Monday, 30 April 2012

Let's keep it local

Every time I travel to Swansea, I am grateful to the Liberal Democrat-led city council for the gleaming, spacious bus station. The bus from Neath passes the recreated leisure centre, for which Swansea residents are also no doubt grateful. These are both projects which the previous Labour administration promised, but failed to deliver. I am told that the governance of the council has also improved.

So it is depressing, but not surprising, that Welsh Labour has chosen to deflect attention from local issues with a full-page advertisement in today's Evening Post attacking the Westminster coalition's budget. The only nod towards local campaigning is a box containing the words NO SUCH THING AS AN INDEPENDENT. There are many genuinely independent candidates who will feel insulted by this slur, and I am not the only member of my party who sympathises with them.

The advert lists five categories of people who Labour says will be worse off as a result of coalition policies.  The politest way of describing these is that they are gross distortions or generalisations, rather than 100% lies. However, the claim that "millionaires and fat cats" will be better off as a result of the budget is totally wrong. In fact, the super-rich will not only pay more when then they buy or sell "mansions" as a result of the 2012 budget, they will also pay 5% more on the top slice of their income from 2013/14 onwards than they did under Labour. Remember that the much-vaunted 50% rate was only a temporary expedient for the tax year 2011/12 (only a few weeks of which saw Labour still in government). Because of this, the more adroit millionaires will have taken care to defer earnings for that year.

But to return to local issues: a word of praise for the Conservative party political broadcast tonight which, while taking passing swipes at Labour's record in Westminster and Plaid Cymru's nationalism and socialism, concentrated on Welsh Conservatives' local government policy. Also, from the literature I have seen so far, it seems that Labour candidates in Neath and Port Talbot have the decency (and courage!) to campaign solely on their record in the civic centre.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Unison's manifesto for the local elections

Unison, the major trade union organising local authority staff, sent out a manifesto (four-page pdf) to all elected representatives in Wales last week. It is admirably non-party political.There are even ideas which chime with Liberal Democrat policy: more devolution to local communities and a fair local property tax. It is a pity the union doesn't go further and call for local income tax. All three measures would require central government decision, of course.

The union also wants to keep social housing and care homes in local authority control. They should be aware that it is too late in the case of Neath Port Talbot - and a few other Labour-controlled authorities.

One cannot argue with the call for fair treatment of local authority workers' pay, but all circumstances, including comparison with equivalent private sector people, have to be taken into account.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Proms 2012

The programme for the season is at

There are some as will cavil at the inclusion of such populist events as the "My Fair Lady" prom (14th July), the "Wallace and Gromit" afternoon event (29th July), "The Broadway Sound" (27th August) or the celebration of Ivor Novello (9th August). However, they are all representative of orchestral music and they are not out of proportion to the rest of the programme. If there is an objection, it is that they celebrate the craft of the arranger almost as much as the original composer. At least we are to be spared the Tim Minchin love-in that was last year's "comedy prom", but maybe the "Desert Island Discs" prom (31st August) could prove to be an equivalent gimmick.

Collaboration is a feature of jazz, too, and I'm glad to see that not only is the National Youth Jazz Orchestra back (10th August) but that there is another late-night nod to a jazz great in "The Spirit of Django". There is only one "world music" event, sadly. It had seemed a few years ago that the Proms were ready to embrace permanently Indian music and accept contributions from Indonesia and China. (I had expected "Pliable" to put a case for the traditional music of North Africa, also.) Good to see, too, is the afternoon of French song and the continuing policy of chamber music proms.

It is largely a traditional mix of the core Western classical music repertoire (including the complete Beethoven symphonic cycle, a regular feature of Proms gone by) with nuggets of new music. Just how much of the specially-commissioned new stuff will survive is anyone's guess. Even such appealing music as Malcolm Williamson's "Wall" from many years back sank without trace. But the effort has to be made.

One post-Glock innovation which has gone too far in my opinion is the inclusion of so many complete theatrical works. Three hours of "Nixon in China", on top of four operas, including both parts of the mighty Trojans on one day, and what is probably Prokoviev's most boring score (though I believe John Amis has a soft spot for it), the Cinderella ballet, is surely stretching patience.

Prokoviev is however given his due this season, as is Ralph Vaughan Williams. But why programme both the Vaughan Williams fourth and sixth symphonies on the same evening? RVW rejected suggestions of a programme for any of his symphonies, but for this listener the fourth is violent (almost literally diabolical, because it has a lot in common with Satan's music in "Job") and the mood of the sixth is one of desolation. Better to pair the fourth with the more pastoral fifth symphony, as Andrew Manze's recent Scottish programme has done, and the sixth with the more joyous seventh.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Jack Tramiel

It is unusual for the passing of a home computing pioneer to be unremarked, but Jack Tramiel's death early in April passed me by until his obituary in The Independent. Before Apple III and Alan Sugar's Amstrads, he was responsible for the first all-in-one computer that worked "out of the box", the Commodore Pet. The machine gave a major boost to our own computer games industry, so we should be grateful for his efforts. This continued after he fell out with the Commodore board and revived Atari as a competitor.

