Monday, 25 February 2008

Route Maps and Parsnips

A wonderful thing is a route map. A good one sets out the best route for getting from one point to another. But if you don't also have control of the steering wheel, and the driver decides to follow a different route – or even to drive to a different destination - it can end up being of purely academic value.

At first sight, the Renewable Energy Route Map for Wales, launched last week by the Assembly Government, is an exciting document. It would certainly be a major achievement for the Assembly Government if Wales were to follow the route laid out. But do the Assembly Government (or the UK Government, come to that – this isn’t just another plea for more powers) have enough control of the steering wheel to be certain of following the route that they have laid down?

It’s the verbs – the ‘doing’ words - in any plan which indicate how it is to be implemented, and the route map seems to me to fail this test. The key verbs throughout the document are ‘consider’, ‘explore’, ‘encourage’, ‘examine’, and ‘support’. These are not words which suggest to me the serious implementation of change on a sufficiently wide scale in a sufficiently short timescale.

The few more specific actions talk about the use of grants to encourage the private sector to undertake certain developments rather than others - in short using public money to subsidise favoured developments. There are two problems with this approach. In the first place, it means that, regardless of how this is spun, public expenditure which could be used on front line services is effectively being used to subsidise some energy costs; and secondly, it does not even guarantee that the private sector will undertake those developments.

The problem with energy policy is that too much of it is effectively being left to the market, and the market pursues those strategies which deliver most profit to the private companies, not those strategies which best fit government plans – or those which address the issue of climate change. Worse, it’s not even a level market; as opponents of wind farms are quick to point out, the ‘renewables subsidy’ given by the government to encourage the development of renewable energy, actually distorts the market. That is the government’s intention, of course, but whether the distortion works as intended, and has the desired effect, remains open to considerable debate.

That is not to say, of course, that the market / private sector has no role in the energy market. If the strategy decrees that we want X MW capacity of windpower, then allowing the private sector to compete for the construction and management of that capacity is a reasonable approach, within the current economic structures. That's as good a way as any of ensuring efficiency and value for money.

But surely it is for the government to decide how much capacity should come from wind, how much from coal, etc. – i.e. to set the strategic framework. And it is for the government to insist on (rather than merely encourage) the implementation of that framework. I doubt whether this strategy can succeed as long as the market continues to decide which type of capacity to build, on the basis of which delivers the most profit.

Is there an alternative? Yes there is – but it depends on the state taking a more pro-active role, and insisting on implementation of the agreed strategy. That includes, for instance, refusing to allow developments which do not fit the strategy rather than simply subsidising those that do. I have little faith that this will happen, however. Neither Cardiff nor London seem willing or able to contemplate such an approach.

As just one example, there are suggestions of two gas fired power stations in Pembrokeshire – one each side of the Haven. The logic of a sensible energy policy is that both should be refused (and alternative means of generating power be built). Yet the response of government seems to be to welcome the jobs created, and leave the decision about the type of plant to the private sector – who will build the one from which they can make the most profit, rather than the one which best fits the government strategy.

Without addressing these sorts of issues, the route map is in danger of being little more than fine words. And fine words, as they say, butter no parsnips.

Friday, 22 February 2008

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 7)

Minister: Ah, Sir Humphrey. Have you seen this report in the newspapers?

Sir Humphrey: Which report would that be, Minister?

Minister: This report about the collapse of the Gaelic daily newspaper in Belfast.

Sir Humphrey: Indeed I have. Quite inevitable of course – the only surprising thing is that it lasted as long as it did.

Minister: You mean you knew that it would fail?

Sir Humphrey: Of course, Minister. The funding arrangements were completely inadequate - £200,000 a year was never going to be enough to sustain it.

Minister: But that’s exactly the amount we’ve said that we’ll make available in Wales!

Sir Humphrey: Quite so, Minister, quite so.

Minister: And just last week, I praised this newspaper, saying it was a good example!

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, you did Minister. The timing is rather unfortunate in the circumstances.

Minister: Unfortunate! That’s something of an understatement isn’t it? I’m in danger of looking like a complete fool!

Sir Humphrey: Do you believe that there is anything which the civil service could ever do to prevent that, Minister?

Minister: Well, you could have warned me, to start with.

Bernard: But if you had known that the paper was about to collapse because of lack of funds, you would have known that the amount we were offering here was completely inadequate as well. Then you would have looked like a dishonest complete fool. Er, that is, I mean…

Sir Humphrey: Thank you Bernard. We didn’t actually know for certain when it would collapse, Minister. And the Consultant’s report did note that the paper was already asking for extra funding – it was in the third footnote on page 1,325. Did you not read that?

