Friday, 31 August 2012

At it again

The Tories were at it again this week, criticising the Welsh Government’s arithmetic over tuition fees.  Whilst the figures have not worked out in line with the assumptions made, it simply doesn’t follow that the government was wrong to make the assumptions that it did.
Given that the situation regarding student fees was an entirely new one – as a result of the huge hike in fees imposed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats in England – no one knew for certain what the effect would be on total student numbers, let alone on cross-border transfers.  So the government had no choice – whatever policy it adopted – but to make some “guesstimates”; and they set those at what they thought was the right level based on such knowledge as was available.
If the Tories have some basis for claiming that the estimates could have been closer to the eventual actuals, let’s hear it.  To date, I see nothing from them on that.  And if they have no basis for making such a claim, then criticising the Welsh government for the gap between their best estimates and the actuals is just hot air and headline seeking.
Whilst they seem happy to do that, and to criticise the Welsh Government’s fees policy ad nauseam, they never seem to say much about their own preferred alternative, which is to hike fees for Welsh students to match those in England.  I wonder why?

Thursday, 30 August 2012

I disagree with Nick. Again.

Nick Clegg’s latest proposal, that the most well-off should pay more in taxation at a time of constraint, is confused and confusing – as well as looking to be calculated to upset his coalition partners.
He has the germ of a point in there somewhere, which is about the inequality of the current economic system.  What he fails to explain at all, however, is why his proposed solution should be “temporary”.  If inequality is a problem – and income and wealth inequality have been steadily growing under successive governments – then why does it only start to become a problem at a time of financial constraint, and cease to be a problem at a time of growth?
The only way that I can see of answering that question is that people “feel” the unfairness more when they are under pressure themselves – which means that what he is really proposing has more to do with changing perceptions them with changing reality.  He is no more serious about really getting to grips with inequality than his coalition partners – or their Labour predecessors.  He just wants us to think that they might be thinking about doing something about it.
The fact that he’s not really proposing any reduction in inequality hasn’t stopped the Tories from responding as though he were.  Their response – “if you tax we rich folk more, we will go elsewhere” – is as entirely predictable as it is lacking in any hard evidence to back up the assertion that a fairer society will drive rich people to move elsewhere.  They make it sound as though we should be grateful for the inequality which allows a few to have hugely greater access to resources than the many.
Labour’s response isn’t much better – the best they’ve come up with is a “yah boo” comment about who voted for what and when.  It’s accurate, but irrelevant.  It’s more again more to do with the perception that they wish to create than with any serious proposal to tackle inequality.  But given the way that inequality increased under Labour, why would we expect anything different?

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

When is an interest not an interest?

Last week I commented on the meeting between Peter Hain and David Cameron at which Hain was attempting to enlist the Prime Minister’s support for the building the Severn barrage.  I still have my doubts about the whole proposal, and there was a column in the Sunday Times this weekend written by Charles Clover (hidden behind their paywall I’m afraid) which he also expressed a number of reservations about the proposal.
I’ve also expressed my concern about the way in which an MP elected to serve the people of his constituency seems to have decided that he will, in fact, spend a large part of his time and energy using his influence, and campaigning, on behalf of a private consortium seeking to develop a major infrastructure project.  In that context, Clover’s article included the following sentence “He says it will bring him personally no benefit – although his wife, Elizabeth Haywood, is an adviser to the company”.  If this is indeed true, it puts rather a different gloss on Hain’s claim about the lack of a ‘personal’ interest.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Lines and swords

