Saturday, December 05, 2009

Dinas Powys Autumn Fayre

Went to a well-attended Dinas Powys Autumn Fayre last night where various stalls wrapped their way around the Square.

The Plaid stand, manned at various points by almost all of our 13 councillors in the village, was very busy with locals popping by for a cup of homemade soup and a chat.

It was nice, as always to meet new people, and to support some important local community causes, such as Vale Plus, Dinas Powys Cylch Meithrin and the Keep Bryneithin Open campaign (of which more on the latest when I get more time).

Will be down Barry High Street this afternoon for the big Christmas light switch-on down there!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hain and the Barnett Formula

Discussion of Peter Hain’s statement on the Barnett Formula on Thursday has generally been confused due to a distinct lack of clarity from Hain himself.

It is clear that briefings given to both the Welsh lobby and to Welsh MPs and peers in London suggested that they would be introducing a ‘floor’ to the Formula so that Wales wouldn’t be worse off. This floor, of Welsh spend being approximately 114% of England, was suggested in the Holtham Commission report as an interim measure.

Initial reports on the statement were therefore very positive, until people read the statement itself and realised that there was no such commitment given in the text, only that at the time of Comprehensive Spending Reviews the Welsh position would be assessed and action taken if Wales was found to be ‘disproportionately disadvantaged’ (whatever that means).

As a mechanism already exists for querying departmental expenditure limits but has never been used, it seems that the statement is effectively one of ‘no change’.

But convergence, the method by which expenditure per head between the UK countries should eventually level, is just one of the issues of the Barnett Formula.

It has, of course, already taken place, with the proportionate increase per head of spending in Wales far less under Labour in the last decade than in England or Scotland.

But what about the abstract notion of comparability which is central to the Barnett Formula?

The formula for variation in the block grant is increase/decrease in England spend x comparability x population.

Government investment in the Olympics are a UK spend which means no comparability for Wales = no money while billions are poured in to East London.

Comparability therefore is a very big issue.

Or what about the whole concept of spending in Wales being dependant upon public spending positions defined by the UK Government and their promises on specific departmental budgets?

When people complain about Welsh and Scottish MPs voting on English issues they often forget that increasing spending on education and health in England will mean more money for the Welsh and Scottish Governments – hardly a recipe for sensible discussion.

If the English NHS decides to save money then the Welsh Government has to make savings too, irrespective of need.

As the reports this year have made clear, the Barnett Formula is fatally flawed and needs to be replaced with a system that better reflects the needs of Wales.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gavin and Stacey are back!

So, only a couple of hours to go before the new series of Gavin and Stacey begins!

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a quick round-up)

I'm sure that anyone reading this will know that Gavin and Stacey is both filmed and set in the Vale of Glamorgan, with local landmarks forever being used as a backdrop.

I think that everyone in Barry has that little touch of pride when they see Barry Island or Trinity Hill in the series, and the series has done more than its fairshare in putting Barry on the map for this generation, in the same way as the Docks, the Island and the football club has done in the past

Personally, every time I see one of those buses on Trinity Hill I remember when I used to do a paper-round there where Stacey’s family lives, so I can imagine what they must feel like walking up there on the way home after a pint and a meal on High Street or Broad Street. It’s exhausting!

Aside from that fuzzy feeling of seeing 'home' on the tv, Gavin and Stacey has been great publicity for Barry, but we must get something from it – whether through tourism or changing the psyche of the town and making Barry a real success story.

The series has shown us Barry’s warm heart – the real Barry that we all know and love.

We have to turn that sense of community in our town into something productive – we’ll all enjoy the lights going on in King Square on Saturday and down the High Street the week after, and I’m willing to bet that there’ll be thousands using the Winter Wonderland rink down Barry Island when it opens next week, but we also have to make sure that we build a better Barry for our kids and for us to grow old in.

Monday, November 23, 2009


One of our ongoing campaigns in the Vale of Glamorgan is to ensure that local residents, or at least community councillors and representatives of groups, should be allowed to speak at Vale County Council planning meetings.

16 of the 22 unitary authorities allow some form of representation so that local people are able to clearly put forward their opinions on planning proposals so that they can be taken into consideration by the planning committee. Not the Vale, though.

The issue has come to a head after a series of contentious planning proposals in the area, from Cemetery Lane to St Athan where frustrated members of the public felt that their voices were not being heard or treated fairly by the committee.

The Vale’s Tory cabinet has already thrown out the proposal once, while the council’s community liaison meeting last month descended into farce as the Vale councillors on the committee voted to accept the cabinet report on the matter while community councillors wanted to refer the issue back to cabinet.

The Vale’s attitude towards this has been so poor that a number of councils are actively considering leaving the Vale’s council charter which governs rules and responsibilities between the unitary authority and the community councils beneath them.

The campaign takes a different turn tomorrow (Tuesday) as the Welsh Assembly’s Petitions Committee responds to a petition signed on-line and off-line by many community councillors in the Vale, and from further afield.

Organised by Plaid’s leaders on the Vale, Nic Hodges, and on Barry Town community council, Shirley Hodges, it will be an interesting test of the Assembly’s petitions committee (which includes a Conservative AM from the Vale of Glamorgan) to see how they deal with the issue.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bryneithin Decision Today

While other events today such as the Queen’s Speech and the release of the All-Wales Convention Report on the need for a referendum might be the big issue of the day for many, my thoughts will be elsewhere this afternoon as the Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan Council take the chance to bury bad news and close Bryneithin care home in Dinas Powys.

The Tory Cabinet will be taking the decision today, presuming they follow the recommendations provided to them in their papers.

If they do, it’s not a decision that would be in any way a surprise – many in the Keep Bryneithin Open campaign think that the whole care home review exercise was concocted with the intention of closing the home in the first place.

If the Conservatives do close the home, they will have ignored the extensive evidence provided in favour of keeping Bryneithin open at the scrutiny meeting back in February and that which was provided in the consultation which ended in March.

They will also have gone back on earlier promises that the issue would be debated first in the social care and health scrutiny committee.

As it is, the Conservatives, who use their majority to take every position on the cabinet, will be making the decision themselves without the input of other parties.

A sad day for the Vale if this happens.

Update : Pleased to hear that the Vale Cabinet have postponed making a decision for two weeks. Hopefully that'll give them time to read the document properly and ask the same questions that Keep Bryneithin Open and others have already put forward.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bringing Gareth Jones Home

Last week saw the launch of a new display at Cambridge's Wren Library of the diaries of Gareth Jones, a Barry-born journalist with an international reputation.

He was the son of Major Edgar Jones, the headmaster at Barry County Grammar School, and was a highly-regarded international affairs journalist who worked for David Lloyd-George amongst others.

Gareth is best remembered in the Ukraine as being the only Western journalist to visit the country during the Holodomor in 1932-33, a deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian population by Stalin, and where Gareth has been posthumously honoured, but interviewed Goebbels amongst others.

He was killed under suspicious circumstances by Mongolian bandits in 1935, still aged only 29.

It seems a shame to me that the story of Gareth Jones isn't better known in Wales, especially as it is intertwined with another Welsh urban myth - the Welsh colony at Hughesovka, now Donetsk, in the Ukraine, but especially that it's not better known in Barry itself.

Now that we have an excellent exhibition space in the heart of Barry at the new library, wouldn't it be great to see an exhibition of Gareth's work and its international importance in his hometown - and then in the new town museum, when we finally persuade the authorities that it's necessary!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Barry Waterfront Plans

The plans for Barry Waterfront were considered by Barry Town Council earlier this week - including plans for around 2,000 housing units.

