Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mark Thompson scewered on Newsnight.

Did you see Emily Maitlis interview BBC Director-general, Mark Thompson on Newsnight tonight. It must be enormous fun to be given licence to rip into your boss like that. I thought she was great and exposed the BBC's boss as a rather indecisive figure. Really made him squirm. On several occasions he refused to answer her question about whether he thought Jonathon Ross was worth his £18 million. He had to say yes - but just wouldn't do it. . And when she asked him if he thought a disgracefully outrageous joke, based on the age of Queen Elizabeth, broadcast on the BBC last night was acceptable, he was totally stumped - and remained stumped every time she re-asked the question. A few minutes earlier he'd told us that he'd decided the Ross/Brand remarks were unacceptable in five nano-seconds - and nothing whatsoever to do with public outrage. But faced with a similar example of unacceptable comments broadcast on the BBC, he had absolutely no idea what to say. I wonder what Mark Thompson said to and about Emily after the programme.

Banks - NOT a friend to small business.

This BBC report is so far removed from reality that its difficult to know how to respond. The idea that the Chancellor or the high street banks are intent on helping small business is laughably untrue. The reality is that banks are so desperate to make some money to fill the huge black hole in their balance sheets that their own irresponsibility created , that they are milking business for every penny and cent they can.

The owner/manager of one ' small to medium' Welsh business rang me this afternoon. He has a borrowing facility of around half a million, but currently borrows about a third of it. His current terms are less than one and a half per cent over Base Rate (around six per cent and likely to fall) - and only on what he borrows. Unfortunately, the letter formalising this facility was inadequately drafted, and is being redone. His bank is taking the opportunity to revise his terms, and is insisting on three percent over the LIBOR rate (The London inter-bank offered rate - which must make it around nine per cent in total) on the money actually borrowed - and one and a half on the rest of the facility. Yes, that's right. Around six per cent on money that is not actually being borrowed. And at the moment, its a question of take it or leave it. I've heard the same sort of story from others.

You would be very surprised to know which bank this is. When the final agreement is signed off, I will make the details known.

Politicians of the Year.

Tomorrow night I'm joining a panel which will be deciding who to annoint as ITV Wales' politicians of 2008. The catagories are

Member to watch. (No Hain-like jokes please)
Campaigner of the Year.
AM of the year.
MP of the year.
Local Politician of the Year.
Politician of the Year.

This is your chance to try to influence one of the judges.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Don't Die of Embarrassment

My first visit to the Liberty Stadium today. No, not to watch the Swans, or the Ospreys. I went to support the Wales Bowel Cancer Screening Team. Second time this week. In fact, I feel as if I've become a part of the team. I'm going to feel a touch resentful when I see future 'team' photographs - without me. The first photograph is of Hayley Heard, Head of the Programme - a Montgomeryshire girl. Actually the second photograph is a con. It was taken at Monday's launch at Llantrisant. The choir is the Mynyddislwyn MVC, and their conductress is Carys Wyn (where is she?) Today it was the Morriston Phoenix Choir, and they were very good too. Finished off with a thundering performance of 'Bread of Heaven'. And yet again, directing the men of Morriston was a lady - Sian Pierce. Sian Cothi has really started a trend. I kept an absolutely straight face when I said that I'd heard of the Morriston Orpheus Choir. Must go down as my best wind-up line of the year - and the boys responded as expected. The history is that a good few of the 'Phoenix' walked out of the 'Orpheus', with Sian, and set up on their own. I must add the word 'cultural' to how I describe the content of this blog.

All this is nothing to do with the issue of the day, which was extending the message 'Don't Die of Embarrassment' to the Swansea area. The day was set up with Ruth (2nd left) interviewing me about my experiences. Hilary (left) chaired the event and Hayley (2nd right) filled in all the detail). The audience was not of the age when bowel cancer is at its most threatening - but a fair few of the choir were. They were quite keen to discuss the issue over lunch. Great bunch of lads. I wish I could sing. Anyway, if any visitors to this blog are between 60-69, I will be very upset if they ignore the card when it comes through your letterbox. I expect you to spread a spot of your faeces/excrement/poo (or choose your own preferred word) on the card and post it back. Go on - do it for me. It might just save your life.

Red Alert.

At last, a silver lining breaks through the mountains of heavy cloud that have clothed our newspapers in wall-to-wall misery. After weeks indulging in a frenzy of doom-mongering, today's Telegraph reports on one of those idiotic research projects that universities love to carry out - the aim being to bring a little gaiety into the drabness that fills too much of our lives. The University of Rochester, in New York has discovered that men look upon ladies dressed in red as "being in heat and available for mating". Alongside this discovery, its not really surprising that the research findings also reveal men are prepared to spend more money on ladies who wear red. The report informs us that the research involved 100 undergraduates being shown photographs of "moderately attractive" young women kitted out in different colours.

So Chris Deburgh got it right. Until today I thought that the reason his rendering of 'Lady in Red' was one of my all time favourites was because I liked it. It haunts like 'Wonderful Tonight', Clapton's appeal to Pattie Boyd to get a move on when dressing for a party. But No. It seems that its because I continue to be driven by a 'primal instinct and primitive biological roots', which tells the part of my brain which considers these things, that 'red' means 'hot'. I feel quite ashamed of myself. I do hope that the Wales on Sunday's 'spin doctor' doesn't read this.

The plant I grow most is the kniphofia, otherwise known as the 'Red Hot Poker'. My favourite dahlia is the deep red 'Bishop of Llandaff''. My favourite wild creature is the red squirrel. And as I let my mind meander..... hmmm.... best stop now, even if the BBC's Welsh political 'morality guardian, David Cornock is on paternity leave. The bad news from a Conservative perspective is that the colour least likely to make these "moderately attractive" young women into desirable objects was blue.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Can the Licence Fee last?

It isn't about Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand. I've always found their clever dick humour not to my taste, but I know that others enjoy listening to them. Its individual taste. And in general, we know what they are like. We don't have to listen to them - and I don't. But what they demonstrated to all of us last week is that they are two rather unpleasant individuals. No, the issue is the BBC, this great monolith which survives on huge sums of money, extracted from the people of Britain by what amounts to force.

Personally, I think it's missing the point to demand that these two 'performers' be dismissed - though I suspect that many of the people who they made laugh in the past, will not find them so funny in the future. Many people may express their opinion via the on/off switch. How depressing it will be if it transpires that people don't. No, sacking them would be a diversionary tactic - taking our attention away from the real issue. It was the inherent culture that allowed this pre-recorded material to be approved for broadcast.

Tonight, at long last, there has been a reaction from the Chairman of the BBC. I suppose he's realised that the country is up in arms. Panic stations - better press the damage limitation button. Now, who is to be the scapegoat this time. The Chairman should have known is was unacceptable, even if there hadn't been a single letter of complaint. He and his entire Board should have known that this was revolting behaviour. There should have been no need for politicians to speak out on this, because the BBC should have taken immediate action itself. Can't these people self-regulate at all? The truth is, they didn't see anything wrong with it - until the balloon went up. I was horrified by the sneering tone on Drive on 5 Live, several days later, when the offensive material was broadcast again. They just didn't get it. If the BBC doesn't get it soon, the licence fee will be abolished - or given to another body which will take its responsibility more seriously. Please BBC, get a grip before its too late.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Launch

Been to Llantrisant today where we were entertained by the men who make up Mynyddislwyn Male Voice Choir. They sang 'Fly me to the Moon', My Way', You raise me up', and 'Rhythm of Life'. Carys Wyn conducted. It was all rather like being on the set of Con Passionate, a highly rated series on S4/C in which Sian Cothi conducts a choir made up of the best of Welsh cultural testosterone.

Purpose of the visit was to help launch a Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in Wales. There was quite a 'Montgomeryshire' feel to the launch today. Leader of the Programme is Hayley Heard, who lives in Pontdolgoch, near Caersws. She had the task of explaining the whole thing. And I had a rather higher profile than I expected, which I must admit I enjoyed. My job was to offer a 'Patient's Perspective'. There were lots of media about. It can't do me any harm, politically speaking, to appear on all the main TV news programmes.

The launch won massive publicity. It was a terrific idea to hold it on the first day of half term. There was nothing going on down in Cardiff Bay, and the media were free to roam. I was really pleased about this. There's a bit of 'Esprit de Corps' amongst people who have experienced Bowel Cancer, and I'm always willing to help out - even if there is no camera about.

The one thing I'm not keen on is use of the word 'poo' when referring to faeces. It seems a bit too childish. It will be OK for little Ffion when she starts to speak, but not for we grown-ups. Its a bit like saying 'Binky' instead of 'Penis'. When I hear the message 'Put your Poo in the Post', I cringe. Which probably means it will be a great success. I hope that these Home Test Kits are used and returned by men in particular (women will do it anyway). There are hundreds of people living normal lives in Wales as I write who have a life threatening tumour developing in their colons - about which they are entirely unaware. These kits might bring these tumours to light while they are at their most treatable.

Making virtue out of necessity.

