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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Senedd Watch - July 2012

  • The head of the Welsh Local Government Association said that the devolution of council tax benefit to Wales is “a potential disaster”. The Welsh Government complained that they haven't had enough time to prepare for the changes - which are due to come into force later in 2012.
  • Communities and Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), said that plans to reduce the number of front-line police officers in Wales will have a “serious and adverse impact” on public safety. A total of £96m in savings on policing are due in Wales by 2015.
  • The Assembly's Finance Committee reported on borrowing powers, making recommendations that include : giving the Assembly the power to borrow for capital spending, controls agreed with Westminster, switching from revenue to capital spending without Treasury approval as well as taking into account similar developments and processes in Scotland.
  • GPs have been told by the Welsh Government that they will not have to open on Saturday's if there's no demand. Welsh Labour had a manifesto pledge in the 2011 election to widen access to GP's surgeries at weekends and evenings.
  • Glamorgan and Newport universities unveiled plans to merge, which is said would allow them both to compete “on the world stage”. Cardiff Metropolitan University continues to resist joining the merger.
  • Single-use carrier bag use in Wales has fallen by up to 90% since the introduction of a 5p charge in 2011. A poll suggests that 82% of shoppers now support the charge, compared to 61% before it was introduced.
  • The Assembly voted in favour of lowering the voting age to 16, with widespread support from across all parties. Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) suggested that the move would be “inconsistent” with gambling or alcohol ages. The Assembly, however, has no power to change the voting age, and the Welsh Government have instead called on the Electoral Commission to consider the move.
  • Mark Drakeford AM (Lab, Cardiff West) refused to back the First Minister's suggestion - that the UK's nuclear submarine fleet moves to Milford Haven in the event of Scottish independence -during a Plaid Cymru sponsored debate.
  • Plaid Cymru repeated calls for a not-for-profit company to take control of Welsh rail services when the Arriva Trains franchise is up for renewal in 2018, after Labour are reported to have been considering the option for English railways.
  • Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries & European Programmes, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), has undertaken a “stock take” of the Glastir land management scheme, finding that there were no compelling arguments for alternatives to the scheme, initiated by the previous Welsh Government, and promising a “period of stability.”
  • Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) has been accused of “gagging” community health councils (CHC's) with regard reorganisations within the Welsh NHS. The Minister said that CHC's needed to consider the needs of all of Wales, and shouldn't “divulge sensitive information” from health boards. The Conservatives have described this as “oppressive”.
  • In a separate incident, Darren Millar AM accused the Health Minister of “conniving” with the authors of an “independent” report into future changes to the Welsh NHS. A series of e-mails were obtained, which suggests that parts of the report were “sexed up” to make the Welsh Government's reorganisation plans more attractive. In an urgent question, the Health Minister strongly denied this, saying that the report was “based on clinical evidence.” Lesley Griffiths survived a subsequent Liberal Democrat sponsored no-confidence motion by 29 votes to 28 on July 18th.
  • School inspectorate Esytn  said that pupils taking the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification were not “being challenged enough”. The Welsh Government have said that there are introducing grading to the Advanced Level course for 2012-13.
  • A group, led by former Labour Finance Minister Andrew Davies, called for the devolution of all income tax to Wales. It's claimed devolving the tax would “improve accountability”, and that income tax revenues represent nearly a third of the Assembly's annual budget.
  • The First Minister reiterated his calls for a “constitutional convention”, saying that England “lacks a voice on the future of the UK.”
  • The UK Government has announced plans for a £500million rail link that would allow direct trains from Wales and the south west of England to Heathrow airport in London. On July 16th, the UK Government also announced a major rail investment scheme, including electrification to Swansea and the Cardiff Valley Lines. A cross-party Assembly group, chaired by Vaughan Gething AM (Lab, Cardiff South & Penarth), successfully campaigned for the electrification programme, along with business consultant Mark Barry. It's believed it could be the first step towards the creation of a “metro system” in the south of Wales.
  • Darren Millar AM won the ballot to introduce a Bill to the Assembly, and is proposing a 5p levy on chewing gum to help pay for litter clearing.
  • An ICM opinion poll, conducted on behalf of the Silk Commission, found that two-thirds of people support the devolution of income tax, while 80% supported borrowing powers.
  • Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) placed Pembrokeshire County Council under a special board of control, after he said he has “little confidence in certain officers” following a child abuse scandal at a Pupil Referral Unit in 2009.
  • The First Minister claimed that he has left UK Prime Minister David Cameron with “food for thought” about changes to the electoral system for the National Assembly. The First Minister reiterated his belief that changes to the electoral system for the Assembly should be decided in Wales. The UK Government earlier denied giving the First Minister “any assurances” that there would be no changes to the Assembly's electoral arrangements without the Assembly's agreement.
  • The first census data from 2011 reveals that the population of Wales has risen to 3.06million, with 90% of that growth attributed to migration, mostly from other parts of the UK.
  • Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) was elected Plaid Cymru's deputy leader on July 17th.
  • Dafydd Elis-Thomas AM (Plaid, Dwyfor Meirionnydd) had the party whip temporarily withdrawn, after failing to provide a “satisfactory answer” for his absence from the no-confidence motion against Lesley Griffiths on July 18th.
  • Unemployment in Wales increased by 2,000 in the three months to July 2012, to stand at 9%, while unemployment across the UK as a whole, fell to 8.1%.
  • The Assembly entered recess on July 18th, set to reconvene on September 25th.
  • Milk processors and dairy farmers agreed a draft deal at the Royal Welsh Show over milk prices. Milk producers will be given more bargaining power, in a deal Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs Alun Davies described as being able to “deliver real change.”
  • Four times as many over-50s are diagnosed with malignant melanoma in Wales compared to 30 years ago, according to Cancer Research UK.
  • According to an Office for National Statistics survey, people living in Wales were the most dissatisfied people of the Home Nations, with people in the South Wales Valleys significantly more dissatisfied with their lives than those in more rural areas.
  • Estyn recommended that Anglesey's education services be placed in special measures, after judging them to be “unsatisfactory”, citing poor attendance, poor standards and poor leadership.
  • The UK Government blocked the first Bill passed by the Assembly. The Local Government Byelaws Bill was awaiting Royal Assent, but has now been referred to the Supreme Court after - apparently - modifying the role of UK Ministers without their consent – which is outside the Assembly's competence.

Projects announced in July include : an £800million gas power station in Wrexham, an expansion of the door-to-door Bwcabus service in Carmarthenshire and a £425million deal with BT to provide “next generation broadband” to 96% of Welsh households by 2015.

Sunday 29 July 2012

Welsh Government - End of year report

The Assembly is now in recess. How do I, personally, think
the Welsh Government (and opposition leaders) have performed
in this first year since the March 2011 referendum?
(Pic : The Guardian)

Carwyn Jones (Lab, Bridgend)
First Minister

C (D within Wales, B externally.)

Is Carwyn a good "figurehead" for Wales – someone who you would be pleased to have represent the nation – yeah. I'm quite happy with his performance there. In fact, I'd say he's perhaps better than Rhodri Morgan in that regard.

I've been fairly impressed with how Carwyn has handled relations with Westminster, his ponderings on the constitution, the relatively successful business trips and his somewhat "ambassadorial" role. Despite Dafydd-El's hissy fit recently, I agree with him that Carwyn Jones is quite the statesman, and manages to be both affable and presidential at the same time – an excellent combination for any politician.

