Friday 25 May 2012

It's all one railway line

In saying that there must be a ‘business case’ for extending electrification to Swansea this week, the Secretary of State has not really said anything new.  The question needs to be asked however – how long does it take to produce one, and why hasn’t it been done yet?  After all, they’ve been in power for two years now, and as I recall, there have been some sort of figures produced before.  Does it really take two years just to review and update work done previously?
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the vogue for producing ‘business cases’ in any event.  There’s nothing wrong with the concept, but as someone who’s produced more than a few of them over the years, I’m well aware that they have more to do with justifying why the preferred option is the right one than with an objective analysis of the options.  I wouldn’t say that creative writing is the most important skill in drawing up such a document, but it’s up there somewhere.
Figures in themselves are an important part of any story; but they rarely tell the whole story.  And many figures are the result of estimates, which themselves depend on assumptions, which in turn depend on prejudices and preconceptions.  In this case, it seems to me that the government is using the current absence of a business case as a fig leaf behind which to hide whilst they continue to delay.
Another way in which the use of business cases can be used to obfuscate rather than clarify is in the definition of a project.  In the case of rail electrification, the requirement to produce a separate case for Cardiff -Swansea electrification will produce a different answer than if that section were included in a single case for the whole route from Paddington – Swansea.  So the person who decides where to draw the line between projects has a great deal of influence on the final outcome.
It might be argued that splitting the project up into a number of smaller sections is a valid way of determining which bits are or are not viable, but to take that to extremes, a mile by mile analysis would almost certainly conclude that no individual mile was worth electrifying.  And even if the route is split more rationally into station-station sections, the viability of each section will also to an extent depend on what decision is taken in regard to other sections.
The real decision which Gillan and the Government need to justify is the arbitrary one they took to electrify only part of a major route in the first place.  There is a difference between seeing individual projects as part of a wider project to electrify the whole system and seeing it as just a series of projects each of which must be individually justified, and the latter seems to be the view of the government.  It’s a short-sighted way of looking at the question.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Hain's legacy

Seizing hold of a single major issue, and dedicating time to pursuit of that issue, is in the finest tradition of parliamentarianism in the UK, and if Peter Hain had stated last week that he was going to dedicate the rest of his parliamentary career to championing a switch to renewable energy, I’d be forced to seriously reconsider my opinion of him.  That isn’t quite what he said, however.  I don’t expect to be eating my non-existent hat for a while at least.
Rather than pursuing a commitment to the adoption of renewable energy, he is committing himself to a single scheme being promoted by a single consortium, and his statement seemed to suggest that the attraction of that scheme is more to do with the size of the investment involved and the number of jobs created (albeit temporary) than with the energy generated.  Indeed, the fact that it would produce green electricity seemed to me to be almost a bonus rather than being core to the scheme.
I think he’s backing the wrong horse of course; whilst I support the exploitation of the tidal energy in the estuary, I think that there are better ways of doing that than building a giant barrage with all the environmental impact that would have.  That isn’t my main concern about his action, however.
I also rather suspect that the viability of this ‘private sector’ scheme is in reality highly dependent on the public sector coughing up large sums in order to build the barrage higher and run rail and/or road links across the top of it.  But that isn’t my main concern, either.
There is a fine line between campaigning for a particular outcome on the one hand and becoming a parliamentary spokesperson for a particular company promoting a particular scheme on the other.  And it seems to me that he’s in real danger of crossing that line.  MPs are not employed to promote the interests of specific private companies through their parliamentary activity; and that’s my main concern about his statement.
To date it has been claimed that he has no paid position with the consortium concerned, and I have no reason to doubt that.  There is, though, a long and not very honourable history of politicians helping companies whilst in office and reaping their rewards at a later date; cynicism is often, sadly, justified.
Hain is, by his nature, something of a bruiser.  He seems to have difficulty seeing an issue without wanting to disagree vehemently with someone else about it.  But he would probably actually achieve more – and leave a more worthwhile legacy behind him – if he turned his attention from the specific to the general, and tried to build a consensus around that.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Decisiveness isn't just for others