Recommendations passed by the Town Council included a return to the 30% affordable housing threshold that was removed by the Vale Council a few weeks ago – and which surely makes far more sense regarding housing than the ‘up to 30%’ that was put in its place.

After all, if there is a ‘need’ for housing, then surely that need is greatest amongst people who can’t afford their own place under market circumstances.

The Plaid group on the council managed to push through a change in definition of the new connection with the island, changing it from a ‘street’ to a ‘road’, a subtle change reflecting the need for the road to the Island to be a direct route from Ffordd y Mileniwm, for use by people in Barry and beyond to reach the Island and relieve the Summertime stress on the causeway, and not just a residential area.

Other points made by the Plaid group included the fact that the East Quay is close to an industrial zone and that a light industrial area might be a better proposition than flats, and, of course, the sad fact that the whole development is based around a supermarket and a whole load of commuter housing rather than the facilities – a cinema, museum or all year round family activities – that Barry needs to re-establish itself as a viable tourist location, and was surely the point of the Waterfront re-development in Barry.

As seems to be the norm these days, the Conservatives on the Town Council were non-commital about their party’s development policy for Barry – meaning that we have to wait, once more, until the Vale’s planning committee meet to know what members of the Vale council's majority group are going to say or do.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

No Local Voices on St Athan

I was disappointed at hearing the quality of debate in the Vale of Glamorgan’s Planning Committee recent approval of the plans for St Athan’s Defence Training College.

Just two councillors spoke on the plans, Llantwit First councillor Gwyn John and Plaid Cymru’s Nic Hodges.

Whatever your thoughts on the concept of the Defence Training College, there are a large number of outstanding issues in the planning applications that will impact negatively upon current local residents in St Athan, Llanmaes, Eglwys Brewis and surrounding areas.

They have very legitimate concerns regarding, for example, the northern access road, the proposed firing range and the fact that, with a brand new village being built on a Green-field site in the rural Vale, there will be barely any green space left between St Athan, Eglwys Brewis and Llantwit Major.

And that’s ignoring possible other effects upon other parts of the Vale, such as congestion in the Cowbridge area or going through Llysworney.

It is a shame therefore that with the county councillor for St Athan, a Conservative, claiming a conflict of interest in the debate, there was no-one to actually represent local residents in the debate.

Those people should be able to hear their voices represented properly in the council chamber when it comes to debates such as this, and the councillors who vote should set out their reasons for doing so in front of the general public.

As it is, those attending will have been disappointed that the council effectively rubber-stamped the plans without discussing them in detail, in public.

In one respect, this shows the failure of one member wards at a council level – one conflict of interest and there’s no-one there.

To avoid this in future, we’re calling for the Vale of Glamorgan to allow local councillors and residents to be allowed to speak in planning meetings - so-called ‘third party representation’ - something they recently refused.

More than two-thirds of unitary authorities in Wales allow community councillors or those who are affected by the planning decision to speak at the meeting and give their opinions to the planning committee.

By not allowing this in the Vale, the council are creating a democratic deficit and leaving people shut out of a decision making process which impacts upon them on a personal and everyday level.

Local people should be heard in the council chamber, not just have their names read on a petition.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harman International

I was disappointed to hear over the weekend of the proposed closure of the Harman International factory in Bridgend, who make and fit car audio systems.

Due to various forms of inward investment, some thanks to the border between Bridgend and the Vale also being the limit for European funding advantages (the old Objective One/Contingency funding etc.), there are a large number of factories or technical jobs in Bridgend (and in Rhondda Cynon Taff as well) that impact upon residents in the Vale, but that we couldn’t take advantage of to locate them in the Vale itself.

Although pre-dating the current European funding system, Harman International is one of those products of inward investment schemes, and, although they are being fair in providing such a lengthy notice period and giving the Assembly Government time to stimulate new job opportunities for those affected if they do continue with the closure programme, it is a disappointing turn of events – especially as the company has only recently won new contracts with top car manufacturers such as BMW.

I hope that the Assembly will be able to convince Harman International to re-think their decision and keep the plant open, and, if not, provide as much support to the workers as possible through the ProAct and ReAct schemes in the coming months.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Joy of the J-Lo-Mos

A few months ago, Plaid Cymru argued with the Welsh media that the UK Government’s bail out plans were fashioned to support London and the south-east of England by helping the financial sector but being agnostic about support for the industrial and manufacturing sector in Wales and the midlands and north of England.

In the good times, London wins. In the bad times, London wins.

Last Thursday’s rather smug Evening Standard article, detailing the rise of J Lo-Mos (Job, Low Tracker Mortgage) irritated me immensely as it reminded me that while the effects and fallout of the recession are still ongoing, there are many others for whom it is something that has happened only on the news.

Just to quickly explain.

In writing a blank cheque with few safeguards to the banks, the Labour UK Government propped up the financial sector and jobs in London.

Meanwhile, with the Bank of England interest rate going down, tracker mortgages were also lowered, leaving a little extra money in the pocket if you were on such a scheme. Or an awful lot more money if you live in the south-east of England where the several point difference can amount to hundreds or even thousands of pounds per month less spent on your mortgage, helping to maintain consumer consumption and provide a jobs boost in the local economy.

I’m not denying that there aren’t people in London and the south-east who haven’t suffered because of the recession, but it’s clear that the pain hasn’t been felt equally across the UK.

World War II Exhibition

I had the pleasure on Saturday of visiting Dr Jonathan Hicks’ Barry and World War II exhibition in the Arts Central space at the Town Hall.

It was a detailed, poignant and, 60 years after the beginning of the war, timely exhibition about the effects of war upon ordinary people – and the suffering that comes as a result of decisions made by others far away.

By telling the stories of individuals and families, of those who died in war, and those who survived, the exhibition brought the events of 1939 to 1945 to a human level for those too young to remember it, especially as the familiar streets and surnames jump out at you.

The exhibition was also interesting on a local history level, with hand-drawn maps of where the bombs fell near Merthyr Dyfan, across what is now Lundy Park towards Caradoc Avenue, and eye-witness accounts of the effects of bombing raids on Barry residents, and a Luftwaffe aerial photograph of Barry Docks.

The free booklets from the Friends of Merthyr Dyfan Cemetery, published by Cllr Nic Hodges, showing the graves and providing more background stories of those from Barry who passed away while on duty also made for interesting reading.

Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to convince the powers that be to create a permanent exhibition space for the history of Barry as part of the Waterfront development.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting better?

Park Crescent, the row of around 30 shops between Romilly schools and All Saints Church in Barry's west end, is an area that was clearly suffering the effects of the recession when I was last there, with a worryingly high vacancy rate for what is a well regarded area.

It seems things are getting better though - when I walked down the street yesterday I saw that two new businesses had opened in the last few weeks and that another three previously vacant shops were being fitted out, with new people taking over.

Lots of stuff about swallows and Summers, especially as we go into Autumn and fears of a 'double-dip' recession, but it's nice to see the area getting back onto its feet - so good luck to the new local businesses there.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Conferences and Something For The Weekend

September is conference season, so what with preparing, delivering and recovering from different conferences, that’s been my month so far!

A fortnight ago we had the highly successful Plaid Cymru conference in Llandudno. I spoke on the motion about St Athan, where I represented the concerns of residents from nearby areas such as Llanmaes, Millands Park and St Athan itself to Plaid’s delegates from throughout Wales.

