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Tuesday 28 April 2015

Surfers, Homeschooling & Do Parking Fees Harm Shops?

Porthcawl could be set for a £9.5million boost to its tourism industry as part
of Visit Wales plans to create "attractor destinations" in south east Wales.
(Pic : Phil Holden via
Here's another round-up of some of the goings-on in Bridgend, cabinet reports of note and also a Welsh Government report on car parking charges.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The Welsh Battlegrounds

Which Welsh seats are going to be keenly-fought over?
(Pic : BBC)
As we're now into the last fortnight of the 2015 election campaign, it's time to take a closer look at where in Wales the fight for votes might be keenest, and which seats might be more likely to change hands.

Friday 24 April 2015

The Abyss Staring Back at Wales

The National Assembly has voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining.
Whether there'll actually be a moratorium is a different issue.
(Pic : The Guardian)
As promised on Wednesday, I come back to another members debate, this time on opencast mining, which is a controversial issue in the South Wales Valleys in particular. There's a map of current and former sites available from the Assembly Members Research Service blog (here).

A cross-party motion called for the Welsh Government to :
  • Introduce a moratorium on opencast mining to allow for a strategic review into whether current measures are properly protecting communities.
  • Respond to research into opencast restoration failures, addressing concerns about MTAN2 (the official guidance) and the recommended 500 metre "buffer zone" between mines and homes.
  • Support local authorities that undertake legal action to force restoration.

Lynne Neagle AM (Lab, Torfaen) started by applauding the cross-party support for a moratorium on opencast mining during an election campaign (clip). A pause on opencast mining was needed to give space and time for the Welsh Government to undertake a strategic review on the impact of mining, with the cost of lengthy public inquiries leaving planners "stuck between rock and a hard place".

Lynne mentioned the Varteg proposals, where despite more than a decade of protest, mining companies propose to opencast 100m away from homes and a primary school. Although the original application was rejected, another application (near enough unchanged) has been submitted, so MTAN2 isn't meeting the needs of constituents. Alun Davies AM (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) made a point that the Assembly voted through the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act 2015, and opencast mining was contrary to the spirit of the law.

The Assembly are waiting for a Petitions Committee report into whether MTAN2 should be made law, and although there are disagreements, we can't afford the current confused situation to continue. She cited Garn Lakes near Blaenavon as an example of where restoration has worked, so she didn't want to tar all mining companies with the same brush. However, the "dodgy dealings" have "cast a shadow on the industry", and companies shouldn't be allowed to develop new sites to cover the cost of existing obligations.

William Graham AM (Con, South Wales East) reminded everyone that the motion called for a moratorium, not a ban on opencasting, and a pause will allow time to consider amendments to the Planning Bill (clip). He listed a number of sites in his region - including Ffos-y-fran in Merthyr and Varteg – as well as their controversial planning histories.

William said the 500m buffer zone was agreed by the Assembly, but Welsh Government draft policy proposed a 350m buffer zone; and although the government has said the buffer has to be given appropriate weight in planning applications, words were not enough. He suggested local authorities should be able to reject retrospective applications so developers are aware that the buffer is an absolute condition, not optional. William proposed that sub-standard restoration can be resolved through the use of restoration insurance bonds to prevent companies avoiding their liabilities towards restoration.

William Powell AM (Lib Dem, Mid & West Wales) started by paying tribute to the United Valleys Action Group (clip). It was vital to see a "consistency of approach" in planning, particularly technical advice notes, and proposals that breach planning conditions need to be properly justified. The market conditions for coal have changed, leaving "colossal" shortfalls in funding for restoration, meaning companies are "unable to finish projects they've started".

He called for greater public consultation with regard mine closures and their after-use, listing come of the common knock-on impacts nearby residents face such as poor air quality, noise, and declining property prices. He ended by saying the motion consistent with commitments to develop renewable energy.

Gwenda Thomas AM (Lab, Neath) said her constituency was built on coal, and it defines the area's past, but if carbon capture technology is proven viable, coal could have a future (clip). She doesn't oppose responsible mining but supports the motion anyway. Gwenda previously called for a presumption against new mining applications unless communities are properly protected, and subsequent events reinforced her views.

Gwenda described the legal actions between cash-strapped local authorities and mining companies - who can afford £250,000 for a single barrister's view - as a David vs Goliath battle. The people of Cwmllynfell, which borders East Pit, have been promised restoration for three generations, but now they're told "there's no money" and they must have a lake, which involves constructing a wall to hold back tens of thousands of cubic metres of water.

