Friday, 27 January 2012

Aberdulais aqueduct

It's good news that Neath Port Talbot council has decided to initiate a feasibility study into the restoration of this key component of what was once a network of local canals. The Tennant Canal Company might quibble about the literal in the fourth paragraph of the council's press release, but one presumes that the Neath and Tennant Canals Trust was party to the decision and welcomes an officially-promoted study.

The last estimate I heard for the restoration proper was £6 million, so we will no doubt be looking for grant money and commercial sponsorship to provide the bulk of the funds. There should be local benefits from the project, not only in the long term in the form of tourism income, but also during the construction providing jobs requiring a range of skills and abilities.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Tax cut: it could be happening

From the start of the coalition, I've been arguing that the Liberal Democrat manifesto proposal to take the first £10,000 of earnings out of tax should be put into effect soonest rather than spread over the parliament - and I've not been the only one. Now, it seems from a letter that Vince Cable has sent to members and from intimations of a speech Nick Clegg is making today, that the party in government is seriously pressing the case.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Good news, bad news

One sector of the Welsh economy is fulfilling the coalition government's plea to diversify outside Britain and the EU: sheep-farming. Wales Online reports that Dai Davies, head of HCC (Hybu Cig Cymru, the Welsh red meat promotion body) is ready to announce that Wales is Europe’s biggest exporter of sheep meat to countries outside of the EU.

Perhaps because they have been sensitive to criticism about the undemanding employment that they provide (but why query the motives when the outcome is good?), McDonald's some time ago set up a model training and development scheme for their workers. There is news that there will be 125 more McDonald's jobs in Wales.

On the other hand, only the archetypal Daily Mail reader will take satisfaction from the news that house prices in Wales show no signs of falling. Young couples will find it just that bit more difficult to buy that starter home, and there will be upward pressure on rents.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Post Offices secured by Liberal Democrat ministers

The Press Association story is here. The responses by the main players are telling: "Sub-postmasters welcomed the move but the Communication Workers Union said it was the end of an era for a fully publicly-owned postal service." The response to that is that post offices were being closed week-by-week when they were 100% publicly owned.

Thanks to Stephen Tall for the alert.
 

Pubcos should be first in line for worker directors

I believe Vince Cable and Ed Davey are doing well at the Business department, but they do seem to have failed to defend locals, which are closing down at an astonishing rate, and their tenants. Gareth Epps has posted expansively here.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Recalling MPs

Peter Facey of "Unlock Democracy" has written to urge more vigorous action. I pass on his message without comment:

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The government has published its own ideas about recalling MPs, but as I said when I spoke to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on Thursday, these proposals which would put all the control in the hands of party whips and parliamentary committees[1].  For those MPs who’d rather not listen to voters between elections, that’s going to be a big relief.
How many jobs do you know where you can’t be fired for five years, even if you don’t do what you promised you would and steal from the till? This is our chance to make sure MPs don’t think they can get away with ignoring us, or just toeing their party’s line.
Email your MP now using our online tool:
[1]  See http://unlockdemocracy.org.uk/blog/entry/peter-facey-gives-evidence-on-recall
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I await detailed analysis of Parliament's proposals - FHL.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Danish presidency of the European Council

Having watched Borgen last night - well, most of it, switching only to see Match of the Day - it was only natural to round off my viewing with a sight of the real female Danish prime minister. (Did Borgen influence the decision of the Danish electorate, one wonders?) BBC Parliament had a recording of Helle Thorning- Schmidt's speech to the European Parliament on its late night Review programme. After noting that the speech was in only slightly accented English, which must have annoyed the French no end, what struck me most was the note of fiscal responsibility which the Danish PM sounded from the start. She went on to mention the need for steady and self-sustaining growth, but on a sound economic basis. This was from the Social Democrat leader of a coalition government which includes Liberals.

It is going to be a tough presidency. Ms Thorning-Schmidt sees Europe's salvation in green growth, an educated youth and both widening and deepening the European Union. (There is a pdf here.)

