Leading the Way Out

Rhodri Morgan deserved the honour of leading the way out of the Senedd today carrying the mace. He'd held the office of First Minister with dignity for nearly the whole lifetime of the National Assembly and this was a fitting tribute. I wish him well in his retirement ... although family life may not be as quiet and relaxed as he would like it to be if Julie manages to get elected in Cardiff North.


Looking back at his contribution, two things stand out in particular:

•  The first was being seen as a distinctively Welsh First Minister. Alun Michael held the job first, although he called himself the First Secretary. But he was always seen as Tony Blair's poodle, and it was probably a good thing that he lost the vote of no confidence and refocused his attention on Westminster, where he was an still an MP and where he seems to be much more comfortable.

So Rhodri—who was never really liked or thought competent by Tony Blair—assumed the role, and in so doing managed to give the Assembly a more distinctively Welsh character. In my opinion this has been the main reason why public opinion in Wales has come to fully embrace devolution after the very narrow victory in the referendum of 1997.

•  The second thing that marked his tenure was the huge increase in public spending during the period when he was First Minister. This made it easy for him to be seen as a generous and avuncular leader. As the main purpose of the Assembly was to decide how to spend the ever increasing amount of money we received in the form of the block grant, he never had to make any particularly difficult or unpopular decisions.

Of course what most people in Wales didn't realize was that although public spending in Wales was increasing, public spending on the other side of Clawdd Offa was increasing far, far more. As we can see from this graph taken from the Holtham Report, public spending in Wales as a proportion of equivalent public spending in England has fallen from about 126% to 112% since 1999:


This lower increase in Wales was a consequence of the Barnett formula known as the "Barnett squeeze", and it is for this reason that the money available to Wales is now considerably lower than it would be if we were treated on the same basis as a region of England.

Now of course Rhodri Morgan and his colleagues in the Labour administration knew full well that Wales was progressively losing out throughout the time he was First Minister ... but did absolutely nothing about it. He preferred not to stand up for Wales; perhaps because he felt it was a battle he could not win, but probably because it wasn't in his character to enter the fight and scrap it out with his Labour colleagues in Westminster. Maybe this was why he was never rated very highly as an MP. For in spite of all the talk of "clear red water", Labour in Wales always takes second place to Labour in Westminster.

Wales would not be in the crisis situation it is now in with the scale of public spending cuts if Labour had reformed the Barnett formula when they had the opportunity to do so. This will always stand as a huge black mark against his time as First Minister, and Labour's time in government.


So one very good thing and one very bad thing. On balance, I think the good of winning over hearts and minds to fully embrace and value the National Assembly outweighs the financial failure. We now believe that we can make decisions that affect Wales in Wales. Next comes the harder task of learning to stand on our own feet financially.

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Bang! The general election campaign starts

Last night there was a televised debate between the four party leaders, but I'd guess that nearly everybody in Wales missed it ... and didn't even know it was being held.

Sadly, I'm talking about the Scottish general election, not the general election in Wales. If anyone wants to catch it, it's on the STV player, just click the image:


The obvious question is why the same thing hasn't happened in Wales. It's only five weeks until the election, but precious little is happening here. In fact we'll have to wait until 26 April for ITV Wales to do what STV has already done, and will do again on 3 May. Why does Scotland get two, but Wales only one?

As for the BBC, they announced last week that they will broadcast a leaders' debate on 1 May in Scotland, and invited people to be in the audience. I guess they will do one for Wales, but I can't find a similar announcement. Again, why so slow off the mark in Wales compared with Scotland?

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NATO ... going beyond

I am rather concerned by the statement yesterday that NATO is to take control of the military operation in Libya.

Statement by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Libya


NATO Allies have decided to take on the whole military operation in Libya under the United Nations Security Council Resolution. Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat of attack from the Gaddafi regime. NATO will implement all aspects of the UN Resolution. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is a very significant step, which proves NATO's capability to take decisive action.

In the past week, we have put together a complete package of operations in support of the United Nations Resolution by sea and by air. We are already enforcing the arms embargo and the No Fly Zone, and with today's decision we are going beyond. We will be acting in close coordination with our international and regional partners to protect the people of Libya.

We have directed NATO's top operational Commander to begin executing this operation with immediate effect.

NATO, 27 March 2011

In my view, it is probably possible to justify the United Nations' resolution to take military action in Libya. However I think we need to ask very serious questions about why the UN should permit such military action in one country while not taking the same position in other countries where attempts have been made to overthrow its leader. But a change in the general policy of not intervening in the internal affairs of countries is in itself not a bad thing.

I also think that Western governments have made a mistake in thinking that the population of Libya detests Gadaffi to the same extent as they do. Gadaffi seems to have considerable support among sections of the population of Libya, so we are taking sides in a civil war, but without any real idea of what elements we are fighting to bring to power instead. For there is a big difference between a popular uprising that involves only civil protest and therefore offers the possibility of a democratic solution in an undivided country, and a military solution by which an alternative faction will take control and perhaps make things no better.

In a very real sense the governments of the attacking countries are following the pattern of shooting first and leaving the questions until later. They are doing little more than trusting to luck.


However, those are different issues. The issue I want to focus on is why NATO as an organization should become involved. I don't think anyone could read the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 as anything other than setting up an alliance for mutual defence in response to an attack on any of its members. Yet NATO seems to be inexorably changing into a force that is openly being used for offensive purposes.

Perhaps, but only perhaps, one could claim that the security of some of NATO's member countries was threatened by Afghanistan. I would call it an indirect and at best a very tenuous link. Yet NATO is there, halfway across the world from the legitimate sphere of concern set out in its founding Treaty. However in the case of Libya, there is absolutely no threat to the security of any other country, let alone one that is a member of NATO. It is a purely internal matter.

So it is perhaps legitimate for countries such as the USA, France and the UK ... plus others such as Belgium, Canada and Qatar to conduct attacks in Libya in their own right, as an "alliance of the willing". But it cannot be legitimate for a defensive organization to conduct such attacks, even if all 28 members were to agree that they want to be involved in the operation.

NATO has served us well over the past 60 years, and all organizations need to adapt over time; but to my mind these fundamental changes are now taking NATO way beyond its intended purpose and can only weaken it. In Afghanistan we have already seen the reluctance of some members to contribute their own forces to operations they aren't keen on. Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Iceland and Luxembourg have not contributed to the NATO led forces in Afghanistan, other members only contributed limited logistic support and others seem only to have made a nominal contribution on condition that their armed forces were as far out of harm's way as possible. In this new operation in Libya even fewer will take part. This is quite understandable, but by setting the precedent of only taking part if you want to, NATO runs the risk of countries taking the same attitude if any member were actually to be attacked ... and that's what it's really there for.

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Valuing Teachers

Wales isn't the only country to be concerned about its drop in ranking in the PISA assessments. Here is a story from one of the Flemish newspapers:

South Korea teaches Flanders how to achieve results

Flemish minister for Education, Pascal Smet (SP.A), ten Flemish MPs and a delegation from the education department and the Flemish Education Council are spending the week on the ground in Seoul schools and universities to see how South Korea managed to end up in the top three for the international PISA tests for 15-year olds in a short period of time. They travelled to the Seoul University of Education in a VIP bus, where teachers are trained through a four-year course, after which exams are held for each municipality.

