Saturday 30 May 2009

Can opener Morgan

When it comes to the question of Independence for Wales, it can often feel to nationalists that we're damned if we mention it, and damned if we don't. When we talk about Independence as a long term aspiration for Wales, our political opponents are quick to draw attention to the fact that the idea enjoys only minority support in Wales. And if we don't, then we are accused of hiding our true aims.

I've said before that it's not an easy path to walk; but I remain absolutely convinced that openness about our long term aspirations, coupled with pragmatism about what's achievable in the short term is the only honest position to adopt. Creating short term political programmes without trying to place them clearly in the context of our longer term aspirations would, in my view, be dishonest.

If it means that some of the people who might support our short term programmes don't do so because they disagree with our longer term goals - well, that's a choice that they are free to make, and is the price of having a long term view. And if they do support us, it's not on the basis of any ignorance about our goals.

From reading Jonathan Morgan's comments this week, it seems that the Tories have dealt with a little dilemma of their own in a much less honest fashion. I thought the most revealing part of his comments was the statement that "We have also been guilty of not standing up for what we really believe in because we were more afraid of voter hostility". It's an open admission that the Tories' real agenda will attract hostility in Wales, and that they've tried to get round it by pretending to be something that they're not.

It begs the question - what exactly are the Tories for in Wales? Insofar as they have any coherent alternative to offer, it's one that they're afraid to articulate, and one which could not survive their participation in any conceivable coalition arrangement.

They're really caught between a rock and a hard place. Their potential support in Wales is divided between those with a very 'British' perspective and those with a more Welsh perspective. If they come down clearly on one side of that divide, they are likely to lose the support of the other.

And their grass roots membership (in this part of Wales for certain, and I suspect the same is true across Wales as a whole) is overwhelmingly hostile to any attempt to become more distinctively Welsh, whatever some of their AMs might say. (Change of Personnel describes it as them being Conservatives in Wales rather than Welsh Conservatives - it's a neat way of putting it, although I'd have used 'almost all' rather than 'many'.) Their MPs' views are much more representative of what their grass roots members in Wales actually believe.

Unless and until their AMs persuade their own party membership of the need to become more autonomous from the London party and embrace the new Wales – or alternatively, their AMs become more representative of the membership and openly articulate the anti-Assembly views of the majority - they seem doomed to exist in a sort of limbo. Able to be neither one thing nor the other, with their AMs attacking each other in coded messages, they are unable to provide even a half-decent opposition.

Jonathan Morgan has prised a very large can a little further open, I suspect.

Friday 29 May 2009

A little side-swipe?

Much has been made of the way in which Jonathan Morgan was implicitly attacking his leader for purchasing an iPod on Assembly expenses. But was he having a little swipe at others of his colleagues as well, with the reference to plasma tvs? The following extracts from the Assembly records of claims would seem to suggest that he might well have been.
07-Apr-08 Nick Ramsay - Second Home Electrical Goods £977.95
(Sony LCD TV £549.99 Sony Surround Sound £159.98 Product Support for Surround Sound £59.00 Product Support for LCD TV £169.00 Logik 4m Aerial Cable £9.99 Scart £29.99)

28-Jan-08 Angela Burns - Second Home Electrical Goods £986.98
(TV and DVD Player)

With only 12 Tory AMs in the Assembly, managing to publicly attack three of them in one sentence isn't exactly the best way of seeking his colleagues' support for his leadership ambitions. Just one more sentence like that, and he'll no longer be able to win a majority amongst them! Or does the fact that one television was LCD rather than plasma, and the other was of an unspecified nature, allow both these AMs to escape Mr Morgan's criticism?

Funding Education

Last night, there was a superb concert at Folly Farm by the Greenhill School Orchestra. There was a worry a couple of months ago that the orchestra would have its funding withdrawn, and its supporters called on Plaid, Labour and Conservative politicians for support to retain an outstanding level of musical provision. Thus it was that I found myself sitting in the reserved seats at the back along with the local MP and AM, in a rare display of political unanimity.