The planning permission for the Defence Training College itself will be debated tonight at the Vale of Glamorgan’s planning committee.

Then last week I attended a Mercator-sponsored conference on minority languages at the Frisian Academy in Friesland (the north-west part of the Netherlands).

At the conference, I gave two different papers at the conference – one regarding Welsh in Argentina as a ‘regional minority language’ in South America and the other about the development of Welsh language music during the 1990s and lessons that can be learnt regarding promotion of minority languages outside the classroom.

While there, I also had the opportunity to meet with members of the Frisian National Party at Friesland’s Provinsehus, such as Sybren Posthumus (see his blog in Frisian), and speak to the province’s head of culture about plans to transfer powers for Frisian language and cultural promotion from the current centralised position in the Dutch capital, Den Haag, in a situation that loosely mirrors our own.

Good luck to them with it.

My third and final conference for the month comes in the form of the European Free Alliance’s think-tank, Centre Maurits Coppetiers, which is holding its General Assembly in Cardiff tomorrow afternoon (Friday).

The CMC will be determining its priorities for the next year in the Friday meeting, but this will be followed by a morning session on Saturday hosted by the Welsh Nationalist Study Group, the Welsh arm of the CMC, where interesting presentations will include policy discussions on international affairs and the recent success of regionalist parties across Europe.

But let no-one accuse me of letting work getting in the way of supporting cultural events in Barry!

With Barry Town officially back on the market, Friday night sees them at home at Jenner Park (7:45pm) against old rivals Afan Lido in Welsh League 1.

Later that night, rock, indie and electro night, Trash Camp, has its second outing at the Savoy at the top end of Broad Street. Last month’s opening night was at capacity before the local pubs had closed for the night, so best get there early!

Now the only unbeaten team in South Wales Senior 2, Cadoxton Barry travel to Nelson Cavaliers for a 2pm kick-off on Saturday while the reserves play the Castle at Wenvoe.

The big match in the Vale Premier though is between the top two sides, with Master Mariner facing the 100% record Cardiff Airport at the Sporty in the Colcot.

Or there’s always a PACT meeting on Barry Island at 3pm (in the Community Centre just up the hill from where Island Marine play Park Vets in Division 2 – does ex-Barry Town manager Paul Giles still play for the Vets?).

If anyone wants to join me later on that night, I’m then going for a curry at the Shahi Noor on High Street on Saturday evening, with a whole row of events taking place afterwards – Matt Blumberg is playing live at Scarlets on Broad Street, Cakehole Presley are at the Borough Arms, while all weekend long there’s going to be the All Wales Beer and Cider Festival at the West End club on St Nicholas Road, sure to include local favourites from the Vale of Glamorgan Brewery and from breweries further afield such as Miws Piws from Porthmadog.

If you see me around, say hi, if not, have a good weekend!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Vale Council finally end leisure centre sunbeds

I was glad to hear that the Vale Council has decided to end the use of sunbeds in the council’s leisure centres. They are the last council in South Wales to make that decision – not exactly a badge of honour.

I have to agree with British Medical Association Cymru Wales who make the point that leisure centres are considered places of health and wellbeing and that including sunbeds there sent mixed messages about the effects of exposure to UV rays.

Hopefully the remaining two councils in Wales - Flintshire and Wrexham will soon also change their position.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Barry Town Action Plan Response

The consultation plan on the draft Barry Town Action Plan finished recently, and I was glad to once again be able offer feedback on ideas put forward by the Barry Town Survey Steering Group.

The intention of the survey was to get the opinions from as many people in Barry as possible about their hopes for the future of the town, and with several thousand different responses received from adults and children when the survey was conducted in 2007, the steering group did a good job in getting responses down on paper.

Those responses were recorded and then recently released as a ‘draft action plan’ made up of a series of different categories and put out to consultation before the final report is laid.

In my response (edited for space in the Echo report), I welcomed the draft action plan and the hard work put in by the steering group, a mixture of volunteers from the community and town councillors, and agreed with many of the recommendations that they made.

However, I made two further suggestions to the group, whom I first met back in July 2007 when I was lecturing in quantitative and qualitative methodology at Cardiff University.

The first is to take into consideration the different economic situation in which we find ourselves now in 2009 compared to when the responses were received back in 2007.

This could perhaps be solved through a short meeting with local residents who can quickly identify the changes in needs since the survey was drafted, e.g. the effect of the loss of the cinema and impact of the recession, or, alternatively, the announcement of improved public transport for the Vale and the completion of work on the town centre.

The second was then a meeting with stakeholders in various parts of society, e.g. representatives of the voluntary sector, the business sector etc., who can help identify the areas where progress can be made or have the greatest short-term and long-term impact, and ensure that the action plan doesn’t just become a ‘wish list’.

This would make the final action plan more relevant to 2009/2010 as well as making it clear how progress can be made and how it can be defined.

Such a substantial body of work shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste, so any way in which we can ensure that the ideas of the action plan are put into place need to be followed up.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Barry Island Pleasure Park

The fairground on Barry Island is, apart from the glorious sandy beach, the biggest asset as a tourist attraction that Barry has.

However, the fairground as we know it is under threat.

Since being founded at the end of July, the save Barry Island Pleasure Park Facebook site has gained more than 16,000 members claiming that it will be closing at the end of the Summer.

I’m not sure of the exact truth of that – such rumours have surfaced on a regular basis over the years, but there is a planning application for a mixed development on the site, including a 25-storey high-rise apartment block.

Speaking to Barry-based journalists earlier this week, they tell me that the fairground owner says that the pleasure park in its current state is economically unsustainable. Perhaps that’s true.

But, equally, with similar housing projects being abandoned due to an obvious saturation of the market with one and two bedroom apartments, how is it that a very large empty eyesore casting a shadow across the Island will be any better – either for the owner or for Barry?

Tourism in Barry must meet the needs of the modern tourist. With the old Butlins/Majestic camp gone, Barry Island is an outdoor location with little to offer if the weather turns sour – great on balmy Summer days, miserable on wet weekends.

There is a need for development, but, like so much of Barry, the area sadly lacks an economic action plan that should link future developments on the Island with what is planned on the Waterfront.

The Vale Council should work quickly to bring together stakeholders on the Island – the fairground owners, other local businesses, Barry residents groups, Welsh tourism authorities, outside developers and financiers – so that we can build a Barry Island for the future, bringing people to the town all year round.

Thousands of people on Facebook have shown their nostalgia for the Barry Island that was, but together we need to build the Barry Island that will be.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Immigration policy - for whose benefit?

They do play just outside the Vale, but I thought it was worth mentioning the plight of the Celtic Crusaders, whose torrid first season in the Super League was made worse last week by having six of their players deported, including captain Jace van Dijk and top scorer Tony Duggan, allegedly after playing on holiday visas rather than working visas two years ago.

The players, who, to be fair, were given until the end of the season to remain, have had their contracts cancelled by the Crusaders, and will leave the country immediately. They will then be banned from entering the UK for ten years, pending their appeals, of course.

While I have no doubt that UK Border Agency has acted correctly in this instance in enforcing the regulations, I believe that we need a review of what our immigration law is intended to do.

In recent months, we have seen girls from Patagonia prevented from entering Wales to learn Welsh, a married couple prevented from living in the UK because of her age under the Enforced Marriages Act and now the spine of a top flight rugby league team – and the only professional rugby league team in Wales – being deported, all by a faceless organisation that makes its own judgements.

Exactly in whose interests are these rules and in whose interests are they being enforced?