He was a ruthless businessman. Tales of Mafia deals, how he was caught in an attempt to rip off Microsoft BASIC and multiple lawsuits abound. However, a more generous side of his character has emerged. He was a generous donor to charities, especially those connected with the Shoah, which he survived by the skin of his teeth.

Update 2012-4-21: BBC's "Last Word" caught up yesterday:

Wrexham's electric crusade continues

LibDem-led Wrexham council has invested in two Nissan Leaf electric cars. They are to be used on day-to-day duties in the housing and environment directorates. It is clearly a pilot study. By the end of it, one hopes that  the council will be among the first customers for the British-built Leaf, scheduled to start production in February next year.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Closing the countryside

Neath Port Talbot council has taken Sarn Helen off its Top Ten walks, as advertised on its main web site. This spectacular former Roman road has been neglected for years by successive councils, local activists tell me, and now - it seems under pressure from a local industrialist - the process of closing it to the public has begun. It no longer figures on Neath Port Talbot Ramblers summer programme. Is it coincidental that the latest salami-slicing is taking place during a local election campaign, when councillors' minds are directed elsewhere?

There is more to be written about Sarn Helen and a treasury of documents to go through. However, there is another pressing matter, and that is the proposed closure to the public of Morfa Beach.

I have been told that waste was dumped on footpath 93 over three months ago, blocking the right of way. In spite of a complaint to Neath Port Talbot council in February, no action has been taken over the obstruction. Now, a walker on footpath 92 has been told by a person who would not identify himself that it had been closed because of dangerous traffic movements. The Save Morfa Beach campaign later ascertained that the path was legally open and safe to walk.

The campaign is sponsoring an awareness day to take place on Saturday, April 21, at noon outside the Port Talbot Civic Centre.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Thatcher more decent than Blair

Craig Murray is to give a lecture in Cardiff tomorrow night on the subject of whistle-blowers, with particular reference to Bradley Manning. In a measured interview on Sunday Supplement this morning, he said something which was new to me, but presumably covered in "Murder in Samarkand". He was a witness to Margaret Thatcher, when she was prime minister, laying down the rule to our "spooks" that they were not to make use of intelligence which was likely to have been obtained under torture. This policy, he said, was reversed under Blair-Bush.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Very worrying for Labour

Since the general election, and the tough remedies which the chancellor of the exchequer has imposed, the Conservatives have not been popular and this unpopularity has rubbed off on Liberal Democrats as coalition partners. In many places the message that we have restrained the Conservatives from even more regressive measures has filtered through, so that we have marked net gains in council by-elections in the UK since January. It has to be admitted that Labour has until recently also been making gains, but a result from Darlington this week must give them pause.

Darlington UA, Harrowgate Hill
Date: 12/04/2012
Con 694 (43.8; +3.2)
Lab 607 (38.3; -21.1)
LD Hilary Allen 142 (9.0; +9.0)
UKIP 95 (6.0; +6.0)
England First 47 (3.0; +3.0)
Majority 87
Turnout 33.8%
Con gain from Lab.
Percentage change is since May 2011.

The Conservative win was achieved in spite of interventions from UKIP and England First. The good news about new investment creating more jobs in the north-east of England would have come too late to influence the result. The major factor has to be the dramatic fall in the Labour vote. Clearly, Ed Miliband inspired neither traditional Labour voters nor his party workers in Darlington. There are stories in the blogosphere of a reorganisation of the party in London causing splits. This, and a relocation of party HQ, coming at the same time as local government campaigns in London and the English cities, cannot have helped. If Ken Livingstone falls to third place on first preferences in the London mayoral election, it is hard to see where Labour can go.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Nursing on the wrong path

Things have come a long way from the time when Margaret Thatcher felt able to imply the low professional status of nurses by declaring that it was a good way to get a husband. (As I recall, she was excusing their low pay at the time. Some things do not change.) But they may have gone too far in the opposite direction.

I make no apologies for linking to Independent articles which are based on the English NHS, because the basic pattern of nursing careers is the same in Wales, having been set before devolution. In a series which started last  Tuesday (and continued on Wednesdayyesterday and today), Christina Patterson examined the perception that today's nurses suffer from callousness, or at best a deficit of compassion. As the first article showed, the starting point for the series was her own experience as a surgical patient.