The exams are held in three rounds, and only once all are passed can a student become a teacher. South Korea employs a central examination after secondary education. “The highest-scoring 0.8 percent of students come here to train to become primary school teachers,” said rector Song Kwang Yong proudly. “They don’t want to become a lawyer or a doctor, but a teacher.” And he is not exaggerating. “Confucius divided careers into 44 categories,” the rector explained. “Teaching is the topmost. Anybody who teaches here is very proud of that fact and also enjoys extraordinary prestige.”

Smet sighed at the explanation as in Belgium a third of young teachers quit within the first five years. “We don’t have Confucius, but we must also be able to recruit good students as teachers,” the minister said. He is presently working on a new plan for teaching as a career. “We must also, just as they do here, provide them with sufficient additional training once they have started the job.”

At Banpo High School the pupils often arrive at 07.50 in the morning and frequently stay at school until 22.00. Those students that don’t stay to study after standard school hours go to a private school for extra lessons. “The pressure is intense,” one mother, who lived for some time in the US, says, “and not just from society, but also within the classroom. In the West a hard-working student is a nerd, but here your grades determine your popularity.” Many of the MPs consider the pressure put on the shoulders of the children as being excessive, but Smet still voiced his appreciation at what he encountered in the Far East. “We have not come here to imitate the South Koreans,” he said, “but we can most certainly learn something from this mentality.”

De Morgen, 25 March 2011

Yet the situation in Flanders is very far from being bad. Flanders used to be right at the top of the PISA rankings, and is still in the top ten in maths and reading, though it has now fallen out of the top ten in science, as we can read here.

Education is going to be one of the main focuses of this year's general election in Wales, and I'll probably have a lot more to say about it over the next few weeks. Some already have pointed the finger of blame for Wales' relatively poor performance at teachers, others will point at the politicians who determine our educational priorities; but perhaps this short article shows that the value that society places upon teachers is more fundamental than anything else.

Do our brightest and best students—the top 0.8%—aspire to become primary school teachers? Not many, I'm sure, not least because there are many more professions which are far more lucrative and far less stressful. We might not be able to do too much about the stress, but it would be good if we in Wales were able to do something about the money.

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Scotland to contribute an extra £1.87bn

While I'm sure that the reduction of fuel duty and the fair fuel stabilizer is going to benefit many people, it is worth noting that this is going to be paid for by an increased levy on North Sea oil and gas production.

According to this article on the BBC, it will cost the industry an additional £2bn a year. That's fair enough. With the price of oil and gas going up, the oil and gas companies are making much bigger profits and can easily afford it. But if we look at the information on this page we will see that Scotland's geographical share of North Sea revenue is now running at 93.5% of the total.

This means that Scotland will in effect be contributing £1.87bn to make fuel cheaper for people across the whole UK. George Osborne certainly knows how to be generous with their money. If he's looking for an appropriate soundbite, I think he's just fuelled the growth of Scotland's desire for independence.

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More about Ysgol Gymraeg Bon-y-maen

A couple of weeks ago in this post I welcomed Swansea's decision to go out to consultation on a proposal to open a new Welsh-medium school in the old Cwm Primary School in Bon-y-maen, on the east side of Swansea. Since then the consultation document and the Cabinet Report on which the Council based its decision have been published, and I'm quite pleased with what they say.

     Consultation Paper
     Cabinet Report

The Consultation Paper is relatively straightforward. It includes this map showing that the catchment area is the southern half the current catchment area of Ysgol Gymraeg Lôn Las, and says that the admission number will be at least 23.


The Cabinet Report (the proposal is in the third part of the document, starting at page 27) gave some interesting information on Swansea's thinking. One of the questions I asked before was why the proposal was to set up this school for September 2012 rather than for September of this year, since the demand is obviously there. On the question of demand, the report says this:

As at January 2010 there were 38 surplus places at YGG Lôn Las (9.0%) ...

YGG Lon Las currently has an admission number of 60 but the local authority had to admit over this number ... As demand continues to grow at YGG Lôn Las there is simply no scope to admit them at the school, nor in the next nearest Welsh medium school, nor indeed, the next nearest either. Under existing Council policy transport costs are incurred where a pupil has to travel more than 2 miles to attend the nearest appropriate school.

So the pattern of growth at Lon Las is such that, even though there is space in the older year groups, the current intake in the early years is now much greater than Lôn Las can sustain. The school had to admit 15 children more than the admission number of 60 last September, and it is fairly obvious that this number is going to go up again this coming September. But it does appear that Swansea have thought that one through:

It was previously considered that a possible way forward could be to establish a starter class in one of the two buildings on the former Cwm Primary site from September 2011. As long as this remained temporary accommodation (for no more than 3 years) it would not be necessary to undertake any formal statutory consultation process. It would then have been necessary to undertake a full statutory consultation to establish a new Welsh medium primary school on a permanent site once this had been determined. The possibility of setting up early years provision on the site from September 2011, linked with an existing school, is still under consideration.

This formal consultation is in fact to establish a permanent school in its own right with a separate headteacher and governing body. However there is nothing to stop Cwm Primary coming into use in September this year as overflow accommodation which is officially still a part of Lôn Las. As it happens, this is exactly what Cardiff did at Gabalfa, which for a year operated as overflow accommodation to Melin Gruffydd, but then became Ysgol Glan Ceubal in its own right. Obviously I wouldn't expect Swansea to commit to anything now, but they will know if the proposal has been approved by summer, and the Junior Block of the old Cwm Primary is sitting empty and ready to be used at short notice. The only alternative would be to put up more temporary accommodation at Lôn Las; but that would cost money, so the decision should be a no brainer.

The other thing that had concerned me was that the Cwm Infants Block is now home to the Bon-y-maen Family Centre. But it appears that this is temporary and it will be rehoused in Cefn Hengoed when refurbishment there is complete. That means that both blocks at Cwm will eventually be available for the new WM school, with a capacity of 167. It may well not be a permanent home if money becomes available to build a new school or if, as the most telling part of the report states:

Once the school has been established it will be possible to determine whether the Cwm site is the most appropriate permanent location for the new school or whether the wider rationalisation of English medium provision might provide a more suitable permanent location. This decision will need to reflect the natural catchment area that develops for the school and also the implications of wider housing developments in Neath Port Talbot.

I guess that means that as future phases of the Coed Darcy development get completed, either a second new WM school will open there which might attract children from around Port Tennant; or maybe that a new EM school there might do the same, leaving an empty EM school building which could house a larger WM school. I wouldn't mind betting that the latent demand will result in it being another WM school, rather than a replacement for this one.

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More Devolution

There has been quite a bit of discussion about whether Labour—if they fail to get a majority, or at least a workable majority, in the Assembly election—should try to form a coalition government with either Plaid Cymru or the LibDems. Although I do think it's unlikely that Labour will get such a majority, I also think that these decisions can only be made after the results are known.

Much more important now is what the manifestos of the parties will contain, because an effective programme for government can only be based on specific policies rather than just wanting to be in power for the sake of it.

As always, the big question in an Assembly election will be the spending priorities of the parties. After all, the main job of the Welsh Government is to make decisions about how to spend the block grant it gets from the Treasury. For as much as Labour would like us believe that this election is about "fighting the cuts" imposed by the ConDem coalition in Westminster, we can do absolutely nothing about the level of the block grant ... and we need to be clear that if Labour were still in power at Westminster we would be facing almost identical cuts. The choice we face is to decide which of the parties can spend the reduced amount of money we will get from the Westminster most effectively, so as to minimize the harm the cuts will cause.