Is Carwyn a good "First Minister" – someone who drives progress, inspires confidence and competence, and motivates their government to action. From what I've seen, it's a big no.

So that's something Carwyn Jones and David Cameron have in common then.

With regard the government side of things, I've seen little to be impressed with. In the first half of the Assembly year there was near paralysis. Since then, we've had a lacklustre legislative programme (with a few exceptions), reannouncements and relaunches, fiascos like the Green Investment Bank Bid, AWEMA, that nuclear weapons "brain fart" and the spin surrounding future health service reforms in Wales. He's been unusually combative in FMQ's, in many cases asking more questions instead of answering them. Personally, I think he's been coming off worse for it too, though others will disagree and question the standard of the opposition.

Not good enough, really.

Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan)
Finance Minister, Leader of the House


I've said before that this is Jane Hutt's niche, and she's doing well. It can't be easy for any Labour politician to be in charge of making cuts of any kind, but Jane's budgeting has been relatively fair, with the "pain" spread evenly. The score would've been higher had the Infrastructure Plan not been, largely, made up of re-announcements and over-promising with regard capital spending on health.

Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower)
Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology & Science


This score will no doubt surprise a few of you. I've been heavily critical of things Edwina's been involved in, but there are several glimmers of hope : the continuation of the Economic Renewal Plan, the new science strategy, a few early successes with regard enterprise zones and the new innovation strategy currently under consultation.

She's a hard-worker, but I think it's the people around her that need to buck their ideas up. Nowhere near good enough considering the challenges facing the Welsh economy, but I'll give her credit for trying. For now that's all we can ask of her. Results can't come quickly enough though.

Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda)
Minister for Education & Skills


Leighton's consistently one of the Welsh Government's better performers (on paper at least). Ultimately, his legacy is going to be one based on delivery. If all the new strategies and initiatives fail to produce tangible results in education, then his record will be tarnished. Marks have been taken off for his aggressive approach to higher education mergers.

He has an iron-will determination about him - perhaps a little too heavy-handed - but maybe that's what we need in Welsh schools. I'm not sure how long his more "shoot first, ask questions later" approach will last before he angers the wrong interest group.

Carwyn is in the First Minister's job until he gets bored or he/Labour are voted out of office. Even though the chance of the latter occuring is less likely than Elvis crashing a Tardis into Cardiff Bay, if there were an opening at the top, from what I've seen so far, Leighton is probably the only candidate from the front benches that can step up to it in any meaningful way. That should worry Welsh Labour, really.

John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East)
Minister for the Environment & Sustainable Development


Would've been higher had he not made a u-turn on the badger cull. The rights and wrongs of it are up for debate, but it doesn't look good when a decision like that was dragged on for so long.

However, he's one of the cabinet members I've been relatively impressed with. John seems keen to get his hands dirty, and isn't afraid of making big decisions. He had big shoes to fill since Jane Davidson left, but he's acclimatised pretty well. He'll have a lot of work to do in coming years with the environment bodies merger, changes to planning in Wales and Sustainable Development Bill. I'm convinced he's up to that. Not bad.

It would be a travesty if he were shunted aside in the future for someone with a bigger mouth and a bigger head.

Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham)
Minister for Health & Social Services


Lesley is in serious danger of losing control of the health agenda.

Marks are taken off for telling fibs about bail outs, and the recent issue regarding that "independent report" (perhaps unfairly). That's not to say she hasn't done some things well – reforms are the "right thing". Also, Lesley is delivering some major investments in hospitals (albeit ones re-announced for the umpteenth time), the Organ Donation Bill and overseeing really tough financial decisions in the NHS - which no Labour minister really wants to be doing.

I think Lesley should be given more free reign in how she's allowed to present the case for hospital reorganisation. Health is always going to be one of the more difficult portfolios to have in Wales, but I've got the impression that Lesley might have been pressured to present things in a certain way. I'm not sure how long we can wait for her to grown into the role, or how long she'll be given. There are echos of Jane Hutt circa 1999-2005 here.
She narrowly survived a no-confidence vote (that should never really have been called in the first place), however if the subject of that vote had been exclusively on her performance to date (which would be slightly unfair, I'd admit) she would be a goner.

Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney)
Minister for Housing, Heritage & Regeneration


Huw might not be as high-profile as he'd like, but at least he's been busy. He's made some good contributions to the report on the future of the Welsh media, leading to several of his recommendations being taken up. He's also produced a very comprehensive white paper on housing - albeit with some fairly unambitious targets in some respects. On the heritage side of things, there's a new development at St Fagans carried over from the last government, but I imagine, at heart, he'll be more concerned with the regeneration aspect of his portfolio.

Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside)
Minister for Local Government & Communities


It's been a quiet year for Carl. He's finally got around to lifting the veil hanging over Anglesey Council, but hasn't announced any major transport projects of any note as far as I can remember. The M4 Newport issues will finally be addressed - as many a Welsh Government has aspired to - but I don't see anything actually happening on the ground for a while. I think once more substantial local government reforms are announced we'll hear more from him. Not bad, but not exactly blow your socks off stuff from him either.

Theodore Huckle QC
Counsel General


Should Wales have a separate legal jurisdiction? We're finally being asked that question, and I'm sure both Carwyn and Theodore played a part in that. Creating a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction would be historic because it would effectively consign the "official" EnglandandWales to the history books and the cricket pitch. Most of the high score is for getting the ball rolling on that alone, however from what I've seen he comes across as a very astute individual who has the confidence of the Assembly. Not sure about all this nonsense regarding a silver badge though.

Junior Ministers

Gwenda Thomas (Lab, Neath)
Deputy Minister for Children & Social Services


Gwenda's introduced a comprehensive draft bill on social services, which, even if it is above the level of understanding for the general public and only really of concern to care professionals, will hopefully lead to much improved social services. Gwenda is a friendly, familiar face, but it's been a relatively quiet year for her.

Jeff Cuthbert (Lab, Caerphilly)
Deputy Minister for Skills


This is through no fault of his own, and not really a criticism, but he doesn't appear to have done very much. All deputy ministers risk becoming anonymous, and considering his portfolio, he's likely to be in the shadow of Leighton Andrews a lot of the time. However, he is leading a review into qualifications which, in the medium-term, will hopefully deliver better results and improve education standards. I'm looking forward to seeing what ideas this comes up with.

Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)
Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food, Fisheries & European Programmes

This role - which really deserves to be a full-time cabinet position - is one that requires a lot of travelling and a lot of hard graft. He doesn't appear to have the complete confidence of the farming community - they're always a hard bunch to please, perhaps with good reason - but as far as I can see he hasn't done much wrong. He takes the role incredibly seriously by all accounts, despite representing an urban constituency.

He's going to have a far more important role if Wales secures (unfortunately) another round of Objective One funding. I hope he can lead an investigation into whether the EU funds are being spent in the right way.

An unsung hero, but his occasional snide remarks against his predecessor are completely uncalled for. He's no Elin Jones.

Opposition Leaders

Andrew Davies (Con, South Wales Central)


I like "RT" - seriously. For some reason, he hasn't been able to set out a stall for himself. The Tories have become very disorganised since the loss of Nick Bourne, seeming to be in retreat when they really should be on the front foot off the back of 2011's good Assembly results. Though to his credit he's overseen the positive development of "Your Voice" – a new Welsh Tory "superblog".

Andrew needs to get a grip on things and work out what's wrong – it's not him, really – and sort it before someone decides to put a knife in his back. That would be a shame, because he comes across as one of the few AMs with any life and character to him.

Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central)

N/A – Too soon

It's far too early to make a proper judgement on Leanne's leadership. Yes, the local election results will have been a disappointment, but losses were expected. Yes, Plaid's membership increased in the run up to her election, but I haven't really seen anything that hints at a significant departure or alternative to Labour's hegemony (with a few notable exceptions).

I've neither been blown away, nor disappointed so far, but there's been some progress. I think most Plaid members and supporters would say the same thing. Her excellent contribution to the Diamond Jubilee debate and motion a few weeks ago - despite it arguably being laid as a "trap" - builds on her credentials as someone to take seriously, dare I say it - "stateswomanlike". Aside from the embarrassment caused by nursing a teething Dafydd Elis-Thomas in public, it's been a good start.

Kirsty Williams
(Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)


Poor, poor, Kirsty. Perhaps an undeserving victim of UK politics and the Lib Dem's unpopularity. The Lib Dems have always been one of the most capable opposition groups in the Assembly since its creation. That's their trump card - holding Labour to account – but Kirsty seems to have lost her rhythm, when on her best days she shows a certain gravitas.

Her first task in turning things around, is to stop Peter Black from becoming some sort of Lord Haw-Haw for Westminster in Wales. Her second, and far more trickier task, is to distance the Welsh Lib Dems from the UK Coalition. She's managed to get Lib Dem policy through due to the budget deal with Labour, but she - and her party - should fully expect Labour to take all the credit (and all the headlines) should it be a success.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Carwynisation of the Cardiff LDP

The preferred strategy for Cardiff's Local Development Plan is already
causing controversy for the scale of proposed housing developments.
However, do the numbers add up?
(Pic : BBC)

I pricked up my ears last week, when I heard that 45,000 homes were being proposed for Cardiff. This is an incredibly bold statement from Cardiff Council.

I'm not a hypocrite. Back last year I noted that Cardiff's housing shortage was threatening to undermine the Welsh economy. This housing expansion in Cardiff is good news, long overdue and wholeheartedly welcome. It's just the maths and logistics of it all that I find a little bit odd.

Carwyn's Number

"Carwynisation", summed up in this not exactly mathematical formula:
                             C = R+(LxS²)

  • C = Carwyn's Number
  • R = The "real" number. The actual number of whatever is to be created (homes, jobs etc.), rounded to the nearest hundred.
  • L = Labour factor. How influential are Labour in this on a scale of 1-10? A big positive number means "very", a lower number is required when another party is involved, but a negative number if it's the Tories.
  • S = Statement factor. How bold do you want the statement to be?

This is how you can come up with magical statements like "6,000 jobs coming to Milford Haven by Trident move", "45,000 new homes to be built in Cardiff", "First Minister/Welsh Minister/Local Council X welcomes Londis expansion in Tai Bach, creating 700 jobs", "Tory cuts to cost Wales X jobs in X industry."

Usually overpromising and underdelivering is electoral suicide, but that doesn't appear to be the case in Wales.

Homes and households – the current picture

45,000 new homes equates (based on the latest 2011 Census bulletin of 2.3 people per household) to around 103,500 individuals. For perspective, in 2001 there were approximately 56,000 households in the whole of Newport.

Not all of those homes will be 4 bedroom executive "Barratt Boxes" in leafy cul-de-sacs. You could probably include student flats in the figure and several blocks of student flats will be home to a few hundred people. Even if you include every single "dwelling" built by Cardiff since 2006 (when the LDP process began), it'll still leave a gap of thousands of homes to be filled by 2026.

For the 2011-12 financial year, 5575 new homes were built in the whole of Wales.

You're looking at building houses in Cardiff between now and 2026 at a rate (if you count a rough estimate of 12,000 of the homes as having already been built – and I'm probably being generous there, but admittedly can't prove that) of 2350 homes every single year. That's in Cardiff alone, and based on an assumption that there wouldn't be any planning or administrative delays.

There's a lot to be said for good master-planning, but this is on a scale we haven't seen in Wales before.You're not just talking about building natural extensions to the city here. You're talking, theoretically, about building the equivalent of Wales' fourth largest settlement in 14 years. All the schools, transport infrastructure, health facilities, parks & recreational facilities, utilities.... This is an undertaking so huge, it makes the original Cardiff Bay redevelopment look like a granny annex.

So either 45,000 new homes is a load of rubbish, or Cardiff is planning one of the boldest urban planning projects Wales will have seen since the end of World War II.

I'm guessing it's the former.

Are the numbers way out?

Cardiff is, by some margin, Wales' fastest growing local authority. The latest census suggests its population has grown by at least 36,000 (12%) since 2001. Unless there's something big coming down the pipeline with regard the Cardiffian economy, an increase in population by building 45,000 new homes looks to be unsustainable.

I'm not criticising this bold - and yes, you could say ambitious - outline. Cardiff certainly does need to grow while any "new economy" takes hold in the Valleys, and housing supply needs to be increased to keep house prices down and (laughably) "affordable". I just think the headline numbers coming out of this are wildly optimistic or simple wrong.

If you told me that no new homes were planned in any of the local authorities surrounding Cardiff for the next decade, with Cardiff becoming a focal point for all new residential development in SE Wales, this 45,000 figure will have been believable. But that isn't happening. We have major housing developments underway or proposed in Bridgend (Parc Derwen), Barry (Waterfront), Llanharan (Parc Llanilid) and Newport (Glan Llyn). Even then, the combined total of homes built at these places, is no more than a quarter of the number of homes Cardiff's LDP earmarks.

It emphasises my point that Cardiff's proposals are going to need to be coupled to significant, high-level strategic planning - probably to such an extent it will have needed to be led at a national level, not local.

Cardiff Council's outline proposals for the LDP call for the creation of up to 40,000 new jobs. Again, very welcome, very ambitious.  Once you take the large levels of in-commuting into Cardiff into account, a significant chunk of the people living in these new homes are going to be jobless. Even if you consider the retired, students and children, you're still looking at a lot of "economically inactive" people.

All those extra, "inactive" people will become an extra divider for GVA per capita figures. For that reason, Cardiff's headline economic statistics could be sent into the toilet by this move - even if it had sustained economic growth that outstripped the rest of Wales. This is why relatively minor screw ups like the Green Investment Bank bid matter.

We also have to remember that this is a "preferred strategy", not a final one. I suspect the number of homes has been exaggerated, so when the "real" number of new homes is released - which will be around 25,000 mark if matched to population growth trends - the Cardiff North NIMBY's will feel they'll have won some sort of victory.

I can tell them now that won't happen. The land they will be inevitably "fighting to protect" will be built on regardless. If every single proposed housing development site in the LDP is developed – greenfield and brownfield – you're still looking at a "missing" 8-10,000 homes.

Where are they going to go? Are they empty properties brought back into use? Are they counting renovated social houses as "new homes?" Or rather, do they not even exist in the first place?

Carwyn's Number works in mysterious ways.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Ultra Light Rail - Another transport option?

Ultra Light Rail - Wildly idealistic, or sustainable way to keep open/
re-open lesser used branch lines in Wales?
(Pic : Wikipedia)

When you think of "railway", you probably think of the standard heavy rail network between major population centres. You probably won't include trams under the same umbrella, and will write-off the narrow gauge railways as "something for tourists".

Are we too hung up on our railways meeting a certain standard to be categorised as such? Is there an opportunity for Wales to take a different path in the future?

Swiss railways, for example, consists of standard gauge, narrow gauge and tram railways - all part of an interconnected network, with each part serving its own function in its respective community.