Its usually a good idea to make a virtue out of any unwelcome necessity that comes along. And that's probably what our Prime Minister has been doing over the last few days. And all in the name of Keynes. When I first heard him talk about his plans to increase public borrowing to help us all through the recession, I thought that he'd taken leave of his senses. It seemed to me that the scale of borrowing was already astronomical. And the benefits bill is about to rocket along with the unemployment figures. And tax receipts are about to collapse along with business profits. Where on earth would this extra money come from? Or more to the point, how would the Prime Minister persuade the markets that he had a plan for repaying the debts. What would happen to our currency. But when I heard him speak today, I realised that he has no actual plans to increase public spending to any significant degree at all. Its just Gordon Brown trying to make a virtue out of a necessity.

What our Prime Minister is doing is justifying the eye watering sums of money he is going to have to borrow just to pay off the bills that he knows are going to be delivered though the letter box of 10 Downing St.. He believes that if he uses the phrase 'borrow to invest' instead of 'borrow to spend' often enough, he'll persuade us that he has some choice in this matter - and be able to justify breaking his so-called Golden Rule. All that our beleaguered Prime Minister will be able to do is perhaps bring forward capital projects already planned. I wonder whether the voters will believe any of this 'spin'.

One late apology is not enough.

What is happening to our BBC. How has such a great organisation descended so far into the gutter. Its response to the utterly nauseating sewage that slopped out of the mouths of Jonathon Ross and Russell Brand last week has been risibly inadequate. Now, no-one is shocked that these two supposed 'entertainers' are prepared to behave in this way. But it was pre-recorded, and the BBC allowed it to be broadcast. Whoever was responsible should be moved to other duties - like making the tea. It was unforgivable.

So happens I was driving home between four and seven this afternoon. Tuned in to 5 Live. Listened to 'Drive'. I like Peter Allen. Today's programme covered the BBC apology to Andrew Sachs that has finally been made - when the scale of public disapproval was realised. Seemed to me that the incident was being treated as some sort of joke. I detected sneering in the studio, as it was being considered whether the Brand/Ross stunt had passed 'the Daily Mail test'. Dear BBC, what matters is that it did not pass the human decency test. And do you know what they did? They played most of the offending stuff all over again. Now, I reckon that I can see humour in most things, but today I felt revolted. It wouldn't be so bad, except that it doesn't take much for the BBC to adopt a tone of high moral indignation in judgement of others for much lesser crimes.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bowel Cancer Screening

No sniggering. This post is about your bowels. The Wales Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is being launched at an event in Llantrisant tomorrow morning. I'm very supportive of screening, and will be offering a patient's perspective between performances by the Mynyddislwyn Male Voice Choir. I'm also giving interviews to Good Morning Wales (8.05) and Post Cynta (7.05) in the morning - unless something more newsworthy muscles its way in of course.

This week, test kits which set out to identify faecal occult blood will be sent out to around 176,000 men and women in Wales, aged between 60-69. In 2010, it is scheduled to be extended to 60-74 year olds, in 2013 to 56-74 yearolds, and in 2015 to 50-74 year olds. Women are used to screening for breast and cervical cancer, but this is the first time that men have ever been subjected to a screening programme. It will be interesting to find out how we boys respond.

As well as actually discovering tumours through faecal occult blood, the programme will greatly increase awareness. The message is that if blood is noticed, go see your GP. It will probably be nothing much, but its best to check. Do not just leave it. This might cost you your life. Catching it early makes a big big difference. I know.

My quote on the Press Release that Bowel Screening Wales is issuing says "The reality is that hundreds of people in Wales have bowel cancer, but don't realise it. If the tumours were to be discovered now, and treated, the chances of a full recovery from the disease would be much improved. That's not something to be embarrassed about. Its why I'm passionate about men and women taking up screening." I'll post tomorrow night on how it goes.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Simple Economics

Been reading a lot of stuff about the financial crisis tonight. Now, I'm not an economist. Well not in any professional sense. But the blood of a Welsh hill sheep farmer runs through my veins, which makes me an economist of sorts. 'Be careful with your money' is the creed that has flowed down through the generations. Never gambled in business - except when there was no alternative (which did happen when I was 32 years old). Luckily, that gamble came off. I refused to carry a credit card for many years, believing it would encourage a spendthrift attitude. If notes have to be handed over, spending seems so much more painful. I remember going on holiday some years ago and paying with £20 notes. The lady behind the desk of the Aviemore hotel looked at me as if I was a criminal, and called the manager. This is just by way of introduction, informing you that my financial instinct is deeply conservative.

And another thing. And I don't think I'm unusual in that I've always been in some awe of the Governor of the Bank of England. Well I'm not now. While the bankers were screwing up big-time, and Gordon Brown's shiny new regulation system was fast asleep, the Governor said nought. Let's never forget that the mess we're in happened on the watch of Gordon Brown and the Governor of the Bank of England. I don't really know exactly how much of a mess we're in, but I did read what the Deputy Governor of the Bank said yesterday. His name is Charles Bean, so he must be able to count, and yesterday he said "This is a once in a lifetime crisis, and possibly the worst financial crisis of its kind in human history". If this really is what he thinks, why on earth is the Monetary Policy Committee so far behind the action. They're acting like a panel of reactive spectators. A flock of hill sheep farmers could do as well as that.

This week the Governor and the Prime Minister declared with great fanfare that the UK is likely to go into recession. They must have been the last two individuals on planet Earth to realise this. Its so obvious that interest rates are going to have to be cut. So why haven't they done it? Why have they left it until its too late? The only person disagreeing with interst rate cuts that I've read is Simon Heffer, which surely strengthens the argument in favour.

Another thing about amateur economists like me is that we like to keep our money in something solid, that we understand. You can keep your shares and bonds and pensions and such like. Probably missed loads of opportunities. I've kept my money in land. The only big business gamble I made was to buy acres with borrowed money. OK, so the return was abysmal, but it looks a lot smarter than most of the wheezes that the regulatory authorities sanctioned over the last ten years. Put sheep farmers in charge is what I say.

Friday, October 24, 2008

When is a 'victory' a 'victory'?

So the war between the Welsh Rugby Union and the 4 regional teams has reached the courts. Today, a judge ruled that players must be released by the clubs to join up with the Wales squad on Monday. What can the players think of this. The clubs (which pay their salaries) are being forced by a court of law to allow them to attend training with the Wales squad. If they read BBC Wales online tonight they will see that the Chief Executive of the WRU has issued a statement that is not far short of 'gloating' about his 'victory' over their employers. That's what I call statesmanlike - or not! I wonder how many points all this is worth to the Springboks.

There are two quotes that I particularly like.

David Moffett, head of Regional Rugby Wales said "This causes a serious deterioration in relations between us and the WRU" Like thats possible !

Roger Lewis, Chief Executive of the WRU said "We'll now put this matter behind us". Oh yes - and Nick Clegg will be the next Prime Minister !

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dragon's Gums Tonight.

Was tonight's interview with Roger Lewis, Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, the most gentle interview ever conducted on the BBC? Have so many questions ever lain unasked? Just asking.

Save our Small Arbottoirs.

I hope it wasn't my lambs on the BBC's 'Week In, Week Out' tonight. Reason I ask is that I send my fat lambs to Dunbia in Llanybydder for slaughter - and Dunbia was starring on the programme. Well not exactly 'starring'. The BBC had put a 'mole' with a secret camera in the abattoir, and revealed what seemed some serious failings by the Meat Inspection Service. I've no idea whether this sort of failing happens sufficiently often for us to be concerned. But it made good and quite sensational television. The line that inspired this post was made by a meat inspector talking to the 'mole' when a smear of what he indelicately described as s**t was spotted on a carcass. "Its a fast line". And it must be a fast line, because one million lambs are slaughtered at the abattoir in a year.

Coincidentally, I visited a comparatively 'slow line' this afternoon. It was the abattoir owned and run by William Lloyd-Williams, Quality Butcher, of Machynlleth. Will is a star. The spirit of Machynlleth runs through his veins. This abattoir's throughput is about 6 cattle and 100 lambs per week. All the animals are bought from local farmers. Will has recently built a magnificent refrigeration building as an extension to the abattoir, the realisation of a life long dream that he is rightly and hugely proud of. On Saturday, I'm making myself available to the people of Machynlleth, and when I wanted to advertise the location, I wanted somewhere that everyone would know of - so I said 'outside Will's Butcher's shop'. What a tragedy it is that so many of our small abattoirs have been closed down by bureaucracy over recent years. Only the most determined individuals have survived.

Rugby boys. Please act like men.

Blimey! When David Moffett was revealed as the new head of a body referred to as Regional Rugby Wales, I predicted trouble. "Welcome to the soap opera" was the immediate response by Warren Gatland, Wales' Coach. You can say that again. Today Mr Moffett unleashed an astonishing attack on Roger Lewis, Chief Executive of the Welsh Rugby Union. This report on the BBC does not do credit to the personal and aggressive nature of the attack. So far Roger has responded with what he calls a "dignified silence" - which is wise. Pity he also made himself sound like Gordon Brown by adding that he is "getting on with the job" - even if that is what he is doing. This row is in danger of making Welsh rugby into the butt of everyone's jokes. Whenever Wales wins the Grand Slam, war breaks out amongst those who run the game. Its time for grown men to start behaving like grown men.

Did Powys really invest one million pounds in Iceland's' Landbanksi on 5th september 2008?

