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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Giving Labour the bird

The record of Labour politicians and twitter is not good but at least Ed Balls has a sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself.  Nevertheless, the Independent has a bit of fun at his expense due to this self-tweeted picture of the Shadow Chancellor fondling a pigeon.

They point out that less than a week since Ed Miliband took a stand against "photo-op politics", here is Ed Balls, doing precisely that.

It could be argued of course that no politician is going to abandon a decent photograph just to appease their leader's misguided sancitmony and so it proved. After all, a good picture is the best form of communication. What I cannot work out is what message this particular image is meant to convey.

And what is it about Labour and birds? As the paper points out it is not so long ago that Labour had its own Twitter snafu when the party's press account accidentally promised every one an owl. It has not taken long for that promise to be downgraded to offering only a humble urban pigeon.

Monday, July 28, 2014

UK Government to protect National Parks from fracking

The Telegraph reports that new planning guidance to be issued by UK Ministers will provide some protection from fracking for National parks and other areas of important countryside.

Although they will stop short of a total ban short the Government's new planning guidance will make it harder to drill fracking wells in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.  The new rules will state that fracking should only be allowed in the most precious areas of British countryside in “exceptional circumstances”.

Ministers will only approve applications if the gas and oil reserves are so large that they are deemed to be of "exceptional" national significance and any impact on the environment can be kept to a minimum. It is an effective ban.

Where that leaves the rest of us is unclear.Now that the government have acknowledged that fracking does have a major environmental impact then surely it will make it harder to get planning applications through elsewhere as well. We will have to see.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Danny Alexander gets tough on the Tories

The Times reports that the Liberal Democrats are to shatter the coalition truce on the economy through a summer offensive to gain credit for the Lib Dems for an upturn which this week saw the economy surpass the size it was before the crash of 2008-9.

More significantly, and possibly with more chance of success, the party will seek to counter  the Chancellor of the Exchequer's attempts to claim credit for raising the rate at which people pay the basic rate of income tax, to £10,500, which is a flagship Lib Dem policy.

The paper report that the Liberal Democrats will seek to counter Conservatives claims that George Osborne is responsible for the tax cut:

Alexander and sources close to Nick Clegg say they had to “fight tooth and nail” to get their way. “We have battled hard within the coalition to make sure our priority on income tax has been delivered ahead of other things,” Alexander said.

“Cutting income tax is only in the coalition agreement because of the Liberal Democrats. It has only been delivered because Nick Clegg and I have battled every step of the way to make that happen.”
Another senior Lib Dem said: “The Tories always wanted to spend the money on something else.”

Perhaps we will also be saying what we plan to do in the next Parliament as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lost on the Tyne

The Times reports that David Cameron has added to his membership of a growing list of politicians who have commited geographically based gaffes whilst being interviewed on local radio.

The paper says that after praising the thriving economy on Tyneside, the prime minister was corrected on his regional geography by BBC Radio Tees presenter Lisa McCormick, who asked if he was neglecting Teeside, 40 miles south:

Mr Cameron told listeners: “I was up on the Tyne recently and there are oil rigs being fabricated on the Tyne again, which is a great sign of manufacturing in our country; you see with investments like Hitachi, like Nissan, with the Tyne crossing and things like that, these will make a difference…

Ms McCormick interrupted. “You keep mentioning the River Tyne; that’s not our region Prime Minister,” she said. “I’m sorry, we’re the River Tees, does that mean you forget about us?”

A flustered Mr Cameron replied: “I’m sorry, I thought I was doing…” before telling listeners that the government was pumping £90 million into the Tees Valley.

Ms McCormick said that that “seems like a drop in the ocean” compared with the £470 million going into Greater Manchester and £440 million into the South East.

Previously, the Prime Minister has gaffed in a BBC Essex interview in Colchester, when he apologised for appearing to suggest he was in neighbouring Chelmsford.

In addition, Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary made a reference to Wichita, in the US state of Kansas, when he had meant to say Worcester, whilst Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, was caught out during the May election campaign when he hailed the leader of Swindon council - which is Conservative-led, but could not name the authority’s Labour leader.

There but for the grace of God go us all I suppose.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Another UKIP gaffe

Despite attempts by Nigel Farage to try and change the image of UKIP there is no escaping the loose cannons in his party. The latest is a UKIP County Councillor in Cambridgeshire, who really seems to know how to win friends and influence people.

Gordon Gillick told a council meeting that the reason poor, badly educated people are fat is because they like being fat:

“The people we describe as obese, thick, badly educated, whichever way you like to phrase it... they enjoy being 25 stone, they’re not discontent, they’re just a burden on the state,” the Cambridge News reports him saying.

He then appeared to contradict himself by blaming unemployment on competition from East European migrants who were willing to live in their cars or “14 to a house”.

It is almost as if they are trying to undermine poor Nigel.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

At last some commonsense on bTB

Given that it is Royal Welsh Show week I suppose that it is to be expected that the usual suspects would be wheeled out to support the bizarre and failed badger cull in England and to call for it to be reinstated here, in Wales.

I have not been disappointed. Somehow, simplistic solutions are appealing despite the over-whelming evidence that they are entirely ineffective. So it has been with the shoot-first and ask-questions-later brigade.

