Friday, November 13, 2009
Younger readers may not be aware that back in 2003 the England rugby team won the World Cup (that's right kids, there was a time when the England team was vaguely selected on merit and not entirely on the basis of who sounds cool right now and happens to play for Wasps, Quins, Bath or Leicester...) The team came back to enormous celebrations and two weeks later many of the squad were back in action in the first round of pool matches in that year's Heineken Cup.
Except that some genius had decided that, after a number of years on the BBC, that year the Heineken Cup would move to Sky. Just at the moment that live coverage of club rugby at the highest level could have paid real dividends, brought more youngsters into the game, it wasn't there. It may be the worst mistake rugby union has ever made in the professional era (and given that both the RFU and WRU exist, that's saying something...)
So Giles, when you pontificate about the dangers of grassroots cricket losing money, remember that the purpose of grassroots cricket is people. Remember that cricket, glorious and wonderful game though it is, has no God-given right to cultural recognition (and if you need proof of that, compare the celebrations in 2005 when everyone saw the matches to the celebrations in 2009 when no-one did)
And ultimately, remember how many young people might never see good quality cricket if it isn't on TV and free-to-air. Yes, the money's tempting and yes, you'll never have any trouble thinking of ways to spend it. But if the people aren't there and if you by your actions have helped that to happen, you're guilty of gross incompetence and should be dealt with accordingly.
Friday, November 06, 2009
Scott's point is about privacy and how a world where the proliferation of electronic data makes it increasingly impossible to conceal things might actually lead to profound social change as people are liberated by the sharing of their foibles and proclivities. To a great extent, however, this has already happened as practitioners of every imaginable hobby and fetish have found each other through the various iterations of internet social networking, from bulletin boards and newsgroups through Tripod and Geocities to Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Heck, a couple of months ago The Not Quite Late Enough Show had Kevin Smith and Jeanette Winterson discussing the mainstream emergence of geek culture and how the internet had proven the size of the market involved (and if you'd said ten years ago that Kevin Smith would ever be on there...)
But this effect also extends to politics and, as is often the way with extremists, the anti-fascist hard left have managed to miss the boat while sitting on it. No Platform was of course their baby and their proudest (i.e. only actual) achievement. If no platform ever worked, it was on the basis that if fascist ideas could not be heard in any mainstream setting, people would only hear the view that such ideas were fundamentally beneath contempt and that any individual who might hold them had better well keep quiet about it because they are clearly inhuman scum.
Now that works when there are only three channels and even the Daily Mail is willing to not be openly fascist. In an internet age where any bunch of deluded extremists can find adherents and claim respectability with a half-decent website and a controversy-seeking media strategy, it's utterly ridiculous. We can't shut the door on the BNP's views anymore, we have to put them front and centre and demolish them.
The one thing I would say in that respect is that we must make sure such exposure does not fall into the trap the BNP want it to, namely that of making Nick Griffin its sole and messianic leader. Question Time itself is already guilty of that, inasmuch as I can only ever recall Caroline Lucas appearing for the Greens. If Question Time really want to perform a public service, then next time let them invite Andrew Brons onto the show and let us see if the rest of the BNP are as resilient in the face of a smackdown as their leader.
Friday, October 30, 2009
I cannot have public confusion between scientific advice and policy
With that, I'm delighted to award Alan Johnson the 2009 Scunner Broon Award for Stupidest Political Quote Of The Year. Because you know what Alan? When you stop being completely bumfuzzled by the difference between scientific advice and policy, then you can lecture the rest of us on it. Until then, shut the hell up, you condescending little...
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Never has a government rested quite so luxuriously on its laurels than the Labour/Plaid coalition has on transport. In the early days of devolution there were real achievements; the Vale of Glamorgan Line, the Ebbw Vale Line, concessionary fares...
But while our new Minister has delivered quite nicely for his own vanity (it's called Ieuan Air for a reason) the projects that matter have stagnated and even the misguided projects they were pursuing, they can't afford. Heck, they can't even manage to get Cardiff's Eastern Bay Link Road, the main road between the Assembly and the M4, going and if you can't rely on the naked self-interest of politicians, what can you rely on?
Meanwhile, they just peddle the same old line as Westminster; longer platforms, longer trains. But while those are undoubtedly necessary, if Dr. Beeching taught us anything its that the railways must go directly to people in their own communities. Thanks to our since-abandoned industrial heritage, the scope for expansion in Wales is enormous; the Swansea District Line, the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen Line, the Fairwater-Creigiau Line and ten new stations in Cardiff, plus Carno, Rossett, Caerleon and all the rest.
Particularly in the downturn, we need a step change in our ambition for the railways. To deliver that, we need a step change in the way we operate, from franchises to regional transport consortia and I'm particularly glad the consultation document recognises that.
We talk so often about the things devolution can't do. Transport is something it can do. Labour and Plaid should be ashamed at how little they've done with it and we are perfectly placed to show them what they could have won. Heck, at least that speedboat might have been more use than Ieuan Wyn Jones has...
And then on tidal power;
I should really start by declaring something of an interest; once upon a time I worked for an electricity generating company and I have a Masters degree in Nuclear Reactor Technology. I think it's safe to day, therefore, that if anyone was going to stand up here and push for the biggest, shiniest engineering boondoggle imaginable, it would be me.