Yesterday, Gordon Brown came out strongly in support of David Cameron’s position on the Euro.  The former Labour Prime Minister and the current Conservative PM are united at last in demanding decisive action from someone else – Germany, apparently – to bail out the Euro zone. 
I’m sure that it’s far from being the first time that they have agreed – after all, their economic policies presented at the last election were almost identical – but they usually manage to avoid saying it, and somehow pretend that there is a huge gulf between them.  But then, Gordon Brown isn’t the only former PM to seek to wear the mantle of statesmanship after losing an election, even if the garment doesn’t fit him any better than it has fitted its previous wearers.
That decisive action is necessary is, as far as it goes, difficult to disagree with.  It does, however, rather gloss over the analysis of cause which should precede that decisive action.  And most of all, it glosses over the UK’s rôle in the Euro crisis.
Any financial crisis of this nature has two elements which combine to impact on its seriousness.  The first is the financial problem itself.  On that score, there can be little doubt that Greece, the centre of the current crisis, has got itself into something of a self-inflicted mess after, to all intents and purposes, having doctored the figures to qualify for Eurozone membership.  That is not to excuse those who could and should have spotted the doctoring, such seems to have been the scale of it, but the root cause lies with Greece itself.
If the crisis were limited to that, I don’t doubt that it would be manageable with good will on all sides, but then the second factor kicks in – the reaction of the ‘markets’.  The way this factor is usually treated, one might think that market reaction can be treated as though it were a rational phenomenon; a group of people taking a long hard look at the financial fundamentals before coming to a considered conclusion about the prospects, and setting interest rates accordingly.
The reality bears little resemblance to that.  It is more a case of a group of wild animals stampeding in a particular direction because one of them got spooked and the others are afraid of being left behind unless they blindly follow.  It is often irrational and subject to a herd mentality.
And that brings me back to the UK’s rôle in all of this – for where is the pre-eminent European habitat of these wild herds if not in the City of London?  And how have they been allowed such free rein to bring down whole economies in the interests of pursuing their own narrow financial interests if not for the deregulation – or studious lack of regulatory action - by the last five UK Prime Ministers, Labour and Tory alike?
We undoubtedly need some decisive actions, but two of those are in the hands of the UK PM himself.  The first is a firmer regulatory control over the speculation and gambling in the City, and the second is the financial transaction tax which both parties in government have so firmly rejected.  Neither of those actions would do anything to touch the underlying problems, but they might help, at least a little, to stop the exacerbation.
But the UK Government seems intent on doing exactly that of which so many accuse (with some justification) the Welsh Government – criticising others as a substitute for acting themselves.

Monday 21 May 2012

Not much different

Apparently, Cameron is worried that the election of Hollande in France might give people the impression that ‘growth’ is an alternative to ‘austerity’.  I can see why that might worry him – an alternative narrative is clearly proving attractive, and that attraction is not limited to France. 
Whether Hollande’s actions will live up to his rhetoric is yet to be seen; it’s not only in the UK that politicians exaggerate the differences between them at election times in order to do exactly the same once safely in office.  And whilst the rhetoric of the Labour Party in the UK might at times sound as though they are going to follow a similar narrative to that espoused by Hollande, the policy differences between the UK Government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition are a great deal less significant than the rhetoric might suggest.
As I understand the Labour Party’s policy, it is that the cuts should be slightly smaller and made slightly more slowly – that’s a long way short of a positing growth as an alternative to austerity.  The real difference between government and opposition amounts to little more than tinkering on the fringes.  So Cameron is right to be worried electorally, but if he sincerely believes that the policies being followed are the right ones, then he probably has little to fear in economic terms from a change of government.

