Consistent inconsistency

I knew that Jonathan Morgan, the Tory MP for Cardiff North, was unhappy with the decision to reorganize schools in the Whitchurch area of Cardiff from Twitter:

I am shocked that Labour ministers have deserted the people of Whitchurch with their support of schools reorganisation plan.

WAG decision to back school changes in Whitchurch no benefit to English or Welsh medium schools. Labour don't deserve to govern after May.

Wondering if WAG open to judicial review on Whitchurch schools - inconsistent with Canton decision. One rule for them another for Whitchurch.

Following on from that, there is a rather garbled story in today's South Wales Echo, which somehow manages to claim that four primary schools will be closed by the decision.

But Jonathan Morgan is just going off on one without giving much thought to what he's saying. He claims that:

The issues there reflect the issues facing Whitchurch yet the minister has taken a decision which is inconsistent with his decision in the west of Cardiff.

In fact education minister Leighton Andrews refused to make the decision not to allow Treganna to move to the Lansdowne building: he transferred the decision to Carwyn Jones. Yet that detail aside, the problem is not that the Whitchurch decision is inconsistent with the Canton decision, but that the Canton decision was inconsistent with the Welsh Government's stated policies. Mr Morgan simply wants one wrong decision to become a precedent for another wrong decision.

As for his idea that the Whitchurch decision had:

completely deserted local families

He is rather ignoring the fact that there simply isn't enough demand from local families to support both Eglwys Wen and Eglwys Newydd at their current size. A large number of children going to these schools are not from local families, but from families outside their catchment areas. As we can see from the figures here, only 205 out of 326 at Eglwys Newydd and 158 out of 280 at Eglwys Wen were from the two catchment areas combined. This means that 237 children going to these schools were not from local families at all.

Update, 5 February 2011

I can't find a direct link to the decision letter, but I've embedded the Guardian's version from this page.


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France invests heavily in offshore wind

In response to a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago on the Prenergy wood-burning power station proposed for Port Talbot, the discussion moved on to renewable electricity generation, and offshore wind power in particular.

Although some newspapers, notably the Telegraph, have reported that countries like Denmark are pulling out of windpower, exactly the reverse is true. Denmark is still pressing ahead with new and even larger offshore windfarms, for example at Dan Tysk and Anholt. Germany is also continuing to expand its offshore wind capacity, aiming to get generate a quarter of its electricity from wind by in the next ten years. There are articles here, here and here.

But I was surprised to read that France—a country hardly renowned for its commitment to renewable energy over the past few decades—is now planning to embark on a large offshore wind programme of its own.

Offshore wind farm plants with 600 wind turbines are to be built on five sites between Saint-Nazaire and Dieppe/Le Tréport in a €10 billion project to be announced by President Sarkozy.

The 3,000 MW total wind power capacity of the new project is the equivalent of two nuclear power stations. France has set itself the goal of producing 23 per cent of its power needs from renewable resources by 2020, with 6,000 MW from [offshore] wind power. The new offshore wind farms should start generating power in 2015.

OffshoreWIND, 24 January 2011

Those who are most opposed to renewable energy—and windpower in particular—often use France as an example of the sort of energy mix they would like to see. They assume that because France relies so heavily on nuclear power, there is no need for it to use renewables. But this isn't true. As we can see from this rather helpful site, France already has over 5,500 MW of installed onshore wind capacity, but this is the first big expansion into offshore wind. I think it's a very welcome development ... though I would raise an eyebrow about whether they can get these five windfarms up and running by 2015.

The big concern is whether the wind industry has the capacity to cope with all these new projects, something which highlights the golden opportunity we have in Wales to develop our own manufacturing and servicing capacity. The Round 3 windfarms in the Irish Sea Zone between Ynys Môn and the Isle of Man will be bigger than these five French windfarms put together, and those in the Bristol Channel Zone will be about half as big.

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Swansea and Cardiff

It looks like Leighton Andrews makes decisions in batches, for hot on the heels of yesterday's announcement that a new WM school has been given the go ahead in Swansea comes the decision to allow Cardiff to reorganize schools in Whitchurch.

     Whitchurch schools shake-up gets go-ahead

The basic issue was that Whitchurch did not have enough children in the area to support both Eglwys Wen and Eglwys Newydd as two-form entry English-medium schools, and that these were only the size they were because of children coming from outside the area. Coupled with that, Melin Gruffydd—the WM school that currently shares a site with Eglwys Wen—was continually expanding resulting in an intolerable situation for both schools. Something had to be done, it was a question of what.

As I've said before in much more detail, I thought the ideal solution would have been to keep Eglwys Newydd as it is, but to build a brand new one form entry school at Heol Don for Eglwys Wen to move into, leaving Melin Gruffydd to use the whole site they currently share. As I read the situation, the main objection to that is that Cardiff prefer fewer, larger schools. The cost of building a new school would probably not have been that much greater than the extensive rebuilding work that will be necessary to convert the Eglwys Newydd building into a two-form entry WM school.

But we don't always get what we want, and even though the plan now approved by the Welsh Government is not as good as it might have been, it will do. It doesn't do anything to increase WM provision, for Melin Gruffydd's intake is already over 60, but it achieves the main goal of reducing the overcrowding on the shared site, allowing a each school a stable, sustainable future that doesn't rely on inadequate temporary accommodation.


As we can see from the aerial photo above, the Eglwys Newydd building is on a long, narrow site. The plan, as shown below, is to take down the temporary accommodation and build a new junior block which will take up all the hard play area to the south. It's all a lot tighter than I would like, but perhaps the detailed plan will not be so bad. I hope to be pleasantly surprised.


As these two decisions have come at the same time, it provides an opportunity to look at the difference in attitude between Cardiff and Swansea Councils towards the expansion of WM education.