Saturday, 21 January 2012

"Economist" debate resolution: let's stay in the EU

The Economist in print and online is well down the list of my reading material, so I am grateful to La Treizi√®me √Čtoile for the information that there has been a debate in the periodical on the UK's future in the European Union. In spite of some prominent Eurosceptics leading the argument, the proposition that "This house believes that Britain should leave the EU" was lost.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Ecology Building Society response to Green Deal consultation document

In November last year, Chris Huhne's Department of Energy and Climate Change issued a consultation document (239 page pdf) on the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation. The Ecology Building Society response is here (6 page pdf).

The oldest ex-MP was an early profit-sharer

I am grateful to Liberal Democrat News and to Jonathan Calder for information about Theodore Taylor. This gentleman holds the record (beating Labour's Manny Shinwell by about six months) for the longest-lived  member of the British Parliament. He was 102 when he died in 1952.

But he also deserves to be remembered as a pioneer of profit-sharing in British industry. He joined the family cloth-making business of J T & J Taylor Ltd. in 1866 and eventually became its head. In 1896 he transformed the business into a private limited company. This, after paying five percent on capital, distributed the remaining profits to all workers employed for a year or more. Eventually the majority share ownership passed to the workforce.

Incidentally, although talk of co-operatives in the wake of Nick Clegg's speech has been dominated by the names of John Lewis Partnership (employee cooperative) and the Cooperative Society (customer cooperative), there are hundreds of others including the worldwide chemical specialists Scott Bader and smaller ones throughout the UK. There is a 22-page list at Co-operatives UK.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Evening Post editor before Leveson

Spencer Feeney was one of a group of local newspaper editors giving evidence to the Inquiry on
media ethics and phone hacking yesterday. He said that the South Wales Evening Post is not afraid to criticise the Welsh assembly. The Guardian report did not say whether he was prepared to criticise the Welsh Government or local authorities other than Swansea City Council.

More evidence of need for "one-stop shop" for small business

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-16610819

The Welsh Government is in the best position to take the lead on this, with cooperation from Westminster. However, I fear that the blind party partisanship of Welsh Labour will prevent the latter.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

High culture on radio

"Pliable", the author of "On an Overgrown Path" quotes a Canadian correspondent on a perceived slide into populism on the Dominion's equivalent of Radio 3. There is also a comment by a reviewer supporting both men's criticism of Radio 3's music policy.

Classic FM clearly fulfils a need, and is commercially successful. For a publicly-funded broadcaster to compete for the same audience is pointless and worse - it could jeopardise Classic FM's viability while losing Radio 3's unique qualities at the same time. If BBC had been really concerned about maintaining their audience for the popular classics, it should not have shifted Radio 2 towards the charts when it did.

I do like some of the presenters, those who are executants like Sarah Walker (why are flautists so sexy?) and Verity Sharp and therefore know about music from the inside, but there are now too many "personalities". Also, too many "bleeding chunks" are played, especially on the Saturday afternoon programme. When Brahms or Sibelius wrote a symphony they conceived it as an organic whole, not for some DJ to  pull out "the good bits".

One development (or perhaps a return to the original remit of the Third Programme) which is welcome is the broadcasting of challenging - either experimental or dealing with controversial subjects - drama on Sunday evening. These are usually plays which it would be difficult to air on Radio 4. One should also applaud the platform given to avant-garde jazz, which fits nowhere else. I may not like everything that Radio 3 may play, but I will defend their right to play it.

"Me-too" airport would damage environment

The only reason stated publicly for the Thames Estuary airport espoused by Boris Johnson is competition with continental airports. It is interesting that two of the three major competitors Johnson cites are not capital cities, which suggests that if expansion of air links really is vital to the UK, then this expansion should surely take place in the industrial heartlands, either in Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds. These cities will be linked to London by HS2 on a timescale rather shorter than that for building an airport in the Thames.