I spent an hour this morning listening to the Councillors of Powys in discussion. I also listened to the Chief Financial Officer make a statement about the Council's investments with Icelandic Banks - which amount to four million pounds. Two things shocked me. Firstly, I think I heard him say that an investment of one million pounds was made with Landbanksi on 5th September 08. 'Blimey' thought I to myself. The same CFO had just told councillors that Wrexham had decided not to re-invest money in Icelandic Banks last April - and I've been told that Ceredigion decided against such investments in the spring. I was expecting someone to leap to their feet, and ask for an explanation, when I was hit by the second surprise. The whole room burst into a round of applause for the jolly good work of its investment team. And that's before the 'internal inquiry' that is being set up to look at the issue has even met.

Now perhaps, I misheard the dates - but I don't think so. Ever since this issue broke two weeks ago, I've not criticised Councillors, because I realise that investments cannot be withdrawn until the due date is reached. This is the defence that I've heard the Welsh Local Government Association and Powys Council's Finance portfolio holder make on several occasions. Seems to me that this completely misses the point. The only issue of competence relates to the date that the investments were made. I do hope someone asks the question which should be asked.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lights out in Powys again.

This is a post of interest to the people of Powys only. Not often that this most beautiful of counties makes the UK news. But that's what happened when the Council decided to turn off 67% of the street lights a few weeks back. Turn them off completely that is. None of this half way house of turning them off at midnight. The full plunge into darkness. Everywhere I go, people are running from their houses to appraise me of their outrage. Anyway there's going to be an unholy row in tomorrow's quarterly meeting of the Council. The Tories are leading the way with a motion for debate. I'm going to turn up to watch the fireworks.

I have to be careful what I say about this subject. Last time I posted on it, the Council's Press Officer emailed me, informing me that my post was mistaken. I really hate it when my information is wrong and I have to retract. Hurts my pride - but needs must. When the BBC network, turned up in Llanfair Caereinion last Monday, I implied that the Council had kept it quiet - to avoid a local posse turning up was my inference. Seems I was wrong. Sorry about that John. That's what I'd been told.

Must admit I had some sympathy with the Council over this 'lights out' issue - but they went much too far. If the 'Board' who take these decisions had gone for one third, with genuine local consultation, people would have accepted it. If they'd gone for two thirds reduced to 'part-night lighting', it would have been accepted. But they didn't - and now they may well have to back track. I'm also told that the Board that runs Powys County Council have decided not to order the bit of kit that allows for part night lighting to be introduced. This could be a mistake. Since lots of other Councils seem to be following where Powys have dared to tread, there is going to be a huge demand for these 'timer switches'. Short sighted in my opinion. Powys should have ordered them. Even if the decision is not to back track at all, there would be no difficulty selling them on. They could well have made a profit! I took the trouble to check up on the waiting time, and was told it's already approaching three months.

Won't be able to stay long at tomorrow's Council meeting though. Will probably miss the statement on the Icelandic banks investment. I reckon that the loss of interest on the investment will probably turn out to be more than the money saved by turning the lights out. What's really intersting is that councillors are being told that its essential to put the lights out for financial reasons, but that the loss of interest will have no impact whatsoever on Council services. Ah well, its the way you tell 'em. Going up to Machynlleth in the afternoonto meet Shadow Secretary of State, Cheryl Gillan. She thinks we're visiting local businesses. But I'm planning on taking her to visit Will Lloyd-Williams' abattoir, which is very important to the town. I hope she's not squeamish - and I hope no-one tells her what I've got planned.

Welcome Back Alun Cairns.

Member of the National Assembly, Alun Cairns is a very good friend of mine. He's also one of the most able and hard working politicians that I know. It follows that I was very disappointed when there was such a hoohah over a silly, indeed inappropriate comment he made on a Welsh Language radio programme a few months back. It was a very poor attempt at humour, which back fired - despite Alun making an immediate retraction and apology. Upshot was that Alun was suspended as our Parliamentary Candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan, pending internal party consideration of the issue.

Well, I've just been informed that Alun Cairn's has been reinstated as our man to fight the Vale at the next Election. As the cow and the footballer said, I am over the moon. I'm going to open a bottle of wine for us to enjoy with our supper. Last night we celebrated Mrs D winning a £50 voucher for dinner at the Royal Oak in Welshpool at a local fashion show. That brought a little joy into our house. Tonight, I feel that we are flooded with joy. Welcome back Alun.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Moffett's Back

And you thought 'Mandelson is back' was a shock. Well, in the office of Roger Lewis, Chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union the return of the Prince of Darkness was but a little butterfly alighting upon an echinacea, when compared with the return of Moffett. I wonder how Roger found out. Did he answer his mobile this morning and hear this crazy Australian laughter pouring into his ear. Or was he plucked from his bed in the middle of the night by a 'Man in a Panic' and rushed back to HQ, where the whole building had already been put on a temporary war footing. Yes, David Moffett, ex-Chief Executive of the WRU is back in Welsh rugby, this time representing the 4 regional teams.

I thought that the sacking of Mike Ruddock just after Wales had won the Grand Slam would take some beating for a soap opera story line. But this one is just as unlikely. The word 'Moffett' will have replaced the most vile profanity as a term of abuse in the Valleys of Wales. Every 'Valleys' rugby fan believes it was David Moffett that strangled the life out of their regional rugby team. It will never be forgiven. Never was there a man so committed to confrontation. When he was doing the job that Roger Lewis is doing now, he sacked the Committee that ran Welsh Rugby, he ditched the Wales 'A' team, and he introduced regional rugby to Wales - which involved relegating world renowned teams like Neath and Pontypridd to the second division. There was huge opposition to all of these things. Oh, and he transformed the Welsh Rugby Union from a financial basket case into a going concern. The point to remember is that this man delivers. Moffett is a natural dictator, who gets his way. Those who stand in his way, usually end up taking an early bath.

So why is he back? Simple. The regional clubs which Moffett created are having a bit of an argument with Roger Lewis and his underlimgs. The row is about player availability and compensation for player release. A fairly typical 'Club v Country' row. When David Moffett was leading the 'Country' battalion, they won every time. So the 'clubs' have decided to recruit the beast who hammered them, to take up arms for them. Brilliant move. First interview on Wales Today tonight. Soft little question from the innocent faced Claire Summers, and he sunk his fangs straight into Roger's butt. So stand back you fans of Welsh rugby, and enjoy the fireworks. I don't know where this one's going to end.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Talented Youngsters.

When I was a school boy, I couldn't sing. I don't just mean that I wasn't a good singer. I couldn't sing at all. Don't know why I said "When I was in school". Truth is I've never been able to sing. Unless you think a cross between Lee Marvin singing 'A wondrin Star', and an aroused frog in spring constitutes anything resembling singing. That's not to say that I don't enjoy singing. Its just that no-one else does - especially if I develop the confidence that comes if there's a crowd. In school I couldn't speak in public either. Just froze whenever the situation demanded any public comment. And that's how it would have stayed if it hadn't have been for the local Young Farmer's Club. I was around 20 year's old when I turned up to club night after an hour or two in the Lion, just as there was a call for someone to enter the County Senior Public Speaking Competition. So it started as a joke/dare - and then my competitive streak took over, and I haven't really shut up ever since.

The reason I comment thus is because I've been adjudicating a Welsh School's Debating Competition this afternoon at Llanidloes High School. I was stuck by the self confidence of these young people. Much better than when I was in Caereinion School a few decades ago, unless you could sing of course. Oli from Builth Wells High School was so laid back that he was next thing to horizontal. I particularly enjoyed the contribution of Steffan from Ystradgynlais, because he allowed real passion to show in his opposition to embryo research. But it was Oli's team who won.

Over the last week, I've spent a lot of time in our local secondary schools. Next time I hear anyone talking down the ability of today's young people, I will respectfully disagree.

Nature's response to recession.

Sorry about this. Two gardening posts in a week is indulgant. I'll have snide comments from non-Tory bloggers suggesting that I'm avoiding politics because our opinion poll leads are shortening. Well No. Its just that there's been so much in the media about this years absolutely stunning autumn colours. I don't want to feel left out.
OK, so its not Westonbirt. And she's a bit past her best because today's wind has taken a fair few of her clothes off. But there can be no more beautiful sight (except for those we love) than an Acer palmatum dissectum 'viridis' in the autumn.
In the spring she starts off rather slowly. You could say she doesn't look her best in the morning. There's always quite a bit of die back, and the new leaves dribble out rather than burst forth. But when she's fully clothed in her freshest green, she makes a lovely centrepiece for the 'gallery' lawn all summer. And then this happens. Every year. Regular as clockwork. And I marvel at all those stupid people who pay fortunes for stuffed sharks in Formaldehyde.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Why young people are cynical about politics.

Its all chance. What I blog about, that is. Its not what I consider the most important issue of the day. Usually, there are plenty of others blogging about that. I just post about odd things that catch my eye, or amuse me. But occasionally, I blog about an important issue that I think is slipping under the radar without sufficient notice being taken of it. This week, it was the demolition of whatever reputation Tony Blair had left. That's because this week we learned a lot more about the 'Ecclestone Affair'.