The introduction to the Wednesday article is significant: "When I asked people who worked, or had worked, in the NHS what they thought had caused the biggest changes in nursing care, nearly all of them mentioned something called Project 2000. This was a new system introduced in the early 1990s, which moved the training of nurses out of hospitals and into universities. Instead of the old apprenticeship system where nurses were attached to hospital schools, and trained on the job, they now had to study off-site for a diploma, or degree. And now, even the diplomas are being phased out. By next year, all nurses who qualify in this country will have to get a degree. [...]

"It wouldn't be fair to say that Project 2000 has produced nurses who are 'too posh to wash', or that their training is all about theory, and not practice. Trainee nurses do spend about half their training time on the wards, but they are supervised by 'mentors' who are often too busy doing paperwork to help them turn theory into practice."

This shift towards an academic approach to nursing mirrors what has been happening in local government social services. In the opinion of many people it needs to be reversed, in both professions.

I invite comments and/or corrections from anyone with informed views.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A small nation finds a profitable use for its spare electricity

Iceland can produce loads of cheap electricity by geothermal means, but one can't export electricity any great distance. However, there is a trend for multi-national specialists like Google to build huge computer "farms" to handle all the data, and data requests, they make their living from - and data can be imported and exported easily. These data farms need a lot of cheap reliable electricity, which is what Iceland is offering. It could also be that is easier to cool all that computing machinery in Iceland than in southern California.

Cllr John Tallamy is wont to say, when yet another application for a power station in Neath Port Talbot comes before the planning committee, that we already produce more electricity in Wales than we consume in Wales. The trouble is that it is not cheap.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Political apathy continues

The lists of candidates for county borough and community council elections for Neath Port Talbot are on the council's web-site. There is a surprising number of uncontested wards, more than in 2008 if memory serves. I am not at all deprecating the contributions that Colin Morgan, Hugh James, Scott Jones or Arwyn Woolcock have made to the council, nor the regard with which they are clearly held in their communities, but it is a sad sign for democracy that nobody in Briton Ferry, Cymmer or Brynamman felt able to give electors there a choice.

It is also noticeable that are fewer young Labour candidates than one was led to expect. Rumours were circulating in the members' room last year that Labour was forcing many of its veteran councillors to stand aside to make room for a new generation, but it appears that the new generation has backed down.

Giorgio Chinaglia

I just missed Chinaglia's playing for Swansea Town. He had already been released by the Swans by the time the advance guard of DVL set up in the borough. (City status came later, in 1969.) He could well have made his mark in South Wales, but it seems that the management were unsure of his correct position and played him too often as a centre-back because of his imposing physique. As Bob Latchford was later to show, he could have thrived at the Vetch Field as a bustling centre-forward. As it was, he had to return to the land of his fathers to prove himself. What Lazio may also have done for him was to impose some discipline, as he later confessed (as this obituary by Phil Shaw records) that he spent much of his time drinking ale and winding up his fellow team members.

Friday, 6 April 2012

"A friendly welcome awaits you - just turn up"

I have the 2012 summer programme of Neath & Port Talbot Ramblers. There will be walks every Sunday from now until September 30th (apologies for missing the first two of the series on April 1st). In addition, there will be special walks on May 5th celebrating the opening of Wales's coastal path, the first circumscribing a British nation.

At a recent meeting of the Friends of Craig Gwladys, I also heard the suggestion of a Solstice Walk. Watch this space.

There is more on the ramblers' website.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

May elections will put Welsh councillors in for life

Liberal Democrat Voice has published what is probably a spoof story this April 1st about English local authorities. The thesis is that Eric Pickles is concerned about budget-setting being carried out too close to the end of a council's life, that he wants to see it as one of the early functions of a new council and that he will therefore legislate to bring forward local authority elections from May to February. The story is here, but don't be surprised if it disappears by 11:59.

However, it did raise a serious point (or a bit of trivia, if you prefer). Earlier this month, the local communities minister in the Welsh Government confirmed that councillors elected next month will be in for a five-year term instead of the normal four years. This is ostensibly in order to avoid a clash with the next Welsh Assembly elections, themselves put back a year because of the new fixed date for the UK general election in 2015.

The extended life of the existing councils will also give more time to the Welsh Government to prepare its stated objective of creating new super-councils, merging two or three unitaries. It is therefore possible that the next term for Welsh councillors will be their last for the life of their present councils. It will also enable some of those who are elected to the 2017 super-councils to claim a bizarre record of serving their communities under four different local government structures*. I can think of several Neath Port Talbot CBC members who would qualify and be up for this.

*Before the 1994 Act setting up the Welsh unitary councils, there was the 1985 Local Government Reorganisation Act which applied to both England and Wales.