Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Nuclear manana

Dylan Jones Evans drew attention last week to an article in the Economist which suggested that a series of small "travelling wave" nuclear reactors would be a preferable alternative to a number of the larger 'traditional' nuclear stations.  At first sight it looks like an attractrive option, with Bill Gates claiming that it would solve all the usual problems with nuclear energy.

I'm not so sure though.  My biggest objection has long been over the issue of long-lived nuclear waste; it's a problem to which there is, as yet, no solution.  Gates claims that the travelling wave reactor solves even that problem, although the detail is light, to say the least.  I'd need a lot more explanation, rather than a simple bland statement, before I'd be convinced.

The other big problem is the one of timescales.  As this site indicates, the 'travelling wave' reactor is at this stage a design concept.  No-one has yet built one, and it looks like being another ten years before anyone does - and five years after that before there's any commercial application.  As is so often the case with the big technological fix to our energy problems, it's some time in the future, even by the optimistic projections of its backers.

That isn't an argument for not continuing research and debate; but it's a very strong argument for not depending on it.  We need answers sooner than that, and those answers, realistically, will come from existing renewable technologies and from those renewable technologies whch can be rapidly developed.  Assuming that new untried technologies will be our salvation is a recipe for continuing to ignore the need to act now.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Theory and Practice

There was a lengthy piece in yesterday's Western Mail questioning how effective the Welsh Government will actually be in implementing its strategy for reducing emissions and fighting climate change.  It echoes a concern that I've expressed previously about the gulf between strategy and implementation. 

I sometimes wonder whether the production of government strategies is something done entirely independently of actual implementation of policy; once the strategy is produced and published and has attracted all the positive headlines, they all breathe a huge sigh of relief and carry on as before.

In a roundabout way it seems to me as though the Tory Environment Spokesperson has, albeit unintentionally, put her finger on the nub of the problem.  Her statement "While we accept the need to take urgent measures to reduce harmful carbon emissions, if this were at the expense of creating jobs and increasing social prosperity, there would in the long term be less money to maintain effective public services or to tackle the impact of climate change." seems to me to highlight the way in which politicians see the issues of creating jobs and taking action on climate change as being somehow in conflict.

It's an attitude, not restricted to her own party, which helps to explain why politicians can happily extol the virtues of a strategy one day and then welcome proposals which run directly counter to it the next.  And it's an attitude which gives me a degree of pessimism about Man's ability to tackle climate change, because the people taking the decisions are all too often driven by their assessment of their own short term electoral considerations and therefore unwilling to do that which needs to be done.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. 

In the first place, I'm not certain that the electoral assessment is correct.  I have rather more faith that people will be willing to take a longer term view if we're willing to be open and honest and consistent with them.

And in the second place, there is absolutely no reason why a strategy for getting to grips with emissions and man-made climate change cannot produce at least as many jobs as we can get from simply carrying on as usual.  The problem is that the 'free market' won't achieve that aim; it needs a much more directed approach.  Unless and until we elect governments which are prepared to take that more directed approach, no strategy is likely to be successful. 

To get such a government means that politicians have to be significantly braver in proposing alternatives.  Currently, that strikes me as being an unlikely scenario.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Whose power is it anyway?