Friday 18 May 2012

Sticking to her guns

The decision by Plaid’s new leader, Leanne Wood, not to attend the Jubilee service led to a fairly sustained correspondence in the letters pages of the Western Mail in the period since it was announced.  Some of the letters have been from the usual suspects (does ‘Monarchy Wales’ actually have more than one member?), as one might expect.  Supporters of the status quo talk about the ‘hard work’ and ‘service’ provided by the current monarch over many years, whilst others talk of ‘disrespect’ to a visitor to Wales (without, apparently, realising the irony of the description of 'our' monarch as a ‘visitor’).
That there are plenty in Wales who feel an attachment to both the institution and the current incumbent is surely no surprise to anyone.  But one of the things that has struck me repeatedly every time the issue comes up is the conflation of republicanism and nationalism in the minds of many.  It’s a connection which does not stand up to analysis. 
Many members of the Labour Party are republicans (although a number prefer not to admit it), and, whisper it quietly, there are plenty of Tories who would struggle to convince anyone that they honestly believe that the head of state should be a hereditary position.  I’m sure that there are some Lib Dems, too, who support the idea of a republic, although how many and which ones probably depends, like so many of their policies, on who’s listening and whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month.
The point is that nationalists in Wales certainly have no monopoly on republican thinking.
Views within Plaid and the wider national movement vary, as they do for the other parties.  Leaving aside any whose deep and sincere convictions stem, like those of so many politicians in the UK parties, from the findings of the latest focus group, there are three main strands of opinion amongst Wales’ nationalists.
  • There are a minority who actually support the continuation of the UK monarchy for Wales after independence - and not just for reasons of political convenience.  The number is not large, but Oscar’s discovery of his undying love for the queen was never an entirely unique phenomenon.
  • There’s another minority, probably even smaller, who believe that we should trace the descendants of Llywelyn Fawr and restore the House of Gwynedd to its Welsh throne.
  • And then there’s the overwhelming majority who are natural and instinctive republicans, and who would still be so even if they were not nationalists.
That’s a personal assessment, of course; but it’s based on decades of involvement and knowledge of the national movement, and I’m convinced that it’s a fair assessment.  So why all the fuss when Plaid’s new leader actually says what most of her party’s members believe?
The main point worth noting is that whilst the members might actually support the republican viewpoint, they don’t usually say so – and although there is a clear majority of republicans within Plaid, the party has never got around to formally adopting a republican policy. 
For some that’s simply a way of avoiding debate on an issue which is not likely to be a vote-winner.  But for most, it’s more about an assessment of political priorities.  Gaining independence - or, in the interim, significant real powers for the National Assembly - is seen as a higher priority that trying to strip away the vestigial powers of the monarchy.  If the monarchy’s influence is more symbolic than real, why pick a symbolic battle, when the real one needs to be fought?
This year, though, things changed.  Plaid’s members overwhelmingly elected a leader who has, for many years, made her own republican viewpoint crystal clear.  And whilst some might see the issue as a symbolic one which can be left for another time, Leanne does not; she sees it as a more immediate issue.  No-one in Plaid can have been in any doubt about Leanne’s stance when they voted for her – and they should not expect her to change her stance now.
I’m no longer close enough to know for certain what goes on, but I can imagine the siren voices suggesting to Leanne that, as leader, she should tone down her comments, and modify her stance.  Personally, I think that would be a mistake.  If there’s one thing that Plaid should learn from recent experience it is that fudge and expediency end up looking like shiftiness and dishonesty.
Having nailed her colours so firmly to the mast over so many years, expecting her to change tack now is not only realistic, it would be a mistake on a grand scale.  For any politician who strongly holds a principled view, being willing to express it forcibly and honestly, even in the teeth of disagreement, is invariably going to be more effective than trying to pretend to believe something else.
And who knows; having a mainstream politician expressing republican views may even make more people think about the issue – and maybe even change their views.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The end of always?

There is nothing new about the fact that big businesses in the UK are sitting on enormous piles of cash.  Dylan Jones Evans is amongst those who’ve drawn attention to it in the past, and I posted on that last year.  It looks as though at least some around the cabinet table are starting to understand the issue as well, given Philip Hammond’s attack on the businesses concerned this week.
I’m not at all sure, though, that criticising the leaders of those businesses for being unprepared to take risks is the most constructive or sensible response.  The question we need to ask is whether the investment opportunities are there or not; the criticism being voiced assumes that they are.  I suspect that they might not be.
There are opportunities to spend money, of course.  They could always take over, or buy into, other companies either at home or abroad, and doing so would increase the size, turnover, and maybe even profits of the companies concerned.  But it would just move the surplus cash from one set of accounts to another; it isn’t really investment in growth.
But what if the opportunities for real expansion don’t actually exist?  There are plenty of economists who would argue that to be the case at present, and maybe the case for some time to come.  What few are really planning for though is a scenario in which that remains true for the long term.  That would require a major shift in economic thinking.
History to date shows that the economy ‘always’ recovers from a recession and resumes its long term growth path.  But the fact that something has ‘always’ happened in the past is no guarantee that it will happen in the future.  Sooner or later we will reach a limit to ‘perpetual’ economic growth – who’s planning for the possibility that it has happened?

