Sunday, November 30, 2008

What a B****y Mess!

This blog sets out to be reasonable. Occasionally, I let fly at my political opponents in what I must concede is a partisan way. Because I was so stunned by what has looked to me to be shocking and irresponsible mismanagement of our economy by Gordon Brown, I've lost all faith in him as a Prime Minister. I simply cannot understand how he has been allowed to remain in office. Against this backcloth, I've been concerned that I might tend towards being over partisan - until I read Liam Halligan's Economic Agenda piece in today's Sunday Telegraph. Extracts follow, which make my comments seem toothless, with no more bite than an aggressive suck.

"We're being ruled by a clique of irresponsible innumerate charlatans. Brown and his circle of sycophants know little of economics, and even less about responsibility. Under cover of current crisis they've let rip a borrowing binge of such magnitude that it threatens not only our living standards, but the UK's credit rating and status as an 'advanced economy'."

"Next year the UK will borrow a staggering 8% of GDP. The fiscal situation now looks worse than at any time since the Second World War. Brown has managed to surpass even the havoc caused by the deeply incompetent Labour Governments of the 1970s."

"Only a few months ago, Ministers were telling us Britain was 'well placed' to deal with the global slowdown. Now we're seeing extreme measures that throw any notion of prudence, or sound financial management, to the wind."

"Brown is using this crisis as cover - and not only to indulge the high tax fantasies he's nursed his entire adult life. Having hidden extra borrowing costs for years, he sees the current chaos as a chance to get as much of it as possible out in the open."

Ministers claim UK debt is low by international standards. Only Japan and the US have higher debts than us. With its reserve currency status, America can claim to be a special case - for now. But Japan's debts plunged it into a decade long recession"

"The table above suggests that our public sector debt is relatively low - even once it reaches the 57% of national income. But that, alas, is a myth. The UK has become very good at hiding its debt off balance sheet - particularly under Brown. A new study from the respected actuary, Nick Silver, for the Institute of Economic Affairs, suggests that once liabilities relating to pensions and the private finance initiative are included, the UK's national debt is a jaw-dropping 276% of GDP."

The only consolation for the Prime Minister is that Liam Halligan is also dismissive of what he calls the 'Tories' woeful reaction'. But throughout the history of democracy, government is government, and opposition is opposition, and the two are very different.

Depressingly Predictable.

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Missing the real story.

Watched the leader of the Liberal Democrats being interviewed on the Politics Show today. The BBC have covered the interview on a web page, focusing on a silly little story about someone overhearing him being rude about his colleagues on a mobile phone. What's news about that. Since it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that the Metropolitan Police listen in on all of his calls, I didn't think this story was worth any coverage at all.

But Nick Clegg's response to the question about whether the party is going to return the £2.4 million that was donated to it by Michael Brown was much more worthy of a web page, and much more interesting. Lets recap. Michael Brown came by his wealth dishonestly, and the donation came out of money fraudulently obtained. There's no suggestion that the Liberal Democrats did anything wrong. I'm prepared to accept that the requisite checks were made before accepting the donation. The very reasonable question that Jon Sopel put to Nick Clegg was whether the money was going to be paid back, now that it was known to have been fraudulently obtained. The Times here yesterday thinks it might have to be repaid.

Nick Clegg's opinion was that as long as the proper checks had been made (at least what is required by the Electoral Commission) the money can be kept. By this reasoning, it would be OK if a donation came from a Mr R Biggs, on the grounds that the youngster in charge of the receiving office was too young to have heard of how Ronnie came by his loot. I thought Clegg, who usually tries to present himself as an occupant of moral high ground looked thoroughly discomforted to me. This looked a much bigger story than a bit of tittle-tattle on the mobile.

More on Damien Green.

After reading today's papers, and watching the Home Secretary on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning programme, two conclusions have become implanted in this view from rural Wales. The first relates to the prospects for the next General Election. I thought Jackie Smith was frighteningly evasive and complacent this morning. The Government's Home Secretary cannot see anything wrong with using anti-terrorism legislation to arrest an opposition spokesman when he is releasing information that has been secured from a 'leaking' civil servant. And she cannot see anything wrong with the 3 police officers arresting a Shadow Minister in a car park near his home, another 9 police officers entering his home and removing his belongings in plastic bags, yet more marching into his House of Commons office and disabling his computer - for what seems to be 'embarrassing' the Government. And this from a Government which bases its entire behavior pattern on 'leaks'. Everyone should be required to read David Davis' article in today's Mail on Sunday. Combined with last week's still incredible decision by the Chancellor to mortgage the UK economy with the most unbelievable speech I'm ever heard by a senior British politician, the 'Nixonian' tendency of our Home Secretary should ensure that Gordon Brown, probably the worst Prime Minister Britain has had in living memory has a maximum of eighteen months left in office.

My second conclusion, as I sit here before heading off to the kitchen to carve the joint, is that our country is descending rapidly into the equivalent of a police state. The constant attacks on our liberties, the failure of our Home Secretary to even realise what's happening, and her view that the police can treat politicians as they would common criminals, in response to her department's concern about embarrassing leaks, shows just how far things have gone. If the police are going to be allowed to march in and seize private papers, emails etc from a politician's office in the House of Commons, there isn't much point in having one's office there at all.. What has happened is bad enough - but what's really scary is that our Home Secretary thinks its all OK.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Geraint Goodwin at Fuze

Ashamed not to have heard of Geraint Goodwin before today - and then it was only by accident. Russell George, a friend and now a member of the Executive Board of Powys County Council invited me to a book reading at his shop in the centre of Newtown, Montgomeryshire. I called in for a glass of mulled wine, and to see what was going on. The book concerned was 'Heyday in the Blood' by Geraint Goodwin. Extracts were read by Mary Oldham of the local Civic Society, followed by a discussion with the author's daughter, Myfanwy - who lives in Montgomery. Turned out she had been a visitor to our garden at the Cil. Small world!

Geraint Goodwin was born in Newtown in 1903, but went to school in Tywyn. On leaving school, he became an apprentice at the Montgomeryshire Express, which begot today's County Times. He must have been good, because he moved on to Fleet Street, where he worked on the Daily Sketch. When he was 27 he fell ill with Tb, and spent several months in a sanatorium. His experiences inspired him to write his first novel, 'Call Back Yesterday'. It was so good that he commissioned to write two more novels, the first being his most famous work 'Heyday in the Blood'. Today's event was to celebrate this novel being re-printed in the Library of Wales series which was published by Partheon Books this month.

Geraint Goodwin loved Montgomeryshire, and moved back to Newtown, where he died at the young age of 39. His books are set in the rural hinterland of Newtown, and there is a plaque in his honour on the wall of Barclay's Bank in Newtown, next door to Fuze. I've bought a copy of the book. He is probably one of Montgomeryshire's finest authors. I'll review it when I've read it. I hope that he becomes a little less neglected as a result of today's event. Russell has plenty more copies for sale.

Cymru am Byth

Had company to watch today's game - and she was dressed for it. And what a great game it was. In his post match interview, the Australian coach described the game as "not much of a spectacle". Everyone else thought it was a great game. A bad loser always makes victory more sweet. Shane Williams looked every inch (and there's not many of them) worth his new title of 'World Player of the Year' - and Lee Byrne looked every inch of next year's.

But you do have to play the full 80 minutes to beat the Australians. The don't give up without a fight. They were second best today, but when Martyn Williams dropped the ball with a clear path to the line, just after Stephen Jones had missed one sitter and another good chance of three points, I thought it wasn't going to be our day - again.

So a good month for the Welsh boys. Outplayed South Africa (but contrived to lose it), held the All Blacks for 40 minutes, and deservedly beat the Aussies. Only downside of all the excitement was that it caused Ffion a bit of upset. I tend to become a bit noisy when excited. Until she got used to it, she thought it was directed towards her.

Damian Green

I was going to blog this story with humour. Something about me being arrested because Edna Mopbucket rifles through private emails and papers, and listens at keyholes etc. And then there was the case when Powys County Council wasted thousands trying to catch a whistle blower who leaked some embarrassing information to the BBC. I was interviewed by an 'Investigator', (brought in at great cast to the Council Tax payer) who thought I had something to do with it. But in the end I decided that its too serious to laugh about. In fact, the Damian Green arrest is a very important story indeed, which has not been treated with the significance it deserved by the media, though it is building up today. The importance of this issue is now sinking in.

Yesterday a Shadow Minister was arrested, held for nine hours, and his private homes and House of Commons Office were all raided. We've seen television pictures of a police officer taking Mr Green's belonging away in plastic bags for forensic testing. When he was released, he was told that he may be questioned again next year. The Government are trying to claim that this was all done without the knowledge of the Home Secretary, or the Prime Minister. It seems simply incredible to me that such a thing could have happened.