There is little doubt that the facilities currently ‘enjoyed’ by our elected representatives in London fall short of requirements in a number of ways.  Nor can there be any real argument about the need to provide proper facilities for anyone doing any job of work.  And however cheap any refurbishment was, there would inevitably be an outcry from the usual suspects (I’m sure that the Taxpayers’ Alliance are drafting their press release if they haven’t already issued it) against our MPs spending money ‘on themselves’.
In principle, I see no reason to oppose a reasonable level of expenditure on bringing facilities up to date and making them fit for purpose.  However, if I understand what is being proposed, it is that up to £3 billion should be spent on refurbishing the facilities and leaving them as outdated and unfit for purpose as they are currently.
Even if Cameron’s proposals to reduce the number of MPs were to be successful, there is still not enough room in the legislature for all of our legislators to sit.  Getting, and retaining, a seat for some debates depends on turning up early and being prepared to do a little pushing and shoving – of those on your own side. 
The whole chamber is designed around a confrontational approach to politics – even down to the carefully laid out lines to ensure that government and opposition are always at least two swords’ lengths apart.  And when it comes to voting, particularly on a series of complex amendments, the members have to stand up and walk around in circles, sometimes for hours.
Who in  his right mind would design a chamber for a legislature which did not contain enough space to contain all of the members?  Yet as I understand it what is being proposed is that whilst the building will be completely renewed internally, the basic design and size will remain unchanged.
It shows how easily people get sucked into ‘tradition’, and ‘the way things work around here’ that the biggest complaint raised so far seems to be that access to the bars and tearooms will be impossible during the refurbishment project.
Change of Personnel blogs on the same question here; I cannot but agree.
Faced with both opportunity and good reason – i.e. the need to do some serious work on the current facilities – to make changes which would ensure a parliamentary chamber fit for use in a 21st century democracy, it seems as though our elected representatives will actually decide to expend huge sums of money on maintaining and updating a facility which will remain as unfit for purpose at the end as it was at the beginning.  Freshly painted lines to maintain the two swords’ separation isn't really what I'd call 'upgrading'.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Games and pennies

It's hard to disagree with much of what Jeff Jones had to say last week about the idea of bringing the Commonwealth Games to Wales.  The experience of other countries shows that it's a costly project, and particularly difficult for any government with no tax-raising powers; there is inevitably a danger that other areas of spending will be hit.
When I saw the first reports about the proposal, I was – and remain – concerned about the Cardiff-centric nature of the plans.  The Olympics demonstrated clearly how holding an event in one part of the country can suck resources in from elsewhere.  It looked like another example of Wales emulating the way the UK behaves – pouring resources into the south-east at the expense of the rest.
The scheme's supporters talk about the "economic benefits" – another parallel with the Olympic hype.  I didn't believe it then, and I don't believe it now.
And yet, for all that…
For those of us who want Wales to become a confident, outward looking member of the international community, who wouldn't want to see Wales hosting the premier sporting event in which we actually compete as a nation in our own right?  And, to repeatt the point I made in relation to the Olympics, isn't there more to events celebrating human endeavour and achievement in the field of sports than mere pounds and pennies?
None of that makes the cost questions go away – but Wales is not the only nation competing in the Commonwealth Games to be facing financial difficulties.  If all those worried about the cost failed to bid, there'd be no games at all.  Economics rules, OK.
If we want to see major sporting events like this continue, and if we want them to continue to be held in a range of different countries (and why shouldn't all those countries participating aspire to host them?), then we need a different approach to funding.
My preferred option would be to see all countries involved contributing an annual amount – based perhaps on GVA/head – to a central pot which can then be used to assist host countries in turn, rather than allowing the whole burden to full on one country at a time.
But at the least, we can move away from the attitude which encourages each host in turn to promise – and then try and deliver – the most lavish overall plan and to outdo its predecessor.  There's too much emphasis on the premises and ceremonies, and not enough on the sport itself.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Who allows who to do what?