I'll admit too that I was rather worried about this report before it came out, because if there's a wishy-washy, half-arsed, wouldn't hurt a fly energy policy out there then by gum we'll try it!
I'm happy to say, however, that this report is nothing of the sort. It's a recognition that if we want to replace the fifty billion kilowatt-hours of electricity we use that is produced from carbon-emitting sources, we must take advantage of the unique tidal resource we have in the Severn Estuary.
Equally, however, it recognises that there is so much more that you can do than has been proposed so far. The existing barrage proposal has been around for so long it has become synonymous; Lavernock Point-Brean Down is the barrage, the barrage is Lavernock Point-Brean Down. But as the report shows, the Lavernock Point-Brean Down barrage is too slow and not the best way to maximise the power output of the estuary.
The thing I think you should bear particularly in mind, however, is the additional infrastructure these proposals would allow. A rail link from Penarth to Weston would be slow, difficult to build and do little to boost usage. The Shoots barrage, on the other hand, is a perfect replacement for the 125-year-old Severn Tunnel. The Aberthaw-Minehead tidal reef would be a significant shortcut between South Wales and the South West, get the West Somerset Line reopened and potentially provide flood defences for the whole of Somerset.
In conclusion, this is a comprehensive, ambitious policy and I urge you to support it.
And in both cases, they did.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
It was while exploring the Oxfam bookshop in Cardiff with my good friend Justine Hall (who we'll have to forgive for being a Euro candidate for the Greens) that I ran across a copy of Meltdown: The Collapse of the Nuclear Dream. Besides being a book on nuclear politics and thus right in my wheelhouse, it had the added benefit of being written by Crispin Aubrey and bearing a puff quote from Paddy Ashdown.
The subsequent loss of direct action has clearly hurt; the ongoing efforts to rewrite the criminal damage, trespass and assault laws by seeking justification through the courts to invade power plants are evidence enough of that. In that sense, environmentalists would really welcome some new nuclear power stations as an opportunity to revive the golden age, with the events described in Meltdown as the playbook.
Meltdown starts where all anti-nuclear tomes must, inside the exclusion zone at Chernobyl. For a book published in 1991, that's a pretty dumb place to start. During the Hinkley C inquiry ignorance of the facts of the Chernobyl accident was forgivable as the Soviet Union had done a pretty good job of covering them up. But by 1990 the facts had come out, not least in Zhores Medvedev's definitive The Legacy Of Chernobyl, which Crispin references without dealing with its contents which spell out in pretty stark detail just how irrelevant Chernobyl is to nuclear power in Britain.
Still, after such an inauspicious start Meltdown settles down with some useful history, both of the development of nuclear power in the UK and of the development of the protest movements against it. Equally, as that history passes you can see how the logic starts to go awry; there's an entertaining enough tale of some geologists doing preliminary investigations for a deep-level waste repository being chased out of Machynlleth by the local farmers, but the stated moral of the tale is that "it was clear that the scientists had been sent back to their drawing boards". We've been told for years that scientists don't know what to do with waste, but the tale that's told here is of protests leading to a political decision and the politics don't invalidate the science; indeed, thirty years later after Tom King (ironically, the MP for Hinkley Point) decided to abandon work on the repository, Finland are already building theirs and it remains Britain's intent to have one.
It's a tale we've seen only recently with Kingsnorth. I'm no fan of the place by any means, but while the Climate Hi-De-Hiers proclaim victory, I have to ask myself which is more credible; that E-On caved in the face of a bunch of criminals (which, let's be clear, is what they are) or that the project has become somewhat less attractive because of that minor thing we call the credit crunch. Somehow, I get the feeling it's the economy, stupid...
Soon we reach the main event, the public inquiry itself. The account is, unsurprisingly, one of a gallant battle against faceless bureaucrats to allow the voice of the people to be heard. On its own that's fair enough, but underpinning it is the idea that the emotional response of the public should have, not just weight, but decisive weight, in the planning process. Now I'll be the first to say that planning law is too restrictively drawn and that at the local authority level there should be additional grounds that can be considered. But one thing the planning system is very clear on is that the decision should be rational and based on the facts; supplanting that sort of system with mob rule is self-evidently nonsense.
The role of local authorities in marshaling that public opinion is also intriguing. One of the key turning points at Hinkley comes in 1985 when the Liberal Democrats take control of Somerset County Council, without which change the public inquiry might not have happened at all. A motley alliance of local authorities from around the Bristol Channel eventually forms, though this is founded on a base of opposition in South Wales which is rather more pro-coal than it is anti-nuclear.
But the most surprising revelation in that direction is that by 1988, even Anglesey District Council (as was) was prepared to state its opposition to new nuclear power; this on an island where Wylfa Power Station was the biggest employer and Anglesey Aluminium (powered by Wylfa) was second. Crispin sees this as a great moral victory; I'd hazard that it's just possible that a council long dominated by independents unable to form a single cohesive strategic thought was more than able to recognise a populist bandwagon when it rolled into town. In any case, strategically challenged as they were (and indeed remain), at the peak of the boomiest boom for decades it's possible that they may have taken their eye off the economic crystal ball for a moment, something I'm sure the hundreds now being made redundant at Anglesey Aluminium thanks to Wylfa never having been replaced are particularly grateful for.
