Monday, July 24, 2017

EVER FELT SECOND CLASS?



Saturday, July 22, 2017

CONSEQUENCES FOR SECOND CLASS SUBJECTS…

A soon to be toll free bridge, but, with some consequences...
While the long suffering commuters who have been taxed for going to work, and many businesses are looking forward to the demise of the Severn Bridge tolls, there will be consequences for all of us, who are becoming increasingly second class subjects, in an increasingly unequal union. It may well be the estate agents and house builders who really cash in. Once the tolls go house prices and the pressure to build new houses to deal with the demand for cheaper housing from across the bridge.

Simply building houses in south Monmouthshire, Newport and Torfaen to cash in on the projected housing shortage in the Bristol area is not acceptable; it fundamentally fails to solve the local housing shortage. I have no doubt that local residents will be effectively priced out of the market. As any proposed houses will be priced to maximise profits and effectively marketed and sold in Bristol.

Wales needs to have substantially more affordable housing otherwise an entire generation will miss out on the reasonable expectation of having a decent home. The supply of more affordable housing should be met through a combination of bringing empty properties back into use, and new developments of mixed housing in the social and private sectors, but only, when local needs and environmental sustainability have been taken into account.

Our country would be well served by the establishment of a National Housing Company, which could borrow against rents to build a new generation of public rental housing in Wales limited in number only by demand. Whatever Government holds power in Cardiff Bay should support Local Authorities that wish to build new Council Housing.

Local Authorities should be expected to agree targets for supplying affordable housing, including new social housing, with the Welsh Government, but should be given the flexibility to decide how they would achieve this based upon the needs of their area. Local Authorities will be able to develop joint plans with neighbouring local authorities, or work through housing associations or the National Housing Company, if they believed this was the best way to meet the needs of their areas.

We need to look at championing the development of new homes in small-scale housing developments in both rural and urban Wales on ‘exception sites’, where land plots, not covered by general planning permission, will be capped at an affordable price designed to benefit those in local housing need with family and work ties to the area, and whose sale will be conditional on these houses continuing in local ownership in perpetuity.

The Right to Buy scheme should be cast into the dustbin of history, its from another time, and is no longer fit for purpose. What’s left of our social housing stock needs to remain intact in order to meet the demand for homes. Along with developing social housing stock there is a need to introduce a more rigorous system in the allocation of social housing to give priority to those in local housing need.

Local democracy has been undermined, as developers (and here we are not just talking about housing) simply appear to carry on appealing until they get their way or get their development retrospectively approved at a higher level. Or the process of land acquisition literally begins before the proposal even goes to inquiry almost as if the decision has already been made.

Local government officers will (and do) advise local councillors not to turn down developments (whatever the grounds) because the developers will simply appeal until the cows come home and that local government just does not have the finances to cope with this situation.

Part of the problem is that our planning system, along with our almost nineteenth century local government setup is not designed to coexist with devolution or for that matter to deliver planning decisions with real and lasting benefits for local people and local communities. There is a real need for root and branch reform and reorganisation of our planning system; the Welsh Government’s simply decided to tinker and tweak with existing out-dated legislation rather than reform it.

Our current planning system remains far too focused on railroading through large housing developments that bring little benefits for local people and local communities and often fail to resolve real and pressing local housing needs. We need a fundamental change in planning culture to encourage appropriate and sustainable smaller scale housing developments, which are based on good design and actively promote energy efficiency and good environmental standards.

Our planning system and planning processes are too slow, too bureaucratic and too unresponsive to real local needs and local opinions. The current system is based on the post-war Town and Country Planning Act from 1947 and is simply out-dated; our country needs a modern planning system that meets the needs of modern Welsh society. In line with the realities of devolution our country needs an independent Planning inspectorate for Wales as the old single planning inspectorate for England and Wales is increasingly unsustainable.

What we badly need is a sensible properly planned housing strategy, not just for south Monmouthshire, the rest of the former county of Gwent and Cardiff, but also for the rest of our country. When it comes to large-scale housing developments, based on previous observations, we can pretty much predict what happens next.

If a planning inquiry come out against a proposed development then there will be another appeal to Cardiff – where I have little doubt that proposals will be rubber stamped by the Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff (while many things may have changed this mirrors pretty much exactly what went on when Wales was run by the old Welsh Office).

Westminster ministers during the heady days of the Con Dem coalition favoured changing the planning rules (in England) to boost house building to revive the economy. The Labour in Wales Government in Cardiff naturally favoured changing to planning rules in Wales to ‘tilt the balance in favour of economic growth over the environment and social factors’.