So far the only reason we've been given for these scarcely believable acts, are that Damian Green released information that had been given to him via a leak - information that the Government did not want us to know about. If it turns out to be no more than this, there will have to be a full inquiry, and I would expect people to be sacked or resigning. If the UK has reached a state where opposition politicians are arrested for leaking information that embarrasses the Government, our democracy has been rendered not worthy of the name. This matter cannot be allowed to rest here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

More on Pylons.

Wearing my Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales hat again. And had a bit of success in our campaign to raise awareness of the shambles that underpins the system of electricity cabling to wind farms in Mid Wales. Since Anwen ran the story last Wednesday in the Shropshire Star, starting things off, BBC Online ran it on their Wales site, Sally Williams wrote a two page feature in today's Western Mail, and I did the Richard Evans phone-in between noon and one today.

I was on the phone-in with Gordon James of FoE, who is a great enthusiast for wind turbines. He is entirely honest about his belief that wind farms and the necessary associated pylons are a small price to pay in the battle against climate change. He tells us that the people of Mid Wales had better get used to them. Only irritation I felt was when he attempoted to tell us what the CPRW stands for. I think we know that better than he does. Attempts to re-define opponents arguments is usually a sign of someone not confident in their own. Anyway I didn't take the bait, and stuck to the point.

And the point is that the Assembly Government's policy is a complete shambles, with zilch regard for the landscape. If we are going to have these wind farms, (and the Government has decided that we are), the environmental impact of the cabling should be minimised. Of course Gordon James insisted he agreed with this. But he doesn't know what's actually happening on the ground. Planning permission is being granted to wind farms as they come in, which then require Scottish Power to provide a connection to the Grid to carry the electricity out, all of it on an ad hoc basis. Everyone seems to believe that the National Grid has to be extended into Mid Wales, with a 400kv line being built between somewhere in Shropshire, (The current 400 kv Grid line runs from Chester to Ironbrigde Power Station) and somewhere near Carno in Mid Wales - but no-one seems to know whats happening about this. So we're going to have hideous 132 power lines running all over the place, as these wind warms are being brought into service on an ad hoc basis, while National Grid dithers. Its sacrilege. Its Government sponsored vandalism in the countryside, of a very high order.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Top-up fees.

Listened to Called to Order' on Radio Wales tonight. I'd allowed myself to be pre-recorded in discussion with Patrick Hannan for the programme. Subject was top-up fees in Wales. If it hadn't been Patrick, (I like his programme) I might just have claimed that I was boarding a plane to Barbados, and couldn't do it. It wasn't going to be straight forward for me. But I did it, and I felt able to report back to Richard Hazlewood, our 'Alistair Campbell' equivalent in Wales that it had gone OK. Now, I'll tell you what I said - conceding that it was tempered by a desire not to rock my own party's boat.

First up was the accusation that when all the opposition parties ganged up in 2004 forcing the Assembly Government to compensate students for their top-up fees, we were putting opportunism before principle. "Not fair or accurate", I responded, as did Dai Lloyd, Plaid Cymru AM, one of Patrick's studio guests tonight. I was probably the most reluctant Conservative (probably the most reluctant AM for that matter) to vote against top-up fees, (that's what it amounted to) but even I had been content to vote with my colleagues to resist them. It was one of those 'on balance' decisions. The desire to help students financially, balanced against concerns about the funding of Welsh universities. And there was the issue of whether it is possible (or desirable) to have two separate funding systems within what is essentially an integrated UK further education system.

Then Patrick moved on to where we are now. As part of the budget agreement four years ago, the funding gap between the income flowing to Welsh and English universities was to be closed. Its actually grown wider. And now, the Labour/Plaid Coalition (yes, its Plaid as well, even if they are hiding under the desk) are proposing to end the compensatory grants to students. This is all being dressed up of course - as directing more help towards poorer students. But there's no disguising that this has been a humiliating climbdown by Plaid Cymru. Dai Lloyd was stuttering like a goldfish out of water. And Patrick kept at him, taunting him, letting him become ever more tangled in his own stream of words. As it turned out, my own contribution was small, but I wouldn't have missed Dai's cameo for anything.

In Maudlin Mood

I rarely look backwards. It makes me 'maudlin'. My last post did - and I am. Looking into the past brings the future into screen. And nothing is the future more than the issue of the issue of my loins, who some day may remember her Taid taking her for a spin on the Brrrm Brrrm. Is it me, or is little Ffion becoming ever cuter. Her parents are going to watch Wales de-cork the Australians on Saturday, and little Miss Gorgeous is stopping over with her Taid and Gran at the Cil.

Milestone for Welshpool

Big day for Welshpool today. I live just six miles away at Berriew. As a child I lived seven miles away at Castle Caereinion. The town grew up on the side of the River Severn and it very much the 'gateway' to Mid Wales. Two other significant features of Welshpool are its proximity to the spectacular Powis Castle, and its livestock market which has served as a gathering point for the farms of central Wales, probably for centuries, where buyers from the English lowlands have come to view the bounty produced from the farmlands of my birth. It has a wonderfully preserved, under exploited cockpit as well. Today, we gathered together on the site where a spanking new livestock market is to be built, where local auctioneers, John Jones and Alan Davies together with Welshpool Town Mayor, Anne Holloway cut the first sod.

It rained. Mr Spencer Cooper, a man of epic tenacity was today's MC. For it was he who put the commercial package together. I hope he makes a few bob out of it. Probably no other person in the universe could have pulled the deal off. The Mayor began the speeches, followed by Lembit Opik, MP for Montgomeryshire, followed by Mark Kerr, Chief Executive of Powys County Council. I wasn't shceduled to speak, but was really pleased when Spencer asked me to chip in at the end. So I did.

I remember Welshpool 'Smithfield' (as we called it), as one of the first two locations to which I was taken from the farm when about 3/4 years old. One was to Borth on Sundays to play sandcastles, and the other was with my father to the 'Smithfield'. Pigs and chickens and ducks and geese were traded in those days. My future grandfather-in-law, Harry Ray, owned one of the firms of auctioneers that worked there. My father had once walked cattle to Welshpool for sale - and walked his purchases home. He was a shortish powerful man who worked incredibly hard to provide for my mother and the six of their children. Hard to believe that he died ten years younger than I am now. My grandfather had transported livestock to Welshpool on the train from Llanfair Caereinion. I almost made myself feel nostalgic.

Reason its a 'Big' day is that this was step one of the redesign of Welshpool. When the new market is finished, a new one way road system will be introduced, followed by major redevelopment of the existing market site, which includes a new Tesco - plus a lot more. This is to be followed by a Council sponsored 'Town Redevelopment Plan'. All of this will be done in the next 2/3 years. Also met Felix Gummer, Corporate Affairs Manager - Wales for Tesco, who had been invited. I want to meet him again for a decent chat. I assume he must be a good man because his father was one of the politicians I most respected. And then we all went for tea, as the giant earth movers got down to work.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Edna Again.

When Edna was in Llandrindod yesterday, she heard an almighty row in the Planning Committee. She told me that it was only a little issue, about protocol. But Chairman, Councillor Bob Mills is not a man to mess with. I think Edna fancies him a bit - she likes men of action. Anyway, the application involved locating a portacabin at a school, somewhere near Welshpool - clearly a 'Montgomeryshire' issue. And the protocol is that such an issue should be dealt with when the itinerant Committee is meeting in Montgomeryshire. (It is a Powys Committee, which meets in turn in Monty, Radnorshire and Breconshire.) It seems that officers were not prepared to wait, as every other applicant would have to.

Well, Chairman Mills was having none of it, and after a lot of argy bargy he walked out, not usually an entirely silent process. Edna loved it. "What a man" is what she said. The Deputy Chair then walked out as well - in support. It never does any good though. Powys officers are not used to letting councillors decide things. They just told the remnants of the Committee to elect another Chair, and passed the application anyway. You see, they were dealing with their own application - so protocol is no more than 'guidance'. At least this is what Edna says.

Someone's getting twitchy

Some of you may remember Edna Mopbucket. She used to feed me little snippets - and she's just given me a few details on Assembly Member's expenses that would send my visitor numbers into the stratosphere. Alas, it would land me in boiling water, so you'll have to wait until December 8th, when they are due to be officially unveilled. It might leak though, because if Edna knows........ She's a lovely girl, but keep a secret she can't. I'm told that in school, she was known as 'Anything for five Woodbines'. All I can post on are a couple of snippets from Powys County Council.