A large amount of migration (and as someone who has happily moved and lived in other countries, I have also been a migrant) is beneficial – for the individuals involved and for the countries in which they live.

The narrative in our newspapers has for too long told people that all immigration is bad and this has pushed people into the hands of right-wing anti-immigration parties such as UKIP and BNP.

The strange thing is that I suspect that most voters of either of those parties would support the rights of all three examples above to be here in Wales and participate in our daily cultural and sporting lives.

We, in Wales, the UK and Europe as a whole need a more dispassionate analysis of immigration and emigration and its costs and benefits, rather than ramped up right wing hype.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rigging polls

There’s been plenty of comment about Paul Flynn’s claim that Plaid Cymru bloggers rigged the Total Politics ‘best Welsh blogs’ poll, where six of the top ten were Plaid.

As Menaiblog points out, I only wish someone had told me beforehand.

A different type of poll is under question in this week’s Glamorgan Gem, though.

The Gem suspended their online poll about whether or not the Labour Party in the Vale of Glamorgan should have an all-women shortlist for their general election candidate, citing voting irregularities when the results changed massively after they published their initial findings.

As a former tutor in social science methodology, I’m not sure that anyone should take too much notice of open access online polls, as even at best they can only ever be indicative rather than being truly representative.

But, if the Gem are right, then that looks rather more like someone trying to rig a ballot than the easier to explain results from the Total Politics poll.

Reviewing the weekend

Friday’s Trash Camp was a good night out at the Savoy, with a large turn-out and some good tunes to get people dancing. Their Facebook site has the photos. The next night is on Friday, 25th September.

Unfortunately my attempts to do some extra-curricular research at Cardiff University on Saturday morning were hampered by ‘unexpected electrical work’ at the Arts and Social Scienes Library, so I instead found myself at Roath Farmers Market nearby, where I overheard some chat about the success of last week’s Vale Show at Fonmon.

The afternoon was then spent watching the Linnets’ first match in the South Wales Senior League Division 2. It was a topsy-turvy match, going a goal down early on, but bouncing back well. Definitely worth it for the last ten minutes when we turned a 4-3 deficit into a 6-4 win. Cracking stuff.

Barry Town also had a game and a half as well, coming back from 2-0 down at home to Goytre United in the Welsh League to level the game in injury time at 2-2.

Linnets travel to Tongwynlais for a match tomorrow night while Town are at Jenner Park against Garden Village.

I didn’t get a chance to go down to the Sub Club on Saturday night, but made up for it on Sunday with a trip to the beautiful Ely Valley, only minutes from both Barry and Cardiff, visiting Peterston-super-Ely and Welsh St Donats amongst other parts of the rural Vale.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Last chance to have your say...

The deadline for the All Wales Convention on whether there should be a referendum on further powers for the Welsh Assembly (short answer: yes!) is today, August 21st.

So if you haven’t already made a submission, now is an ideal (in fact, the final) opportunity for you to do so.

Just follow the link below to register your opinion.

All Wales Convention

Confensiwn Cymru Gyfan

A weekend in Barry

It’s Friday, so the weekend is approaching fast.

I’m hoping to get to the launch of the new Trash Camp night at the Savoy tonight – Barry’s new home to all things rock, indie and electro. The facebook site and requests suggest a variable enough set of tuneage for all ages (£2 entry 18+).

I’m going in to Cardiff University tomorrow to do some research in the morning, then heading on out to Llanishen to watch Cadoxton/Barry start their season in the South Wales Senior League Division 2.

With the Vale league not kicking off until next week and Cardiff City playing on Sunday, why not take a trip to Jenner Park to watch Barry Town tomorrow? They’re at home to Goytre United. Garden Village are then visiting Jenner Park on Tuesday, both in Welsh League Division 1.

Then, fingers crossed, I’ll be back down the High Street to catch some live music from Blue Traffic who are in the Sub Club in the Borough (which is always busy on a Saturdays anyway). Facebook site says ‘no cover charge before 11’, but I’m not sure there’ll be a charge after that either!

Total Politics

Many thanks to whoever it was that voted me into 57th place in the Total Politics ‘top 60’ blogs in Wales.

I feel that I have to blog rather more often now, just to say thank you!

Congratulations are especially due to Guerrilla Welsh-Fare in topping the poll and to my two personal favourites on the Welsh blogosphere, Menaiblog and Syniadau, both of whom take a constructive independent Plaid/nationalist slant on issues rather than indulge in the more prosaic pastime of attacking others and becoming involved in party political ping-pong.

I have no idea of the sample used in the Total Politics for Welsh blogs, but Plaid’s success in having six of the top ten blogs is quite astounding.

Previously, people have talked about who ‘owns’ the internet in Wales, with various blogs cited as good practice, e.g. the Lib Dems’ clunkily titled Freedom Central or those of Conservatives’ Glyn Davies or Dylan Jones-Evans, but if the proof is in the voting then it seems that Plaid supporters have done their job well in not just having the blogs online, but having people read, appreciate and act upon them – and these are two very different things.

The task now is for Plaid bloggers to continue to write interesting material and ensure that we engage in wider debate with the public, rather than just with ourselves. That’s easier said than done, but it can be done.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Billion Pound Budget Cut

Peter Black was probably right when he urged caution about the Western Mail’s ‘billion pound budget cuts’ in yesterday’s paper, after Alistair Darling announced an intended £15bn cut in public spending.

The devil is in the detail, suggested Peter – no doubt upset that the Lib Dems new narrative of attacking Plaid already looks wooden and clunky.

Fortunately, in the name of open government, the Westminster government has released their ‘Operational Efficiency Programme: final report’ in time for the Budget so that we can analyse in detail those £15bn cuts in public spending.

Darling’s £15bn is best explained as:

• £4bn saved in back office operations
• £3.2bn in IT
• £6.1bn saved in extended collaborative procurement
• £1.5bn on the public sector property estate

The report also investigates asset management and sales, and local incentives and empowerment.

The detail, though, is highly uninformative for what interests Peter and myself – some vaguely wafted figures based upon case studies and examples.

Wales does play a walk-on role in the report, which notes on page 8 that “the devolved administrations...are free to use the findings and recommendations of the Operational Efficiency Programme to inform their progress on efficiency.”

Which is lucky as repeating the whole exercise for Wales or Scotland alone would surely otherwise have gone against ‘extended collaborative procurement’, no?

The most important facet of the report in the short term for Wales is probably the decision to ‘vest’ the Royal Mint into a company, i.e. set it up as a corporate organisation, with the presumable end-game of privatisation.

In that management double-speak that makes no real-world sense, the case study (on p48 of the report) explains how a previous ‘vesting’ in 2004 had been ended in 2006 because of the need to tackle the performance business, but now that the business’ performance had improved significantly, this could go ahead.

So, keep the Royal Mint in public ownership when not performing well, but sell to the private sector when making a profit for the taxpayer?

With that sort of thinking, is it any surprise we’re in the economic mess that we are?

A happier Welsh case study is used in the section on procurement.

Value Wales frameworks are used as an example of how Welsh public sector organisations are delivering better arrangements through economies of scale across the entire Welsh public sector.
Examples noted include savings of 39 per cent on IT equipment and services, 30-35 per cent on stationery and paper and around 26 per cent on computer consumables, including printer cartridges.

But that success brings the whole project back into stark reality.

As a journalist put it quizzically, when discussing the alternative Plaid People’s Budget yesterday morning, doesn’t it all come back to the Barnett Formula?