But the second question is to ask how we can better protect ourselves from decisions made in Westminster which we in Wales would not make for ourselves. The only answer to that question is for us to push forward with an agenda for devolving more areas of responsibility to Wales. At the top of that list, or at least close to the top, is the devolution of police and the justice system.

I've just taken another look at the manifestos for the last Assembly elections in 2007, so as to remind myself of what the parties wanted then and to be able to compare it with what the new manifestos will say when they come out in a few weeks' time. This stood out:

We will seek to devolve powers and funding on policing and prisons, with appropriate transfer of funds, to Wales. In line with our wish for a Welsh Parliament with comparable powers to the Scottish Parliament we would also like to see many more criminal justice issues devolved to Wales, so that we can develop a sentencing and justice system that is responsive to the Welsh context.

Support the development of community justice panels to give local people a say in the punishment offenders carry out in their community, putting right the harm caused to victims, property and community, as an alternative to jail for non-violent offenders like shoplifters or petty vandals. Where appropriate we will promote youth conference where families and victims are involved in deciding on what can be done as reparation in the community, alongside an apology and repayment to the victim.

We will assess the need to increase specific prison capacity in Wales, such as addressing the lack of a women’s unit and the possible need for a North Wales prison.

It might come as a surprise to some that these are not extracts from Plaid's manifesto, but from that of the LibDems, here. I don't know whether they will still be in the 2011 manifesto, but I'll be disappointed if they aren't.

So when it comes to forming a government in May, those in Labour who are against any further devolution should not assume they will be able to kick it into the long grass by forming a soft coalition with the LibDems, rather than the more demanding coalition they would have to make with Plaid.

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Hain's £68bn White Elephant

Peter Hain's grip on reality has never been too firm. A red mist descends, he goes into attack mode, his mouth disengages from his brain ... and he comes out with things that make him look ever more ridiculous.

He must have had a particularly bad weekend, for today he came out with the announcement that the "cuts imposed by the Tories" on three projects amounted to £16,900 for every man, woman and child in Wales. He came to this conclusion by adding together the supposed value of three projects: £34.4bn for the Lavernock-Brean barrage, £14bn for the St Tathan defence academy and £2.3bn for Ynys Môn as an Energy Island.

     ‘Scrapping projects has cost each of us £17,000’

Sure enough, this adds up to £50.7bn, which divided by 3 million is £16,900. Let's ignore the fact that Labour could have implemented all these projects when they were in power in Westminster if they wanted to; others have picked up on that one. Let's ignore the fact that were not fighting another election on what politicians in Westminster do or don't do; this election is about electing AMs who will not be able to do a thing about the level of block grant the Welsh Government gets from Westminster. Let's ignore the fact that if this barrage could be built by private finance, as he claims, it cannot at the same time be a cut from Westminster.

To me, the more obvious question is to ask why he considers the barrage to be an entirely Welsh scheme? Surely it would be half English? It doesn't look as if his grasp of figures has improved since he left the young Liberals, who seem to make a point of ensuring that their activists are unable to do simple maths.

Yet maybe, just maybe, Peter Hain might have more financial acumen than we give him credit for. Perhaps he's saying that the Welsh half of the barrage will cost £34.4bn, making the total cost something more like £68.8bn. It will certainly be up at that level if we start talking about putting transport links on top of it.

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Build for Wales: Plaid Cymru's scheme to fund infrastructure investment in Wales

On Tuesday last week, Ieuan Wyn Jones announced Build for Wales, Plaid Cymru's scheme to fund infrastructure investment in Wales. The idea attracted considerable interest in the media, as well as some incredulity from Plaid's political opponents, as we can read here:

     Plaid to campaign on £500m jobs fund - Western Mail, 16 March 2011
     Plaid Cymru City bond idea attacked by rivals - BBC, 16 March 2011

Betsan Powys attempted to explain the issues in her blog, both here, and later here. But there were still several unanswered questions, so I asked Madoc Batcup, one of those in Plaid who has been at the centre of developing the idea over the last few years, if he would write something to explain the proposal in more detail.

Madoc Batcup is an independent financial consultant, with interests in structured financial products and in the environmental industry. He has also served as a member of the National Association of Pension Funds’ property advisory committee.

Madoc is a law graduate of Cambridge University and of the Institut d’Etudes Européennes in Brussels. Prior to becoming a financial consultant he worked for the investment banking arm of Swiss Bank Corporation in both London and Tokyo.

He is also Director of Wales in London.


An Infrastructure Investment and Management Company for Wales

Plaid Cymru recently announced a ‘Build for Wales’ project to create a new entity to invest in public infrastructure. In explaining what this innovative approach is expected to achieve, it is perhaps worthwhile to look at the context and background of the constraints to public sector investment in Wales.

Although housing is currently very expensive, it is generally considered desirable for people to aspire to own a house, for most the biggest capital investment they are ever likely to make. Because it would be impossible for all but the most extravagantly wealthy of individuals to purchase a house out of their current income, and because it would take a very long time to save up the money necessary to purchase a house, a mortgage market has developed which allows individuals to buy houses and live in them as they gradually pay off their debt over a number of years.

The situation of governments is not so terribly different. If they want to undertake large amounts of capital expenditure to invest in new schools, hospitals, roads etc. they must either use current income, save until they have enough money, or borrow the money over the years and repay as they use the facility.

In the case of the Welsh Government it can’t borrow, and it can’t tax to increase its income. If it saves then it lays itself open to the possibility of the Treasury taking back the money on the basis it is unspent as it did recently - the Treasury’s housekeeping can lead to perverse incentives against prudence. So something that most individuals take for granted and is generally thought to be a good thing, the ability to borrow long term to buy an expensive capital asset and pay for it gradually, is denied to the Welsh Government.


It is true that Westminster came up with an alternative; PFI, which in essence is a form of glorified inefficient and expensive hire purchase. Given the lack of any alternative form of funding, many parts of the UK reluctantly undertook capital projects using PFI because they had little choice. The Treasury has now acknowledged that PFI often represents poor value for money, hence the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme in England. To its credit, Wales financed very little using PFI (about one tenth of the amount of Scotland, and less than 1% of the UK total). However, this has meant that Wales has a substantial backlog of capital projects in the public sector. The announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in last October’s Spending Review that the capital expenditure budget for Wales would be slashed by 41% over the next four years has added a huge amount of further pressure on already severely constrained funding.

This means that the Welsh Government (and the Welsh public sector generally) has an urgent need to find an alternative way of investing in its infrastructure. In addition it must try to do so within its funding allocation under the Barnett formula given the current financial challenges which the UK faces.

It is to meet this challenge, as well as to provide a mechanism for improving public sector procurement and management and driving down costs, that Wales needs a new approach and a new entity. A Welsh Infrastructure Investment and Management company, christened as ‘Build for Wales’ (BfW) would have the following key characteristics:

•  The company would be a not for distributable profit private company, limited by guarantee, with a structure comparable to that of Glas Cymru. Profits retained in the company would be used to improve the company’s balance sheet and to invest in further public sector infrastructure projects in Wales. It would focus exclusively on infrastructure projects in Wales, and as its portfolio grew it is anticipated that it would build up a substantial body of knowledge and expertise in the area of tendering and negotiation, as well as in the operation and management of public sector occupied real estate.