Either way, by the end of the inquiry and much as they did at Sizewell B, the campaigners conclude that they have won. It's that conviction that the environmentalists are clinging to even now; the idea that even if the government gets its way and someone does try, they can defeat it at the public inquiry.
There are three tiny flaws in this theory. In the first instance, the victory has now been rendered rather pyrrhic. After the year-long Hinkley inquiry and the three-year long Sizewell inquiry with its 340 days of public session, governments came to recognise that actually, a similarly lengthy inquiry on an application by a private company would probably end up mired in both judicial review and misfeasance suits. The Labour government's response, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, is undoubtedly horribly quangocratic but at the same time, if you set out to abuse the public inquiry process you shouldn't be shocked if you have it taken away from you.
Even if you got a public inquiry, the original victory is in any case irrelevant. Because Hinkley C was to be built by the CEGB, a nationalised industry, the public inquiry was allowed to consider, and indeed obsessed over considering, the relative economic merits of it being a nuclear power station. The campaigners sense of victory came largely because the inquiry came right in the middle of the privatisation process which was appallingly botched; it was a late-Thatcher privatisation, that it was appallingly botched was a given. When, however, Electricite de France come along with their new application and the man from Greenpeace asks them about the economics, EdF will tell him or her that it's a commercial matter for EdF and would he mind awfully effing off, preferably at some speed.
Beyond the pyrrhicism and irrelevancy, however, it's most important to note that the victory also never happened. Ultimately, the CEGB's application was approved and the station only failed to be built because the eventual successor companies (the nationalised Nuclear Electric and the privatised British Energy) were never equipped with the resources to do it, again thanks to Maggie's munificence. Should they continue to rely on something that didn't happen twenty years ago and couldn't happen now, I fear the greens might be a mite disappointed.
As for the epilogue, the peer into the future of nuclear, I can't really blame Crispin, writing in 1991, for underestimating just how crucial climate change would become at a time when it was still just the greenhouse effect. His effort to sketch out a low-carbon Britain is still pretty admirable, even if some of the things that have been done (low-energy lightbulbs) haven't stopped the upward trend and some of the things that should have been done (the Severn Barrage) haven't. I'll even allow the primacy given to energy efficiency in general (though I will once again point you to the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, the Jevons Paradox and the rock I'm throwing at your head) and the lack of understanding of operating margin in the grid.
At the end, however, you're left with the feeling that despite having lived with the gorillas in the mist, Crispin hasn't understood them. For even his plan foresees significant investment in gas (which we've done, though only so Maggie could be mean to the miners) and clean coal, the very thing the environmentalists are now breaking the law to try and stop. With those elements, it's merely quite far-fetched; without them it's both a pretty good statement of Green policy twenty years on and completely off its tree.
I suppose I should conclude happy in the knowledge that those I oppose live in carefree delusion to what's about to hit them. Until my own party stops living that way, however...
Sunday, September 27, 2009
The recent proliferation of automatic ticket barriers notwithstanding, the railway industry actually has very little data on exactly what journeys are made on the network. While there's a wealth of ticket purchase data available, that isn't as reliable as you might think. Simple tickets from station A to station B are easy enough, but there's a whole range of tickets (rovers, London travelcards, metropolitan zonal tickets) that don't identify specific destinations or that can be used on trains but bought elsewhere.
Then there's the vexed question of station groups. In most places with multiple stations you can buy a ticket to each station individually or to the group destination, so a ticket to "Warrington" is valid at both Central and Bank Quay. For many years, all such tickets were attributed to an identified main station in the group, thus often penalising smaller stations in a group, particularly those without ticket offices where the guard was more likely to sell a group ticket rather than a named one.
Recently the modelling used to allow for all these effects has become much better (leading to some very odd effects like the apparent 127,000% increase in passengers at Thorne South in 2007/08) but it remains a model; the methodology alone runs to 22 pages. And there are still plenty of tickets that can't be attributed and which are thus not counted.
How does this affect me? Well I'll have to make two journeys regularly by train; Danescourt-Treforest and Treforest-Cardiff Central. Now I can make both those journeys with one season ticket, but season tickets are counted as an estimated number of journeys between only the two named stations. My purchase of a season ticket will therefore only benefit the numbers of the stations at either end and not those of Danescourt in the middle. As the councillor for Danescourt and for two other stations on the same line, I'd really prefer it if both the station and the line were credited with my custom; after all, the more passengers they have, the more important they will be to the train company.
And as an added bonus, because fares on the Valley Lines are zonal, my season ticket isn't to Treforest but to Abercynon; it costs the same and I'm sure I'll have cause to pop up to help Mike Powell become the next MP for Pontypridd. But it does mean that even Treforest station won't see any benefit from my becoming a student.
Of course, if we ever manage to stop seeing Oyster as something nice for Londoners but not especially necessary for everyone else, we could have real data for every station. Ieuan Wyn Jones has already announced something similar for Wales, but I'd be more convinced if the Assembly Government hadn't spent so long pfaffing about smartcard standards that Cardiff Bus has had to go it alone and launch its own system. Time will tell, but there's not a lot of breath holding going on around here...