Edna's been cleaning some of the computers at County Hall, and couldn't resist sprotting into Councillor's inboxes, and she was tickled by one she found in the inbox of Cllr. Wynne Jones, head honcho on planning issues at the Council. It tickled me too. Here's the background;

A few days ago, I received a letter which had been prepared by a group of agents, builders, etc. complaining about the Powys planning service. They wanted me to make a public fuss about it. I decided not to make it public, but felt that I really should bring such concern to the attention of councillors, on a private basis. So I copied the letter to all the Councillors in Montgomeryshire, except those who belonged to other political parties ( who would have a natural interest in embarrassing me). There are only two of them since the last election. Cllr. Wynne Jones responded to my letter by telephone and email, which he copied to others for their information. It was a fair and well argued response from Cllr. Jones, which I'll now discuss with the original complainers. But just guess what happened next. As reward for his efforts to be open and transparent, Cllr. Wynne's inbox received a snorty little email including these extracts;

Dear Wynne'
We are concerned that the letter from yourself and the forwarding of the response to the 'anonymous' letter which was received via Glyn Davies is giving unfair publicity to the PPC..............Why has this letter been given what appears to be extra priority as it comes from Glyn Davies? We feel this shows a lack of political balance and objectivity, and we feel it is wholly unacceptable.

Cllr Clair Powell and Cllr Liam Fitzpatrick
Bronllys Ward Talybont on Usk

Clair and Liam are Lib Dems. Now its not my fault that an increasing number of Montgomeryshire people are choosing to ask me to help them with issues. All I do is deal with them as best I can. But its obvious that the Liberal Democrats of Powys are becoming very twitchy indeed. I wonder why?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Three reasons for 45%

Its been a while since I was in a position to worry about the new 45% tax rate. But it still makes me very cross - and its the reasons for it than so annoys. Today, the Government has admitted that this tax increase is expected to raise £670 million, which is entirely insignificant in the scale of Government borrowing. And even then, its on the assumption that no-one is going to make an effort to rearrange their affairs in order to avoid paying it. I always remember hearing Nigel Lawson, when he was Chancellor claiming that the Government suffered minimal loss of tax revenue when he cut the top rate from 60% to the current 40% way back in the 1980s, because of the relationship between the rate of tax and willingness to pay it.

No, there are other reasons for this tax increase - three of them. The first is that Gordon Brown wanted us to be talking about this, rather than the increase in NIC, which is in effect a rise in Income Tax - and is also widely perceived to be a tax on jobs. The second reason was to feed envy. Labour (at least under Gordon Brown) does not like to see people earning high salaries. They have never understood success. And the third reason is that they want David Cameron to launch a huge attack on this change, so that the Prime Minister can paint the Conservatives in a colour of his choice. Unfortunately for Gordon Brown, his ruse is so obvious and pathetic that we can all see what his little game is. David Cameron will choose his own colours.

And did you see Alistair Campbell on Newsnight tonight. He said (he really did, and with a straight face) that Tony Blair would have introduced the same tax increase if he'd been Prime Minister today. I don't think anyone, including the brutal diarist himself believed that one.

A Very Funny Video

http://playpolitical.typepad.com/political_comedy/2008/11/brown-signs-a-deal-with-satan.html

The Rape of my Fair Country

Today, I have issued a press statement, in my capacity of President of the Protection of Rural Wales. It is self explanatory, though I have tried to keep my smouldering anger under control.

"Over the last three years, I have opposed and condemned the Assembly Government's policy of imposing clusters of wind farms on rural Wales. My opposition has been based on the cumulative impact on the landscape of these wind farms, and even worse, the scarring of beautiful Montgomeryshire for ever, by hundreds of monstrous pylons carrying a 400 kv cable marching through our lovely valleys in order to provide connection to the National Grid. Very few people have grasped just how horrendous this 400 kv cable is going to be. In addition, the failure to establish any sort of comprehensive plan is likely to make the already dreadful position even worse. At present, we have total shambles. Scottish Power may well be forced to provide extra 132 kv cables (also causing huge environmental damage, and potential health risk) because of the absence of an overall strategy.

The reason I'm raising this matter today is the linked but separate issue of a proposed new 132 kv cable from Welshpool to serve the new wind farm at Llandinam. Already, there is much public concern in the Kerry and Llandyssil areas, through which this cable will pass. I have discussed the proposals and their implications with Scottish Power, and suggest that everyone who lives between Welshpool and Llandinam attend the presentation which is being held at Dolfor Community Hall on 3rd December between 2.00 and 8.00. I'll be there from 2.00 til 6.15.

It is pointless being critical of Scottish Power, who have little choice in the matter. The company is required by statute to offer a service to Llandinam wind farm. The blame for this position must lie with those politicians who have supported these wind farms. Anyone who has supported the creation of wind farms, which will despoil our lovely home here in Montgomeryshire are, by extension, supporting the massive pylons and cables needed to carry the electricity to the National Grid. Anyone who supported the Llandinam wind farm has also, by extension, supported the 132 kv line that will skirt private properties between Welshpool and the Llandinam site, including many in the Kerry area. Anyone who has supported the general policy of wind farms in Mid Wales has, by extension, supported the construction of a 400 kv cable from some point in the Oswestry/Shrewsbury area, to some point in the Carno area. To pretend otherwise is to be dishonest.

I want;

1) In order to minimise impact, its crucial that all wind farm approval and development be suspended until Scottish Power and National Grid have a clear idea of what capacity connection to the grid is needed - rather than the shambolic ad hoc approach which exists at present.

2) No wind farm planning application should be approved without a clear statement of how it is going to be connected to the National Grid.

3) Planning Authorities must require that where these huge cables pass through environmentally important areas, the developer should be required to compensate Scottish Power for the additional costs of burying the cable underground.

Over the last three years whenever I've discussed wind farms in East Montgomeryshire, its usually met with a disinterested shrug because its thought that all the wind farms are to be located in West Montgomeryshire. And my response "What about the b****y cables", has stirred no hackles. Now that reality is kicking in, lets just make sure that we minimise the damage and lay blame where its due.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Longer range reflection.

Been to a presentation of the National Assembly's future agri-environment policy tonight. It required serious concentration. But it didn't work. The shock has been too great. I'm still stunned by what Alistair Darling told us this afternoon. It seems to me to be incredible. Next year's Government borrowing is predicted to be £118,000,000,000. Not only is this way more than ever before, but its based on the recession ending in just over six months time - and West Brom are going to win the Premiership. The Chancellor also told us that this borrowing will continue until (wait for it) .....2015/16. Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, stood up in front of the open goal, and smashed the ball into the back of the net with aplomb, past the hapless Darling.

Most irritating feature of the Chancellor's speech was his constant and rather pathetic attempts to put all the blame for the UK's problems on the dodgy sub prime loans in America. My feeling (entirely unscientific of course) is that this ruse has run its course. People know that Northern Rock was a British Bank. And anyway, its always a tactic of the coward to dump the blame for failure on your best mate. Made him look like what a friend of mine used to call a 'big girl's blouse'.

The VAT cut will have minimal impact. The only reason this cut was chosen was that its easy to reverse. The sensible and most effective cut would have been to raise income tax allowances, but that couldn't have been reversed so easily. The reason I thought Gordon Brown wouldn't have gone for the VAT cut is that it doesn't help the poorest people, where most essential expenditure is zero rated. Big mistake, and in my opinion will not deliver much financial stimulus.

Perhaps the slimiest trick that the Government tried to pull, was to leak the creation of a higher Income Tax band of 45%. The reasoning was that they wanted us all to concentrate on this, hoping that we wouldn't notice the increase in NICs, effectively a rise in basic rate Income Tax. I do think that this did work for today. There must be some reason for the increase in shares price. I wonder if they'll fall tomorrow, as dealers read the small print.

And then we have the political dimension of all this. I ask myself whether Gordon Brown will call a General Election in 2009. This has been my prediction since I became a Parliamentary candidate 18 months ago. And I still think he will - unless he genuinely believes that we will come out of recession next July. Listened to a lot of discussion today, and conclude that its been a very bad day for the Prime Minister.

UPDATE - Guido explains. There was a general surge in shares across the world after the US Government bailed out Citygroup. The German and French stoch markets rose even more than the UK's. So the surge cannot be taken as approval of yesterday's PBR.

Darling the Destroyer.

I'm in shock. Yesterday, I blogged in line with what I expected to be my party's response to the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report - a tax 'Bombshell' to arrive after the next General Election. But my capacity to absorb what the Chancellor was saying failed me when he told us what he predicted the Government's borrowing requirement is going to be. The figure that hit me was £118 billion for 2009 - and only in part by its monstrous size. This figure is based on the totally incredible supposition that the recession will be over by the middle of next year. This figure, already scarcely believable, is going to go up, and up. This is all mindblowingly awful. I'm out tonight, but hope to blog on the speech later - when I've recovered from the shock of listening to a man telling us that our Government has launched itself on a course to financial disaster - which we will all have to pay for.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"However much Gordon wraps it up, its still a Tax Bombshell"

I'm a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, so I've decided that this blog should do its bit. Its not often that I join a team assault, but here goes. There's but a few hours to go until Alistair Darling, the Prime Minister's proxy, delivers his Pre-Budget Report. After all the hype, I'm quite looking forward to it. The thing about being a blogger is that it makes me a commentator on politics, as well as a (sometimes partisan) participant. And I like having big issues to commentate on.