It looks as though tuition fees will remain in the news for a while yet.  The Lib Dems, in particular, seem to be determined to keep digging.  Their members in the House of Lords apparently consider that the promise made during the general election was a pledge given by a series of individual candidates, and not a party commitment, so that they are free to vote as they choose.  Another argument for the democratisation of that institution.
Their MPs, of course, managed to split three ways in the vote, the back benchers in particular.  Ministers simply fell in with the long-standing convention that they were duty bound to either support the government or resign.
It’s an interesting convention, and one which seems to have been adopted, pretty much without question, by the devolved institutions in Wales and Scotland.  I think it deserves a bit more challenge than that, and I don’t see why we should tamely adopt conventions just because they've been around a long time and happen to suit those who want to govern us.
The effect of the convention is that a member of a governing party who was elected on a particular set of personal pledges to his or her constituents, and general party commitments to the electorate as a whole, is in fact expected to vote not in accordance with either of those sets of pledges but in accordance with the decisions of the leader of his or her party – even when those decisions are contrary to either or both of those sets of promises.
From that perspective, it’s a rather odd notion of democracy; it seems that ‘government’ trumps both ‘party’ and ‘electors’.  (Opposition members, of course, accuse government members of a lack of principle for doing exactly what they themselves did when in government and will do again if ever re-elected to government.)
I wonder if the roots of the convention don’t lie somewhere in the murky origins of the unwritten constitution of these islands.  It’s rarely put in quite these terms, but the constitutional position is that total power is given to the monarch by God (hence it’s the Archbishop who actually does the crowning), and the monarch exercises that power through HM Government.
But the sky wouldn’t fall in if we reversed that entirely and started from an assumption that power belongs to the people and is merely loaned to our elected members and governments to exercise on our behalf.  The natural expectation would then be that individual members owed their first loyalty not to their government and leadership, but to the people who elected them and the principles and policies on which they were elected.  

It would be a lot less comfortable for governments, but I can't say that I'd lose a lot of sleep over that.  It would mean that they'd have to win the arguments, not just use their muscle; and it might help ordinary electors to feel that they had some influence.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Follies and victims

Jeff Jones had an article on WalesHome on Monday, in which he argued that Labour was committing “an unpardonable folly” in taking the line that the Coalition Government in London was ‘anti-Welsh’.  I’m always happy, of course, for the Labour Party to commit whatever follies it wishes, but on the substance of the argument – whether the UK Government is or is not anti-Welsh, I have to agree with Jeff, and it has worried me that so many in Plaid have followed the same line of argument as the Labour Party.
My perspective on this isn’t the same as others, clearly.  Perhaps it’s at least partly about background – my late father was a Geordie, and that helps me to understand that many of the economic problems faced by Wales are shared with the North East of England.  A lot of their industrial history looks similar too.
The underlying problem is that the UK economy is hugely unbalanced, and the death of manufacturing and ‘heavy’ industry has served only to make it more so.  Wealth is increasingly concentrated in the south east corner, and left to the free market that is a tendency which will tend to increase.
From a very hard-nosed centralist perspective, it is perfectly possible to argue that increasing the total GDP of the UK also increases the average GDP per head; so continuing disproportionate growth in the South East benefits everyone eventually, particularly if there is a mechanism for redistributing that wealth across the UK.  Any such mechanism can only come from government, and will therefore inevitably stress public sector activity.  It should be no surprise, therefore, to find that the poorest areas are most dependent on the public sector.
Devolution hasn’t changed any of this; it has merely made the fund transfer (slightly) more transparent and obvious.  The election of a different government in London hasn’t changed it dramatically either, although a government with a reduced commitment to both the public sector and to the organised redistribution of wealth is likely to exacerbate the problem.  That doesn’t make them ‘anti-Welsh’ though.
And lest anyone think this to be purely a UK issue, it is replicated in Wales as well.  The South-East of Wales is wealthier than the rest of the country, and the ERP states clearly (P6 for those who want to check) that one of the key opportunities for the Welsh economy is to build on the projected rapid population growth of Cardiff.  That sounds to me like a similar argument to that of the UK Government – growing the total GDP will increase the average GDP, even if the growth is uneven.  It doesn’t make the Welsh Government ‘anti-Dyfed’ or ‘anti-Gwynedd’ though.
I think we need to understand that the problem – whether at a Welsh level or at a UK level – is the approach to economic management, and the dependency on large centralised businesses.  At both levels, we need to be aiming for a more localised economy, with smaller, more dispersed businesses serving a more local customer base.  It’s harder – much, much harder – which is why governments have tended to concentrate on a smaller number of larger businesses.  But in the long run, it will be fairer, more sustainable, and more rewarding.
We would be better employed debating how we make that happen than by assuming that governments which don’t make it happen are just picking on us because of who we are or where we live.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The cost of going green