Thursday, September 24, 2009
What's more, I'm not at Conference because I'm a fresher. Then it was my Masters in Manchester, now I'm at the University of Glamorgan doing a law conversion course and, of course, manning a Freshers Fayre stall (though thankfully not running it, my dues to society having been well and truly paid on that front!)
Oh, and while we're on the subjects of songs remaining the same, we have a leader who's spending his conference picking fights with the party. It's a strategy that's never demonstrated leadership at the best of times, but picking a fight over the process and doing so when you've already lost to the FPC on the issue is just barmy. Even if the FPC weren't unanimous on the issue, you can bet your ass they'll be unanimous on the process and so it has proved.
James Graham's analysis of that is spot on, as is his questioning of the role of the Chief Officers Group. Indeed, the question I've been asking myself from my armchair all week is, "How on Earth did no-one see this coming?" This whole saga would make some sense if there was a clearly defined purpose to it. However, not only is it unclear as to what advantage was being sought, I'm bound to ask how it is possible that no-one in the upper echelons anticipated that the coverage of what was being done would be exactly as it has been. That much, at least, should have been entirely predictable.
I mean, okay, if you've identified "honesty over the state of the public finances" as a good issue that builds on Vince's reputation, fair enough. If you've decided to combine that with trying to tackle "unrealistic wish lists of policies" as a reason for people not voting for us, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt (though I'll point out that there are probably some issues you should be dealing with before that one.) But it should be patently obvious that if you do that by taking "distinctive policies that show we're different to the other parties" and bringing them into question in a way that raises the spectre of "party split with leadership", those will be the issues that dominate and any coverage of the things you're trying to pursue is going to be pushed back into the arts and leisure section.
And yes, of course any leader would like to have a Clause Four moment, but you have to remember that the Clause Four moment itself worked for Blair because the policy Clause Four represented was massively unpopular and the people in his party were ready to acknowledge that. Cameron, on the other hand, can't have a Clause Four moment (because the people in his party aren't ready to acknowledge the unpopular bits and actually still believe that those bits are popular) so he just doesn't talk about those bits and hopes no-one else does; so far, so good.
I suppose the problem with criticising what's gone on is that I don't know what the answer is; I don't know how you get the sort of narrative-changing impact being sought on the issues being used without opening yourself up to the alternative formulation we've seen in the press all week (it's at times like these that I need Neil Stockley!) But either way, what has happened should have been anticipated and avoided and if that meant making less of an impact, so be it.
Evan Harris' point about good leaders and great leaders missed one crucial factor; Lib Dem leaders can't be great until they get the coverage of an election campaign. What's happened is fixable, and I say that as someone who'll be getting questioned about it all through tomorrow at a Freshers stall (I know what my answer to the questions will be and I'm confident in it). In the meantime, we should have faith that the run up and the campaign itself will vindicate both the party and its leader.
Friday, August 28, 2009
Cardiff Central - Gloucester Off-Peak Return - £18.30
Cardiff Central - Gloucester Anytime Return - £15.50
The prosecution rests, m'lud...
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Healthcare, however, is an issue they can unite behind and one where they can unleash their favourite weapon; fear. They've got plenty of practice using it too; Republicans have been having Democrats kill your grandmother since 1993, when Harry and Louise famously destroyed Bill and Hillary's reform package, albeit at the cost of one of the great comic moments in political history;
Today's Republicans, on the other hand, aren't nearly clever enough to deliver another Harry and Louise. All they have is rage, not at the relative merits of particular policies, but at the very idea of actually doing anything at all. The Obama plan isn't not as good as what they've come up with, because they haven't come up with anything at all. Instead, the Obama plan has to be tantamount to treason, fundamentally anti-American and the first step on the road to the United Soviet Socialist Republic of America. And so, while the Obama plan has almost nothing to do with the NHS, because the NHS is supposedly the anti-thesis of the American (read: anarcho-capitalist) way it becomes the exemplar, the font of all horror stories, the inexorable consequence of the thin end of the Obama wedge.
If the debate remains locked in that cycle of paranoia, reform is doomed to fail. What America needs is a debate about the reality of its healthcare system. I wish I could remember exactly who it was who described American healthcare as a Rolls-Royce system; able to do anything so long as you can afford it. For all the miracle pharmaceuticals developed and all the multiple-transplant surgeries it develops, American healthcare continues to deliver measurably worse outcomes on almost all chronic conditions at almost all income levels; the headline figure of the uninsured is scary enough, but the relationship between income and healthcare outcome at all levels is positively terrifying. What's more, you don't need me to tell you that it does so at the highest cost (both relative and absolute) on the planet.
But even more importantly, while the debate is about the morality of a supposedly un-American system it won't manage to be about a fundamentally un-Christian one. To me this is the most confusing element of the lot; Republicans have absolutely no proposals for healthcare reform, save virtually indemnifying doctors from malpractice suits to reduce insurance premiums (although at the expense of accountability for medical competence.) And yet the Christian base of the Republican party continues to support a party platform that condemns millions of Americans to death and suffering. If that base can be made to think of that for a moment, it might notice that actually, the Republican position is according to their morality positively evil and will lead to them rotting in hell.