Now the first observation is that I'm very worried about our Prime Minister. I watched him on today's 'Politics Show', and I saw before my eyes a character in Dan Brown's techno-thriller, 'The Digital Fortress' made real. Commander Trevor Strathmore, Head of the NSA's Cryptography Department was a dedicated workaholic who had given his life to creating a gigantic, secret, devilishly complex code breaking machine - not unlike what I imagine a modern economy to be. Strathmore loved his country, and absolutely knew that both he and his machine were infallible. Nothing would distract him from his faith, his belief that he understood his machine like no other - even when it began wheezing unhealthily, heating uncontrollable and threatening destruction upon America. No risk was too great, because he believed. He deserved his success (and in Strathmore's case, the woman) because of his dedicated service. And the odd thing was that most expert opinion was conned into supported him - until the whole damn shooting match started to go up in flames.

Anyway, back to the prosaic. There's a lot of today's newsprint devoted to a possible cut in VAT tomorrow. Surely this is a red herring. A VAT cut will not make much difference, will not be all passed on, and delivers most of the benefit to the wealthiest sector of the nation, who may well not spend it. They'll be tempted to save it, so that they can pay the 'Tax Bombshell' that will follow in due course. No financial stimulus there. If a tax cut there is going to be, why not keep it simple and just raise allowances, taking low-earning taxpayers out of tax altogether - much more progressive, and more likely to be spent. I daresay there will be parts of tomorrow's package that I'll like though - and if I do I'll say so.

Gordon Brown does seem to have discovered a gambling gene, so anything is possible, but I still feel that tomorrow's PBR will turn out to have been over-hyped. I can see myself listening and thinking 'Is that It'? But lets assume its big, and we have tax cuts of say £30 billion. Fear of a run on Sterling means that we will have to be told how its going to be repaid, and when - which is where the 'Tax Bombshell' comes in. We are already seeing Government borrowing figures beyond anything we could ever have imagined. And another £30 billion on top. I fear for my children. Truth is that 'However much Gordon Brown wraps it up, it is still a Tax Bombshell'.

Touch of Auburn.

Could there be a farmer in the family after all, to follow in the family tradition. Our four have never shown the slightest interest, but little Ffion loves her John Deere. The next generation is coming through. Actually, I suspect she would prefer the full-size version. She's now thirteen months old, about as cute as its possible to be, but just a tad too young to take charge a real John Deere yet. It won't be long though. She's definitely inherited a touch of 'auburn' from her Gran.

Time to Grow the Pond.

Yet again, the All Blacks have shown themselves to be the biggest fish in the pond. But the pond is too small. There are not a dozen seriously competitive international teams (if I group the Pacific Islands together). And I haven't forgotten that it was Fiji wot dumped us out of the last World Cup.

Whatever, we need more nations playing the game seriously. So I'm pleased to see that its a Welshman, Howard Thomas who's in charge of development of rugby in Russia. Simon Thomas, writing in today's Wales on Sunday describes plans by the 'Great Bear' to create a new force in world rugby, even bid to host the 2019 World Cup. We shouldn't hold our breath though, if experience in anything to go by. Single-minded selfishness has been the main factor in deciding the host nation in the past. It was a huge mistake, born of the selfish shortsightedness, not to hold the next World Cup in Japan. Best of luck to Howard Thomas. You'll need it as much as the game needs you to succeed.

We in Wales are more used than most to the bureaucratic madness that seems to infect the way the great game is managed. The short list for today's 'International Player of the Year' looks like it was chosen by the Eurovision Song Contest scoring system. The result should be announced on the Comedy Channel. All I need to say is that Blair of Scotland and Piresse of Italy are in, while Ritchie Macaw and Victor Matfield are out. They'll probably give it to Dan Carter again this year, but I'd forget the disgraceful short listing process and cheer through my one-eyed glasses if they gave it to Shane Williams.

Mahonia 'bealei'.

There are not many genuine winter flowering shrubs. The Mahonia is the best of them - this photograph was taken ten minutes ago on November 23rd. Not the common Mahonia that you sometimes see in hedgerows, but more compact and colourful varieties like this example of the 'bealei' species. This shrub is fully grown at about six feet high, and it flowers for several weeks. Main downside is that its a dense and rather dowdy green through out the summer, so it should not be planted where summer colour is needed. There's a bit of disagreement over its presence in Cil garden, where we have getting on for ten shrubs. I'm a fan, while Mrs D is not.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Violent Wales?

I was horrified when I read yesterday's Daily Telegraph. Not often that Wales features in the London-based media, but we did yesterday. It reported that one of our Chief Constables described Wales as a nation of violent p***heads. I was just about recovered from the shock when Matt Withers of the Western Mail contacted me, seeking my comments on what Barbara Wilding had said. This was my response;

"I do not recognise the Wales that the Chief Constable has been describing. It is certainly not a remotely accurate picture of rural Wales. I accept that Barbara Wilding may be referring to her experiences in Cardiff and other Welsh cities, but even then, I cannot accept that Wales is any different from other cities across the UK.

In general, I agree with what the Chief Constable is trying to achieve by highlighting the problems of binge drinking, and I support the aims of the 'Enough is Enough' campaign. But its very damaging for Wales that her comments are being reproduced in the London based newspapers, giving a very poor impression of our nation to those who might want to visit.

I hope that Barbara Wilding will 'clarify' her comments, or produce the evidence to justify what she has said. My opinion is that there is too much binge drinking, and too much violence flowing from it, but its no worse in Wales than in other parts of the UK."

Hope falls to Macaw.

For 40 minutes we hoped, and at half-time we were more than worth our lead. And then Ritchie Macaw took over. I know I was an open side myself, but the man is barely human. Macaw is the best rugby player that I've ever seen play. When Brian Moore was asked to nominate a 'Man of the Match', it was a very easy question to answer. The man is a mountain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Very Odd Story

I was astonished to read the headines in my local newspaper, the County Times today. There is huge coverage announcing that Abermule Post Office has been saved - and that our MP has almost done this single-handedly, by behaving like a tiger. There are photographs of champagne toasts being made. I'd better tell you what I find so odd about this.

Several months ago, Post Office Ltd announced that Abermule Post Office was to be closed, and an 'outreach' service put in its place. It was also proposed that it would be replaced with a mobile van. But at a well attended public meeting in the village, while local people were expressing their outrage over this proposal, Post Office Ltd explained that they would consider any other form of 'outreach' service - but that they were proposing the mobile van as a backstop, if no other form of 'outreach' could be found. Exactly the same proposal was made in Berriew, my village, where at a public meeting which I chaired, local opinion was equally outraged, but agreed that a 'partnership' agreement was preferable to a mobile van. This was quickly agreed, consulted on and has been operational for some time. This option was also available at Abermule, except that at the time, there were no takers for the 'Partnership' agreement. There were also no sites to park a mobile van, so the issue was held in abeyance while Post Office Ltd dealt with another closure programme in North Wales. I know all this because I remained in regular contact with them. I was very worried about the future of Abermule.

So what has actually happened? Well, Post Office Ltd have still closed the independent Abermule Post Office. Its great news that the existing local well regarded Post Office owners have now signed up to a 'Partnership' agreement. What seems strange about today's newspaper headlines is that this arrangement was available from the beginning as far as Post Office Ltd were concerned. I know this because I have remained in close contact since the original announcement. Indeed. I called into the Abermule Post Office a few weeks ago to inform the owners that Post Office Ltd would be calling soon to try to persuade them to agree to a 'Partnership'. So you can see why I find today's huge County Times coverage, and great claims of influence as all bit odd. But I am very pleased indeed by what has been agreed, and said as much when the Shropshire Star asked me about it on Tuesday.

Chwarae Teg Ieuan.

I appeared on a panel at a 'Transport' conference at Aberystwyth yesterday, early evening. It was chaired by Professor Stuart Cole, and there's nobody knows more about transport than him. It was a 'politicians meets professionals' session. I was up for the Conservatives, Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones for Plaid, Sian James, MP for Labour and Mick Bates for the Lib Dems. I suppose I was the only one not claiming my travelling expenses!!

Anyway, I thought Ieuan was in candid form. Firstly, I agreed with his considered approach to dealing with the current jobs crisis. He's the responsible Minister in the Assembly Government, so his opinion counts. When he answered a question about bringing forward infrastructure projects to create financial stimulus, he said they had to be deliverable in a very short timescale and be job intensive. All made good sense to me.