Swansea started by doing the right thing. They were one of the first local authorities to commission a proper survey of parental wishes, and if they had got their way Llwynderw would have been built as a 2 FE rather than 1.5 FE school. It was the Welsh Government that refused to allow a larger school to be built. But since then Swansea have sat on their hands and done nothing to increase the provision of WM places to meet the parental demand for it. The new WM school at Graig is their first new initiative for years, even though their own survey showed that 36% of parents would choose a WM school if there was one near them.

My greatest criticism of Cardiff is that they have never bothered to commission a survey of parental preferences. Yet they know that the demand must be there, and have taken steps to continually increase WM provision anyway. Although they've had problems with their proposals for Canton and Whitchurch in particular, their proposals for other parts of the city have been implemented without any real problems. Because of that, the number of WM places in Cardiff is continually growing. However, when they eventually do commission the survey, I'm sure they'll find they need to increase WM provision much more than they have to date.

In short, Cardiff's attitude has been to push forward proposals and to keep coming up with more if any of them fall though. It's sometimes messy, but it gets a result. Swansea's attitude for the past few years has been to ignore the wishes of parents, and do as little as they can get away with.

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Swansea's small step forward

It was in March last year that Swansea put forward plans to close the half-empty Graig Infants school in Morriston and convert it into a new Welsh-medium school, while at the same time amalgamating the nearby Pentrepoeth Infants and Junior schools into a new English-medium primary. The news today is that these plans have been approved and that the new schools will open in September.

As highlighted by RhAG in this paper in 2009, Morriston has long been the area of Swansea with the biggest demand for WM education but with no provision for it. So this is definitely a step forward ... but I have to say that it is not such a big step.


Graig Infants is a small school with a capacity of 113. As an infants school it would be one-form entry, but as a WM primary with seven year groups and a nursery it will be a less than half-form entry school with a maximum intake of only 14 children a year.



As we can see from the pictures, it already has two temporary classroom blocks which have probably been there for so long that they might as well be thought of a permanent accommodation. And what looks as if it should be a hard play area is in fact used to park about ten cars. Nor does the site have any room for expansion, for the wooded area in the bottom right of the aerial photo has now been developed as housing. So it's far from ideal, though obviously it's a lot better than no WM school in Morriston at all.


Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad if Swansea were planning to expand WM education elsewhere. But they're not. They are currently going through a paperwork exercise to increase the capacities of three WM primaries at Gellionen, Pontybrenin and Tirdeunaw ... but are not planning to increase the physically space available in these schools. To put it bluntly, they want to squeeze more children into less space than the regulations allow. A local authority is allowed to overcrowd a school by 25% without needing permission to do so, but Swansea have already done that, and now want to go even further.

This is a tragedy because for the past few months Swansea has had three empty school buildings which could easily become new WM schools. I put the case for opening new starter schools in the old Cwm and Arfryn buildings here. And RhAG presented a proposal for a WM school in the old Llanmorlais building, which I mentioned here.

It's still not too late for Swansea to put together proposals to set up starter schools in these buildings in time for them to open in September this year. There cannot be any reasonable objections, because they are currently sitting empty and unused.

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I watched the first two episodes of the Danish drama Forbrydelsen – called The Killing in English, though perhaps it would be more accurate to call it The Crime – on BBC Four last night. It was very impressive, and anybody who missed it can catch it on iPlayer.


Now this isn't exactly going to be mainstream viewing, nothing on BBC Four is. But it provides a perfect example of the sort of programme that I think could and should be shown on S4C, but with subtitles available in Welsh as well as English. The cost would be minimal, but the principle of international material not invariably being offered through the medium of English is vitally important.


Strangely enough David TC Davies, the chair of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, made exactly the same point when the committee questioned Ed Vaizey on 18 January:

Q477 Chair: Have you looked at encouraging S4C to buy in films from non English speaking countries – some very good films are produced in places like Germany and France – and putting in Welsh subtitles? I personally don't see that as being such a bad idea. It is standard practice in many European countries, including Germany and France.

Mr Vaizey: I know that you had an extensive discussion on this subject when you took evidence. I would expect the Committee's report to reflect your views.

Evidence to WASC, 18 January 2011

As someone who doesn't agree with Mr Davies on many things, it is a very pleasant surprise to find myself agreeing with him on this. Though I should make it clear that I don't think this is a substitute for commissioned drama in Welsh, but as a supplement to it.

We'll have to see whether this proposal is reflected In the WASC's report. But if I might make one suggestion to Committee members, it would be to widen the scope of that proposal beyond S4C. In this instance the BBC has bought the rights to show the series in the UK. But what is to stop the BBC from subtitling this and similar programmes ... not only in Welsh but also in Gaelic? It would be a significant step in making much more material available in Welsh and Gaelic (at least to read, if not to hear). The same would be true for the Italian or German opera that sometimes even makes it onto BBC2.

So yes, I think it would be a good idea for S4C to show foreign language programmes subtitled in Welsh. But if we are to see a much closer relationship between S4C and the BBC, similar to the way that BBC Alba works in Scotland, then there can be no excuse for the BBC not to do its share for each of the languages of Britain.


The more sharped-eyed will have noticed that the picture I've shown is actually for the second series of Forbrydelsen. It's quite likely that the BBC will acquire, or has acquired, the rights to show that as well. It might now be too late to subtitle the first series in Welsh and Gaelic, but with the right pressure from the right people, they could easily do it for the second. In fact, we could make it a requirement that our public service broadcasters should make all their subtitled foreign language programmes available in each language of Britain via the red button.

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A One-legged Duck

I couldn't help but notice that the portrait of Rhodri Morgan unveiled today shows him holding a wooden duck with one very long leg.