One issue on which the UK government is finding itself in some difficulty at present is the question of same-sex marriage.  Not only are they facing objections from some religious organisations, most notably the English state church, they are also facing a backlash from some of their own supporters.
It's not a problem which is limited solely to London.  Alex Salmond and the SNP government seem to be experiencing some similar difficulties with religious organisations in Scotland, primarily the Catholic Church.
In both cases the government seem determined to push ahead with their proposals.  That is to ignore the weight of opposition expressed in the clearly well-organised response to the consultation, and no doubt they will incur further ire for that. 
Personally I think they are right to do so.  Whilst I respect the right of religious organisations not to be compelled to hold same-sex ceremonies against their own religious viewpoints, the idea that they should be able to impose their own religious views on the rest of us is equally unacceptable.  This is an issue on which Parliament can and should decide to change the law.
To date all the proposals put forward by the UK government have specifically excluded extending the provision of four same-sex marriage to religious organisations.  And in turn, it seems that some religious organisations themselves who are willing and keen to perform same-sex ceremonies are objecting to their exclusion.  It should not be beyond the wit of man to devise a form of legislation which allows organisations to perform such ceremonies if they wish without placing an obligation to do so on others.
But one interesting aspect of the change of heart by the government on this was conveyed by the first line of this story, which declares that "Nick Clegg will allow Parliament…".  Call me old-fashioned, but I'd always thought that the constitutional position – in theory at least – was that Parliament allowed ministers to do things; not the other way around. Previous liberalisation of the law in this area came about as a result of Parliament itself expressing a view, not through government-sponsored legislation.  It is hard to imagine that happening today.
Theory and practice are two very different things; and that first sentence in the story reflects the reality very well indeed.  The Executive exercises far too much control over what the legislature can do, and the degree of such control has increased over recent decades.  But such control exists only because our legislators allow it.  They have become far too tame.  It sometimes seems as though the only thing they'll stand up for is their own perceived status and their own interests.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Barrage isn't only possibility

I'm uneasy with the idea that an MP should be able to set aside other responsibilities in order to become an advocate for a private company proposing a specific development project, even if it's true, as Hain claims, that he’s not being paid (although denials of any potential post-Parliamentary paid office haven't been so conspicuous to date).  I can imagine what the reaction of senior Labour figures would be if a Tory MP were to behave in a similar fashion.
And given Hain's previous invective against the baby-eating Tories, and against anyone who dares so much as to give said evil ones the time of day, the rather chummy way in which is seeking to enlist Cameron to the cause has a certain irony to it.
There is a danger, naturally, that those who have seen Hain's occasional rather nasty side will instinctively oppose anything with which he is associated – and there’d be a certain poetic justice about that.  The scheme does, however, deserve to be considered on its merits, although personally I remain sceptical. 
I don't doubt the claim that it could produce up to around 5% of the U.K.'s electricity needs.  That has to be subject, however, to the same caveat that opponents of wind farms invariably raise – the electricity produced will not necessarily be available to coincide with peak demand, depending on the times of the tides.
Certainly the proposal to generate on both the flow and the ebb tides is a step forward from the previous proposal to generate only on the ebb.  It's still subject to periods of low or zero generation, however.  That's why I'm still inclined to support the alternative of a series of tidal lagoons or tidal flow turbines around the coast, making use of the different times of high tide to generate a smaller total – but more consistently available – amount of power.
It's claimed that the latest proposal will do less damage to the ecology of the upstream Severn than the previous proposal.  Perhaps; but the detail behind this assertion is notable by its absence to date.
My third reservation concerns the costs.  The claim currently is that the barrage could and would be funded entirely from private sources, provided that the price of the electricity produced is guaranteed.  That sounds plausible for the electricity generating barrage itself (although it's worth noting that providing similar price guarantees to wind has been used as a reason for opposing wind turbines), but is it the whole truth?
All of the illustrations that I've seen show a barrage with a road link, rail link, or both running across the top.  There's a logic to doing that, but it significantly increases both the height and the cost of any barrage.  I somehow doubt that those costs have been factored in to the claim that the barrage will be privately financed, which would mean that we're only getting a partial truth.
Hain has a certain ability to generate PR and hype, but his assertion that the barrage “should be backed by all those serious about tackling climate change” is in line with his usual approach to politics, which is to make bald assertions and then attack the motives and integrity of anyone who disagrees with him.  It will take more than that to convince doubters such as myself.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Gwynt y Môr

