Saturday, January 31, 2009

Black Clouds on Council's horizons

Over the last few days, Councils across Wales have been debating and agonising over what level of Council Tax to levy in 2009-10. Its not been easy. On the one hand there's the desire to deliver good public services and the advice of officers to raise the necessary money. But there's also the knowledge that their constituents will be living on lower incomes in the coming year and cannot afford increases beyond inflation. Personally, I believe inflation will be around 1% through the relevant year, so an increase in Council Tax of 2% seems entirely reasonable. Where I live in Powys, the Council opted for an increase of 3%. This is going to mean difficult decisions for councillors. But nothing compared with what I expect it to be over the next few years. Tomos Livingstone has written a good piece in today's Western Mail on the background to this issue, though relating it to the National Assembly.

Britain is in a place that she hasn't been before. Our Government is borrowing (and printing) money as if there's no tomorrow. But there is a tomorrow, and this money has to be repaid. Even worse, some of the capital funding anticipated in future years in being rushed forward to bolster what's called the financial stimulus. So that's another financial hole down the road. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will have no option but cut back public spending significantly, probably from 2010 onwards - irrespective of which party forms the Government. The Pre-Budget Report projections are now fantasy, and the revisions we will hear in Darling's budget speech in March are going to be horrific.

Since the Assembly 'block grant' (as calculated by the Barnett Formula) is about 5% of the Chancellor's budget allocated to devolved services. So the cutbacks will feed directly into the Assemby's budget. And it gets worse. The Social Security budget is bound to explode as a result of the recession, and that isn't devolved - so there will be even less money for the services that are. And if Obama demands a bigger contribution from Britain towards the war effort in Afghanistan, the Defence budget will grow above inflation as well. And when the Assembly Government is faced with a huge hole in its spending plans, guess where it will find itself forced to cut back most to balance its 'impossible' budget. You got it - local government. The instinct will be to raise more tax - and the only way that the Assembly Government can raise taxation is indirectly, through the Council Tax. And it gets worse. Because only a relatively small percentage of council spending comes from the Council Tax element of Council funding, gearing will exaggerate the impact on Council Tax bills.

Next time we have one of our Conservative 'team meetings' here in Montgomeryshire, we will hopefully have a debrief on last week's Council Tax debate. I'm going to be saying that we've seen nothing yet, and its time to have a root and branch look at Council spending. And its time to start thinking about it now.

In praise of Young Farmers Clubs

Was guest speaker and award presenter at Abermule YFC's annual dinner dance last night. Seem to be spending a lot of time with YFCs at the moment - and very happy to do so. I owe the organisation a lot. In the recent Islwyn Davies Memorial Lecture, entitled 'The Culture of Montgomeryshire', the speaker, Paul Loveluck of Wales Tourist Board/Countryside Council/National Museum fame described the YFC movement as a 'finishing school'. Nice description and apt. But in my case I'm not sure that it actually 'finished', but it certainly transformed.

Last night's do was in the Community Centre, the scene of what (with typical modesty you might snidely remark) I can only describe as personal triumphs. Abermule is in the middle of Montgomeryshire, and the Centre was where all county YFC competitions used to take place. The stage on which I stood (mouth dry and knees shaking) to win my first public speaking competitions is still there. The clock on the far wall, which I imagined speaking at, is still there. And my seat last night was in roughly the same spot that I sat, when my nom-de-plume, Taurus ap Thomas was called out as the winner of two eisteddfod chairs - when, by tradition I had to be dragged up protesting to the stage. But I digress - as Frankie Howard used to say.

On yesterday's edition of Dau o'r Bae on Radio Cymru, we were asked where we might find a Welsh Obama. My fellow panelist, Myfanwy Alexander suggested that he (for he read she) might be discovered within the Young Farmer's Clubs movement. There is just so much wonderful talent there. The thought that immediately entered my mind why any of these talented young people would want to become politicians, bearing in mind the bucketfuls of contempt that would immediately be poured upon their heads. Another panelist, Daran Hill, normally a man of great wisdom completely lost it. He mentioned Kirsty Williams. Only other person I've heard say that was Mick Bates - and I think he was joking. Will Daran's reputation for good judgement ever recover I ask ?

Anyway, congratulations to Robin who organised last night, Rhiannon who chaired it with authority and charm, Ella for introducing me through poetry, and Luke, Glen, Abbie, and Mathew who got special awards. There were other performances worthy of mention as well. Dylan - in recognition of his retaining the title, Stud of the Year. Gareth - for completely forgetting about the 'Grace' until we were into the main course. And Roger Jones - for his contribution to the livestock industry. The mountain of food he managed to build on his plate at the buffet was a masterpiece of constuction. There were 71 people there, and it was exactly the same mix of wild youth and wise heads that I remember from decades ago. In fact today's wise heads were the wild youth of then. That's how the YFC movement works.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

2.99% it is then.

Edna Mopbucket's been on - laughing like a drain. Never known her so jolly. When she told me it was all thanks to the Lib Dems, I was worried. The sheer symbolism of Edna deserting me would do very bad things to my confidence. And then she explained. I didn't think it was that funny - but I suppose you had to be there.

Edna's working full-time for Powys County Council at the moment. When I asked her if she was one of these thousand plus employees on over £30,000, she audibly snarled down the phone something about 'peanuts' and the b******s wanting to charge for parking her car. In truth she only took the job because of this thing she's got for Councillor Bob Mills. Goes all gooey when I mention his name. And she knew he'd be there today. Anyway back to the story.

It was budget day at County Hall. The motion from the Management Board, which had been put forward by the Lib Dems and the Montgomeryshire Independents was an increase in Council Tax of 2.99 %. I'd been expecting two amendments - an increase of 3.99% from the Powys Independents, and just 2% from my lot. I guessed that the two amendments would probably lose, with the motion to carry. The Conservatives knew that if their amendment was lost, the arithmetic demanded they vote for the motion - or the Council would be in the same boat as the Scottish Parliament. No budget at all.

And then the fun started. The Lib Dems began talking about an amendment. That's right - to their own motion! Even dafter it involved charging Council employees for parking their cars. Edna reckons they were beaming with pride - coming up with such a brilliant wheeze. She reckons she heard one of them say "Bound to make the papers - that's all that matters". Then someone said this must be put in writing, and the only bit of paper they could find was the back of a canteen menu that Richard White happened to have in his pocket - or so Edna said. I never know when to believe her. Everyone started laughing. Then they took a break so that one of them could write it out, and photocopy it for everyone. But no-one could read the writing, and the figures didn't add up. People were laughing so much that a doctor was sent for - so Edna says. Then someone asked what the union response had been to this idea. The poor Lib Dem leader looked as if a rat had run up his trouser leg. They hadn't thought of that. And then someone asked what plans the Lib Dems had to stop staff parking on the grass, or in the nearby Metropole car park and taking up all the free car parking in the town. Questions were coming in thick and fast. The whole chamber was erupting in joyous laughter. Then they started falling out amongst themselves, and the Lib Dem leader started dancing around wildly. The rat was clearly sinking its teeth into something tender! The amendment wasn't so much withdrawn as forgotten about. Took ages to calm things whole. I'm sure Edna exaggerates sometimes. It sounds as if it was almost as ridiculous as the political column of the Daily Sport.

Edna told me that all the Conservative speakers were polished and persuasive - so much so that the Montgomeryshire Independents abstained on the Conservative amendment. Everyone opposed the Powys Independents amendment, and everyone but them voted for the 2.99% increase in Council Tax. So 2.99% it is. But fair play to the Lib Dems. They brought joy and hilarity to what would otherwise have been an austere debate.

Janet Ryder's Resignation.

I'm surprised that so little seems to have been made of the resignation of Plaid Cymru's education spokesman, Janet Ryder. Seems to me that this is a significant issue in Welsh politics. Janet has been one of the leading Plaid AMs since the Assembly was established, and was one of the 'curry house four' who decided that it was time for Ieuan Wyn Jones to resign (which he did a lot more quickly than they wanted, and then stood again and won). Anyway, she undoubtedly qualifies as a heavyweight in Plaid Cymru terms. And there are surely others who agree with her.

I'm told this row has been rumbling on for a while. The issue concerns the Coalition Government's proposals to overhaul the education of 14-19 year olds. We know that Janet has been in the Assembly committee dealing with the legislation, when she's been hauled out by Plaid whip, Chris Franks, before a vote. Janet has been voting with the Conservative and liberal Democrats on amendments to improve the legislation. I don't know what the precise disagreements are about, (this report doesn't inform us) but its clear that Janet Ryder thinks the Minister's proposals are so badly flawed that she's resigned rather than vote for them. There's a real split here in the Coalition. Perhaps it should be seen as very worrying for Wales' National Assembly that a resignation of this importance should generate so little comment.