Minister: If I read everything that you gave me, I’d never have time for anything else.

Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Minister.

Minister: Anyway, what do I do next? My friends are deserting me, and I'm being attacked on all sides.

Sir Humphrey: We are your friends, Minister. And we’re not deserting you, are we, Bernard?

Bernard: Of course not, Minister. You may look like a complete fool to others, but we know the truth.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Bernard. What do you think we should do next, Minister?

Minister: Me? I usually rely on you to tell me. Surely there’s something we can do to draw attention away from this issue?

Sir Humphrey: Ah, yes, diversionary tactics. That was one of your predecessor’s favourite approaches, too. I think we have some good news for you there, Minister. We’re quite close to completing the work on the new language legislation; I'm sure that we'll be able to announce something soon.

Minister: You mean something like, ‘Minister announces the most sweeping extensions to language rights in history’?

Sir Humphrey: Well, we may need to change the tone slightly, Minister, but you will certainly be able to announce something.

Minister: Excellent. Thank you Sir Humphrey. Get on to it right away.

Sir Humphrey: Yes, Minister.

Friday, 15 February 2008

What Do They Expect (2)?

There has been a lot of adverse reaction from supporters of a Welsh-language newspaper to the lack of funds being provided by the One Wales government. But what do they expect?

It was surely obvious to anyone reading the One Wales agreement that it contained more commitments than would actually get funded in what was inevitably going to be a tight spending round. And if some didn't see it in the agreement itself, than surely the way in which the budget was deliberately made obscure indicated an attempt to hide a funding problem.

From some reactions, it is clear that some people thought that the very fact of having Plaid members in government would somehow change the way things worked - that everything listed in One Wales would actually be delivered. That was never going to happen; the only questions were how soon that would become obvious, and which particular items would cause the rosy tint to start fading.

I don’t think the coalition is in any danger – yet. Plaid members’ traditional loyalty to their leadership has some way to run at present. But if the members start to believe, en masse, the suggestion put forward by Vaughan Roderick, that the leadership is deliberately abandoning any attempt to maintain the idea that Plaid is just the political wing of a wider movement, then a day of reckoning will come at some point.

What Do They Expect (1)?

Seems that the Labour Party are a little upset about Plaid’s website assisting trade unionists to stop donating to the Labour Party – but what do they expect? Of course it was a stunt in advance of the Labour conference, but after his little effort at least year’s Plaid Conference, Martin Eaglestone’s complaints look more than a little hollow.

The extent to which Plaid have cosied up to Labour in the Assembly, and agreed with them on everything, even to the extent of trashing their own previous statements, has been a source of bafflement to myself and others for months.

The reaction of the Tories and Lib Dems is predictable, even if completely contrary to what they were saying last week. Last week, Plaid were betraying their principles by supporting Labour on everything; this week, they're putting cracks in the coalition by seeking to undermine Labour Party funding. I had a lot more sympathy with last week's position than this week's.

What we all need to get used to is the idea that there will be coalitions between different parties at different times and at different levels. Coalitions do not mean mergers, and they need not lead to any abandoning of previous policy positions. What they do mean is clear agreement on short term programmes, and complete support from the signatories for those programmes. Outside those agreements, it is, or should be, ‘business as usual’. And that means parties putting their own views and promoting themselves to the electorate.

Labour need to accept that as a fact, rather than get upset – and Plaid need to move beyond stunts, and extend the war with Labour to anything not specifically included in ‘One Wales'.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

A fo ben, bid beth?

I don’t envy the members of the Labour Party in the task of identifying a successor to Rhodri Morgan as Welsh leader. Whilst there seem to be plenty of potential runners, fewer are actually likely to make it into the final race, and the choice is far from being an easy one.

Some commentators have suggested that the new leader needs to be ‘Plaid-friendly’. Nonsense. By the time the leadership election happens, Plaid will be two years into a four year agreement. They have already shown a willingness to ditch any and every policy position in order to gain a seat in government, and even seem to be turning increasingly lukewarm on the central commitment to a referendum. They are not going to walk away from One Wales just because of a change of leadership within Labour.

(Just as a small parallel, if Plaid’s leader were to fall under a bus tomorrow, does anyone believe that being ‘Labour-friendly’ would be a criterion for choosing his successor? Of course not.)

As long as the new Labour leader does not actually repudiate One Wales, then neither will Plaid. And since the Labour Party approved the One Wales document in a special conference, I don’t see any of the potential candidates, in their first act as leader, being ready either to risk bringing down a Labour-led government or to ignore that conference decision.