What is "Ultra Light Rail"?

The Sustainable Travel Company and Parry People Movers Ltd have carved out niches for themselves by developing a series of lightweight self-propelled "tram trains", dubbed "Ultra Light Rail".

They are designed to run either on their own track (like trams) or even on standard heavy rail. Some of these vehicles are being used on parts of the UK rail network - in Stourbridge for example (photo above). They can even - possibly - be adapted to street-running.

They're designed to carry generally the same number of passengers as a small tram, but not as many as a mainline train or a tram system in a major built up area. It could be considered – in shorthand – a light rail system for rural areas and smaller towns.

Where could Ultra Light Rail (ULR) fit in?

Wales has three different types of railway, as I can see:
  • CoreMainline services (north Wales, south Wales mainline) and heavily-used commuter services (Valley Lines).
  • Branch – Connecting, lesser used and community/rural services (for example Llandudno-Blaenau Ffestiniog, Heart of Wales Line)
  • Mothballed – Freight-only and disused lines that could be reopened (i.e. Pontyclun-Beddau, Aberdare-Hirwaun, Llangefni)

ULR could become a new category for railways – a halfway house between traditional heavy rail and tram-based light rail. To do something like that though would either require the devolution of rail regulatory powers, or independence. It would have its advantages and disadvantages.

For example, ultra light rail could have relaxed regulations for track and station standards, which could help keep maintenance and running costs down – and more crucially help keep some lesser-used branch lines open.

However, that could also be considered a safety risk or lead to poorer standards of service than normal railways.

These could be the main features:
  • Self-propelled vehicles – Fuel cells, flywheels etc. No need for large-scale electrification.
  • Modular stations – Which could consist of a very basic platform, with DDA access wherever necessary.
  • Simpler signalling systems – In some cases perhaps reduced to a simple "stop" or "go", but this would likely mean slower permissible line speeds.
  • Only used on connecting branch railways - To free up space for extra mainline services
  • Street-running adaption – Becoming a more formal "tram train".

How could these systems be run?

Financial viability is a key consideration for any project like this, and for now, none of these are likely to be viable by themselves. However, there are alternatives:
  • Municipal-owned/partnered transport companies – A return to regulated public transport in local authorities/regions, with bus, light rail and ultra light rail services coming under the control of arms-length companies, possibly run on a not-for-profit model.
  • Community rail partnerships – Just like existing schemes, but with some of the functions (track maintenance etc.) being run by volunteers and apprentices.
  • Subsidised through general taxation – Many of the communities that would benefit from this are distant, and fixed transport connections would provide greater social and employment opportunities.
  • Subsidised through hypothecated taxation – Congestion charges, car parking levies, emissions charges, a precept on Council Tax (like a police or fire authority would).
  • Voluntary contribution – For example, retail parks, business parks, voluntarily contributing towards the costs of building stations for/near their premises.

An exemplar ULR network

Like my look at cycling, I've decided to look at a possible ULR network for Bridgend. This isn't a serious proposal, just an example of how it might work. Here's a schematic for a potential ULR system, based on the existing Maesteg branch line, and the disused Garw and Ogwr valley lines.

A theoretical Ultra Light Rail network for Bridgend county -
not to be taken too seriously, just to illustrate the potential.
(Click to enlarge)

This network uses the existing Maesteg branch, extended northwards to Caerau (it would now be impossible to send it through to Cymer and Glyncorrwg, which is a shame), alongside the partially disused Garw branch (currently earmarked for development as a heritage railway), and the completely removed Ogwr valley branch. The Ogwr branch is now a cycle path, but it should be pretty easy to rebuild cycle paths next to the rails, separated by a robust fence, and continuing to encourage cycling and walking.

As a "money no object/not serious" idea, if it were possible, the ULR network could be extended south of Bridgend, momentarily sharing the Vale of Glamorgan line, then swinging outwards, south of Island Farm and Broadlands, before joining the Porthcawl road, and becoming a street-running service into the centre of Porthcawl. The cost and environmental implications of such a thing are likely to be prohibitive - even for wildly idealistic people like myself.

This wouldn't be designed to replace mainline services, just provide a lightweight, low-cost way of feeding into mainline services, as well as maintaining local, lesser-used community railways. If anything, it would supplement = and possibly be an eventual replacement for - existing bus services.

For example, any Bridgend network would free-up space on the South Wales Mainline for additional services in place of the current Cheltenham-Maesteg service. Passengers from the Bridgend Valleys would (ideally) be able to buy through-tickets (or use pre-paid cards, harking back to my post The Welsh Metro last year), changing at Bridgend station.

There are possible other places in Wales this approach could be used:
  • Pontyclun to Beddau (and possibly Ely Valley)
  • Swansea to Onllwyn & Blaengrawch
  • Llandudno to Blaenau Ffestiniog
  • Wrexham to Mold
  • Bangor to Caernarfon

This won't be an ideal solution for every situation, but if it allows greater connectivity between some of our more isolated communities – as it has done for the Swiss – then perhaps it's worth keeping it as an option on the table for the future.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Democracy in Action - Assembly Competition

What will be the defining image of our fledgling democracy?
The Assembly Commission is searching for one.
(Pic : Urban75)

I don't normally promote things, but as I was asked nicely, and it's relevant/interesting, I'll make an exception.

Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) is currently running a photography competition called "Democracy in Action in Wales". There's more information at the website here, and a Twitter account here.

It's pretty self-explanatory. Interested parties should submit a photo (regardless of quality, it doesn't have to be the best camera to enter) that best demonstrates "democracy in action in Wales", with the aim of adding to an "historical, visual record of Wales during this unique moment in the history of Welsh devolution."

The detailed terms, rules and conditions are here.

To enter, you need to join and send your photo to the competition's Flickr group.

The deadline for entries is August 31st 2012. You can submit up to five entries as far as I can tell.

There's a "Judges Prize", decided by a judges panel and a "People's Choice" prize, decided by a public online vote.

Twenty photos will be shortlisted and displayed in the Senedd, to which the shortlisted entrants will be invited to a launch event. The winners will be announced on October 3rd. The shortlisted entries will also form part of a travelling exhibition.

Each prize consists of a one day photography course (donated by ffotogallery) and a digital SLR camera (donated by Newport University's School of Photography).

I'm probably not going to enter personally as I'm not much of a photographer, but I'd though it'll be of interest to some of the people reading this.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

No confidence - Case for Change Round 2

Lesley Griffiths is due to face a grilling over the Case for Change report debacle,
but is she being treated fairly here? Is a no-confidence vote an over-reaction?
(Pic : New York Daily News)

Tomorrow, Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) faces a no confidence vote in the Senedd over the row last week with regard the independence of an academic report on changes to the Welsh NHS.

It's going to be a rough day for her, but I'm fully expecting Lesley to survive, even in the (unlikely) event of her losing the no confidence vote. As Gareth Hughes has pointed out, she's in the job until Carwyn Jones decides otherwise.

If you have the time actually look the report summary for yourselves. It's a highly readable piece of work that presents its case effectively and conclusively. There's very little in there that we can't all agree on. The issue is whether things have been put in there to make the case - as the e-mails revealed - "more persuasive".

That's the damaging thing as far as I see it. Any "independent" report from now on will have question marks around it. For example, the recent report about university mergers in south east Wales - which just so happens to echo Welsh Government policy very closely too.