MH at Syniadau has already done a mathematical demolition job on the anti-wind campaigners referred to in this story.  I won’t repeat that analysis, with which I agree.  The reportage disappointed me somewhat, however.  Whilst it (I assume accurately) reported the claims and counter claims of the two sides, there was something of a lack of analysis as to whether either or both were right, and very little light generated as a result.
Truth can sometimes be an elusive concept, but in this case, it seems to me that it’s possible for both sides to be right.  However, they’re not talking about the same thing, and therefore one side being right about one thing does nothing to prove the other wrong about something quite different.
One of the arguments about wind is its predictability (or rather lack thereof).  But it isn’t quite as simple as that – wind is quite predictable in the very short term and in the long term; it’s in between that it becomes unpredictable.  Ask a meteorologist what the wind is going to do in the next hour or two, and (s)he will give you a pretty accurate prediction.  Ask how much wind we’ll get over a year, and you’ll get another pretty accurate prediction.  But ask what the wind speed and direction will be at 2.30 on the afternoon of Tuesday 4th September, and you’ll be lucky to get any sort of prediction at all.
The overall predictability of the UK’s wind and weather means that it is perfectly possible to predict with a high degree of confidence how many kwh of electricity can be generated by any wind turbine over a year.  And whilst one may quibble with the detail of the mathematics (see MH’s post), converting that into a proportion of Wales’ total annual need, or even a number of homes whose needs can be met, is just simple arithmetic.  So the claim put forward by those behind Gwynt y Môr is entirely reasonable.
The counter claim by the opponents is based on the proposition that the energy produced may not be available at the time required by those households, and at other times electricity will be produced which those households cannot use.  It means that at times of surplus, the electricity produced will be used elsewhere, and at times of deficit, those households will be using electricity produced from other sources.  So, the argument goes, those households cannot rely on Gwynt y Môr to supply their needs.
That’s also true, but the proposition it demolishes isn’t the one being made; it’s something completely different.  And it certainly doesn’t support the conclusion that wind is therefore a useless source of energy.
Given the starting point of this post, I’ve only referred to wind, but we can actually generalise from that.  Any type of electricity generation based entirely on (free, unlimited) natural renewables (whether wind, tidal, solar, hydro or whatever) will never be able to match the certainty of availability when required which can be obtained from a power station fed by (expensive and depletable) fuels. 
That isn’t an argument for sticking with fossil fuels, nor for rejecting the use of renewables; it's just a feature of a different apporach to energy policy.  What it tells us is that, if we want to use emission-free renewables, we have to think in different ways about our electricity supply and distribution infrastructure.  Up to a certain percentage – as I recall, National Grid figures suggest that to be around 20% – the impact on security of supply is fairly minimal and can be coped with more or less within existing backup and contingency arrangements.  Beyond that, we will undoubtedly need to look at ‘storage’ facilities.  In addition to that, grid interlinks which spread the risk over a wider area are already being built.
We can’t – and no-one is suggesting that we can – rely on wind for all our electricity needs, but we can and should use it as part of the overall mix.

Bigger and Browner

In his speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Gordon Brown appears to have managed to state the obvious without understanding the obvious conclusion to be drawn.  Referring to the successes of the UK’s team in the Olympic Games, he said:
“And the Olympics is pretty clear to us that, by the pooling of resources in, say, cycling, we managed to do what if you just divided the money and put a 10th to Scotland and a 10th to Yorkshire and so on you could not have achieved the same results.”
He also said:
"When we pool and share resources for the common good, it's often the case that the benefit is far greater than would have occurred if we'd just summed up and added up the parts.”
It’s impossible to argue with his logic, which basically amounts to saying that bigger countries can have access to a wider pool of talent and can choose to concentrate resources rather than spread them more thinly.  What it doesn’t say - but certainly implies – is that what happens to the parts isn’t important, only the overall total.
It’s basically the same as the economic policy followed by his Government – concentrate resources in the South East in ways which improve the overall average even if those on the periphery lose out, and call it success.
He’s not following it through to its natural conclusion though.  Just think about the pool of talent and the resources available if the EU were to combine and send a single team to the Olympics.  If you just want to measure ‘success’ in terms of a ranking in the medals tables, then bigger is almost always going to be better, isn’t it?
The reason that doesn’t occur to him is that he is, however rational and logical his position might appear to be, starting from a prejudiced view about what the ‘right’ unit is.
Oh, and by the way, why the ‘Edinburgh Book Festival’?  Wouldn’t it be a bigger and better event, able to call on more talent and ability, if it were renamed and held somewhere else?  Like London, perhaps…