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Just waiting

It never seems to take long for a Prime Minister to get to the point of defending hapless ministers who are accused of some sort of misdeed or other.  And it rarely pays; they usually end up having to sack the minister concerned in the end, looking indecisive and weak as a result.
The more we hear about Jeremy Hunt, the worse it looks for him, and, by extension, Cameron. 
I can understand the distinction between the actions of a minister and those of a civil servant, as a general rule, and the idea that the minister should always take the responsibility for anything and everything done by his or her civil servants seems rather an odd one.  However, the more senior the civil servant, the more probable it is that the minister really should have known what the civil servant was doing – and the more likely it is that the minister will end up carrying the can. 
And special advisors are in a category all of their own.  Blaming a rogue spad is unlikely to get any minister off the hook; the whole nature of the job depends on people being certain that the spad really does represent the minister’s views, and enjoys the full confidence of the minister.
Cameron’s response, at a superficial level, bears all the hallmarks of fair play and justice.  ‘We must wait until we hear his side of the story’ is entirely reasonable at first sight.  However, as presented, it gives the impression that Cameron himself is waiting to hear what Hunt has to say to Leveson before deciding whether to sack him or refer the matter to his advisor on the ministerial code.
I find that very hard to believe.  Surely, Cameron must have spoken to Hunt and asked him some questions directly?  And if he got the right answers, then why not set the record straight now?  And if he got the wrong answers, why not act now?  He really cannot simply be waiting to hear what Hunt says at the same time as the rest of us hear it. That's just not credible.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Green armies

If there’s one aspect of human activity which I’d never describe as being in any way environmentally sound, it has to be warfare.  Using the earth’s resources to build weapons to kill, maim, and destroy is never going to be on anyone’s top ten list of sustainable activities.  So I was fascinated to read at the weekend that the army is ‘going green’.
It seems that they’re planning to install solar panels and wind turbines at bases in Afghanistan, and have been testing such an installation in Cyprus.  The plan is to deploy the new equipment later this year, and that it will slash fuel consumption by 45%.
However, lest anyone should think that the army is going soft, a member of the test team made it clear that this plan was all about saving lives, and had nothing to do with “tree hugging”.  The problem to which this is a response is really nothing to do with the environment at all – it’s just that the efforts to pacify that country have been so unsuccessful that fuel convoys are being regularly attacked by the Taliban.  The equation is a simple one: fewer convoys = fewer attacks = fewer deaths.
Now of course we should commend the army for reducing fuel usage, and for doing anything and everything it can to cut the loss of life in Afghanistan.  But we should not pretend that it has anything to do with environmentalism.  The only ‘green’ warfare is no warfare.

Monday 14 May 2012

Nuclear Reassurance

Three councils in Cumbria have been consulting on a proposal construct an underground nuclear waste dump for the last four years.  They seem to be quite keen on the idea of acting as host for the UK’s nuclear waste; or rather on the millions of pounds’ worth of ‘sweeteners’ promised by the UK Government.
It was the comments of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s engineering director which caught my eye.  After talking about the need for the facility to keep the waste secure for hundreds of thousands of years, and of having to ensure that the material could be prevented from getting out even if Britain was hit by another ice-age glaciation, he told the Sunday Times that “The upside is that after 2m years, it should be mostly harmless”.
Well, that’s all right, then, isn’t it?