I don't think we've seen enough grounds for a no-confidence vote. A committee session to get answers (which will happen tomorrow morning), a warning to civil servants to prevent something like this happening again and an apology in the Senedd. Case closed, wrists slapped, a red-faced minister and then, hopefully, we can get back to the matter at hand.

However, we live in Wales. We don't do things like that, do we?

The vote and the implications

People have asked me why I haven't "got off the fence" and joined a political party, whether Plaid or anyone else. If they wanted a specific example, this is it.

It's probably obvious to most of you that I consider myself a Plaid Cymru "supporter", but that doesn't mean I support everything the party says or does, including this no-confidence motion. In fact, take away my support for independence, I'm probably one of those rare creatures - a "natural Liberal Democrat", who has a love-hate relationship with Labour, and thinks that the Tories and Greens occasionally talk sense. If you're confused right now, imagine what it's like for me.

I said in my last post on the issue, that "ministerial scalps" should be reserved for obvious examples of incompetence or corruption. Alun Michael went honourably, but should never have been there in the first place. Christine Gwyther couldn't do her job properly - perhaps based on her conscience and personal beliefs - but those motions failed.

I'm not sure if it's good or bad that these mistakes get picked up much better at a devolved level than in Westminster, as devolution tends to amplify them.

Lesley Griffiths has been a poor Health Minister - I make no bones about it. However, I've seen nothing in this "scandal" that warrants a call for her head. You could argue Lesley has "misled the Senedd" by presenting an "independent" report that was leaned on to support a pre-determined conclusion. That's serious, but not sackable in this particular case.

This no-confidence motion is slightly childish and attention-seeking. I suspect this has been driven by Plaid (who've made good use of FOI requests down the years), but taken up with aplomb by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

It's the Conservatives who have been the most vocal in calling for a scalp, with Plaid and the Lib Dems taking a back seat, egging them on. That's smart. The Tories have been played very well by an increasingly shrewd Leanne Wood (or maybe in this case Elin Jones), who you've got to say is the de-facto leader of the opposition at the moment, with Kirsty Williams being - as always - an exceptional stateswoman compared to her peers.

So, are the opposition to put up, shut up, and form a governing rainbow coalition that can put their own health reforms through. No? Then what's the point of this?

Is it worth humiliating a government minister so they might cause future embarrassment to the likes of Keith Davies (Lab, Llanelli)?

The job of an opposition is to "oppose" (well, herp-de Mr Derp) – fair enough. This could be a case of the wrong action being taken for the right reasons. You can only play the no confidence card so many times until you look like the boy (or girl) crying wolf.

Don't think I'm going to let Labour off the hook. Their handling of NHS reforms has been a disgrace. They've managed to turn reasonable proposals most of us would agree to, into a political football that's probably put people off the idea.

Instead of trying to win hearts and minds, they took the Welsh Labour path of obfuscation, finger-pointing, accusations of scaremongering and top-down over-management. They probably thought we (the public) were too ill-informed, or hysterical, about NHS changes - because Labour would be in the same position - to have a rational debate. So they had to step in forcefully to press the issue. Wrong move.

An anonymous commentator left a comment on my last post earlier today, that harks back to the claims that Community Health Council's (CHC's) have been "bullied into silence" from the centre (reported recently elsewhere), as well as accusations of nepotistic appointments and being denied their say on the reforms. Sadly, even if it is true, I'm not shocked by stuff like that any more. If there's proof of that, I think it would be far more serious matter than the credibility of the report.

By underplaying the seriousness of this blunder, Labour have given the opposition more ammunition that they originally had, dragging a respected academic's name through the mud as deflection from weaknesses closer to home. They should have been upfront on this a long, long time ago.

These reforms are urgently needed. Like it or not, Labour have to be given the opportunity to deliver them as they are the ones in power. Someone is going to have to bite the bullet and see things through. For now that person is Lesley Griffiths.

She deserves a chance to turn things around. Being Health Minister is - as Betsan Powys has often described it - "the toughest job in Welsh politics". Only the economy brief deserves as large a "period of grace".

If we're still in this position 6-12 months from now, or if something far more serious emerges, a no-confidence vote would be justified. Until then, AMs need to put the toys back in the box and get their umbrellas ready for the summer recess.

There's schadenfreude in seeing government ministers done up like a kipper - but only when they really deserve it. Based on the arguments and evidence presented so far, this isn't one of those occasions.

The case for change in that regard, is pretty flimsy.


UPDATE : 18/7/2012

After one of the most cringe-worthy debates I've seen in the Assembly chamber - and some incredibly nauseating spin and counter-spin on Twitter - I'm really glad I can't be bothered to do a full follow up right now. This was a serious issue, reduced to arguments over wording, while missing the bigger issue of Lesley Griffiths' performance as Health Minister and NHS reform.

Lesley Griffiths subsequently survived the no-confidence vote by 29 votes to 28. 

Sunday 15 July 2012

Heineken Cup squabbles & the future of European rugby union

There'll almost certainly be a compromise, but why have English
clubs decided to give notice to withdraw from the Heineken Cup?
(Pic : Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, English Premiership rugby union sides announced their intention to withdraw from the Heineken Cup, giving the requisite two seasons notice in time for the 2014-15 season. The French Top-14 sides have also made murmurings threatening to withdraw, but nothing official yet.

I'm not a big follower of rugby, I have to admit that, but I presume this is some sort of bargaining tool to either increase money, increase the number of participating teams from the English Premiership and Top-14, or to change the competition in other, more significant, ways.

I imagine any negotiations will result in fundamental changes, with discussions about the future of the European rugby competitions due in August. But what could these changes be?

What do they want?

The Telegraph have reported that the English sides (and presumably the French sides too) might specifically want:
  • A 20-team Heineken Cup (with 6 sides each from England and France) reduced from the current 24-team format. The winners of the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup would be given automatic places in the following season's Heineken Cup, leaving 6 places for Pro12 sides (compared to the current 10 guaranteed places).
  • A 20-team Challenge Cup (as is currently), with two sides qualifying from:
  • A new "third-tier" competition for sides from emerging European nations like Spain, Georgia, Russia, Portugal etc.

Looking at it, I don't think it's expansion into other "European markets" that the English and French sides are after. Having two sides from "emerging nations" doesn't scream that. I think this could be aimed at South Africa.

South African teams play in the pan-southern hemisphere Super 15, but share a time zone with Europe. No doubt their current competitions cause problems, with Australia and New Zealand having a lot more in common with one another than with South Africa. Having clubs from a powerhouse like South Africa in the Heineken Cup might go some way to "re-balance" the competition, which has been dominated by "unfashionable" Pro12 (mostly Irish) sides in the last few years, and shows no signs of stopping. By reducing the competition to 20 sides, they could be making room for possible South African involvement at some point in the future.

Perhaps a much simpler compromise can be reached – an expansion of the HC itself, maybe to 32 teams - which would inevitably be filled by English and French clubs (and perhaps token extra sides from emerging nations like Portugal, Spain, Romania, Georgia & Russia). But that could completely undermine the Challenge Cup.

It could also be part of a power struggle within England and France. With the Rugby World Cup in 2015 being hosted by England, many Premiership sides are being encouraged to make significant investments in their stadia. We've had the recent farce of London Welsh being initially denied promotion due to ground issues. Perhaps the English sides are threatening to withdraw to put pressure on the RFU to go easier on them, or to introduce their own reforms to make English teams more competitive – a rise in salary caps for instance, or in squad numbers to allow more squad rotation for HC games.