So by all means let's have a real debate about the future direction of the NHS and let's be honest about what it can and must do better. Equally, however, let's remember that the way the NHS is being portrayed by Republicans right now is positively fraudulent and that if we allow such criminal distortion of the truth to continue, we will all be just as culpable for the millions of Americans living in real fear, not of socialised medicine, but of no medicine at all.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
The real prize from Olympic sevens, however, is the USA. With American Football leaving increasing numbers of college players on the scrapheap, Olympic funding for sevens should give that talented athlete base an alternative avenue for their skills. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised to see the odd NFL player try for a place at the big show (the timing of the Games fits reasonably well, there's no lack of patriotism in the league and plenty of open-field running skills that should transfer nicely to sevens.)
Golf is a more difficult case and one where I fear the governing bodies may already have shot themselves in the foot somewhat. The fundamental criticism that an Olympic tournament won't be as important as the majors isn't unreasonable, at least on the men's side; as was the case with baseball and softball I suspect the women's title will be somewhat more relatively prestigious.
As much as anything, however, it's a problem of lack of imagination in the format. With golf and tennis, the Olympic tournament is only bigger than the four majors because of the gold medal at the end of it, but that doesn't matter so much so long as the tournament leading into it is of the same physical and competitive rigour. Unfortunately, the tournament the R&A and USGA are proposing isn't; three of this year's four majors had 156 competitors (the Masters had 96) but the Olympic tournament would have just 60. I suspect part of that will be down to concerns over the quality of the field; in individual sports countries are usually restricted to four entrants, something that will seriously affect the field in golf (where the USA has 19 of the world's top 60 and 64 of the top 156). I'd tell golf to instead embrace that limitation and allow the golfers of the world to compete against players they'd usually have no chance of sharing a course with; realistically, you're going to have a cut after two days and no-one will mind so long as the field after the cut is good enough. (The same is true of tennis, but I'll save that argument for the IOC congress...)
The headline case for golf is even more about the legacy aspect. Olympic host cities are by definition international cities, living on a diet of high finance and international commerce. Would any such city not benefit from a world-class facility for the business community's pastime par excellence? It may not be as cuddly as the regeneration-led legacy London are trying to push, but at least you can count on it.
As I say I'm sure I'll return to this topic as the IOC Congress approaches, but this a battle for sports lovers to start fighting now and right up until those delegates push the right buttons in Copenhagen.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
It's at this point that the religiosity of libertarian belief James points out betrays it. By obsessing over the righteousness of the morals they have identified, libertarians pointedly ignore the lessons of two hundred years of democracy in its various implementations; that people will guard their rights and ignore their responsibilities, that the exercise of those rights can constitute an assault on others even where none is intended and that there is a role for government in establishing not just fairness, but justice.
Not that libertarian philosophies are irrelevant by any means. They must inform our decisions, reminding us that government should be about enablement rather than coercion. Nevertheless we must be clear that libertarianism is not some pure, untainted version of liberalism that we should return to; rather, it represents an old ideal that liberalism has grown out of through sometimes bitter experience.
If such an arrangement will not suffice, however, I'd refer you to my original point; in a constitutional system that is broken, the Liberal Democrats must be a strong enough coalition to deliver the genuine reform we need and not the sticking plasters ordered by the decrepit hulks on the red and blue sides. For that, we must unite against the common enemy (no, not the Judean People's Front...)
Friday, July 24, 2009
Before British Rail, the only significant electrification project in Britain was the Southern Railway's effort on its commuter lines south of London. Overhead line electrification only began in earnest with the British Rail Modernisation Plan of 1955, which lead to the first main line electrification (of the West Coast Main Line between 1959 and 1974) and suburban electrification in Glasgow and East London. Over the years the suburban systems crept further outwards, joined by the occasional new project like the North London suburban system (1976 to 1983).
Nevertheless, when the time came to replace the remaining main line diesels, electrification was never a consideration as BR was pouring all its money into APT. The result of that was the HST, a pure BR product; designed in Derby, built in Crewe. But no sooner had HST made its debut than the suburban electrifications became full main line electrifications, reaching Norwich on the Great Eastern in 1986 and Edinburgh on the East Coast in 1991. Then privatisation kicked in and suddenly no-one was interested in new anything. Except Heathrow, which wanted a fast rail link to keep up with the airport joneses. One fairly chunky tunnelling project later, Heathrow Express opened in 1994, complete with the first piece of electrification on the Great Western, from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington.
And then New Labour enter our tale, demonstrating their deep commitment to strategic thinking in the railway industry by handing it off to a quango with no actual power. But while transport planning was one thing, sucking up to City bankers was quite another and thus Crossrail was (re)born to make their commute from Berkshire to the Bank easier. A literal hole to pour money down though it is, Crossrail does at least extend the Great Western electrification to Maidenhead.
Meanwhile despite a highly successful engine replacement programme the HSTs will fundamentally be forty years old in 2016. As we've discussed previously, the government had to step in to procure a replacement, at which point they will have discovered how difficult that is when the factory that built the originals has closed and we're virtually the only country with high speed diesel trains. But with the specification for the Intercity Express Programme written to require that the trains be deliverable as diesel, electric and dual-power, the government will have had to ask itself whether it should electrify.