Friday 11 May 2012

Not too late to change course

The report of the Assembly Committee on Children and Young People is a welcome one.  They are challenging the Welsh Government on a number of aspects of their education policy.
Two which strike a particular chord for me are the requirement to offer 30 subjects to sixth formers, and the impact of the measure on Welsh language secondary education, particularly at sixth form level.  They are both issues on which I posted a number of times previously during the term of the One Wales Government; and they are both issues which I argued at the time that Government had got badly wrong.
The unpopular proposals for secondary education reorganisation in Carmarthenshire (and elsewhere) were a direct result of the requirement to offer 30 subjects; a number which has always seemed to me to have been arbitrarily plucked from the air.  And that in turn – or rather the reorganisation which it provoked – had a direct negative impact on the availability of Welsh medium education (as opposed to Welsh-medium teaching). 
The result was that a government which seemed in principle, through the historic Welsh language measure, to be promoting the language was in practice, through its education policy, undermining it in its heartland.
There is, though, still time.  It the Government accepts the report of the committee and reverses some of the advice it has been giving to education authorities in Wales, then some of the damage can be prevented, even now.  Will it have the courage to do so?

Thursday 10 May 2012

Missing the point

A week or so ago, I posted on the question of subsidies for different types of energy generation.  The issue arose again earlier this week.
The protesters against wind power are right to say that the wind industry is receiving significant subsidies through energy bills, and that, without those subsidies, the industry would not be viable.  It does, though, ignore the point that other types of generating capacity are able to externalise the costs of dealing with the pollution they cause – effectively passing it on to the taxpayer.  So the comparison is not an accurate one; subsidies are still subsidies even if they look like taxes.
There were two other elements in this week’s report which interested me more.
The first was that every Megawatt of installed capacity generates around £700,000, but that only £100,000 of that stays in the local economy.  And the second was that more than half of the construction spend goes abroad.  Since this is a UK study, ‘abroad’ means ‘out of the UK’; my guess is that figures looking solely at Wales would reveal an even more alarming gap.  These are damning statistics, and underline the way in which we are not receiving our fair share of the rewards for the energy being produced here.
I remain as convinced as ever that we have to exploit renewable resources in Wales.  But the real battle is to make sure that we gain the benefit of that exploitation.  All the attention is going on the first question – to exploit or not; but we should really be paying more attention to the second – who benefits.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

More than spin needed

In Saturday’s Western Mail, Matt Withers turned his attention to the perennial question of changes to the delivery of hospital services in Wales, and raised some key points.  It’s a thorny issue, and it’s difficult to get to the right answer.
Politically, any attempt to remove services from local hospitals will be painted as centralisation, and is certain to stir local protests.  But, as Matt points out, there are serious concerns that the current situation is actually unsafe in certain respects, and that isn’t really a political issue.
It often looks as though the professionals themselves are split on the issue; whilst some express their fears about centralisation, others equally sincerely express their concerns about patient safety.
As far as I’m aware, no-one is suggesting that all hospitals in Wales should have a team of qualified brain surgeons on hand.  The annual number of cases simply does not require that level of provision.  Generalising from that, it is clear that there is, therefore, a willingness to accept that certain specialised types of care are best provided in a smaller number of hospitals which have the expertise and the facilities to cope with them.
Again, as far as I’m aware, no one is really suggesting that district hospitals in Wales should cease providing a good level of general surgery and medicine covering most of the illnesses which affect significant numbers of the population.
The problem is in drawing the line between the two.  Whilst we all want to be treated as locally as possible, how many of would really prefer to be treated by a team who’d never seen a case like ours, instead of by an experienced team which dealt with a number of cases each year, just in order to be more local?  Give me the expertise any day.  And that question is what should be at the root of the government’s case for change.
To read some of what the professionals and politicians are saying, the failure of the government to convince us that they’re drawing the line in the right place is a ‘presentational’ problem; all they need to do is find a better way to put their case and we’ll all be convinced.  (Or even, as the WM article suggested, simply find the right time between elections where they won’t suffer too much political grief as a result.).  I think they’re deluding themselves.
Against a background of previous attempts to centralise services, in what generally looked as proposals more motivated by financial considerations than by health care considerations, it should be no surprise to anyone that there is a good deal of suspicion about any proposals emanating from the government.  There have been previous proposals which were about centralising whole services rather than just the most complicated and unusual of cases, and it often appears as though those proposals are simply being recycled under a different banner.  They’ll need more than good PR to shift that perception.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Gluttons for punishment