But the Deputy First Minister, with responsibility for transport really struck me with some comments he made about cross-border road improvements. We need to go back a few years here. The issue is the A458 road improvement from Welshpool to the English border, known locally as the 'Middletown By-Pass'. Its been talked about for decades, but seemed to becoming a reality when there was a public consultation on preferred routes around five years ago. At the time I was an Assembly Member and asked, both publicly and privately, whether the cross border financing responsibilities of the project had been cleared. Reassurances followed. Must admit my suspicion was that they were without foundation.

At issue is who pays for the bit of the road improvement that lies over the border in England - only a short distance, but crossing a railway line and perhaps £5 million's worth. For years we've been given assurances that this was 'no problem' - until last night. Our Deputy First Minister informed us that he has now spoken to Transport Minister, Lord Adonis, who has told him that he, Lord Adonis has no power over this issue whatsoever. Allocation of funding for the Middletown By-Pass lies with the West Midlands Highway Agency, and the degree of priority it gives to this road improvement, vital to the economic prospects of Mid Wales is virtually non-existent. All the reassurances we've been given are about as valuable as an IOU from Lehman Brothers.

The truly galling thing is that if the National Assembly had never been established, this 'Berlin Wall' between England and Wales would not have been built. We wouldn't find ourselves being forced into hospitals in Wales rather than those we traditionally used in England. And we would have had a new road from Welshpool to the English Border finished by now. It would have been an infrastructure project that would have brought huge economic benefit to a part of Wales that desperately needs it. At least Ieuan Wyn Jones has finally come clean and told us the truth, which is a whole lot more than you can say for his predecessors.

Wild Beavers.

I'm a trustee of my local wildlife trust. I was a bit late for tonight's Trust meeting - but I was in time for a discussion about beavers. I'm interested in beavers, and in particular whether they should be allowed to run around in a natural state in wild Wales. It was a private meeting so I can only comment on my own opinion. Instinctively and emotionally, I'm attracted to the idea of beavers on the loose - but I'm always a bit suspicious of reintroductions of what have become de facto alien species. The one thing we can be sure of is that the consequences will not be what we think they might be. Personally, I'm pleased that the European Beaver is going to be reintroduced on a trial basis in Scotland, rather than Wales. Hopefully, we will wait until the evidence of these trials are available before we take the plunge.

Only last week, I heard reports of dreadful damage being caused by another animal which has been returned to the wild, the wild boar. Initially, I also instinctively and emotionally liked the idea of this creature roaming through our woodlands as well. But last week they ventured out of their woodland retreats and dug up a cricket pitch. This is a declaration of intent. Something must be done. Well, I also read last week that Henry the Eighth used to hunt wild boar and sent one to Anne Boleyn as a token of his passion for her, pleading that she should think of him when she ate it. Could this be a virtuous circle. We reintroduce new species into our countryside, and then object to what their nature compels them to do, and then we reintroduce the old county sport of hunting them. Just imagine hundreds of Welshmen on horseback, riding off into the woods hunting beavers.

Body Language

Watched the two candidates for the leadership of the Welsh Liberal Democrats on Dragon's Eye tonight. Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams were desperately trying to persuade us that they were the best of friends, who are involved in a contest of ideas. But its the body language that does it for me. I thought there was a smouldering resentment, and a genuine antipathy between them. Whichever of them wins is going to have a rather split and unhappy team of five behind them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cameron's New Policy.

WARNING - This is a partisan post - born of anger. Lets go back to the beginning. I'm one of those politicians who had to think about which political party I was most aligned with philosophically before becoming actively involved. No family tradition or politically motivated friends. Throughout my Local Government and Quango careers I was 'Independent'. When I was young, my inherent pride in being a Welshman led me to vote Plaid Cymru - instinctive rather than based on any judgement. But when I did think about which political party to join, I concluded that I was and always had been an instinctive Conservative.

Amongst the reasons that I consider myself 'Conservative' is a belief that the private sector delivers services more cost effectively than the state. In my opinion, it follows that I also believe in the state as a strong regulator. Private sector provision of social services with light regulation will not deliver social justice. I was in conversation with Wales Older People's Commissioner last night about provision of care for the elderly, the senile and other dependent people. The issue was how to provide best care. My opinion, (and I emphasise it was my opinion) was that when the public sector delivers the care itself (and also regulates the delivery) abuse, inefficiency and a terrible waste of money are likely to follow close behind. You see, my opinion is based not on some ideology, but on good service delivery.

Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction to my comments on David Cameron's hugely important statement yesterday that a future Conservative Government will not be tied to Labour's future spending plans. The Labour response has been predictable. Jeremy Paxman's sneering last night was verging on the repugnant. I've no idea what this will do to our popular support - but personally, I'm extremely pleased. My background as a small businessman instilled into me a suspicion of entering into debts that I wasn't sure how I would repay. The depth of my personal contempt for the financial systems that have wreaked such havoc with our economy is unmeasurable. My disbelief that so many people believe that Gordon Brown, the main architect of this havoc in Britain (also the individual who b*****ed up the regulatory system) should be thought by many to be the man to sort it out is equally unmeasurable - but it is the case. A good friend, (not political but aware) told me yesterday how she thought Brown was doing a good job. It was a genuine opinion from someone neither Labour nor Conservative. And the opinion polls seem to moving in Labour's direction.

But I wonder what will be the position after Xmas. A good friend of mine in financial services has been made redundant today, which has inspired this post. Others close to me are also expecting to lose their jobs - young able people whose dreams are going to be drowned in a sea of worry. I'm suspicious of the proposed £30 billion reduction in the tax burden that we expect on Monday, but my real worry about this is that there will be no route map outlining how and when it's going to be repaid. I'm not just pleased by David Cameron's announcement yesterday. I'm proud that my party leader has decided to face down the gamblers, the spinners and the spendthrifts, and stand up to the bullies that govern us in order to save our economy from disaster.

Speech Therapy

The presenters of BBC One's Breakfast TV programme really have got a brass neck. There they were toying 'playfully' with each other on their ridiculous settee this morning, giggling like two adolescents responding to the first stirrings of sexual interest in each other. All about as false as Ritchie Macaw's smiling best wishes at kick-off. And they started mocking George Osborne about some supposed attempts to change the tone of his voice. They had even persuaded some 'speech therapist' to come in and join them on their ridiculous settee. I've no idea whether this stuff was true or not, but so b*****y what, I thought. I spent hours learning how to improve my public speaking when I was a member of Berriew Young Farmer's Club. Must admit it was the local headmaster, the late Mr Glynne Jones who 'therapied' me, and in a voluntary capacity. Couldn't afford a proper speech therapist. Every YFC club did the same. It still happens today. Next week, I'll be adjudicating a Montgomeryshire YFC public speaking competition, trying to pass on what Glynne Jones taught me, all those years ago. And last month I adjudicated a Welsh school's debating competition, and tried to offer some advice when I summed up on behalf of the judging panel.

Usually, the key lesson is to slow down. This automatically lowers your voice, makes it easier on the listening ear, and helps give an impression that you are in control of your voice. It also creates opportunity to emphasise a particular point by a quick burst at normal word speed. When not appearing on the media, or speaking in public, I have a tendency to gabble - which when influenced by anger mutates into a squeak. Without some attempt at speech modulation, the audiece would be lost, as would any ability to influence. And I'd lay odds that every BBC presenter has undergone speech training. All they wanted was an excuse to have a go at George. So a curse on all media presenters, and may they lose their voices for an hour as punishment for their snideness.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Abermule Post Office

Its been quite a while since Post Office Ltd announced that the Montgomeryshire village of Abermule's Post Office was to close. Must admit that I've been disappointed that its proved impossible to reverse this decision. Abermule is a rapidly growing village, and local people are outraged that their Post Office is to close. So I'm very pleased that there's been an agreement to establish a 'partnership' arrangement between Abermule and the nearby Newtown Post Office, facilitating the continuation of Post Office services on the same site. Not what we wanted, but a damn sight better than the 'Mobile Van' that was proposed. To be fair to Post Office Wales, their representatives made it clear from the beginning that they were willing to consider a 'partnership'. The major benefit of this arrangement is that the same excellent people continue to provide the service.

The arrangement now agreed for Abermule is similar to that which was agreed at nearby Berriew, (where I live) following a public meeting (which I chaired) where we all decided we preferred it to the 'Mobile Van'. The main difference is that in Berriew, the local 'service supplier' is different, and its a different location. I know its taken a big commitment to learn the ropes. Whatever I'm really pleased that a service is to be retained at Abermule. I had been becoming increasingly concerned that this thriving village might have been left with no service at all.