•  The company would be responsible for the funding and implementation of public sector infrastructure projects, such as schools and hospitals, and this could also extend to roads and housing. It would also be responsible for operating them and managing them after construction. It would represent an alternative to PFI and to direct borrowing by a public sector body. The company would not seek to bundle together construction contracts and operating and service contracts, as in PFI, but only to be the landlord of the building/owner of the asset with a standard lease. In addition any profits the company made would be recycled into further investment in Welsh public sector infrastructure. This would make it fundamentally different from PFI. Public sector bodies would not be obliged to make use of the new entity, but it would provide an important funding alternative to conventional PFI and public procurement on the basis of their own spending priorities. BfW would seek tenders from private sector construction companies to deliver the infrastructure on its behalf, but BfW would be responsible for funding the infrastructure, managing it, and repaying the relevant debt under a long term lease arrangement.

The establishment of such a vehicle would enable the public sector to plan capital expenditure over a longer period, and benefit from the expertise of an arm’s length body which would be focused on the infrastructure sector and delivering value for money. In the case of building a school for example, the local education authority could ask BfW to build a school on its behalf. The LEA would enter into a long term lease to occupy the school, and the lease payments made by the LEA would service the debt raised by BfW to build the school. The LEA would be responsible for the day to day management of the premises.

Such an approach should, over a period of time, lead to standardisation in both contractual documentation and in procurement procedures and requirements, lowering costs and increasing transparency and certainty, and enhancing the likelihood of the efficient delivery of public infrastructure. For local education authorities, health trusts and other public bodies it provides access to a centre of expertise, which although private has a public sector mission, capable of delivering capital projects for them on a more efficient basis, resulting from being specialised in the sector, and being able to build on its funding and construction experience.

The aims of creating this new independent company include:

•  Enabling the Welsh Government to use part of its current expenditure as capital investment in an efficient manner. This is something that the Treasury normally welcomes as being a prudent approach. Since Wales has done very little PFI compared to the other parts of the UK it has more room to invest in capital projects.

•  Enabling access to private sector finance on a fairer and more efficient basis than PFI at a time of severe government borrowing constraints

•  Creation of a specialist company experienced in procurement and negotiation with contractors, resulting in a more efficient delivery of public sector infrastructure projects, and the driving down of costs, another aim of the Treasury

•  Profits made by the company would be retained for further investment in the public sector, another aim of the Treasury.

This approach has therefore specifically been tailored to meet a number of the Treasury’s key goals as well as the needs of the Welsh Government. It would have the added advantage of providing demand in the construction industry at a difficult time, protecting and creating jobs and investing at pricing levels which should be very competitive compared to a few years ago.

The Welsh Government would need to provide a certain amount of loan capital out of its own resources to the company to get it started and might assist the company by way of a contingent guarantee to the extent consistent with it being an independent company. The amount lent would be paid back out of retained profits after an agreed period of time.

The amount that BfW would invest in infrastructure projects would depend on the demand from the Welsh public sector, but if this amounted to e.g. £500 million over the five years after its establishment, the total annual servicing costs would be about 0.3% of the Welsh budget. This therefore actually represents a rather cautious approach to the expansion of public sector infrastructure investment.


The Treasury has acknowledged that PFI is not good value for money and is looking for an alternative at a time when the public finances of the UK are exceptionally constrained and yet there is the need to provide a growth stimulus, not least in the construction industry. While the Welsh Government has comparatively more capacity to transfer current spending to capital investment, this approach would be equally applicable in the rest of the UK.

This alternative to PFI has been discussed with major banking and accountancy institutions and proposals to take it further with the Treasury have been initiated by the Welsh Government. It is to be hoped that as the details of this approach become clearer, and in the seeming absence of any other researched suggestions as to how Wales as a whole might meet its future public sector investment challenges, this approach might garner cross-party support.

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Renewable Whisky

I learned something yesterday, and as a result I owe people reading this blog an apology for having repeatedly said something that is in fact wrong. I had said that decision making power on electricity generating projects with an installed capacity greater than 50 MW was not devolved to Wales; but this is true only for projects on land, the limit for marine energy projects is actually much smaller, only 1 MW. Decision making responsibility for marine projects between 1 and 100 MW rests with the Marine Management Organization.

I learned this while watching a short debate yesterday afternoon about the Senedd's Sustainability Committee report on planning in Wales, and the Welsh Government's response to it. The issues considered were wide ranging, and it would be worth waching the debate in full, here, but I've singled out three contributions relating to energy which I thought were particularly informative in the clip below:


What is remarkable is the degree of consensus among all political parties in the Assembly about the importance of devolving decision making power for energy projects to Wales, for although I didn't include what Kirsty Williams and Leanne Wood said, they were in full agreement about the need for this. But it is something that ministers in Westminster—from Labour before, and from the Tories and LibDems now—are refusing to give way on. Personally, I've long suspected that the primary reason for this is that the Unionist parties in Westminster do not want us to block their plans for nuclear power in Wales in the same way as the Scottish government has blocked nuclear power in Scotland. However proposing that planning decisions are devolved for all power projects under 100 MW, both on land and at sea, seems to be a more than reasonable compromise. It would allow, for example, tidal lagoon projects such as the 60 MW scheme for Swansea Bay to go ahead.

With the Assembly elections approaching, it may seem out of place to concentrate on something that all four elected parties want. I would only suggest that if each party makes a manifesto commitment to have this power devolved to Wales, it would make it that much harder for Westminster to continue to refuse to devolve this power to us.


As it happens, today provides a perfect example what the Scottish government has been able to do with its devolved powers in this area. Approval has just been given for a 10 MW array of tidal flow turbines in Islay Sound:


     Islay to get major tidal power scheme – BBC, 17 March 2011

And now the title of this article should be a little clearer. For if we read this press release from ScottishPower Renewables, we will see that this project has been made possible in part because of a commercial agreement with Diageo to provide electricity from the project to their eight distilleries and maltings on Islay. I must admit to being rather partial to two of their Islay brands, Caol Ila and Lagavulin ... however it looks like we'll have to wait not only a couple of years for the project to come online, but another twelve years in the cask before we can toast the Scots for having produced a truly renewable whisky.


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Responsibility? ... No thanks

I read with interest the interview with Gareth Jones on rail infrastructure investment in today's Western Mail; in particular the differences between Wales and Scotland, as outlined in these extracts:

Unlike in Scotland, the Welsh Assembly Government does not have direct statutory control over Network Rail’s activities.

As part of the Railway Act 2005, devolved responsibility for specifying the outputs from Network Rail – a not for dividend company that owns and manages the UK’s rail network – passed to the Scottish Government, coupled with a transfer of funding from the Department for Transport. This in 2008-09 was £324m – or 11.7% of Network Rail’s UK operation, maintenance and renewal activities.

The arrangement in Scotland is allowing it to support more than £1bn of rail investment in the next five to 10 years through Network Rail’s own financial borrowing powers. While it has a healthy settlement in its block grant it is also directing more funding into rail from its overall budget – around £600m a year until 2014.


Even with the “high levels” of investment in Wales being claimed, it still would appear that the £200m quoted by Network Rail for 2009-2010, and an assumed steady investment to 2015, only provides £1bn against the £34bn for the UK as a whole over the next controlled spending period. This is 3%, despite the fact that Wales has 5% of the UK population.

Western Mail, 16 March 2011

I'm actually quite pleased to see these figures, for I remember reading that Wales received only 2.5% or 3% of Network Rail's spending, but then couldn't find the source to link to it. The figures confirm that we are losing out on maybe £135m of rail infrastructure spending each year.

But I was much more concerned by this statement:

Back in 2005 the Welsh Assembly was offered a devolved settlement on rail alongside Scotland, but it was rejected. It is understood that WAG officials had some concerns over a transfer of liabilities.