Well, yes. The Welsh budget will be affected by cuts or savings (call them what you will!) in the budgets for UK departments that have devolved sectors.

The Welsh budget will be affected, irrespective of whether we have already implemented these savings or whether these savings cannot be delivered in Wales because of different structures.

It’s like being told that your salary and living conditions are dependent upon a friend’s well-being. If he (or she) gets a rise then you get a rise, irrespective of whether or not you deserve one. If they have to take a pay cut then you have to make cutbacks, even if you’ve already made them.

He might cut back voluntarily as he has enough food for a nice meal. We still have to make the same cut back, even if we have a bare larder.

The savings suggested in the report are cross-cutting savings with no specific target (like, say, Trident or ID cards which I would scrap at a moment’s notice) which means that there will be no major announcements, but a lot of backroom organisation that will probably go un-noticed by the public at large, and possibly most politicians.

It is likely that many of these savings will come in devolved areas like health and education and that they will affect Wales very strongly – as we already are by the English NHS capital spending changes already announced.

But even if they're not, as these are public service efficiency savings rather than a culling of major projects such as Trident or ID cards, then Wales may find itself in a worse situation - as with the closure of around 50 DWP offices under the Gershon Review and the proposed closure of HMRC offices throughout West Wales and the Valleys.

What’s worrying is that, as with Value Wales, an example in the area where the biggest savings are suggested, if we’ve already taken the chaff out of the system, then where will we cut?

The Lib Dems don’t have to worry about these sort of decisions – Kirsty and Peter took the ‘gutless’ route out of government two years ago.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Before the Budget...

There is now a week to go until the Budget is announced and, as always around this time, we are starting to see an increase in ‘advice’ being offered to the Chancellor.

The two most interesting publications, in my opinion, are the recent releases by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which updates January’s Green Budget predictions, and by the Sustainable Development Corporation, who are hawking their ‘Green New Deal’.

The IFS publication is short and to the point. The UK is not in a healthy financial position. Labour wrote some golden rules about the public finances when they first took over the public purse. Back in November they ripped them up and started again.

In the PBR they made £37bn of cuts to public spending between now and 2013, compared to that which had been earmarked for spending in the March 2008 Budget.

At the same time, they wrote some new financial rules.

The IFS estimate that, taking into consideration the greater than expected drop in revenue, the UK government will need to a further £39bn of fiscal tightening by 2015-16 in order to reach their new targets.

The Conservatives will say that this is a result of the fiscal stimulus package announced back in November.

They’re wrong, of course. The IFS say that the change in the UK’s PSBR debt is largely due to a massive hole in the UK economy, leaving IFS director, Robert Chote, to question whether a fiscal stimulus is a necessity to haul the UK out of recession or unaffordable because of the current debt.

That, of course, is a question of politics, not economics.

I don’t think there’s any doubt which side of the argument you find the Sustainable Development Corporation.

They recommend a £30bn a year for three years green new deal for a fiscal stimulus package that would include:
* upgrading existing housing stock
* scaling up renewable energy supply
* redesigning the national grid
* promoting sustainable mobility
* low-carbon investments in the public sector
* skills for a low-carbon, sustainable economy.

The SDC estimate that this would create in the region of 800,000 jobs and that around 50% of the investments would generate significant financial returns within a couple of years.

Their argument is that the current UK ‘green stimulus’ is marginal at only 0.1% of GDP, as opposed to, say, the 3% of South Korea’s GDP that is being invested into stimulating growth, and, as a result, any advantages gained from the green stimulus would be quickly swamped by further ‘high-carbon’ development as the ‘normal’ market re-asserts itself.

SDC claim that the triple crunch of financial crisis, recession and climate change is an opportunity to be grasped, with the possibility for positive results for those who take advantage of the current climate to make a real difference.

There will undoubtedly be much more ‘advice’ offered to the Chancellor over the next week – and Plaid will be offering our own solutions to the current situation from a distinctive Welsh position. The question is which way will he jump – an austerity package with swingeing cuts to public services or a bonanza in an effort to turn the economy around?

Money's Wales

I spent last Saturday night in the company of Welsh radio presenter, Owen Money.

It wasn’t just me – there were probably 100 there for a Saturday night game of bingo, Owen’s stand-up set and him and his band, the Soul Sharks, playing some classics for those that like a little dance to end their evenings.

It was a great night. I have seen Owen Money live before, and his quick-fire wit and interaction with the audience is genuinely funny.

But what is it that makes Money tick?

Nikolas Coupland of Cardiff University has written several articles examining the use of style by Welsh DJ’s such as Frank Hennessy and Chris Needs, specifically noting how they react to, and interact with, their audiences, which are usually English speaking south Walians.

Coupland points to ways in which they create their own agreeable personalities through the imagery and reference points which they use and an accent that changes by topic – from news reports and serious issues when a near PR accent is employed to chit-chat in phone-ins when they use easily recognised south Walian accent variables to sound more like the listener.

What, then, is Owen Money’s Wales, and why does it both attract and repel?

Money’s Wales is a folksy Wales, an imagined nation in which we all recognise the stereotypes that he draws upon.

When he asks ‘so, who’s from the Valleys?’ and follows-up with ‘where’s your tracksuit?’ we know he’s pulling the joke from the folk perception of Valleys dwellers as ‘chavs’.

When a woman says that she’s from Cardiff, the band strike up ‘Butetown Girl’, and we all know he ain’t referring to Cardiff Bay’s brand new high rise flats.

Money’s humour comes directly from our shared experiences or, more often than not, imagined shared experiences.

It’s a very friendly Wales, a family Wales, one where everyone goes to school, to chapel, where everyone knows everyone’s business – one big, imagined Valleys community.

So why does it frustrate me so much?

It could be because I just don’t buy into Money’s Wales. I’m not satisfied with it. Despite the friendliness and warmth, there is an ingrained poverty, both in material terms and in improving oneself.

His Wales is insular – there is nothing outside the world he creates. Where south Wales has infinite variety, there is only one North Walian accent, England is somewhere only to be mentioned in a rugby joke and the ‘Ffrench’ and the ‘Jirmans’, if and when referenced, are utterly alien.

Mam is the absolute authority in Money’s Wales, giving advice or instructions. I’m not sure where fathers are, or where they should be – down the pit, in the pub, watching rugby.

Then there’s the committee, the bastion of Welsh life, a shadowy group of people who are responsible yet not really in charge, a self-satisfied bureaucracy. Everyone in the village knows who they are – they have a blazer.

Money’s Wales is simple and one-dimensional. It is a child’s view of the world. We are invited to join in with a picture postcard of Wales that fails to reflect the nuances of real adult life and the tough choices that are made.

It is a traditional and paternalistic description of Wales in which we are unable to decide for ourselves, in which we never explore the outside world and in which risks shouldn’t be taken.

It is a Wales which I reject because I believe in a Wales which is outward looking; that takes the strengths of those community traditions and marries them with external influences to improve our lives, and a Wales that does not accept what has been given to it, but fights to improve itself.

It’s the difference between looking to London for leadership and showing it yourself.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Moldovan Elections


Like Bethan Jenkins, I’m very interested in what’s been taking place in Moldova in recent days, having visited the country a year ago.

I visited Chisinau for Moldovan independence day and made day trips to Comrat, the capital of the Gaugaz area in the south of the country, and across the ‘border’ to Tiraspol and Bendery in the contested Trans-Dniestr area.

Sadly, Moldova is a country which too few people can place on a map, never mind have actually visited – despite having some of the friendliest and most helpful people that I’ve met.