What is Welsh

Writing in a book entitled 'Politics in the 21st century' Rhodri Morgan has insisted that the Labour Party must become more 'Welsh'. Martin Shipton's report on this in today's Western Mail is here. This has been interpreted by some as being a veiled attack on Don Touhig, Alun Michael and Kim Howells. What occurred to me was the question 'What does he mean by this'? Firstly he refers to a 'perception' that Labour is anti-Welsh - but since he also claims that "The charge is of course false", he must believe that the problem is presentational. I suppose he's watched the Labour Party under Blair and Brown achieve so much electoral success through 'spin' that he believes the 'perception' that Labour is anti-Welsh can also be transformed through 'spin'.

Another rather more complex question that occurs to me is 'What is Welsh' when referring to a political party's policies. Is it a commitment to a bilingual Wales, a willingness to financially support Welsh culture, or support for the transfer of more powers to the National Assembly - or what? Last week I read of a report from an London University which implied that to be Welsh meant to be socialist - conveniently forgetting that Mrs Thatcher almost attracted more votes than Wales-based Michael Foot in 1983.

And then there's the matter of how this discussion might be relevant to the Conservative Party. Often, I hear and read assertions that we are 'Welsh'. I very much want us to be - but I know that just calling ourselves Welsh Conservatives is not enough. Across most of the world, the political party that is most associated with regional distinctiveness and cultural diversity is the right-of-centre party. It should be us in Wales. I want it to be us in Wales. How do we make it us in Wales. And the biggest question of all for me is whether I'm right in believing that it matters.


Normally, I try to post on the basis of my opinion. This post just asks a lot of questions. Answers on a postcard please, or just comment.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

'Opposition'.

The first task of an Opposition Party is to oppose the Government when it is acting in a way that is not in the best interests of the country. This involves holding the Government to account for its mistakes, through scrutiny and questioning. So its beyond me why there should be any criticism of George Osborne for warning that Gordon Brown's management of the economy could lead to a run on sterling. Disagree with the content if you want but surely not the fact of the criticism itself. Personally, I hope the Shadow Chancellor steps up the criticism. This will do for starters.

What really surprises me is how journalists can report with a straight face, comments by the Prime Minister that the official Opposition should not be challenging the Government over important issues. It seems to be the latest Gordon Brown ruse to isolate himself from any kind of scrutiny. The way media outlets tend to feed off each other is a bit depressing, especially when it involves criticising one of my favourite politicians, rather than congratulating him for doing his job. Last week, at PMGs, the Prime Minister accused David Cameron of playing party politics with a tragic death. At least, many people saw for themselves the unpleasant ridiculousness of Gordon Brown's behaviour. But this rubbish about George Osborne 'talking down Sterling' really is beyond reason.

And while I'm about it, why on earth is the media allowing the Prime Minister to get away with the incredible nonsense he's spouting about leading the world out of its financial crisis. This article from the New York Times demonstrates all too clearly that Gordon Brown is nothing like as significant a player as he pretends. Its worth reading. We want our journalists to tell us this. It seems to me that the G20 conference has been next thing to pointless. Did they really need to meet up in order to decide that they were 'going to work together'. Iain Dale reports Ken Clarke as commenting thus

"The G20 is a bit of a circus. They decided they wanted more growth. Yes, and we all love mothers too. The summit was held because all 20 of them wanted to use the word 'global' to emphasise that it wasn't their problem. I'm afraid they all went there for a photo opportunity and I fear that the photo that they missed was that with President-Elect Obama".

The proper response of the media should be to give the whole shebang about three column inches on the bottom of page 15.

Trunk Value - Two

Another really attractive betula is the River Birch. We grow several specimen trees, but here I'm trying to create a little grove that we can walk amongst. Its not been very successful yet because I bought bargain trees that were in poor condition and there's been a lot of die-back. But lots of peeling bark, which is main attraction. When I prune back some branches next spring, we should be able to walk amongst them.

The only reason to grow Prunus 'serrula' is for its trunk. Its really glossy and I'm told rather phallic when the tree is about three years old. In my experience, this tree grows quite quickly, but will not become any taller than twenty feet. i think it looks better if some lower branches are removed - usually the case when the trunk is the attractive feature. There's another one in the background, together with two specimen River Birchs.
And sorry about the layout of this post. Just cannot get things right tonight.


More on supermarkets

I seemed to have caused a bit of debate about supermarkets. For those who think a Local Planning Authority can just refuse to allow them, I'd like to share a little true story.

About two years ago, Lidl submitted a planning application to construct a supermarket on the J T Hughes car sales site in Newtown. I never met a single person in favour, including councillors and planning officers. But Powys County Council (the LPA) didn't refuse it - they just did nothing much at all. After a few months, Lidl appealed to the National Assembly on the grounds of non determination - and at the same time submitted a second similar planning application on the same site. Eventually, the first application fell to be heard by an Assembly planning inspector. The Powys Planning Department took a report to councillors, outlining their strategy of opposition to the development, to ensure councillor support. Because of a fear that the appeal would succeed, and they would be subject to huge costs, councillors informed their officers that they were not able to offer the requested support - in other words, they they were on their own. A few days later the planning officers completely changed their position and recommended approval of the second application. At the next meeting, the second Lidl application was approved. The local population (including me) was dumbfounded. Shortly afterwards, the appeal against non determination of the first application was withdrawn. Thats how we came to have the Lidl supermarket built on what seemed to me to be a totally unsuitable location, about half a mile from the town centre.

I live between Newtown and Welshpool, both of which have recently been considering planning applications for supermarkets. In Newtown its been with Tesco directly, and in Welshpool with a developer who has just announced that the client is Tesco. On balance, I'm against the Newtown proposal and in favour of the Welshpool proposal - mainly because the Newtown supermarket will be beyond practical walking distance from the town's retail centre, while in Welshpool it will be on the edge of it. There are other considerations as well, principally concerning traffic flows. Its also the case that the local Council is in favour of both of these developments. I'm meeting Welshpool's Federation of Small Business later this week, when this issue is bound to be a major talking point. So this blog may have yet another supermarkets post on Friday.

Trunk value


Winter interest is important in any garden. Several ways of doing this through leaf colour, shapes, conifers, grasses and some shrubs. Personally, I'm keen on the trunks of trees - and this is my favourite, 'Acer grisium'. Its expensive to buy, and slow growing. But its easyto grow and has good leaf colour as well. I've pruned the lower branches away to show off the peeling bark. This lovely tree is sometimes known as a 'paper bark maple'. When my granddaughter is walking her granddaughter around the Cil Garden, this tree could well be over 30 ft tall.


Most gardens have at least one specimen of the Betula 'utilis' or 'jacquemontii'. I'm never sure what the correct name is for this white stemmed birch. This could even be a special cultivar. We planted a few as a little grove with paths amongst them. They are brilliant in the moonlight. If you have time, they can be improved by washing them down with water. They do grow to be quite a size and because birches are shallow rooted, underplanting is not easy. This photograph shows that I use Phormium and bamboo. And I've just lost two other photographs, so I'll have to post again after supper.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Academics catching up.

"Yawn, yawn." I can almost smell it leaking out of my laptop as I embark on this post. What the H*** am I doing posting on how Wales is governed - again. I apologise to those of you who visit this blog for gossip and 'gaffes', but reading today's Western Mail has set me off again.

Regular visitors will know that this blog supports the granting to the National Assembly for Wales of law making power in the subject areas which are currently devolved. Unfortunately this 'opinion' sometimes leads to derisive snorts that I'm what is dismissively termed a 'Nat', someone who believes Wales should be an 'independent' country. Nothing wrong with being a 'Nat' of course, but I'm not one of them. And that is because the reason I hold the opinion that I hold, is that I support the long term survival of the United Kingdom. I'm pleased to read today's article by Tomos Livingstone, based on a report by the Constitutional Unit at University College, London which seems to lend support to the position policy this blog has long taken. I will just reproduce one of the quoted lines.

"The present arrangements are unstable and hard to make work, and create constitutional entanglement and confusion, so greater autonomy would be in the interests of both the devolved institutions in Wales and at a UK level."

Couldn't have put it better myself. In fact that's just about how I have been putting it since the 2006 Government of Wales Act reached the Statute Book. There's a whole lot of other stuff as well, some of it blindingly obvious, and some of it 'blue skies thinking'. I think I'll try to acquire a copy.

So, Tesco it is.

Jan and Tracy are strong and opinionated women. At the Montgomeryshire Dinner' held in Meifod Village Hall last night I was seated comfortably next to them, tucking in to outstandingly good fare. A most convivial evening suddenly turned quite intimidatory when I mentioned that the new supermarket to be built in the middle of Welshpool is to be a Tesco. I possessed this knowledge because the developers had telephoned me earlier in the day, seeking a supportive quote on the Press Release that has now been issued. Well actually, it wasn't the fact it was a Tesco that brought opprobrium down upon my head, but that I made the announcement with some approval. I've always had a soft spot for Tesco, because I used to know the then Managing Director, David Malpas, and Dr Gwyn Jones, another Director rather well a few years ago. I suppose its a warmth born of personal friendship. But I don't know much about supermarket shopping - though I did once enter Morrison's of Welshpool for the purposes of shopping in May 2007.