The funding crisis was surrounded in some confusion to start with, and it highlighted for me how difficult it can be at times to pin down exactly who is taking which decisions. Schools receive their money from the county council according to a formula set by the county within government guidelines; but the element relating to sixth-form provision is decided by the Assembly Government and seems to be merely passed through the county's books. On top of that, the county may allow additional funding for certain activities such as music.

When the threat to the school orchestra was first highlighted, the finger seemed to be pointing at the Assembly Government for cutting allocations to sixth forms, but that turned out to be something of a misunderstanding. In any event, the funding problem has been sorted out for the very short term, giving a breathing space to ensure the longer term future. The near £5,000 raised by last night's concert will certainly assist.

Moving from the specific to the general, does school funding need to be this complex – so complex that even the governing bodies aren't always clear who has decided what? Why on earth is the Assembly Government directly setting sixth form budgets rather than leaving that to county councils to decide in the same way that they set the rest of the schools' budgets?

It looks like an unnecessary degree of centralisation to me, and almost guarantees a lack of clarity and accountability from the point of view of schools, governors, and parents. It may be convenient for those in authority to be able to blame someone else, but I don't think it makes sense.

I suspect that it's just another part of the less than entirely open agenda of the Education Department in the Assembly Government. There seems to be a desire to move away from sixth forms towards tertiary colleges, which are funded (and therefore controlled) directly from the centre. That's actually a valid policy to espouse (although not one with which I agree), but it's being promoted in a dishonest fashion, through manipulation of funding allocations, rather than through open and honest debate.

Creating financial crises for schools and making sixth forms financially less viable may achieve the ends of those taking the decisions; but it hardly counts as democratic and open decision-making.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Leaflets and letterboxes

According to a story in this week's 'Carmarthen Journal', Carmarthenshire County Council's Marketing and Tourism Department are now the proud owners of a new door. Sadly, this particular story appears not to have made it into the online edition as far as I can see.

The door (or to be more precise, half a door – it has been cut in half just above the letterbox) has been presented to them by Anglian Building Products, and is standing in the Council's offices. It is being used, apparently, to enable staff to study "the way a letter or leaflet drops through a letterbox and lands on a doormat".

Now, like many people involved in politics, I have a certain amount of experience in the business of encouraging leaflets through letterboxes. On the basis of that experience, I think I can say fairly categorically that unless the leaflet has had to be folded in some way in order to push it through an odd-sized letterbox (and the helpful picture of Carmarthenshire's half-door shows only one, standard sized, letterbox), then it will land with one side facing up and the other facing the floor.

So, if they really need an in-depth understanding of "the way the homeowner perceives a publication" at first sight, they have only to toss it gently to the floor a few times so that they can see what it looks like from both sides.

The most amazing part of the whole story, for me, is that they claim to have had "24,500 new brochure requests since February using this method". I have no idea how they can attribute that increase to watching leaflets flutter through letterboxes. But I suppose that I should content myself with being pleased that they didn't actually go out and buy half a door.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

Old vinegar in new bottles

Cameron got a lot of coverage for his speech yesterday, and superficially it sounded as though it was full of new and different ideas. But even having worked through the full text, I still feel that there was a lack of hard detail. It read - as I suppose it was intended to - like one of Tony Blair's speeches; full of juicy sound bites, lacking in any real bite.

On the one hand, he talked a lot about devolving power – but managed to do so without once mentioning either Wales or Scotland. He did say that "We're going to get rid of pointless and unaccountable regional government and bureaucracy"; but my guess is that this was a speech intended primarily for English consumption, and that we shouldn't read too much into that.

Indeed, much of the speech dealt with matters which are devolved in Wales and Scotland, and it's still entirely unclear whether the Tories can or would try to foist these policies on Wales and Scotland at all. Again, he's not really aiming at a Welsh or Scottish audience is he? He knows he'll lose here whatever he says.