Mr Jones, who stands down as an AM in May, said : “It was a missed opportunity [devolution of rail spend], but I think it should come around again in view of the situation we find ourselves and the comparison we made with the Scottish model.”

Now I wasn't particularly active in politics in 2005, so I don't remember the circumstances, and I'd be grateful to anyone who could point me in the right direction. Yet it seems incomprehensible to me why the then Welsh Government rejected this opportunity. £135m a year over the last six years alone would have resulted in an additional £800m of rail investment in Wales. To put that in perspective, it would probably have been enough to electrify the north coast line to Holyhead.

I can't help but think that the Labour party in Wales seems to have an inbuilt reluctance to take financial responsibility ... and it's costing us dear.

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England on the Same Scale

There's a fascinating slideshow showing maps of Africa here on the BBC website. My friends who want an independent Catalunya will be pleased with the first, a remarkable map produced by the Catalan State in the 14th century.

But this is the last slide, which shows how much the current borders in southern Africa reflect European colonialism. Click the image to open a larger version.


If we look at the bottom corner of the map from 1889 we can see another example of the same colonialism.

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Shirking Responsibility

Ask nine out of ten people, and they'll tell you that things like the health service and education are completely devolved to Wales. But that isn't really true. There are many aspects of the twenty devolved areas that are not devolved, and the pay and conditions of employment for teachers is one of them.

Yet when Nerys Evans said that setting our teachers' pay and terms of employment should be a matter for us in Wales, it provoked a rather strange response from Leighton Andrews, who described it as a "shocking admission".

The first thing to say is that it's hardly an admission. In case he or anyone else hasn't realized it yet, Plaid Cymru want to see decisions that effect only Wales being made in Wales ... and following the referendum, we know that about two thirds of voters in Wales agree with us on that.

But the shock is not so much what Plaid want, but what Leighton Andrews said in reply to the suggestion by Rex Phillips of the NASUWT that it would result in lower pay for teachers in Wales:

Mr Andrews said the implications were incredibly serious and put Plaid at odds with the teaching profession.

"The First Minister and I have ruled out the devolution of pay and conditions for this very reason, we do not want to see an exodus of Wales' best teachers to England," he added.

There'll only be an exodus of the best teachers to England if we decide to pay our teachers less or give them otherwise inferior terms of employment. Leighton Andrews is clearly saying that if things were left to him to decide (at least as one of the parties at the negotiating table) he would pay Welsh teachers less than their English counterparts. But why? The amount of money available to pay teachers in Wales comes partly from Council Tax, but mostly from the Welsh government's block grant. Wales will get the same money (based on the amount given towards education and all other departmental spending in England) irrespective of how the Welsh government chooses to share it out in Wales. Teachers will only get less if the Welsh government decides there are more important things it wants to spend the money on instead.


Now I fully accept that the same argument doesn't apply where public sector workers are paid directly by the UK government. Tax collectors, passport office workers (what few might be left) and the like should be paid the same, for if such workers were paid less in Wales, it would mean less money coming into Wales. Yet this is what is beginning to happen, and not just because the Tories and LibDems are now in power in Westminster. Back in 2008, it was a Labour government that introduced regional pay for those working in the Courts Service, with staff in Wales taking the hit, as we can read here:

     Ludicrous' regional pay attacked - BBC, 13 July 2008

To his credit, Dai Havard spoke out against it, warning that it would be the thin end of the wedge ... but his intervention made a fat lot of difference. His own government did it anyway and, as we can read in these two reports, the Tories and LibDems are now set to finish the job:

     Calls for regional pay in public sector - BBC, 16 June 2010
     Civil servants face regional pay threat - Financial Times, 5 July 2010

Leighton Andrews has got it completely the wrong way round. The way things are going, all public sector employees in Wales are likely to be paid less for doing the same job than their counterparts in the richer parts of England. So devolving teachers' pay and conditions to Wales is in fact the best way of making sure that we pay our teachers what we think they deserve.


If anybody is concerned about what might happen with teachers, all we need do is look at what's happened in the past with other professions. Here are two examples of what devolved responsibility for setting pay and conditions has actually meant in practice:

•  In March 2007, the nurses pay review body recommended a 2.5% pay increase. As we can read here, the Scottish government decided to implement it in full, and the Welsh government then did the same. But the Westminster government decided that nurses in England would not get the rise until November.

•  Then in December of the same year, as we can read here, the Police Arbitration Tribunal recommended that all police in the UK should have a 2.5% pay rise, backdated to 1 September. The UK government decided to ignore that recommendation and only backdate it to 1 December, but the Scottish government went along with the recommendation. Thus, for the first time, police officers in Scotland got a different pay settlement from the rest of the UK.

So why is Labour scaremongering? If we elect the right government, devolving this responsibility will be a way of protecting teachers' pay and conditions, not something to be afraid of. We don't have to reinvent the wheel either, for if we look at what happens in Scotland, we will see that teachers' pay and conditions are negotiated through the SNCT, a tripartite body comprising members from teaching organisations, local authorities and the Scottish government. We can set up something similar for Wales.


After the referendum Carwyn Jones said that Wales "has now come of age". Coming of age means that we can and should take this responsibility. Yet it seems as if Labour would much prefer to shirk it, perhaps because they want to be able to play the victim card when the UK government introduces regional pay for all public servants; or perhaps because the Labour party would, if left to their own devices, make the same decision ... but want to point the finger of blame at anyone other than themselves.

Vote accordingly.

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Paving the Way

I was intrigued by Plaid's new pavement advertising campaign:


It's called reverse graffiti, and it's a nice idea to make your mark by cleaning dirt off the pavement rather than applying something to it. Of course it will just fade away in a few weeks as the pavement gets dirty again ... but it does show just how dirty our pavements actually are.

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A foundation for Cardiff's fourth WM secondary

I have to admit to being a little surprised by the decision to allow Whitchurch High School in Cardiff to become a Foundation School, especially in the light of the proposed Education Measure that would prevent schools becoming Foundation Schools in future. I assume that Leighton Andrews concluded that he could not reasonably block the application under the current rules. That's fair enough. I don't have any doubt that the school is perfectly capable of running its own affairs outside local authority control.

However in this instance, it seems that the major motive behind the application has been to sidestep Cardiff's plan to reduce it from a twelve form entry to a ten form entry school. Cardiff's reasons for wanting to do this were:

In recent years there has been a significant fall in the number of children residing in the catchment area of Whitchurch High School whose parents/guardians are requesting an English-medium education. This fall means that Whitchurch High School would have to rely in future on a much larger proportion of pupils commuting from across the city, if it were to operate at a size similar to its present level.

Establishing the school at 10 forms of entry will not only meet the future needs of the children in the local area but will also help to ensure that pupils in other areas of the city also continue to have a viable school in their local area. As school budgets at every school are largely dependent upon numbers on roll, these proposals aim to ensure that secondary schools have a more stable budget and can plan for a viable future.

Cardiff Council Website

My primary concern is the provision of Welsh-medium education; so even though the future size of the High School was part of Cardiff's overall proposals for reorganization of schools in the Whitchurch area, it was of much less concern to me than finding a solution to the problems of overcrowding and over-reliance on substandard temporary accommodation at Ysgol Melin Gruffydd. Leighton Andrew's decision at the end of January has at least found a solution to that.

However, alongside the need to increase Welsh-medium provision, Cardiff does have the problem of large numbers of surplus places in its English-medium schools at both primary and secondary level. Now to my way of thinking a twelve from entry school is much too large; but that's only my opinion, and I'm more than happy for parents to be free to make that choice for themselves. Yet as Cardiff said, one reason for reducing the intake at Whitchurch High was to increase the numbers of children going to other English-medium secondary schools in the city so that these areas "continue to have a viable school in their local area". The inevitable consequence of Whitchurch High remaining as 12FE school is that Cardiff will now have to look elsewhere to reduce the number of surplus places in the secondary sector, which will almost certainly mean closing one school.

And that, of course, will provide an obvious opportunity to create a fourth Welsh-medium secondary in Cardiff.

Cardiff currently has two WM secondaries, with a third due to open on the old St Teilo's site in September 2012. But the rapid increase in the numbers of children at WM primaries means that this fourth WM secondary will be needed by around 2015 or 2016. Any ideas as to where it might be?

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Those who live by the sword ...

When I saw this picture, I couldn't help but think of the words of a somewhat more prominent Tory who once spoke of:

" ... the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play"


Click the picture if you don't know who the one in the middle is ... or here if you want to know who will win.

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The St David's Day Poll

The BBC never did explain their decision not to publish the results of the annual poll it commissions from ICM until after the referendum had taken place, and although it was mentioned in this article, the answers to the non-referendum questions did tend to get lost in the excitement of the referendum itself ... which is quite understandable. So I thought now would be an appropriate time to look at them. The results can be downloaded from here:

     ICM Poll for BBC Cymru Wales, March 2011

These are the responses to the three usual questions, compared with the responses in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Which one of these levels of government do you think presently has MOST influence over Wales?
  2008  2009  2010  2011
The European Union8%8%6%11%
The UK Government35%29%40%47%
The Welsh Government40%40%36%24%
Local Authorities10%15%7%6%
Which level of government do you think SHOULD have most influence over Wales?
  2008  2009  2010  2011
The European Union2%2%1%1%
The UK Government22%21%24%27%
The Welsh Government61%61%62%58%
Local Authorities11%14%7%7%
Which one of these statements comes closest to your view?
Wales should be / have ...
  2008  2009  2010  2011
Independent, outside EU5%5%4%4%
Independent, inside EU8%8%7%7%
Assembly with full law and (some) tax powers37%34%40%35%
Assembly with full law and no tax powersn/a10%13%18%
Assembly with limited law powers only26%21%18%17%
No Assembly20%19%13%15%

The trend of answers to the first question is very interesting. It shows that people now think the Welsh government has less influence than they thought it had before, with Westminster having correspondingly more influence.

To my mind the explanation for this is that Labour were until recently in power in both Cardiff Bay and Westminster, and it was therefore very difficult for people to distinguish between what Labour's MPs and AMs were doing. This was not helped by Labour's claims about the economic benefits that devolution would bring, particularly in increasing Wales' GVA per head relative to the UK as a whole. It led people to think that the Welsh government was more responsible for the economic performance of Wales than was in fact the case. But in fact nearly all the levers that effect our economy were and still are very firmly in the hands of the UK government at Westminster.

At a time when very large sums of public money were being spent, it is understandable that people thought the money that was allocated to things like new schools and hospitals was because of the Welsh government at Cardiff Bay. But Wales was only responsible for allocating how the money it was given by Westminster was spent, not how much it was being given. Now that the effects of the financial crisis are beginning to be felt, is it hardly surprising that people in Wales are beginning to realize that the decisions made by Westminster have a lot more importance than they previously thought. And of course the fact that the UK government making those decisions is now a coalition of the two parties that are not in government in Wales makes the distinction much more apparent than it was before.


But even so, it is remarkable and encouraging that the people of Wales still think that our own government in Cardiff Bay should have most influence over Wales, as opposed to Westminster (with the other two options attracting negligible support). Yes, the margin has gone down a little, but is comfortably more than two-to-one. This shows that there is still plenty of appetite in Wales for more areas of responsibility to be devolved from Westminster to the Senedd. Two very obvious things are police and the justice system, which is supported by 57% with 29% against according to the rmg:Clarity poll produced last week for the Western Mail. Additionally, the poll I mentioned in this post found that 59% thought that decisions about welfare and benefits should be devolved to the Assembly, with only 23% thinking these decisions should continue to be made at Westminster.

We would be very unwise to ignore this, particularly because of the news today that massive cuts are going to be made in policing which will make the case for amalgamating smaller forces all the more urgent. Now would seem to be the perfect time to look at either an all-Wales police force, or some way of combining the administrative and technical functions of the four Welsh forces to make better use of money and resources. On top of this, the ConDem coalition is seeking to replace police authorities with elected commissioners against the wishes of the majority in Wales ... and are having great difficulty in finding a way of holding these commissioners accountable in Wales. One obvious solution is to devolve policing to Wales and let us decide how to make the police democratically accountable.

However it would be wrong to ignore that fact that the percentage in favour of the Welsh government having most influence over Wales has gone down, even if only slightly. I think the reason for this is an increased sense of dissatisfaction with the way Welsh governments have dealt with some crucial areas which are devolved to Wales. As we all know, some aspects of our education system are deteriorating ( ... although not all, because the Foundation Phase and Welsh Baccalaureate are likely to be great improvements). So are some aspects of our National Health Service. Wales has only ever known devolved government in which all or part of the policy agenda has been set by the Labour party, so it is inevitable that people should be asking whether the way some things are done in England is better than the way we have chosen to do them here. But the answer to that is for us not to blindly elect yet another Assembly in which Labour are the biggest party in May.


Finally, we turn to the question about which governance model is right for Wales. In some ways this question is now out of date, since we have just given our approval to the Assembly getting primary lawmaking powers in the areas devolved to it. But the trend shown over the past few years is still very informative, with fewer of us wanting to abolish the Assembly and fewer of us wanting an Assembly with only limited lawmaking powers. Now that we are going to have primary lawmaking powers, I'd expect there to be a shift in expectations in next year's poll. Most people who want Wales to move forward will prefer to take one step at a time, rather than two.

So the next big question for us is whether the Assembly should have tax setting powers, especially because this always has been and still remains by far the most popular model. Yet in just the same way as Labour did all they could to avoid moving to an Assembly with lawmaking powers, by setting the requirement for what most people now see as an unnecessary referendum; they seem just as reluctant to stop us moving to an Assembly with tax setting powers. It seems clear from what people like Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones have said recently that Labour want to shy away from the responsibility of the Welsh Government being responsible for raising even a modest part of the £15bn it spends each year; and in my opinion, this is why they are so keen to insist on placing yet another obstacle in the way in the form of yet another referendum.

Now I agree with Carwyn Jones that our first priority should be to get a fair funding formula for Wales as a replacement for the Barnett formula. If he had shown any degree of foresight, he would have made sure that the Labour Government in Westminster replaced it when they were in power. Instead, Labour ridiculed us for making the missing £300m a central plank of Plaid Cymru's manifesto in 2010 ... only to have undergone a dramatic conversion now that Labour aren't in power. Leadership requires greater foresight than he or Rhodri Morgan before him have shown.

The Tories, now they are in charge at the Treasury, are doing exactly what Labour did when they were in charge. They are telling us that they think Wales is fairly funded, and that we have nothing to complain about. So we would be fools to expect any major change to the way the block grant is calculated. Instead, we would be wise to look at what is happening in Scotland, where the basic recommendation of the Calman Commission was to reduce the block grant, but make Scotland responsible for raising whatever it thinks it needs to make up for it by setting its own rate of income tax, together with responsibility for a few minor taxes.

