Saturday, November 07, 2015

Importance of S4C to the UK

I have always and will always live in Wales. Wales has much in common with England - a prosperous South East, large parts recovering from an industrial past, and largely overlooked rural areas. But Wales has one unique USP. We have the Welsh Language (Yr Iaith Cymraeg), the Language of Heaven. It is special. I'm not sure that our friends in England, Scotland and N Ireland fully get that. I once won the bardic chair at the Montgomeryshire YFC Eisteddfod (where English Language entries were allowed) with a treatise on the future of the the Welsh Language. I shared a widespread view at the time that it was doomed to continuous decline, and eventual demise as a spoken language. I was mistaken. The establishment of S4C in 1980, along with an early 190s Education Act has made the difference.
S4C was born to the Conservative Govt led by Margaret Thatcher. It was a quite difficult birth. As important as the establishment of the Channel was, the very generous budget agreed was equally important - linked to an inflation-based formula which lasted until the link was broken by the Public Bodies Act 2011. In 2010 the incoming Coalition Govt was faced with the challenge of establishing control over the calamitous state of the nation's public finances. I represented my party at committee stage of the Bill, and will never forget the experience - 1100 emails and protestors shouting at me. In my view, there was no alternative, as the Prime Minister who oversaw creation of S4C may well have observed! 
Let's talk money. S4C has three main funding streams beyond that which it raises in revenue. Much the largest contribution comes via the BBC from the Licence Fee - about £80million per annum. This is supposed to come without editorial strings. The second largest funding stream is also from the BBC, in the form of  broadcast content to the value of around £20 million per annum. None of this is supposed to impact on S4C's independence! 
The third income stream (and the point of this post) is the £6.7 million per annum coming from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. I do and will continue to plead that this is not reduced. I accept that DCMS is likely to face very difficult choices, as the Chancellor finalises his Autumn Spending Review to be announced later this month. Every budget head will have it's champions. But a reduction in the DCMS contribution would be very unwise penny pinching.
Let's consider the reasons why. Breaking S4C's inflation linked funding in the Public Bodies Act 2011 was a big deal. So big that the Act specifically states that S4C would continue to receive "sufficient finance" to deliver a Welsh Language channel. A bit woolly - but hopefully more than a temporary 'sop' to persuade me and others to vote for it. Words in acts should mean something.
Another reason is the 'Independence' of S4C. To have the BBC providing all of the funding for S4C would seriously question how independence could be maintained. He who pays the piper etc...... And the BBC is far too dominant in Welsh media already.
Let me add a third reason. If DCMS reduces it's already relatively minor contribution further, the case for devolution of broadcasting could well become unchallengeable. I do not think many in the political or broadcasting world support that. And I should add that I am hugely proud that I learned to speak Welsh. Thousands of young people are speaking Welsh as their first language with pride. S4C has played a big part in the renaissance of Welsh. Let's not return to the 'dark days'
When the debate about establishing S4C was raging in the Conservative Party in 1979/80, the wise Willy Whitelaw advised Mrs Thatcher to look on it as an "investment in social harmony". So has proved. Let this investment continue.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Another Wales Bill - early thoughts.

A draft Wales Bill has been published. They're like trains on the underground. One fades from view around Constitution Corner. Then another one comes along. Constitutional matters are very much a minority interest, but they do interest me. Makes me bit of a geek I suppose. But I am fortunate that we have had so many of these Wales Bills coming along!! 

So what is this Bill about. Not that much actually. Most significant change is move from a 'conferred powers' model of devolution to a 'reserved powers' model. At present, all matters devolved are listed with all else reserved to the UK Govt. In future, everything is devolved except those matters listed as reserved. Ever since talking this issue through with an Assembly official, Adrian Crompton (around yr 2000) I've backed this change. Blame Adrian, a top man. However, I always thought this change would be difficult. Inevitably, the list of 'reserved powers' will be extensive. Clarity is essential. Everything not intended to be devolved must be listed to limit uncertainty and money flowing into the rapacious pockets of barristers in the Supreme Court. The problem to be covered is that Welsh Gov't's power to pass laws could have an effect on England. Such laws will require 'Crown consent'. The Welsh First Minister seems not to like this, and revers to this process as an "English veto". He refers to the Wales Bill as 'an old banger'. Seems not very keen on it.

