Saturday, September 30, 2017

Newtown. Facing the Global-Rural challenge. Again.

A hugely encouragingly visit to Newtown this afternoon. Parked by the Post Office and walked through an almost fully let Ladywell Shopping Centre. Not seen that for years. Just needs the supermarket site to be occupied now. Then through the new Market Hall. Full of bustle. Bursting at the seams with business activity. Not seen that since is was upgraded two years ago. I know one afternoon is not a renaissance, but it felt a bit like that.
The reason I was there was to visit 'An Exhibition of Newtown's Global Past' located next door to the Market Hall. For me it was as emotional as it was informative. What was being presented as history was (and is) a part of my own life. The only depressing part of the day was me appearing as an interviewee on screen almost 30 yrs ago. Oh the ravages of time!
The history was there, even if it seemed 'current' to me because of the connections to today. When I left Caereinion School to work on the family farm, the economy of Montgomeryshire was being disrupted on two fronts - two aspects of 'globalisation'. Firstly there was the movement of population from farm based employment to our market towns. And after the 2nd World War, the exodus of population from Mid Wales to areas with better communications and access to the big markets. In the 60s/70s/80s/90s, government intervention turned the economy around. I thought that 'intervention' ended two years too soon.
And on to today. The threats to the Mid Wales economy are all around us. Promotion of economic development is being arranged all around us. The Cardiff City Deal, Swansea City Deal, North Wales Growth Deal and the Midlands Engine connected to the Marches LEC. I don't advocate a body based on 'top down' Government intervention like the DBRW, but there does need an organised locally based partnership drawing on Welsh and UK Governments, local economic interests and local authorities. My own experiences of 'top down' intervention lead me to despair at the absence of planning to maximise the benefit of the new Newtown Bypass.
The questions being asked by the Aberystwyth University's GLOBAL-RURAL project was about confidence in the future of Mid Wales. I am an optimist. I usually am about what can be achieved. I know there are threats, and not just from competition on our borders. There's the changes into how government support into the rural economy will impact post Brexit. Certainly planners must become more supportive of farm diversification. But I do think the new Bypass will have a positive impact, even if not planned and maximised.
The exhibition is going to be moving around. I recommend anyone with an interest in our economy takes an hour or two to visit.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Taking the Temperature of Brexit Talks.

When I started my blog about 15 yrs ago, I often shared my thoughts over a coffee out in Cardiff Bay. Since I'm here today with some time to kill, I've decided to revisit the old practise - over a coffee and caramel waffle in Starbucks. Today my mind wanders to the future of Europe, as the Prime Minister invests time in chat and ritual dancing with Donald Tusk, against background of German election. It will take a few months for the full impact of the arrival of the Alternative fur Deutschland in the Bundestag to work through. Maybe it's because I have grandchildren that whenever I think about translating my thoughts into words I worry about what the future holds. How on earth have we reached the position of Donald Trump in the White House, abuse becoming endemic in our British political system, and the AfD becoming a major player in Germany, where the voting system is meant to prevent this sort of thing happening.
When contemplating which way to vote in the EU Referendum last year, I acknowledged (to myself) that the best argument for Remain was the role the UK could play as Europe faces crisis and probable collapse over the next few years. Britain has centuries of constitutional stability, which works against bloody revolution. I finally decided the UK can do this more effectively outside the self serving out-of-touch elite centred on Brussels. A lot depends on whether the Brexit 'divorce' is amicable and constructive, or the opposite. It's bad news all round if the UK is 'ostracised'.
What are the issues facing the EU (and by extension Europe)? Most worrying is immigration, and the negative reaction to it. The reality is that there will probably be over a billion people trying to move to European countries from Africa and the Middle East. We will all strengthen our immigration controls across Europe, but it will be a mighty challenge, which will feed extremist movements, both on the left and right off political opinion. The AfD will have a field day. In particular, we should divert more of our International Aid to these countries to develop their own economies - trying to tackle the problem at source.
When I see the posturing of the EU elite as we negotiate Brexit, I despair - obsessing about the garden fence as the house falls down.  While I voted to Leave, and would do so if there was a re-run referendum, I do believe we owe it to future generations as well as ourselves that we strive for an amicable separation, and a focus on this biggest issue of all.  I thought Mrs May's Florence speech was a positive step forward from the UK Government. I'm not at all sure that the EU response will be as positive. It needed a powerful Mrs Merkel to step in and redirect the agenda. It should not be left to the Brussels based out-of-touch bureaucracy. There are big black clouds on the horizon. I just hope the winds of reason will blow them away. That's my coffee done - so rambling can cease for today.