As a result of a determined campaign by the media, most people who write and talk about this now seem to believe that Mr Blair intervened on behalf of Bernie Ecclestone to grant an exemption for Formula One motor racing to carry on advertising tobacco. And these people also believe that this was an exemption for the purpose of rewarding a donor to the Labour Party, in the expectation that there would be more loot to follow. Yet the then Prime Minister of Britain denied it in a highly public way, and went on television to inform us that there was no connection between his meeting with Mr Ecclestone and the extra million donated, and that he could never do such a thing because he was such 'a regular kinda guy'. There have been plenty of other examples where Mr Blair's integrity has been questioned, but nothing quite as damaging as this.

Last week, I spoke with the Lower Sixth at Caereinion High School about why young people are disillusioned with politics. Mr Blair is the best example I can come up with. If our Prime Minister is thought to have behaved in this way, and to have got away with it - with hardly a ripple of concern being expressed by the media, there's no surprise that politics is held in such contempt.

A Lord's Advice

I was never a member of Scouts - even though there was always a strong branch (if that's the word) in my local village of Berriew. So I never benefited from advice given to boys by Robert Baden-Powell, Lieutenant General in the British Army who started the whole movement off in 1907. It began with his famous work, Scouting for Boys, which was aimed at young adolescent boys between the ages of 11-17. Its a brilliant organisation, and 40,000 youngsters attended its centenary jamboree last year. In his book, Baden-Powell gave advice to boys who 'experienced sexual urges'.

According to today's Sunday Telegraph, Lord Baden-Powell advised any of these adolescent boys who felt sexual urges to "wash your parts in cold water and cool them down". This information has emerged because the Scout Association has decided to introduce sex education. The report also refers to further advice which Lord Baden-Powell gave in a later book 'Rovering to Success'. in this book he advised that young men should not indulge their "primitive sexual urges", but that they should put their energies into "hiking and enjoying outdoor manly activities". He would have approved of my youth, much of which was spent hunting, shooting, fishing and playing rugby.

Told you so.

Sometimes its very satisfying to see one's warnings vindicated. It depends how much you care. I watched the National Assembly's Presiding Officer on the Politics Show today, with a growing sense of despair. I care about how Wales is governed. Ever since the Government of Wales Act 2006 was passed, I warned that it is 'a constitutional crisis waiting to happen'. In order to limit this danger, I wanted the Assembly Government to avoid submitting contentious proposals to Westminster for power transfer to the Assembly - at least until the new system of power transfer was well bedded in. Any contentious proposal would inevitably undermine trust and lead to a constitutional stand-off between the National Assembly and the Welsh Affairs Committee of the House of Commons. This was why I strongly criticised the submission of an Assembly Government proposal which would enable the suspension of right-to-buy by the Assembly. It was like scattering gunpowder on the floor of the 'smoking room'. This sort of interview was inevitable.

The Presiding Officer is wholly correct in his interpretation of the Act. But that's not the point. If the Act is to work well, there has to be a measure of pragmatiism, common sense, and mutual trust. This proposed Legislative Competence Order was provocative (perhaps deliberately so) and the opposite of an attempt to build trust. I'm not going to accuse the Deputy Minister who proposed it of trying to provoke a row in order to demonstrate that the current act is not working - ergo everyone will demand full law making powers immediately. But there will be plenty who will so accuse. The consequence may not be quite so predictable. Problem is that when a fire takes hold, there's no knowing where the winds of change may take it. This issue is damaging the relationship between The UK Parliament and the National Assembly. Its going to take some very cool heads with strong water hoses to put this particular fire out.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Late October Colour

This week's garden post is my response to a Valley's Mam comment last week about lack of colour in the borders. I've been out with my camera this afternoon - 17th Oct.. First up is a white variety of cimicifuga. Its only about two feet tall and is a prefect white, no matter what the weather. It will carry on stunning until mid November. This specimen isn't very big because I divided heavily in the spring, and now have several plants. I also grow the much taller 'purperea' but its nothing like as showy. I'm told that 'cimicifuga' means 'bedbug repeller', and some varieties are reputed to bring medical relief to menstrual tension sufferers.
Rudbeckias are still striking, after about two months of flowering. These have to be just about the easiest border plant - but they are very shallow rooted and need a drop of water if there's a drought. We drift plant them. They are the backbone of our hot border from early Sept til the first frosts. You can see a late variety of red hot poker back right.
And this variety of alsteomeria is still going strong with its second flush. We still have several varieties of the brilliant and versitile Peruvian Lily lighting up our borders.
I'm not that keen on the Kaffir Lily (Schizostylis coccinea) because it has an untidy habit. But it does give good colour in late October. I really ought to grow a big clump to see if it works better that way. Something for next year. But best colour at the moment are the leaves - which will be next weekend's gardening post.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Change of tone.

Must admit that I'm relieved that David Cameron has launched into Gordon Brown's contribution to the financial turbulence that's swirling around our heads. In general, I believe that opposition parties should oppose. Its the British way of testing the strength of Government policy. Sometimes the threat to our country is such that normal British politics is suspended, as we all support efforts by the Government to deal with it. Most obvious is war. Recently, my party decided that the threat represented by the recent financial crisis justified supporting the Government in its efforts to stem the flow of blood. Today, David Cameron decided it was time to change tone, to point out to the British people that Gordon Brown carries a heavy responsibility for the problems we face. That he is the fireman, striving to put out the fire which he helped start. That he is the captain striving to keep the ship afloat, after he forgot to maintain its seaworthiness.

Every interview I've seen involving a Government Minister, the dominant 'spin' is that the crisis is wholly outside the Government's control. I've been surprised by how this bait has been so comprehensively swallowed by commentators and interviewers. I don't think they have been doing their job. Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of an opposition suspending its traditional role. Perhaps its not the media's fault. Perhaps the media needs an opposition to create the environment for effective challenge to the Government. Whatever, I'm pleased that this artificial position is over. It was a relief to watch Justine Greening demolish Government Minister, Ian Pearson on Newsnight tonight. Pity we had to put up with the cringe-worthy Nick Clegg criticising David Cameron. I distinctly recall him saying there would come a time when opposition had to return to the causes of the crisis. Perhaps he was just miffed that Vince Cable has been a bit slow realising its time to return to 'holding the Government to account'. Just watch him change his tune tomorrow.

I've no idea whether today's speech, and today's different tone will be electorally beneficial. What matters is that its right.

Best way to influence?

I've just approved a comment on an old post which described me as being like Mick Bates, the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire. Some people know how to stick the knife in! I suppose that we're both white, male, heterosexual (as far as I know) men of a certain age. But we are certainly not alike in the way that this particular comment implied. It suggested that we are as one in terms of our attitude towards wind turbines. In fact, it was sufficienty incorrect to render it rather a silly comment. But a general point of interest has been raised.

Mick is genuinely supportive of on-shore wind farms. In fact, I've never known anyone so supportive. I'm not supportive of on shore wind farms at all. Over the last ten years I've been one of the foremost opponents of wind farms in Welsh politics. I still believe that the damage they inflict on our landscapes, and pathetic cost-effectiveness render them undesirable. So what's the issue you may ask. The issue is that I'm prepared to speak with developers - or to 'sup with the devil' as I've previously described it.

If my only concern was protection of the landscape, I could afford to take a principled decision against wind turbines, and leave it at that. But I'm a politician as well, who wants to best represent the interests of Montgomeryshire. I accept that the Assembly Government has ignored every plea that I've made over the last decade not to despoil our landscape. As a believer in the democratic process, I accept that the Coalition Government has won, by public vote, the right to impose upon me that which I disagree with. I still don't support the transformation of large tracts of the uplands of Wales into wind farm landscapes - but I do not want to exclude myself from discussion about how this iniquitous policy can be beneficially changed.

I played some part in diverting traffic from the streets of Montgomery by pressing a developer to transport all traffic except the turbines themselves (concrete etc) away from the town. This was very welcome news in Montgomery. I want to maximise the amount of community benefit that developers contribute to the local community. I'm very keen to persuade developers to look seriously at limiting landscape damage themselves in order to win some public goodwill. I want to stay a player in the debate, so that I can argue for the reinstatement of 'cumulative impact' as a planning consideration. OK, if I refuse to talk to developers at all, I could fly my flag of purity with gay abandon - and with glorious impotence. I certainly would not be doing my best for the people I want to represent. Discuss.

Visiting a Hospitium

Over 600 years ago, the Knights Hospitallers built the Llanwddyn Hospitium. These Knights Hospitallers were a fighting order of monks, a military monastic order of St John of Jerusalem. They were established in the 12th century to care for the sick and poor, and their first base in Britain was established at Clerkenwell, Nr London in 1140. When the Knights Templar were suppressed in the 14th century, they spread across the land and eventually reached mid Wales. The Lanwddyn Hospitium was closely linked to another at Gwanas, near Dolgellau. Two of my favourite views in all the world are Lake Vyrvwy (from the Hotel) and Gwanas (as emerging from the A470 pass immediately to the South). Both fell within the lands of hospitiums. These Hospitallers would have made good estate agents. They realised that location is all, when it comes to property.