Now Jan and Tracy do not want a new supermarket in Welshpool at all, and if it must be, they do not want it to be a Tesco. The situation was manageable. But then I made a fatal mistake - one that politicians are prone to make. I began talking about something of which I know little. I said that Tesco in a very good quality retailer, and than Welshpool's shoppers (thankfully I didn't say housewives) would be really pleased to have this choice, and that many of those who currently choose to travel to shop will now stay in Welshpool. Well, I know at least two who don't agree.

Many local people do not want another supermarket to come to Welshpool at all. Fair enough. But those who hold this opinion should accept that in due course, the town will lose its livestock market. I'm told that the current market is unlikely to comply with various legal requirements for much longer, and will not survive. The only way that sufficient money can be raised to build a new livestock market is through sale of part of the existing site for food retailing.

Whatever, the decisions have now been taken. Welshpool is being redesigned. The new livestock market is being built (the first sod is being turned on 27th Nov), a one-way traffic system is being introduced, and Tesco is coming. I wonder if Jan and Tracy will be able to resist all those juicy introductory offers that are going to be advertised on posters when Tesco of Welshpool opens?

Friday, November 14, 2008

The President's Lunch

President of our local Conservative Association is Lord Gowrie, Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven. Amongst a host of other things, he was a member of Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet, holding the position of Chancellor, Duchy of Lancaster. He also served as Chairman of the Arts Council, and he's had a heart transplant. And this afternoon he delivered what I consider the best political speech I've heard in Montgomeryshire. Not one of those great oratorical flourishes. It wasn't even 'rousing' in any sense of the word. And I'm not even sure that he'd done much preparation. It was just a man with great knowledge of the world, speaking in a relaxed, generally non-partisan way about the significance of the Obama victory. He'd arrived hotfoot from the US, where he and Lady Gowrie had visited in order to be close to one of the most significant events in the history of the United States. Lord Gowrie lives near Llanfechain and is wonderfully good company.

He told us about his friend Sir Brian Urquhart, who was once sentenced to death - but during the night before the planned execution at dawn, he managed to "talk his executioners out of it". Now that would need a very cool head.

Rarely do I listen to a speech where I agree with all that the speaker says. Well, I nearly achieved that today. Regular readers will know that this blog offered gentle support for John McCain when he was selected as the Republican candidate for the US Presidency, but by the time voting day arrived had decided that the phenomenon that is Barack Obama was the right man for the job - mainly because his election will lead to a willingness on the part of the world to look at the US in a more positive way. While our President told us he thought John McCain is a excellent man, he too believed Obama to be special. The only issue where I might be able to find disagreement with Lord Gowrie is over the issue of abolition of hereditary peerages. He told us that he was very much in favour of the abolition of himself from our Parliament. While I agree with him in principle, I'm not at all sure that I could have supported the 'two stage' process, which has left us in the position where we seem unable to reach an agreement on how our revising chamber should be finally constituted. I bought a 'Yes We Can' top which I'll wear during the General Election campaign. A good day and left Newtown Football Club, where our lunch was held, with confidence lifted up a notch or two.

'Top Cat' in 'full rant'

When we were both members of the National Assembly, I used to enjoy listening to David Davies speaking. He was not always relevant, was sometimes outrageous and I sometimes didn't agree with him. But he usually had a point, which was more than I can say for a lot of the speeches I listened to. Which is why I read this one (from ConservativeHome) in its entirety. Be warned that its not going to be to everyone's taste. Pity it isn't on video. How I'd like to have been there to see the expressions on the mandarin's faces.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Price of Foolishness.

Its enough to bring despair down upon the head of any reasonable Welshman, who wants to see Wales well governed within a settled British constitution. Since it was first proposed, I have described the 2006 Government of Wales Act as "a constitutional crisis waiting to happen". This BBC report could well describe the arrival of such a crisis. After the Act was passed, I took the view that we must try to make it work. So it was no surprise that I was horrified when the Coalition Government proposed a Legislative Competence Order asking for the powers to abandon Right-to-buy to be transferred to the National Assembly. Fools I thought - bl****y fools. The subtlety of a clunking fist. A stand off was inevitable, as it usually is when politicians start waving their p****s in the air, advertising their virility.

Well, we are where we are. So what happens now. It looks as if Rhodri Morgan wants to back down - but we do not know how many of his AMs agree with him. On balance, I think that this is sensible - but it does depend on the terms of the agreement that MPs and AMs arrive at. Inevitably any agreement will act as a precedent to some degree, but some form of words must be found to minimalise the precedent involved - or the Act becomes meaningless. The big issue is of course the declared intention of the Coalition to ask for powers over the Welsh Language to be transferred. Its ironic that playing silly games over Right-to-buy has made it much more difficult for the Assembly to win powers to legislate for the Welsh Language.

The politics of this are very interesting. Because this issue has reached stand-off stage, Plaid Cymru supporters will be mightily miffed if the LCO is diluted as the MPs want. And they will be even more miffed if the Welsh Language LCO is now watered down as well. (For what its worth I think this would have been a better battleground, if battleground there was going to be). Oh, and then there's the failure to deliver a referendum on law making powers - another promise in the Coalition policy agreement which persuaded Plaid Cymru supporters to back Ieuan Wyn Jones decision to prop up Labour in Government, rather than enter a 'Rainbow' coalition. I suspect it will be a bit more than some supporters will put up with.

UPDATE - just watched Betsan on Dragon's Eye, who reads the situation exactly the same as I do. For months, I thought I was ploughing alonely furrow on this - so its nice to see that I've become 'mainstream'.

Saving the World.

What a stroke of luck for the world that Lembit Opik didn't win the presidency of the Liberal Democrat Party over the weekend. It means that he now has time to focus his attention on ending terrorism. In yesterday's Shropshire Star, this headline took my eye. In fact both of them were taken - and then forced open wide with astonishment. It read 'MP Opik offers to hold bin Laden talks'. I just cannot bring myself to make any comment on this, beyond repeating some of what was reported as direct quotations.

"I was very low after losing the election, but I now realise my biggest political opportunities are just beginning"

"My first goal will be to promote a dialogue to address the motives of international terror rather than simply declaring a so far relatively unproductive war on terror"

"I want to find out why they commit such horrifying acts, so we can help put a stop to it with politics not violence"

"If I could talk to Osama bin Laden, I would ask what outcomes he was trying to achieve. My only request would be for him to listen to my response."

The report did not make it clear whether he intended to discuss his plans with Barack Obama, just to ensure that all the families and friends of those murdered by Osama bin Laden on 9/11 were happy that this meeting should take place. Neither did the report inform us whether Mr David Icke is to accompany the LO team when it leaves for Afghanistan.

UPDATE - Perhaps this news from the CIA will help find him.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'British' or 'Welsh'?

Got a late call from the Richard Evans phone-in on Radio Wales this morning. Could I get to the Newtown Studio by noon - and 'guest' on a panel of three. The issue concerned a document published by Caerphilly Council which had supposedly warned all staff to be cautious of using the term 'British' when dealing with the public, because it might cause offense. Well, I thought this was all very silly, but was cautious myself because I'd not read the document, only the comments that others had made upon it.

Anyway I agreed, and found that one of my fellow panellists was Councillor Ron Davies, former Secretary of State for Wales. The other was journalist, Mario Basini. Richard tried to create some great division between us, as he does, but with little success. I just took the opinion that individuals should be free to decide whether they want to be thought of as British or Welsh - or anything else for that matter. The location that I identify with more than anywhere else is Montgomeryshire - and then Wales - and then Britain. But I'm not displeased to be described as British. In fact, I'm proud to be called British, even though I tend to think of myself as more Welsh - and yesterday, Armistice Day, I felt particularly proud to be British. In general Ron Davies agreed.

All that had happened was that Caerphilly Council had produced one of these documents about equality policy (which very few people actually read), and it had been blown up into an issue that attracted disproportionate comment. The aspect that did concern me was the UK media coverage, which I thought brought ridicule upon Wales. There is something about the UK media which seems to delight in stories that do this.

Anyway, some of the callers were very funny. Cheryl from Bridgend became frustrated with some obscure point Mario was trying to make, and she finished up with an exasperated "You're Bonkers". And then some fellow came on and told Richard that his was a great programme, and that "You really get some 'lemons' on" - and I think he meant the panel. And then another fellow came on and said he thought of himself as a Welsh European'! By this stage, I was laughing like a drain. It was nice to be tangling with Ron again. Whatever else, he's a class act in a debate.

