Saturday, December 2, 2017

NOT GIVING A SCOOBY!

An all to familiar sight - a bank closure notice 
Bank closures, remain, and are likely to remain at least fir the foreseeable future a simple sad fact of life for many communities across much of rural and not so rural Wales. This has been highlighted by the announcement of the mass closure of 20 NatWest branches across all of Wales.

The closures appear relentless and unstoppable, despite the fact that high street banks could and should have a roll to play within the economic life of our communities. We have been here before and will no doubt be back. It should be obvious by now that the big 4 banks clearly don’t give a Scooby about public opinion or the consequences of the closures. 

The local political and community leaders have rightly kick off and justifiably angry local residents have been interviewed by local media. There will be the usual weasel words from the bank themselves, but, once the initial fuss settles the closure will roll on – as the large London based banks are pretty much answerable to no one save themselves – certainly not anyone here in Cymru / Wales.

Dropping the spin (about the growth in on-line banking and it’s use – if you have no choice what else are people going to do) this is about nothing more than cutting running costs, the banks have little (or no concern) for their relatively unprofitable personal customers or the concerns of their local business customers or our smaller communities.

As has been noted elsewhere, by no less than the US Senate, some banks have other more pressing interests than those of their domestic customers like helping to launder money for drug dealers, dictators and terrorists, so much for being a local bank.

Local banks remain useful for the high street and local communities, they help to promote vitality and vibrancy and make it easier for local businesses to operate. Local businesses to a degree benefit from the existence of local high street branches by picking up passing trade from bank customers.

Once local bank branches close, the impact will be felt locally especially by older residents and local business owners who have to trek further and further to pay in their taking and the subsequent drop in passing trade. This situation has been aggravated by the demise of many building societies., most by no means all of which were largely hoovered by the banks.

It is perhaps a pity that we don’t have some sort of risk free Post Office Savings bank – save for the fact that it was recklessly sold of by a previous Conservative government on the cheap. That said, it is of course important to remember that one result of the demise of the regional banks was the relentless rise of the big 4 banks which led to the growth of the reckless casino banking and cheap credit that brought about the financial crash.

Once you factor in the ruthless Post Office closure programme that was pushed through by the then Labour Government, the former Con - Dem coalition government prior to it’s privatisation of the Post Office. Which in turn was preceded by the rapid floatation and rapid demise of most of our building societies you can clearly see how we got here - sorting the mess out is not going to be easy – perhaps as has been said before we need some sort of publically owned community owned Wales savings bank.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE


Why are we are still waiting...
Westminster’s failure to commit to the Swansea Bay Tidal lagoon and the broken promise over electrification of the min line to Swansea from Cardiff, while being disappointing are simply very visible symptoms of the Westminster Parliament and most Westminster parliamentarians (with some honorable exceptions) lack of concern for Wales and our national interests. Westminster is simply not interested in making Wales thrive, or allowing Wales to become a world-beater in the development of renewable energy technologies and to generate the technologies and jobs that go with it.

As I have said previously I have long believed that Westminster government’s regardless of their political hue, before and after devolution, and before and after BREXIT, remain fundamentally indifferent to our needs, our aspirations and our national interests.  The cancelation of the electrification of the Great Western line, from Cardiff to Swansea should have come as no real surprise. I had long advocated beginning the electrification process at the Swansea end of the line, something that may well have made the cancellation more difficult.

The foot-dragging over the fate of the Swansea Tidal lagoon remains ominous, but sadly it is to be expected from a Westminster system that remains hooked on expensive subsidies to foreign owned and foreign constructed Nuclear power stations. One reason for this is that it is perhaps easier for former energy minsters to get better paid jobs post their involvement in politics, with subsidy rich energy companies.

Interest in developing Tidal lagoons is not new; the concept has been floated around in Wales since the late 1990’s. The problem that successive private companies when faced with sluggish perhaps finely calculated indifference from both government (at all levels) and the civil service have moved on or lost interest. 

Post BREXIT we need the Tidal lagoons more than ever, if Westminster is serious about reducing the UK’s dependence on imported energy supplies from unstable regions, run by brutal repressive regimes – then developing Tidal lagoons could be a step towards real energy independence. Rather than marshaling their lame tired old excuses as to why they cannot or won’t buy in to the project, we need a commitment to secure power generation.

The devolution of powers relating to energy resource development to Wales and a Welsh government that is not sleeping walking on the job is necessity. Post BREXIT we need to step away from our low wage culture and to develop a much more economically dynamic and sustainable Welsh economy.  We are not going to get anything done with a Labour in Wales government in Cardiff Bay that’s too busy looking after its own personal and party political interests rather than our national interests.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

GIVE WALES A SAY!