Ironically that sentiment was perhaps aimed specifically at overturning those few occasions of late when our Local Authorities have rejected some developments (often at the behest of concerned local residents) rather than simply putting economic needs ahead of economic, environmental benefits and community cohesion.

Over the medium to long term this is fundamentally bad news for those residents of south Monmouthshire, or residents of Torfaen, who have fought the plan and the good citizens of Abergavenny who fought to retain the livestock market. Not to mention the concerned residents of Carmarthen who have worries about the impact of over large housing developments or the residents of Holyhead who opposed a planned new marina development

We in Wales, need to think outside the box, and look seriously look at the release of public land as self-build plots for affordable homes, to buy and to lease, and allow housing associations to build their own high-quality prefabricated homes as the Accord Housing Association successfully does in Walsall. This would also break the link between housing companies making fact profits and local government approved over development in and around our communities.

Our communities have been consistently ill served by the planning system, by our local authorities (via the flawed system of Unitary Development Plans) and more recently by the Labour in Wales Welsh Government in Cardiff. With increasing pressure from over development community cohesion is under threat, along with increased demand on overstretched local amenities, our NHS and our green spaces.

An opportunity to address the shortage of affordable housing, to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects, and to actively support small businesses in relation to the Planning Bill has been missed. It is time to start the process of actually addressing the flawed LDP (Local Development Plan) system, which does not deliver for local communities and fails to serve our national interests.

Perhaps before constructing large numbers of new houses which often fail to tackle local housing needs we needs to take a long hard look at the number of empty properties something that remains largely unaddressed in many of our communities. We need a planning system that takes account of local housing needs, the environment (and seeks to create protected green belt land around and within our large and small urban communities).

We also need to holistically plan and act for the whole of Wales – something that is not happening effectively at present. All of these things are something we just won’t get without fair funding for Wales and to be honest without Labour losing the next National Assembly elections.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

HS2 AND THE UNION

We can be said live in a one sided Union, it can be argued that either the Union works for all, or it doesn't. If it doesn't then it's not a beneficial Union. It’s certainly clear that it is not a fair and equal Union, it's a Union of unequals, especially where Wales and Welsh interests are concerned.

Most recently Welsh companies have missed out on contracts worth £6.6 billion to build the first phase of England’s high speed rail line, HS2. The contracts, which will support around 16,000 jobs, have been awarded to mainly English, Austrian, Swedish and French firms.

No Welsh firms were shortlisted and no Welsh firms will participate in any consortia. A study by quantity surveyor Michael Byng, released over the weekend, estimates that the cost of building HS2 could reach over £100 billion, making it the most expensive railway in the world.

Public spending on England-only projects usually triggers consequential funding for the devolved nations but as the UK Government has designated HS2 as an “England & Wales” project, despite every inch of the railway being in England.

Wales was designated a HS2 0% rating at the last Comprehensive Spending Review for Barnett Consequentials whilst northern Ireland and Scotland were rated 100%.

A report published by accountancy firm, KPMG, in 2010 showed that HS2 will have an overall negative effect on the Welsh economy, resulting in 21,000 fewer jobs in Wales by 2040 as a result of jobs shifting to the English Midlands and the north of England.

The companies shortlisted for contracts (source:  House of Commons’ Library)
Welsh taxpayers will certainly contribute towards building the most expensive railway in the world, even though not one inch of it being in Wales and the fact that the British Government has deliberately avoided giving Wales its fair share of investment in return by describing the project as an “England and Wales” investment even though it is actually having a negative impact on jobs and wages in Wales. 
  
HS2 may cost £100 billion if reports are accurate, if the project was correctly labeled as an England-only project, then Wales would be entitled to £5 billion. Our share could be used to invest in our own transport infrastructure. What’s going to happen is that our taxes are being used to fund a high-speed line for England.

The Welsh Labour Government should have ensured that Welsh companies were promoted during the procurement process. There can be no excuse for the British Government to direct contracts to overseas countries, supporting jobs and wages elsewhere instead of supporting our own companies here in Wales. It should be clear by now that Westminster is not clearly working for Wales. 

The so-called ‘partnership of equals’ between the four constituent nations is merely a sham. The Union, as is, offers all the risk and little or no reward as the Labour Welsh Government simply sits on its hands. Only Plaid Cymru will stand up and fight for Wales to get its fair share of investment from HS2 and work to make sure that Westminster treats Wales fairly.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

IMAGINARY TRAINS...