And although the content seemed to be new and fresh, some of it was just the madcap ideas of Thatcher and Joseph recycled and relabelled for a generation with a different zeitgeist. Old vinegar in new bottles.

"Choice" is a word which the Tories have used a lot in the past in relation to education; no real surprise to see it re-appearing. It sounds a bit motherhood and apple pie; it's hard to disagree with the idea of giving people choices, but neither is it clear how that would work, particularly in rural areas such as Wales. I'm for having all schools up to scratch in the first place – and that's a policy which, unlike the idea of 'choice', is as relevant to rural areas as urban ones.

Taking "… power over children's education out of the council's hands…" sounds an awful lot like the failed policy of school opt-outs. And giving any group that wants to the right to set up new schools sounds a lot like the Labour policy which has led to academies being founded by creationists amongst others.

Fixed term parliaments was one of the headlines; and I'd support that. But, for all the attention that one grabbed, he didn't actually promise to do anything more than think about it. I suspect that it's one of those things that appeals to him as an opposition leader but will quickly be dropped if he gets to No. 10.

PS I was pleased to see him having a go at "...bankers reaping their bonuses despite breaking the economy...". Pity he didn't extend his condemnation to political parties largely funded on the profits of wrecking the economy.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Did we get it wrong?

A couple of months ago, Plaid published a consultative document on the economy, called Recover, Reform, Renew. It was our attempt to set out a series of actions which governments should take in the current circumstances, but we also recognised that we do not have all the answers, and asked for responses.

Of course, there's no point asking for responses unless we're prepared to listen carefully to what is said. Governments may well run meaningless consultations, but it isn't a path we should follow.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we should automatically change our minds, just because someone says something different; but we should be prepared to do so if a good case is made. I have to admit that there are one or two things in the document which we produced about which I'm no longer convinced.

One very good example relates to the car scrappage system which the government has now actually introduced. It seemed like a good idea at the time – stimulating a major industry, and at the same time encouraging a move towards less polluting transport. And it had already been introduced in France and Germany as well.

It has since been pointed out that around one quarter of households in Wales are carless, rising to 36% in some of our most deprived communities. A scrappage scheme may well benefit the motor industry, and those who work in it. By so doing, it will, no doubt, help the economy to recover.

But using taxpayers' money to reduce the purchase price of new cars is effectively a subsidy to those who can afford to run a car anyway – and if we have money to invest in greener transport, might not investing that money in public transport do more to deal with social inequalities and transport deprivation? Would that also do more to reduce the environmental impact of transport systems – and if the investment being made in the right way, would it also do just as much to stimulate the economy?

As with many issues involving environmental considerations, it can sometimes be difficult to work out which is really the best option overall - and it underlines the value of more open discussion on policy options.

Monday 18 May 2009

Excessive Secrecy

Carmarthenshire County Council is currently promoting a major development at the Eastern Gateway to Llanelli. In broad terms, the proposal has been supported right across the political spectrum in the Council. That is not to say that there are no concerns, however – any development on this scale will inevitably raise issues as well as bringing benefits.

The commercial aspects of the scheme are confidential at this stage, as is often the case with such developments. The result was that I, along with other observers, was obliged to leave the public gallery when the council discussed this item last week. No problem with that – I understand the need for commercial confidentiality whilst negotiations are in progress.

There is a problem with this approach, however. There are some (completely non-commercial) aspects to the development where there should really be no problem in having a more public discussion. One councillor, for instance, was interrupted by the Chair and not allowed to fully develop his points when he wanted to make a plea to retain a historic pub as part of the development, rather than bulldoze it. I'm sure his electors would want to know that he had made such a plea, and what he said on the matter - indeed, I think that they have a right to know that. Others were prevented from speaking at all.