Another issue of dispute is the need to establish a Welsh legal jurisdiction. Understanding this is a nightmare for anyone not well versed in law. There is now being created a body of Welsh law, which in theory should operate within a Welsh jurisdiction. But is it really worthwhile creating such an entity, alongside an England and Wales jurisdiction for what will be a very small body of law for many years to come. Surely legal brains will find a way through this one! Or not!!

The Bill extends power over more matters to Wales - like how to run itself (number of Assembly Members, votes at 16, calling itself a parliament). It also transfers power over energy, which really sticks in my craw, since we know the Welsh Govt has a vindictive determination to desecrate the mid Wales landscape with hundreds of turbines and pylons. This is one reason I'm not at all certain I'm going to vote for the Bill. Controversially, it does not include power over policing. 

There is one matter where I consider the Bill to be an abysmal failure as it stands. It does not ensure 'financial accountability' is vested in Welsh Government by devolving responsibility to levy significant proportion of income tax. In truth, I've never considered the Welsh devolution model to be genuinely democratic. Voters are invited at elections to consider just one side of the ledger - how money is going to be spent, without consideration of how it's going to be raised. Delivers a Welsh Govt which claims credit for all that is looked on with favour by the electorate, and blames the UK Govt for not sufficiently funding all that is frowned by the voters, including mistakes and poor performance. In reality, the Welsh Govt budget has never been more than a 'spending plan' and itself no more than having the status of an elected quango. 

Actually, the Wales Bill does devolve responsibility for levying a significant proportion of income tax -  except that it also requires a referendum be held before it can be introduced. We can predict that any referendum debate will completely ignore the 'financial accountability' principle. It's no more that a 'blocking mechanism'. Holding a referendum will make Wales a laughing stock. Referendumitis is a Welsh disease. The UK Govt should amend the Wales Bill, devolving responsibility for 50% of income tax and scrap the referendum. In 1997, Wales voted for devolution, despite my advice that she shouldn't. Let's try to make it work. 

Daresay I've included some debatable opinions here. It is my first draft of comment on a draft bill. A few meetings this coming week which may instigate a second draft!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Images from RWC 2015

There's been unforgettable rugby played in RWC2015. Contemplating in the bath tub after watching a truly magnificent final, it's time to reflect on what stood out for me.
It began with the truly shocking victory of Japan over the Springboks. It was first statement of RWC2015 that rugby is changing. More pace, more risk, more offloads, more skill, more entertainment. To their great credit, South Africa got the message, though still more dependent on the power game than they should be. Lot of big men in South Africa! 
Then there was Wales. We had an amazing World Cup, bearing in mind the loss of key players. I will never understand how we managed to beat England from the position we were with 20 mins to go. And never understand how we failed to beat Australia, not scoring when they had only 13 men on the park. I've always believed every team (incl England, Japan, Welshpool 3rds) should take the points on offer. We didn't, and the Wallabies survived.
Nothing to be added to the failures of England and Ireland. They will both come back. Scotland had a fantastic RWC2015. Lucky in group draw, and actually beat Australia in the quarter final. The French referee will never be forgiven in Scotland. South Africa did ok, only losing in the semi to the best rugby side it's ever been my pleasure to watch. And Argentina were simply wonderful. My view is that the Pumas have had more impact on the game of rugby at RWC2015 than any other team. The pace, and offloading were breathless. A bit more accuracy and it's a small step to being amongst the very best. It's got to be the way to play. 
And there was the final today. The All Blacks were magnificent. It would have utter sacrilege if the yellow card had allowed Australia to win. The Aussies should not have beaten Wales, did not beat Scotland, at times were run ragged by the Pumas, and were well beaten today. But they do have the most wonderful fighting spirit. Never beaten til they're beaten. 
What can you say about the All Blacks. Richie McCaw has been my idol for many years. Perhaps the greatest rugby player ever. I suppose I was a 7 myself so biased. And Dan Carter. No-one else could have scored that drop goal. No-one else would have thought of it. And you just knew that 51yarder was going over. It's hard to accept that we may not see McCaw or Carter in the All Black shirt again. For those of us who love the game of rugby when played at it's best, we say thank you. We will never forget either of them. So it's goodbye RWC2015. It was a great spectacle. Roll on Japan in 2019.