It seems to be largely taken as read that we all want to develop a green economy in Wales, and Government strategy documents are liberally sprinkled with the magic word ‘sustainable’, albeit at times in a context which throws doubt on the meaning of the word.  But how seriously is the ambition taken in practice – and how far are we really moving?
It isn’t just a question for Wales, of course – all economies are facing the same issue, and all are being pretty sluggish in response.  I pick on Wales solely because of the immediate focus on ‘acting locally’.
One of the big issues is around competitiveness.  In the public mind, I suspect that there is a positive correlation between being ‘green’ and being competitive – it’s the market that we want to be in.  But from a business and government perspective, ‘green’ can be – and frequently is – seen as being a bar to competitiveness.
People and areas in search of jobs and the economic boost they bring can end up competing on the basis of who will have the least restrictive regime whilst still giving access to the same market, in order to maximise the profit of the investor.  The result is that governments are, naturally, cautious about imposing tighter environmental standards.
The ERP produced by the One Wales Government earlier this year shows clear signs of that thinking.  Having gone to great lengths over a number of years to seek the devolution of building regulations in order to pass measures which will ensure new buildings in Wales are zero-carbon, the Plan then notes that the implementation of changes will be slowed so as to run only “a little ahead” of England, rather than the more radical approach which had previously been suggested.
Such caution is natural and understandable, but if followed by all governments will mean that progress is very much slower than it needs to be. 
New buildings are one obvious example, but becoming greener can often have an initial cost impact for businesses, governments, and consumers alike; there’s a ‘feelgood’ reward immediately, but any financial reward is likely to come some time later.  Part of the reason for that is that the environmental costs of those who do not follow the green route are generally external costs – not paid directly by those who are, effectively, incurring them, and ultimately falling back on all of us as taxpayers.
Encouragement and regulation will take us only part of the way, particularly if we fear moving too fast.  Internalising the costs of not going green, and assistance in spreading the initial investment costs are both needed as well if we want to get Wales ahead of the game. 
With the limited powers – particularly fiscal – that it has, and will have after the next referendum, the Assembly Government has only a limited range of options, of course.  We shouldn’t use that as an excuse for excessive timidity though.

Monday, 6 December 2010

I agree with 'Dave'

Well, up to a point, anyway.  The idea that our wealth as a society should not be measured in financial terms alone is not a new idea, but it’s one I’d support.  In a world of finite resources and rising population, unbridled consumerism is an untenable future.  But accepting that there is a limit on economic growth doesn’t mean that we cannot become wealthier in other ways; including those other things in a measure of wealth can help us to understand that.
The idea is not without its problems though.  For the have nots to be told by the haves (whether internally to our own country or on an international basis) that they should measure wealth in other ways doesn’t help to feed the hungry or house the homeless.  I normally try and avoid referring to the personal situation of individual politicians, but in this case it’s relevant – a cabinet of millionaires telling us that we must measure our wealth in ways other than the purely financial runs the danger of sounding like an excuse for maintaining the current balance of wealth and power. 
Including other things in our assessment of social wealth depends on those other things being valued by all, not on them being a substitute for material wealth for only some.  People can only really start to value non-material wealth once their basic material needs are met, and are unlikely to be terribly impressed with the concept before reaching that point.
Basic material needs sounds like something which can be turned into absolute terms, but in reality it’s evaluated in comparative terms, and cannot avoid considering the question of aspiration.  Aspiration within a society is likely to be stronger where the difference between the top and the bottom is greatest.  Reducing that level of material aspiration depends on reducing inequality.
That, for me, is the biggest problem with what Cameron has been saying – the idea of building a measure of prosperity which goes beyond the merely financial depends, if it is to be accepted, on the pursuit of greater equality of access to resources.  And I think we can be reasonably confident that that is not what he has in mind.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The real agenda