With a few modifications (improvements, in my opinion) the Holtham Commission has recommended that the Welsh block grant should be similarly reduced and that the Welsh government should set a level of income tax to make up for it. It may not be perfect, but it is a practical and workable step in the right direction, because it is irresponsible for any government to simply spend money without accepting any responsibility for how that money is raised. It is clear to me that Westminster (whether the Tories or Labour are in power) is not going to reform the Barnett Formula without at the same time addressing how each of the devolved administrations in the UK can become responsible for raising at least some of the money they spend. And should Labour in Wales try to backtrack on this issue, it is worth reminding people that they were one of the parties that set up the Calman and Holtham Commissions. Why spend all that money on them only in order to ignore what they recommend?

There is no great issue of principle at stake that would require a referendum on tax setting powers. Every local council can set the rate of taxes or levy a precept. The Assembly already has responsibility for setting the multiplier that determines non-domestic rates for businesses. So tax setting powers for the National Assembly is an already overdue step, and something the people of Wales have the right to expect to see implemented.

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Carwyn and too much cheap booze

When Carwyn Jones said on Friday that Wales was now "a full and equal partner" in the United Kingdom it was either because the euphoria of the occasion had gone to his head, or an attempt at a not so coded message that Labour wants people in Wales to be content with the constitutional settlement we now have and not expect any further progress for a long, long time.

That's simply not good enough. The truth is that Wales is still very far from having the same devolved powers as either Scotland or Northern Ireland ... as this story from Northern Ireland illustrates perfectly:


Plans to set Northern Ireland alcohol prices

The Health and Social Development Ministers are proposing to introduce a new minimum price for selling alcohol in Northern Ireland in a bid to curb binge drinking.

Alex Attwood and Michael McGimpsey are pushing for a minimum price per unit of alcohol to be set between 40p and 70p in off-licences, supermarkets, pubs and registered clubs as part of a government drive to reduce irresponsible drinking. They say alcohol abuse, particularly among teenagers, is costing Northern Ireland as much as £700m a year.

Detailed research from Sheffield University highlights the real impact setting a minimum price of 40p has on reducing alcohol consumption.

In Northern Ireland, the minimum price introduction would mean a six pack of beer containing approximately 11 units of alcohol would cost £4.40 if the price of 40p per unit is accepted or £7.70 if the price of 70p per unit is chosen.

Scotland has already consulted on a 45p per unit minimum price, however, bringing this forward as legislation has proved unsuccessful.

UTV, 7 March 2011

As it happens, Northern Ireland is the third devolved administration to propose a minimum price for alcohol. The Scottish Government attempted to introduce a 45p per unit price last year, but the SNP couldn't command a majority for it in Holyrood, and that part of the bill was defeated.

That's fair enough ... democracy is all about what people, through their elected representatives, want. But the point of principle is that both Northern Ireland and Scotland would be perfectly entitled to pass a law setting a minimum price for alcohol if the proposal had majority support in Stormont or Holyrood.


Only Scotland's attempt to pass such legislation was mentioned in the UTV report, but we in Wales have also been trying to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. I talked about the background to it in this post in August last year. But unlike Scotland, our problem was not that we couldn't get a majority of our AMs to vote for it, but that the Wales Office simply refused to entertain the idea. This is what David Jones, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Wales Office said at the time:

The Wales Office has accused the assembly government's health minister of breaking the devolution agreement by calling for powers over alcohol licensing. Edwina Hart has asked fellow cabinet members to help her "take control and take action" over alcohol policies.

But David Jones said alcohol licensing will never be devolved. He agreed that alcohol abuse was a "major blight" but said laws over it would never be devolved.

Mr Jones added: "Alcohol pricing is specifically excluded from a devolution settlement, it will never be part of the devolution settlement and I'm rather surprised that Mrs Hart made the announcement in the way she did. What it shows is it is useful if assembly ministers consult not only with their own colleagues in the assembly government, but also with colleagues at Westminster before making announcements of this sort."

He said "I fully agree with Edwina Hart to the extent that alcohol is a major blight upon the social life of this country."

Mr Jones said among the proposals the UK coalition government was working up were to ban the sale of alcohol below cost pricing and to review alcohol taxation and pricing to tackle binge drinking. He said they would consult with the assembly government, but "it is a process that should be developed at an England and Wales level."

BBC, 17 August 2010

It's an almost exact parallel of the situation we faced with the smoking ban. We in Wales were only allowed to implement it after Westminster decided to do it in England. But why on earth should things "be developed at an England and Wales level"? If it is acceptable for both Northern Ireland and Scotland to be able to legislate on behalf of their people in areas like this, why shouldn't our National Assembly be able to do the same?

Wales has still got a second class devolution settlement compared with both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yes, last week's referendum has made some difference to what we can legislate on, but only some. We have a long way to go before we can be considered "a full and equal partner" in the UK. Perhaps when the euphoria has worn off, Carwyn Jones and his party will join us in realizing that we still have a lot more to fight for.

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Swansea to take a step forward

I have on several occasions criticized Swansea Council for their unwillingness to expand Welsh-medium education in line with the parental demand for it. In particular I have called for them to set up new starter schools in some of the old English-medium schools that were closed last summer because they had too many surplus spaces. The articles are here:

     New Welsh-medium schools in Swansea ... 8 March 2010
     A proposal for two new Welsh-medium schools in Swansea ... 11 April 2010
     Ysgol i Ogledd Gwyr - A School for North Gower ... 28 August 2010

This is an extract from what I wrote in the first of these, just after confirmation of the decision to close Cwm Primary:

No school closure decision is easy, but what has happened does open up a solution to Swansea's problem of where to open at least one much-needed WM school. At present there is no WM school at all in East Swansea, at least not until you get as far north as YGG Lôn Las in Llansamlet. The RhAG report I linked to shows that a considerable number of children from Bon-y-maen have to travel 2km or more to get to YGG Lôn Las, and that some even travel 6km or so from St Thomas:

74 children from Bonymaen attend Lôn-las and 20 from St. Thomas. 9 children from St. Thomas attend Bryn-y-môr. 103 children from these areas suggests that there are sufficient numbers here to support a Welsh medium school, and quick growth could be anticipated.

So we have the bizarre situation where some parents are up in arms because their children will have to travel a maximum extra distance of just over 300m to get to Cwm Glas, while there are easily enough local children in Bon-y-maen who are currently having to travel many times further by bus or car to get to the closest WM school, but who would be able to walk if the Cwm buildings were to become a WM school. And for the community as a whole it's surely better for the buildings to remain in use, for they will be just as much available for community use outside school hours as they are now. To me, it's an obvious solution to a pressing problem.

Cwm Primary is closing simply because the numbers wanting EM education do not justify two EM schools with so many surplus places in such close proximity to each other ... but its closure opens up the opportunity for Swansea to provide more WM places in accordance with the wishes of the 28% of parents that want it for their children.

So it was rather a pleasant surprise to read this in the Evening Post yesterday:

Welsh language school plan for closed primary

A primary school which was closed last year because of falling pupil numbers and crumbling buildings could reopen – as a Welsh language school.

Cwm Primary School in Bonymaen, Swansea, closed its gates for the last time in July after 150 years, despite protests from pupils, parents and governors. But it has now emerged that the junior block of the Eastside school could reopen as a Welsh "starter" school by 2012 because of growing demand for places – though this would only be until a permanent site could be developed.