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True Wales go off the rails

It's wonderful to see Rachel Banner's latest offering on Wales Home. Under a picture of massed ranks of Communist Party delegates we are told:

Altogether now: The Cardiff Bay political class resembles some totalitarian caucus

She goes on to tell us that:

This faction then closes down debate by insisting that the only thing that can be discussed is the technical matter of whether it has new direct law-making powers: anything outside this buttoned down and whipped up consensus is irrelevant to the agenda they have manufactured.

Wales Home, 25 January 2011

But here in the real world, this referendum is about one thing and one thing only: whether the Assembly gets primary lawmaking powers in the areas which are already devolved to Welsh ministers.

Yes, it may be a "technical matter", but that doesn't make it any less important.

Now of course anybody in Wales is free to talk about anything they like; but no matter how desperate True Wales are to make out that this referendum is about something else, it won't change the question on the ballot paper.

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The Size of Wales

It's nice to see the size of Wales continue to be used as an international standard of measurement:

China is planning to create the world's biggest mega city by merging nine cities to create a metropolis twice the size of Wales with a population of 42 million

The Telegraph, 25 January 2011

It may have 14 times our population, but what if we had a fourteenth of the investment mentioned in the article? That would work out at £13.5bn. In terms of rail investment alone we would get two brand new rail lines, with a total of 221 miles of new track and a maximum travel time of one hour between the existing city centres.

If we want to be world class, this is the sort of infrastructure investment we need to keep up with.

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Bucketman and the Welsh Economy

One of Plan Flynn's most memorable lines was to compare Peter Hain with Odo in Deep Space Nine, a shape-shifter who, as he put it:

... liquefies at the end of each day and sleeps in a bucket to emerge in another chosen shape the following morning.

As we know, Peter Hain was the one responsible for taking the recommendations of the Richard Commission and giving us a watered down dog's breakfast called the Government of Wales Act 2006. By failing to implement what it recommended, we were instead landed with the tortuous LCO process by which the Assembly can—but only if the incumbent Secretary of State and Westminster allow us to—make laws in those devolved areas in which Welsh Ministers already have executive responsibility. This is the process that we will finally do away with when we vote Yes on 3 March.

He was also the person who said that this legislation would last for a generation, that he didn't want to see a referendum for many years, and that it could not be won before then ... even though the opinion polls were clearly showing the opposite. But then, when it became clear even to him that Labour was going to lose power in Westminster, he shape-shifted into a man who realized that the Assembly needed all the powers it could get to protect us from the worst effects of the public services cuts and privatization agenda of the ConDem government in Westminster.


But rather than being contrite after being shown to be so out of touch, Peter Hain has now emerged from his bucket to claim that this was all his idea from the beginning. And if we read this piece in the Western Mail yesterday, he does look like he is in favour of more powers for the Assembly ... until, that is, we look more closely. For in the same way as his fictional equivalent couldn't quite manage to get the shape of his ears right, the Odo-ous Mr Hain hasn't quite managed to shape-shift himself into a convincing pro-devolutionist.

A “YES” vote in the referendum on more powers for the National Assembly would give AMs the opportunity to “think big” and transform the economy of Wales, according to Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain.

“I think there’s an opportunity now if we get a Yes vote in the referendum – and I don’t take that for granted at all – now for the Assembly to really lift its game and for everybody in Cardiff Bay and at Cathays Park to start really thinking big, and think about the big issues to transform the Welsh economy and make us world class, which we are certainly not.

Western Mail, 22 January 2011

We need to ask ourselves one simple question: In what way will voting Yes enable the next Welsh Government to "transform the Welsh economy"? The Assembly does not, and has never had, control over the levers of our economy. These are still firmly in the hands of the UK government at Westminster. It was for this very reason that Tory AM Alun Cairns decided to leave his seat in the Assembly and stand for election as an MP. Look at what he said in March last year when asked if he was doing the right thing:


Absolutely right. My greatest interest is the economy and business and that's where the powers lie for economy and business really, where I'd like to be able to make a contribution to the constituency.

... When you look at the economy and business and in terms of overcoming deprivation, child poverty and those sorts of issues, it is Westminster that has most of the levers and that's really what can make the biggest influence and difference to the Vale of Glamorgan and other constituencies.

Just about the only lever on the economy the Welsh government has is the ability to set the multiplier for non-domestic rates. But even this is not a matter of devolution, but of centralization. For local authorities had the ability to set this before Westminster took central control. And in the case of Wales it only has a marginal effect anyway because the money goes to the Treasury in Whitehall before being redistributed back to Wales.

We need to be clear that what is devolved to Wales is not the economy, but economic development. In essence, the Welsh government can spend some of the money it receives in the annual block grant as grants or loans to encourage businesses to locate in Wales, and fund schemes like ProAct and ReAct. These are of course useful, but only marginally effect the economy. To create a climate in which business as a whole, rather than just a few selected companies, can flourish we would need to have wider control over things like rates of business and personal taxation, national insurance, VAT and monetary policy.


So when Peter Hain shoots his mouth off and claims that voting Yes will "transform the Welsh economy", I have to wonder which side he's batting for. He's doing just the same thing as True Wales: ignoring what this referendum is actually about and claiming that it is about other things instead. Now whatever else Peter Hain is, he is certainly a shrewd political operator. It might indeed be reasonable for him to assume that the eyes of ordinary people in Wales will start to glaze over at the technicalities of what this referendum is about, so that in order to get people excited enough to get out and vote the thing needs to be sexed-up into something more interesting. Certainly people are more concerned about the economy because it affects fundamentally important issues like jobs and the level of public services.

But it's a mistake to do it; not only because it's dishonest, but because rash promises that you have no means to fulfil have a habit of coming back to bite you. Labour have form on this, after all, the previous ten-year plan was that Wales would improve its GVA figures relative to the UK as a whole ... but instead the gap has widened. Why? Because there was no mechanism by which the Welsh Government could pursue different economic policies from the remainder of the UK. We had a few limited powers which we could target at a few companies or sectors, but no power to make an across-the-board difference. Nor will this referendum give us those powers.