Why do we want to do it?

Anyone who listened to today's Prime Minister's Questions will have been nauseated by the man who has managed to secure the position of Prime Minister of our country. You can listen to it here if you can stand it. I've read the reaction of a few to it and the best is this by Fraser Nelson. He brings a level of disrepute to his office that has rarely been achieved in our history.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'Country Focus' on the CPRW.

Missed Melanie Dole's 'Country Focus' on Sunday morning. For those of you interested in the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales you can listen to the programme here.

The Last Post

"We will remember them". Young men (and I think its all men) who sacrificed their lives. And so we should. I wanted to contribute to the Telegraph Media Group's fundraising campaign to constuct a memorial to the men of Bomber Command. 55,573 were killed in action, almost half of those who flew operations over Nazi Germany and occupied Europe. Bravery that I can barely comprehend. Yes, we should honour them.

So this morning I arranged a coffee morning in Welshpool Town Hall, and invited anyone and everyone to join me. It was free, but there was a 'Donations' box. At 11.00, the Last Post was sounded by bugler, Ian Davies (also born to a Castle Caereinion farming family, but not a relative). Speeches were made by the Mayor, Anne Holloway and by local ex-serviceman, 86 year old John Gwilt, who is a longstanding friend and political non-sympathiser. I write that now, but didn't think of it all day. It was an event where political differences went unrecognised.

Its strange how the incredibly emotional sound of the Armistice Day bugle and the silence brings people together. Political differences are not so much insignificant as irrelevent. Its also strange that out of commemoration of the most awful tragedy, we find a pleasure and a pride midst the awe we sense at the scale of sacrifice. I've not served in the Armed Forces myself, but each year I appreciate more keenly the contribution made by so many others on my behalf. The box marked 'Donations' contained getting on for £200. I'll do the same thing next year.

Blimey - He's Everywhere.

Strolling down Broad Street in Welshpool this afternoon - and who should I encounter but Matt Dicks, one of ITV Wales top journos. He was doing a 'vox pop'. Not exactly sure what he was asking, but he interviewed me in search of an opinion about Montgomeryshire's Member of Parliament, Lembit Opik. It was probably for a follow-up piece on Saturday's announcement of a new President of the Liberal Democrats. Well, dear readers, what on earth could I say?

The following is roughly what I did say. I'd thought Lembit was going to win the Presidency, because no-one had ever heard of Baroness Ros Scott (and he told me on Friday that he was going to) - and that I'd been astounded by the margin of his defeat. I also said that I rather like him, that we get along pretty well, and that I'm not prepared to criticise him. But I did say that it seems that we do have a very different approach to politics. And that this is good for democracy, because it gives Montgomeryshire voters a choice of 'approach to politics' as well as 'political affiliation'.

But the main point I made was that I don't want my campaign to be defined by Lembit. I try to ignore all the celebrity attention that Montgomeryshire politics seems to be attracting. I want my campaign to be about what I want to do. I'm not sure Matt was listening - and I don't blame him. Luckily, I'd had a morning when my approach had worked out exactly as I desire it to - doing something in the constituency for a cause I believe in. (The 'Next Post' which I will call the 'Last Post') . But its not going to be easy. I did note that the media referred to Baroness Scott's stunning victory as her opponent's defeat. When I told Pam in the office that I hoped the same thing wouldn't happen to me, she smiled to herself knowingly, and seemed not to mind at all.

AMs Allowances - read all about them.

So December 8th it is. That's the day when all the juicy little details about how Assembly Members spent their 'Additional Costs' allowances, between May 2006 - May 2007. Details of their 'Office Costs' and 'Travel Costs' allowances from May 2007 - May 2008 are also being published on the same date. But its the 'Additional Costs' which are likely to provide snippets which could boost sales of the Western Mail.

When the 2007 - 08 details were released, there was a real hoo-hah about a £2,000 settee, £1000 TV and audio system, and a few other odd bits. I wonder what will excite the commentariat this time, and whether all the AMs will disappear under their desks again. Last year, the media were so desperate for someone to respond that they asked me - even though I'd not been an AM for many months. I always took the view that if you claim taxpayer's money, you've got to be prepared to defend it - and publicly. I wonder how many AMs will have their mobiles turned off on Dec 7th/8th. It will be a bit awkward for all those who think they are in with a chance of winning a Politician of the Year award. They will want to hear from ITV Wales whether they 'must' turn up for the black tie Awards 'do' on the 9th!

I know all this because I've received the lists of my claims this morning - so that I can check accuracy before publication. It all looks to be in order. I was lucky that I had Phill Carlick as my PA, to make sure it was. He had a lot in common with my accountant. Sometimes I felt outraged that they refused to submit what I reckoned were entirely legitimate claims. But refuse they did - and I accepted it. Anyway, order your newspapers for Dec 8th, and find out precisely how your politicians have been using their allowances.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Looking for the inherent incentive.

Been to a health care conference in Cardiff today arranged by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Part of my ongoing efforts to broaden my knowledge. We all enjoyed listening to a Cardiff Business School professor comprehensively rubbished the Assembly Government's case for NHS restructuring - or more accurately pointing out that there's been no effort whatsoever to provide any evidence base on which to build justification for the Minister's proposals. And there's no meaningful attempt being made to establish a mechanism for judging in the future whether the reorganisation has been a 'success'. I daresay Cardiff Business School would do it for £100k!

I've never trusted reorganisations. During my eight years as an Assembly Member the two most significant reorganisations were the creation of the NHS structure that the current Minister, Edwina Hart is now demolishing, and the ill-considered, prejudice-driven incorporation of the quangos. Its accepted by all that the first was a disaster, and accepted by some that the second was the same. There was no attempt to base either of them on evidence, or to put in place any attempt to measure whether they were successful.

Now to the point of this post. A contribution by Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, the Chief Executive of the Medical Research Council helped clarify my thinking today - on a subject he wasn't even talking about. His subject was innovation in the NHS, and he was asking why on earth any senior manager should act innovately. Any failure of innovation inevitably leads to public condemnation, with demands to know why the money wasn't invested in the tried and tested. And unlike in the private sector, there is no bonus structure to reward success, thus making the risk associated with innovation worthwhile. So there's no innovation.

Regular readers will know that this blog has been struggling to arrive at an opinion about 'presumed consent' with regard to human organ donation. And this is what Sir Leszek's comments caused me to think. Under the present system of 'opt-in', there is a systemic incentive driving the desire to persuade people to become organ donors. The more people who 'opt in' and carry a donor card, the more organs there will be available for transplant. Now if a system of 'presumed consent' was introduced and people were to be required to 'opt out', the only systemic incentive would be have no publicity, no public awareness and no public discussion at all. There will be howls of protest that the new 'presumed consent' will be set up with all sorts of safeguards, but in my opinion its always as well to look at the inherent interests when making a judgement..

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Return of the Quangos.

Assembly Minister, Jane Davidson is clearly demob happy - and why not. Saying something 'outside the box' is usually healthy. But I don't agree with this. She has identified a problem, but has come to a conclusion that is both partisan and unacceptable. I watched today's interview on the BBC's Politics Show. I also knew about it because David Williamson of the Western Mail asked me what I thought of it sometime last week.

I agree with Jane that there's a problem with how Wales is governed. Because there are only 60 Assembly Members, elected from candidates who are selected by political party machines (except one), there is not much room for the individuals who have been successful in other fields, that Jane Davidson refers to - even if I'm not sure that we need too many 'celebrities'. It is the same old faces that are put in front of the cameras time after time. Its no surprise that the public switch off.

But Jane's idea of using the 20 'regional' Assembly seats to accommodate the new faces is not acceptable. Firstly, this idea is blatantly partisan - just the sort of 'tribalism' she objects to. Its not just a happy coincidence that only two of the twenty are held by Labour AMs. Now I'm not suggesting that this would stop Labour. After all this is the party that forced through the offensively partisan ban on dual candidacy, which was such an affront to democracy. Its just that no other party would accept it. And secondly, its no longer acceptable to have people sitting in our National Assembly who have not been elected by a genuine system of democracy.

Seems to me there are two ways this issue can be resolved. Firstly by establishing a 'Second Chamber' which would be, at least in part, 'nominated' - an idea about as appetising to the Welsh public as a rat sandwich. Or we could reinstate what we used to do until Jane's Government abolished it - appointing these special individuals to Assembly Sponsored Public Bodies, for limited periods to carry out Government objectives - within the confines of a 'Remit Letter'. Now, most people of stature are not going to be interested in being used as 'promotional' material, appointed just to give credibility to Assembly Government policy. There will have to be a good degree of independence. As far as I can see, Jane Davidson is making a case for establishing some high profile quangos.