But Labour do need a leader who is ‘voter-friendly’, and not just in the heartland areas to which they were largely reduced in May. That is not the same thing at all, although it does imply an ability, to some extent at least, to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters – including those who would otherwise be inclined to support Plaid.

Personally, I don’t see either Huw Lewis or Leighton Andrews, two of the potential candidates, being able to build Labour's support outside its core areas. Lewis might well be the best-placed to shore up his party's support in those areas and stop further erosion, but that is surely not the limit of the party's ambitions. And Andrews is doubly handicapped by being a convert from another party - Labour never really trust converts.

That seems to leave a choice between Carwyn Jones (the bookies’ front-runner, a fact which will surely tell against him), Andrew Davies, and the media-averse Edwina Hart. Seems to me it comes down to Jones or Davies, but they both seem so grey and uninspiring. Neither of them seem likely to strike a great deal of fear into the hearts of the other parties' leaders.

And perhaps that is the question which Labour’s members should be asking themselves – who would do most to frighten the other parties? I think they have a real problem finding any answer to that question.

PS – One of the silliest comments on the whole issue, albeit somewhat tangential to the point, must surely be that of Jonathan Morgan today, who says that if the Conservatives win the UK General Election, then the Welsh First Minister will have to form a working relationship with the Conservative Group, because their leader “will then have the ear of the Prime Minister”. Given the propensity of Cameron to completely ignore Bourne and Wales while he's leader of the opposition in London, why on earth would anyone believe that he'd pay any more attention to Bourne or Wales if he became PM?

Friday, 8 February 2008

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 6)

Minister: Ah, Sir Humphrey. I don't quite understand what we're doing about the establishment of a daily newspaper in Welsh.

Sir Humphrey: What exactly do you not understand, Minister?

Minister: Well, the group which has been working on the project for some years says that it will take at least £600,000 a year to get it up and running, yet the statement that you gave me to read in the Assembly says we’re only making £200,000 available.

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, Minister. But you will remember that we commissioned an independent consultant to report on the situation, and he raised a number of doubts about the business plan.

Minister: The consultant only told me what you had told me already.

Bernard: That’s what consultants do, Minister. They come and talk to the people involved, listen to what they say, and then write it down and report back to us.

Minister: So why have a consultant at all?

Bernard: Because people believe what an expert says, whatever it is.

Minister: If there are doubts about the business plan, I still don't understand how giving them only a third of what they asked for solves the problem.

Sir Humphrey: We’re not giving them anything, Minister. We’re making a sum of money available to anyone who can make a success of the project. There could be all sorts of other people interested, and competition for the funds will bring forward more realistic business plans.

Minister: So are there really other people interested, who could do it for even less than people who have spent years researching the project?

Sir Humphrey: Highly unlikely, Minister.

Minister: So what have we achieved?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, you have honoured the pledge you gave when you entered government, that you would make money available for a newspaper.

Minister: But we don’t know that there will even be a newspaper yet.

Sir Humphrey: Of course not, Minister. But you didn’t say you would establish one, just that you would make funding available. And you have.

Minister: But the funding probably isn't enough.

Bernard: Probably not, Minister, but you’re already saved £400,000, and if no-one can do it within the funds available, you’ll save another £200,000.

Sir Humphrey: Bernard! Look on it as a process of negotiation, Minister. They asked for at least £600,000, and you have suggested that someone else will do it for £200,000. I'm sure that they'll come back with a revised business plan somewhere in between, and we'll eventually come to some sort of agreement. The first bid is always for more than really needed.

Minister: But isn't there a danger that we will have an unrealistic business plan to match the amount of money available, which simply means that the project will get into financial difficulties?

Sir Humphrey: Almost certainly, Minister. That’s the way of things. In a year or two’s time, they’ll be in deep trouble, and will come to you looking for a rescue package.

Minister: So I’ll be the Minister who oversees the setting up of a newspaper. And I'll also be the Minister who rescues them when they get into trouble! Just like with the Millennium Centre and the Botanic Gardens?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 5)

Minister: Ah, Sir Humphrey. I need a little chat with you.

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, Minister? How can I be of assistance?

Minister: People are complaining about the budget cuts being made by the Arts Council as a result of the Olympic Games.

Sir Humphrey: Hardly a surprise, Minister. The cuts are really quite significant.

Minister: But I thought that you told me that we couldn’t divert money from the Arts to other things, like gardens. Surely the same applies to sports?

Sir Humphrey: Indeed it does Minister.

Minister: Then how are we diverting money from the Arts to the Olympics?

Sir Humphrey: We are not, Minister. This is Lottery money; a completely different set of rules applies.