The aspect of the latest forecasts from the OBR which have received the most attention has been the probable reduction in the number of public sector jobs which will be lost.  That’s natural, of course – it’s the most immediate impact seen by large numbers of people.
It wasn’t the only important aspect though.  The OBR also suggested that the Chancellor would have up to £6 billion available for tax cuts before the next election in 2015.
That goes to the heart of one of my concerns about the Coalition’s fiscal policy.  They have claimed from the outset that the cuts are about deficit reduction and are absolutely essential for that purpose.  I have feared that cutting the public sector was driven, at least in part, on ideological grounds in order to be able at some point to reduce taxes for the more well-off and shift the balance from collective provision to individual provision.  The OBR report provides a degree of confirmation of that fear.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with arguing for more individualism and less collectivism, although I’d take the opposite view.  But hiding that aim behind an entirely economic argument, and cutting more deeply and quickly than the economics requires in pursuit of an ideological objective, is not being entirely honest.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

More wriggling from the Lib Dems

I heard a Lib Dem MP verbally wriggling yesterday as he tried to explain why the proposed changes on tuition fees are not in breach of the pledge which his party made at the election in May.  His argument was that there were actually two elements to the pledge; the first was no increase in fees, and the second was to make the system fairer.  And they had succeeded, he said, in the second.
He actually went further and described the changes to the repayment rules as turning the fees from a debt into a graduate tax, because the amount owed was no longer a total which had to be repaid, but a maximum which people would repay according to ability to pay.  It was a valiant effort.
It does, though, highlight a point that I’ve made before; the difference between student debt and a graduate tax is more in the eye of the beholder than a difference of substance.  Simply calling it something different and changing the rules for repayment are not enough to alter the underlying fact that students are incurring a significant future liability in order to pay for their university education.
Changing the nomenclature and a bit of clever presentation are not the same thing as abolishing student debt, and making the system ‘fairer’ is not the same as overturning it.  But I guess that some politicians will continue trying to persuade us that they are.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Changing the arguments

There is no doubt that the decision by the Welsh Government to abolish the Tuition Fee Grant from September this year was one of the most problematic issues for Plaid since entering the One Wales coalition.  It led to a number of difficult discussions at the time, but coalition sometimes means having to accept decisions by ministers of the other party with which you strongly disagree.
By comparison, the decision announced yesterday by Leighton Andrews that Welsh students will not have to pay the increases faced by English students is an extremely welcome one.  With fees likely to rise from £3290 to up to £9000, the decision that the Welsh Government will pay the difference of up to £5710 is, I think, absolutely the right decision.  Ensuring that we have a well-educated population, and that all of our young people are enabled to receive the best education that they can get, are some of the key things that we can do to build our collective future.
It also highlights the difference which devolved power can make in enabling Wales to follow a different path where that is the best thing for our nation.
There are one or two nagging little questions in the back of my mind, though, given what looks like a major turnaround from the arguments used when the previous grant was abolished.  I have an instinctive aversion to inconsistency, whether by friends or opponents, and I like to understand what has changed.
In abolishing the tuition fee grant, the then minister Jane Hutt, said that paying £1890 per student per annum was neither affordable nor a good use of funds in what were described at the time as challenging economic circumstances.  Her replacement, Leighton Andrews, now seems to be saying that paying up to £5710 per student per annum is both affordable and a good use of funds, although the economic circumstances are, if anything, rather more challenging.
Similarly, the fact that the Welsh Government had to pay the same level of grant for EU nationals studying in Wales was presented as a problem two years ago.  Now it is dismissed as not being a problem because of reciprocity – Welsh students studying elsewhere in the EU benefit from the ‘local’ rules.
I suppose that it could just be down to having a more enlightened Education Minister, but I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the General Election in May this year just might have been the factor which has led to Labour’s change of heart.  A reluctance to take a different view from a Labour Government in London appears to have been replaced by a certain amount of delight in taking a different view from a Conservative-led Government.
Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome turnaround, and good news for Welsh students and their families.