The only grain of truth linking a Yes vote to the ability to improve our economic performance is that the ConDem government in Westminster has made it clear that they will not consider the issues raised in the Holtham Report—either fair funding or devolution of some taxation powers—unless we vote Yes. But even a commitment to "consider" the Holtham report is no guarantee that Wales will get what it recommended. We might get yet another watered-down dog's breakfast instead of the real thing.

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Exporting Our Water

One of the things in Wales that is better than anywhere else in the world is our water. The English can't get enough of it, but exporting our water to them is not our only option.

I've just read that a memorandum of understanding is to be signed between Fluxys, who operate Belgium's gas network, and the state of Qatar in the Gulf. Flanders imports liquefied natural gas by tanker from Qatar, and up until now the otherwise empty ships have returned to Qatar with sea water ballast, for stability. The plan is to use fresh water instead:

The Gulf emirate of Qatar is planning to import water by ship from Belgium. The water will return in the tankers delivering liquid natural gas (LNG) at the port of Zeebrugge.

When the gas is transported, the ballast tanks are filled with sea water so as to stabilise the ship’s weight. “But why not, instead of sea water, fill the tanks with fresh water as ballast, we thought,” explains Daniël Termont, head of the gas network administrator Fluxys and mayor of Ghent. “Then the ships can return home carrying fresh water that can be used for irrigation in Qatar.” The port of Zeebrugge is consequently set to build a large fresh water reservoir next to the four existing LNG storage tanks. TMVW, the water company serving Zeebrugge, shall be responsible for supplying it. The quality will be comparable to tap water, and a memorandum of understanding is to be signed between Fluxys and Qatar in early February during a trade mission headed by the Flemish minister-president, Kris Peeters (CD&V).

The lack of water is a major source of worry in the Gulf States, which have huge reserves of oil and gas, but remain in desert conditions as far as water is concerned. Qatar, with no rivers, is facing an increasing demand for fresh water as a result of population growth, rapid urbanisation and the changing consumption patterns. Importing fresh water from Belgium is an attractive alternative to desalinising Qatar’s sea water, which is an extremely expensive and environmentally unfriendly process. Meanwhile, for Fluxys the impending deal fits in with the plans for the Belgian gas network administrator to join hands with the major producers in the world. “If we can deliver water to Qatar, we will reinforce our long-term relationship with a very big gas producer,” Termont said.

LNG World News, 18 January 2011

Qatar are fairly desperate for fresh water. I did a bit of searching and found this report from 2009 about them trying to buy water from the American state of Washington, something that didn't happen because their local laws prevented it.

This raises an interesting question, because one of the sections that Peter Hain inserted into the Government of Wales Act 2006 when he was Governor General (I think that's an appropriate term in this particular context) gave him and his successors power to intervene if any proposed legislation by the Assembly:

might have a serious adverse impact on water resources in England, water supply in England or the quality of water in England

GoWA 2006, 101.1.b

But I'm not sure that a commercial agreement to sell water either requires or comes within the scope of legislation. As well as that, we are not talking about drinking water, but fresh water that will be used for irrigation.


As I'm sure most people are aware, we have recently started importing large quantities of liquefied natural gas from Qatar to South Hook in Milford Haven. In fact the Qatargas 2 terminal there, as we can read on their website, is the largest LNG re-gasification terminal in Europe. If we look at the picture, we can see that these are exactly the same ships. So we need to ask a rather obvious question:

What on earth is stopping Wales from doing the same as Flanders?

Someone from the Welsh Government should be on the phone to them first thing Monday morning.

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True Wales ... False Impression

Watching Betsan Powys' report from the launch of the True Wales campaign this evening, I couldn't help but notice that they are prominently advertising their Welsh language website:


At last, a genuine attempt to engage with all the people of Wales, I thought. They've had a good few months to get something in Welsh onto a website, perhaps they've finally got their act together for the big launch. So I took a look, expecting to find at least a page or two of Welsh as a token of goodwill.

But as we can see, isn't up and running. It was nothing but a sham designed to give people who they know would never visit a site in Welsh the impression that they take the language seriously.


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The "Tesco Tax"

In Newsnet Scotland yesterday there was an article about what has been dubbed the "Tesco Tax" ... a proposal that very large businesses should pay tax at a greater rate.

The tax in question is the poundage on non-domestic rates, something which we in Wales usually call the multiplier. And it appears that a lot of fuss is being made over a difference of only 0.7%. I don't what to concentrate on the detail of that proposal, but instead want to look at the broader issue of how we tax businesses.


I think it is very broadly accepted that personal taxation should not be at a flat rate. We expect those with greater incomes not simply to pay tax on it at a flat rate, but that the rate of tax they pay should progressively increase. In the UK we achieve this with different tax bands that kick in at different thresholds. Those with low taxable income pay nothing, we then used to have a starter band at 10p in the pound, a basic rate, a higher rate, and now a top rate. In the not too distant past (ignoring special circumstances such as war) the very top rate of tax was 83% in 1974, and unearned income was subject to a further surcharge. 750,000 people paid this top rate in 1974.

Now of course we can argue about whether such levels of tax are fair or not. It is a political question, and indeed cannot be taken in isolation from the rest of the basket of taxes. But across all parties we accept that it is not sufficient to simply charge a flat rate of income tax.


The question I want to ask is why we shouldn't do the same with business taxes. Why shouldn't a company that makes very large profits be charged tax on them at a higher rate than companies that make more average profits?

As it happens, Islwyn Ffowc Elis alluded to this in Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd, a novel in which he gave a couple of different visions of a future Wales. In one of these he said that the taxation regime was such that it was usually easy and profitable to set up a small business, but taxation increased with the second business and increased again so as to make it almost impossible for people to own three. Of course in a novel there's no need to be too precise about the details, and I doubt that the scale of what he proposed is realistic, but I have to say I can see some major advantages in making adjustments to the way we tax businesses.