Monday, September 25, 2017

In Flanders Fields

Let the sound of bells and whistles ring out over the football fields of Britain. FIFA has taken a sensible decision. Over recent years, this has not been usual. But Fifa has decided that poppies can be worn by international football teams on and near Remembrance Day to commemorate Armistice Day. Last year, to widespread condemnation, the football authorities of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland were fined for ignoring a FIFA instruction to not commemorate. Not unreasonably, the change of policy requires that the opposition team are content that symbols should be worn.
Personally, If I was selected to play for Wales (striker would be my favoured position) I would wear a tee shirt under the red shirt of Cymru with the words of John McCrae printed on it.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That marks our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up your quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to lift it high
If he break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The German Election.

Today's German election is much the most important election in Europe this year. Particularly important bearing in mind the UK's decision to Leave the EU in March 2019. If I were a German voter, I would have supported the CDU/CSU alliance led by Angela Merkel. And would have been deeply worried by the rise of Alternative fuer Deutschland. In the event, it seems CDU/CSU alliance has takent 32.9% of the vote (making Theresa May's 42.3% look quite impressive) and the AfD seems to have taken over 13% (and predicted to win 89 seats). This is dramatic and a matter of deep concern to all of Europe. The UK media are focussing on Mrs Merkel winning her 4th election. The real news is the emergence of the AfD. It's not good news, but very bad news indeed.
And it gets worse. Because it seems the SPD have won only 20% of the votes (historically low) any thoughts of another 'Grand Coalition' between Germany's two biggest parties are probably stillborn. It will take a lot to persuade the SPD to serve as 'minority partner' again. Which means Mrs Merkel could spend next few weeks/months putting together a coalition with other parties (with very different philosophies) to govern Germany. A 'Jamaica Coalition' will not be at all easy to pull off. Brexit may well become a very secondary issue. It's not featured in the election to any significant extent. Can't see Mrs Merkel putting Brexit at top of her agenda over next few months.
The worst aspect of today's result, and by a very long way is the emergence of the AfD as a political force in Germany. The AfD is a party that is anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and associated (fairly or unfairly) with ultra right wing (National Socialist) parties that have so tarnished Europe's 20th century history. No other party will work with AfD in any circumstances. Regrettably, the AfD going to be a growing force in German and European politics. Time to start praying.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Prime Minister goes to Italy.

Our Prime Minster, Theresa May has been speaking in Florence today. It was good to see the 3 best mates, Boris, Philip Hammond and David Davis smiling happily in the front row seats. I liked the speech. It was very much as I expected. Much the most encouraging aspect is that the UK media had totally failed to line up interviewees of any significance to declare it was "disappointing" and "unrealistic". Not even the BBC. Most negative line was that not much would change for 5 years. My response to that is "So what". They had to fall back on Nigel Farage, and we all know that nothing would have satisfied him. He had prepared his negative lines before he heard the speech!
There will be differing responses, including within the Conservative Party. Already had one constituent on the phone upset that we are not just walking away with no deal. Personally, I welcome today's speech. Very much in line with my own opinions. The UK will leave the EU end of March 2019 - a timetable driven by the Lisbon Treaty. That does not leave enough time to work through a trade deal which is best for both sides. It seems there will be a period of about two years after March 2019 to negotiate a sensible trade deal which benefits EU and UK. Again personally, my response is "So what". We need best possible deal, and 'so what' if it takes until 2021. We do need the deal to be done before General Election in 2022 though.
What finance transfers there will be from UK to EU is another big issue. Personally, I've always accepted the the UK will pay what we owe, both legally and morally. In fact the figures being talked about today are far lower than that we had been led to expect. I suspect the EU negotiators will want more. But what's important to the negotiations is that it's interpreted as 'sufficient progress' to move on to discussions on trade.
Two other comments I want to make. Will be looking at commentators opinions. Is the reassurance given to EU legally migrants in the UK in the UK acceptable. And how will the commentators react to Mrs May herself. My view is that she is a good Prime Minister. Today I thought she really looked the part. I sense that she has poked in the eye those who have been most relentless in their criticisms.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Complexities of 'end of life' care