There may be a short-term gain of construction jobs, but the long-term environmental loss is far greater. As the RSPB said in 2008: "airport construction in the estuary would be the most destructive development ever undertaken in the UK. It would seriously hamper all attempts to cut the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions." Because the estuary is an important wildlife resource, it is protected by UK and European law. Add the number of people in Kent and Essex who would take to the law to protect their quality of life, and one can foresee only lawyers benefiting if the prime minister pursues this.

Conservatives having trouble with democracy

Guido Fawkes confirms that Conservative Central Office is trying to interfere with the natural succession following the resignation announced by Roger Helmer from the European Parliament. They clearly wish to distance themselves from Rupert Matthews' too-open mind on UFOs while shoe-horning in a Central Office A-lister.

One recalls a similar sensitivity to possible media reaction to the possible promotion to the Welsh Assembly from the South Wales West list of Christopher Smart. As a result, Alun Cairns was persuaded to stay on as an AM after his election as MP.

Monday, 16 January 2012

I hope we're not claiming too much

There is little doubt that if the Conservatives had won an absolute majority in 2010, the 50p tax rate for higher-earners would have been scrapped, as Peter Black points out. It has also been suggested in various quarters that George Osborne is seriously considering a property tax which would be less easy to avoid than taxes on income. So one hopes that Nick Clegg is pushing at an open door when he proclaims that he is still fighting within the coalition for a "mansion tax", even if the qualifying value is higher than the £1m which we once favoured.

Why should the unions trust Labour?

I wrote the heading this afternoon, intending to fill in the evidence when I had more time this evening. Then I heard on BBC Radio 4 News about an article by Len McCluskey and I thought: why bother?

The "Blairite" accusation is telling, because Tony Blair once boasted of Britain having the most restrictive trade union legislation in Western Europe.

Swansea success not down to just one man

It was good to see Swans-Arsenal being the featured match in today's Independent Sport. However, I would take issue on a couple of points. Firstly, although I wasn't at the match and couldn't pick out any crowd singing on the highlights on "Match of the Day 2", I will wager that it was not "Land of my Fathers" that was being sung, but "Hymns and Arias".

Secondly, although no praise can be too high for Brendan Rodgers, we should not forget the chairman and board of the club for picking a manager who matched their ideals of passing football. It was this same board who gave Roberto Martinez his major break in management for the same reason. It is sad to see Martinez's present club, Wigan Athletic, struggling in the Premier League but all credit to Wigan's board for sticking by him.

Another old Liberal idea is revived

Nick Clegg's call for more co-ownership in industry, along the lines of the John Lewis Partnership, has revived an idea that used to be a cornerstone of Liberal manifestos in the 1950s and early 1960s. It has been given impetus by the remarkable trading results of John Lewis over the Christmas period while competitors were falling back or treading water.

When the Liberals resolved to support Jim Callaghan's administration in the 1970s in order to prevent an economic melt-down, the party received no political profit. However, we did manage to initiate one item of legislation, that to make it easier to set up and run co-operative enterprises. After Sir Geoffrey Howe, in the Thatcher government that followed, drove up interest rates again, a great swathe of British industry, heavily indebted, was forced under. Co-operatives disproportionately survived.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The F word

Thinking of the recent exchange of handbags between David Cameron and Alex Salmond, I am not afraid to use the word "federal". William Hobhouse sums up my feelings and, I believe, most of the Liberal Democrat party:


Liberal Democrats believe in the Union with devolution just as we believe in the EU with subsidiarity. We see a world with global, European, national, regional and local problems, and we seek to build political structures where decisions are taken by the right people in the right place. We are unionists because we believe in Britain with our shared language, our shared history and our shared culture.
The debate on Scottish independence gives the Liberal Democrats a golden opportunity to set out a distinctive unionist vision for Great Britain. Unionist within Europe. Pro-European, totally committed to being at the heart of the EU, sticking up for Britain and better preserving and enhancing our Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English and British identity.