Catching Up

Increasingly people are asking me whether I think I will win Montgomeryshire at the next election. "I reckon that I'm in with a chance" is my stock response. And because over-confidence is just not 'Montgomeryshire' I try to change the subject to one of the important local issues that are the basis of my 'campaigning strategy'. My theory is that no matter what, some good for Montgomeryshire will come out of my candidature. But just in case I'm elected, I am taking much more interest in what happens at Westminster - which is why Welsh Questions has become a matter of increasing interest to me. Lets look at some of yesterday's issues.

David Davies' question about the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order that we are expecting to be published next week caught my eye. Must admit that I'm worried about this - from the perspective of wanting to see the Language continue to flourish. Fundamental to my opinion over many years has been that its successful future depends on the support of those who do not speak it. Once too many people feel that 'Welsh is being rammed down their throats' (a phrase I've heard too often), much of the goodwill that has underpinned the advance of the Welsh Language in recent years will dissipate. Most people have accepted the compulsion that secures the place of Welsh in the school curriculum - one of Lord Roberts of Conwy's greatest achievements, and crucial to the increase in numbers of Welsh speakers. I just hope that an argument about extra financial implications for private businesses of an LCO, at a time when many thousands of Welsh jobs are being lost will not put the advance that is being made by Yr Iaith Cymraeg into reverse.

Another question that I noted was from Don Tuohig. "When families across Wales are concerned about their future, does my Rt. Hon. friend think anyone gives a fig about the All Wales Convention. It is wasting £1 million of taxpayer's money, calling shambolic meetings, showing videos that give a distorted picture of Wales, and pandering to those who think the big issue of the day is independence". At least he didn't mention dishing out free curries! As far as I can see, and in his much more gentle way, Paul Murphy sort of agreed with him. And then Alun Michael rose to his feet and said that the current system of transferring power to the National Assembly was working like a dream. I really don't know which of the three would have worried Sir Emyr Jones-Parry, Chair of the Convention, and Lord Elis Thomas the most.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wrongdoing and Regulating against it.

Been to see Frost-Nixon tonight. Enjoyed it. Particularly enjoyed the references to Sardi's in New York as the restaurant where only the very special find a welcome. Well, Mrs D and I've eaten there, and I had oysters for starters. But back to Richard Milhous Nixon. Both he and political wrongdoing are in fashion. Bankers have been behaving like casino hustlers - as a result of Gordon Brown's creation of an ineffective and complex regulatory system. Reckless fat cats did wrong for money. There must be better regulation is the cry - and the people applaud. Politician's expenses should be better regulated is another common theme. Sadly, it can be no other way, though personally I reckon transparency is the best disinfectant. And now shock-horror, some of their Lordships are accused of wrongdoing for money. Again the answer is said to be better regulation of these 'ermine clad rippers off of the system'. The BBC even offer us all an opportunity to have our say on all this regulation.

I don't believe that regulation is all its cracked up to be. It cannot cover all the angles. Sure, it might catch the odd hapless Lord who can't see the difference between being paid for giving political advice, and being paid for trying to amend laws. But it won't catch the worst offenders - those who know how to cover their tracks. Effective regulation requires some genuine self regulation as well - with buckets of shame. The current focus on regulation as if its a complete answer means that if its 'approved' or 'within the rules', its seen as OK. Well, its not. You know when its wrong. It takes a rugby player to know that there has to be the self-regulation supplement. Only way the game can survive. The depths of a scrum is a murky fetid place, where devilish deeds are done. Its possible to put a man to death, and pretend its an accident. The game depends on self regulation, with help from the ref and the camera.

I will admit my guilt. I have stamped on helpless opponents - and punched them on their noses. I remember the No 7, (went on to play for England) who had forgotten his boots and played in trainers. I stamped on his foot at every lineout. And I once bit a second row, though in my defence he was threatening my manhood at the time, and I had no other means of defence/attack. And I've had these things done unto me. But even in the midst of the most fierce battle, there was self regulation too. I never kicked anyone in the back, or stamped on anyone's head, or gouged anyone's eyes. Temporary discomfort was OK, but permanent injury was not. Which brings me to Martin Corry.

Corry was England captain. That's a special position. Young players look up to him. And now he's been cited by the Ospreys for gouging. If he's guilty, I hope they throw the book at him. Brian Moore wrote a good article condemning the gougers in Monday's Telegraph. Moore is one of these commentators that I 'love to hate', but he writes well - and knows his stuff. He shares my view that there can be no greater crime than gouging (trying to blind a fellow player) on the rugby field. Though Australia's Rugby League's Tom Hopoate comes close. To quote Brian Moore "After one game three North Queensland players claimed that during tackles, Hopoate had tried to ram a finger up their anus in an attempt to make a quick play-the-ball. Once the claim was made public, several of Hopoate's previous opponents came forward saying this had happened to them, but they had been too embarrassed to mention it." In his defence Hopoate claimed that he was only administering the schoolboy prank known as a 'wedgie', as if this was perfectly OK. Glad I didn't go to the same school. Rather like Nixon he felt able to justify to himself the most despicable act - until it was put to him in a way he couldn't avoid. That was Frost's skill. Tom Hopoate was found guilty of 'unsportsmanlike behavior'. In my opinion there must have been a case for the sharia approach - amputation of the offending finger.

Monday, January 26, 2009

More on Wind Farms

Celtpower, a private sector energy company, want to knock down the 103 wind turbines at the Llandinam Wind Farm in Montgomeryshire, and replace them with about 40 much bigger turbines. The electricity produced will increase from around 30 megawatts to between 90-126 megawatts. In order to transport this extra power to the National Grid, Celtpower has agreed a deal with Scottish Power which involves a new 12 mile, 132 kv cable from Llandinam to Welshpool - passing close to the village of Kerry. Unsurprisingly, the people who live near Kerry, whose properties lie close to the proposed new line, do not like it - do not like it one bit. Earlier tonight, I joined a meeting between representatives of Celtpower and some of the local objectors.

The issue is too complex to explain in a single post, but it boils down to a matter of timing. Celtpower has submitted a planning application for the new turbines, has asked Scottish Power to provide it with a connection to the National Grid (which it is obliged to do) and wants to get on with it - because it makes business sense. So we have this new 132 kv cable. Now if we could persuade Celtpower to wait about 5 years, it would probably connect to a new National Grid 'hub' near the village of Carno instead - and there would be no line going anywhere near Kerry. This is because National Grid in going to build a new (grotesquely hideous landscape-destroying) 400 kv cable from somewhere in Shropshire, up through one of Montgomeryshire's beautiful valleys to somewhere in the Carno area. Most of the other proposed wind farms that are going to despoil the landscapes of Montgomeryshire are going to have to await the new 400 kv cable (probably 2016) - but not Celtpower. The company does not want to wait. Personally, I do not blame it, or any of the landowners who accept the payments available. I blame the Assembly Government for creating what is a totally shambolic position. In 2004, it adopted a policy which encourages wind farms to be built in an area, even though there is no means of transferring the power to the Grid - epically stupid, even by Assembly Government standards. Its only now this shambles is being addressed. Kerry is one of the villages expected to pay the price.

In passing, another interesting point that I appreciated only tonight. Its obvious if you think about it. When the existing 103 turbines at Llandinam are removed, the huge blocks of concrete on which they stand will remain in place, and lots of huge new holes are going to be excavated and filled with hundreds on tons of new concrete to serve as bases for the new turbines (and these blocks are going to be the size of sports grounds). The old bases are not good enough. That's as much mental anguish as I can take for one night. For those of us who love the landscapes and countryside of Montgomeryshire, its all just too depressing.

Street Lighting Again

When I blog about Montgomeryshire issues, I look for wider application. And today I've been involved in discussing two such issues - street lighting and wind farms (which will feature in my next post). This afternoon, spent an hour talking to the Chief Executive, plus the relevant portfolio holder and service manager at Powys County Council about street lighting. Powys has become the street lighting capital of the Council world - as famous as Tokyo and Vegas. The way it happened was not very smart, but there's no argument about it. Powys has become a street lighting laboratory. No good moan about it. We are where we are. I hope this pioneering spirit continues.

But first let us return to the beginning. In 2007 (or thereabouts) the cost of electricity was flying (why is a separate question) and councillors thought it would be a sensible idea to turn off one third of its street lights - and an appropriate budget was set. Personally, I was not opposed to that. But a councillor insisted there should be consultation. It took several months. The price of this consultation was delay. And by the time the consultation was over, the only way to meet the budget was to turn off two thirds of the lights instead of one third. And that's what the councillors did. No more consultation. They just did it - and consulted later. A review of what they did is now underway. Enough sparks flew to launch an Olympic Games. And one can understand the reluctance to consult again, because only a handful of community councils responded first time round. But enough of history. Where to go now.