If we look at our High Streets, they are dominated by shops and banks that have virtually identical premises on every other High Street on this island. If we look beyond the High Street, we see huge out of town developments that have killed off the High Streets of many towns.

Now of course it's good that we already give help to small businesses, but we do very little to distinguish between the middle ground, the large, and the very large. This allows (and probably encourages) big companies to grow bigger, often by predatory means, leaving us with only a handful of large players who then need to be regulated and in fact become very difficult to regulate effectively. I believe that there is room to use the way we tax businesses to progressively tax company profits so as to encourage small businesses to grow, but discourage large businesses from becoming too dominant.

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Burning Wood

Prenergy's proposed wood burning power station at Port Talbot is in the news again. It was originally approved by the UK government in November 2007. Then last September it was granted a licence by the Environment Agency Wales, on the condition that it operated within strict emission limits. But the EAW has changed that decision and is now saying that it is "minded to approve" new limits which are very much less stringent than in the original licence.


The changes proposed are:

•  Increasing emission limit for nitrous oxide (N2O) from 20mg/m3 to 40mg/m3
•  Increasing emission limit for sulphur dioxide (SO2) from 6mg/m3 to 50mg/m3
•  Increasing emission limit for hydrogen chloride (HCl) from 7mg/m3 to 10mg/m3
•  Allowing the burning of wood pellets as well as wood chip

Now we might well argue about at what point any level of emissions is damaging to health, but one thing is clear: EAW should not have imposed the original operating conditions unless they considered them to be the maximum emissions permissible without causing levels of pollution that could damage public health.

So this u-turn by EAW should be a source of great concern. If, as they now claim, the relaxed harmful emission limits will not compromise air quality standards it means that their original decision was arbitrary rather than based on any scientific evidence. After all, we are not talking about small changes. In the case of sulphur dioxide, they are now prepared to see the emissions increase more than eight times. It must surely be obvious that the EAW have been put under pressure to change their original decision, and that they have given way to that pressure.

The Practical and the Political

Now why would this be? There are two reasons: one practical and one political. The practical reason is that it is proving very hard to get high quality fuel that would burn with such low emissions. That sort of wood does exist, but the problems is the scale of the operation. This would be the largest wood-burning power station anywhere in the world, consuming three million tonnes of wood each year. Raising the level of emissions enables Prenergy to use cheaper wood.

My belief is that Prenergy have convinced the EAW that they are unable to get hold of the amount of high quality wood on which the original calculations had been based, and that the relaxed emissions standards are tailored to wood that can be sourced at a cheaper price. The thinking must be that rather than maintain limits that would mean it was impossible to operate the plant, it is better to relax the limits to the point where it is commercially feasible to operate it.

But why should there be such an imperative for the plant to operate at all? The reason for this is entirely political.

Both the UK and Welsh governments have set themselves targets for the production of electricity from renewable sources and are therefore anxious to do whatever it takes to meet those targets. A large 350MW power station of this sort would, on paper at least, go a long way towards it. But the sums didn't quite work out. That is why the new UK government provided an additional large financial incentive for biomass in August last year, by guaranteeing that Renewable Obligation Certificate levels would be fixed for 20 years rather than being subject to reviews every four years ... this longer lifespan being referred to as "grandfathering". Prenergy's owners, the Italian private equity firm Clessidra, welcomed this change because they have been trying to sell the project on for the past year, and were having considerable difficulty finding a buyer for it.


But for me, the political initiatives to promote this sort of energy are fundamentally misconceived. Energy produced from burning wood can at best only be described as semi-renewable. The theory is simple enough. If the wood cut down and used as fuel is replaced by new trees, then those new trees will absorb as much CO2 as the wood that has been burned. The first problem is that it takes 15 or 25 years, perhaps more, before the carbon balance gets back to zero. The second problem is that cutting down and transporting the trees, converting them to chips or pellets, and then transporting them half way round the world to be burned in Port Talbot also consumes fuel; and therefore contributes additional CO2 to the atmosphere. Even so, there is still a net benefit, but it up to half of it could be lost. EAW say that greenhouse gas emissions will only be 50-80% less than those of a coal or gas power station.

So at best the process can only by described as semi-renewable, yet we see both the UK and Welsh governments treat this way of producing electricity as if it were fully renewable. It's a con. It is being promoted, given financial incentives, and allowed relaxations on strict emissions standards simply in order for both Welsh and UK governments to be able to say they are meeting their targets for fully renewable energy.

More than we need

Although it could be argued that the UK as a whole might need the additional energy that would be produced by a new power station at Port Talbot, Wales certainly doesn't need it. We already produce far more electricity in Wales than we need, as well as having the potential to produce all our electricity from fully renewable sources without any harmful emissions at all.

So why are we in Wales producing electricity for export to England by burning a dirty fuel brought half way across the world? From the point of view of the planet, why isn't the wood being burned in North America or China where it will be grown? That would save the economic and carbon cost of transporting it. From the point of view of electricity generation on this island, why isn't the plant being built at a port in say the Thames estuary, close to where the electricity will be consumed? That would save transmission losses in the grid.

We have until 11 February to respond to EAW's proposal, and the details of how to do so are here.

As I researched this, I looked again at some excellent contributions to the debate which I'd recommend to anyone who wants more background information. One is by Duncan Higgitt in a comment to this post on Syniadau last June.

Then there are two articles by Bethan Jenkins, one on her website and another on Wales Home.

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A Backward Baccalaureate

The league tables for schools in England were published today and they included, for the first time, the new English Baccalaureate.

Those of us who know a little about the Welsh version might think that this is another area where England is catching up with innovations in Wales, but the English Baccalaureate isn't anything like ours. Nor, for that matter, is it anything like the International Baccalaureate.

