Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Newtown Traffic Problems.

Most weeks I drive from Montgomeryshire, straight into the the Houses of Parliament. It usually takes an hour from Heathrow to the underground Car Park, where Guy Fawkes planned to start his little conflagration. The traffic can be dire. But nothing like as bad as it can be in Newtown in my constituency. The Newtown traffic problems are akin to those between Tokyo and its airport. So I asked for a meeting with Ieuan Wyn Jones, Deputy First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales, who also has responsibility for transport to discuss them.

Well, today the Deputy First Minister granted me an audience. It was a good meeting. I wish to share with you the position of the Assembly Government (at least the IWJ part of it) on the two issues of greatest importance. Firstly there is the mind blowing inefficiency of the current McDonald's traffic lights. I used to refer to them as the Tesco lights, but thought I should share the pain around. IWJ, supported by his transport advisory team, told me that immediate steps would be taken to improve the efficiency and if this failed, consideration would be given to re-instating the roundabout. The most incredible 'horlicks' was made when these lights were installed, but this is as good a response as I could hope for.

The second issue under discussion was the much talked about Newtown By-pass. All sorts of stories have been floating around. Well, it seems that 'stories' they are. The position is that unless (and this is a big 'unless) there are unforeseen delays in the relevant statutory processes, it's intended to start building the Newtown By-pass in 2013, and finish it in 2014. OK, so none of like delays of any sort, but I'll take 2014. Only three more years of travelling to Newtown via Bettws!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Poor Man's Parliament

First visit to the London Welsh Centre tonight. It's on Gray's Inn Road - a big place, without any 'posh' pretensions. Anyway, tonight it was the scene of a book launch - Poor Man's Parliament - Ten Years of the Welsh Assembly. The author is Martin Shipton, Wales' most incisive political journalist covering the period up to and following the 1997 referendum which presaged the creation of the National Assembly for Wales. The book has been published by SEREN, and cost £12.99. I don't know if this was a special 'launch price' but I did immediately devalue my copy by asking Martin to sign it!

Martin Shipton has written this book from a standpoint of great frustration. He was a supporter of devolution, but does not believe it has delivered for Wales. Like me he believes that what we voted for on March 3rd 2011 was what we thought we had voted for on Sept. 18th 1997. But he goes further than I do in describing the settlement on offer to voters in 1997 as a 'humiliation' for Wales. And Martin shares my view that the standard of debate and genuine engagement with the people of Wales as a political institution, rather than a 'cultural' one needs there to be some financial accountability.

My advice is to go out and buy it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

400kv cable will be Montgomeryshire people's 'Tryweryn'.

Spent two hours today at an exhibition by National Grid and SP Networks of their proposals to construct the infrastructure needed to transfer power from the proposed wind farms in Mid Wales (mostly Montgomeryshire) to the existing Grid. They involve a 20 acre substation (Abermule or Cefn Coch) and a 400kv cable from it to somewhere north of Shrewsbury on 150' high steel towers (with the possibility of part being undergrounded. Plus various 132kv lines from the wind farms to the substation. Quite an event. Probably about 1000 people turned up. Everyone is very worried - and rightly so.

Posted on this before (ad nauseum), so will spare readers more of my outrage about the philisinic intentions of the politicians who gave National Grid and SP Network their instuctions. I'll just raise two questions in need of clarification, and one growing concern (with a bit of outrage creeping in!). Firstly, we need to know what role the County Council has played in selecting the two sites being placed before us today. We are being told that they have been chosen (and many others rejected) after much discussion between National Grid, SP Networks, the CCW and Powys Council (though not councillors). Is this true?

And secondly, there is the relationship with a Newtown Bypass. My understanding is that there is no relationship at all, but a counter view is circulating. Perhaps I'll be able to clear this up when I meet with Ieuan Wyn Jones next week to discuss Newtown's chronic traffic problems.

And finally, the growing concern. There were voices today which see the consultation as a battle between Abermule and Cefn Coch. This must not happen. We are in this together. When I'm asked where the substation should go, my answer is nowhere. The whole thing is completely mad. We must fight it to the bitter end, hoping that common sense will prevail. Abermule is a thriving community. The Vyrnwy Valley is one of the most beautiful in Britain. For the people of Montgomeryshire, it is our 'Tryweryn'. If this abomination goes ahead, the National Assembly for Wales will never be forgiven.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Libya, Japan and the Budget.

When was there last such a momentous time in UK (and connected) politics. 9/11 I suppose. Firstly, we have the reverberations of Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear 'incident' - as well as the associated loss of life and impact on the world's economy. Secondly we have a very important budget on Wednesday, the success of which is crucial for the long term health of our economy, our public services and 'place' in the world. And we have, in effect, gone to war with a North African country - though I think the proper term is something like 'international conflict' rather than 'war'.