For some time the Council's street lighting officers have been considering replacing existing lights with LED arrays. There's been one shining down on Builth Wells for a while. They run on 25% of the electricity needed to run existing street lights - green, economical and common sense. But it costs over £100 to convert each one, and around £400 to buy each new one. As it must, the Council is researching the best product and provider. Now, with budgets pip-squeakingly squeezed, its going to be difficult to find the upfront cost. But I'm told that the payback period is only 18 months. There's got to be a way of doing this - either with deferring some other investment for a year, or timing the change over two years. And when the running costs are quartered it will be possible to turn some lights back on again. In 10 years time, I reckon all street lights will be LED arrays. I wonder whether the Powys Pioneers will be the first to reach this state.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Legacy of Bush and the British ?

There's an article by Nick Meo on page 32 of today's Sunday Telegraph that must bring joy to the hearts of anyone who reads it. Its a wonderful news story, which inevitably means that it will receive almost no coverage, and I can't even find a link to the Telegraph on-line site. Its titled 'Basra dares to hope as the city is born again'. Its a long article, and I'll select just five short quotes from it.

Speaking of the freedom with which he and his wife now stroll around on Basra's corniche, Mr Hassan said

"But now we come here all the time and in the afternoon its so crowded, you cannot find a seat in the cafes. Basra has been reborn. The militias have gone, the people are happy, and we have our city back again."

"The mood has lifted business in the city too, raising hopes of reconstruction and an economic take-off, financed by Iraqi oil. It has even fuelled a property boom, perhaps the only one in the world now, with top end house prices almost doubling over the past year."

And referring to next week's elections in Iraq - "Lamp posts and vehicles across the sprawling city of one million are plastered with posters of the candidates. Most are well fed men in suits, not the scowling fundamentalists whose stars are waning. A quarter of the candidates are women."

"Frustratingly for the British, though, after years of fighting, they had only a minor role in the military operation ordered by the Iraqi Government last March which drove out the gangs, and allowed the transformation of the city to happen"

"US Navy Captain, Robet Lansden, who arrived in Basra two months ago to construct a bridge put the American philosophy succinctly "Once you've finished killing the bad guys, its time to spread the love"

There's nowt so odd as folk.

You do read of the oddest things in newspapers. Yesterday I learned from the 'Weekend' section of the Telegraph that in the 17th century, medical opinion was that what we might call 'overly passionate' people could be cured of this affliction by a transfusion of the blood of a more docile animal. The first ever blood transfusion was administered by the physician to King Louis XIV, when he transfused sheep's blood into a young Frenchman. While the report tells us that he survived, it does not tell us what happened to his libido. I feel quite certain that if I'd been that young man, it would have put me right off. Samuel Pepys later describes similar treatment for a Cambridge graduate, named Arthur Coga, who received 20 ounces of sheep blood into his body. Again its reported that he lived, but was a 'little cracked in the head'. What really surprises me about this is that sheep's blood should have been used. I've been a sheep farmer all of my life, and without wishing to be overly nationalistic, I've known a healthy Welsh ram, cover 50 females in a day. Why not use the blood of a Giant Panda, whose aversion to 'passion' has been a matter of international curiosity for years.

The same article informs us that the word 'Toady' derives from the 18th century, when some fellow used to swallow toads as a confidence trick. His mate, who's described as a 'quack doctor' then produced a 'magical elixir', which stimulated recovery. Personally, I wouldn't have bought any of this miracle cure, but have resolved not to eat a toad in the first place.

Before we start mocking our ancestors, we should note that last Tuesday, the Telegraph reported that in the remote village of Tamil Nadu, two local Indian girls entered into marriage with frogs. Vigneswari and Masiakanni wore traditional bridal saris and gold jewellery for the weddings which are conducted as part of a centuries old 'Pongol' harvest tradition to prevent the outbreak of disease. Hundreds of villagers in the Pallipudpet region walk to the temple carrying the brides on their shoulders. The two frogs were also carried, but they were tied to sticks decorated with flowers. The tradition is based on the Hindu god Shiva, who turned himself into a frog after a row with his wife, Parvati. Personally, I reckon it would have been a smarter idea to have turned her into a frog instead. Anyway, Parvati's anguish caused terrible disease to spread around all the local villages. The problem was resolved when the villagers found Shiva the frog and persuaded Parvati to marry him/it. As our Berriew friend, Frank Dixon often says, "There's nowt so odd as folk".

The Garden in mid/late January

Posted about our witch hazels a few weeks ago, but was so stunned by this one today that I thought it deserved a second outing. Its hard to believe that such wonderful colour is available in mid/late January.
The combination of Cornus, Hamamelis in variety and the Betula 'utilis' is almost as colourful as a summer border, with none of the work!
And this is what most of us associate with the start of the gardening year. They're not really out yet, and will probably make another appearance in a fortnight or so. We do grow a few fancy snowdrops, but these are just the common variety which stir the plantsman's interest in what's to come in almost every garden in the land.

The Lake Vyrnwy Hotel

Its a great place to leave worldly troubles behind. And the offer of the top notch evening meal and a bottle of champagne thrown in with an overnight stay was too good to miss. So yesterday afternoon we drove off to the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel, and left those worldly troubles behind. This was the view from our bedroom window. Its probably the scene most widely used to promote Wales as a tourist destination. All I took with me was a book, a toothbrush and Mrs D. Even mobile phones don't have a signal.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Denis Healey talking sense - mostly.

Now that some economic pundits are anticipating formal advice being given to the British Government by the International Monetary Fund, its worth listening to the opinions of the last UK Chancellor who was the recipient of such advice in the 1970s. Simon Heffer reports on a cracking interview with Lord (Denis) Healey in today's Telegraph. I'll just refer you to a few quotes. Remember that this is a dyed-in-the-wool old socialist, who threatened to squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked. He thinks that "Cameron's a pain in the arse", (that's the bit I didn't agree with) and still claims to be backing Gordon Brown. Now read the quotes and imagine what he might say if he'd abandoned partisanship.

"I wouldn't particularly blame Gordon. I would have made the same mistakes." That's my favourite quote. Its just a pity he didn't list them.

"But it (the Bank of England) should have continued to regulate the banks..."

When asked whether the 45p tax proposal was a gesture aimed at cheering up the core vote, he said "I think probably so.Because what I learned as Chancellor was that the rich man can nearly always find a way of avoiding tax that are legal, and in any case the amount raised is very small, and it does encourage people to leave the country."

When asking if he regretted raising income tax so high when he was Chancellor, he said "I think so, yes. The main effect was to get people to invest abroad."

"We've got far too many people working in the public sector.....There's probably twice as many people working in the public sector as necessary......I think Gordon will get around to doing something about it now."

And then there were two bits of advice to the Prime Minister that I hope he will take serious note of;

"There's no question that had we been in the Eurozone, we'd have been hit harder. Look at the riots in Greece caused by unemployment. I don't think it would be sensible for us to lose the right to devalue our currency. With us having so much trade outside of Europe, to be tied to the Euro exchange rate would be damaging. I wouldn't be in favour of entering the Euro in principle, but more than that the pragmatic arguments against are overwhelming."

And on the timing of the General Election "waiting until the last minute is a risk. I think he ought to go at least a year before".

Friday, January 23, 2009

Having your 'nuclear cake' and eating it.

Must admit that I'm quietly pleased that with today's indication that one of the first 'next generation' of nuclear power stations is likely to be built at Wylfa, on Anglesey. I'm always uncomfortable with policy positions that accept that certain developments have to take place in the UK, but that they should be barred from Wales. I've never liked the slogan, 'Nuclear Free Wales' without supporting the principle of a 'Nuclear Free UK. It was the same with GM Crops. Although I always supported the cross party campaign's for a GM Free Wales, I used to point out that it did not lie well beside a demand that we wanted there to be thorough testing of GM crops in Britain before we would allow them to be grown in Wales. The policy position was illogical.

But back to nuclear power. Like many people, I was an opponent of nuclear power until the procrastination of the UK government in tackling future energy requirements, delivered a position where new nuclear power stations have become inevitable for energy security. Now there is no option, in my opinion. There is going to be a new generation of nuclear power stations built in Britain as quickly as the Government can arrange it.

There is a wonderful irony in the position of Ieuan Wyn Jones, Leader of Plaid Cymru and Deputy First Minister of the National Assembly on this issue. The Party likes to go around presenting itself as opposed to nuclear power. And there's Ieuan giving a new plant at Wylfa his full backing. He makes the point that he is defending the economy of the constituency he represents. He's right - even though the economy argument is rather weaker than the energy security argument. It would be OK if he was a backbencher. But he's not. He's the Leader. In my book, that makes Plaid Cymru a pro- nuclear power party, and that's what it should say on the tin.

Health Issues

I'm knackered again. Been another long day. Away by 6.00 this morning to chair a conference at the Technium Centre, near Bangor. Actually it was to chair jointly with former MEP, Eurig Wyn. Conference was sponsored by RESEC Cymru - that's Research into Specialist Elderly Care. RESEC is based in Oxford University, and has recognised devolution by establishing a Welsh 'branch'. It was a terrific Conference, even if the agenda was such that there was not much room for interaction with the 130 plus crowd who turned up. The Technium Centre is an impressive location - but one very black mark today. We had to delay the start by 30 minutes because the bl***y microphone wasn't working. I may have appeared cool on the surface, but I was spitting firecrackers inside. After 30 minutes, was so cross that I could barely speak. My first rule of chairing is to stick to time. And the programme was too packed to catch up. Anyway, thanks to Ieuan Wyn Jones, Deputy First Minister for flying up to open the Conference. I do think dementia is starting to receive the higher level of awareness it deserves. Keeping momentum through the inevitable lower public spending that's coming will be a challenge. I learned a lot today.

Good news today on the campaign to persuade the Assembly Government to establish a Renal Dialysis Unit at Welshpool. We've been awaiting a date from the Chair of Kidney Foundation Wales to launch it - and today we agreed a date. Actually, the case seems to have been won. This blog has reported already that on Jan 6th, the decision (in principle) was taken at a meeting in Cardiff City Hall. But I want a good crowd to turn up at the launch, and I'll start the organising ball rolling on Monday. Put Feb 10th in your diaries.

Another health issue that really interests me was the Dragon's Eye report last night on the Health Minister, Edwina Hart's decision to develop specialist neurosurgery services in South Wales on two sites (Cardiff and Swansea) rather than on one site in Cardiff. I'm divided on this issue. I cannot disagree with my former Conservative colleague in the National Assembly, Jonathon Morgan who has really sunk his canines into the Minister's leg, describing her decision as 'reckless' and informing us that he'd 'lost confidence' in her. There seems no doubt that the Minister ignored professional advice. My only reservation is that I rather approve of Ministers sometimes taking decisions contrary to advice. I often disagree with Edwina Hart, but I respect her willingness not to be her 'official's puppet'. I do not believe she took the right decision on this issue though.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Little Ffion's in trouble with the Police

Not much time for my blog tonight. Been in Ynys Mon most of the day at a meeting at the Anglesey Arms. Regular visitors will know that I chair the Wales Advisory Board of a care services company called the Europeancare Group. Much discussion about whether and how an 'independent advocacy scheme' can be introduced in addition to the increasing awareness of the issue within the care sector. Our view is that every resident should have a voice that is listened to. Its translating that laudable desire into practical delivery that's not straight forward. And I'm back in North Wales tomorrow to chair a conference arranged by RESEC, a charity which promotes research into specialist elderly care. So a quick post whie I flick between Dragon's Eye and Newsnight.

But I did make it home in time to be present for the ocassion of our little granddaughter, Ffion's first 'interview' with the Police. Without anyone's knowledge, she dialled 999 and pressed the connect button. We have no idea what she told the boys in blue, but it instigated the immediately dispatch of a unit (2 officers in an unmarked car) to our house to investigate. Nothing I could do but apologise profusely. Gratefully, the blue flashing light was not on when the police car screamed up to our front door. The officers reassured me that they were travelling from Newtown to Welshpool at the time, so Ffion could not be charged with wasting police time. I don't know whether she now has a police record. It probably would be something of a record if she has, since she's only 15 months old.

anyway, since I have to in Bangor soon after 8.00 in the morning, so I'm off to bed without responding to comments. Sorry.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

30 Angry People.

There were 30 of them in all, and they were very angry - very angry indeed. Tonight, I'd gone along to a meeting of architects, builders, agents and others involved in 'development', to hear their concerns about the planning process in Montgomeryshire. Because it looked as if the meeting might be a bit awkward to handle, I was asked to chair it - because I've done this sort of thing before. They asked me to write to the Chief Executive of Powys County Council outlining their concerns. I'm using words which extend my evening's attempts to calmify the general tone of tonight's meeting.

Firstly there is concern about the lack of local democracy in the planning process. Almost all decision making has been handed over from councillors to officials, and several opinions were that the whole approach has become unacceptably dictatorial. One councillor told me tonight that a request for a meeting with a planning official, with a developer, had elicited a blunt refusal informing him that it was not the department's job to advise developers, but to decide their applications for planning permission. How's that for public relations?

Secondly, there is concern that there is no mechanism for reviewing policy, even if a policy is clearly failing. Recently I asked about the process (on behalf of a local landowner) of seeking the inclusion of a plot of land in a development zone, and was told it would be well over a year before this could even be considered. There was a lot about this sort of frustration.

And thirdly, there is concern about the competence of the Department to deliver a planning service. This is strong stuff. Feelings are running high. The meeting asked me to write to the Chief Executive of the Council, and go public. After some discussion, we agreed that I copy the letter to every councillor in Montgomeryshire (in a metaphorical brown envelope). The meeting also wanted me to raise the failure of the Powys Planning Department with the National Assembly for Wales. I advised that it was too early for the 'nuclear option'. But I will be meeting Ieuan Wyn Jones on Friday morning , and I promised that I would mention the issue in an informal preliminary way - if I have the opportunity. It is deeply frustrating that so many jobs and enterprise is lying and dying in planning officers intrays. This is what instigated the anger at tonight's meeting. I wonder how widespread such anger is across Wales.

Assembly Foreign Affairs Debate

Today, in the National Assembly for Wales, Plaid Cymru tabled the following motion for debate;

"This Assembly notes the concern raised in Wales by individuals, organisations and public protests relating to the military action taken in the Gaza Strip".

If we ignore the issue of whether this is an appropriate motion for debate in the National Assembly for Wales, I can accept this as a reasonable motion, even if I would have preferred "and Israel" to be added at the end.

There was an attempt by The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to table amendments to this motion - which I'm told were not called because the Presiding Officer decided it to be a 'Take note' motion, which cannot be amended. I thought you might be interested in the amendments that were included on the published order paper but not called.

The Conservatives put forward;

"Calls on the Welsh Assembly Government to make representations to the UK Government to help find a long term solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through negotiating a two state agreement that achieves a viable and secure Palestine existing alongside a secure Israel."

The Liberal Democrats put forward;

"Calls on the Welsh Assembly Government to make representations to the UK Government to halt arms exports to Israel."

What do you think of that?

Congratulations Stephen Crabb

I've just heard that Stephen Crabb has been appointed a Conservative whip by David Cameron. This is terrific news. In my opinion he is one of the most able and dedicated MPs that I know. Whenever I've been asked by journalists about Stephen by journalists and others who don't know him, I've always said that he will progress steadily - but to the top. Some day he will be a Cabinet Minister. He is the youngest Conservative MP, and will learn a great deal in the whip's office. Wales and Presceli Pembrokeshire are proud to claim him as one of theirs.

Publish and not be damned again

A campaign which this blog has supported, even before it was a campaign, looks as if it could be successful. Alan Duncan has given it a huge boost today. This is very good news for politics.
UPDATE - The Prime Minister has been all over the place on this. At today's PMQs he told the House of Commons that Labour MPs would have a free vote on the motion to prevent the Freedom of Information Act applying to MPs - despite Labour spokespersons briefing beforehand that Labour MPs would be whipped to vote. And then as soon as PMQs were over, it has become clear that the motion is being withdrawn completely. It was a disgraceful little stunt to try to exempt MPs from legislation that applies to everyone else. Iain Dale thinks that this may be a victory for the blogosphere. It is certainly a victory for transparency in our public life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Marking a special day



Today was a very special day in the history of the world. A black man named Barack Hussein Obama became the 44th President of the United States of America. Of course I could have flown to the US to join the masses who turned out to celebrate a great occasion. It would have been nice to say "I was there." But I decided to stay at home, wear a campaign T-shirt that I bought at an auction, and visit the most American-related location I could find in Montgomeryshire. I did think of visiting Emerson in Newtown, but not many people would associate this company with the USA. So I plumped for McDonald's in Newtown. I had a coffee, and asked the manager to take this photograph.

Monday, January 19, 2009

So many questions.

Like most people, I'm mesmerised by what's happening to the UK economy. There are so many questions, and it seems that there are no answers to many of them. What has really shocked me is that the Government committed £37 billions to banks last October without having a clue what liabilities were hidden in the bank's books. What on earth is the FSA for. Anyway it looks as if most of that money has gone - and today the Prime Minister has had to announce that he's committing billions more. Its like watching a huge car crash - fascinating and horrifying at the same time.

Two questions occur to me. Perhaps some of my readers can help with answers. Firstly, since the Royal Bank of Scotland is now 70% owned by the Government, and the value of shares has dropped from 600p to 12p, what's the difference between the current position and 'nationalisation'? It looks to me as if the Government is nationalising RBS by the back door.

The second question concerns the Government's amazing new insurance scheme. It seems that we have no idea what premium the Government is going to charge the banks for insuring their duff loans - or how much dodgy debt banks have on their books which they may want to insure. We could be talking hundreds of billions here. If Dan Brown or Tom Clancy had set one of their thrillers against this sort of financial background, the plot would have been dismissed as too bizarre for publication. And what are we to make of Gordon Brown's supposed shock that up to 80% of these dodgy loans are with foreign borrowers. How can he not have known that? And is this insurance scheme going to cover them. And if its only going to cover the remaining 20% of loans (those lent to UK borrowers) will it make any significant difference to the position of the banks.? I have no idea what the answers are to these questions. Thats not a problem - but it is a bit worrying that neither our Prime Minister or Chancellor has the slightest idea either.

Publish and not be damned.

Could MPs decide to take matters into their own hands and start publishing their own expenses voluntarily. Today, Douglas Carswell has joined Ben Wallace, both Conservative MPs, in publishing theirs. Well done both of them I know its only two, but if 100 followed their example, there would be irresistible pressure on all MPs to follow suit.

The Ornothologist Returns

I was having a lie-in this morning when Post Cynta phoned. They wanted to ask what I thought of Ken Clarke's return to the Front Bench. I told listeners that I was very pleased. As our country moves into an economic and financial position which until today was something beyond our wildest nightmare, it has to be useful to have onside the man who was Chancellor of the Exchequer when we emerged from the last recession in the early 90s. Its also inevitable when a party has been out of power for a long period that experience becomes a valued commodity - and Ken has bags of that.

And Montgomeryshire has connections, albeit tenuous, with the great man - enough for me to claim that I think Ken Clarke rather likes Montgomeryshire. I recall someone ringing me a few years ago to tell me that he was sitting outside the Cefncoch Inn having a pint and a cigar. He was on a birdwatching holiday. And last year he came to speak at our President's Dinner at Welshpool Town Hall. He's a good friend of ex-MP for Clwyd South, Robert Harvey who lives near Meifod, and of course he knew ex-MP for Montgomeryshire, Delwyn Williams. We all met for a chat and a drink at Robert's house, before I took him along to the excellent Derwen Farm Shop near Guilsfield run by Rachel Joseph. We then went and did a bit of birdwatching at the Coed-y-Dinas Nature Reserve, near Welshpool. I thought I knew a bit about birds, but when strolling along to the hide with Ken and Clive Faulkener of the Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, I quickly realised that I was in the presence of experts. And then he joined us for dinner and spoke in his inimitable style. We all liked him. And he new what he was talking about. And these are the two reasons why the big beast is back

Ken Fletcher

I was told today that Mr Ken Fletcher had died over the weekend. He hadn't been well for a while. I knew him since the 1980s, when he worked for Montgomeryshire District Council during the period that I was Chairman of the Council. Ken Fletcher will be best remembered for the 40 year's public service he gave to the town of Welshpool, as its Town Clerk. He was a man always firm in his opinions, but I always found him helpful and determined to put Welshpool, the town that he served for so long, before all else. He will also be remembered with great fondness by his many friends, and by everyone associated with Welshpool Golf Club.

44 Presidents.

Look at this and realise that maybe an ant can move a rubber tree plant. My favourite bit is the blossoming of Jimmy Carter's smile.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Its what he says that counts

Inspiration for this post is my inadvertently hitting the reject button on a couple of comments concerning Rhodri Morgan's appearance (dress sense that is) on today's Politics Show. I know that others have hit a spot of trouble by venturing into this subject in the past, and those of you who know anything about my dress sense will surely think 'what a bl**dy nerve'. The rejected comments thought it inappropriate that the First Minister decided to appear on such a prestigious programme wearing a track suit top. Though I agree that a suit should have been worn (with or without a tie) I thought Rhodri looked pretty good today. It was a smart top, he looked fit and his hair was particularly well groomed.

I want to comment on what he said. Most of it wasn't newsworthy at all, and is covered by the BBC here. What amazes me is that the one really memorable thing he said hasn't been covered at all. When he was answering a question about the failure of banks to lend money to businesses, and thus avert job losses, Rhodri's suggestion seemed to be that the interest rate Gordon Brown charges on the billions pumped into the banks should be cut from 12% to 2%. Seemed to me that the First Minister was making an really significant point, one that I'm not at all sure the Prime Minister would thank him for making. While the interest rate on Treasury money is so high, all the banks have wanted to do is repay it as quickly as possible - rather than lend it to anyone. What surprises me is that the Labour First Minister of the National Assembly says something as significant as this, and it doesn't feature in a report of the interview - which refers onlt to som ebland stuff that we already knew. Now it might have been so different if he'd worn a suit and tie.

Don't misunderestimate Bush, or misoverestimate Obama

If I were a US citizen, I would have voted for Obama - even though I believe John McCain would have made a better President. I would also have voted Obama if his opponent had been George Bush. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the sheer wonder of the United States electing a black President, and what this tells the world about the American people is just so 'awesome' (as many of them might say) as to be irresistible. And secondly, the election of Obama will create a much more positive attitude towards the US from outside her borders.

But the aspect of this handover of power that really grates is the arrogant dismissal of the achievements of George Bush. Oh how we laugh at his verbal gaffes. Most people's favourite is "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking of new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we". This is nothing new. The British 'intelligentsia' also laughed at Ronald Reagan - dismissed him as a B movie actor. And they positively howled with derision at the lack of political hinterland carried by Sarah Palin. Personally, I care not how academically 'clever' a leader is. What matters is the ability to employ the right advice, and good judgement about when to take it. That's why Reagan was such a brilliant President.

Let's look at Bush's record. The attack on the US on September 11th 2001 was the defining event of his Presidency. Most of us would have expected another attack of some sort during the last eight years, but it hasn't happened. I believe that history will record this as a great achievement. Irrespective of opinion about the wisdom of invading Iraq, and post invasion failures, the current reality is that a brutal dictator, who murdered his own people and others in huge numbers has been eliminated and Iraq seems to be heading towards becoming a modern democracy. And all that mockery about knowing and caring so little about the world outside of the US. Even his political enemies concede that he has done more to tackle African poverty than any previous President. All I'm saying is that there's an upside to George W Bush as well. So we should spit into the eye of Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband as he rubbishes George Bush during his last few days in office - waiting until he was certain that he wouldn't have to meet him again.

So its over to Barak Obama. In my opinion he's given himself too much to live up to by presenting himself as the new Abraham Lincoln. This is what he is supposed to have said when he won the Democratic nomination "I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs for the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last best hope on earth". Even Blair at his most hubristic would have hesitated before going so far. But never has a President taken office with greater goodwill and a desire that he should be successful. I bought one of those yellow 'Yes we can' T-shirts in an an auction, and I intend to wear on Tuesday.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Lets be fair to Assembly Members

I'm very much an ex-Assembly Member, but I remain deeply committed to its success - and the last few weeks have been desperately disappointing. The institution has lost a lot of ground in public esteem. Some of it has been self-inflicted. The decision to publish AM's allowances on the last Friday before recess was stupid, and has drawn a heavy price. The introduction of a new and novel power for the Secretary of State to intervene in the making of Assembly Measures was the result of deliberately trying to wind up MPs. If you poke a crocodile in the eye, don't complain if it bites your finger off. And the curry launch of the All Wales Convention gave all the appearance of Nero fiddling for no apparent purpose. The most damaging of these by a mile has been the negative publicity about member's expenses.

I'm not commenting on individual claims. But I do think the focus on Assembly Members has been extremely unfair. The only reason they've been having so much stick is that we all know the detail of their claims. This is in stark contrast to the rules that apply to MPs, whose expenses are not made public. And this coming week Leader of the House, Harriet Harman intends to slip through a measure (under the cover of the Obama inauguration) which will put MPs expenses outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. Two column inches on page 15 - maybe. Now I'm not saying that any MP makes any claim that would excite the interest of the Western Mail or BBC, but I do think MPs and AMs should be treated in the same way. Because so many people believe its not acceptable for politicians to claim anything at all, publication is always going to be news, and AMs are always going to left standing in a poor light.

Now, before any of my visitors start getting personal, I'd best make it clear what I would do if I were to become an MP. After another fuss about politicians employing family members, I posted many months ago that I wouldn't employ any family - unless all efforts had produced no takers and I was completely stuck. Well, since I believe MPs and AMs should be treated the same in relation to expenses, I would publish any claim I might make in exactly the same way, and on the same day as Assembly Members. And that's a promise - unless Harriet Harman slips through a law to stop me. And while I'm about it, I promise that I would not touch the utterly disgraceful 'Communications Allowance' that as far as I can see is no more than the use of taxpayer's money for political purposes.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Saving Ping Pong

I don't feel its essential that my Prime Minister should be able to play table tennis. But I do feel that if he's incapable of hitting a ping pong ball with a ping pong bat, he should have enough sense not to let himself be filmed doing so. Neither Brynle nor I allow cameras when we go ballet dancing. But I suppose when you believe that you can walk on water, you believe you can do anything. His post match interview may have gone something like;

"The table tennis world is facing an unprecedented global crisis, which started in America. I've been determined to strain every sinew during my 21 hour working day to take personal control of this unprecedented global collapse in ping pong standards. I have invested in a financial stimulus by buying up the entire UK stock of ping pong bats. Through quantative easing we have been able to invest £20 billions to ensure that ping pong tables will be delivered to every school in England over the next three years. And tomorrow, Lord Mandelson will announce a scheme whereby 10,000 ping pong apprenticeships will be available to those who have lost their jobs in the city We are determined to take action to deal with this unprecedented global crisis, which started in America by training 100,000 ping pong instructors. Its a global problem which demands a global response, and I have taken up my bat to lead the world out of this crisis, which started in America. The standard of table tennis is much worse in every country in the Eurozone, in Iceland and also in 53 US states. I have spoken today with my new best buddy, Barak Obama, and we will be putting this issue on the agenda for our fantastic incredible global summit which is to be held in London in April. I can promise you that there will be photographs of Barak and me working on our spin serve. Barak and I are determined to solve this growing global crisis facing table tennis, which began in America, and is nothing whatsoever to do with my great leadership. I have been in touch with every other leader across the world, and all of them agree that my plans that to nationalise ping pong is the way forward, except the pathetic 'do-nothing' Tories. They are only concerned about polo and 'fives'. I am determined to save the world, sorry I mean the ping pong world, with billions of your money, which future generations will have to pay back. But by then I will have joined Tony, touring the world playing exhibition matches, demonstrating the dynamic leadership I showed when leading the world in the great ping pong revival of 2009."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Problems with Curry

Only ever eaten one curry in my life, and it caused a ferocious response from my stomach. OK, so it was several decades ago, after a great victory somewhere in the Midlands, and a few celebratory jars - but I've always blamed the curry and never touched the stuff since. And there was the great 'Curry House Plot' a few years ago, when the peppers so inflamed the innards of four Plaid Cymru AMs that they decided in was time to terminate Ieuan Wyn Jones leadership of the Party. When this idea was mentioned to Ieuan next day, he took such umbrage that he immediately resigned in disgust. But he came back - a bit like the aforementioned curry that I ate. His career has never looked back. And the lead story in tonight's Shropshire Star concerns Mr Chun-Hung Cheung, a Shropshire restauranteur who's just been fined £2, 515 for stirring his curry with a dirty cricket bat. The report does not make clear what the fine would have been if the bat had been pristine clean. So you can see, from my limited experience, 'where there's curry, there's trouble'.

So it seems most odd to me that Sir Emyr Jones Parry has decided to launch his All Wales Convention on its 22 stop tour of Wales by asking people to "Join us for a curry and tell us how you think Wales should work in the future". This Convention is the fine group of 'guys and gals' who have been charged with advising the Assembly Coalition Government when the time is right to hold a referendum asking the Welsh people whether they want a full law making National Assembly of Wales. Jags Catering of Swansea are preparing the curries, which are costing the taxpayer £6 each, and are free to anyone who is prepared to sit through the meeting that follows. Not sure what the rules are if you fall asleep. And in my opinion you might as well fall asleep for all the good the Convention is going to do.

It did look really daft on the Welsh TV News this morning. First up was Rhodri Morgan, making it as clear as he could without declaring 'A referendum by 2011 is dead as a one legged dodo' that it is as dead as a dodo. And then Sir Emyr entering our screens to invite us for a curry and a discussion about whether we think this referendum should be held or not. When the Convention was first announced, many of us thought this Convention was no more than an upmarket form of procrastination. I regret to confirm that I still think that. The only possible explanation is that Ieuan Wyn Jones will need an authoritative voice advising him that a referendum should not be held before 2011 - the excuse he needs to protect him from the wrath of all those activists who agreed to enter Coalition with Labour when they find out its not going to happen. For the second time, Ieuan Wyn Jones' political career will be saved by a curry. Of course it could all just be a novel way of providing a 'financial stimulus' to the Welsh catering economy.

More on Street Lighting

Street lighting is an issue where Powys is ahead of the game - albeit that so far the Council does not seem to have played the ball particularly skillfully. I'm running a series of posts on the subject, because the issues have a universal application, from both a financial and environmental standpoint. Let's recap. To save money, the Council decided to turn off 67% of its street lights, with little effective consultation with the communities affected. All hell broke loose. There have been thousands of complaints. Currently, Council employees are putting many of these lights back on, often on a part-night basis, and after discussion with local councillors. I'm told that an acceptable solution is being arrived at in most cases. Last night, most of the lights in Llanfyllin were turned back on - to widespread local approval. At the very least, its an improvement.

But there remain some outstanding questions which require answers. One of them concerns the process which led to the decision to turn the lights off in the first place. I'm told that since Gordon Brown established the OGM (Office of Government Commerce) , as a division of the Treasury a few years ago, to negotiate the tariff public bodies pay for electricity, the Council has been paying what seems a very high price. Another issue is why the tariff charged to a local school is higher than local domestic and business users are paying. People are wondering if anyone has been 'ripping off' anyone else here.

And then there's the issue of Light Emitting Diode (LED) arrays. I'm told that Council employees have been advocating serious consideration of this option for a while, and that the Council in running a trial somewhere in the county. I'm also told that there are issues regarding insurance which are proving difficult to resolve. (Don't ask - yet). Anyway, I've just arranged a meeting with 'the men who know' at Powys County Council on 26th January - after which I expect to write my next post on this issue. Hope that greater illumination is flooding down upon those of you who care a fig about street lighting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How many Welsh MPs do we need?

Could this post be an example of a turkey voting for Christmas? Let me explain. I'm hoping to be elected as Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire sometime within the next 17 months. And one of the platforms on which I could have been elected could lead to a change to the boundary of my new constituency. According to today's Financial Times, David Cameron is thinking about reducing the number of MPs by over 60. Don't know how much truth there's in this, but I've always thought it to be sensible. For years I've watched some MPs chasing cameras and spending most of their time poking their noses into the responsibilities of other tiers of government. And No, I'm not naming names. Either they haven't got enough to do, or they're not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

So what about Montgomeryshire? At present English MPs represent on average 69,000 voters, Scottish MPs represent 67,000 voters, while Welsh MPs represent just 55,000 voters. Can't see how we can argue about this looking a bit lop-sided. I don't know the number of voters in Montgomershire, but I dso know that the population is around 60,000 - so the number of voters must be less than the Welsh average. To anyone who can add two plus two (and get four) can see what this means. But there are two considerations to be taken into account. Firstly, the population of Montgomeryshire is increasing quite rapidly - from about 36,000 in the 1960s to almost 60,000 now. That's about 5,000 per decade. And secondly, I reckon there must be a case for a slightly lower ratio of MP to constituent number in a very rural constituency - which Montgomeryshire is.

First time I was really hit with this issue was when my home telephone rung one weekend when I was an Assembly Member, to hear Michael Howard asking me about what I thought of his idea to reduce the number of Welsh MPs. The proposal was that if the National Assembly moved to a law making body, the 40 MPs would be reduced to 26, while if it remained as it was then, the number would reduce to 32 (or was it 33). It was a proposal included in our last General Election manifesto. I don't know yet what precise figures David has in mind for Wales at present, but I can say that I told Michael Howard that I supported the proposal he put to me a few years ago.

The Housing LCO Veto again.

Only Welsh politics anoraks will have the slightest interest in this post. I've been thinking about what might be the consequences of the constitutional precedent incorporated in the Housing Legislative Competence Order last week. If you remember, this is the LCO which proposes a transfer of law making powers over housing matters from Westminster to the National Assembly fr Wales. The precedent stipulates that the Secretary of State's approval is required before one specific part of those power can be exercised. I don't like the principle at all - because it makes a complex constitutional process even more complex - and less understandable. And its quite a crafty move from a Labour perspective. But its done now - so no point in bleating about it.

Lets consider instead what might be the consequences. Seems to me that it could, in theory at least, facilitate a more relaxed attitude to the powers transfer process at Westminster. Initially, it was assumed that if an LCO fell within a devolved 'field', it would almost automatically be approved - at least that's what some in Cardiff Bay assumed. But we very soon found out that MPs wanted to know what the power was to be used for - and this was where an Assembly Minister, Jane Hutt, unwisely told them to mind their own business (in so many words). A bit like poking a crocodile in the eye with a short stick. It seemed that the only options were to approve the LCO, or find some way of frustrating its passage. Now, by using the new 'veto' mechanism, effectively reserving power over a specific part of the field covered by the LCO, it may be that MPs will be more prepared to afford it a speedy and favourable response. OK, I accept that I'm looking for a positive angle on this.

The other possible consequence is that it may create more opportunity for mischief - particularly when there is a Conservative Secretary of State. A future non-Conservative Assembly Government could well seek to create a measure, which incorporates something subject to a veto, simply to cause the mischief. For example, a future housing measure (welcome in every other way) could propose to abolish the right-to-buy - which I would expect a Conservative Government disapprove of. I can see the outraged press releases now. Conservative Westminster Government frustrating the will of the National Assembly of Wales. This might suit some agendas, but it doesn't suit mine. I don't like this at all. On balance, I hope we don't see last week's crafty little finesse repeated very often in the future.

The Blue Six

Finally finished Tom Clancy's 'Rainbow Six' - so I can return to the keyboard tonight. A good read, if a touch too fantastic - and perhaps one story line too many. Anyway, this post is about the 'Blue Six' - that's the intrepid Montgomeryshire Conservative representation on Powys County Council, where we now have six out of the thirty-ish total. Since we've not had any before last May, this is a new experience for us. They make me feel 'avuncular'. But there's no point in the existence of Conservative Councillors, unless they bring some blue thinking to the debating chamber. And today they did just that.

This afternoon, the Executive Management Board, decided on its Council Tax recommendation, which will go for debate at the full Council meeting, later this month. There was a range of opinions going into the meeting. The Powys Independent Group (PIGs) wanted an increase of 3.99%, Montgomeryshire Independent Group (MIGs) wanted an increase of 2.9%, The Lib Dems wanted an increase of 2.75% and the Conservative Group wanted to 'freeze' any increase at the level of inflation, which we believe can reasonably be considered to be 2%. The outcome was that the MIGs budget was carried, with the support of the Lib Dems and Labour. The Council's budget looks as if it going to be set by the MIGs, the second largest group, which is interesting. I was really pleased that the 'Blue Six' held out for 2% - and I hope an amendment will be tabled at full Council accordingly.

Setting the Council Tax level is never easy. A balance has to be struck between what Councillors believe they need to provide a service, and the ability of Council Tax payers to pay it. Well this year the majority of Montgomeryshire's Council Tax payers have less money than they had last year. There are speeches to be made about job losses, lower income from savings and anticipated inflation levels. We need to hear the 'Blue Six' on their feet, championing the cause of the long suffering taxpayers of Montgomeryshire. And Brecon and Radnorshire's 'Blue Three' can wade in as well.

UPDATE - I do want to point out that our full team includes three Conservative Councillors from Brecon and Radnorshire as well as the six from Montgomeryshire, and all nine were as one on this issue. I do try not to poke my nose into B and R matters, where Suzy Davies is our excellent Parliamentary candidate. And I was influenced by the link to the book I'd just finished reading. This update has been inspired by a comment from Jane.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Cameron on Marr

I watched David Cameron being interviewed by Andrew Marr in his sitting room this morning. The BBC's technicians managed to deliver such a high level of incompetency that the interview was interrupted three times. Despite this display of rank amateurishness, I thought David came across as confident, relaxed and sure footed. The part of the interview that most interested me was Andrew Marr's trundling out the inevitable Labour line about 'Tory cuts'. You know the sort of thing. "Mr Cameron, you say that you would cut Government spending plans from April. Where would the money come from?"

How many times have I heard this? And it never makes sense, except at the most superficial level. When I was an Assembly Member, we used to hear it every year when we debated the Government's spending plans. Because the Assembly budget is fixed (as a formula-based proportion of what the Treasury spends on devolved matters in England) any proposal to increase one budget line is met by a demand to know where the equivalent 'cut' is going to be. It will be just the same if the Conservative Councillors on Powys County Council demand any increase in Council Tax should be limited to the inflation level of say 2%. What invariably happens in reality is that a few weeks after the plans are approved, much bigger spending increases are found for some unforeseen expenditure with no problem at all - from some other source. Like when all that interest was lost on investments in Icelandic banks - immediate assurances that it would have no effect on services! All the Conservative leader has been saying (and repeated this morning) is that Government spending under the Conservatives would rise in 2009/10 from £600million to £625million, rather than the £630 million it will rise under Labour - but Andrew Marr dutifully described this several times as a 'cut' in spending. And anyway, David Cameron told him we'd cut ID Cards amongst other things.

Despite the glitches, I thought David Cameron looked the business this morning. It helps that I'm so welcoming of the developing Conservative approach to the economy - based on lower tax, lower pubic spending and a shift from an economy built on debt to an economy built on saving. The blood of a Welsh hill sheep farmer runs through my veins, and this sort of language helps it run a lot more comfortably.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Just desserts

Regular visitors may recall this blog's utter condemnation of Plaid Cymru for proposing a Legislative Competence Order giving power to the National Assembly of Wales' Government to end right-to-buy. It was stupidity of a high order, and in my opinion driven by the pursuit of partisan opportunism. My warnings were nothing to with the principle of right-to-buy as such. It was the danger inherent in proposing the transfer of a power from Westminster to the National Assembly that MPs would be likely to strongly resist. It was at too early a stage in the life of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

The inevitable disagreement came to pass. And now, after months of shenanigans behind the scenes, the consequence of this foolishness has manifested itself in a dog's breakfast compromise. It drives a stake through the heart of the LCO process. Its a disaster for Plaid Cymru. They have put the devolution 'process' into reverse. Can you just imagine the outrage Adam Price could have generated if it had been a Lib Lab Government which had done this. The yet to be ennobled Lord Wigley would have turned purple, and Ieuan's voice would have gone 'soprano' in apoplexy. But the irony is that Plaid's loud voices will be desperate to play this down, because of their embarrassment, flowing from both failure and foolishness.

Not many people understand the process, so I should try to explain what's happened. A Plaid Assembly Minister wanted to use the Assembly's new law making ability to introduce a new 'Measure' (or new Law) to restrict right-to-buy in some under-pressure areas of Wales. There might have been disagreement over the detail, but this would not have been overly contentious. It was in the Coalition Agreement. But before this 'Measure' could be made by the Assembly, a Legislative Competence Order had to be passed at Westminster to transfer the power to do so. But the clever-dicks in Plaid asked for powers under the LCO to do a lot more than it wanted - including something politically contentious. I reckoned at the time that they actually wanted to create a row, to demonstrate that that the LCO process is flawed (which it is). Sooooo stupid. Do they really think MPs are so easily manipulated ?

Anyway, we now have 'the solution'. A completely new principle has been inserted in the Government of Wales Act by this precedent. The LCO will be passed, and power will be transferred - but parts of the transferred power cannot be included in an Assembly 'Measure' without the consent of the Secretary of State for Wales. What a constitutional nonsense! This completely undermines the LCO process, and re-transfers responsibility for part of the power transferred back to the Westminster Government. The impact of this is not significant, but the precedent very definitely is. And its Plaid Cymru who are responsible. I wonder what those bloggers and critical commenters on my previous posts warning of the dangers in this will have to say now.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Novel Pest Control

This blog detests grey squirrels. It regards them as vermin, which have driven out the native red, one of the lovliest mammals on earth. Encouragement is given to anyone who cames up with a plan to eradicate them. Well, Mr Martin Wright of Stafford has come up with a humdinger of a plan - Cajun Squirrel Crisps. It seems that Walker's Crisps have chosen Martin's idea, along with five other flavours to go on sale for a trial period of six months. I consider it the moral duty of anyone who shares my love of the natural wildlife of Britain to seek out Walker's Cajun Squirrel Crisps, and buy them in great numbers. And to hold Squirrel Crisps Parties, in the way we used to hold Ann Summers and Tupperware parties - that's 'we' in the sense of the British people. If you delve into the hgistory of Welshpool, you will see that this plan may work.

I don't suppose many of you remember Phil Lewis who used to keep the Vaults Pub in Welshpool's Broad Street during the late 70s/early 80s. For a festive joke, he began selling Hedgehog Crisps in the pub. What started as a bit of a snigger, and perhaps a line or two in the equivalent of Nelson's Column in today's County Times, grew into a laugh so loud that the whole world shook. A food manufacturing company called Hedgehog Foods was established, hundreds of workers were taken on, and the product was exported to all corners of the earth. Some spikey official from the trading standards department became involved - because Phil wasn't using actual hedgehogs. Maybe he couldn't catch enough of them.) Anyway, Phil found some gypsies who had genuinely eaten hedgehog, and they helped him match the flavour as near as possible. For some reason the trading standards man was happy when the name was changed to 'Hedgehog Flavour'. Lots of money was made and some of the profit was donated to St Tiggywinkles, a home for injured and sick hedgehogs.

When I was a young man, hedgehogs were everywhere. I remember setting out one pitch dark summer's night, intent on catching a rabbit with my bare hands. My plan was to sit next to a rabbit run, in absolute silence, like a heron waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting passing rabbit. I had an excellent sense of hearing in those days - but it turned out to be a hedgehog. I leapt back in agony, with the hedgehog impaled on my hands, or vice versa. Took me days to dig the spines out of my fingers. My pointis they were that common. And now I never see a hedgehog. I'm not sure that it was the crisps that did for them, but Cajun Squirrel Crisps must be worth a try.

Search for Beaver called off.

A few weeks ago I posted about there being a beaver on the loose in Dorset. Honey traps scented with female beaver were to be laid. But the Telegraph informs us today, that so many of my visitors immediately rushed down the M5 to catch a glimpse, that the attempted entrapment has been so disrupted that its had to be called off.

Evil

Remember Harold Shipman. He was a very evil man - a GP who murdered well over 200 people, mostly elderly women. He was found guilty of murdering 15 of them in 2000, sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommendation that he never be released. He hanged himself in Wakefield Prison on 2004. Not many will have mourned him. I anticipate that all visitors to this blog agree that to kill over 200 people, mostly elderly is a terrible evil. Research by the Alzheimer's Research Trust , widely reported today, informs us that 23,000 elderly people are being killed, every year, by the over-prescription of antipsychotic drugs, often given just to keep them quiet. Is it possible to think of anything more evil ?

Regular readers will know that I have become involved with a care provider, The Europeancare Group, and RESEC, a charity we sponsor. RESEC is an acronym for Research into Specialist Elderly Care. I was in Cardiff yesterday, with other representatives of the company, meeting civil servants to discuss how we can best introduce an 'advocacy scheme' to serve the residents in our care homes. We want the residents of our homes to have ready access to an 'independent' service which will fight for their interests. This is not a wholly straight forward ambition to achieve. But the more time I spend thinking about issues surrounding dementia, and delivering care, the more concerned I become that the Government is not remotely geared up to face the challenge that longevity brings with it.

The standard figures that we all use are that there are 700,000 people suffering dementia in the UK at present, and that figure is going to rise to 1,000,000. Without properly funded care of these people, the likelihood of casual use of antipsychotic drugs could well increase. What was that figure found by the research team led by Professor Clive Ballard of King's College, London again - and quoted in the journal, Lancet Neurology ? 23, 000 Alzheimer's sufferers being killed - every year. That's the equivalent of 230 Harold Shipmans - every year. It has been a news story today - but will it be tomorrow. I doubt it. But it should be.

Non-impact of 'Credit Crunch'.

Our weekly newspaper, the County Times asked a few people last week whether the 'credit crunch' forced them to tighten their Christmas budgets. Stuart Jones of Welshpool told the newspaper; "My missus spends all my money every Christmas anyway, so it didn't affect me at all".

Street Lighting in Powys - No 2

I need to lie down in a dark room. John Brautigam of Llanfyllin has just incapacitated my ability to reason. My brain has seized up. John has been enlightening me about the background to the 'Street Lighting in Powys' debate. Probably reached first base, where I have a clearer idea of what I need a clearer idea about. I've asked my office to arrange an urgent meeting with the most appropriate officer at Powys County Council and Cllr. Gwilym Evans, the appropriate councillor to discuss the issue. Am willing to move my diary around to fit in.

There are two general issues to understand - the first being how the Council reached the position where councillors decide that 67% of street lights must be switched off, with minimal consultation, and maximum disruption to community activity. The background involves a sensible report delivered in 2005, which eventually led to what I consider a very unsensible action - following massive annual increases in the bill sent to the Council from its electricity suppliers. In particular, I'm interested in the role played by something called the Office of Government Commerce, a division of the Treasury - and whether these massive annual increases were influenced by a Government decision to raise money, over and above the cost of power. The bottom of this could well prove impossible to reach. But one must try.

The second issue concerns where we go from here. In the very short term, the Council is returning to the site of the 'switch-off' carnage, to reduce damage to community activity be changing around the lights which are doubted. Sensible enough - as far as it goes. But what next. Seems to me the ideal position would be that more lights were switched back on, part-night lighting be introduced and a programme of switching to LED arrays is implemented. Now you may well ask, what on earth is an LED array. Well, I remember LEDs from about 30 years ago, when our no 1 son, Edward, then about 8 years old, was obsessed by electricity and wouldn't stop going on about Light Emitting Diodes. He even persuaded his younger brother, Patrick, who had no interest whatsoever in things electric, to spend his pocket money buying LEDs. So there's nothing new about LEDs. And I'm told an 'array' is the word that replaces a 'bulb in that an LED light is made up of several sources of light.

I'm told that the Council has been considering switching to LED street lighting for some time, but there is a high capital installation cost - and it cannot be afforded. These things have a short pay-back period, because an 'array' operates at 20 watts, rather than the 90 watts needed for the current sodium lights. And the new Phillips LED array will deliver 12 years trouble free lighting, saving hugely on maintenance. I have lots of paper to read, and I'll post again on this. My aim is to become insufferably knowledgeable about this. Its a hugely important issue in Powys, which has implications for all lighting authorities across the UK.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Bleaker by the day.

I really do find some of the economic news difficult to follow. Let's look at the two big issues in the headlines today. Firstly, there's the cut in Base Rates to their lowest level ever. I cannot see what difference this will make, while the banks resist bringing down the cost at which they lend to business. The banks remain determined to rebuild their balance sheets - and you really can't blame them. They are doing what they have not done for years - running their businesses responsibly. All the Base Rate cut is going to do is turn the screw on savers ever tighter, hitting people who were behaving responsibly when bankers and their like were stuffing their pockets with massive bonuses. And now I'm watching this MPC member on Newsnight calling on the Government to start printing money - which he calls 'Quantitative Easing'. I need to properly understand the difference between this new strangely named activity and what's been happening in Zimbabwe.

And then there's the loss of jobs at Nissan in Sunderland. Nothing much to do with Wales you'd think - but my interest always perks up when I hear my old acquaintance, Professor Garel Rees on the radio. He was incredibly gloomy today. No pick up in the motor industry until 2011, and not properly recovered until 2014. The 1,200 jobs at Nissan will mean thousands more at component supply businesses like Stadco Powys, where 106 jobs are programmed to go in April. And this is nothing to do with access to money. Its just that the market (which is mainly in Europe) has evaporated. And its going to get worse. Nissan are not going to sell many of the £107,000 sports car launched by the company in Japan today. But its chances of becoming a best seller are probably rather better than the likelihood of the Chancellor's prediction that the UK will exit recession by July will be achieved.

Street Lighting in Powys

A key part of my election strategy in Montgomeryshire in the 'team' approach - working with the newly elected Conservative councillors on Powys County Council. This is a new experience for us, because we've never before had any Conservative councillors in Montgomeryshire - and now we have six. This is not intended to be a partisan post, but I do really have to point out that the Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a measly two. Our 'team' don't always agree on everything, but we listen and we reason and we accept the majority opinion. Reason I mention this is that we've got an important meeting on Monday. There are two issues on the agenda.

First up is next year's Council Tax. My opinion is clear enough. It should not increase by a penny more than 2% - frozen at what can reasonably be expected to be inflation through 2009/10. Not sure whether the majority will go with this. They are the ones who have to face down the Council officers, with all those desperately important reasons why it should be increased by more. "We're still lower than the average for Wales - Blahdy Blah." And I won't be free to tell you what we conclude.

The other issue is street lighting in Powys, an issue that has put the county on the map of Britain. Although I thought that Councillors misjudged this issue when they decided to turn 67% of the lights off (without local consultation), I did think they had a point. If they had turned 33% of the lights off, and had consulted Community Councils first, I would have supported them. Anyway, tomorrow morning I'm meeting John Brautigum from Llanfyllin to discuss ideas he has been promoting for a while about reducing running costs of street lighting by changing the type of light. Something to do with Light Emitting Diodes. I'm sure that's wrong. My councillor colleagues tell me that Council employees have been suggesting this (in vain) for ages, and John first wrote to me well before Christmas. The reason we need to discuss it at the same time as we discuss Council Tax is that there's an upfront cost to installing the new equipment. I reckon that this could become a UK issue, so I'll do blog updates, and welcome comments.