Now once you've got to Maidenhead you've already covered a significant proportion of the commuter services as it is and pushing on to Oxford and Newbury gives you complete coverage. Oxford takes the main line electrification to Didcot which means you're already half way to Bristol. If you go to Bristol you probably have to use both routes (Bath and Bristol Parkway) and if you get to Parkway you're virtually in Wales anyway so why not at least go to Cardiff, but if you only go to Cardiff half the trains there will still be diesel anyway as they continue on to Swansea so you might as well go to Swansea too and do the whole job... And suddenly you're there. One horribly bad decision eventually begets a good one, something for which I'm not sure we should be doling out enormous amounts of credit.
But I suppose some is due to Labour, if only to underline that absolutely none is due to Plaid Cymru, who've been on the blogs and in the papers spinning the announcement as a triumph for Ieuan Wyn Jones as Assembly Transport Minister. Which is fine, except for the extent to which the logic for electrification has everything to do with how you run a railway and nothing to do with the politics of nationalism, the mounting evidence that Ieuan is desperately trying to cover up diverting funding from east-west transport projects against the advice of civil servants (which has everything to do with the politics of nationalism) and particularly except for his "National Transport Plan" which basically listed all the things he'd already announced he was doing and then said which ones he was cutting...
So let's be happy that we're getting the electrification we need but if the Assembly want any credit from it, let's see them ditch their pathetic plan and support the electrification the way it needs to be, with investment in electric local trains for Cardiff-Swansea and electrification of the Valley Lines. Until then, they and the Labour Party in general can shut the hell up.
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Still, occasionally you're rewarded for sticking with it and I thought I was going to be tonight when the boy Paxo opened up a set of bonuses with, "Which British city includes the wards of Adamsdown, Butetown..." Apart from decrying the laziness of the question setter in using the wards in alphabetical order, I thought all was well.
There then followed the most painful mangling of Cardiffian mispronunciation I've heard in quite some time. To set the record straight, it's CAN-tun (not can-TON) and ka-TAY-ze (not KATH-ays). Given that little display I'm unsurprised the poor Loogabaroogans misidentified it as Manchester (although in fairness, they might have noticed that none of those names are nearly northern enough...) But then it got worse, for the next two bonus questions were about the same ward.
My ward. Which apparently is called hlan-DARFF, so much so he said it twice.
Now unless it has it's hat on (as in Cwmbrân) that vowel sound is an ah, so in Welsh it hlan-DAHV and in English it usually becomes LAN-dahff.
Still, thanks for trying, I suppose...
Friday, July 17, 2009
Steve McNair was quite the All-American story. Born and raised in small-town Mississippi and educated at a historically black university with no great sporting reputation, he developed into one of the great quarterbacks of his era, sharing the NFL Most Valuable Player award in 2003 and leading the Tennessee Titans to within inches of a Superbowl title in 2000 before retiring in 2008 to tend his Mississippi farm and work on various business interests in Nashville.
The details of his death two weeks ago were therefore all the more shocking. McNair was shot dead by his 20-year-old mistress in a murder-suicide in an apartment he owned near the Titans stadium. Although initial reports suggested that he had already instigated divorce proceedings, it turned out that his wife (the mother of his four children) had been completely unaware of the affair.
But it's today's arrest in the case that is particularly bizarre. Adrian Gilliam, convicted in Florida in 1993 of murder and attempted armed robbery, is charged with supplying the gun to McNair's mistress. Or rather, he isn't, for while licensed firearms dealers can't sell to anyone under 21, private sellers are only restricted in selling to under-18's. Instead, the charge is that as a convicted felon he is not allowed to possess a gun. And even then, the law specifically says that possession is only an offence if the gun has been subject to interstate commerce, i.e. it was made outside of Tennessee.
And so on the perversest of technicalities, a man who by all accounts was a relatively innocent party in matters (he had no record beyond 1993, the gun was purchased shortly after a burglary at his house and was sold at no profit to the mistress who he met when looking to purchase a car from her) faces 10 years in federal prison. A satisfactory outcome it ain't...
Thursday, July 02, 2009
Heck, I'm this close to giving Lord Adonis' comment, "the rail franchising system as it now exists, and is broadly running successfully" the Scunner Broon award for the sheer boldness of its naivete. For starters, the basic fact in this case is that rail subsidy has soared so much since privatisation that a desperate government is trying to force franchise bidders to pay enormous amounts back to them so they can get the sum down.
Consider also that the East Coast Main Line is the only intercity franchise that has not purchased any new trains, ever. Indeed, ECML services to Aberdeen, Inverness, Skipton and Harrogate are amongst those set to benefit from the Intercity Express Programme which was established expressly because train operators couldn't deliver major capital investment.
And then there's my personal favourite. The greatest single failure of privatisation has been competition, a beautiful idea that died about five minutes after the franchises were granted (specifically when Virgin told the government to guarantee them no competition on the West Coast Main Line or the deal was off). Still, in the few lucky places where there are different services on different lines, competition has been a success, places like Birmingham, Exeter... and Southend, where the Great Eastern and London-Tilbury-Southend lines head to Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street respectively. And who has the franchises for those lines?