Swansea Council said the new use for Cwm Primary would help to plug the growing gap in Welsh language education – it forecasts that by 2016 there will be a shortage of some 73 places.

Mike Day, Swansea Council's cabinet member for education, said: "The demand for Welsh-medium primary school places is continuing to rise, and our existing schools simply haven't got the room to meet the demand from parents. While we need to consider further the longer-term options, we have to provide a shorter-term solution because demand is outstripping supply.

"Cwm's former junior block in Bonymaen is the most appropriate site for a starter school. This will help us meet the demand for places and also prevent local children having to travel out of their community to get to the nearest Welsh-medium primary school." He added: "This proposal would also bring the former junior block back into education use, which will hopefully be welcomed by the community."

Plans for a temporary Welsh school in Bonymaen are due to go to the council's cabinet on Thursday – if they are approved, a formal consultation process will begin.

South Wales Evening Post, 5 March 2011

I'd call that a win!

As the aerial picture shows, the school has two separate blocks, with the older Victorian building at the bottom right and what looks to be a seventies building at the top left.




Now I do think it's fair to say that these school buildings are not in the best of condition, but I'm not sure they are in so bad a condition as to be described as "crumbling". When putting together the case for closing a school, there is a tendency to overstate things in order to justify the decision. But the essence of a starter school is that it begins with one or two classes, and then grows. That means there is plenty of opportunity to refurbish one building while the other is being used, or even to knock one of them down and rebuild a new school. Yet, with the current financial situation being what it is, I'm sure things can be patched up for a few years until a long-term decision—which will obviously depend on funding—can be made.

But what is important is that Swansea makes a commitment that if the numbers justify it (and the evidence from RhAG shows that they will) they will either refurbish or rebuild on the same site or very close to it. If Swansea can't do this, then parents will naturally be reluctant for their children to start their primary education in one place, but then have to travel miles to a new, unknown location in two or three years.


The other obvious question to ask is why Swansea are not thinking of opening the new starter school until 2012. Why should a building that is already sitting empty have to sit empty for another year, when there is plenty of demand for Welsh-medium education from the east side of Swansea right now? There can be no reasonable grounds for objections, since the EM school has already been closed, and no planning objections because the buildings already exist. On top of that, a building standing empty is much more likely to deteriorate or be vandalized than a building that is being used.

So I would urge Swansea to aim to open this starter school this coming September rather than in September 2012.


But these reservations aside, I wholeheartedly welcome Swansea's decision ... and I only wish they would apply the same logic and reconsider what to do with the school buildings at Arfryn and Llanmorlais.

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That was the day that was

As a record of a very special day yesterday, I thought I'd post what people had to say about it on the three evening news programmes.




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Some let me make you of the leaders' speeches

I'm sure the news reports will only show some short clips, so here are this afternoon's speeches in full.


The title would have been especially appropriate if Lee Waters had been speaking ... or if the referendum had been held last October.

But I have no idea where the idea of us now being "full and equal partners in the UK" comes from. We are still very far from having the same areas of responsibility devolved to Wales as are devolved to either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

This is the message we must now send clearly from the loud hill of Wales.


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Wales Wins

I've toyed with so many titles and themes for this post, as there are lots of things to say about this referendum, the campaigns, and the eventual result. But those things can wait.

What matters most is that we in Wales have shown ourselves, and the rest of the world, that we have the self-confidence and maturity to make decisions for ourselves. It's just one step, but a significant one. It makes me proud of how far we've come as a nation, and confident about how much further we will go.

It is Wales that has won today. Let's celebrate that, first and foremost.

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Drinking in the Last Chance Saloon

There's still time to get out and vote before the polling booths close ... and then to reward yourself with a pint in your local hostelry.


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Feeling guilty?

Admit it. You were going to get up early and vote before you went to work. You promised yourself that you would, but you didn't quite make it. I understand. Mornings are like that.

But never mind, the polling stations are going to stay open until 10pm ... so you've still got the chance to be part of the Yes vote today. Take it.

That guilty feeling that's been gnawing away inside you all day will just disappear, I promise. And tomorrow night you'll be able to celebrate with a clear conscience and proudly say you were part of it.


And if you can persuade a few others to vote as well, we'll have an even bigger celebration.

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Set your alarms early

When each new dawn breaks I'm more likely to be thinking about going to bed rather than struggling to get out of it; but whatever the time we usually set our alarms at, I'd urge everyone to make it fifteen minutes earlier just for tomorrow. It's a special day.


Use five minutes for a more leisurely cup of tea or coffee, then use the other ten to take a small detour to the polling station on the way to work, or wherever else tomorrow morning takes you. This referendum vote may not be the biggest step forward we'll take, but it's a step we need to take now and one which all the polls show we are ready for. And even though there are very good reasons for taking this one step whether we go any further or not—reasons which I've written about on many occasions before—I want to make it clear that I see this as just the next step towards an independent Wales. I think those who share this view need to say it loudly and clearly before tomorrow's referendum rather than after it.

Others campaigning for a Yes vote might well have different reasons for doing so. Some will want to take this step and a few steps further. Some will want to take this step but not move any further. Perhaps some might look for guarantees that devolution will not go any further, but there aren't any guarantees. In a democracy, things will change when enough of us want them to change and are prepared to vote for parties that will implement those changes.

As soon as this vote is won—as I am sure it will be—I will be focusing on what comes next. Some of the more obvious things are devolution of the justice system, police and prisons in the same way as these are currently devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland; the ability to set rates of taxation as Scotland can do now with income tax and will soon be able to do with other taxes, and as Northern Ireland is set to be able to do with corporation tax; the control of our coastline and our marine resources; and the ability to set our own energy policy and our own priorities for transport and other infrastructure, rather than rely on the priorities of a government that can only ever have a 5% interest in Wales and a 95% interest in the rest of our island.


So I, for one, am not going to try and make out that I only want to go so far, afraid that people might not share my vision for where the devolution journey should end and might vote No because of it. Why? Because there is absolutely nothing for people to be afraid of. We're not on some slippery slope; instead the task at hand is for us to clear the way for the next step, consolidate the ground to give us a firm foothold, and then take it and each subsequent step forward together, with our eyes wide open, because we are convinced that they are the right steps for us to take as a nation.

If I and the others who share this view cannot convince others in Wales then we cannot move forward together, and I wouldn't want us to. But if the last decade has shown us anything, it's that we can convince others: just look at the way we have changed the minds of parties like the Welsh Tories, who were once vehemently against any form of devolution; and of Welsh Labour, who only a few years ago were reluctant about or openly opposed to taking the step we will take tomorrow ... at least until well after the current generation of Labour politicians had retired. We are on the right side of this argument, so we need to have the confidence to keep taking it forward rather than think that having crossed one small hurdle we should take a breather and let things settle down for a few years.

Put simply, we cannot afford to stay either where we are now, or where we will be after the results of the referendum are announced on Friday. For, as if anyone hadn't noticed, Wales is in a bad position economically and our communities and society as a whole are under tremendous strain because of it. Plenty of the hard choices we have made are right, especially those things that are built on our values as a nation, but which sadly are no longer shared by our neighbours. Yet plenty of what we have been doing is wrong. We need the courage to say so and the self-confidence to build the better Wales we want on the foundation of what is important to us.

The vote tomorrow will be a mark of that self-confidence. Be part of it.

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