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Two languages good, three languages better

There's nothing particularly new or innovative about the proposal put forward by the Conservative Assembly Group last week for the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools.  It’s an idea which gets floated periodically, takes a headline or two, then fades away again.
That doesn't mean that the idea is without merit.  Indeed, in principle it's something I'd support.  There are one or two little difficulties with it however.
The first is that so few primary school teachers are themselves fluent enough in a foreign language to teach it.  There's a "chicken and egg" question there, obviously.  How do we make sure that our adults are multilingual if we don't teach them languages as children; and how do we teach the children without the multilingual adults?  It's not an insuperable problem, but neither can the cycle be broken by simply passing a new law changing the curriculum.
The NUT representative was also right to draw attention to the already over- full curriculum.  (And that's something given a further relevance by the proposal put forward by some in the wake of the Olympic Games that children should have six hours of sport every week.)
Again the curriculum should not be an insuperable problem - other countries manage it after all - but there does seem to be something of a trend amongst politicians to be forever tinkering with the curriculum.  And it’s invariably about adding to it, not taking away.
But my biggest concern is about how effective such a policy would be.  The Tories talked glibly about Wales now becoming a bilingual nation, and aiming to become trilingual.  Worthy words.  However, that glosses over the fact that the teaching of Welsh as a second language in our schools has been a massive failure to date.
Children are leaving primary schools in Wales -- even so-called Category A schools, where Welsh is supposed to be the medium of instruction - unable to function in Welsh.  Most people involved in the system know that; but few are willing to say it.
It isn't inevitable that this should be so; nor is it a reason, in itself, not to try and teach other languages as well.  It is, though, a reason to look at how we teach languages and how we can do so more effectively.  If we can't teach two languages effectively where both of those languages are highly visible and in use every day around us, there seems little hope that we will add a third and teach it effectively.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Gamblers with systems

The massive failure and subsequent rescue of a Wall Street trader last week underlines the extent to which the trading floors of stock exchanges have been transformed from places which allocate capital to companies to casinos. 
The company itself blamed an ‘IT glitch’ for automatically placing  huge volumes of trades which sent the Wall Street share prices of 148 companies into a state of wild fluctuation.  Details of the ‘glitch’ have yet to be revealed, but as an ex computer programmer, ‘IT Glitch’ is not a term I can relate to. 
On this occasion, the computers may have done some silly things, but they were only acting on the instructions of their programmers – the glitch is ultimately a human one.  The human telling the computer what to do got it wrong – and the result of what was probably a very small error was the collapse of a company which lost £283 million in 45 minutes.
The response of the company’s CEO was remarkably sanguine – “Technology breaks”, he said.  It’s the reaction of a gambler, and like most gamblers, he and his company are unlikely to change their ways.
The fact that so much money can be won or lost in such a short period should worry us more than it appears to do in practice.  Much of the ‘trading’ on world stock exchanges is now automated.  Computers running sophisticated algorithms decide when to buy and when to sell; trading the same stocks over and over, thousands of times a minute, trying to leverage tiny differences in price by sheer volume and frequency of trading.  
Different computers using different algorithms compete with each other in tiny fractions of a second.  It’s even got to the point where the computer centres are being moved to be nearer to the exchanges – the time lost by a message travelling at the speed of light over a distance of just a few miles can put them at a disadvantage in this particular casino.
Whether the stocks and shares being bought and sold between the varying computer programs actually exist or not is an interesting but largely irrelevant question from the perspective of those involved.  All of this has nothing to do with the business of ensuring that companies employing real people to produce real goods in the real world have access to the capital they need, nor with investing in pension and insurance funds. 
It’s a casino, pure and simple.  And if there’s one thing worse than a compulsive gambler, it’s a gambler who has a ‘system’ with which he thinks he can break the casino.
With the exception of the shareholders in one particular company, who have seen the value of their shareholding plummet, we’ve got away with it this time.  There’s no guarantee that the next ‘glitch’ won’t have much more impact on us.  The best way of doing that is to put these people in real casinos, and leave them only their own money to play with.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Tantrums and principles