Tomorrow, There will be a debate in the House of Commons relating to the UN Security Council resolution on Libya. Sending our young people into a conflict zone is a really big deal, and this could well have been the most important vote of my political career. And I'm not going to be there. I have an appointment to see Mr Trevedi at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital at Gobowen, which I dare not miss. He is a spinal expert, and my spine has been giving me some serious gyp for a while. Because 'Libya' is a difficult issue, I do not want to dodge the responsibility involved in committing myself publicly - so I'm writing this blog post. My constituents should know which way I would have voted. Despite concerns about 'mission creep' and some uncertainty about what I see as the specific objective, I would vote to take whatever action is needed to enforce UN Resolution 1973. It would be wrong for world powers to stand aside and allow Gadaffi and his evil regime to slaughter tens of thousands of innocent Libyans. I suppose I could get to Westminster by 8.30 if all goes to time - so I might even just make it to vote.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Madness of Turbines, Cables and Sub Stations.

Been catching up on the current state of play in the Assembly Government's plans to cover the hills of Montgomeryshire in wind turbines today. Reps of National Grid and SP Energy Networks called by my office to outline the awful options still on the table. They are all very nice people. But it was a bit like meeting your very nice doctor, who is also a friend, offering you the choice of ripping out your right eye or ripping out your left eye. There's no option of keeping both eyes - the Hospital Trust CEO has decided that your features must be desecrated. Anyway, this post is about the stage that these desecration plans have reached.

First issue is the location of the 20 acre sub station into which all the wind farms will connect. After months of discussion with statutory agencies (including Powys Council), there is a short list of two sites - one near Abermule and one near Bowen's Quarry in Adfa. It matters big-time which is chosen. If its Adfa, the 400kv cable carried on 50 metre high steel pylons will pass down the Vyrnwy Valley all the way from Adfa to connect with the Grid in Shropshire. If its Abermule, the cable will pass down the Severn Valley to Shropshire - or further South, with most of its length being the other side of Offa's Dyke. I'm told its a 50/50 call, and the consultation responses will make the difference.

Second big issue is how much of the cable will be 'undergrounded'. When I last met today's harbingers, there seemed little prospect of any of the cable going underground. The 'tone' has definitely changed, and we need to make a loud noise about this. Not that 'undergrounding' is undisruptive. Burying a 400kv cable makes a very big mess indeed - and its only likely in some places. Personally, I hope we can maximise it.

Third issue is the network of 132kv cables running from the various wind farms to the sub station. These are going to be carried on 25/30 metre high steel pylons. At present there seems little prospect of much of this network being buried underground, because its an upfront cost for the wind farm developer - which could render several of the wind farms uneconomic. "So bl****y what" I hear you scream - or was it me. Problem is that SP Energy have a statutory responsibility to the wind farm developers - and if some drop out, the cables could well have been built in the wrong place.

Fourth issue is the timetable. The plan is that the consultation period will end in early summer (June-ish) and the cruel, fateful axe will fall September-ish - announcing which valley in what is the most beautiful landscape of the UK will be desecrated for ever. My fingers twitch with barely controlled anger as I type these words. Hope does remain. Its all madness of course - the same sort of unseeing madness which created the much lauded tower blocks and coniferous forests of the 1960s. Let's hope that this blindness be cured, before we lose much of what the unafflicted lovers of Montgomeryshire, love to look out upon.

Pawb a'i Farn tonight.

Travelled up to Blaenau Ffestiniog tonight to appear on Pawb a'i Farn. Don't get much chance to use the Welsh Language at Westminster, and so was a bit tense about it. Felt a bit knackered as well. A head cold which has stopped me sleeping properly. Anyway, I set about preparing myself by stopping at the George 111, near Dolgellau. Nothing more than to talk to myself in Welsh about nuclear power and Libya, two subjects that were bound to be on the agenda. What a wonderful place the George 111 is. Just sitting quietly looking out over the Mawddach Estuary, glass of wine in hand, mountains all around, watching amorous swans participating in essential preliminaries to spring lovemaking. Wales at its glorious best. A place where memories are made.

I was wrong about Libya being an issue. Surprising, since we were contemplating declaring war while the programme was being broadcast. Personally, I think that current events in North Africa and the Middle East are hugely important to our world. But we did talk of nuclear power. Must admit to much ambivalence about this issue. I was a long standing opponent until about 6 years ago, when as Chair of the relevant National Assembly committee I was obliged to become involved in discussion about the disposal of radioactive waste. During discussion it dawned on me that we no longer have any option. Because previous Government's have refused to take seriously the approaching 'energy gap' the only technology which can deliver in the short term is nuclear. Except coal of course, but carbon emission targets rule that out. Surprisingly, almost the whole audience was supportive of nuclear. I suppose that the local economy has crashed since Trawsfynnydd was closed - and not far away, the economy of Ynys Mon depends on Wylfa 'B' going ahead. Dewi Llwyd pushed Elfyn Llwyd and me (the two politicians on the panel) about whether we were in favour of building new nuclear power stations. Both of us would probably have preferred not to be asked. I said 'Yes' but I'm not sure what Elfyn said.

As driving home, listening to Radio 5, I was amazed to hear the tragedy in Japan had been relegated to a distant second place in the news headlines. If UK and French planes go into combat tomorrow, it will be difficult to find news of Fukushima anywhere. "Events dear boy, events".

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Politics Show today

Down in Cardiff today, for the Politics Show. Wasn't sure what to expect. Would Aled ap Dafydd have recovered from his recent 'savaging' at the hands of the Coco Pops kid, Leighton Andrews, Assembly Government Minister for Education. In what I thought looked like a premeditated attack, he described Aled as 'stuck up', middle classed and a disgrace to the BBC. I particularly enjoyed the 'middle class' bit! Turned out to be almost a 10 minute 'one to one' slot - and very civil. It must have been the muesli I'd eaten, instead of Coco Pops. But let's consider some of the issues we discussed.

There's the matter of what the Wales Office does. For some reason a few think that all the Wales Office does is deal with the Legislative Competence Orders that will be no more (thankfully). Just not true. Government departments do not operate in silos, thinking only about their direct responsibilities. It's nothing like that in practice. Every member of the Cabinet contributes to and takes responsibility for all Cabinet decisions. David Cameron has always greatly valued a Welsh 'voice' at the Cabinet table. I approve of that. And there are many issues with a major impact on Wales, where direct responsibility lies in other departments. Its crucial that the Wales Office has an active involvement - transport/electrification; DCMS/S4C; defence/St Athan, etc.. Why on earth anyone would not want a Wales Office involvement in these issues is beyond my understanding.

Second issue was where we go now with the devolution process. Seems there's a bit of resistance to the idea of 'financial accountability'. UK Coalition Government policy, now that the referendum is over, is to establish a commission to look at how the Assembly can move on from just being a body which decides spending priorities - and how the 'trade-offs' between spending and tax raising, (which even Town and Community Councils have), might be devolved to Cardiff Bay. Governing means making tough choices and taking hard decisions. I think all groups in the National Assembly (I could be wrong here) established the Holtham Commission to consider 'accountability', alongside 'fairness' in funding. Quite a bit of work has already been done on the 'fairness' agenda (fair for or England and Wales) - even if action is on hold until the UK public finances are stronger. Even Gerald Holtham recognised 'fairness' reform to be a 'medium term' issue, which is why an interim measure is being considered (the Holtham Floor). Seems to me that we need to begin the process of thinking about 'financial accountability' as well. Anyway, Aled and I just talked around this important issue. I don't expect much progress until post Assembly election.

Finally, he asked me what law I would like to see the Assembly pass, using its newly acquired powers. I opted out of answering. An overriding objective for me is to strive for a good working relationship between the Governments at Westminster and in Cardiff Bay. It would not help at all if I start trying to tell the Assembly Government what to do. Both sides of the M4 should always have mutual respect in mind. Both sides should try to do its own job as effectively as possible, and try not to interfere in the other's responsibilities. At least, that's my opinion.

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good interview. Didn't drop any clangers, and stayed on friendly terms with Aled. And nobody's complained since.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Deepcut Re-visited.

I recently met Mr Des James of Llanymynech for the first time. Mr James is the father of Cheryl James, who was one of the four young soldiers who died at Deepcut Barracks 16 years ago in 'unclear' circumstances. Mr James is also one of my constituents. We met at the Ministry of Defence, where I accompanied him at a meeting with the Armed Forces Minister, Nick Harvey. I cannot divulge anything of what was said at our long meeting, except that I was deeply impressed by the passion and belief evident in Des James' presentation of his concerns about the circumstances surrounding his daughter's death..

But I can comment on today's BBC high profile coverage of a report by Devon and Cornwall Police about their investigation into the way Surrey Police dealt with the deaths of the four young people at Deepcut barracks. Its deeply concerning. The report said (according to the BBC) that Surrey Police did not properly consider a list of hypothetical suspects, even though they claimed to have considered all possibilities for the deaths. The review believes (again according to the BBC) that insufficient investigative work took place to identify an unknown male who could have been responsible for Cheryl's death. And a recently retired detective from the Surrey Force is reported to have said " the time there was another clear message from above 'These were suicides weren't they, and that is where you are going to end up, and that's what you will end up proving."

It is absolutely no surprise to me that Mr Des James is calling for a public enquiry.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Wales Office - our voice in Westminster.