Celtic Energy and Oak Regeneration have made a string of promises relating to
restoration of former mines - like East Pit above - but they've all fallen flat.
(Pic : Wales Online)
David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) also acknowledged the historical and current importance of coal, though despite providing jobs, it contradicts carbon reduction policies (clip). He described how Parc Slip has been off limits since 1947 (technically incorrect as the eastern half has been restored), and how the ownership transferred from British Coal to Celtic Energy in 1997, who in turn transferred ownership to offshore company, Oak Regeneration, which has caused more problems in trying to recover costs. David also questioned what has happened to levies raised from coal privatisation?

Natural Resources Minister, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), accepted that opencast was an "emotive issue", acknowledging the context of a moratorium (clip). Although he was sympathetic, he said it wouldn't resolve the situation or secure restoration. Opencast isn't a new industry, unlike fracking, and is "deeply embedded in communities" with live planning applications.

The Minister placed the blame on "market-driven" privatisation of the coal industry, which was rushed through with no consideration given to the effect it would have on communities. Companies retain the rights of a state-owned company but with none of the obligations. Peter Black AM (Lib Dem, South Wales West) said Scotland was pursuing the UK Government for restoration funds, and Carl agreed that the UK Government can't shirk its responsibilities.

He praised some aspects of MTAN2,  described as "wide-ranging" in a number of factors, including taking the track record of the company and future restoration plans into consideration with regard planning applications. David Rees intervened to say he believed there had to be upfront guarantees of restoration, as Parc Slip was more expensive to restore than was predicted.

Carl said the Welsh Government couldn't take action which "results in restoration solutions being taken off the table" simply because people live in close proximity to the mines. He did confirm that the Welsh Government will support councils taking legal action, and that he would host a summit with "stakeholders" on the future of opencast.

In reply, Bethan Jenkins AM (Plaid, South Wales West) called for a "fit for purpose system" that's made in Wales, rejecting comparisons with Scotland as Welsh communities generally live closer to pits (clip). The findings from Welsh Government research were imperfect but its call to strengthen MTAN should be enacted, even if the report "pities developers" and doesn't address communities.

In terms of policy proposals, Bethan suggested creating a mineral planning centre of excellence, ex-miner liason panels to provide technical assistance unavailable to planners and compel local authorities to retain minerals planning officers – despite having four mines, Neath Port Talbot has no expert planners. In the longer-term, workers should be retrained in renewables, saying Plaid Cymru would support creating a Green Skills College.

On specific cases, in particular Parc Slip, she said companies should own the land they mine as it's hard to hold an offshore company like Oak Regeneration to account, with Celtic Energy only acting as an operator and subsequently refusing to take responsibility. Bethan also said the exceptions in MTAN2 are too broad, like "economic development", which could mean anything to anyone.

Although welcoming the proposed summit, Bethan revealed that a FOI request (I presume it's this - pdf) showed there has been no correspondence between the UK and Welsh governments
on opencast mine restoration for five years.

The motion was agreed by 36 votes to none with 16 abstentions from the Labour frontbench and some backbenchers (recorded vote here).

Where next?

If you went to the Parc Slip nature reserve today, you wouldn't believe you were walking
on a former opencast mine. When you reach the other end of the reserve, you see this.

It's a non-binding vote. The Assembly agrees that a moratorium should happen, but the Welsh Government isn't obliged to follow through with that - just as there were premature celebrations over a fracking moratorium earlier this year. As William Graham said, it's right to remember that the motion called for a temporary pause on opencasting to allow for a review, not an outright ban, which would be a knee-jerk reaction.

Nevertheless there's a serious issue here that's failed to be addressed adequately by local authorities, Welsh and UK governments. The mining companies have them by the proverbial balls, and with so many tricks and loopholes, they've done them up like kippers.

It's highly likely Parc Slip will never be restored to how it was. The stark contrast between Parc Slip nature reserve and the void tens of metres away serves as a perfect historical artifact, marking the difference between state-ownership and regulation of the mining industry, and privatisation, where companies have figuratively "f**ked 'n' chucked" the land.

If the mining companies had a good track record of restoring sites, boundaries were properly enforced and the law was robust enough to ensure all that happened, opencasting would be less controversial. Now, it's not unreasonable to say opencast mining deserves to die out in Wales.

The remaining problem is that we still need coal. Wales and the UK retain coal-fired power stations and everyone except David Rees and Bethan Jenkins forgot that coal is a vital ingredient in steel-making (Assembly takes a ride on Heavy Metal) – Parc Slip supplied Port Talbot steelworks; Ffos-y-fran, Cwmgrwach and Tower supply Aberthaw power station and the steel industry.