CONSEQUENCES...

Whether people voted remain or leave last year there are going to be real and significant post brexit consequences for Wales. After yesterday's vote the Westminster Conservative / DUP Coalition Government, ably supported by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour MP’s (who abstained), will pretty much be able to force through the Withdrawal Bill even if Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all vote against it, after a Plaid Cymru amendment was defeated in the House of Commons.

Plaid Cymru were supported by the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party but were opposed by the Tories and the DUP, with Labour failing to vote at all. The amendment would have required the Prime Minister to secure the agreement of each of the devolved countries in the UK before repealing the European Communities Act 1972.

Plaid Cymru has written to the First Minister of Wales, and leader of the Labour Group in the National Assembly, asking for an explanation as to why the Labour Party changed position on giving Wales a meaningful say in the Assembly on the final Brexit deal.

In the letter, Plaid Cymru’s External Affairs spokesperson, Steffan Lewis AM, has accused Labour MPs of undermining the National Assembly’s ability to act in the interests of Wales and of providing the British Government will a mandate to “ride roughshod over the democratically-expressed wishes of the people”.
  
After the vote, Plaid Cymru’s Brexit spokesperson in Westminster, Hywel Williams MP, said:

“Tonight, the people of Wales were told that their opinion does not matter on Brexit.

“The Westminster parties have once again teamed up to make sure Wales’s voice counts for nothing when it comes to our own economy, our people’s wages and our children’s standard of living.

“The UK consists of four countries, not just one, but tonight MPs from the Westminster parties ensured that Brexit will be dictated by just one of those countries.

“Our amendment was not an attempt to derail Brexit – it was an attempt to make sure Wales and the other UK countries have an equal say on our future. Every national Parliament should be involved in this process, not just Westminster.

“Plaid Cymru MPs will continue to do all we can to make sure Wales’s interests are protected and voiced in Westminster, despite Labour’s apathy.”

Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs and Brexit spokesperson in the Assembly, Steffan Lewis AM, added:

“That our own government in Wales, run by the Labour Party, chose to deny the people of Wales an opportunity to have a say on Brexit, is the single greatest act of harm inflicted upon the Welsh national interest since Article 50 was triggered.

“The Labour Party has repeatedly told Welsh citizens that they believe Wales should have a meaningful say on the terms of Brexit but tonight they went against their word and instead have ensured Wales’s future lies in the hands of the Tories and the DUP in Westminster.

“There is no doubt that the ability of our National Assembly to act in the interests of Wales have been greatly undermined by the actions of Labour MPs tonight. Labour has failed the people of Wales and has provided a mandate for the Tories in London to ride roughshod over the democratically-expressed wishes of the people of Wales in two referenda.

“Once again it falls to Plaid Cymru to fight for our citizens’ interests – the future of our NHS, Welsh jobs and wages and standard of living. Plaid Cymru will be doing all we can at both the Westminster Parliament and our own Parliament in Wales to make sure Wales’ interests are heard and protected. We will start by calling the First Minister to the Assembly tomorrow with a topical question, asking for an explanation of his party’s abstention.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

REMEMBERANCE


In Flanders Fields...
This Saturday will be the 11th November (with Remembrance Sunday on the 12th) when people pause briefly to publically remember the veterans and survivors of historic and more recent conflicts and those who never came back. My family like far too many others in Wales (and elsewhere) had relatives who served and survived and also relatives who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars and other conflicts. 

One of my maternal grandmother’s lost two brothers in the First World War and its aftermath, her elder brother was a regular soldier, who wrote home and told them not to allow his younger brother to join up and to come out to France. It was too late the younger brother had already joined up was killed in action in 1918 and buried near Amiens. I grew up with a generation of older relative who had seen service in the second world war in the armed forces and the merchant navy - not that they ever talked about it save to those whom they had severed with. 

As I have said previously I have absolutely no problem remembering those who lost their lives and the courage, comradeship and their endurance of those who served in the First World War and other conflicts (and not necessarily in the armed forces); but I have no time for rose tinted nostalgic flag waving foot-tapping pap. As has been said elsewhere, soldiers don’t die for the politicians, for patriotism or even us but for their friends and comrades with whom they serve. 

Far too many lie in corners of foreign fields, are names on a war memorial, faded photographs, faded memories or literally have no grave at all. US President Abraham Lincoln rightly noted at Gettysburg the fallen have given their last full measure of devotion. It may be more true today that the world will little note the current crop of political leader’s lyrical offerings on conflict, nor long remember them. What we should never forget what the former soldiers and veterans did and what they went through and we should not just cherish their memory but ensure that after their military service they are fully honoured as is the military covenant.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

THEY WON'T BE MISSED...