You may wonder why this blog has veered so far from its normal track. Its because I have been up to visit the Lanwddyn Hospitium today, where hooligans driving 4x4s are also veering from the proper track. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and is threatened by these hooligans driving around in an irresponsible way. There are only ruins there now, but there is a superb little bridge which may well have been there since the 15th century. Today the whole area is owned by Severn Trent Water Authority, having passed through the hands of the Liverpool Corporation (which built Lake Vyrnwy, various Earls of Powis, and a few other private owners.

I can almost hear you ask "What is a hospitium". Well, even though they were sometimes hospitals, the name actually derives from their being hospices, the original meaning of which was 'places of refuge'. There were quite a few of us there today, 400 metres up, on top of a mountain. Its a bleak place, but a wondrous place. I do hope that we can find a way of persuading the trespassers to go elsewhere for their fun.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dragon's Eye tonight.

Must admit that I was disappointed by the Ieuan Wyn Jones interview on tonight's programme. I hadn't expected much though. There's cannot be much room for manoeuvre since the Assembly budget has already raided reserves as far as responsibility allows. Business experts, Brian Morgan and DJE were restrained but deeply critical of the longstanding 'freebie' driven policies of successive Assembly Governments. Putting electoral advantage before economic development carries a price which eventually has to be paid. But we are where we are. I really don't want to be too critical, because the problems are so large and there are no obvious answers.

The one surprise to me was IWJ'S statement that the Assembly Government is going to be giving Government owned land away for affordable housing. Not sure how this is going to work. The Government won't have any money to build houses itself on any significant scale. Are they really going to be giving land to the private sector to build affordable housing. Doubt it somehow. Looking forward to finding out more about this.

I enjoyed the evasive answers about the discussions that Ieuan has supposedly held with the Treasury about the Plaid election promise to cut Corporation Tax. His readjustment of words every time he answered a question on this suggested to me that no such discussions have taken place. Perhaps I'm wrong of course. I well recall Plaid Cymru running this line at the last Assembly Election. Thought it was disingenuous then - and nothings been said since to change that opinion.

The Miliband interview was worth watching, but only for the two withering looks he gave Adrian Masters when asked about his leadership ambitions. Its the look most people reserve for their shoe when they've trodden in something unpleasant.

Try sorting out the planning system Rhodri.

I watched Rhodri Morgan addressing the world's media (Well Lucy Owen of BBC Wales) earlier tonight. I'll watch him again on Dragon's Eye. The First Minister was informing the world what had been decided at today's Welsh Economic Summit, which had been called to discuss ways of putting the Welsh economy back into forward gear.

He told us that the National Assembly for Wales intends to pay its bills a bit quicker. Odd this. I seem to remember being told a few years ago that this was going to happen. He also told us that his Government intends to secure maximum benefit from European funding. Odd this too. Weren't we doing that yesterday! And then there's the creation of a 'forum' for banking and the financial sector. Fair enough. But what does Finance Wales do? Anyway its just the sort of thing that the WDA used to do so well - before the First Minister abolished it. Rhodri Morgan's Government is also going to co-operate closely with the other devolved Governments in Scotland and N Ireland - something else we all thought was already being done. This is all sensible stuff. Nothing wrong with it, but it hardly warrants the First Minister's hubristic statements, describing the summit as 'remarkable' and Wales as 'stepping up to the plate'.

The one feature of the 'communique' which did catch my approving eye was a commitment to bring forward Assembly construction programmes. This is interesting, but means nothing of course, unless its backed up by an increased budget. Must admit that I'm a touch surprised by this aspect of the package (but pleasantly so) because I thought that the budget cupboard was bare. This is a key area. I do think that freeing up opportunities for the construction industry could make a real difference. Which is why its so unacceptable that everyone involved in the construction process, certainly in Powys (and probably elsewhere) is tearing their hair out because of the problems faced in securing planning permission. I'm told that there are millions of pounds worth of construction just sitting in the 'in trays' of the Planning Department. I believe the construction industry is putting together a dossier of complaint with the intention of forwarding it to Ieuan Wyn Jones. Now this is an area where the summit, and future summits can make a real difference.

Come on the Reds.

Regular readers will know that this blog maintains a crusade against the horrid grey squirrel. I much prefer rats, which they resemble. The basis of my antipathy is the destruction that the greys inflict on what is the loveliest of all British wild creatures, the indescribably beautiful red squirrel. Now just look at this BBC video clip, and you will immediately feel the need to acquire a gun licence. You too will want to play your part in controlling these grey, pox-ridden vermin.

There is hope though. Today's Telegraph reports on page 10 that our red squirrels may be developing resistance to the squirrel pox virus, carried by the greys, which has wiped them out in most of Britain. Eight red squirrels have been found with antibodies, indicating that they have come into contact with the disease, and survived. First time this has happened. If this turns out to be true, my campaign to cull every grey squirrel in the United Kingdom will be replaced by a campaign for peaceful co-existence. Too early for a change of policy yet though.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rats and Cuts.

There are bound to be more rats in Powys next year. I've just been catching up on my emails, and came upon one from Darren Millar, Conservative AM for Clwyd West exposing to the world a massive increase in the number of rat and mice infestations over the last year. Almost incredibly, Darren tells us that there were 45,000 such incidents in Flintshire, Swansea and Cardiff alone last year. He puts the blame on Council cuts. Well, after today's National Assembly announcement of next year's grant to Local Authorities, there are going to be plenty more cuts - so plenty more rats.

The increase in the Powys grant is just 1.5%, the lowest in Wales for the second year running. This is bound to be lower than inflation, though we can only guess at what level inflation will be in 2008-09. Today, headline inflation is 5.2%, while real inflation for a rural authority like Powys, where food and fuel are such significant factors is probably about 10%. Some forecasters are suggesting that inflation may fall to about 1-2% next year. Anyway, it looks a really bum deal for Powys at the moment. Looks as if we're in for more cuts - more school closures, less bus services, more rats and less street lighting. At least we will not be able to see the extra rats if all the street lights are turned off. I'm told that councillors are going to be cutting themselves as well - from 73 down to anything from 50-60. That should save a bit, unless its used as an excuse to raise the pay of those left - because of the extra workload you understand.

Now back to these extra rats. Perhaps we should promote 'ratting' as a new 'country sport'. When I was a young lad on the farm, 'ratting' was common. Usually we used air guns and catapults. But we did employ some seriously uncivilised, dirty tricks as well. In those days cattle feed was not stored in rat proof bins, but just dumped in sheds. Booby traps were set. Every orifice but one of the store was securely blocked - and the idea was to sneak up as silently as a barn owl on the hunt, and block the one remaining escape route - before turning on the lights and creating a mass rat panic. There could be 100 of them, which were dispatched by young men armed with hockey sticks and rounders bats. And I knew one man named Monty, (whose wife I saw at last nights Royal Navy Presentation), who used to stick his hand down rat holes and pull them out. His party trick was to hurl them at the ceiling, so that there still writhing bodies would drop on the heads of unsuspecting neighbours. Hard to believe today. I'm told that rats are an increasingly popular and lovable pet.

My Day at a Care Conference.

I find day visits to Cardiff a bit of a trial. But this is the way it is, now that we've let our gorgeous flat in the Bay. But today's visit was really worth the trip. The Millennium Stadium was an exciting venue in which to hold the Annual Care Conference for Wales 2008. This subject area is a big interest since I became involved with care provider, EuropeanCare, and an Oxford based 'not for profit' research operation named RESEC (Research into Specialist Elderly Care). RESEC Cymru is a spin off. There were some big hitters in the Welsh 'Care' field on the platform. Learned a lot about the Commissioner for Older People in Wales, and about the regulation of care systems.

The lunchtime session on Care Villages was particularly good. In Room 28 with photographs of Triple Crown winners plastered all over the walls. The idea is that people reaching 'downsizing' age move into a 'village' environment, leasing a two bedroom property, and accessing a range of facilities supported by a service charge - on the same site as a hotel-style block which offers higher dependency care. I'm planning on a visit to the Gibraltar Care Village in Monmouth, at the invitation of session leader, Preyen Dewani.

There was a good session on the impact of the 'Credit Crunch'. Best question of the day was to Howard Crackle, speaking on behalf of The Royal Bank of Scotland. Would RBS be encouraged to lend more favourably to the care sector as a result of having new NEDs appointed by the Government, following this week's partial nationalisation of the banks. No, said Mr Crackle, but not because it would be a very dangerous precedent if banks were pressurised into lending more freely in support of policies favoured by the government of the day. His reason was that RBS is already the biggest lender to the care sector, and thus immune. Did strike me as the triumph of hope over reason. He added that he thought other banks would probably be so pressured. Hmmmm. No wonder Barclay's declined the Government's largess.

And now to read my Telegraph and emails in search of something bizarre to lighten the mood. Not many laughs around whenever I spend the day thinking about how we as a people treat our elderly - not many laughs but much satisfaction.

Where's my invite Toby?

How quickly they forget - these media types. I've looked on Toby Mason, ace political journalist from the totally independent and strictly impartial BBC Wales as a close friend, a sort of 'bosom buddy'. No way would I arrange a party to celebrate Barak Obama's victory in the US Presidential Election on Nov. 4th in Cardiff's Cameo Club without inviting Toby. It follows that I was 'deeply hurt' to note this invite on Guido's blog tonight. Perhaps Guido can get hold of the list of the close and privileged who are to be welcomed into Toby's celebratory embrace. That could be as illuminating as the invitation itself. I'm still upset though. Bet it'll be a good do.