As Bethan was also keen to point out on Twitter, only a fraction of the coal Port Talbot steelworks is obtained via opencast, the rest is imported (along with iron ore etc.)

The best hope for opponents is closure of Aberthaw power station and replacement with a renewable scheme (like a second tidal lagoon in Cardiff Bay) or something like gas or biomass. I'm also sure none of the AMs advocate closing steelworks, but if you want to "keep coal in the ground" permanently, that's what has to happen.

Digging coal up safely, locally and moving it by rail is better than importing it, which just shifts the problem elsewhere and increases the carbon footprint. Despite improvements to mining techniques and underground safety, I doubt anyone other than reactionary socialists want to see a return of shaft mining either.

This issue could turn out to be an important milestone in the decarbonisation of the Welsh
economy, but politicians should be honest about the hit Wales would take as a result.
(Pic : © Copyright Robin Drayton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

So which way are we going to go? It would be a mistake to rely wholly on the green economy to replace jobs lost during the de-carbonisation of Wales.

Even though the numbers employed in opencast are a fraction of those employed in deep mining, very few forms of renewable energy are as labour intensive as fossil fuels or heavy industries like steel-making or chemicals. You put up a wind turbine, fit solar panels, insulate a home or build a tidal lagoon and apart from routine maintenance that's it – job done. The same goes for nuclear. The number of jobs required to run a station are a fraction of those needed to build it.

One of the reasons deep mining collapsed is because while demand for coal was holding up, the industry employed so many people it became uneconomical. Green technology has the opposite problem in that it employs too few people and often requires government subsidy.

Although its true to say opencast costs jobs too - in agriculture/land management (obviously), and more abstract cases like the Richards & Appleby cosmetics factory in the Rhymney valley - politicians should at least be honest and say that the main goal of renewables is clean energy production and energy efficiency, not long-term mass job creation or traditional economic growth. How they sell that is their problem.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The ITV Wales Debate

(Pic : ITV Wales)

Another week, another debate; this time from ITV Wales, hosted by Sharp End's Adrian Masters in Cardiff. For some reason it's not available online (though I watched it online), so you'll just have to take my word for it, although the ITV Wales website has a running commentary on what was said on their website.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Flying Doctors set to take to the sky

It's happened! It's actually happened! A common sense, practical
idea on ambulance services from the Welsh Government.
(Pic : EMRTS Cymru)

After a longer than usual Easter recess, the National Assembly has returned for summer term. Although the election will be on everyone's minds, it's important to remember that AMs still exist, and I'm sure many of you are as bored of the election as I am by now.

Monday 20 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The Manifestos Part II

Following yesterday's look at the party manifestos (linked above), today it's the turn of the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and UKIP.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The Manifestos Part I

The following two posts are the most important of the lot this election campaign : What are we voting for in May? Or, more accurately, what might be on the table during negotiations in the event of a hung parliament?

Friday 17 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The BBC Challengers Debate

(Pic : The Mirror)

The second of the main TV debates of Election 2015 was held last night, this time consisting of the opposition party leaders – so no David Cameron bwark-bwark-bwark-bwaaaark or Nick Clegg, which damaged the legitimacy a little bit.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Dear Vaughan....

(Pic : Wales Online)
Although AMs are still on recess for another fortnight or so, and attentions are firmly-focused on the Westminster campaign, it's worth briefly returning to the National Assembly – though a bit later than I otherwise would have – and what's become a thorn in Labour's side : Welsh ambulance services.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The Key Issues in Wales

What are likely to be the main issues for Welsh voters?
(Pic : Click on Wales)

The first debate's out of the way, I've given my verdict on the Coalition and the manifestos are going to be released over the next few weeks (I'll look at them in more detail once their all out, though UKIP are dragging their heels by the looks of it) - which means it's time to focus on some of the issues that might be fought over in Wales.

Friday 3 April 2015

Westminster 2015 : The ITV Leaders Debate

The big debate has been held, and here's a run down of how the leaders did.
(Pic : ITV)

I'll only count this and the BBC opposition debate on on 16th April as "debates" because they're....actual debates. I'm not going to count the Question Time and Daily Politics specials or the interviews. I don't know if there are Wales-only debates planned over the next few weeks (as 2010), but if there are I'll cover them too.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Whatever happened to the Natural Law Party?

They promised us "bubbling bliss", so where are our yogic flying heroes today?
When I were t'lad, whenever party political/election broadcast season came around, there was one I would always look forward to.