Cameron’s response to the local elections was to issue a statement saying that he has got the message, “loud and clear” from the electorate.  I’m not sure that the message was that clear; but I’m certain that, whatever it was, he hasn’t got it. 
It’s not often that I agree with Eric Pickles, but his statement that Labour were going to win hundreds of local council seats across the UK just by turning up looked close to the mark to me.  It really didn’t matter a great deal what message Labour used on the doorstep, that part of the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that people have switched from Tory to Labour in any great numbers though – it’s more likely to be an effect of differential abstention.  However, back to the Tory reaction.
I’m trying to imagine the scene in Central Office as the team pored over the results and analysed what had happened.  It seems to me inescapable that they would rapidly have come to one clear conclusion, which is that people, by and large, don’t like their programme of cuts and austerity.  It’s hard to see how they could avoid that conclusion.
It’s what happened next that I’m struggling with.  Did some bright spark at the back really come up with the brilliant notion that “we should forget all the things that people didn’t really care much about, one way or the other, and concentrate all our efforts going forward on doing more of the one thing that really deterred people from voting for us?”.
And did all the rest of them really say, “what a brilliant idea, we’ll do it?”.  It seems that they’re not so much out of touch with reality as living in an alternative one.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

When is a manifesto not a manifesto?

Last week’s issue of the Carmarthen Journal did its best to tackle the thorny issue of how to treat all candidates fairly when so many of them are standing as ‘Independents’.  It’s easy to get a statement from each of the other political parties; they all admit to being a group standing on a common platform.  It’s not so easy when dealing with people who claim to be ‘independent’.  The paper couldn’t really give equal space to 70 or more candidates.
However, the Independent Group’s co-ordinator has come to the rescue by providing a statement on behalf of all the members of the group.  In it, she sets out a number of commitments which the group is making to the electors; sounds a bit like a manifesto of sorts, albeit a very short one.
In the same issue of the paper, the current council leader also sets out her group’s ‘vision’ for the council, but is quoted as saying that the group “cannot produce a manifesto as they are independents, but the group had discussed their priorities”.  Hence the question in the headline.
Does a list of promises and collective views on the future, even a very short list, really only become a manifesto when it is written down and published in a document with ‘manifesto’ written in large letters on the front cover?  I think not.  But then I also don’t believe that a group of politicians seeking election on a joint platform and forming a group once elected to promote that platform only becomes a party when it registers as such.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Price not the only factor

One of the frequent criticisms of the wind farm industry has been that the turbines would not be built were it not for the subsidies – and the concomitant that those subsidies directly increase the price of electricity to the end-consumer because they are passed on through electricity bills.  As far as they go, such criticisms are valid, but they only tell part of the story.
The Government says that any new nuclear stations will be built without a penny of government subsidy, but that isn’t really true.  Without the government effectively underwriting the unknown costs of ultimate decommissioning and waste disposal, there will be no new nuclear power stations built.  Such costs are unknown, in the future, and paid for through taxation rather than through electricity bills, but subsidy it is, neverthless.
The Government pays no direct subsidy to coal-fired power stations, but the environmental costs associated with coal ultimately fall again on the taxpayers.  Perhaps ‘clean coal’ will overcome such problems; but I somehow doubt it.  As this report said last week, current best figures suggest that carbon capture and storage will only be viable with long term government support – a subsidy by any other name.
The overall picture is not that renewables receive subsidies, of one sort or another, whilst fossil-fuel stations do not; it is that the subsidies are paid in different ways.  Whilst we pay the renewables subsidy through our electricity bills, we pay subsidies for other sources of energy through our taxes.  And that makes it very difficult to compare prices directly in the way that opponents of wind try to do.  All we can really say is that the ‘renewables surcharge’ which affects our bills is more immediately visible than other forms of subsidy.
However, even if it does work out, when all the sums are properly done and all sources of electricity treated on an even-handed basis, does it matter if renewables were to come out more expensive than other sources?  To those struggling to pay their energy bills, price is certainly a major and immediate issue, but the fact then clean energy is more expensive than dirty energy shouldn’t be a reason for choosing the dirty option.  Fuel poverty is, and should be treated as, a separate issue from the question of energy generation policy.
The challenge is not to respond to any price differential by choosing the cheapest option, but how we make sure that we act collectively to use the cleaner option.  It’s another instance where driving policy on the basis of competition rather than co-operation leads to bad decisions.