I was pleased therefore to see a sensible contribution to the debate in today's Western Mail from Wales’ chief vet Professor Christianne Glossop, who has managed to put her previous support for a cull of badgers behind her.

Professor Glossop told an audience at the Royal Welsh Show that “finding infection, keeping out infection and stopping disease” is key to beating Bovine tuberculosis in Wales. She is now proposing testing dead badgers so as to build up an evidence base for further action.

The efficacy of the vaccination and control measures introduced by the Welsh Government is apparent from the results.

The Welsh Government's strategy is fairly straightforward. It is to keep infection out of farms; the rapid, early and accurate identification of infection where it does occur so that the disease can be quickly tracked; stopping disease spreading through movement restrictions; very strict measures when a breakdown is identified; and of course preventing bTB spreading in wildlife through the vaccination programme.

As the Professor told her audience, the number of new TB incidents in Wales in the last 12-months ending April 2014 is down by 21%, that means 200 less herds in Wales went down with TB in the
last 12 months. And the number of animals the Wrlsh Government have slaughtered is down 34%.”

In addition, Welsh livestock farmers have been told to insist on pre-movement TB testing of any cattle they source outside Wales. All beef and dairy cattle over six weeks old are tested when they are moved between holdings and herds are also tested annually, but this is not the case across the border in England.

She concluded that the Welsh Government want to base their strategy on hard facts not opinions. It would be nice if the farmers' unions here followed suit, not to mention the UK Government.

And of course if the Plaid Cymru Ministers in the last One Wales Government had taken this course of action instead of dabbling in cull-mythology we could have been even further forward in eradicating this awful disease than we are now.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

More ICT grief

When I informed the Finance Committee of the National Assembly for Wales that the insourcing of the Assembly Commission's ICT service had actually saved more money that anticipated my news was met with astonishment. After all, as the chair said, it is very rare for any public sector ICT project not to overrun and cost more than planned.

Alas, this is true and for good reasons. ICT projects are often not about technology at all. They are change management projects. Not only is that misunderstood but it is common for those commissioning them to overlook that essential truth because they are dazzled by ICT goodies that they only partly understand and often do not deliver on expectations.

ICT projects fail or cost more than anticipated because they are not properly procured, because they are not properly project managed, because they do not secure buy-in across the organisation, because benefits are exagerated and accepted without proper scrutiny and because of an over-reliance on penalty clauses that are not worth the paper they are written on. I know as I have been involved at both ends of the spectrum, albeit on a political level rather than in managing the project.

So, none of us should be surprised by the news in today's Times that HMRC has been censured for “unacceptably poor” management after an IT project spiralled out of control to cost the taxpayer more than £10 billion:

HM Revenue & Customs showed a “lack of rigour” in handling a contract for processing millions of tax returns, the spending watchdog said yesterday. The Aspire deal was costed at £4.1 billion in 2004 but it is predicted that the figure will have more than doubled to £10.4 billion by the time the contract runs out in 2017.

In a highly critical report, the National Audit Office (NAO) also disclosed that Capgemini, the contractor, and Fujitsu, its subcontractor, have already reaped profits of at least £1.2 billion on the deal, or more than double the £500 million forecast.

The NAO revealed that the original contract gave HMRC some of the profits from the scheme, but this right was given away when the deal was renegotiated in 2012. Profits received have only been worth £16 million instead of £71 million.

The contract, which provides 650 IT systems for collecting income tax and national insurance, now costs the taxpayer about £813 million every year and no longer provides value for money, the NAO said. However, time is running out for a replacement contract, which could put tax collection “at risk”.

The paper goes on to say that this is the latest in a string of troubled Whitehall IT projects. They say that the  Department for Work and Pensions has written off part of its computer program for universal credit and the Home Office scrapped a £347 million immigration IT project last August. And that is just the tip of teh iceberg.

What disturbs me is that nobody seems to be learning any lessons from these failures.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hafod- Morfa Copperworks

I joined the Minister for Housing and Regeneration and other Assembly Members yesterday at the Hafod Morfa Copperworks, just south of the Liberty Stadium.  This is a Welsh  Government funded regeneration scheme in partnership with the University of Swansea and Swansea Council.

The copperworks were established from 1810 onwards and became the largest of their type in Europe by 1890. During the mid-nineteenth century, well over half of the world's copper output was smelted in the Lower Swansea Valley and Swansea became known as 'Copperopolis'. The works closed in 1980 and then were abandoned, having been partially demolished.

More information can be found about the copperworks and the regeneration project at the website "A world of Welsh copper' found here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Close Parliamentary relations (a dynastic guide)

In light of the news that Tony Benn's granddaughter has been selected to fight a Parliamentary seat for Labour, the Independent publishes a study of the top ten MPs who have or have had relatives in the House of Commons.

Top of the pile is Nicholas Soames who is the son of Christopher Soames, the cousin of Winston Churchill, nephew of Randolph, grandson of Sir Winston, and great-grandson of Lord Randolph. Trailing iin second is Hilary Benn, who is of course the son of Tony Benn, the grandson of William Wedgwood Benn (Lib then Lab), and the great-grandson of Daniel Holmes and of Sir John Benn (both Lib).