The English version involves no additional course of study, no assessment, no exams. It is merely a label put against those who get a certain number of good GCSE results in certain specified subjects. Previously, one of the most useful benchmarks was to count those students who got five good (i.e. A* to C) GCSE results, irrespective of the subjects. The English Baccalaureate is just a fancy name for the same benchmark, except that it is limited to only a few fundamental subjects (it would be best not to call them core subjects, because core subjects have a different specific meaning) namely: English, maths, a science, a language and either history or geography.

I think the reasons for doing this are perfectly sound. There is a much wider range of GCSE subjects available now than used to be the case. I wouldn't go as far as to say that any individual subject is more important than another, but it is surely desirable that each student studies a balanced range of subjects at GCSE, and these subjects are necessary to provide balance. English, maths and science have always been core subjects in the national curriculum, but another language is something that has not been compulsory for some time, so including one in this new measure of achievement is a very positive step. All schools want to be in a good position in any set of tables, so this will act as a powerful incentive for them to reinstate language courses ... although it won't make it compulsory.


So I have no objections at all to the principle of introducing a new measure of this sort, but it is unhelpful and misleading to call it a Baccalaureate. Although the Welsh and International Baccalaureates are different, they both share a common purpose. They are designed to enhance and widen what a school student learns, encouraging personal development and giving them a more rounded education and a more useful set of skills for further education or the workplace.

In the case of the Welsh Baccalaureate, it is a much more valuable qualification than the individual GCSEs (in the case of the Intermediate Diploma; A levels in the case of the Advanced Diploma) that form part of it would be on their own. Everything is explained in this boooklet:


So we have a couple of big problems. The first is technical, but fundamental. The purpose of the Welsh Bac is to add to and widen a student's experience so as to make their education more rounded and relevant to them as individuals, and to better suit them for the world of work. The English version adds absolutely nothing, it is simply a fancy label to say that the student has a minimum number of good GCSEs in certain basic subjects. In fact it will have a narrowing effect, because it means that schools will now tend to concentrate on these basic subjects at the expense of the other GCSE courses available. In that sense an English Bac is the complete opposite of a Welsh Bac.

This leads to a second problem, which is practical and potentially damaging. When someone from Wales applies for a job and includes the Welsh Baccalaureate on their CV, an employer—particularly one outside Wales—might well have asked, "What on earth is a Welsh Baccalaureate?" ... but at least they would have asked and been given an answer. Now, that same employer is unlikely to ask at all. They will probably assume that it's the same thing as an English Baccalaureate rather than an important qualification in it's own right.


I think the Welsh Baccalaureate is one of the good things we are doing to improve the effectiveness of the education system in Wales. Like the Foundation Phase for early years education, we have learned from what is good in the education systems of other countries and adapted it so that it suits our particular circumstances. It would have been nice if the English did the same for themselves, but their English Baccalaureate is more the equivalent of a fake Rolex watch or Prada handbag.

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I was intrigued by this story in Welsh Icons about the new series of Being Human:


There are a few changes afoot when viewers meet the friends at the beginning of the new series. Werewolf couple George (Russell Tovey) and Nina (Sinead Keenan) and reformed vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner) have fled their beloved shared house in Bristol and are looking for a new house to rent in Barry, Wales. They are also without ghost Annie (Lenora Crichlow), who is stuck in purgatory and desperately trying to escape.

The subtlety of the plot is proving too much for me. Do they mean that Annie has been left behind in England?

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Systematically undermining direct action

There was always something odd about the conviction of a group of twenty climate activists for planning to shut down the coal-fired power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire late last year. Double standards were at play, because in 2007 a Greenpeace group actually succeeded in occupying Kingsnorth power station in Kent and painting "Gordon" in huge letters on the main chimney stack ... yet they were acquitted of the charges against them on the grounds that their protest was justified.

I posted an article about it here. It's well worth looking at the video of their story again:


The reports from the Guardian and Independent at the time are here:

     Not guilty: the Greenpeace activists who used climate change as a legal defence
     Cleared: Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law

The Independent's headline was misleading. The significance of the verdict was that this direct action was not in fact against the law. Yes, there was damage, but the court decided that the damage was justified in order to prevent greater damage.

At first I wondered if the conviction in this case was more because of differences in perception between the north and south of England, and thought that the similar differences between Wales and England explained why a jury in Caernarfon would not convict the Penyberth Three, so that the trial had to be moved to a place where the UK authorities could find a jury that would convict them. In fact I looked forward to the time when a jury in Wales would refuse to convict those from Cymdeithas yr Iaith for the very minor damage to shops resulting from their direct action, on the grounds that it was justified in order to prevent much greater damage to the Welsh language.


Yet today the picture widened in a way that shows how large the gulf is between the largely sympathetic way the public see peaceful civil disobedience and the way the authorities fear it. The trial that has just been abandoned was against another six people arrested at the same time, but on more serious charges. This excellent article from Newsnight gives the background:


It beggars belief that the rather disturbing National Public Order Intelligence Unit should plant an undercover officer for a period of seven years. How can such tactics—not to mention the cost—be justified against non-violent protesters? How many more officers might currently be doing the same?

I think Mark Stone/Kennedy deserves some credit for finally doing what is right. If he hadn't spoken out, I'm sure that the trial would have progressed with neither the defendants nor the public being any the wiser. He might also be at risk as a result. Some might say he deserves it, but he was just a pawn. I think the authorities that run the United Kingdom deserve much greater condemnation for systematically indulging in what can only be described as political policing to suppress those who are prepared to take principled, non-violent direct action on things that matter.

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Davies, Straw, Woolas ... playing the same card

It was at about this time last year that David Davies showed the more unpleasant side of his character when he said that the case of a Muslim teenager convicted of rape was linked to "barbaric and medieval" views towards women that had been "imported into this country". It was a deliberately inflammatory outburst which should have resulted in disciplinary action by the Conservative Party ... though of course they did nothing, showing that they are quite content to condone an anti-Muslim agenda if they think there is political advantage to be gained from it.