BBC is reporting today on an important legal case where Mr Justice Jackson has ruled that where relatives and clinicians treating patients in a permanent vegetative state agree that care can be ended, there should be no need for a judge to agree as well. Until now, all treatment, except withdrawal of food and fluid can be ended without a judge's involvement. A judge's involvement means incurring  great unnecessary expense. However, the implications of this judgement are such that the Official Solicitor may well appeal in the interests of clarifying the law.
This is a sensitive and difficult policy area, morally, legally and from the perspective of patient safety. A few years ago, I made public comment disagreeing with a judge who had ruled that a patient suffering from anorexia, with only a minuscule chance of living should be force fed. The case attracted a lot of publicity, as did my comment, which I had intended only to stimulate discussion. It was a policy area of interest to me, being opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide - itself not a straightforward issue. The Justice Jackson case is not the same, but raises equally difficult questions in the field of end of life.
In this case, and at this stage, I rather agree with the judge. But I do feel the need to discuss it with others before coming to a final conclusion. Relatives and clinicians can already take actions such as withdrawing Dialysis, which results in death, without the involvement of a judge. I cannot see why this principle cannot be extended withdrawal of food and fluids. The only issue of concern to me is that it only applies in cases where the patient is in a permanent vegetative state and has miniscule chance of recovery.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Scotland and Wales First Ministers in tandem

 Wales First Minister, Carwyn Jones and Scotland First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon seemed to getting along very well in all today's TV clips. They might have disagreed over the Scottish Independence Referendum but they do give the impression of being as one in wanting to stop Brexit happening in March 2019 - or at all! know that Carwyn Jones says that he accepts the EU Referendum result but it doesn't sound much like it to me. Whatever, the Carwyn/Nicola show was in full cry today. I'm not sure how much of it is bluster for public consumption and how much is for real.
It seems that the Wales First Minister is planning to put forward 38 amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. I suppose he would have to persuade MPs or members of the Lords to do this for him. And if these amendments are not agreed to, Carwyn Jones informs us will ask Assembly Members to refuse to agree to the Bill. Must admit I don't know precisely what power he has to deliver on this - or whether the Assembly Members can actually stop the Bill making progress. Maybe it's no more than an attempt to put pressure on the Westminster Gov't to agree to his demands. The reason I decided to write this blog post was because I need some clarity on the constitutional position here. If a constitutional lawyer happens upon this comment, any clarity would be welcomed. So treat this as 'work in progress'.
According to the BBC, the First Minister has four aims.
1) Ensure devolved policy areas come back to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament after Brexit.
2) Prevent UK Minsters unilaterally changing the Gov't of Wales Act and the Scotland Act.
3) Require the agreement of the Welsh Gov't on necessary changes to EU Gov't law in devolved areas after Brexit.
4) Ensure additional restrictions are not placed on devolved ministers compared with UK Gov't ministers.
I expect there to be much discussion between the UK Gov't and devolved Gov'ts over these 'conditions' as there will be over how we develop 'statutory frameworks' to protect the UK internal market and work through the powers being transferred temporarily into a 'Holding Pattern'.
I repeat, treat this blog post as 'work in progress'!