As I write this, I read that the president, Voronin, has asked the Supreme Court for a recount of Sunday’s ballots. Hopefully this will lead to an end to the violence and protests that have flowered since last weekend. Not a good Easter week.

But the election in general has concerned me, not least the press release that the OSCE, the independent observers, sent out, claiming to be happy with the conduct of the elections.

Their actual report says that the elections met ‘many of the OSCE and Council of Europe commitments’ but points to a series of electoral concerns that would very probably have people like me protesting in Cardiff Bay if they were to take place on such a wide-scale here in Wales.

Amongst concerns noted were the different procedures in compiling voters lists – with discrepancies of around 160,000 voters; media bias by the main television channel in favour of the ruling Communist Party; over-production of ballots for voters abroad – three times the numbers for voters registered; in nearly 1 in 10 cases there were no verification of ballots between numbers who had attended and those counted, while three-quarters of polling booths did not include lists of candidates.

Beyond this, the OSCE admit that some allegations of intimidation, including by the police, and allegations of misuse of administrative resources were verified.

I fear that with so much potential for disagreement over the results, a simple recount of the ballots may not be enough to pacify those who believe that the results are not correct, or persuade outside observers that the election was as fair and open as it should be.

Plaid Cymru and Europe

A few months ahead of the European elections in June, I was fascinated to stumble across an article by well-known Welsh political commentator, Richard Wyn Jones, giving an overview of Plaid’s changing historical and theoretical relationships with ‘Europe’.

His article, published in the Nations and Nationalism journal earlier this year, identifies different positions adopted by Plaid since the party’s formation, regarding Europe and Plaid’s ‘confusion’ regarding the constitutional end-goal.

It’s an article that makes for very interesting reading as, by adopting any of the three positions, pre-European integration, during European integration and post-European integration, it becomes easier to understand the various perspectives that you might find in Plaid writings over the years.

Wyn Jones begins by taking Saunders Lewis’ position on Europe as being a pre-nation-state ideal where Wales, as an independent region in the middle ages, possessed its own ‘freedom’ to develop culturally, something which was only threatened by the creation of the nation-state in England with the Acts of Union.

In this way, ‘Wales’ was part of a broader European mosaic which owed its fealty to the Roman Church.

According to Wyn Jones, the second phase of Plaid’s relationship with Europe came under Gwynfor Evans, where Plaid’s position moved from the ‘pre-sovereignty’ position adopted by Lewis to a ‘post-sovereignty’ position .where the party looked forward to the end of the nation-state during a period of European integration.

Plaid initially opposed the EEC and European integration as being a centralising, capitalist influence on Europe, rather than the coalition of small countries for which Plaid hoped.

However, following both the 1979 Referendum and the Miners’ Strike, Plaid became enthusiastic about the whole project, believing in a Europe of the Historic Regions.

Since then, though, Wyn Jones believes that Plaid have become frustrated with the reality of participating in the European institutions.

He comments that the experiences, first on the Committee of the Regions and then in the Parliament itself, have led the party to conclude that, in the face of what have become powerful and accepted ‘banal European’ institutions, the Europe of the Regions is a pipe-dream.

This is therefore what has led Plaid, in the past few years to the party’s newly-discovered Westphalian nation-state position, i.e. independence.

The irony, of course, is that most people in Wales thought that independence had always been Plaid’s default position anyway!

From a personal position, my concern has always been for people first, constitutional positions second and I want the best deal for the people of Wales.

I believe that the institutions of the United Kingdom have left Wales in a poor economic situation, and believe that we would be best suited if we were to have greater control of our daily lives.

As far as the European dimension goes, Wyn Jones is right to point to the banal Europeanisation of the EU institutions – they do exist and we must work within them.

However, I do not think that this precludes the glocalisation that was central to the power-sharing of the Europe of the Regions – that some powers are transferred upwards because they refer to issues that go beyond one or two regions or states but affect us all, while others should be transferred downwards so that they are closer to the populations which they serve.

But if we want Wales to be represented as effectively as possible in Europe, then, given the different agendas of the unionist parties, we’ll only achieve that through a strong Plaid showing on June 4th and aiming high for a second seat in the European Parliament.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tamil Protest in London

I spent much of yesterday afternoon and this morning watching the Tamils protesting outside the Houses of Parliament.

Yesterday, I sat and watched as thousands of people gathered between Parliament Square and Westminster Bridge to protest against UK and international inaction of the situation in the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and thousands of innocent people killed in fighting in recent months according to the UN.

The mood of the protest was peaceful but showed their frustration with the international community, many waving Tamil Tigers flags or with slogans about the possible genocide taking place in north-east Sri Lanka.

I came to work this morning after hearing that the protests had been going on all night and that there were concerns that some of the protestors might jump into the Thames.

It was just as I arrived at Westminster Bridge this morning that the police came in to break up the protest, which had closed down the Bridge and Victoria Embankment overnight.

It was a painfully sad sight to watch families being broken up and peaceful protestors being dragged along the street and I spent around half an hour watching the police as they forced the protestors back along the street to Parliament Square, trying to comfort women and children who had lost their husbands or brothers in the crowd and helping those who had been injured (which seemed mercifully few) to get medical attention nearby.

As an internationalist party, we have been in regular contact with members of Tamil groups in the UK over the last few months, keeping me and the party up-to-date with what news is coming out from Sri Lanka, but today I just felt so horribly powerless as people gave me first hand testimony of how they'd lost contact with their families back home and begging me to help.

It was a humbling experience and a reminder of the role and responsibilities that the international community have to groups around the world - and the international community must act as one to prevent deaths of innocent people in Sri Lanka and to bring an end to the armed struggle there.

UPDATE: I've added some photos to my Facebook account for anyone interested.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Need for Supervision

I was walking through Holton Road earlier on today and was surprised to see a news cameraman filming outside one of the tanning stores near King Square.

It made a little more sense when I saw this story, about a 14 year old using a coin-operated sunbed with no supervision and suffering first degree burns.

The owner claims to have been working within the law, but it is certainly outside the spirit of the law to allow unrestricted and unsupervised access to such dangerous devices.

I certainly hope that both tanning salon owners and users pay attention to this case and make sure that everyone is aware of the risks, and that future regulations ensure that such usage cannot be unsupervised.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Freud-ian Slip?

The news that Sir David Freud is to join the Conservatives as shadow welfare minister may not cause shockwaves outside the political bubble, but as the man behind Labour’s current misguided plans for welfare reform, it is a hugely significant move.

The Welfare Reform Bill, which includes measures such as welfare-to-work, privatisation of job centre services and pushing single mothers into work when their youngest children turn seven, has been hugely controversial amongst those who will have to deal with the fall-out of these mistakes.

These have been generally accepted as a fait accompli because these market-oriented reforms have support from both the Labour government and the Conservatives, despite disquiet from the Labour left.

Any backbench rebellion has little chance of succeeding against the government loyalists and the Conservatives, but Freud’s move to the opposition benches will certainly give impetus to those who want to make significant changes to the Bill as it passes through.

It would be highly embarrassing for the Government to need to rely on Tory support for their reform changes when the Bill comes to report stage and third reading next month.

Carving up the Commission

Last Monday night saw the first day of the House of Commons’ third reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill, of which the major amendment of interest was one tabled by the SNP, Plaid and the SDLP.

The Bill proposes that the electoral commission should include four commissioners with recent experience of political campaigning, in order to ensure that the commission is up to speed with current events.

