : The Times)

- Statistics for Quarter 3 2011 show that, while the overall number of police recorded road casualties in Wales continues to fall year on year - in fact Wales has some of the safest roads in Europe – the numbers for cyclist casualties are erratic, showing a mixture of falls and rises. Up to Quarter 3 2011, there were just over 400 cycling casualties, and the overall casualty numbers for 2011 are on course to be higher than 2010.

What are the practical steps, learning from Netherlands and elsewhere, that can be taken to make cycling more attractive?

Here are some of my own ideas.

  • Helmets should be mandatory for anyone cycling on a road without cycle facilities, with fines for those not wearing them. Segregated cycle lanes and cycle-friendly streets wouldn't be included.
  • Cycle paths should have minimum standards for lighting - perhaps with the use of solar studs.
  • Cycle paths should ideally be overlooked by property, and underpasses should be avoided where possible.
  • Where cycle paths cross a junction, the cycle path should be raised to the level of the pavement, with cyclists and pedestrians given right of way. There should be as clear a line of sight as possible for drivers.
  • Any road shared with cyclists on the same surface should have a 20mph limit. Exceptions could include major thoroughfares (i.e. Newport Road in Cardiff) until segregated facilities are constructed.
Cyclists taken seriously as road traffic
  • Cycle paths maintained to a minimum national standard, perhaps with a sliding scale "grading system". For example - a fully paved, Dutch-style segregated track would be grade A while a mud track through overgrown vegetation would be grade E.
  • Legal (and insurance) protection for the "weaker" party (pedestrians and cyclists) in the event of an accident. This is used in the Netherlands.
  • Mandatory cycling proficiency tests in primary schools (based on the Dutch "Verkeersexaman") as an essential part of road safety teaching.
  • A hypothecated tax on cycles and cycling equipment (safety equipment exempted) to pay for new and improved cycle infrastructure. Other taxes/levies could include parking spaces, congestion charges and residential parking permits.

  • Cycling over these short distances should be quicker, or as quick, as travelling by car. That means cycling routes should be planned and developed to be as direct as possible.
  • Cycle loan schemes, cycle "scrappage schemes", or cycle vouchers for schools, to contribute towards cycling equipment. Perhaps this could be part-paid for through environmental taxes.
  • Moving the boundary for free school bus travel from 2 miles to 3 miles - or even further where there are "good" cycling facilities available. Those living between 1 mile and the outer boundary would be eligible for the cycle vouchers mentioned above.
  • Local and national government contributing significantly towards the cost of cycle parking facilities, and other facilities such as showers, at workplaces, schools, colleges and universities if they successfully increase use of public transport or cycling amongst students or workforce.

All this needs, above all else:


I don't think Wales will ever be in the same position as the Netherlands, Denmark or other parts of Europe with regard cycling infrastructure, but there's no reason to stop the shift to public and "active" transport. There's no reason why - within major urban areas - we couldn't push for a 15-20% cycling rate within 30 years. That would require education, persuasion and massive investment in cycling and cycle-friendly infrastructure.

Using a part of the world I know well – Bridgend – here's an example of how I could see an urban network of cycle/pedestrian panning out. Not everything on this map needs to be done, but it does underline the potential.

A possible walking/cycling network for Bridgend
(Click to enlarge)
As you can see, I've linked the completed cycle routes together (ideally without interruption). I've also linked major trip attractors to one another : schools, the hospital, transport interchanges, industrial estates and suburban residential areas.

Bridgend town centre streets could become "shared surface", with a low speed limit. That could reverse some of the difficulties disabled people and the elderly have experienced being "dropped off" in the town centre, and formally allow cyclists to use the pedestrianised streets (if they didn't already), with cycling parking dotted around the town centre.

Ideally, a clearly signposted, largely segregated network, with reduced speed limits, like this would encourage parents in the suburban parts of the town to let their children walk or cycle to school without any real concern.

I've separated cycling infrastructure into two broad categories:

Cycle lanes on the road surface could be
considered "cycle friendly" infrastructure if well maintained.
(Pic : Wikipedia)

1. Cycle-friendly streets
  • "Shared surface" street layouts
  • Cycle lanes marked onto existing road surfaces
  • Authorised use of bus lanes by cyclists
  • Speed humps
  • 20mph (or less) speed limits
  • Advanced stop lines at traffic lights

The Netherlands is famous for its planned,
segregated cycling facilities.
(Pic :

2. Segregated cycling facilities
  • Dedicated cycle paths, or cycle/pedestrian shared paths
  • Dedicated cyclist signage and road signals (where appropriate)
  • Priority for cyclists at junctions and roundabouts
  • Segregated crossing facilities – underpasses, bridges or toucan & puffin crossings
  • Consensual crossings with cyclist/pedestrian rights of way (i.e zebra crossings)
  • Secure and monitored (formally & informally) bicycle parking facilities
  • Easy storage of cycles on public transport

Wales and the UK seem to opt more for "cycle friendly" infrastructure, but where there's the option for pre-planning for cyclists – for example 1960s and 1970s new towns or modern housing estates - segregated cycling facilities are becoming a more common feature. This is probably why nations like the Netherlands have such a good cycling infrastructure, as the "new town" was a key driver of post-war economic growth there.

What does independence have to do with any of this?

You might wonder - why I'm including this post in the Independence Index? That's a perfectly legitimate question.

There are several state functions that could be modified or reformed to give cycling a boost:
  • Road markings & signs
  • Traffic & vehicle regulations
  • Vehicle taxes/DVLA functions
  • The Highway Code
  • Rights of way (including definitions)
Creating new forms of cycle/pedestrian crossing, new signs
and signalsand new driving regulations would (most likely)
require independence.
(Pic :

Something as simple as creating a new form of "consensual crossing" would be a major step forward. Like it or not, we're locked into a "British" road system where many matters are highly regulated from the centre. Powers could come from federalism or devo-max, but independence would be the ultimate way for a significant divergance from the "British" road system - and one modelled on a benchmark like the Netherlands - would be possible.

Cycling needs a culture shift – not just new laws - although that helps. Britain is a car-centric country and our addiction to four wheels is a much a statement of an Anglo-American "rugged individualism" as much as it is the most popular (and often best) way to get around.

A brand new nation could be the kind of shock needed to create a new ethos, not just on how we travel but a whole host of other things too. It's all part of the independence vision.