The same, perhaps, could be said for the French sides. Maybe they want to streamline European competitions to make the Top14 more attractive, or even to enable expansion. The threat of withdrawal by both England and France will probably get the Pro12 sides to the negotiating table. Losing one won't make that much of a difference - it's happened before - but losing both England and France would be significant.

Maybe they want something more dramatic in the medium to long term – a fully blown European league, with relegation and promotion – and the HC as it is, becoming a straight knockout competition. Despite the difficulties of getting something like that up and running, I think it's inevitable at some point in the future. I've mentioned it before when I looked at possible reforms in Welsh rugby back in February. However, I don't see the French sides signing up to that at the moment when the Top-14 is the main interest for their sides - and a major source of income.

Taking lessons from UEFA

If the issue is around the number of sides from the Pro12 in the competition, then lessons will likely need to be taken from football.

UEFA competitions operate using a "coefficient", which measures performance over several years in continental competitions, and shares out the qualifying places based on that.

When a league's teams perform well, they get more places. On merit, Ireland alone would probably be able to justify four HC places. As performances change over time, then the number of qualifiers will change too, but I doubt this approach would please everybody.

A rugby coefficient could be created, with each nation guaranteed a certain number of participants (i.e England & France 3/4 each, Ireland & Wales 2 each , Scotland and Italy 1 each), with the remainder of spaces shared out based on a nation's sides performance in the HC over three to five year period.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Where's the centre ground in Welsh politics?

There was an interesting article on Click on Wales the other day, following off the back of the launch of David Melding's (Con, South Wales Central) new "centre-right" think tank - Gorwel - at the end of June.

I don't really have that much time for think tanks. They have their place, but I'm not sure they're always practical-minded in the application of their work. They're somtimes bogged down in the theoretical (ahem), and a more up-market and credible version of the likes of the Taxpayers' Alliance - designed to pressure policy makers into following a set way, rather than looking at things objectively.

However, a new voice is always welcome in Welsh civic society. I genuinely hope Gorwel is a success, as we don't have enough to counter, or challenge, the left-wing "cosy consensus" in Wales (you can tell I wrote this before this week's "drama", can't you?).

I might myself be left-leaning, but it does frustrate me sometimes that the fundamentals of economics are ignored for the sake psudo-socialist grandstanding between three broadly left-wing parties with the Tories sitting in the corner sucking their thumbs. It's partially why Wales is stagnating, in my opinion.

It does make you wonder where in Wales "the centre" lies.

Firstly, we need to define what a "centre ground" is. I'd deem it a "blind spot" in the political spectrum, where the major parties fight for moderate/floating voters, but doesn't have a defined party of its own.

It doesn't have to be in the centre of a left-right axis - and this is a significant difference between Wales and much of the rest of the UK as I see it. I've given an idea of where I think the various parties are in this diagram below:

A Welsh political spectrum? Is this where the centre ground is?
(Click to enlarge)

Welsh Labour are very clearly left-authoritarians - rightly or wrongly seeing the state, social justice and social order as the way to drive Wales forward. They're not "hands off" at all, even if you could accuse the current Welsh Government of laziness. They micro-manage, strategise and centralise from the top down. Classic "Old Labour", but in 21st century clothes.

Plaid are a few notches down the authoritarian ladder, and are probably a bit more left-wing than Welsh Labour. It's the same ideals – seeing the state as the way to drive Wales forward, but from the bottom-up : co-operatives, mutualism and communitarianism. It's a much more "hands off" approach than Welsh Labour, and probably the major difference between the two parties, aside from the constitution and specific issues like nuclear power.

Where do the Liberal Democrats fit in? The Lib Dems tread similar ground to Plaid, but perhaps see individualism as a greater influence than collectivism. This could be considered the classic "Welsh liberalism". But that's been dead for a long time.

Accuse me of bias all you want, but Plaid have taken that, mixed it with Welsh-language radicalism, and can now be said to carry the banner of the "Welsh liberal/rural radical tradition" into the 21st century. The Lib Dems are probably the party closest to that centre ground, but they haven't made a major breakthrough except at a local level.

Devolution allowed a left-ward shift in the axis of Welsh politics. This has had its affect on the Welsh Conservatives too. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the Welsh Conservatives under Nick Bourne probably had more in common with New Labour than Rhodri Morgan's Welsh Labour ever had : support for competition in public services, support for PFI and radical reforms in health services for example.

While Nick didn't shift them that far to the left, he certainly de-toxified the brand by adopting the other thing that throws all of this into a tailspin – Welsh (small-n) nationalism.

Prior to Andrew RT Davies becoming leader, you could argue that the Welsh Conservatives were on their way to becoming something similar to a centre-right nationalist parties in Catalonia or the Basque Country. Their manifesto for the 2011 Welsh General Election was extraordinary in its small-n nationalism : big support for the Welsh language, ambitious goals for the Welsh economy, ambitious goals to improve the capacity of national structures and all tied to an almost patriotic zeal that could go toe to toe with anything Plaid could produce or advocate - short of independence.

I think that's been undone now, and while even Andrew might accept that the last manifesto was a pretty good one, don't expect to see many of these things come 2016. The party has shifted largely to be in line with the UK party, and have become a mouthpiece for them, as well as more solidly Unionist once again.

In the last few days, this has been complicated further by a (I have to say, slightly rogue-looking) poll that suggests UKIP could be on the threshold of a major breakthrough in the Assembly - something commented on elsewhere at National Left and Blog Menai. Most of that shift has been from current Conservative voters by the look of things. Something is seriously wrong there, and I picked up on that following the local elections in May.

I don't think the centre ground comes down to support for enterprise either. All of the parties support enterprise, especially small and medium-sized businesses. I think it's support for traditional free-market capitalism that's the big difference between the Conservatives and the others.

Plaid have their "Greenprint" for a communitarian, co-operative economy. Both Labour and Plaid support the co-operative sector as a whole. All of this is still "enterprise", just with different outcomes.

It's the dirtiest word in the English language in Wales that's the killer – "profit".

Labour, Plaid and probably a few Lib Dems too, loath it. They have to. The Welsh have an ingrained distrust of big capital, the capitalist class, big time charlies, and yes "profit" too. We've probably come off worse, historically, than most parts of the UK (other than NE England) in the pursuit of profit. It's lead to us lacking middle-class and upper-class patronage (with notable exceptions) and a failure to create a successful "indigenous" capitalist base.

The Welsh "centre ground" is probably what I've described before as a type of "Gaullism": Small-n nationalism (in a Welsh context), that embraces individualism, profit-motive (but not full on free-market capitalism), and perhaps a less-statist approach to social justice. They won't support independence, but would probably "love to see it happen, but it wouldn't work/can't afford it" – and I've heard that an awful lot down the years, even in Bridgend. They would, however, support a form of fiscal autonomy or federalism.

This is probably where the SNP is in Scotland, the only difference being they outright support independence.

If anything, in Wales it probably consists of the right-wing of Plaid, mixed with the "Meldingites" in the Welsh Conservatives, Lib Dem federalists, and any "New Labour" politicians.

There's not just room for a think tank there. It's a gaping hole that could be filled with a new political party. This one could become a very big player in Welsh politics, probably pushing Plaid to the margins as a more radical independence-seeking party, while consigning either the Welsh Conservatives, or Welsh Liberal Democrats (as they are), to the dustbin.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Dodgy Dossiers & The Case for Change

Oh, God! Here we go again!
(Pic : Kitchagogo)

The "Dodgy Dossier"

As you probably already know, a major row has erupted over e-mails between the author of reports into NHS reorganisation in Wales - entitled under the umbrella The National Case for Change - and senior Welsh Government officials.