Monday, September 18, 2017

20 yrs ago today, the voters of Wales decided.

On 18th September 1997, the voters of Wales decided that a National Assembly for Wales should be established. Well, around 25% of them did. But as someone once surely said "one is a majority". And 6,000 votes is a lot more than one. Even if it wasn't a thumping 52%/48% victory. A majority of 0.6% ignored my advice that they should reject this expensive extra layer of bureaucracy. I was the only No person at the count in Llandrindod Wells in the early hours of Sept 19th when the last result came in from Carmarthen giving the Yes campaigners victory. I was surrounded by dancing, singing, whooping and tears of joy. I could see immediately that there was not to be any going back. Case of "if you can't beat them, join them"! Not quite perhaps, but I did accept the result immediately, and have worked to make a success of it ever since.
I stood for election to the National Assembly at its first election in 1999. I was defeated in Montgomeryshire by the all conquering Liberal Democrats in the form of Mick Bates. But I was elected as a 'regional' Assembly Member' for Mid and West Wales. Same thing happened 4 yrs later in 2003. But by 2007, the Labour machine banned 'duel candidacy' and I had to choose which hill to climb. Since I'd represented Mid and West Wales for 8 yrs I went for the 'list seat' and my political career bit the dust because my Conservative Party did too well. I was sad about that. That sort of thing happens with PR systems.
Anyway, in 2010, I rose from my political grave to be elected MP for Montgomeryshire, vanquishing the colourful Lembit Opik, and repeated the performance with increasing majorities in 2015 and 2017. Earlier this year I was very pleased to be a part of the Wales Office team that took the most recent Wales Act through to the statute book. I was especially pleased that responsibility for raising income tax and that the 'conferred powers' model of devolution has been replaced by the 'reserved powers model.
Its my desire to see devolution be a success, I do not think it has been yet. Services have not improved. If anything the reverse has been the case. And disappointingly, the politics of the National Assembly has not changed as I would have expected. Labour has formed the Government since day one, supported for part of that time by Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and by Lord Elis Thomas. No fault on Labour for this. It's a matter for the opposition parties. Unfortunately, the Welsh Conservatives have not persuaded others (notably Plaid Cymru) to lie in bed beside them. Maybe someday. When Labour are in opposition, the Welsh Parliament will have 'grown up'. Hope we don't have to wait 20 years for that!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

What did Boris mean by that!

Personally, I'm reckon a bit of disagreement within political parties can be positive and creative. It can lead to  better decision making in that it can expose an unwise step to closer scrutiny. I know that political party's whipping operations like to keep everything under tight control, but Farage/UKIP, Corbyn/Labour and Trump/Republican have shown us that in today's turbulent politics, where social media and fake news are so influential, dominating the agenda is what matters - within reason anyway.
Anyway Boris Johnson wrote a 4,000 word article for the Daily Telegraph yesterday which doesn't seem to fit into anyone's media planning. It's generated a lot of interest, despite being totally loyal to the Prime Minister, and not actually saying anything he's not said before. As always with Boris, his writing is flamboyant, and his arguments well constructed. And it will connect. The aspect that interests me is what he says about the claim made by the Leave side leading up to the EU Referendum that leaving the EU would allow a future UK Govt to invest another £350million per week in the NHS.
I don't think anyone can give us precise figures, but this 'promise' made in early 2016, would have meant an extra £18bn per year added to the NHS budget. I should add that though I voted Leave, I did not use this figure at all. It seems to me that we could spend £18bn per year when we stop paying in (prob 2022). Though Boris thinks it could be earlier. The Govt has already increased the NHS budget by £8bn per year since the EU Referendum,  and I'd be surprised if the NHS budget was not increased again in the November budget.
Boris is a brilliant wordsmith. His article or 'essay' is readable and conveys a joyously optimistic
vision of a UK outside the EU. It is in no way disloyal to the Prime Minister and it says nothing that he hasn't said before. It was a very good read. I'm looking forward to a similarly good read on Friday when the Prime Minister makes a key Brexit speech in Florence. After a few months when not much seems to have been happening on the Brexit front, it does look as if things are starting to take shape. It's very interesting times we live in.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Renewable Energy from Offshore Wind.