The one common factor to emerge from the bust up in Westminster over reform of the House of Lords and changes to constituency boundaries is the utter cynicism of some politicians.  None of the three UK parties emerges with much credit.
Those in the Conservative party who seem to think that they can sign up to an agreement with another party and then pick and choose which elements of the agreement they support have displayed a certain amount of arrogance as well.  I even saw one of them suggesting that the response by Nick Clegg was immature.  It didn’t look to me as though the immaturity was entirely one-sided.
Then we have the Labour Party, who claim to support reform of the House of Lords but decided to vote against it largely to put the Liberal Democrats on the spot.  And then we have the Lib Dems themselves who've responded to an act of bad faith with what looks like petty petulance.
Clearly, Clegg found himself in a position where simply rolling over and accepting that the Conservatives were not going to deliver on one of their coalition pledges would have left him looking weak - or perhaps that should be ‘even weaker’.  However, given his commitment to the continuation of the coalition, he needed to find a form of retaliation which was nonlethal. 
Protecting MPs from a cull may achieve that aim, but it isn't exactly the most populist issue he could have chosen to start drawing lines in the sand.  Worse still from his perspective, it might even secretly please more Tories than it upsets, given the worries many were facing over their own seats.  Heads they win, tails the Lib Dems lose.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Where else should it go?

Last week's announcement by National Grid of the preferred location for the substation to serve wind farms in Wales brings a long-running dispute to the surface once again.  But like many Welsh political arguments, it is an argument which seems to generate more heat than light.
Many of those I saw interviewed by the BBC were refreshingly honest - they concentrated on issues such as the view from their homes and villages and the effect on property values as the basis of their opposition.  These are issues to which most of us can relate; but ultimately, electricity generation, and the infrastructure to support that, have to go somewhere, and local concerns have always to be balanced with wider needs.
We need electricity, and we need to generate it somehow.  We cannot all assume that the electricity we want and need will be generated ‘somewhere else’.  If we are going to build wind farms in Wales then the infrastructure to connect them to the grid has to go somewhere.  Not building substations is simply not an option.
That in turn brings us right back to two underlying questions.
The first is whether and to what extent onshore wind has a role in the energy mix, and the second is the subsequent question of where it should be sited. 
The second of those is the easier of the two to answer - the best location is always going to be the one where the presence and speed of wind is most consistent.  And whether we might choose it to be thus or not, Welsh uplands are ideal from that perspective.
The first question is rather harder.  It is an issue on which opinion is seriously divided, and raises a number of issues.
Some opponents of on-shore wind don't accept the need to reduce emissions, and reject the idea that anthropogenic climate change is a real phenomenon.  This is, at least, an honest position to adopt.  It may fly in the face of majority scientific opinion, but majority scientific opinion hasn't always been proved right.  If emissions are not a problem, we can simply go on using gas, oil, and even coal.
However, the consequences of rejecting the majority view if it's right are much worse than the consequences of accepting the majority view if it’s wrong.  That balancing of risks and consequences would be enough to convince me that we should act, even if I wasn't convinced that the scientific majority was right.  And once we decide to act to reduce emissions, the fact that, as of today, on-shore wind is the most proven and readily available source of renewable energy is an inescapable fact.
"The benefits will flow elsewhere", we are told.  It’s true of course.  But it's also true of many other things that happen in Wales, whether relating to energy generation or not.  It's an argument (and one I’d entirely accept) for changing the economic model under which we exploit a resource, but it's not an argument for non-exploitation as such.  I want Wales to have control over its own infrastructure, and to be able to make a decent profit from those things of which we can produce a surplus.  But I also want there to be some infrastructure and surpluses for us to bring under our own control.
“It's exploiting Welsh resources for the benefit of England."  Again, possibly true, but over-simplistic.  Exploitation doesn't recognise, or stop at, borders.  If turbines were built on some of the more suitable locations in England (whether as well as, or instead of, is irrelevant in this context), that exploitative (if it is indeed such) relationship between users of electricity and those living close to the points at which it is generated would still be the same; it would merely have become internalised within a different set of human-defined borders.  (In any event, is either the wind or the landscape really 'owned' by those who happen to live nearby, or is it more widely 'owned' by us all?)
"They wouldn't be built without the subsidies."  Again, it's true that the subsidy regime encourages renewable rather than fossil fuel electricity generation.  That's exactly what it is intended to do, in order to reduce emissions from energy generation.  But it's also true that other forms of generation are effectively "subsidised" by being able to externalise some of their costs.  Not all subsidies appear in our electricity bills, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
But perhaps the favourite counter argument is the one about "wind farms are useless".  It is an issue which I have posted on before a number of times.  If it were true, then it would indeed be something of a killer argument against both turbines and the supporting infrastructure.
It is, though, a claim which is often based on selective use of facts, some interesting ‘interpretations’ of facts, and sometimes even simplistic axiomatic assertion.  Whilst a sensible policy wouldn’t go above around 15% - 20% wind in the overall generation mix, the argument that it is completely useless doesn’t stand up to examination.
The argument about whether the sub-station should go on the proposed location will no doubt continue – but it has to go somewhere, and the best form of opposition would be to come up with a more acceptable location rather than simply oppose its construction.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Racing for the bottom