ITV Wales, The Western Mail and Betsan Powys give glimpses into what was written. The full e-mails are available here.

A Welsh civil servant is reported as suggesting that the report needs to:
" more positive if possible i.e describing a persuasive vision of how things could be better."

While the author of the report asks for:
"killer facts....the evidence as presented does not seem to be as incisive as we might have hoped."

There were further suggestions that desirable new services, and ways of delivering them, could be included.

So, were the Welsh Government actually writing this "independent" report - used as justification for the Welsh Government's own NHS reforms? Or was the "independent expert"?

None of this means that the report itself was biased/a PR exercise, but its validity has now been thrown into doubt. Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) has gone so far as to call for Health Minister Lesley Griffiths' (Lab, Wrexham) resignation if she had knowledge of the e-mails.

Smooth move – not. Nobody was calling for Edwina Hart's resignation over the Green Investment Bank bid, which was probably a far more serious blunder than this.

Elin Jones AM (Plaid, Ceredigion) took a slightly more measured approach by saying that, "a conclusion was decided on up front and that the correspondence illustrates a desperate search for the evidence to back it up." Kirsty Williams AM (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) has said (quoted via Valleys Mam) that this, "clearly contradicts the Health Minister's statements that the case for change report was an independent assessment."

There have also been calls for a no-confidence vote - as reported in the Evening Post - coming from Mid & West Wales AMs, whose patch is on the front lines of Labour's NHS reorganisation.

I don't think that will happen either. It would really put Keith Davies AM (Lab, Llanelli) in a bind. He's going to wish Helen Mary Jones had knocked on a few dozen more doors when this kicks into top gear.

Lesley Griffiths herself issued a pretty strong rebuttal to the accusations in an urgent Q&A session earlier today, and maintains that the report's contents were "independent" and based upon "clinical evidence". That's the party line sorted, but she's probably right too.

The Case for Change

AWEMA was strike one. The Green Investment Bank was strike two. I said back in March that the "third dropped bollock" was forthcoming. This, ladies and gentlemen, is strike three.

Carwyn Jones has to do something to restore credibility to his government, but calls for resignations and votes of no-confidence are premature. Ministerial "scalps" should only be used for gross incompetence and corruption. That isn't evident today, but this is yet another big bungle for the Welsh Government.

The response probably means revisiting the NHS reorganisation, making significant changes, but patience and time are in short supply.

If Lesley Griffiths told the civil servant, in person, to offer "tips" to the report author, then her position will be untenable. Try proving that. Accuse me of being naive all you want, but I doubt that's the case. I'd hate to think our ministers would be that dim. Heh.

Lesley Griffiths hasn't really done anything wrong. There's no evidence (so far) that indicates she knew about the e-mails - even if she couldn't avoid them in her capacity as Health Minister. It's her word against Darren's.

Like the Green Investment Bank Bid, I'm going to have to return to the civil service issue again.

Can any of the people reading this, who don't work in the NHS, name the chief executive of their Local Health Board without looking it up? Who actually governs Wales? Who are the people actually making these decisions?

Lesley Griffiths is a patsy. Any NHS changes in Wales are going to have her face and name next to them – especially those changes which are "too radical and wide ranging" for the electorate. That's not entirely fair on her, or us.

This is a major problem. We should expect our ministers to be able to make decisions autonomously. All the civil service has to do is provide impartial advice. They shouldn't have been able to offer "tips" to someone writing an "independent" report without fear of being found out and sacked.
What's becoming clear, is that the relationship is the other way around. "Officers" make the decisions, Welsh Government ministers rubber stamp them, AMs debate those rubber stamps.

Wales is currently being run like a county council, not a nation.

On the NHS reforms themselves - we don't like being lied to.

That's what we've had for some time now. Lie, after lie, after lie. We've had obfuscation on "downgrading", cover ups on health board bailouts and we still haven't had the plans properly debated yet - only a glorified ministerial statement.

Now we have an "independent" report, that might've been leaned on by civil servants, possibly with the Health Minister's knowledge. That's another potential lie, and a pretty serious one. If it were true, it would mean Lesley might have "misled the Assembly". That's something you shouldn't be able get away with.

The NHS – which should've been Welsh Labour's strong point considering what's happening in England - is now becoming their Achilles heel.

Labour can accuse opposition parties of "destabilising key NHS reforms" all they want, but they're doing a pretty good job of that themselves. I say that as someone who supports the creation of "centres of excellence". If they've had that effect on me, I can't imagine what effect they've had on those who oppose it.

The opposition parties, meanwhile, are either going to have to offer an alternative, or try to influence decisions, because changes are absolutely vital.

With improvements in emergency care, in many cases, it's no longer critical to have full-time A&E departments in every major population centre.

With more expensive treatments, keeping people in hospital is becoming more costly. Wales can't continue to rely on our bigger hospitals to deliver basic/routine services, or act as a hotel for the elderly.

With more innovative treatments, not every single hospital in Wales will be able to offer them – they will need to be centralised near areas with good medical research and teaching facilities. In most cases that means Cardiff, Swansea or the big north Wales hospitals.

I think the only option now, is to rip up Case for Change and present a brand new one, in full consultation with the public and ideally with cross-party support. That might be a delay the Welsh Government can't afford, but they've lead to this situation through their own bungling.

Local Health Boards and the Welsh Government are also going to have to treat the public with a bit more respect. I don't think we'll stand for changes forced through because Labour, or civil servants, have decided that's what's best for us. Present your case, be honest and present all the alternatives.

We need a rational debate on the future of the NHS, even if the Assembly doesn't seem able to provide that at the moment.

The romanticised NHS of Nye Bevan is dead. Wales has to let go of it. I don't envy Welsh Labour's task in doing that, but that's no excuse for making such a ham-fist of it.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Cameron on welfare - Right analysis, wrong sentiments

David Cameron is throwing ideas around for a new British welfare state,
but could his aims be achieved with less stick, and more strategic thinking?
(Pic: Wikipedia)

In the last week or so, the UK Prime Minister launched (what can only be described as a "policy octopus" – putting ideas out like tentacles and hoping one sticks) a debate on the issue of welfare, including suggestions of regional rates of benefits and that housing benefit for the under-25s could be withdrawn.

This has probably been done with May 2015 in mind, not 2012. Like the issue of immigration, any mooted changes to the welfare system are pounced upon, with debate polarised between the people on the extremes – those who want more "personal responsibility" (and lower tax bills) and those who probably see welfare as a way to "redistribute wealth", no questions asked.

The shifting definition of “vulnerable”

In the eyes of the UK Government, you stop being "the vulnerable" on your 18th birthday, and you don't become "the vulnerable" again until you are 65 (or for people my age, likely to be 68+). Unless you're pregnant, seriously ill or disabled, the period in between is when you are expected to contribute - supporting the state, yourselves and in turn "the vulnerable".

During the good times, "the vulnerable" widened in definition when it looked like those times would never end : single parent families, the low paid, sixth formers from poor backgrounds, carers, people with any illness, women pensioners with too few NI payments. All welcome – a society should be judged on the way it treats the least privileged.

That changed. The national credit card has been overused, and now the UK Government is faced with making some tough decisions on which of these vulnerable groups is “more vulnerable than thou”.