Ed Balls is consistently inconsistent

In the preview of his keynote speech to this weekend's Fabian Society conference on "The Economic Alternative", Ed Balls says of the coalition's deficit reduction strategy: “Nobody in the Labour Party should get into the idea that it has to be this way”.

In his interview in the Guardian this morning: “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts.”

Thanks to Guido for this.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Courts rule that Revenue & Customs cannot use fines as a cash cow

The Independent newspaper today reports that a tax tribunal decision could result in hundreds of small businesses receiving a refund of fines levied for late payment of tax. The Revenue had cunningly neglected to remind businesses that tax was due until they had already racked up hundreds of pounds in penalties. But, as the tribunal ruled, "when Parliament legislated to allow a penalty fine it did so 'to encourage compliance and, in cases where compliance did not take place, to levy a proportionate penalty'. [...] It is no function of the state to use the penalty system as a cash-generating scheme."

Small businesses, which cannot afford to employ a designated tax specialist, are particularly vulnerable to this particular wheeze. Publicity given to the Revenue's sharp practice and to Judge Geraint Jones's decision will, one trusts, give impetus to the efforts to pursue large corporations which have been granted dubious tax exemptions in the recent past.

Public Houses: lobbying group coup outrage

Greg Mulholland, Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Save the Pub Group, reacted angrily to the revelation that the Department of Business's response to a critical Select Committee report on pub ownership was largely "cut-and-pasted" from a paper provided by BBPA, the body representing the pub companies. He said:


"The Freedom of Information request put in by the Save the Pub Group has been extremely revealing, not least in confirming our concerns that the Government's response stemmed from secret negotiations with the pubcos representative organisation, the British Beer and Pub Association and the pub companies themselves.
"However, much more seriously, it is now become apparent that the Government response is basically British Beer & Pub Association's (BBPA) own report, with some passages and so called commitments cut and pasted word for word. So, in reality, the so called Government response in actually the pubcos response, which is appalling.
"There are also serious questions about the way BIS officials have worked with the BBPA. The fact that BIS officials were assisting the BBPA in writing their press release on the 31st October, just five weeks after the Select Committee report and three weeks ahead of the Government's response, really demonstrates the way in which so called 'Government solution' was put together".
"The claim that this is an industry agreed solution is nonsense; it has become clear that despite the claims of the BBPA that the report had been agreed by partners, including the GMV and the ALMR, this was not the case. The Save the Pub Group have had confirmation from both the GMV and the ALMR that they never approved a final report. The BBPA therefore appear to have sought to mislead the Minister then BIS officials have not even checked this, merely included it in their report. That is a shoddy way of working."

Greg was joined in his condemnation by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Labour's Kate Hoey. He concluded:
"The Save the Pub Group still believe that the only solution that will deal with the fundamental imbalance between pubco and licensee is a genuine free of tie option with open market rent review. Only this would stop the pubcos taking more than is fair or sustainable from pubs. Without this licensees will continue to fail and pubs that need not close will close. Sadly the Government's BBPA inspired response will do nothing to address that"

The House of Commons sided with the Save The Pub group in a lively debate yesterday. CAMRA gave a running commentary on the debate here.

Railway electrification extension: too much emphasis on Swansea passengers

The Welsh Government, Swansea businessmen and AM Peter Black are right to press the advantages to Swansea of extension of electrification from Cardiff to Wales's second city. This article typifies the campaign. But to my mind the advantages to commerce and industry along the South Wales coast would be as great. The needs of Neath and, even more, Port Talbot for a faster and more reliable rail connection with England are overlooked in the media. The coalition government has consistently said that it will listen to a case for the extension and that it wants to shift the UK economy's emphasis back towards industry. No doubt Tata Steel's management are working behind the scenes, but adding the industrial case to the public campaign will surely strengthen it.