Naturally, this is based, not on a UK geographical basis, but upon parties’ representation at Westminster.

As such, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats will each be nominating a member of the commission with the unwritten expectation that the fourth and final commissioner will be nominated by the largest of the non-UK parties at Westminster, the Democratic Unionists.

The DUP have 9 seats at Westminster, compared with 7 for the SNP and 3 each for Plaid and the SDLP. The single UUP, Respect and UKIP representatives at Parliament don’t count as 2 members are required to become a ‘group’.

The SNP accused this of being a Westminster carve-up that failed to take into consideration that there are four governments in the UK featuring seven parties and that only two of these parties would be able to nominate a representative to the commission.

They noted further that there was no assurance that there would be anyone on the commission with an understanding of campaigning in the various types of Proportional Representation, of which there are different versions in operation in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London.

The perhaps typical response of Conservative spokesperson Eleanor Laing was to suggest that first past the post was the only fair way of carrying out an election.

A throwaway joke comment it may have been, but her failure to answer the criticism of the Westminster carve-up spoke volumes for the very real awareness that this is an undemocratic system that will require a visit once more during the next Parliament.

Proposed Closure of Bryneithin Old People's Home

I’m very worried by the proposed closure of the Bryneithin Old People’s Home for people suffering with dementia in Dinas Powys.

There were some very strong words said in support of keeping the home open at a special scrutiny meeting at the Vale of Glamorgan Council last week, but whether that will impact upon the ears of those in charge is another matter entirely.

More than a few people have accused the Conservative council of creating a sham consultation with a foregone conclusion.

I wouldn’t go that far, but the closure must be resisted and proper service maintained for the elderly and vulnerable in our community.

Hopefully the Conservatives will have a change of heart before any wrong decision is made – as Labour have done since they dropped their own proposals to close the centre in 1997.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Business Rate Supplements Bill

Borthlas wrote a rather timely post on Friday in which he drew attention to the unfairness of the Business Rate system of payments, suggesting that this might be a means of easing the pain on small and medium sized businesses suffering in the recession.

It’s a line that the Federation of Small Businesses weren’t in disagreement with, noting that Business Rates are the 3rd biggest bill faced by SMEs.

Today, though, sees the Government introduce a bill that gives the possibility of a supplement being introduced on business rates in order to finance local infrastructure improvements.

The Bill will allow local authorities to make a 2p in the rateable pound increase on business rates specifically for advertised local improvements. Depending on the circumstances, there would be a ballot of affected businesses as to whether the scheme would be implemented.

Even though I appreciate the need to be counter-cyclical (by the time the Bill becomes law we should hopefully, even with the current government in charge, be through the worst of the recession), surely after the pronouncements of the past few months the thought of paying even more tax in future is not one which is going to appeal to businesses fighting the looming prospect of bankruptcy.

For example, there is a participation threshold set at £50,000, but as rates are due to be re-valued in 2010, before anyone introduces a Business Rate Supplement (BRS) scheme, no-one know exactly which businesses are likely to be affected.

Similarly, there is a need for a ballot if the BRS is more than one-third of the contribution to a scheme. Surely this means that local authorities will seek to inflate the cost of schemes to avoid a ballot while claiming the same amount of money from businesses. This threshold is arbitrary and has no obvious justification.

There are further issues here regarding the issue of funding in Wales.

The Bill gives powers to local authorities to raise additional income for schemes of local value, but, once again, there are no powers to raise funds for the National Assembly, which is reliant upon the Barnett block grant for its funding and has no powers to increase its’ own income, even for an agreed project.

It must be worth consideration to give these powers to the National Assembly, under the same or similar criterion.

In fact, given the different attitudes to the economic crisis seen in London and Cardiff, between headless chickens in Downing Street throwing anything and everything to see if it sticks and the cool and calm response of Ieuan Wyn Jones as Economics Minister, it might even get the backing of the business community in Wales.

Similarly, as I’m sure Borthlas would argue, why not allow the Assembly the power to vary or suspend payment of business rates in Wales, thereby allowing them the opportunity to freeze them for a temporary period – possibly saving businesses and, therefore, valuable jobs?

Multilingualism, Trains and Train Companies

I recently visited Belgium, making the most of the fact that the Eurostar ticket was cheaper than a weekend return to Barry and that, unbelievably, the journey is shorter.

Unusually for London the signage at the new international station is bilingual in English and French, and when you get through customs there’s even the odd sign in Dutch as well.

On the train, announcements were made in English, French and Dutch, with onboard signage also in German.

How different from a First Great Western service between South Wales and London where everything from on-board announcements to safety instructions are in English, or in Braille upon request.

Contrary to popular myth, Belgium is not a bilingual country.

It is a country with three languages (Dutch, French and German), with two effectively monolingual areas (Flanders, where everything is in Dutch, and Wallonia, where everything is in French) and a nominally bilingual Brussels where many signs are bilingual in French and Dutch but, in the city centre at least, everyone spoke French to me as a first resort and English as a second, and only the odd menu hinted at ‘real-life’ Dutch use.

Nevertheless, almost all trains, platforms and announcements were made in both of the main languages, leaving no-one at a disadvantage, with staff able to communicate in rudimentary but effective terms in both of the national languages.

There are some people who think that language should be left to the market. “If there are enough Welsh speakers who care enough about the service then it would happen, wouldn’t it?” they sniff.

But where there is only one provider, or an effective monopoly, as in the case of the railway service then the market cannot dictate.

Arriva Trains Wales have made great strides on their bilingualism in recent years, with bilingual announcements and signage at Cardiff Central and Newport being especially worthy of praise, but the problem with creating a bilingual environment is that it also creates the expectation of opportunity of usage.

As most Welsh speakers in south Wales will tell you, after the first awkward embarrassing moment when you ask for a service in Welsh and then have to ‘apologise’ in English for expecting them to understand you, it becomes second nature to speak in English to people you don’t know in order to avoid the embarrassment and mis-understanding.

This creates the odd situation where everything on the station is in two languages, but all conversation between staff and customers is in English.

I’m not naive enough to expect or to try to force all railway staff to speak Welsh as if they stepped out of a university degree, but most customer interaction is simple enough (just think of how you order a beer or food with a non-English speaker when you're on holiday!) that a handful of phrases and some basic understanding would go a long way to creating a genuinely bilingual space.

After all, a realistically bilingual Wales is not one where everyone speaks both languages, but one in which most communication can be carried out in the language of your choice.

As for First Great Western, for my 60-odd quid return every few weeks I’d have thought they could invest in a tape that announces the station destinations and that the buffet is open.

Or should I just be grateful that there aren’t any leaves on the line?

UK Sovereign Debt & Bonds Auctions

The massive UK Government debt forecast by Brown and Darling in their recent budget and pre-budget reports is to be largely funded by the sale of UK bonds.

Essentially these are promises that the UK will pay back the money spent on buying the bonds, with an additional yield paid when the bond matures after a period of time, usually between 10 and 30 years.

Traditionally, sovereign debt, especially amongst mature economy developed world countries, has been considered some of the safest debt to own as it is very unlikely that a politically and economically stable country is going to default.

However, with so many countries now looking to fund their debt in this way, there is a possibility that not everyone will be able to sell their bonds at the price they wish.

The UK has already increased their yields in order to sell £2bn of bonds last week.

Worse still, an auction of German bonds, typically considered the most liquidable assets, on Wednesday saw the Germans sell only 87% of the bonds that were released, earning 5.2bn Euro instead of the 6bn they had been predicting.