So while Lord Adonis goes round complaining that National Express get to keep both those franchises, be in no doubt that that is the result of a system that the government he serves in has done nothing to reform and has used so as to make things worse. What's more, it's a system that is beyond incremental changes and needs a bomb sticking up it; I liked Mark Valladares' ideas on that but I suspect that there's no route from this system to a fundamentally different one that doesn't go through nationalisation and if that's the case we should screw the fruit loops and get the hell on with it.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
For a railway-inclined politician it's often difficult to know who to hold in more contempt. On the one hand there's Network Rail, who I described at a recent scrutiny committee meeting as "the least imaginative, least ambitious organisation ever dreamt up by a group of human beings" (and that was the polite version). Then again, there's always the Department That Thinks Transport Is A Jolly Good Idea And Somebody Should Definitely Look At Doing Some (for whom Dudley Moore's phrase, "the Government's... what for want of a better word we'll call policy...", was invented)
And then there are the Train Operating Companies themselves, whose impact has been restricted to the occasional shiny new train or livery and a legacy of micromanaging the crap out of their cost base with little or no consideration for anything so mundane as quality of service. Now, however, there's welcome evidence that they've reached the limits of endless price-hiking and seen the light.
For while they may not be anything like as ambitious as our plans (still criminally unavailable on the party website), ATOC's report on line and station reopenings is a pretty decent start. It proposes seven new stations on existing lines and fourteen new lines (mostly short branches) with a total capital expenditure of around £500m. That alone puts it way ahead of Network Rail's Route Utilisation Strategies, which tend to focus on how to thrash the existing network to within an inch of its life. Perhaps more importantly, ATOC also appear to have realised that these decisions are about more than instant economics, relaxing their cost-benefit criteria to take regeneration benefits into account.
Then again, it's not as if the operating companies are planning to fork out any of their own cash, relying instead on future fare income and the public sector to deliver. That faith in government unfortunately also extends to the scope of the report which only considered England because the devolved administrations have developed strategies; that may well be true of Scotland, but the Welsh Assembly Government's rail strategy doesn't extend beyond "Look at the Ebbw Vale line, isn't it shiny!"
Still, it's a welcome policy shift from the organisation that holds the balance of power in the rail industry and if they decide for the first time in their lives to wield that power for something other than evil, that would be even more welcome.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
UKIP do get coverage (if not especially scrutiny), but they don't count since their message is more "We are corrupt, but not as much as they are". Jury Team had their little blaze of launch-related glory, but once it became absolutely clear that they were just a massively multiplayer experiment to determine whether Paul Judge's ego was bigger than his wallet, the whole thing disappeared faster than Cristiano in Rome...
And then there's No2EU, or as they might more accurately be described, UKIP For Communists. They are of course their own ego trip, this time for Bob Crow, the man who thinks he's Robespierre. Still, you have to take an organisation seriously when it constitutes an alliance of the RMT, the Alliance For Green Socialism and the Liberal Party and when its most experienced candidates are Tommy Sheridan and Dave Nellist...
Still, if by a man's actions you shall know him, my encounter with one of their number this evening was instructive. Walking home from work I found a man flyposting for No2EU on the billboards at the junction of Callaghan Square and Tyndall Street. Now, I didn't mind him doing the one on the left (which currently bears the UKIP poster from blogs passim) but when I caught him, he'd just started on the one on the right.
Which is advertising the British Army.
I tried to take a picture of him, but my phone decided to have a funny turn and switch to video mode, so I had to make do with making him scarper for fear of being caught with the vandal's brush in his hand. Still, it's nice to know that the eurosceptics of the world know how to behave with respect to our fighting men and women...
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
As we are reminded by the ever-excellent Dr Ben Goldacre in his book, Bad Science (accompanying his weekly column in The Grauniad and his blog) the MMR scare did not begin with Andrew Wakefield's study in The Lancet in 1998; it had just gotten going in 2001 when Tony and Cherie were asked whether baby Leo had had the jab. Somewhere between their refusal to confirm or deny and Sylvia and Carole Caplin's perceived influence and vocal opposition to MMR, 2002 was the year MMR leapt out of the hands of the science correspondents and into the grubby little protuberances of the columnists.
The results we all know about; reams of evidence showing no link between MMR and autism going ignored by meeja hors assuming smoke as proof of fire, while vaccination rates plummet and more and more children needlessly face death and disablement. Indeed, today brings us news that there are over 200 cases of measles in Wales at present, as average vaccination rates of just 82% (against the 95% herd immunity threshold) have allowed outbreaks to take hold from Llanelli to Llandudno.
I was therefore furious to read in yesterday's South Wales Echo that Neil McEvoy, Leader of the Plaid group on Cardiff Council and a Deputy Leader of the Council, is considering taking his daughter abroad to get the single mumps jab.
Now don't get me wrong, the decision is one for Neil and Neil alone and it's not the gross negligence that failing to immunise at all represents. But that argument swings both ways; if it's Neil's decision and Neil's decision alone, why the hell am I reading about it in the Echo? I mean, didn't using your children to make a political point pretty much go out of the window with John Selwyn Gummer?