While on the subject of Tata Steel, the company's rail-making plant in Scunthorpe is set to benefit from the go-ahead given to the high-speed rail link between London, Coventry and Birmingham. Hitachi in Newton Aycliffe, Durham, may well build the locomotives for HS2 as they are already confirmed as the suppliers of what I still think of as "electro-diesels" for the South Wales main line. Even the contentious* Thameslink contract will guarantee up to 300 jobs at Siemens' Tyneside works. It seems to me that the coalition government has done as much for the rail industry in the UK in just under two years as the dithering Labour government did in eleven.

*The outgoing Labour government locked the Department of Transport into a contract procedure for Thameslink train sets which produced a continental European winner, Siemens. Labour's supporters then campaigned for the incoming Conservative minister to renege on the contract to favour Canadian-owned Bombardier in Derby.

Labour government's social housing standards target not met

BBC reports that "The Welsh government will not meet its own 10-year target for improving the quality of social housing this year, according to a new report." There were doubts among the professionals at the time that the Welsh Housing Quality Standard was set as to whether the time-scale was realistic. It became - maybe it was always the intention to be - a stick with which the Labour/Plaid government beat councils into organising the sale of their housing stock.

I understand that Kirsty Williams is in discussions with the present Labour administration in Cardiff over a mortgage guarantee scheme which would help younger couples into house ownership. If it comes off, it should assist in releasing more flats and houses available to rent.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

CIx

There is an independent endorsement of my favourite internet resource here: http://www.bloorresearch.com/blog/the-norfolk-punt/2011/12/newest-bestest.html

As David says in his blog entry, CIx goes back to the days of monochrome VDUs and 80-column text screens. In spite of its latest Web incarnation, Cix Forums, now working well under its excellent management (and I am not saying that just because I am in some of the same CIx conferences as Leslie), I still prefer to download my messages and deal with them offline. It is good to have a slightly different way of handling internet discussion - and it is less frustrating than trying to fight BT when the network is slow.

But however I connect, I feel I am in civilised company: if not all are friends, at least a better class of enemy.

Immigration does not cause unemployment

There was this in the USA, and now there is this in the UK.

There may be strains caused by unplanned immigration, but an increase in unemployment is not one of them.

Monday, 9 January 2012

EU killed Channel Islands VAT wheeze

There was me thinking that George Osborne had done the decent thing and moved to end the off-shore VAT dodge off his own bat. Thanks to Private Eye, I now know that it was a strongly-worded letter from the European Commission which forced the Chancelllor to end the misuse of Low Value Consignment Relief. The story is here:
http://www.vatloophole.co.uk/eu-commission-position-clear-lvcr-abuse/811/

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Memories of a great Liberal

Planning my watching & listening for Saturday, I especially marked 20:02 on Radio 4. John Arlott was a hero on so many fronts, not just sporting (he was a good football commentator as well as a lover of cricket), but also literary and political. There was a concern that an archive programme might concentrate on the first to the detriment of the other two, but I need not have worried. It triumphantly celebrated Arlott's Liberalism with many clips from "Any Questions?" on which he was a regular panellist, together with some revealing interview answers and an analysis of his role in breaking apartheid in South Africa.

I would, however, argue over the statement that "he would have found obedience to the party whip difficult, and he rarely adopted a party political stance". Practically all of the views that he expressed on last night's programme would put him four-square in the middle of today's Liberal Democrats, and one recalls Paul Tyler's likening the task of LibDem Chief Whip to that of herding cats. Arlott would no doubt have objected to several of the coalition's policies, but in that he would be joined by the rank-and-file of the LibDem parliamentary party. Outside the world of broadcasting, Arlott also worked wholeheartedly for the Liberal Party, fund-raising and speaking.

The BBC has a patchy record of curating its historic recordings, so it was gratifying to hear that so many of those old "Any Questions?"* recordings have survived. There is another discussion to which Arlott contributed which I would dearly like to hear again, but, because it was part of what would normally have been routine test match coverage, has no doubt been routinely wiped. During a rain break at the Oval, the name of Wilfred Wooller came up. Arlott's antipathy to Wooller's political views, especially on apartheid, is clear from the extract from the Panorama debate played in yesterday's archive programme. Yet his respect for Wooller the unflinching cricketer and the man, who by sheer force of character had pulled many of his fellow Japanese prisoners-of-war through to survival as Arlott recounted, was evident. It would probably not be true to say that he would rather lose an argument than a friend, but he certainly had a balanced view of people and politics.