Ah, but what's this? Who is this Alun Davies fellow whose name is joined with that of Toby on th einvitation. Could it be the Labour Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales. Perhaps its a Labour Party function. That would explain why I've been personally snubbed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Royal Navy in Welshpool

Just home from a 'presentation' by Commodore Jamie Miller and his team about what today's Royal Navy is and does. The event was in Welshpool Town Hall. There were over 100 of us there. When it was over, and questions were answered, Town Mayor, Councillor Anne Holloway asked me to propose the vote of thanks. It was an honour to do so.

I used not to really appreciate the commitment that the young men and women that join the armed forces make - until I went to the funeral of a young Welshpool soldier killed in Iraq. They put themselves in position where their lives are put at risk on behalf of me. Now that deserves my respect, and it was an honour to be allowed to say that in public tonight. I also said that it was important that our Government made the necessary investment in supporting those who join our armed forces. Tried hard not to make it sound partisan though.

Another reason why tonight in Welshpool Town Hall was special. There was a new lift in operation. But there were 'teething problems'. First time the lift hit the bottom, the door wouldn't open. 5 people stuck inside. Town Clerk was in a hell of a panic. Took a good ten minutes to get the door open out. Must have been quite frightening. Heard someone ask whether we'd seen Joan Collins in 'The Stud'. I didn't understand the point, but I think its a film about people being stuck in a lift.

There are also new men's toilets in the Town Hall. The little ante-room that gives access onto the outside balcony has been converted. At the next General Election, Montgomeryshire's new MP will have climb over the wash basins to reach the people waiting outside to hail him or her. Great care will have to be taken to avoid putting a foot in it, before starting the job.

Must say the Mayor cracked a decent joke as starting things off. After beginning with a comment about the inclement weather for the Royal Navy's visit, she added an aside that a bit of water would probably not bother them. Its all in the timing. All in all, a good night for Welshpool.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Facing up to Kieren

Back to my old school today. And to the Geography room in Caereinion High, where, many years ago, Mr Arthur Jones taught me about our continents and capital cities. I think I was one of his favourites. This time I was facing the Lower Sixth, who are studying the Welsh Baccalaureate which involves an introduction to politics. Sian Hughes, the teacher in charge, and Deputy Head I think, decided they should see a real life specimen who participated in this strange practise of politics. This is where I came in.

Amongst other things, I tried to explain the Legislative Competence Order system to the 40 students seated before me. Not sure whether they thought this system impossible to comprehend, understood it but thought it a crazy way to make law, or thought I was making the whole thing up. If only the latter were true.

Had all sorts of questions. One about the doubting of street lights in Llanfair Town, which is to take place this very evening. As we speak, Watergate Street is in darkness for the first time for many decades. I joined local councillor, Viola Evans for tea afterwards. She told me that Llanfair was the first town in Montgomeryshire to have street lights. When I was a pupil at Llanfair School (which is what we called it then) we had a ditty for uncleaned shoes.
"His shoes, they shine like Llanfair, and Llanfair shines like s***".
Don't know the history of this. But from now on she's not going to shine at all. Collette Hume of the BBC was in town, preparing a clip to go out tomorrow night. Powys County Council had tried to keep this quiet, but Viola and her followers gatecrashed the party. Bet Collette pretends that they weren't there.

Another question was whether I thought any politician knew how to resolve the current crisis in the financial world. I didn't lie. I don't think any of us can be sure where its going. I never thought I'd see the day when most the world's banking system was nationalised. I told them to expect rapidly rising employment, rising taxes and cuts in public services. And then Kieren asked me if I liked Lembit Opik. I said I did, but that we had a very different approach to politics. Kieren seemed to get into his stride then, and was up for a political argument. Not sure that the Welsh Bac is about that, so I didn't bite. He's clearly one to keep an eye on though.

It was the last 5 minutes that worked for me. That's when we started to bridge the disconnect. It was Kieren again. He could not believe that I'm a local farmer. He imagined that because I'm a politician, I'm not as he is. But I am. That's the point. If young people are going to be tempted to vote, those who want their votes must satisfy the test that they are one of them. It was an hour and a half that I really enjoyed.

UPDATE - Its BBC across the UK! At last Powys is on the map.

Appalling Behaviour

Lib Dem Assembly Member and fellow blogger Peter Black is a cool headed man. I'd never describe him as hyper-sensitive. Always thought it would take a bit to upset him. But it seems that Mr Lembit Opik, MP for Montgomeryshire upset him over the weekend. Peter informs us on his blog today that he is supporting Baroness Ros Scott as his choice to becomePresident of the Liberal Democrats. He assures us that this is nothing whatsoever to do with

"Lembit's attitude and demeaner in Welsh Party Conference yesterday, which in my view was appalling".

Wow. Ouch. Understandably, we all want to know what had taken place. Alas, Peter is not prepared to say more than that

"in a private conversation towards me, he was hostile and aggressive, whilst I did not like the tone of some of his speeches. I also dislike his attitude towards the Welsh Party."

Wow again. Ouch again. Just thought I'd share it with you. Wouldn't want you to miss it.

Special Day at Portmeirion.

No blogging yesterday. Left early for Portmeirion, William Clough-Elis's Italianate fantasia built on the estuary of the Dwyryd River, near Porthmadog, in North Wales. Portmeirion is one man's dream, inspired by his love for the Italian village of Portofino and all things Mediterranean, turned into reality. Today, the planning authorities would laugh such a development out of court - as might organisations committed to the protection of rural Wales. Is best known across the world for its role as the film set for 'The Prisoner', and the world famous china which takes its name.

I was there for a birthday party. This year, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales is 80 years old. William Clough-Elis was one of the original founders. Second day in a row we arrive to the clink and sparkle of champagne. And then it was to lunch. To my left was Derec Llwyd Morgan, former lots of important Welsh things in the academic and cultural world. He delivered the first Sir Kyffin Williams memorial lecture. Sir Kyffin left a lot of money in his will to CPRW - because he loved the landscapes he painted. And seated to Derec's left was Lord Elis Thomas, Presiding Officer of the National Assembly for Wales, another great man of Welsh culture. He delivered a tribute in memory of the much loved Merfyn Williams, former director of CPRW, who died recently. Didn't know until Dafydd El told us that Merfyn was, in his day, an uncompromising wing forward. I knew he was a good man.

To my right was one of the world's greatest opera singers, Bryn Terfyl. He had agreed to unveil our birthday plaque. Photograph's to follow. Bryn is a giant of a Welshman, in so many ways. Despite his world renown, I suspect that he's hardly changed at all since he began singing in the local eisteddfodau in Caernarfon. Suspect only because I didn't know him then. The CPRW feel incredibly fortunate that Bryn has agreed to become a patron. Only downside of his presence was that he ran me a long way in the promise auction as I sought to acquire a Bill Swann work of art that Mrs D had set her heart on. More likely, he knew its value and enjoyed forcing me to pay a decent price.

Stayed overnight in the Portmeirion Hotel, built in the 1850s, and once been known as 'Aber Ia', Welsh for 'Ice Estuary'. Walked around the 'village' this morning and bought the Daily Telegraph from a little shop. Portmeirion is the maddest creation that I've ever seen.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day at the races.

Now I understand. All of my life I've wondered what madness gene makes normally sane people risk hard earned money betting on the horses. Biggest such bet I've ever been guilty of is a pound on the Grand National in the family sweepstake. Until today. Mrs D and I were invited to a birthday party in a hospitality suite at Chepstow Races. A new window on the world has been opened up before us.

The big moral issue facing me was how to square my detestation of gambling. We decided on a business plan - with sufficient degree of flexibility to accommodate the anticipated degree of unpredictability. I didn't want to look like a vegetarian at a barbecue - fanning the flames of guilt in others by the light of my righteousness. So we decided to set aside £100 of stake money - what Gordon Brown would call investment. And luckily there was champagne to start the day. Good job I'm not yet an MP or the champagne would be a no-no. Only hair shirts and funereal expressions til the financial crisis is over.

First race, and we decided to go down to the rows of bookmakers at the edge of the course. We chose 'Martin Davies'. After all, there was more chance of him being family than any of the others. We started big and put £20 on - £10 each as £5 each way bets. I had Seymar Lad at 6-1. Walked back up to the suite. When the race started, Seymar Lad had shortened to 4-1 favourite. I felt like a kid as my horse hit the front with two furlongs to go and won by two lengths. £46. It felt like my first bit of pocket money all those years ago. So we stuck with the £5 each way formula. And then I won the third race Warsaw Pact at about 15-1. £78. Like shelling peas. Better than working I thought. And so it went on.

When it was all over, we calculated our budget for the day. We had laid out £140 on the 7 races - and had won £140 between us. Perfect. Our day at the races had not cost us any hard earned cash. And no profit to lead us astray into the desperate downward spiral that would have opened up before us if Bushy Island had just managed to win the last race. The reason I've prattled on a bit has been to avoid having time to post on all the juicy bits of gossip that was floating around the room by the time we left. Bed early tonight. Totally exhausted from all the nervous tension of the day. Don't know whether I will ever feel strong enough to do it again. Wonder when the next Chepstow meet is.