Imaginary trains...
Now and then, if you look very quickly on Newport Station, you can sometimes see the platform indicators flagging up an Ebbw Vale bound train. Blink and you might miss it - this may be the closest many rail passengers will come to seeing a ghost train. Despite regularly oft-repeated promises from the Labour in Wales government in Cardiff and more locally elected Labour in Newport representatives, there is no sign any time soon of a permanent rail connection between Ebbw Vale and Newport.

The Ebbw railway line reopened in 2008 carrying a years worth of anticipated passengers in a few months. From the start the new rail service failed to connect to Newport and the rest of the south east - a variety of lame excuses have been offered which fail to conceal that fact that the Welsh Government has been dragging its feet. Somewhat ironically periodic upgrades to track and signals in and around the Cardiff area meant that services do actually occasionally start and terminate at Newport.

The failure to connect the Ebbw vale line to Newport means that commuters living in the communities in the Ebbw valley are unable to travel directly to Newport by train and have little choice but to use their cars. They are denied the opportunity of catching connecting trains to Bristol, Cheltenham, and beyond as well as travelling slightly more rapidly to Cardiff in the morning and back again in the evening.

This was either simply a bad short-sighted decision that resulted in commuters having no choice but to choose to drive to work or was a deliberate decision. This lack of an easily accessible alternative helps to feed congestion on the M4. If we are lucky at some as yet undetermined future date the Ebbw vale link may actually begin to benefit those commuters who daily travel east to and from work.

Nothing to see here, move along...
What seems to be missing here in Wales is any real element of reopening old (or building new) railways as has happened in Scotland. In Wales in the last 17 years there have been 2 successful railway re-openings carried out by Network Rail at the request of the National Assembly; the Vale of Glamorgan Railway Line (re-opened on Friday 10th June 2005) and the Ebbw Valley Railway Line (partially re-opened on Wednesday 6th February 2008). These were largely administrative rather than legislative projects, and save for the existence of the National Assembly they would have lingered on somewhere on Network Rails’ priority list.

The National Assembly, has been (with a few exceptions) been pretty muted when it comes to making the case for rail. This has certainly not been the case in Scotland, where bills to reopen old railways have been vigorously debated, scrutinised, amended and passed by the Scottish Parliament. If we are serious about integrated public transport then we are going to have to get serious about how we are going to develop and redevelop our under invested public transport infrastructure.



The Transport (Wales) Act, in February 2006, gave the National Assembly the powers but not the political will to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system. Future development plans will be complicated, as back in March 2017, the Westminster Conservative government decided, whether by accident, design or as a result of a general indifference to Wales (and Welsh interests) not to devolve control of that portion of Network Rail to the Wales but to retain it in London.

The largely non UK owned rail companies have continued to ramp up rail fares and have quietly attempting to reduce rail services (they have been thwarted in the later endeavour by some well organised local pressure groups in the case of Severn Tunnel and Chepstow in South East Gwent). All of these things have been done with the tacit co-operation of various Westminster and Welsh Governments and the Department for Transport (in London) certainly for 2 out of the 3 of these august bodies our transport issues and our infrastructure will never be a priority.


It would be nice if the government in Cardiff woke from its self induced slumbers and took the long term view, and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, to boost the development of rail freight and to co-ordinate rail and bus services across the whole of Wales. To do this effectively Wales needs to have full control of its transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the Wales franchise should be run on a not for profit basis.



If we could create a not-for-distributable-profit organisation to run our railways; then profits would be available to invest in rail services. This could mean more frequent services in the South Wales valleys, more frequent journeys to West Wales and on the Cambrian line, as well as additional services between the north and south of Wales.

This could also mean more investment in new rolling stock to help keep pace with increasing passenger demand.  This is sadly not going to happen anytime soon, which is a real pity as a delivery model that is better suited to the needs of the people in Wales rather than the foreign state-owned railway shareholders dividend can be developed, would be a sensible and popular decision.  

Locally Abergavenny, Caldicot, Chepstow and Severn Tunnel railway stations should be real local transport hubs, with fully integrated local bus services and better rial services. Better facilities for passengers are needed, as is the provision of adequate safe secure parking facilities, which are urgently required.

Plaid in Monmouthshire has previously called for feasibility studies into the development of a Parkway Station at Little Mill and the possibilities of re-opening the railway line from Little Mill to Usk. The development of a new railway station to the west of the town of Usk would significantly benefit local commuters, rail travellers and also reduce road congestion. 

The re-opening of Pontrilas Railway station (in south Herefordshire) for passenger traffic and timber shipments would also help. As would a realistically scoped feasibility study into developing regional rail freight services, removing heavy Lorries from local roads.