Now Jack Straw has shown us that the Labour Party can do exactly the same thing. He has blamed the attitude of the Pakistani community for the recent conviction of two men for rape, saying that they saw white girls as "easy meat". Though as a former Lord High Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, he has much less excuse than the more immature MP for Monmouthshire. Nor is this the first exhibition of his views, as he showed when he said he wanted Muslim women not to wear a face covering veil, and certainly not when talking to him.

In the case of both politicians, the problem is one of bigotry. By this I mean that both have singled out a particular group they are predisposed to criticize for something that applies just as much to people from other groups. They are either deliberately applying double standards, or are incapable of seeing past their prejudice.

In and of itself, rape is not an issue of nationality, race or religion. There might well be circumstances in which racial or religious prejudice is a motivating or aggravating element of rape or of other crimes, but that will be something for the courts to determine. In this particular case, the judge said that the race of both the victims and their abusers was coincidental.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that Jack Straw should take this opportunity to express anti-Muslim prejudice. This Thursday will see the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, brought about because another Labour minister, Phil Woolas, chose to play to anti-Muslim feelings when he narrowly won the election in May. He was prominent in supporting Jack Straw in the row about veils, and a couple of years later raised the issue of inter-cousin marriage in Pakistani communities. The two could be said to be joined at the hip on this matter. Woolas might have been unceremoniously dumped by the Labour Party after the Election Court's verdict, but Labour certainly didn't criticize what he did at the time.


What are we to make of this? To me it appears that there is seam of political opinion in which politicians think they can keep pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, pandering to the anti-Muslim feeling they presume must exist in the minds of potential voters ... an impression it is all too easy to get by taking the more rabid utterings of some of the gutter press seriously. But are they simply trying to take political advantage of feelings that are already widespread, or is it their intention to stir up and spread those feelings? I find it hard to believe that politicians like these would make such inflammatory statements without having a very good idea of what they want to achieve by them.

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Cardiff's next Welsh-medium school

Cardiff published a consultation document on the new school to replace Treganna this week. Download it by clicking the image:


Nearly everything in it as we've been led to expect, and I can't imagine there'll be any serious objections. It's going to be a three-from entry school built on land owned by the council off Sanatorium Road, between the Arjo Wiggins paper mill site and Lansdowne Surgery.


The catchment areas for Treganna and Pwll Coch are to be revised as shown below. Again, nothing surprising. Perhaps they are a bit awkward because the two schools will be only a few hundred metres apart, but there is no other sensible way of doing it.


However there was one thing that particularly stood out in the document. This table shows the Welsh-medium intake for the current school year and the projected intake for the next three:


Pwll Coch is a 2FE school, and the new Treganna will be 3FE. This means that their combined intake capacity (admission number) will be 150 children. The problem is that the demand is projected to be 157 in September 2012 and 171 in September 2013, which is when the new school will open. Therefore even this new 3FE school (which is already bigger than I'd like any primary school to be) will be inadequate to meet the demand.

So where are the additional 21 places a year going to come from in 2013? A number which will certainly keep on growing in subsequent years. It should be very obvious that yet another WM school will be needed, and looking at the catchment area map, it seems obvious that this needs to be somewhere in Grangetown.

The possibilities will be either to build a new school, or for the new WM school to be set up in an existing EM school building. There are six in that part of the WM catchment area, four in Grangetown (Ninian Park, Grangetown, St Paul's CiW and St Patrick's RC) and two in Butetown (Mount Stuart and St Mary the Virgin CiW). Looking at the capacities and current numbers, two are over capacity, none of the others has any great number of surplus places, and the numbers in all but one are growing. So I don't want to put any of them into the firing line. The only general point I would make is that as more children go to WM schools, fewer will go to other schools. A proper analysis of population trends and parental preferences would be needed before any proposals could be made.

But it is clear that a solution does need to be worked out, and worked out urgently, because even on the day it is opened the new 3FE school will not be big enough to meet the parental demand for WM education in this part of Cardiff.


However I do think there is an obvious temporary solution that might give bit of breathing space. At present, Tan yr Eos operates as an overflow for Treganna, but also draws children from Grangetown. Tan yr Eos was intended to be a temporary arrangement for a year of two in the existing buildings of Ninian Park Primary, but has now had to be enlarged with temporary accommodation in Sevenoaks Park. This is definitely not a good permanent arrangement, yet to me there seems to be no reason why the children presently there should not transfer to the new school as planned, but that Tan Yr Eos should begin again as a new starter class which can take the 21 places need in Grangetown in 2013 and maybe an additional 30 in 2014, to then move to permanent accommodation in 2015 at the latest. For that reason, I think it would be premature to arrange to dispose of the accommodation presently used by Tan yr Eos.


The new Treganna on the Sanatorium Road site is designed to meet the existing, long-standing problems of overcrowding in Canton. It's taken a long time to get to this point, and it is now the only solution available. But the real challenge is to keep ahead of the game so that children in Grangetown won't have to endure the same sort of overcrowding. If Cardiff don't work on a solution now, the same problems are inevitable. As always, they need to be planning for the city's next Welsh-medium school.

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Sharpening Up

I was particularly interested in something Betsan Powys' wrote in her blog today on the official launch of the Yes for Wales campaign.

It was about freeing politicians up to focus on delivery, said Mr Lewis. It was also about not conflating the Assembly Government's performance so far with the powers that would be given to the Assembly as an institution and any future government that will be at the helm.

Another difficulty. If it is not about political decisions taken already by this government, why does the campaign leaflet say that "it's good to know that our National Assembly is protecting schools, skills and hospitals" – the mantra of Labour and Plaid ministers? Where's the 'clarity' in that?