The Welsh government frequently refers to the extent to which sustainability is seen as being its central principle in everything it does.  The idea is sound and it's a nice sound bite as well.  The problem arises in living the implications of making such a commitment.
Last week for instance, Tata steel, the operators of the Port Talbot plant, raised an issue over the price which they have to pay for energy.  Their European chief executive described high energy prices as an “obstacle" to growth.  Specifically he also complained that his company pays more for energy than competitors in France and pays business rate double those of competitors in Germany.  I have no reason to doubt either of those figures, but it's notable that his company would also be paying considerably less corporation tax on any profits in the UK than it would in either France or Germany.
Keen to support a major employer in South Wales Carwyn Jones, our first Minister, leapt to their support.  He called for what he referred to as a "level playing field" when it comes to energy prices, and urged the UK government to take steps to ensure such a level field.
What exactly he had in mind is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume that what he was in fact calling for was government action to reduce energy prices.  That is, however, looking at only one factor.  And looking at one factor in particular is not giving proper consideration to the overall economic environment in which companies operate.
There is a question also over the extent to which Jones's call conflicts with his own government’s “central organising principle".  Indeed, he recognised the conflict when he said "Sustainability is important, but one of the main planks must be economic sustainability and sometimes they have to be trade-offs."
That sounds to me as though he is in fact saying that the commitment to sustainability applies only in so far as it does not conflict with the interests of major employers.  And such a commitment is no commitment at all.
There are indeed differences in energy prices between different countries.  And there are differences in tax regimes as well.  There is a danger in trying to be the lowest in order to compete in the interests of economic growth.  And that danger is that economic sustainability leads to environmental unsustainability.
I’m sure that Jones recognises that danger himself.  Indeed, some months ago, he argued that corporation tax should not be devolved to Wales because it would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ as different parts of the UK sought to compete with each other for economic investment on the basis of a lower tax regime.  Up to a point, I agree with him.  That's part of the reason why I would argue for devolution of a range of taxes rather than considering a single tax in isolation.
Reducing energy prices to large consumers of energy to compete with other countries is another form of a race to the bottom.  But this isn't just an economic race to the bottom; it is also potentially an environmental race to the bottom, given the impact of energy consumption on emissions.
Now steel is going to be made somewhere.  It's an essential product to any developed or developing economy.  And we certainly would not want to create an economic environment which drives such industry elsewhere.  Solving our own emissions problems by moving them elsewhere is no solution at all. 
Creating an environment where companies are both successful economically and have incentives to reduce their environmental impact is a difficult balancing act.  But simply responding to their pressure for reduced energy costs is avoiding any attempt to do any balancing at all.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Laws and sledgehammers