Changes at the Assembly

Just catching up on today's news, and read of two items of news from the Assembly, one pleasing to my eye, and one not.

Not pleased to see Jane Davidson announcing that she's standing down in 2011. She is a competent Minister with a genuine commitment to the environment. Its always a bit cheeky for a politician to create 'competence lists' of opposing party's representatives. But I'm cheeky like that. I never held back from declaring my opinion that Sue Essex was the best Labour AM by a mile (in my opinion that is). After that there are a few others that I reckoned were well up the all-party competence list. Jane was one of them. I hope she's got something else in mind. Perhaps she's going to the Lords to become a duchess.

I was pleased to see Mike German finally announce that he's relinquishing his grip on the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in Wales. Pleased I was nowhere near when it happened. I hate the sound of fingernails scratching the floor as a reluctant human body is dragged kicking and screaming out through the door by his bootlaces. And there's going to be a contest. Jenny Randerson is taking on Ms Williams from Brecon and Radnorshire. In my opinion, Jenny is another high up on the all party competence list. It looks as if Peter Black doesn't agree. He dismisses Jenny in a rather contemptuous way as just 'more of the same'. I suppose he's got more rights that me to have an opinion on this. Lets just hope its a brutal bloodthirsty battle. Just imagine if AMs had the same sort of Communications Allowance' as MPs. They could both spend thousands of taxpayers money posting out the same sort of glossy self promotion that Lembit Opik is currently doing in Montgomeryshire. Just thought I'd mention it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Day by the Seaside.

Been up to Llandudno today. Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) Annual Conference. I was participating in a panel discussion about blogs, and their influence with Peter Black AM and Lee Waters, Chief Executive of Sustrans, who used to do a bit of blogging himself. Lee made a very good opening speech. Any representative of a political constituency association who happened to be there would have been very impressed! It was all the talk over lunch. Rhun ap Iorwerth of BBC fame chaired the session.

Attending these local council events is a bit like going home for me. Stuffed full of people I know and like, but rarely see. Wyn Evans from Carmarthen, Keith Evans from Ceredigion, Janet Finch-Saunders from Conwy, Bob Parry from Ynys Mon etc. - and a whole tableful from Powys. Stephen Hayes from Montgomery asked Andrew Davies a cracking question about the non-recognition of Mid Wales.

Seemed to be two discussions going on, the first being the fall-out from the Icelandic investments that may never be repaid. Paul Murphy was at the Conference, informing us that since Local Government is devolved, compensation is down to the National Assembly. He was sitting next to Assembly Government Finance Minister, Andrew Davies when he said it. Must have come as a bit of a surprise to Andrew, since I understand he told AMs this week that the Treasury would pick up the tab. I think some councillors were under the impression that Gordon Brown has declared war on Iceland and is treating Icelandic nationals as terrorists. I told them that I didn't think this was true. A lot of tosh being talked about these losses (if that's what they be) having no effect on public serevices or council tax. £4 million in Powys! Of course there'll be an impact. Only question is when it will be felt.

Sir Emyr Jones-Parry, Paul Murphy, and Dafydd Elis Thomas were the panel for an earlier session. Pity I missed it. I'd have enjoyed the squirming. Here we have one of the most able former diplomats in the world, trying to make out that his current non-job is of some significance to the future governance of Wales. I wonder whether Dafydd El or Paul Murphy said they favoured a referendum. Doubt it. I hope Sir Emyr realises what his role is - to create the pretext on which the Assembly Coalition partners can renege on their referendum promise.

I was interested in Lee Water's opinion that the 'Rainbow' coalition is back on the agenda. He reckons that the Assembly Coalition won't survive the retirement of Rhodri Morgan. Personally I think this is unlikely until 2011, but I've always thought it a possibility. Won't happen until the General election is out of the way. Will keep an eye on this. Smart boy, that Lee Waters. Will go far.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Return of Dragon's Eye

Dragon's Eye back with Adrian Masters, a man of gentle demeanor and a probing inquisitor in the Vaughan Roderick mould. Looking forward to seeing him bare his dragon's teeth during the series. Hope its not me or my party he's sinking them into.

To start the new series off, who else but Lord Elis Thomas, Presiding Officer of the National Assembly. He dismissed the two twentieth century Prince of Wales investitures as political stunts, and compared these great historical events with a Royal day at the races. Hard for me to judge, because I've never been to a race meeting. Coincidentally, I'm putting that right on Saturday, when we go to Chepstow Races for a birthday party. Perhaps we had better wear clothes suitable for attending an investiture.

Next up was the impact of the failure of Icelandic banks on councils and other public bodies in Wales. Huge issue - but nothing new. Paul Murphy was on, and he had nothing to say of any significance. Its difficult to find a Welsh angle, when an issue has been all over the network news throughout the day.

And finally there was the row about a 'Team GB' football team in the London Olympics. Nothing new here either. The British Olympic Committee are committed to a GB team, while no-one in Wales wants one. We knew that. Now if Seb Coe had been on, and been asked about what he said when told that we Welsh didn't like the idea, it would have been far more interesting.

How to save £1

This week's Montgomeryshire County Times reports that Powys County Council has decided to withdraw the senior railcard - with immediate effect. Mr Kit Davidson of Llanfyllin will be the last recipient. B*****. About three months ago I collected a concessionary railcard for the first time, and used it just once before I lost it. My fault - so the Council wouldn't supply me with a replacement. While I was in possession, I bought a rail ticket from Newport to Cardiff for £2, instead of the normal price of £3. That was it. Saved myself one pound - enough for a cappuccino at Morrison's!

I understand that the Executive Board found some difficulty dealing with the issue. I understand that there was some embarrassment amongst the councillors about who could vote. I'm told that lady councillors were not keen on admitting whether they had reached the age at which they had to declare a pecuniary interest.

The pragmatic politics of wind.

I suppose you could accuse me of supping with the devil. But I rather enjoy the company of this particular 'devil'. He's the 'representative' of a foreign renewable energy business, which is particularly active in Wales - and today, at the Old Station Restaurant in Welshpool, we supped and chatted in highly convivial fashion for over an hour.

Now you might ask what on earth I'm doing engrossed in such deep discussion when I'm very much on the record as seriously unconvinced by the Assembly Government's policy of promoting wind farms. My negativity towards wind farms was a feature of my stint as Conservative spokesman in the National Assembly on environment matters - and is also a feature of my current stint as President of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW). Its all to do with my preparedness to accommodate reality. This is always a tricky business.

I've often recited on this blog that I was opposed to the establishment of the National Assembly. But immediately the decision to create it was irreversible, I turned my attention to what sort of Assembly was best for Wales. Similarly, the decision to drive on full speed with onshore wind farms has been taken by the Assembly Government. I don't like it. But I want to have some influence on how this policy is implemented. Development of wind farms is going to be very significant in Montgomeryshire over the next five years. I have no doubt that the Minister is going to greatly increase the target output from each of the identified SSAs (Strategic Search Areas). Parts of our landscape will be dramatically changed. I really don't think any political candidate can do other than try to limit the damage and maximise the community benefit. Wind farms have to be located on the least damaging sites, and the developers must be forced to provide as much community support as possible to compensate for the imposition of turbines. (reparations of a sort, I suppose). Call it supping with the devil if you like, but to me its pragmatic politics. Pass the long spoon.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Are we Dancing on the head of a pin?

I had decided not to blog yet again on the possibility of a referendum on law making powers for the National Assembly for Wales. But the subject is of passionate interest to me. I promise that this is definitely the last time (until the next time that is). I begin by stating that I have absolutely no idea what is in the 'Roberts Report'. I'm not even any longer totally certain about what I want to be in it. I do know what I want as a final objective in the constitutional position of Wales (until there's another final objective of course!) I want to see a National Assembly with law making powers in all devolved matters. What I'm not so sure about is the best way to reach it. Because the context is constantly changing, I find my personal judgements shifting as well. From my perspective, it looks a very difficult ask for David Cameron to come up with a policy that does not have a degree of flexibility built into it.

Lets look at the alternatives (and again I emphasise that I've no idea what's in the Robert's Report.) Or more accurately, the realistic alternatives. I do not think rowing back from the current Government of Wales Act is realistic. There may well be individuals who favour this, but the only reference to a referendum which would precede change that I've seen, assume that a No vote would mean retaining the status quo. This involves the transfer of power from Westminster to the National Assembly for Wales by means of Legislative Competence Orders. Horribly complex, but likely to accelerate over the next few years.

The only other alternative I believe is realistic is transfer of law making power over all devolved matters in one go - following approval by referendum and passage through the both Houses of Parliament. I have seen reference to transfer of law making powers in respect of matters not currently devolved. This seems to me to be a separate issue. And in any case extension of the list of devolved matters can be achieved by the LCO process - so for the purposes of this post, this aspect of the debate should be ignored.