If there's a toss up, there'll be one group placed at the top of the list, and they also happen to be the most resource-needy – pensioners. That means every other group is going to find themselves, suddenly, significantly less vulnerable in the government's eyes.

We're already seeing what the decision of the previous UK Government to introduce work capability assessments in 2008 is having on the disabled – a gift from the Gods for any blue-blooded Conservative. But that isn't enough. The welfare budget is creaking and more fat needs to be trimmed. Next in line are "the young".

Maybe there's legitimacy in the argument that younger generations can adapt much more easily, and fluidity in the job market is now a fact of life. But young people have been hit disproportionately hard by the economic crisis - something out of their control - as well as policy decisions of previous and current UK governments.

Welfare should meet individual needs

There is one fundamental, overriding fact that makes any change to the welfare system potentially explosive – no two families, or two people, are the same. Each has their own needs, and their own sense of "vulnerability".

It's also much easier to rail against something in opposition than do something in government. Like it or not, there's a fundamental unfairness about the current situation.

An unemployed 20 year old from a stable background doesn't need to prioritise their own home – they need a job to prove they can sustain themselves in their own home. Doing the opposite is a bit “arse about face”. Now, an unemployed 20 year old from an unstable background, or leaving care, is a different story. As I've said, no two people are the same.

I think David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith understand this, but are looking at it from a pure balance sheet perspective, deciding that entire groups are different to one another rather than individuals. They think they just need a bigger stick instead of using the existing money better.

"Withdrawal of entitlements" is a fantastic right-wing populist sound bite, but in the end it won't actually save that much money, and getting young people to move back with parents is unlikely to provide enough of an incentive. If anything, it might make the problem worse and infantilise a generation.

"Fit for work?" Should disability-related welfare
match needs without stigmatising people as
scroungers or malingerers?
(Pic : UGO)

While there's something to be said for universal benefits, or ensuring all people within a group get similar help, that's also the wrong approach (in my opinion).

For example, no two disabled people have the same needs. However, it's wrong to assume one is "fit for work" simply because they haven't been exposed to enough delta radiation. Maybe there's a case for a tiered benefits system that matches relative needs, instead of single payments as there are now. Telling people who have been registered disabled - perhaps for many years - that they're suddenly fit for work is an insult to them, and the medical professionals who've assessed them.

Categorising whole groups of people – whether it's "single mothers", "the disabled", "the young" – as one great lump, when their needs are multi-layered, is wrong.

It panders only to the stankovites amongst us who see wealth creation as the be all and end all of your miserable existence on this dump of a planet.

However there's another uncomfortable truth – work pays.

It's the only way out of poverty in the long-term. Help should be aimed at getting people into some form of sustained employment, activity or training – not thrashing them with a stick to get them through the nearest factory door, nor wrapping them in the big state's cotton wool, ensuring that someone else will always take care of their every need.

We need that "middle way". I'm sure most people would support that, but try as they might, no UK Government has come close to a solution that dissatisfies everyone equally.

Playing fair : What do we want the welfare system to do?

There are two "strands" associated with UK welfare as I see it.
  • The pragmatic safety net – to prevent absolute destitution.
  • The job substitute – providing a steady income for those who can't/are no longer able to be in full or part time employment (the disabled, pensioners etc.)

You could argue the "safety net" element acts as a "stick". It's supposed to nudge you back into employment as quickly as possible - unless you like living as a Zen monk. £70 per week JSA isn't the most extravagant sum of money in the world, though it's enough to get by on if you cut back on practically everything except the essentials.

The way the welfare system operates also leads to it becoming a "job substitute". Alongside that £70 per week JSA, due to your low income, you'll become eligible for various benefits covering things like : housing costs, council tax bills, and other unofficial benefits such as free or subsidised childcare, free bus passes, winter fuel allowance etc. These are usually things you to pay for from wages. Subsequently, welfare becomes more expensive - and expansive - than a simple safety net.

This "one size fits all" approach means that help is spread thinly amongst too many people claiming their share of the pie. Instead of targeted help, what previous UK governments have done is create new benefits, with more loopholes, and more ways to exploit the system.

The system has become so unduly complex, that people feel they are entitled to some kind of state help whether they actually need it or not. That's inefficient, and leads to the situation we are in now, with benefits being withdrawn because the money's running out.

Our dirty little secret - despite the growth of welfare and tax credits,
many of our poorest are actually in full or part-time employment.
(Pic : Walesonline)

Take tax credits for example. These effectively subsidise low wages in the private and public sector - that's a scandal in itself. It hasn't worked either. A good proportion of people classed as in relative poverty in Wales are from working families. They, frustratingly, probably aren't eligible for many of the welfare entitlements listed above because they're in some sort of employment – or household earnings are above a threshold, but with too many mouths to feed.

That isn't fair, is it?

What if, for example, you ring-fenced money that can only be used on practical help to get people out of poverty permanently - though they would still have choices : further and higher education courses, energy retrofitting to combat fuel poverty, driving lessons, free transport to/from job interviews, private drug/alcohol rehab, business start-up grants, part-subsidise fully-paid work placements etc. This would be alongside "income" to cover any unemployment – nominally JSA and income support.

Who knows, something like that might be significantly cheaper to run too and have better outcomes.

As it's one of the most difficult topics to approach re. independence, it'll probably be some time before I cover the subject in detail as part of the "Independence Index" in the same way I did for defence. I gave a few hints in my Cambria article a few weeks ago.

In shorthand I envision it as something like this:
  • Being treated as an individual, not a “customer”, nor a number.
  • Targeted, practical assistance with some choice (as above)
  • Greater professionalism, national standards and regulation of the recruitment industry
  • The system should be designed to prioritise the skilled unemployed, “working poor”, carers, older pensioners (75+) and the severely disabled.
  • Paid-in, independent, co-operative welfare schemes to top up a “safety net” welfare state and also cover other things (i.e. glasses, dentists, serious illness, bereavement, sudden expenses). The money can be invested by the co-ops a like a pension fund – for example infrastructure bonds - with the returns/interest used to pay out to members. I'd like to see every major employer/industrial sector have one. For example, one for teachers, medical staff, electricians etc. – perhaps in cooperation with trade unions . It could become a major player in a Welsh financial services sector.

Welfare needs to empower us all

People who survive on welfare have written themselves off, because the situations they're in seem so hopeless that there's no escape.

Politicians in Wales have written them off by merely stabilising a decline, or offering tiny schemes that don't really empower people or communities. These act like a crèche to keep people occupied, instead of the concrete, long-term action required on the economy.

Most of our devolved politicians simultaneously shy away from responsibility for the big decisions. They simple lack imagination and probably ambition too, hiding behind devolution and a set way of thinking and doing things - saying they can stand up for us, and resist changes thrust on them by Westminster, when they know they can't.

That false hope - and false promise - is as scandalous and damaging to Wales as no hope at all.

People in the higher echelons of power, like Westminster, pandering to a frenzy against scroungers from a geographically-advantaged southern England that's alien to most people in Wales, have written them all off too - without taking into account their talents, skills or potential.

Welfare shouldn't be something you live off. Neither should it be a cheque without any conditions attached. It should be positive and pro-active - taking individual needs into account, but aiming to get some kind of contribution back, because they're treated with respect, not as a drain on resources.

We all have hard times in our lives, and sometimes the state isn't the thing you turn to, but we shouldn't target whole generations simply because of when they happened to be born. Nor should we allow the state to take basic personal responsibilities away from people.

That isn't a safety net, it's a cot. And there are an awful lot of people out there - grown adults - with nappy rash.