Friday, October 30, 2015

RES UK letter re decision to go to JR

Onshore wind developer, RES UK wrote to me this week, copying in the local media. Thought I'd share it. While I understand that RES would be cross (very cross) that the Minister refused it's planning application, JR is normally about 'process' - not running the same arguments over again. I also understand why being refused permission to do just what they want will have come as a culture shock to the all-powerful energy company and it's army of barristers.  Anyway, thought I'd share it with you. Personally I it's very weak. So much so that I feel the formal appeal to DECC will have been a bit more focused. Would like to see it.
Dear Mr Davies,
In response to your comments reported recently in the Shropshire Star (22nd October 2015) and the Powys County Times (23rd October 2015), I wanted to take the opportunity to write to you to explain in detail why RES is proceeding with a Judicial Review claim in respect of the UK Government’s refusal of our Llanbrynmair Wind Farm project:
(1) Lack of adequate explanation for overturning Planning Inspector’s recommendation
The decision by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to overturn the judgement of its own independent Planning Inspector has not been adequately justified. In particular, DECC has not fully explained why it has disagreed with the Planning Inspector’s judgement that the benefits of the scheme outweigh its impacts. It should be emphasised that, during the 12 month high profile Mid Wales Public Inquiry, the expert Planning Inspector spent considerable time visiting all of the proposed wind farm sites, reviewing extensive representations and listening to community groups to establish whether the potential impacts of each proposed development were outweighed by the benefits of the scheme. In the case of Llanbrynmair Wind Farm, the Inspector’s judgment was that the project should be granted approval.
If RES’ Judicial Review of DECC’s decision is successful, the UK Government will be required to look again at the merits of our Llanbrynmair Wind Farm proposal and either reconsider its position in light of the Planning Inspector’s advice or to fully and robustly explain why it is taking a different view.
(2) Welsh Government and local support
The Welsh Government has consistently demonstrated widespread support for renewable energy, evident in planning policy and guidance note ‘TAN8’ which designates areas suitable for wind farm developments. Llanbrynmair Wind is located within one of the identified TAN8 Strategic Search Areas, and is therefore supported in principle by the Welsh Government.
In September 2015, the Welsh Government Environment Minister called the decision to reject plans to build wind farms in mid Wales "short-sighted" and that it was "hugely disappointing" that communities in Powys could lose out on millions of pounds of investment as a result. The Minister also expressed concern that businesses would find it difficult to understand why the UK Government had not followed the advice of its Planning Inspector, stating: "We want to make sure that people want to invest in our communities, make sure that we have energy security long term."