So Arriva (Deutsche Bahn) have withdrawn from the next Wales franchise – as a regular victim of Arriva trains, I shall not miss them. This leaves Netherlands State Railways, French State Railways and Hong Kong State Metro as the three remaining contenders – all of whom (just like most of the other franchise holders will rake in the profits to fund investments and cheap rail fares in their home countries; so which idiot decided that privatisation of the railways was a winner anyway?

Our relationship with railways in Wales is a little odd, there is a tendency to focus on anniversaries of rail closures or rail events rather than anniversaries of openings. This may well be because for all of the twentieth century transport policy was something that was done to us rather than done for us. I mention this, because I noticed that a plaque was unveiled (back in 2011) to mark the 154th anniversary of the arrival of the railway in Knighton (Powys).

The 22-mile section of the Heart of Wales line from Craven Arms, Shropshire, to Knighton, which was constructed in 1861, and probably for fear of political consequences, managed to avoid being closed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, is truly spectacular.  A £5m project, which upgraded parts of this rural railway, was finished in 2010, reinstating five passing loops at Knighton, Llandrindod Wells and Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, and at Llandovery and Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire. This small positive step, could, with extra services,  the restoration of railway halts lead to a much more regular better used rail service.

The current somewhat weak and shaky Conservative Westminster Government and the former New Labour Government in Cardiff need to get serious about developing integrated public transport across the valleys and the south east and beyond. For more than a few years Plaid in Monmouth has called for improvements to existing services and facilities and a series of feasibility studies to investigate re-opening previously closed railways as has happened in Scotland.

We face a future where cheap fuel will be a thing of the past, so we need to ensure that all our communities have reasonable access to a reliable cheap system of integrated public transport, at the heart of which needs to be our long neglected rail network. The old excuses about a lack of funding (despite the banking related financial crisis) are no longer acceptable; Wales makes up 5% of the population of the UK, and makes contributions to the exchequer – given the vast expenditure on Crossrail and HS2, that Wales gets 5% of the UK transport spend, and full control of our transport planning and our transport budget.

A post bexit devolutionary half-way house just won't work anymore; it will not deliver or even give us the chance to deliver, even with legislative powers. The changes and reforms that are necessary to fix the problems in our country means that we need the tools to do the job. It didn't work with a nominally Labour Government and was never going to work with a Conservative dominated Government which is indifferent to any concept of devolution in particular and the needs of Wales in particular.

Even with legislative powers and a gesture of financial control and taxation, we still remain in some sort of half devolved limbo state of governance, lacking a fair financial settlement. Let's be honest with ourselves, with all the best will in the world this is not going to work well, even with an inert and visionless self-serving former New Labour government in Cardiff that is confortable not rocking the boat.  To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, real governance can no more be half devolved anymore than someone can be half free or half dry.

Wales needs a fair financial settlement and real powers so we can construct a decent system of integrated public transport. This has happened in Scotland (regardless of which political party was in government) significant strides have been made to reopen, redevelop and build a coherent and integrated public transport system. In Wales in the last sixteen years there have been two 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).

To be brutally honest these were administrative rather than legislative projects, this has not been the case in Scotland, where bills and vigorous campaigns to reopen old railways were 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 existing and underinvested public transport infrastructure.

The Transport (Wales) Act in February 2006 gave us powers to plan and co-ordinate an integrated transport system, how long do we have to wait to see some vision? In the meantime the rail companies have been busy ramping up rail fares, while reducing rail services, all with the tacit co-operation of the Westminster Government’s and the Department for transport (in London) and both Welsh Labour and Welsh Conservative MPs at Westminster voted against the devolution of that portion of rail track within Wales – that would have enabled work on our railways to be planned and actually carried out.  .

Such duplicity has never been acceptable - it’s time for our government in Cardiff to take the long term view, to bite the bullet and actually put its money where its mouth is and work to redevelop our rail services, 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 it's transport policy and transport budget devolved as quickly as possible and the franchise when it is renewed it should be run on a not for dividend profit basis.

If the Governments in London and Cardiff are really serious about cutting carbon emissions and reducing road congestion then we need work to get heavy goods back onto our railways. There is no quick fix, but, the time for excuses is over, we need to plan for the future. This may not be cheap but it can be done if the political will is there, as has happened in Scotland, where there is a useful combination of the will, the funding and interested private partners.