Minister: But surely, they can’t just stop funding like this?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, I am sure that you will recall that, when the lottery was established, it was made perfectly clear that any funding from that source was to be regarded as additional, and not to be used to fund things which the government would otherwise be funding. So, when it gets cut, it is the additional items which will suffer.

Minister: But it looks to me as though the Arts Council are cutting mainstream activities. They don’t look like additional items to me.

Bernard: Yes, they are Minister, because they’re additional to what we pay for. We give them part of the money they ask for each year, and then they ask the Lottery for additional money for the additional projects. So anything we don’t fund is defined as additional.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Bernard. However much the Arts Council get, it is for them to decide how to spend it, Minister.

Minister: But most of the money they spend comes from us – can’t I tell them what to do?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly not, Minister. The whole point of having an Arts Council is so that politicians don’t take decisions on arts priorities. If you started interfering, what would be the point of having an Arts Council at all?

Minister: But who decided to cut the funding from the Lottery?

Sir Humphrey: Well, when the government decided to bid for the Olympics, they decided that the lottery would be expected to pay for a large part of the costs.

Minister: But I thought that the Lottery Commission was independent of the government, and the funds couldn’t be used to replace government expenditure?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, really. That was what was said when the lottery was established, but surely no-one really expected any government not to control the way in which billions of pounds of money was being spent – especially when the potential alternative was more taxes?

Minister: But isn’t that what they promised?

Bernard: That was a politician’s promise, Minister. It’s like saying that they’re not going to increase taxes, when everyone knows that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Minister: So, what can I do?

Sir Humphrey: You could write to the UK Heritage Minister on the matter.

Minister: What difference will that make?

Sir Humphrey: None whatsoever, Minister. You asked me what you could do, not how you could change the decisions.

Minister: So what can I do to change the decisions?

Sir Humphrey: Nothing, Minister.

Minister: So Welsh Arts Projects simply lose out to the Olympic Games in London?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.

Friday, 1 February 2008

"Good game, good game"

Betsan Powys draws attention to the curious incident of an Assembly Government which votes against urging the UK government to pay the police pay increase in full, and then does precisely what it voted against doing. (As an aside – shouldn’t deliberately doing the opposite of what the Assembly told them to do be a matter for a vote of censure, at the least?) Of course, this is far from being the first time that the coalition parties – particularly Plaid – have been dragooned into voting against what they’ve said in the past.

Clearly, when the Tories tabled a motion asking the Assembly to urge the UK Government to pay police increases in full, they were playing a game of some sort – and in voting it down, the Labour/Plaid coalition was also playing a game. Leaving aside the not insignificant question of whether playing silly games is really what we elected them for, what on earth are they up to?

Nick Bourne expresses his disappointment that his motion did not receive support. Yeah, right. According to the opposition parties, the series of motions in similar vein which they have presented recently is aimed at causing a split between the coalition partners. Nonsense – that’s the last thing they want. A difference of opinion between Labour and Plaid on an issue outside One Wales would cause no problems at all for the coalition partners – it would not be an issue of confidence and on any vote of confidence, the coalition would quite rightly stand solid.

No, the opposition parties actually want Plaid to vote with Labour on all these issues. They are busy manufacturing a stock of bullets which will be fired repeatedly and effectively at any Plaid candidates in the next Assembly election who are foolish enough to try and put their own party’s policy to the electorate. The Tory/ Lib Dem riposte to Plaid will be obvious and frequent – “But your party in the Assembly voted against that”. For the opposition, it is indeed, a ‘good game’.

The problem for Labour is that, even if they agree with the motions, they can’t vote for them because they don't want to appear to be disagreeing with their masters in Westminster all the time. Politically, it doesn't matter a lot to them either. The more politics in Wales becomes polarised on ‘British’ lines – i.e. a Labour/Tory battle - the more they like it. And if the Tories should overtake Plaid to become the main opposition party in 2011 – well, Labour have most to gain from that. With Plaid unwilling to serve under a Tory First Minister, and the Tories therefore unable to gain a majority to back them in the Assembly, we have a permanent Labour government, either with, or without, a junior coalition party. Not a bad game for Labour either.

What’s hardest to understand is why Plaid seem so willing to play along. If this game has a loser, it’s Plaid. On motion after motion, their AMs seem to be tamely voting against what they’ve said before, and even against their own party’s policy. They’re helping their main rivals, the Tories, to make the bullets which will be used against them, and they’re doing so with smiles on their faces. Is this really a thought-through strategy, or have all the party’s AMs been transformed into lobby fodder which supinely does whatever it is told?

Update: Hen Ferchetan draws some not dissimilar conclusions.