I have always supported sourcing more of our energy from offshore wind. Offshore wind farms don't trash beautiful landscapes as onshore wind farms do. I thought the costs involved would fall over time. But I did not expect the rate at which the costs would fall to deliver the cfd (Contracts for Difference) prices announced yesterday. They were a real game changer. Worth looking at in detail.
The current market price of energy is around £53.50 per MWh (megawatt hour). Just 2yrs ago, offshore developers needed a guaranteed £117.14 per MWh to build offshore wind farms. Yesterday massive new projects in the North Sea were agreed at just £57.50 per MWh. Truly astonishing. And it's expected that prices will fall further. We expect battery technology to deliver more efficiency and lower costs, through reducing the negative impact of inconsistent generation. Development of non time-critical electricity users (electric cars) will also reduce costs.
Important to understand that no Government subsidy is involved. It's users of electricity that pay to guarantee the price. Yesterday's cfd auction prices are great news for electricity buyers into the furure.
 I have no doubt that onshore wind farm generation will be lower than the current £52.50 per MWh price. And I've no doubt that some onshore development will happen, especially in Scotland, where opposition to trashing the landscape is less than elsewhere. Certainly a lot less than in Mid Wales. I did my utmost to stop the appalling Mid Wales Connection Project from going ahead - and will continue as long as I have breath in my body. The implications of this delelopment in Mid Wales are horrendous. Like pouring a bucket of tar on a painting by Sir Kyffin Williams. It would be utter madness when cost of offshore wind is dropping like a stone.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. Where now?

I have always supported the idea of using tidal power to generate energy. Since it was first proposed, I have supported the idea of the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon. I'd love to see us run with this scheme - if it's viable. Now that's a very big 'if'. Despite supporting the idea, I've never felt able to completely commit to it. I've been surprised by how many are calling for the Govt to run with this scheme, no matter what the cost. Worryingly, most of the narrative around the project has involved criticism of the Govt for not agreeing to quarentee to buy the power produced by the SB Tidal Lagoon at the same price it will pay for that produced by nuclear power plants, but for nearly three times as long - which makes it much much more expensive. I know that the Hendry Report, commissioned by the Govt backed the scheme. Didn't expect anything else from Charles Hendry from the moment he was given the task of assessing it. The responsible Secretary of State, Greg Clarke is taking his time assessing the project. Quite right too. He's a very good Minister.  My guess is that the advice he is receiving from independent assessors is not flashing up 'Green'. So we will have to wait and see.

There is nothing at all new in this post so far. But the comments coming from Dale Vince, the founder and still owner (I think) of Ecotricity in a letter to Greg Clarke, reported on the BBC today is very significant. Dale Vince knows what he's talking about. Despite being hugely supportive of renewable energy, including tidal power, be believes that a lagoon not attached to the land will create energy at around a quarter of the price. And be more environmentally friendly. If it had been someone else saying this, it would just be an opinion, alongside other opinions. But it's the opinion of a man who knows. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee has just decided to take evidence and prepare a report on tidal lagoons. I do hope Dale Vince is invited to share his thoughts with us as part of that.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Notes from Gibraltar

I write this column for the Oswestry and Borders Chronicle as sitting out on my balcony overlooking the Bay of Gibraltar. The Spanish port of Algeciras is to my right. The Mountains of North Morocco are to my left. The Straits of Gibraltar, opening onto the Atlantic (next stop the US) are in front of me. 100,000 seagoing vessels of various sorts pass through this way every year, a high proportion taking on fuel and stores at Gibraltar, or undergoing various sorts of repair and maintenance. 