It isn't easy to hold a council debate about a complex development in public without there being a danger that one or other of the councillors will – possibly inadvertently – reveal confidential information. But is that a reason not to try? There surely ought to be a way of holding a debate on the principles and nature of such a development in public, whilst restricting the discussion of the commercial and financial aspects to private session.

Erring on the side of caution leads to arguments becoming secret when they don't need to be – and shouldn't be.

Friday 15 May 2009

Red lines

The announcement this week by Peter Black that top-up fees would be a red line for the Lib Dems in any future coalition negotiations in the Assembly was a brave move. Whether it was brave in the ordinary sense of the word or in the sense in which the word was used by Sir Humphrey is something that only time will tell.

Short term, it looks like a politically cute move, but I wonder about the longer term. It seems to be effectively ruling out any coalition with Labour, since Labour have been determined for some years to introduce the fees. The Tories' opposition to tuition fees is valid only until 2011 – I and others expect that, particularly if Cameron is in government by then, the Tories in the Assembly will be told to step into line with their London masters.

That seems to mean that the only possible coalition option for the Lib Dems from 2011 on is with Plaid Cymru. For all Peter's attacks on us over this issue, Plaid is likely to be the only other party able to enter a coalition with a party for which the abolition of top-up fees is a policy on which no compromise is possible.

More generally, given that the Lib Dems have set out their stall by naming their first red line, to what extent should other parties also be defining clearly in advance what are their red line issues?

Superficially, it seems like a good idea that parties should go into the 2011 election with two or three items on which they say 'no coalition without x'. And at a personal level, I find the idea of laying down some absolutes to be very attractive – and I might even wish that we'd chosen the same one that Peter has announced. But how practical is it, in reality? There is a potential danger that parties might end up putting themselves in a position where no coalition was possible within the terms set out, and the Assembly was reduced to a total stalemate.

The extent to which any party can get its manifesto commitments into a coalition agreement depends heavily on the result of the election, and how many seats each party has (and just a little on the skill of the negotiators!). The more seats a party brings to the table, the greater the influence they should expect on the agreed government programme.

Any party entering negotiations has to be seeking to get as much as possible of its own programme included in the government programme – but there also has to be some give and take. Once the negotiations are complete, each party has to look at the package as a whole, and decide whether they think it's a good deal or not. I suspect that a party which states in advance that certain things are completely non-negotiable will find that the hand of its negotiators is weakened rather than strengthened.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Missing the point

The Assembly Government's long-awaited strategy for Welsh-medium education was published earlier this week, and it's quite a hefty document.

It contains a lot of good intentions, but I ended up disappointed. As Syniadau has already commented, the targets seem less than ambitious. I also felt that they were comparatively short term, and that the targets stated needed to be placed in the context of more ambitious longer term goals.

But the over-riding factor for me was that it confirmed the impression that I have gained from other recent discussions about secondary education re-organisation in Carmarthenshire. I just don't think that either the ministers, or (and perhaps more importantly) the officials at DCELLS, have grasped the difference between Welsh-medium education and Welsh-medium provision. The terms 'provision' and 'education' seem at times to be used as though they were almost interchangeable. They are not.

I could find nothing in this document, for all the praise heaped on the success of Welsh-medium institutions, which would prevent – or even deter – an authority like Carmarthenshire from pursuing a course of action which will lead to the merger of a Welsh-medium school with an English-medium school. Indeed, the emphasis on 'provision' seemed almost to encourage that sort of response. It's easy to see again why Carmarthenshire believe that they've effectively been given the green light by DCELLS for their proposals.

Parents across Wales are increasingly choosing Welsh-medium education for their children. For those of us who make or have made that choice, the term means education through the medium of Welsh in a Welsh language institution. It does not mean an option to study some subjects through the medium of Welsh in an English language institution.