* They would repay study by today's AQ editor and chairman. Grisewood's light touch and less journalistic approach encouraged more entertaining and enlightening discussion, even on weighty political matters, than we hear nowadays.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Compromised music journalists

It is an open secret that popular music reportage has long been tainted with corrupt practices, but it never occurred to me that classical music criticism was compromised by commercial interests. This post on "On an Overgrown Path" was a revelation. The linking by author "Pliable" of his editorial to the recent report by Elizabeth Filkin on the grey area of police/journalist relationships is not too far-fetched. He can hardly be accused of hypocrisy, because he has consistently cited his sources and influences in all his posts.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Some sense from the Labour front bench at last?

The firm statement by shadow defence spokesman Jim Murphy that budget cuts were necessary should indicate a more responsible approach from Her Majesty's official opposition. Labour took a step backwards when the realistic former chancellor Alistair Darling retreated to the back benches and Ed Miliband appointed Ed Balls in his stead. Balls was the apostle of the "growth can go on for ever" theory that caused Gordon Brown nearly to drive the UK economy into the ground and clearly still believes that increased government borrowing is the answer to all our woes.

Contrary to the story put about by Harriet Harman and others, critics of Labour do not blame Gordon Brown for the western world's economic seizure (though his failure to restrain his friends in the banking sector made a contribution to the crunch). No, the charge against Brown is that, by increasing the budget deficit in the good times, he left nothing in the UK kitty for application to Keynesian measures when the economy cooled.

Now Jim Murphy should have a word with Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, who in interviews with the BBC still confuses the deficit (defined as the shortfall between expenditure and revenue, and which is down to budget planning) with the credit crunch, which indeed can be blamed on the transatlantic banks.

Seven days to save the pub!

 CAMRA needs help to persuade our MPs to support a fair deal for pubs tied to the large pub companies. They say: "This important issue is being debated and voted upon in Parliament on Thursday 12th January and we need your MP's support. Please take 2 minutes to email your MP. The pre-written email asks your MP to VOTE FOR a Parliamentary Motion asking the Government to introduce meaningful reform of the large pub companies.
"The Government has recognised the existence of "unfair practices" in the relationship between the large pub companies and their licensees along with the failure of the pub companies to deliver meaningful self regulation. The unfair practices adding pressure to many pubs include excessively high tied prices, unjustified rent calculations and misrepresentation. These unfair practices result in higher consumer prices and unnecessary pub closures.

 "Following years of campaigning by CAMRA, MPs, small business groups and many others the Business Minister set out proposals for self regulation last November. Unfortunately, these proposals have been widely castigated as naive, unenforceable and insubstantial. The Parliamentary Business Select Committee has secured a vote in Parliament in an attempt to force the Government to toughen up its approach.

 "This Government gave a clear commitment that failure by the pubcos to self regulate would result in robust Government intervention. Please help us to hold the Government to its word by asking your MP to vote in favour of the Parliamentary Motion on pub company reform being debated by MPs on Thursday 12th January."

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Cardiff Labour MP leads police commissioner election race

The announcement by Alun Michael tends to confirm my fears expressed here. His name recognition factor plus the support of the Labour political machine (unless a candidate more favoured by Victoria Street comes forward) makes him favourite to become the first police and crime commissioner in South Wales. Mr Michael is a Cardiff MP (though he will give up his seat if he is cleared to stand for the commissioner post) and is bound to be influenced by Cardiff priorities. There must also be a fear of a Labour-Welsh-Government - Labour-police-commissioner axis.

There is clearly a need for a high-profile independent contestant who can attract wide support across the region and across party sympathies.