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, turns out to be the grandson of Geoffrey, great-nephew of Douglas (Speaker 1943-1951) and of Howard, and great-great-nephew of James. After that we have the also-rans:

4. Alistair Darling, Lab, Edinburgh SW
Great-nephew of Sir William Darling (Scottish Unionist, Edinburgh South 1945-1957).
5. Peter Bottomley, Con, Worthing West
Husband of Virginia (Con, SW Surrey 1984-2005), uncle of Kitty Ussher (Lab, Burnley 2005-2010).
6. Toby Perkins, Lab, Chesterfield
Great-grandson of Sir AP Herbert (Ind, Oxford University 1935-1950).
7. Luciana Berger, Lab, Liverpool Wavertree
Great-niece of Emanuel Shinwell (Lab, latterly for Easington until 1970).
8. Yvette Cooper, Lab, Pontefract
Wife of Ed Balls, Lab, Morley.
9. Ed Miliband, Lab, Doncaster North
Brother of David Miliband (Lab, South Shields 2001-2013).
10. David Cameron, Con, Witney
Great-grandson of Sir William Mount (Con, Newbury 1900-1906 and 1910-1922).

It is a distingusihed list and with two Benns, a Straw and a Kinnock fighting Parliamentary seats in 2015, it can only grow in size and stature.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

St. Teilo's Church, Bishopston

I have just had a  very enjoyable Sunday lunch in the Gower Hotel, set in the picturesque Bishopston Valley next to St Teilo's Church.

I would happily recommend the hotel if you wish to eat or to stay on the edge of the Gower area of outstanding natural beauty. It is located just few minutes drive from the lovely villages of Kittle and Bishopston and within striking distance of Caswell Bay, Pwll du Bay, Brandy Cove and Pennard Cliffs at Southgate.

From Southgate you can explore the old haunts of Gower poet, Vernon Watkins, a friend of Dylan Thomas (and the better poet in my view). There is a memorial to him just below the cliff edge in Southgate, where you can while away the time watching seagulls circle.  Equally, you can strike out in the opposite direction towards Pobbles and Three Cliffs Bay, at the bottom of a river valley dominated by the magnificent but ruined Pennard Castle.

Or you could do what we did and explore the splendid St. Teilo's Church next door to the Hotel.

The information leaflet tells us that the parish church of St Teilo occupies the site of one of the earliest Christian settlements in Wales. The old Welsh name of the village is Llandeilo Ferwallt, which means Church of St Teilo. According to the book of Llandaff, the church dates back to 480/490 A.D. when St Teilo established a Llan (Church) hidden in a dell above the stream. This was probably a simple wooden fenced open enclosure where the faithful met for worship and to celebrate the Eucharist. Later a cell or small chapel was built on the site.
The Tower is designed in the English or Norman style and is typical of Gower churches, being of simple construction, as is the main building, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century. The leaflet says that the battlements were probably restored in the 19th century but the tower was undoubtedly designed as a safe refuge for the villagers from the sudden attacks by marauders from the sea. Another notable architectural feature is the 'corbel table' of Welsh pattern which runs around the tower below the battlements.

Inside the church the font is particularly worth a look. It is late Norman and is carved out of a single square block of limestone standing on a circular stem, the oak cover is modern.

You can find out more about the church here whilst the Friends of St Teilo's have their own Facebook page here.

Mention of Brandy Cove reminds me of a story from 1985 when a very good friend of mine captured Bishopston for the SDP on West Glamorgan County Council. At the time the new councillor was working as a customs officer.

The name Brandy Cove of course refers back to the area's reputation as a centre of smuggling. The sands were used to land illicit cargo of tobacco and alcohol. There are convenient caves there and a fairly secluded footpath up to the main village.

My friend's election elicited a comment about how times had changed. That day the village had elected a customs officer, a hundred years previously they would have strung him up.

A road too far

There are many reasons why the Welsh Government's proposed M4 relief road should not go ahead, not least the environmental impact, but also because it is based on questionable traffic projections, ties up all the borrowing provision in one corner of Wales, flies in the face of the aims of their own Future Generations bill and undermines efforts to promote and develop public transport alternatives.

It is the latter reason that Gerry Holtham concentrates on in this article in the Western Mail. He asks whether the government’s plan to build a £1bn M4 relief road alongside developing a “transformative” South Wales metro concept at the same time can be achieved, suggesting that the government will have to choose one or the other, or concede that a private-public finance arrangement will be needed.

The paper records that the Economy and Transport Minister's decision to go ahead with the most expensive option has provoked huge controversy among environmental groups, the small business lobby and opposition parties, who accuse her of ploughing ahead with an unnecessarily costly and environmentally-detrimental option, when an alternative £400m to upgrade a distributor road and old steelworks road was not included in the latest consultation.

They add that as a result Plaid Cymru has walked out of negotiations with the Welsh Government on next year’s budget in protest at the decision. We on the other hand are staying in there for now in the hope of influencing the outcome on the M4.

We will see which is the most successful strategy in due course.

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