There has also been - and remains - a considerable level of support within the local communities in Mid Wales for the onshore wind projects that were considered through the conjoined Public Inquiry, as evidenced by the formation and activities of the Powys Wind Farm Supporters Group.
(3) Potential loss of significant investment into local businesses and communities
RES estimates Llanbrynmair Wind Farm would deliver at least £8 million in local economic investment through the use of local companies and services up to the first year of operation alone. In addition, local communities would benefit from some £7.5 million in community benefits over the project’s lifetime. This includes an annual £180,000 Community Benefit Fund in addition to RES’ innovative Local Electricity Discount Scheme which offers an annual discount of £152 off the electricity bills of some 750 residential, commercial and community properties within 5km of the turbines at Llanbrynmair.
These community benefits could make a very significant difference to local communities at a time when Powys County Council is having to make substantial budget cuts to numerous local services. RES does not believe that these significant business, supply chain and community benefits should be lost to the local area without full scrutiny of DECC’s decision to override its Planning Inspector’s judgement.
(4) Full and fair scrutiny to maintain investor confidence in Welsh and UK infrastructure
In the seven years that Llanbrynmair Wind Farm has been in the planning process, RES has invested several million pounds in the project - only to find that, despite Welsh Government support and a Planning Inspector’s backing, this significant financial commitment, which would deliver very substantial inward and community investment, risks being written off. It simply cannot be in the interests of Wales, England or the UK infrastructure sector for planning decisions relating to investment of this magnitude not to be fully and fairly scrutinised, and this full and fair scrutiny is what RES is seeking through the Judicial Review.
I have sent a copy of this letter to the Shropshire Star and Powys County Times and would like to emphasise that RES remains committed to working with Welsh Government, Powys County Council and local communities to ensure that the significant benefits presented by Llanbrynmair Wind Farm can be achieved.
Yours sincerely,
Gordon MacDougall
Managing Director, Western Europe


Thursday, October 29, 2015

At long last - a Newtown By-pass.

Glyn Davies, Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, has paid tribute to the key modern day politicians who have delivered on promises to build a Newtown Bypass. He was commenting after today’s announcement by the Welsh Government that approval has been given for the project to go ahead, with construction likely to begin before Christmas.
Many individuals have been involved in bringing this huge project to the construction phase, but Glyn Davies has paid tribute to three individual politicians who have made key contributions.
Commenting on today’s announcement, Glyn Davies MP, who has been involved in discussions about a Newtown Bypass since being elected as Montgomeryshire Planning Committee Chair in 1982, said;

"Today's announcement of the go-ahead for a Newtown Bypass is very good news for mid Wales. It is important for Newtown itself, but also for the whole of mid Wales to the West of Newtown. It's been a long slog reaching today's decision. I was first involved 33 years ago when elected Chair of Montgomeryshire's Planning Committee. Newtown was being doubled in size, and a bypass was thought crucial to the success of this great physical and social change."

“There have been many people involved in delivering today's result. In the early days, the late Peter Garbett-Edwards was a leading dynamic driving force, along with others. He would enjoy my remembering his key role today."

" I want to pay tribute to three modern day individuals who have also played key roles. Firstly, it was former Assembly Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones who made a firm commitment to deliver the Bypass by 2017 in a formal meeting with me in March 2011. That was the key commitment."

“Secondly, it has been Assembly Minister Edwina Hart who has driven the project over recent years, delivering on the promises made by her predecessor. Edwina has been a great champion of Montgomeryshire, delivering our renal dialysis unit, the Newtown Bypass, real movement on a new Dyfi Bridge and last week promising to scrap Welshpool's ridiculous one-way system. She has stood out as an Assembly Minister who has been a great friend of Montgomeryshire."

“And thirdly, I pay tribute to our own current Assembly Member, Russell George, who has shown great tenacity in ensuring that the Welsh Government's promises have been delivered on. He will continue to pressurise the Welsh Government to ensure there is no slippage in completing the scheme."

“It's been a very long time coming - but now it is coming. I hope to be driving on the new bypass in late 2017. It's wonderful news for Montgomeryshire - for Newtown, mid Wales to the West of Newtown, and our economic future. It's a day to celebrate.”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reform of Tax Credits

Having quite a few emails about Gov't's proposals to change the tax credits system. I've been concerned about this controversial issue since it was announced in the Summer Budget. Not made much public comment - mainly because I'm not clear in my own mind about what I think Gov't policy should be. So this post is me 'thinking aloud' as a way of clarifying my brainwork. The matter is certainly not yet settled.

The 'hustings' questions I found most difficult in May's election campaign were about reduction in welfare spending. The overall commitment was clear enough - a reduction in welfare spending of £12 billion. It was not clear to me where that reduction would be made, which is why I found the questions difficult. But the incoming Govt last May did have a clear mandate to reduce welfare spending by £12 billion. I know many disagreed with this policy. I also know many agreed. I suppose that's why we have elections.