It seems to me that what we are disagreeing about, at the realistic level, amounts to little more that a question of timing. And how big an issue is that? For quite a while I've been predicting that it will be those opposed to transfer of law making powers who will be calling loudest for a referendum. Those who favour full law making power in all devolved matters are beginning to realise that their objective might be more certainly achieved by not holding any referendum at all. When the Government does not give any leadership, the vacuum creates a changing context. Which is why I'm deeply grateful that I don't have to decide on a long term policy myself.

Welcome Back, David Hunt.

In Wales we know Lord Hunt of the Wirral very well indeed. As David Hunt, he was Secretary of State for Wales for three years - and in my opinion, a very good one. Although he did not represent a Welsh constituency, the Wirral is pretty damn close. The whiff of muckspreaders in action on the Wirral can be detected in North East Wales when the wind is from the East. He's also a genuinely nice man, and he's been a good and loyal friend to me. David is living proof that politicians can be really good guys.

In John Major's government, he was recognised as a man to sort out a problem. Sometimes he was referred to 'Minister for Banana Skins' because of this reputation. He's been given a new challenge by David Cameron - shadowing the 'soon to be ennobled' Lord Peter Mandelson in the House of Lords. He will not be able to spend as much time in his role as Chair of Beachcroft LLP.

David has another contemporary link with Wales - Michael McManus, who has assisted Lord Roberts of Conwy to write the report on the future of Conservative policy in respect of devolution. Michael is another 'good guy'. He was a special advisor to David Hunt when he was Secretary of State for Wales, and still works in the same building - at least he did when I joined him for tea and a chat a few weeks back. This blog wishes David Hunt good luck in his new role.

Icelandic shock for our Councils.

Yesterday, I posted about the possible impact of the financial difficulties being experienced by Iceland's banks on local authorities. I did know of one council with high exposure, but did not want to name it. But I did expect the media to ask various Councils what the position is. It seems that its much, much worse than I thought - or could possibly have imagined. This afternoon, the Conservative Party issued a press release which outlined the impact in the London area - around £140 million at risk. Tomorrow, both the BBC and the Montgomeryshire County Times will be outlining the details of how the crisis effects Powys County Council. I will leave them to divulge the details, which were issued by the Council's Press Office earlier today. It's truly frightening.

I have no criticism of the council's involved. Until the day before yesterday, there was no reason to suspect a problem. The Icelandic banks had been offering a slightly better return, and Councils have been encouraged to secure best value on their temporary investments. But it all changed yesterday morning. Its clear that the highly leveraged Icelandic banks are in big trouble. Two have already been nationalised, including Landsbanki, which I understand has a lot of UK investment. And it seems that the Icelandic Government is favouring the deposits of Icelandic nationals over foreign investors. This equals major problem.

This is a massive issue. We are talking many millions of pounds. Councils must be extremely nervous about the possible implications for local services and Council taxpayers. I do hope there will be a quick response by Government to put our councils and taxpayers mind at rest - like tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Pontrobert Friendly Club

This is a post for the Montgomeryshire village of Pontrobert.
When I was a pupil of Llanfair Caereinion High School, I often went by school bus to stay with my Nain and Taid, who lived near Pontrobert (at No 1 Tan-y ffridd cottages). Taid was the local road man. I've got a soft spot for the small village. Not so small these days. There's been lots of new houses built. Anyway I was there this afternoon.

I enjoy comparatively small local events. Today it was a meeting of Pontrobert Friendly Club, about 40 ish over-60s, just out for a get to-gether, celebrating an award of £850 (I think). My photograph is of Powys Council Chair, Viola Evans, the Club Chairman, Ken Tatlow and the 'person-in-charge' (secretary I think), Rita Evans, who is a relative of mine. Pontrobert is a very active community, with strong Merched Y Wawr and Age Concern groups as well. The former came on a trip around our garden earlier this year.

One lady I met was named Gloria Freeman, who has moved to Pontrobert from Nottingham. When she was a young girl named Gloria Chambers she attended the Albert St School, and shared a desk with Ken Clarke. She tells me that he was very studious, and they all expected him to go a long way. They were right. I promised to get in touch with Gloria if Ken makes another visit to Montgomeryshire. Small world.

The impact of Icelandic meltdown.

I take a bit of an interest in Iceland, ever since we spent a very enjoyable holiday in Reykjavik a few years back. Its wet. Its also incredibly interesting. The geological features are like nothing I've seen before. It was fascinating to stand beside Stokkur, a geyser which erupts to a height of anything up to 75 feet approx every 5 minutes - and see the Mid Atlantic Ridge, where the recent movements of tectonic plates are visible on the land surface. I really loved watching the puffins when we were out whale watching - and ate some of them for dinner.

We saw many dolphins, playing hide and seek under our boat when we were out in the Atlantic, and shy porpoises and distant whales. Speaking of Wales, and after reading today's stories of economic meltdown of the Iceland economy started me thinking what this would mean if it happened to us in the UK. And then to thinking what impact the collapse of Icelandic banks might have on Wales. Well, none you would think. But that's not what I'm hearing. I'm told that these banks have been offering attractive terms for the temporary deposit of spare funds, and that some Welsh councils have several million invested with Iceland's beleaguered banks. Yesterday, this money was cast iron safe. It doesn't look so safe today. It really would be interesting to know just how much money is involved. There is also very good salmon fishing in Iceland. And the Icelandic Horse is a popular export. It has a unique gait. But it will take a lot of fishermen and horse buyers to put the Icelandic economy back together.

Edna wants a ticket.

Regular visitors will know that a part-time agency cleaner named Edna Mopbucket has taken to telephoning me with bits of gossip. Its not always coincidence that she happens to be in the right place at the right time. Occasionally, I suggest where she might hear something of note, and she has a word with her boss to arrange it.

Yesterday, at my suggestion, she arranged to be cleaning somewhere near the room where the Conservative Assembly Group will be holding their 'annual meeting'. According to David Williamson in the Western Mail, there could be an attempt to oust William Graham from his position as Chair of the Group. David seems to think there is a split in the Group - and William is a bit miffed that we all know that this little set-to is taking place at all. He doesn't seem to realise that this is just the sort of gossipy thing that generates some public interest in Assembly politics. A bit of division never did any harm. Disagreement and democracy are healthy, if they can be managed without blood on the carpet. I still think the leadership contest between David Davis and David Cameron brought great benefit to the Conservative Party - not that I would put the bout between William and Paul Davies quite in this bracket.

Problem for Edna will be the high levels of security being deployed to stop her listening in. She tells me that the Group's 'bouncer', Paul Morris is being put on guard, and that keyholes are going to be taped over. Wouldn't surprise me if the venue is changed at the last minute, or the vote is deferred to a time when there is no danger of Edna listening in. As I said immediately before my cataract operation three years ago "We shall see".

UPDATE - Its clear that there was so much concern about Edna listening in that a compromise was reached beforehand to avoid and discussion leaking out.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tasers and teasers.

The Western Mail and the BBC have reported on how the police have turned their heavy artillery on a runaway ram in North Wales. At first the headline led me to think that a rugby playing bank manager I used to know from Colwyn Bay had finally been caught - this time fleeing the bed of an armed policeman's wife. But No. It seems that North Wales Police have come up with an alternative past-time to paint-balling - shooting sheep with taser guns. Unlike David Davies MP and North Wales Chief Constable, Richard Brunstom, I have never been tasered, so I don't know how cruel it is. But I do recall sheep handlers being banned from using little electrified 'encouragement sticks' some years ago. So I suspect sheep-tasering won't catch on in a big way.

And that's good news for the lady sheep of North Wales. There would be terrible confusion on the hills if there were both 'taser rams' and 'teaser rams' running around. I should explain for the benefit of the non-shepherds that visit this blog what a 'teaser ram' is. Its a sort of vasectomised ram, which is introduced to the ladies in the run-up to what we sheep farmers know as the 'tupping season' - to 'get them in the mood'. On the appointed day (on my farm it was October 12th), when the ladies have reached the zenith of their preparedness, the real men take over. The non-countryman would be shocked by such promiscuity. A fully charged up (especially if tasered) healthy young Welsh ram can account for dozens of ladies in a single day. Its amazing. The purpose of this practice is to shorten the lambing season in 5 months time, saving the shepherd both time and money.

Grasses in variety

Weather's been unfriendly for gardening over the last few weeks. But its been terrific for gardens and plants that like a drop of water. And grasses like water. We grow a huge range. Today, I've showing off some of the miscanthus - which comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. I'm not sure of the Latin names, but this one is about 3/4 feet tall. We must have ten similar types to this.
This variagated miscanthus (almost white) is around 8 feet tall, just a foot or so shy of the similarly coloured arunda that we grow. Its seems bigger because it spreads more, and is stronger. Judge its size in comparison with the commonly grown purple Verbena bonariensis in the same photograph.Probably the best miscanthus that we grow.
This is a baby of the family, growing no more than 2 feet tall. Its a great 'front of border' grass, and so easy to grow. It will look good until I cut it down to ground level in March.
And finally to the old favourite, miscanthus zebrinus - so named because of its laterally striped leaves. You can buy a zebrinus in nana form these days, which makes a plant more suitable for a smaller garden than ours. But this plant grows big - about 6 feet in height and as much in spread. Its a lovely grass, spoiled only by its ubiquitousness.