With the UK looking to raise £146bn in this way this year alone, we must be prepared for the moment when the market decides that it doesn’t want ‘our’ debt, and government must ensure that the cash flow is in place so that we don’t have to cut 13% or more from budgets in a nightmare scenario.

Friday, January 09, 2009

13 new Lords in 2008

In today's Daily Post and on the BBC, Dafydd Wigley draws attention to the delay in himself, Eurfyl ap Gwilym and Janet Davies taking their seats in the House of Lords.

The reason given by the UK Cabinet Office is that Plaid, in electing and nominating potential members of the House of Lords, had not followed the correct procedure.

The correct procedure, of course, is to doff your cap and wait humbly for the Prime Minister to ask you to sit there.

Some might say that this is little more than could be expected from an arcane institution that has no place in modern politics and which is based on patronage of one form or another.

The problem is that the House of Lords, through the Constitutional Committee, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, Merits Committee, and the House itself all play a role in the passing of LCO's and, of course, all of the Government Bills that impact, often very strongly, on Wales.

Further than that, Jack Straw's White Paper on Constitutional Reform, published last Summer, kicked House of Lords reform into the long grass - asking parties to form a policy on the issue for the next UK election manifesto. In practice this means that the present situation will continue for some years yet, perhaps beyond the referendum on further powers for the Assembly.

In the meantime, the House of Lords just keeps on going.

Perhaps there's a good reason why Wigley, ap Gwilym and Davies have been not yet been invited? Maybe there's been no-one else nominated, or it's just an administrative oversight....

Or perhaps not - there have been 13 new Lords appointed since January 2008 (the date of the Plaid election), including a deputy chair of the Conservative Party, five independent members appointed by the House of Lords Appointment Commission, three Government ministers (including Mandelson, of course), three bishops and one Law Lord.

Jury Service and Language Rights

This week I received a summons for jury service in English only.

Jury service and juries are a crucial part of our civil justice system, but according to Golwg this week, a problem with the Courts Service computer programme Libra means that until September (!) summons will only be sent in English.

While Plaid have been calling for a system of bilingual juries to be formed (based on an amendment to the language criterion to the 1974 Juries Act) to allow trials to take place through the medium of Welsh, the Courts Service itself is breaking their Welsh Language Act of 1967 through failing to have due regard to the Welsh language.

As Welsh speakers are almost always fluently bilingual in both Welsh and English, the problems of institutional linguistic discrimination are almost always swept under the carpet ('they can all speak English anyway') - but it is a very serious issue that can lead to frustration, irritation and humiliation for those who are unable to use their preferred language in communication.

This is surely especially true when the organisation at fault is that which is in existence to ensure our rights as members of our society.

After gender bias, language is probably the bias which impacts upon most people in Wales (around 1 in 5) and it is in the interests of the 20% (and growing) of the population and also of those who are unable to speak Welsh that full language rights are given and, more importantly, implemented in a fair and just manner so that justice can be served, and be seen to be served.


I have to be honest, I never watched Gladiators when I was in my teens as I was usually too busy finding my way home from the football on a Saturday night.

In any case, I got more than my fair share of John (Awooga!) Fashanu when I had to work opposite him in his time as chairman of Barry Town.

But my interest was piqued by an interview in today's Metro (not the sort of place you expect promotion of Wales or Welshness) with Barri 'Goliath' Griffiths, the Gladiator from Porthmadog.

Apart from the fact that I can't believe anyone finds the time to eat eight meals a day, never mind get some time in the gym apart from that, I was amused by the final question:

"What's the best thing about being Welsh?

I'm a Welsh speaker which I'm very proud of. Hopefully being a gladiator and speaking Welsh will make kids think it's cool to speak Welsh."

Aww! Heart-warming or what?

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Pride in Barry Petition

During the Autumn, the National Assembly's Enterprise and Learning Committee held two evidence sessions about the Pride in Barry petition to provide fair investment into the Barry Waterfront project.

Barry is in a difficult position, overshadowed economically by Cardiff on the one hand (the Vale of Glamorgan has the highest number of commuters of any local authority in Wales), yet not in the Convergence Fund areas that receive additional European funding (the Valleys and West Wales) to promote economic development.

Pride in Barry are concerned that the economic situation does not bode well for the completion of the Waterfront area, formerly an industrial Docks area, which has been revived in the past decade, and have been calling for the announcement of a consistent stream of funding to ensure that Barry gets its fair share of investment over a period of time, allowing for long-term planning of the development rather than short-term fixes.

I was therefore happy to read before Christmas that the Committee report accepted that Pride in Barry were making a cogent argument about the need for funding to prevent the failure of the Waterfront area, but, crucially, recommended that Barry "meets the criteria outlined in the Deputy Minister's statement on strategic regeneration and that...the town merits serious consideration of further support."

In as much as a committee can tie a Deputy Minister's hands behind his back on making a decision (Leighton Andrews in this case), I think that that one sentence confirming that Barry should be one of the areas for strategic regeneration is as good as you can get.

Well done to Paul Haley and everyone else involved in Pride, and I look forward to the One Wales Government announcing further funding for development in Barry in the Spring.

High Street Store Owner Backs Plaid Policy

Next owner, Simon Wolfson, yesterday told the Today programme that he thought the government's cut in VAT was wrong and they should have instead gone for an interest rate cut - as suggested by Plaid.

Robert Peston reports it thus:

"This reduction for a year in the VAT rate, from 17.5% to 15%, will cost £12bn. It's supposed to help groups like Next, Britain's second biggest fashion chain, by encouraging all of us to spend a bit more.

But Wolfson said that the expensive VAT reduction was a mistake, that it was a waste of taxpayers' money, and that the Treasury would have been far better to cut income taxes if it wanted to encourage spending."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

New Year, Same Old Politics

The Conservatives' big new plan for 2009 is tax cuts of around £4bn by increasing the tax threshold by £2,000. Those able to take full advantage of this would save an extra £400.

They plan to pay for this through slowed public spending growth in all areas except health, education, defence and international development.

Labour's response, almost without thinking about it, was to argue that these savings would only be made through real-terms cuts to public services.

I can only imagine it's going to come from the same place, ultimately, as the £5bn in efficiency savings that Labour announced in the Pre-Budget Report back in November but whose details they would only flesh out in the Budget when it comes around in March.

Perhaps it could also come from the same place as the £37bn in public spending cuts to be made over the next five years that were slashed from budgets between the 2008 Budget and the PBR in November.

Let's also remember that Labour were more than happy to find £12bn to fund their bizarre 13-month VAT giveaway.

So far, so same old.

Except that Plaid made their ideas on this public back in November...and we costed it.

We called for an increase in the personal threshold for tax for all basic rate taxpayers of £2,000 - exactly what the Conservatives are doing now, except that ours would apply across the board, not just on savings.

We would effectively be putting £400 back into almost everybody's pocket - allowing them to save or spend this money as they liked, giving people the choice.

Those who spend would be stimulating the economy, those who save would be putting money into the banking system.

This would cost around £10bn, less than the cost of the VAT reduction offered by Labour, and covered by scrapping white elephant schemes such as ID cards.

A further suggestion made by Plaid back in November, to counter the difficulties faced by savers due to continued interest rate cuts, was an increase in the cash ISA from £3,600 to £7,200, giving savers the opportunity and incentive to save and invest money tax free - and giving them more money than the Conservatives plan will.

Nice to know they're listening to us - even if they're not prepared to be radical enough to make the real changes.