Such developments would provide a regular rail service to local people and reduce the ever-increasing traffic burden from already overcrowded roads. Local priorities should be the completion of the final stage of the rail-link from Ebbw Vale to Newport and railway stations at Caerleon (which has been in the UDP since 1986), and it should not be a case of a station at Llanwern or Magor but both as they would all help to reduce road congestion and bring benefits to local commuters and rail passengers.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

PLAID’S BILL TO RESTORE POLICE FUNDING

Plaid Cymru peer, Dafydd Wigley on Thursday 6th July introduced a Private Members’ Bill in the House of Lords to ensure the police forces are adequately resourced.

Government funding for the Police in Wales and England has been cut by 25% over the past five years.

The former Plaid Cymru leader’s Bill will ensure the Police have the resources they need to carry out their core duties including combatting extremism and ensuring that communities are kept safe.

The UK Government sets the police budget on an annual basis. Lord Wigley’s Bill seeks to reform the way the Police are funded by placing a new duty on Police and Crime Commissioners to submit a funding estimate to the Secretary of State outlining the financial needs of their police force. If there is a discrepancy between the Commissioner’s estimate and the Secretary of State’s budget, it must be referred to an independent body for adjudication. Any continuing divergence between the two figures would need to be justified to Parliament by the Secretary of State.

The Bill follows reports made to Plaid Cymru by retired senior police officers that cuts to Safer Neighbourhood Teams (SNT) have limited the capacity of the Police to gather intelligence on extremism and gang crime.

According to research compiled by crime expert, Harry Fletcher, each SNT would have had six officers including a Sergeant and two Police Constables and covered, on average, one council ward each. Today the average is 3 staff and the area covered is 75 per cent larger.

SNTs collect intelligence on extremist, gang and criminal activity and behaviour. Information gathered on extremism is passed to the Borough Counter Terrorism Liaison Officer who in turn work with UK Counter Terrorism to assess risk and danger.

Lord Wigley’s Bill also places a duty on Police and Crime Commissioners to carry out a full risk assessment in respect of any person subject to investigation for potential extremist behaviour that could encourage, incite or instigate acts of violence. The Secretary of State must, in turn, provide sufficient resources to allow such assessments to take place.

Plaid Cymru advocates devolving policing to Wales, mirroring the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which would trigger a funding boost of around £25 million per year for the Welsh police forces.

Lord Dafydd Wigley said:

“Police forces in Wales and in England have been subjected to sustained cuts to their budgets which have undoubtedly detracted from their capacity to support the work of the security services.

“Government funding for the Police has been cut by 25% over the past five years and vital aspects of policing and public safety are now under-resourced as a result.

“Units such as Safer Neighbourhood Teams, which carry out crucial work in support of counter terrorism efforts, have been cut to the bone. Ten years ago, Safer Neighbourhood Teams, which collect intelligence on extremist, gang and criminal activity, would have had six officers including a Sergeant and two Police Constables and they covered, on average, one council ward each. Now each team has an average of just three members of staff and cover areas that are 75 per cent bigger than before.

“Public safety surely has to be a government’s top priority and yet the UK Government seems willing to put public safety at risk.

“My Bill seeks to ensure that the Police have the resources they need to carry out their duty to keep the public safe. It would ensure that police budgets reflect their needs, allowing vital units such as Safer Neighbourhood Teams to take a greater role in supporting the work of security and intelligence services.

“I hope that my Bill will attract cross-party support today.”

Crime expert and director of Digital Trust, Harry Fletcher, who worked Lord Wigley on the Bill said:

“The fall in the number of police officers has had an impact on the Police’s capacity to gather intelligence. This Bill would ensure that police budgets were the subject of independent scrutiny and bring about greater accountability to the Home Office. Public protection must come first.”

ENDS

Notes to editors:
  
Bill summary

The Bill seeks to place a duty on Police and Crime Commissioners to submit a funding proposal, which the Secretary of State must either agree to, or refer to an independent body. It would require the Secretary of State to justify any divergence between the proposal and the final settlement to the House of Commons.

It will also place a duty on the Treasury to provide additional resources to a police force in the event of a major incident; and place a duty on all organisations, departments or authorities involved in any crime incidents where there are multiple victims to retain and make available to the Police all relevant evidence and documentation.

Supporting statistics

Government funding for the Welsh and English police forces has been cut by 25% over the last five years: https://fullfact.org/crime/police-funding-england-and-wales/

According to crime expert, Harry Fletcher, the cost of surveillance for one week on one person is at least £26,000 which equates to over £1.4 million for a full year.

WalesOnline coverage of figures supporting claim that if policing was devolved, Welsh police forces would be £25 million per hear better off: