Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our Welsh Parliament is here to stay.

There's been a flurry of media comment (mainly driven by politicians) that if there were to be a referendum on the future existence of the Welsh Parliament (or National Assembly for Wales if you prefer) the people of Wales would vote In favour of abolition. Not sure why this is being taken so seriously. Perhaps the media and commentariat so enjoyed the Scottish Independence Referendum and the EU Referendum that they cannot bear to see Wales left out! Two people asked me whether they were going to have the chance to vote 'that circus in Cardiff' out of existence at today's Berriew Show Charity Lunch. Told them this is one circus I approve of! Should add that I don't think their views were a reflection of Welsh public opinion.

It is simply not going to happen. There will be no referendum. Not in any foreseeable future. We've had enough of referendums. And if there were to be, all the evidence I've seen suggests to me that devolution is here to stay. I know not everyone agrees with me about this, and it's very much in fashion to be opposed to anything remotely to do with the 'establishment'. Voting No has become the default position on constitutional issues. But for me, discussion about the future of the Welsh Parliament comes under the heading of 'harmless fun'.

In fact I may become a great champion of retaining the Welsh Parliament come September 13th. That day we learn of the Boundary Commission for Wales proposals for reform of Welsh Parliamentary constituencies. Inevitably, since they fall in number overall from 40 to 29, these proposals will inform us that Montgomeryshire will be no more. Over 40 yrs I've been active in the public life of Montgomeryshire. I'm building up for a very sad day. The only way to retain our old historic county will be as an Assembly seat. But that's a blog post for when we see the detailed proposals. In the meantime, better get used to having the Welsh Parliament around.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

What's to be done about Hinckley Point.

Most disappointing consequence of recent Government convulsions is that the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee will be no more. I've been a member since the last Genetal Election. Select Committees 'shadow' Govt departments and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been merged into the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department (BEIS). I'd put a lot of effort into educating myself on this subject. That 'education' process was to some extent a waste of my time - though I will retain an interest in 'energy' issues,

Which brings me to Hinckley Point C. I've written about this before. It's now a month since the French energy business, EDF committed to building the new power station. And almost as long since our new Prime Minister put the whole project on hold. We don't know why - beyond her entirely reasonable wish to consider very carefully before signing off the deal. Media reports suggest the reasons are to do with the scale of Chinese involvement in the overall package, which extends much further than Hinckley. Whatever, we will soon be approaching decision day.

EDF Chief Executive, Vincent de Rivas has written a confident 'bullish' article for the Telegraph extolling the virtues of the Hinckley Point project. He's quite a character is de Rivas. It's easier to nail jelly to a wall than corner him in debate. He cites the Chinese involvement as hugely positive. Must admit I agree with him, even if it grieves me to write so. The shameful neglect of nuclear by the Blair/Brown Gov'ts left the UK without expertise to do the job ourselves. The Hinckley project is too big for EDF on its own, and the Chinese are probably the only realistic potential partners. We do have two other nuclear projects (Wylfa B and Moorside) coming along as well and quietly, but we need them all.

There has been much made of the price the UK Govt has agreed to pay for electricity generated by Hinckly Point over a 35 yr period. It's a lot of money. The comparison usually featuring in comment is "twice the current cost of energy" which has fallen dramatically over recent years. True- but the real comparison is with what the price of energy will be when Hinckley Point comes on stream in the mid-20s. It's unlikely that current low prices will continue (my opinion). Interestingly, the current price of offshore wind is nearer three times the current energy price, though likely to come down over time.

Our future energy needs will be met by a mix of energy sources. Gas (shale or imported) will feature strongly (if we are to stop burning coal). Renewables will continue to expand, particularly if storage technology develops as we hope (interesting to see Vattenfall securing a contract to build a 22MW battery next to its South Wales onshore wind farm at Pen Y Cymoedd).  Interconnectors will play a part as well. And we still hope tidal power will become competitive. And I'm a supporter of solar power. But nuclear is crucial to provide the base load power. We need new nuclear as current aging nuclear plants are decommissioned. Maybe Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will become a reality in time, but there is not one operating yet. Today, we need large scale nuclear. I have no idea whether the Prime Minister will give Hinkley Point C the go-ahead. On balance it seems sensible to me that we should (if we take decarbonisation at all seriously).  I have a suspicion that she will.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Brexit - Two months on.

It's now over two months since the referendum in which a majority of UK voters, Wales voters, Shropshire voters and Powys voters decided they wanted the UK to leave the European Union. It was a hard fought referendum. In retrospect, I think I was weak to take so little part in it. I might not have approved of the campaigns, but life is like that. Biggest battles are fought in the gutter. What has surprised me is how some of those who voted Remain refuse to accept the voice of the people. I'm still having earache for voting Leave by many of my friends. Had some more at a local function tonight. It makes no impact that if it was a clear result on a huge turn-out. The majority in favour of Leave was over a million votes. There are calls for another referendum (so that we could make the 'right' decision!).  Or for a vote in Parliament to approve the terms (yet to be negotiated) on which the UK will leave. This is nothing more than a legalistic delaying tactic, dressed up in legalistic language. It seems some 'clever' lawyers reckon the referendum was 'advisory' only. Tell that to the people. 

Dear 'A View from Rural a Wales' readers, it's not going to happen. It's time to get real. As our new Prime Minister, Theresa May has said again and again "Brexit means Brexit". This might be open to interpretation, but there will not be a re-run of the referendum, no matter how many petitions there are, or how many lawyers produce reports. The BBC's relentless pro-Remain bias will not succeed - except to damage the BBC and increase the level of discord. The unelected House of Lords will not be free to frustrate the will of the people. If they were to, it would quickly lead to a power-reducing reform of the Upper House. The voters of Britain have spoken and there voice will be respected. In any case, my view is that another vote would only deliver a bigger Leave majority, as the voters of the UK expressed their outrage at being misled.

Let's consider what has happened over the last two months, compared with the disasters that we were told were going to happen before the referendum. We were warned that the city would suffer a meltdown. But the FTSE has risen to near record levels. As has the FTSE 250. It's true that the value of Sterling has fallen, encouraged no doubt by Bank of England money creation. This has been a major boost to exporters, the tourism industry, and to my own industry of livestock farming. We were told there would be more unemployment, higher mortgages and big falls in house prices. Reality is that jobs have carried on being created - to record levels since we voted to leave. Businesses which threatened to leave the UK have decided to invest here after all. There has been no 'emergency budget'. The Governor of the Bank of England has been left with egg yoke all over his face. Consumer spending is going well, despite the best efforts of self-justifying 'remainers' to talk us into recession. The impact of a Leave vote has had nothing like the impact that was predicted. All this is really good news for the UK, and already we are seeing growth predictions being revised upwards.

But it's not time to celebrate yet. The UK will be a full member of the EU for another two/three years at least. International markets do not like uncertainty. During the next two years, we will need to establish new trading agreements across the world. We will need to have negotiated a new agreement with the EU. It will happen, but I do think it will be complex. There will be disappointments along the way. Perhaps most controversially, I do not think we will see net immigration numbers falling to the levels that some hope. Neither do I think our financial obligations to our neighbours will fall as some hope. But I remain entirely confident the British people took the right devision on June 23rd. They decided to 'Take Back Control' and I think they were absolutely right to do so.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Let Labour set its own leadership rules.

I don't now if there any lawyers versed in constitutional law who might read my blog posts. If there are maybe they can explain to me and help me understand why the High Court should be getting involved in the Labour leadership election. Surely this is a matter for the Labour Party. Surely it's a political matter that the High Court should keep its ermine-clad nose out of.

A few days ago I took about two hours to write a post about the 'political' interference of the European Court of Justice in European Union matters. This court, more than any other body delivered the vote to leave the European Union. It took its decisions in support of the political objective of "Ever closer union." The people of the U.K. decided they'd had enough of this and voted to Leave. There is a proper place for courts to decide. And there are times when courts should decide not to decide. How the Labour Party chooses its leader is one of them. In my opinion (as a sheep farmer and gardener that is)!! 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Helping Syrian Refugees

The dominating story in UK media a few months back was the difficulties faced by young Syrian refugees in Calais, who wanted to apply for Asylum in Britain. I was on the wrong side of public opinion at the time. But I stuck to my position, despite ferocious lobbying. Lord Dubbs had led a campaign to have the UK allow several thousand young refugees resident in Calais to come to Britain to claim asylum. It was said that they would not be treated sympathetically or fairly in France. In passing, I'm not sure what this says about France!! Anyway, even though I did not agree with this policy, I accepted the Dubbs amendment to the Immigration Bill. In my opinion it was not facing up to the refugee issue, but it did help a few Syrian refugee children. So it was beneficial to a small number, even if it did nothing to help the wider Syrian refugee problem.

Reason I revisit this heart breaking issue today is the decision by the Court of Appeal to over-turn a decision taken by the High Court in January to allow four refugees in Calais to travel to Britain to have their asylum applications heard. This was a test case. The UK Govt lodged the appeal, because the court decision would have fatally undermined the Dublin Regulation, which insists refugees must make their asylum applications in the first safe country they arrive in. This is an important principle, which helps separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants and others who want to move to the UK. 

Inevitably, those who think as I do were dismissed as callous and uncaring (even if the opposite was the case). It was quite aggressive criticism on times. However, I tend to study the evidence before I take a position, and support what I believe delivers the greatest good, rather than meet the emotionally charged line driven by the media. Now here is the reality about the UK's contribution. No European country has done more to support Syrian refugees than the UK. The UK has focussed its efforts on helping Syrian refugees where it's most beneficial - near the Syrian border. While the attention of the U.K. media was on Calais, the true refugee suffering was (and is) in Syria. I read reports that there are over 6 million Syrian refugees displaced in Syria. Almost 3 million in Turkey. 1.5 million in Lebanon and 1.2 million in Jordon. This is where the British effort was, is and should be concentrated.

When this issue was 'in the news' a few months ago, I and others were vilified for being concerned that over-riding the Dublin Regulation would encourage refugees to take desperately dangerous journeys in unseaworthy crafts, leading to deaths at sea. Since then, there has been a deal agreed with Turkey to attempt to counteract this 'refugee pull' - though whether that agreement with Turkey is functioning now is uncertain. I suspect Syrian refugees are still dying in the Mediterranean, though it's no longer being reported on our TV screens every night. The media caravan has moved on. The tragedy hasn't.

Anyway, back to this week's Court of Appeal judgement. I was opposed to the Dubbs amendment because it undermined the important Dublin Regulation and did not help the greatest number of refugees. Ok, I was not unhappy that a majority of MPs supported it. I spoke at length with the immigration minister, and accepted the position. It was not so much wrong, as not as right as it should have been. And I must admit I don't much enjoy being shouted at and accused of being callous. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this is that the Court of Appeal judgement passed almost unnoticed in the media this week. The media has moved on. The British Govt's policy should always be to help the largest number of refugees that it can. It's what we are doing.

Friday, July 29, 2016

What is going on at Hinckley Point?

Must admit I was very surprised by last night's Govt statement that it was 'pausing' the final decision on signing the deal with EDF (the French Govt) and the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation. Like most people, I had assumed that the key decision was that of the EDF Board on Thursday, and that the Friday signing would be no more than a formality. The Chinese certainly thought so, having travelled over to Hinckley from China for the party. The marquee just flapped in the Somerset breeze - unused and empty. Actually we had two surprises. First was the degree of  disagreement and opposition within the EDF Board. And second Greg Clarke's statement that the UK Gov't was going to study the deal before signing it off. There may have been some connection. Was certainly a thought in my mind.

Anyway, it's interesting to indulge in conjecture about why. I don't think we have any real idea. Firstly it may just be that the new Prime Minister wants to have a detailed look at the books before signing it off. Fair enough, but does seem a bit late in the day. We did know the EDF decision was coming a good while back. Couldn't have been a surprise. Personally I don't think the Prime Minister (if it was her decision) was being unreasonable. So much concern about the project (particularly the technology) that it's no surprise she wants to consider it carefully. It seems not even the French are fully sold on the deal. As soon as it emerged that there would be a pause, the shares in EDF jumped skywards.

The media seem to think it's about the involvement of the Chinese - a long term security consideration. 
And not so much the £6 billion investment planned for the Hinckley Point project, but subsequent investments in Sizewell and Bradwell.  No way we can know if this is true. But if it is, it would mark a big change in attitude towards Chinese investment by the new Prime Minister/Chancellor team from previous regime. The Chinese are reported to be "bemused" and "frustrated". I suspect that's Cinese for absolutely bl*****y furious. 

Not really sure where we are now, or what view to take. I had been very much against the UK pulling out of the deal, because of the reputational damage it would do to the UK and to investor confidence. But the French Govt reaction may be a great sign of relief, that a humiliating decision had been taken for it. Since the strike price was agreed EDF has spent £2/3 billion on preparing the site. That's a very big sum to write off. 

Anyway we will have to wait and see. What I really do hope is that there is no knock-on negativity impacting on Wylfa B and Moorside. 

My submission to Sec of State re quashed wind farm decisions

Dear Secretary of State...

Re-determination of planning applications by RES UK and Ireland Ltd and RWE Renewables Ltd to build onshore wind farms at Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen in Montgomeryshire. 

"This letter is my response to your invitation (dated 6th July) to comment on the two above re-determinations (Carnedd Wen and Llanbrynmair) which the Secretary of State will make following the quashing of the two previous refusals made by his predecessor in 2015. It should be treated as a joint response to both re-determinations.

I am the Member of Parliament representing Montgomeryshire, and am opposed to both of these developments. I took part in the Mid Wales Conjoined Public Inquiry which took place between June 2013 and May 2014. Large numbers of my constituents made their opposition clear to the Inspector at the Inquiry. Large numbers of us cooperated in opposing the wind farm developments, particularly the associated transmission infrastructure, which we believe would cause great damage to the economy, landscapes and environment of Mid Wales. We were pleased that the previous Secretary of State refused the Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen proposals, and were desperately disappointed when the two decisions were quashed. We hope that the two developments will again be refused by the new Secretary of State.

My principal reason for opposing these two wind farms is the cumulative impact they would have on one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. The greatest damage would be inflicted by the necessary grid infrastructure, without which these wind farms could not be built. The central feature of this infrastructure development would be the 'Mid Wales Connection Project' proposed by National Grid to serve the wind farms. It would a 42km 400kV carried for most of its length from North Shropshire on 50 meter high pylons along the length of one of our beautiful area's narrow valleys into the heart of Montgomeryshire. It is a transmission line dedicated to wind farms, so it seems clear to us that once built, it would lead to perhaps another 15/20 wind farms, utilising the unused capacity. There is a 'trigger point' of guaranteed connection sites before the Mid Wales Connection Project would go ahead. I have been very surprised that both National Grid and OFGEM have refused to tell me what that 'trigger point' is, flying in the face of public commitments made by both bodies about transparency. National Grid has also refused to contemplate undergrounding, except for a short length around the village of Meifod. The line would cause particular damage around the village of Llansantffraid, and surrounding areas where tourism is of great importance. In the vicinity of the village, the proposed line crosses the Vyrnwy 12 times in 3 miles.

In my evidence to the Inspector, which I repeat in this submission, I emphasised that the wind farms and the power line, while separate projects, should in fact be considered as one single project. The electricity cannot be transmitted to the Grid from the wind farms unless the line is built. I believe that at an early stage in the Inquiry, the Inspector asked the developers to show how the power could be transmitted without the Mid Wales Connection Project. After initially claiming this would be possible, it was admitted that this is not feasible. In addition, there has been an attempt to portray the Mid Wales Connection Project as contributing to 'a stronger network' to serve the Mid Wales economy. This is totally baseless and no more than false justification. Local protestors, including myself and Powys County Council, pressed the Inspector to adjourn the Inquiry until an environmental assessment of the impact of the transmission line was carried out. We were both disappointed and mystified why the Inspector refused to accede to this request. The absolute linkage of the proposed wind farms and the Mid Wales Connection Project was clear to all, when National Grid ceased all work as soon as the planning applications were refused.

In conclusion, this letter should be regarded as an appeal to the Secretary of State to honour the Government's 2015 manifesto commitment to only support onshore wind farms where they have the support of local people. The applications at Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen are very strongly opposed by local people, by Powys County Council and by both the local Assembly Member and Member of Parliament. These two wind farms, and the damage they would cause have been hanging over the heads of the people of Mid Wales for far too long.  I appeal to the Secretary of State to reaffirm the previous decisions to refuse permission for them.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hinckley Point C.

Over the last few days I've received many emails from constituents and others asking me to press new Chancellor, Philip Hammond to withdraw Govt support for the proposed Hinckly Point C nuclear power station. I cannot do that. I must explain why. For the UK to withdraw from agreements it has signed up to with the French energy company, EDF and the French Govt would seem to me to be an unthinkable breach of faith with our good friend and neighbour, France. 

At this stage I should make clear that I'm no great enthusiast for the Hinckley Point C nuclear power station which looks as if it may receive the final go-ahead this coming week. It's a huge investment and would make an important carbon-free contribution to Britain's 'base load' energy needs. It involves the construction of two EPR reactors with a combined output of 3,200MWh. A meeting of the EDF Board has been called for Thursday, when the final decision should be made to go ahead and build - after much delay. It has become a major issue for EDF and the French Govt. To understand why the UK cannot just walk away, we need to look at the background. 

The last nuclear power station to be given the go-ahead in the UK was in 1987. Because of political difficulty, Gov't's have failed to face down anti-nuclear protest, and British expertise was lost. Which meant that when the Liberal-Conservative Coalition decided in 2010 to go forward with 8 new nuclear power stations, it had to look overseas for the expertise needed to build them. While the Japenese are leading the only Welsh-based new build at Wylfa B on Ynys Mon, the French energy generating company, EDF, largely owned by the French Govt is building Hinckley Point C, with significant financial input from the Chinese. The UK's involvement is through a guarantee (the strike price) that it will pay £92.50MWh for 35 yrs. This adds up to lot of money. On the basis of this agreement, EDF and the French Govt have carried on preparing to build Hinckley Point C, at great cost. It would cause huge damage to the UK's reputation and to future investor confidence when dealing with the UK Govt if we were to walk away now. It would a shocking betrayal of the French Government, at a time when we are looking to work through with the French the Brexit negotiations.

It will be good news if EDF make the final decision to go ahead on Thursday. It will be a very strong statement that France does not see Brexit as an obstacle to investment in the UK. It will give us some reassurance that the Government's nuclear ambitions are on track. But what is absolutely crucial is that if Hinckley Point C does not proceed, it will as a result of a decision by the French, and not a U-turn by the UK, which would do huge damage to the Entente Cordiale. It's why I cannot agree with those who have written to me, demanding that the the Government tears up the agreements previous British governments have made.