Algeciras and Gibraltar are hugely important to Spain and Britain respectively - for very different reasons. Algeciras is one of the world’s busiest commercial ports and of great importance to the Spanish economy. Gibraltar is crucial to the defence of Britain, and through this defence capability, crucially important to maintaining peace in the world. 

I am in Gibraltar for 3 days as a guest on the Gibraltarian Government, who want us to understand the importance of the Port of Gibraltar to the world. Yesterday we spent three hours aboard HMS Diamond, one of Britain's six Type 45 anti-missile destroyers, which each cost a billion pounds and are deployed all over the world in support of the British interest. They are seriously impressive bit of military kit. 

The timing of our visit coincides with the celebration of National Day, held annually on September 10th. This year is special because it's the 25th such National Day. The tradition was started by the great socialist Chief Minister, Joe Bassano, whom I feel I know quite well now. I have been to help celebrate Gibraltar's National Day before, and know it to be a wonderful occasion - a glorious celebration of the spirit of Gibraltar. It's also a statement of an enduring love for Britain. My first visit to Gib was in July 1969. There was a General Election taking place, won by the Intergration with Britain Party. Too years before there had been a referendum to decide whether Gibraltar should stay British or return to Spanish control. Spain had long claimed 'ownership' of Gibraltar. 12,138 votes for Britain and 44 voted for Spain. That settled the issue. And that is how it’s going to stay.

A key part of the Gibraltarian economy is based on financial services and online betting. So unsurprisingly, Gibraltarians were concerned about the possible impact of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. 96% voted Remain. So I did not expect to hear the speech of the inspirational Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo over lunch, which was stunningly positive about Brexit. He said, bluntly, that they had "got it wrong". In the last year, GDP increased by an astonishing 9%. Average salaries rose to £90,000. Unemployment fell to just 74 people. Truly remarkable figures. The key to Gibraltar's economic future is its close links with Britain. 90% of exports are to Britain, and our two Governments are working together positively on Brexit. All the opposite of what was feared. No wonder National Day celebrations have been more joyous than ever this last week.

Monday, September 11, 2017

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

For last two days of Parliamentary business, MPs have been debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Over 100 MPs spoke in the debate. Listened in on much of it. Must admit I found much of it quite repetitive. Lots of very good speeches but after the early opening speeches, there was not much more to be said. I shared my thoughts on the issue with Radio Wales listeners on Good Evening Wales tonight at 6.00. In reality there is not as much difference in view across the Commons, as is often portrayed, apart from those who simply do not accept the people's vote to leave on June 23rd 2016. Most MPs accept that the UK is going to leave the EU, even if there is disagreement about how it's to happen and what sort of transition is going to be arranged.

Today's debate was about the practicalities of how we are going to leave. What the Bill proposes is that all EU law is transposed into British Law when we leave, giving maximum legal certainty and continuity to the UK on 'Brexit Day'. It repeals the European Communities Act 1972. It ensures that, wherever possible, the same rules and laws apply the day before and day after we leave. And it gives ministers in this Parliament the power to make statutory instruments to deal with the transition. This procedure is often referred to as Henry V111 powers. It's based on Ol Henry passed legislation to do pretty well whatever he wanted. This element of the Bill has been the major 'bone of contention' in the debate, and is being interpreted as a 'power grab'. Personally I do think this is a wild exaggeration - made mostly by those who still hope that we reverse the referendum position.

As a general principle, I do think Henry V111 powers are only acceptable if there is not any other reasonable way to proceed. A Government's capacity to proceed without parliamentary approval is the final resort. And that is what will happen in practise. We will be voting on this Bill in the next hour, and I expect it to be approved comfortably. But that should not be taken as total approval. The Government has said it is in 'listening mode' and I expect amendments to be accepted at Committee stage, with some moved by Conservative MPs, even the Government itself. Securing the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill through The House of Commons is going to be (and should be) hotly debated. And then it will be  on to the House of Lords where the temperature will rise even higher.