Much of the discussion around the decision of the UK Attorney General to take the Welsh Government to the Supreme Court has centred on the process rather than the substance.  A good argument is better than a detailed legal analysis any day.
Insofar as I understand the substance of the complaint, the accusation is that in removing the need for council byelaws to be approved by Welsh Ministers, the Assembly Act has also removed, or attempted to remove, the need for approval by the Secretary of State who, under the labyrinthine nature of the Welsh devolution settlement, exercises such responsibility jointly with Welsh Ministers.  Or rather, she has the right to exercise it jointly; in practice, the process has been that the SoS leaves Welsh Ministers to get on with it.
Now I’m no lawyer, but it was well-understood, I thought, that one of the constraints on the right of the Assembly to legislate was that they could neither take away from, nor add to, the responsibilities of UK Ministers.  If that’s really what the dispute comes down to, then I’d tip the UK Government to win.  And if the Welsh Government really were told this in advance, then they have no excuse for ploughing ahead and ignoring the advice.
Being right on the point of law is, however, no substitute for being right on the politics of the issue, and that’s where things get a little cloudier.  In essence the Attorney General is launching a case in the Supreme Court to protect the right of the SoS to do something which she seems to have had no inclination to do to date.
Worse still, the Welsh Government’s Act is very much in line with the policy of the UK Government, which is to take Ministers out of the loop, and allow local authorities to get on with the job as they see fit, with, in the Minister's own words, "no ministerial involvement whatsoever".  So not only is the Attorney General trying to protect the right of the SoS to do something that she doesn’t seem to want to do, it’s also something which UK Government policy says she really shouldn’t be doing anyway.
In the circumstances, launching a Supreme Court action seems more than a little OTT.  Would it not have been better to simply legislate in London to give effect to the aims of the Assembly Act and thereby implement UK Government policy at the same time?  As it is, it rather looks as though both sides are taking positions for the sake of it.  Still, with the summer upon us, the media need some good stories.  And what better for the silly season than some silly politicians?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Economic Responsibility

The article by Gerry Holtham in the latest edition of the IWA’s ‘Agenda’ magazine, reported in yesterday's Western Mail, does not make for cheerful reading.  It is, however, possible to agree with his sums without necessarily agreeing with his conclusions.  In essence, his argument is that the economic situation in Wales is such that we do not currently have the tax base to sustain our current standard of living as an independent country.  It is difficult to argue with that view.
There are, however, two major flaws in his conclusion that Wales should not, therefore, be pushing to follow the Scottish path, but should instead concentrate exclusively on improving its economic position.  Those flaws are political rather than economic and do not detract from his economic analysis.
The first flaw is that, as far as I'm aware, no one is actually arguing that Wales should become independent tomorrow.  Those of us who seek independence for Wales seek it as an endpoint in a process, which process is going to take some years. 
And the second flaw is to assume that the two things (i.e. constitutional progress and economic progress) are incompatible or even contradictory.  Such an assumption takes it as read that economic improvement requires the continuation of the union whilst it happens, and that raises the question about to what extent we believe that the economic problems can or will be addressed within current structures.
I suspect that the inter-relationship between the two propositions is rather more complex than that.  The idea that independence in itself solves Wales’ economic problems is as misguided as the belief that current structures will solve those problems.  The one is based on blind faith that doing it ourselves will necessarily be better, whilst the second flies in the face of decades of experience to the contrary.
The one thing on which I hope most of us in Wales can agree is that we do not want to see Wales continuing to work on the basis that its economic survival depends now and forever on fiscal transfers from elsewhere.  And it seems to me that getting us out of that mindset is as much about taking responsibility as it is about economics.  In that sense constitutional progress and economic progress need to proceed in step; it’s not about one having to precede the other.