It won't be easy, was the gist of the response. Future leaflets would be "sharpened up." This is, after all, a cross party campaign, one having to explain what powers have been used for so far, what a 'yes' vote would mean and how more powers could be used in future. "That's the tightrope we're having to walk". In other words, we concede now that there'll be an occasional wobble.

Yes = No Excuses, 4 January 2011

I picked up on the "it's good to know that our National Assembly is protecting schools, skills and hospitals" line when the leaflet first came out, saying in this post that it had stretched things too far in a party political direction and wondering how comfortable Yes supporters from the LibDems and Tories could be with it. It wasn't a good start. Yes for Wales is meant to be a cross party campaign, and for that reason it has to be very careful about making statements that have the potential to alienate potential supporters.

So it is welcome and reassuring to hear that the campaign has taken notice of this and that future leaflets will be "sharpened up". It's a positive sign.


But it is a tightrope, and so it's perhaps inevitable that the campaign will sometimes stray from the issue of primary lawmaking powers and nothing but primary lawmaking powers, simply because others are trying to make out that it is to do with issues like independence, tax varying powers or the performance of particular parties that have formed the Welsh Government, at least up to now. So, as with any cross-political/cross-society group, we need to be careful not to take what someone might say if they do start talking about wider issues as necessarily representing the views of all the shades of opinion in the group. It is only reasonable to expect to Yes for Wales to deal with the issue it was set up to campaign for.

A good example of the danger is on this page of the Yes for Wales website on the subject of taxation. This first statement is perfectly correct:

The Assembly has no powers to increase or reduce taxes, whatever the outcome of this referendum.

But it is immediately followed by:

Any changes to taxes would require a further referendum.

Now that is a perfectly valid political opinion, but Yes for Wales is not in a position to determine whether a referendum will be required or not. Nor is any politician or political party. In constitutional terms, Westminster remains sovereign and can do whatever it likes. If Westminster decides to make the Welsh Government responsible for raising some of the money it spends, rather than simply giving a fixed block grant which we must either spend in its entirety or lose, it will be able to do so irrespective of whether we in Wales agree or not.

When his Commission's report was published, Gerry Holtham made the point that the issue of how Wales was funded was a matter of basic political accountability. In one interview he said that principle of accountability would apply even irrespective of the areas of responsibility that are devolved to Wales ... that it would apply if things stayed as they were, if more subject areas were devolved, or if half the currently devolved areas were re-centralized to Westminster.


Now I can understand why someone like Carwyn Jones would go out of his way to say that applying for tax varying powers was not on his political agenda. As he said a few times when he faced the Assembly Scrutiny Committee on 7 December 2010 (15:10 and 25:40 of this recording on Democracy Live) he thought that reform of Barnett was a greater priority. And I agree with that entirely, because without properly defining the principle of a fair baseline, there is nothing to set any tax variation against. It would just be horse-trading. But, that said, I have to note that the ConDem government seems determined to press ahead with that in Scotland without considering any replacement or reform of Barnett ... which is asking for trouble, as an ad hoc solution made now will only muddle things in the longer term.

In the second section, he did appear to be particular concerned that tax varying powers would be portrayed by some less scrupulous "mischief" makers (I'm sure we can all think of a name) as being linked in some way with the referendum on primary lawmaking powers. But I think he is being over-cautious in this respect. The two are not linked in any way, and even in the very unlikely event that this referendum were to be lost, the pressure for the Welsh Government to be accountable for raising at least some of the money it spends will still be there.

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Peter Black doesn't like criticism ... tough

A day after I posted this article on the subject of the majority of Labour MPs reneging on their party's manifesto commitment for a Yes vote in a referendum on the Alternative Vote, Peter Black followed it up with his copy of it.

But he didn't like it when I said that most LibDem MPs were equally untrustworthy for reneging on their pledge over tuition fees. He claimed that Plaid Cymru were just as bad because we "introduced tuition fees" in Wales.

When I reminded him that we actually didn't introduce them, he claimed I was just being pedantic, and that what he said was our "broken promise" was just as bad as the what the LibDems had done. Though of course, he couldn't bring himself to say that the LibDems had broken their word on the issue ... it was, as he put it, merely a "claim". Bless.

But after that he put his fingers in his ears and went into a sulk. He's refused, twice now, to publish what I said in reply. So, for the record, this is it:

Isn't it odd that you criticise me for what you get wrong, Peter?

But I'm happy to look at what happened in detail. The situation in Wales changed because of the increase in top up fees imposed by the Westminster government. It became pretty obvious that Labour in Westminster were going to do it, and in anticipation of that the One Wales Agreement pledged that the overall level of support by the Welsh government would not be reduced ... which is what happened.

I wasn't particularly pleased with the way Plaid handled it when the time came. Plaid AMs gave the impression of simply "going along with" Labour on the matter. I think we should have debated the matter more openly in Plaid and come to a decision as a party rather than just let ministers in government make it. Who knows, the process might have resulted in us finding a better solution.

But that hardly compares with the magnitude of what the LibDems have done over tuition fees. Firstly, Westminster is sovereign and can do what it likes, but we in Wales had no control over what the government in Westminster did.

Secondly, we maintained the level of support we had been giving to students from Wales. But what you have done is increase the level of tuition fees up to threefold. Moreover, this has not been done (as might have been the original intention of "top-up" fees, although I suspect that it was only the thin end of an inevitable wedge) to supplement HEI income from government, but instead is going to all but replace HEI income for all except a few subjects of study. You are accomplices to a wholesale marketization of higher education, taking it out of being a public service predominantly funded from the public purse and turning it into something private instead.

So I'm more than happy for voters to compare Plaid and the LibDems on this matter. And I have no doubt, as evidenced by the opinion polls, which of our parties will do better in next year's Assembly election because of it.

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Blwyddyn Newydd Dda

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