The document almost seems to suggest at times that separate institutions are fine in the anglicised areas of Wales, but less necessary in the north and west. This is a fundamentally flawed perspective, and I suspect that it is based on a hopelessly over-optimistic assessment of the success of 'bilingual' schools in offering such choice. In that context, it is interesting to note that in the map of 'Welsh' secondary schools, the document shows 6 in Carmarthenshire, whereas in fact there are only 3.

In theory, the other three offer a high proportion of subjects through the medium of Welsh; but the reality revolves around the word 'offer'. I'm aware that when pupils are asked their choice of language for any particular subject, there is an inevitable tendency to 'conform' and 'not rock the boat'; and when the majority choose English, the 'offer' can rapidly become a case of 'sorry, not enough of you opted for Welsh, so the course will be in English only for this year'. So, a school can still claim to 'offer' 60% of subjects through the medium of Welsh, whilst only 10% of pupils actually receive any Welsh-medium instruction.

The County Council is making proposals which would make this more normal, and dismantle the successes of the past in the process. On the basis of this document, the Assembly Government seems to be willing to sanction that approach. They can expect a lot of opposition from parents.

Monday 11 May 2009

Different Planets

It seems that one of the hedge fund managers who made a fortune last year by short-selling British banks, and thereby helping to wreck the economy, is now planning to emigrate. He gives two reasons - the new higher rate of tax, and the proposed new regulations on hedge funds. Other hedge fund managers are apparently thinking along similar lines.

Now, many might feel that a person who managed to pay himself £28 million last year might feel able to afford to contribute a little more to the tax revenues of the government to put the economy right. But I find myself wondering how much tax he's actually paying in the first place.

His company, like many other similar companies, is a Limited Liability Partnership rather than a plc. LLPs are effectively exempt from Corporation Tax, so the company probably paid no tax at all on its profits. And generally speaking, profits from this sort of activity are treated by the Inland Revenue as capital gains rather than earned income, and therefore attract a lower level of tax anyway. So, all in all, the new rate of tax probably won't affect him very much.

As for the other reason, he apparently feels that his 'industry' has been abandoned by the Government, who are allowing the wicked French and Germans to drive through new regulations which will prevent his company and others like it from doing some of the things that they were doing previously.

Presumably these people feel that once we as taxpayers have finished bailing out the banks which the short sellers helped to wreck, they should be allowed to start all over again. I think not.

It's also interesting that some of these companies describe their activity as 'wealth generation'. It is not - it creates no new wealth at all, it merely redistributes existing wealth. Mostly redistributing our wealth to themselves.

Friday 8 May 2009

Reverting to type

The Conservatives have been busy locally delivering a little leaflet on behalf of their Westminster candidate.

He's clearly been following his own advice. "I am currently head of one of Europe's largest membership organisations lobbying for rural communities" is hardly an entirely open reference to the Countryside Alliance and its main aim. No reference at all to the main objective of the Conservative campaign locally (the restoration of fox-hunting), despite the fact that the campaign is almost entirely funded by people pursuing that aim.

He also follows Cameron's lead – don't tell them what you're for, just keep stressing that you're not Labour. As I've suggested before, with one lot campaigning on the basis that they're not Labour, and the other lot campaigning on the basis that they're not the Tories, this looks like being a pretty uninspiring campaign from the UK parties.

PS – Whilst previous efforts from the blue camp locally have tended to include one sentence in Welsh (telling people that a Welsh version of the leaflet is available as a special favour if they request one from the office), this one reverts to the Tories' normal monolingual approach. In an area where the majority of the population are fluent in Welsh, they are distributing a leaflet which, but for a change of logo, could have gone out in any constituency in England. Valleys Mam commented a few days ago on the lack of commitment by the Conservative Party to the language. It seems to me that, as far as Welsh is concerned,the English Conservative Party in Wales is merely reverting to type.

Thursday 7 May 2009

Degrees of Innocence?