You have to admire him. The great Machiavellian Lord of Meirionydd that is. Whenever he feels a bit bored, he just puts a call into the BBC, tells them he wants to say something significant - and 'Bob's your Uncle' he's starring on the Politics Show. Despite his 'significant something' being no more than a re-hash of what he's said before - and blatant propaganda for Plaid Cymru, his own political party, during the run up to an Assembly election. Lord Elis Thomas plays the BBC as if it's his own personal Stradivarius. Mind you, I can't complain, because it nets me a 'slot' on Post Cynta tomorrow morning to comment on his comments. That's the way it works - like a circular firing squad.

Lets consider what his Lordship told the viewers he wants. Seems he thinks an appropriate response to this week's Yes vote is to abolish the Wales Office, including any ministers at Westminster responsible for Wales. Since he's a member of a political party that wants an 'independent' Wales, this should come as no surprise to anyone. This will happen if and when a majority of the Welsh people support it. But personally, I think it would be most unwise to set aside Welsh interests in favour of a political agenda, which around 15% of the Welsh people support. I see the Wales Office as the 'Voice of Wales at Westminster and the voice of Westminster in Wales'. Scrapping the Wales Office would be more self-destructive than when the WRU sacked Mike Ruddock.

None of the above either surprised or bothered me. But two of his 'opinions' did. Firstly, he gave credit for the announcement about the electrification of the Great Western Line into Cardiff, and the reduction in train journey time to Swansea to everyone except the Secretary of State for Wales. And the second irritating comment was that the Secretary of State delivered this week's referendum because she had "no choice". On both issues he was just plain wrong. On the second issue, let's look at the facts. It was AMs who left the decision to ask for the referendum until so late in the political cycle that it took a mighty commitment by Cheryl Gillan to deliver it before May 2011. So little preparation work was done on the referendum before the General Election, that only by total focus on the subject was the incoming Conservative-run Wales Office managed to pull it off in time. And in passing, was it not Lord Elis Thomas himself who at one stage wanted the referendum delayed until after May 2011 anyway! I was never sure that he actually wanted one.

I've just about heard enough unjustified Labour driven propaganda about the Wales Office not delivering for Wales. How many more times are we going to hear that the Severn Barrage was 'cancelled'. It was never going to happen. All that the previous Labour Government achieved was to 'blow' mega millions on an impossible dream. They did quite a lot of that sort of thing. And Cheryl Gillan did deliver electrification into Cardiff - which in my opinion no-one else would have done. And she delivered an Assembly powers referendum to a timetable that no-one else would have done. Actually, I never really get cross about these things. There's always the comforting thought that the people are not daft.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Feeling the hand of history.

Carwyn Jones said "Today, an old nation came of age".

Ieuan Wyn Jones said "The heart of this nation still beats strong".

Nick Bourne said "On this spring day, Wales takes a new step".

Kirsty Williams said "A new era of devolution must now begin".

Edna Mopbucket said "How much are they going to be paid for these extra powers".

Friday, March 04, 2011

Wales votes Yes

At last. After 12 years of devolved government, we reach a satisfactory constitutional settlement. For 12 years its been unfinished business. Today we voted for the settlement we should have agreed in 1997. There will continue to be capacity for constitutional conflict but we have finally acquired a devolved settlement blessed with logic and stability.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I considered the Government of Wales Act 1998 to be inadequate. Having been an opponent of establishing a National Assembly in 1997, I even more thought the idea of our National Assembly without primary law making powers to be utterly pointless. Immediately after its establishment in 1999, I have supported the transfer of law making powers in all devolved policy areas.

I've admitted to being no fan of the referendum held today. It had to be held, because of the requirments of the 2006 Act, but I'm not at all sure it was appropriate. There was a stronger case for a referendum on the 2006 Act, which conceded the principle of granting primary law making powers to the Assembly. All we have actually done today is speed up the process agreed in 2006. It's also been odd holding a referendum where few voters fully understood what it was all about. This is where I become partisan. The referendum would have been held if Cheryl Gillan had not become Secretary of State last May. On taking office, she committed herself to delivering what had been requested by the National Assembly the previous February - with a single minded determination to delivered. In my opinion, no Labour Sec. of State would have delivered it. She has delivered for Wales

I was pleased that Powys voted Yes, if only by a whisker. The vote was too close for me to know for certain that Montgomeryshire voted Yes, but I think it probably did. I would not have been at all surprised if it had been a No vote, because of the anger that we feel about the way the Deputy First Minister has treated us over the appalling transport problems he has visited upon Newtown. I reckon that cost the Yes side about 1000 votes.

It will take a while until we see any obvious difference, but I'm looking forwards to more clarity in the public mind about responsibilities - which will create greater accountability. It was a slightly better turn-out and margin of victory than I'd expected. All in all, its been a good day for Wales