Personally I thought there would be restrictions to the tax credits system. The cost to the Exchequer of income top-ups introduced by Gordon Brown had become unsustainable. It began at £1 billion a yr and it's expected to increase to £30 billion this yr, £40 billion next year. So it was no surprise to me that reductions were proposed. But I was taken aback by the scale and the speed of them. Since then I have made my concerns known to Govt whips, though I tend to do that privately. Different if asked directly in a public interview, but haven't been. Others, including colleague MPs have been much more vociferous. We all haveour different ways of working. I try to focus on best way to make a difference rather than best way to make a headline.

I read that next month's hugely important Spending Review may rein back back on scale and speed of tax credit reform. But certainly, tax credit reform will not be abandoned altogether. That would not be a credible demand to make without suggesting other ways of finding £12 billion reductions in the welfare budget. Not a single one one of the letters and emails I've received has made any suggestions about alternative welfare budget reductions. I also feel it cannot be right that the Govt should simply carry on subsidising employers who don't pay reasonable wages, which is why the Chancellor has introduced the National Minimum Wage alongside these changes - another controversial proposal. 

As I write this post, I don't know where debate on this issue is going to go. We may see further change in the Spending Review. It may even lead to significant reform of the House of Lords! In the end, what I hope for is that the cost of tax credits be reduced at a lesser scale and at a slower pace than currently proposed.

Friday, October 23, 2015

My Chronicle Solar Article

I write a fortnightly column for the Oswestry and Border Chronicle. Never get much feedback. I've written about renewable energy before. Perhaps readers are bored with the subject! But there is so much change going on. Usually I've written about my opposition to the Mid Wales Connection Project, which has inevitably generated antipathy amongst renewables enthusiasts. Incredibly divisive issue in Montgomeryshire. This time my article was in support of retaining our very successful solar energy sector. In addition, over the last few weeks I've had several meetings with Ministers on the issue, and yesterday met a group of key individuals with an interest in solar energy from the Machynlleth area. So solar energy it is. I've updated my column, and published it here.

"I have long been an enthusiastic supporter of solar power, both small scale and farm scale solar for several reasons; it enables everyone to become engaged with renewable energy through solar panels on the roof of the house; 'big' solar does not cause unsightly damage to our landscapes if sited sympathetically; solar power is infinite, and new technology will make new generation, battery based solar a major source of power in the future when our energy supply will become completely decarbonised; solar farms can be located close to the grid, making unsightly pylons unnecessary; and the solar industry provides a lot of jobs in Montgomeryshire, many in the Machynlleth area, where it's always been difficult to attract other jobs. But the immediate future looks a bit bleak.

When the Coalition Government came to power in 2010, solar power was given a massive boost. A budget for renewables development was set for ten years - up to 2020. Confusingly this budget is known as the Levy Control Framework. It's best to just think of it as a 10 year budget. It was set to rise to around £8 billion per year by 2020, a figure considered very generous at the time.  Unfortunately, investment in renewables was so hugely successful, that when the new Secretary of State took office earlier this year, she found that the budget had already been overspent, with pledges made after 5 years committing to over £9billion per year, already exceeding the 2020 target. In my view, far too much of the renewables budget has gone to support onshore wind development, which is another story!  And the Treasury is rightly so committed to bringing our National Debt under control that no more money is being made available. Inevitably all subsidy schemes are being cut, many ended.

At present, there is a consultation taking place on how best to proceed in respect of solar subsidies, known as Feed-in Tariffs. The consultation ends this week. I have had several discussions with Ministers about the future of solar power, and hope my involvement will make a difference. I hope that a realistic level of solar subsidy will continue for next three years at least. I accept there must be a big reduction in levels of subsidy for solar development, but not to the extent of killing it off altogether. The solar industry tell me it will be only a few years until no subsidy will be needed at all. It would make no economic sense to build up an industry on the back of major subsidy to almost self-sustainability, only to then destroy the industry by ending subsidy too quickly.  I hope we will continue to have a solar industry when new support arrangements are put in place.