I really don't understand how the UK government can honestly justify waiting up to 12 years to delete the DNA records of innocent people following the ruling in the European Court. Far better the Scottish system of automatic deletion after three years unless a court order is obtained.

And although I understand that crime comes in varying degrees of severity, I don't understand how innocence is measured in degrees. Yet that seems to be exactly what the UK Government is proposing - DNA will stay on the database for a time period which depends on the nature of the crime of which someone is innocent. If someone is swabbed as part of an investigation into a crime of which they are completely innocent, how on earth do they have any control over the severity of the crime?

Squaring circles

Today's announcement of a new planning policy for Wales, with new building regulations taking us towards zero-carbon buildings is unquestionably the right thing to do. It's a good example of how the Assembly Government can make positive changes to tackle one of the major issues facing the whole world.

It's not without its downside though, and it highlights the difficulties involved in making the right judgements, given conflicting policy objectives. In this case, the downside is that it is hard to reconcile the need for such tighter building regulations with the serious problems of providing adequate affordable housing - and affordable housing is one of the most frequent issues raised with me by people in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

The simplistic response is that, by reducing energy costs in particular, zero-carbon housing will be cheaper (and thus more affordable) over its entire lifetime. True, but it doesn't help the young people who can't afford the increased capital cost of purchase now.

There is a danger that, faced with this obstacle, the Assembly Government might be lobbied (and the beginnings of that were apparent in the story) to relax the rules or delay implementing parts of them. I hope that they'll resist such calls – as I said at the outset, I'm entirely convinced that bringing in these rules is the right thing to do. Slackening them to help a faltering building sector merely puts off the problems for another day.

That leaves a problem though; and the problem cannot simply be ignored. How do we make sure that homes which will be more expensive to build will be affordable for those who are struggling at current price levels? And not only that, but how do we find a way of doing that when government budgets are going to be much tighter, with less money to spare for grants and incentives than has been available in the past?

Lenders certainly need to look at their lending criteria, and change them for truly zero-carbon houses, since people paying less for their energy should be able to afford to pay more for their mortgages. It's taking a more holistic approach to personal finances, and taking account of the lower running costs.

But I think that government will need to do more, particularly in areas such as this where outside purchasers place a higher upward pressure on house prices anyway. One major change which I'm convinced would help in this sort of area would be to require planning consent for a change of use in the case of second homes.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Just passing through

Interesting article in today's Western Mail by Martin Evans, of the Wales Transport Research Centre at the University of Glamorgan. He's picked up on a letter from a number of business leaders to The Times this week, in which it became clear that the battle lines over the third runway at Heathrow are nowhere near as clear cut as they had seemed.

There are some pretty influential business leaders here arguing that building a third runway is the wrong thing to do – and that's a long way away from the impression given previously that business was very much in favour.

There was a similar story in the Business Section of the Sunday Times. For me, perhaps the most interesting sentence was the one that talked about the need for extra capacity being "driven by transit-passenger growth, rather than improving Heathrow as a hub for the UK". In short, rather than serving the needs of the UK for good links, much of the extra capacity would be swallowed up by people who are simply using Heathrow as a convenient place to switch from one aeroplane to another.

In terms of jobs at the airport itself, of course, that may not make a vast amount of difference. Extra flights means extra jobs, although the type of job might vary. More catering, less car hire, for instance.

But there are three major issues.

The first is that investment diverted into a transit-passenger hub is investment which is not available for other purposes. And, as I've commented before, investment in high-speed rail links would be much more useful to us here in Wales. And a great deal less damaging in environmental terms.

The second is the environmental costs and impact on the local area. Even supposing one accepts a need for a transit hub (and there is room for some scepticism at least), then is Heathrow really the right place to put it?

And the third is about the business case. Certainly, the businesses directly involved will gain major benefits – but from the perspective of UK plc, wouldn't we really be better off trying to plan capacity around the needs of those who are actually coming to or going from these islands, rather than those who are just 'passing through'?