But what's more, by endorsing all the anecdotal evidence (and how I wish Dogbert's pronunciations on that were available on YouTube) you reinforce the cycle of fear that's gotten us where we are already. That's not the act of a supposed leader of his community, particularly one whose community includes some of the poorest parts of Cardiff where parents can't even dream of taking their children abroad for vaccinations and where health levels are already appalling. It's also not the act of someone who shares with all of us the responsibility of acting as a corporate parent for looked after children.
I hope Neil's comments don't have that effect, not least because I can remember what it's like to be on the other side of the coin. I was born just too early to receive MMR and as a result, I got all three; rubella at six months, measles at one year and mumps as a six-year-old. Mumps, of course, I remember vividly, and let me tell you, it is by no means flu with a kick. And heck, I was the lucky one, recovering with no long-term damage. I have school friends who cannot say the same. I'd very much prefer it if my children did not end up in that position too.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Among the many pieces of paper that regularly get shoved through my door as a councillor is the cunningly-entitled C'llr, a magazine of "Information and Inspiration for Councillors from the Local Government Information Unit". Amongst the inspiration is the back page feature, "In My Day", where parliamentarians talk about their time in local government. And who should we find on the back of the March 2009 issue?
And on what is she to be found opining?
Social housing, and how the government shouldn't be in the business of building any.
Well if the government investing money in the housing stock is good enough for you...
Monday, May 18, 2009
To explain; while horse and greyhound racing are fairly commonplace across the United States, other forms of sports betting were generally frowned on by the states until a federal ban was introduced in 1992. Four states had specific exemptions from that ban for activities that were legal in those states at the time the federal ban was imposed; Delaware's exemption related to a sports lottery (wherein punters bet on the cumulative outcome of a large number of games, the result being akin to a small stake on a big accumulator) that failed back in 1976 but is now one of the centrepieces of new Governor Jack Markell's deficit-reduction plan.
It's hard to argue with the logic, because betting now occupies a more significant place in American sporting culture than in perhaps any country since the height of the football pools in England, be it through the endless journalistic discussion of spread betting prices or the proliferation of college basketball pools even unto the Oval Office.
The source of the obsession is easy to trace, for while Montana and Oregon also have exemptions for lotteries, only one state has legalised betting on individual results. Coupled with Las Vegas' inexorable rise as a cultural venue, Nevada's unique legal position has allowed sports betting to flourish in the American consciousness. Betting from outside Nevada by telephone or internet is of course illegal, but a nod remains as good as a wink to a blind bat...
But despite all that, there is fierce resistance even to Delaware's return to the gambling fold, let alone to any relaxation of either the out-of-state or in-state bans. What's most remarkable, however, is that that resistance is lead not by the political or religious conservatives, but by the sports themselves, with various governing bodies having already threatened sanctions against Delaware teams.
The concern is the exact opposite of the one that gripped Britain for so long; while we were obsessing over lotteries being games of chance, the governing bodies are terrified of the skill element in sports betting and the scope for match-fixing. Some of that goes back to the early days of professional sports and the Black Sox scandal, but compared to the experiences of professional sports in Europe and considering the enormous salaries involved in America such a level of paranoia doesn't seem credible.
Betting exploits of individual players cast an equal shadow over the debate. Baseball remains obsessed with the downfall of Pete Rose (possibly the best pure hitter in history, banned for life after being caught betting on games of the Cincinnati Reds team he was manager of) and basketball is awash with rumours that Michael Jordan's abortive baseball career (as chronicled in that classic documentary film Space Jam) was a cover to allow him to serve a gambling ban without having to admit to doing so.
I wish I had a clever conclusion to all this, but I guess it should just speak for itself.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Friday, May 01, 2009
So, for the wilfully ignorant and the plain stupid alike, let me restate the position in words of as few syllables as possible; there's nothing wrong with attack blogs that stick to known facts and public statements and there's nothing wrong with party staffers and Assembly Member Support Staff blogging. But when Plaid staff and AMSS blog on Welsh Ramblings and Guerilla Welsh-Fare, they do so anonymously in the worst attempt at astroturfing since the Metrodome; when Lib Dem staff do so at Freedom Central, they sign their bloody names to it! Honestly, what part of anonymous are you not able to understand here?
Either way, the whole saga brings my thoughts round to a matter I've been mulling for a few months, namely the difficulties of linking in the Welsh blogosphere. When the new Blogger template came along with its blog list widget, it seemed churlish not to make use of it and as at the time I was only listing my Liberal Democrat favourites, using authors real names was more aesthetically pleasing and fairly easy to achieve. When a Welsh Lib Dem list became necessary (in the days before WelshLibDemBlogs) the names were again not a problem. But now that I'm writing Y Barcud Oren, I'd like to be able to provide my non-Welsh readership with a decent selection from the rest of the Welsh blogosphere, and that's a more difficult proposition.
For starters, much as the real names are an aesthetic choice, there is something to be said in a democratic society for standing up and being counted. Sure, there are some people who do have a legitimate reason for pseudonymity (and that does not include Julian Lewis who continues to waste Parliament's time bleating on about how vital it is that his home address not be published lest he be assassinated by the militant wing of CND...) but they are generally up front about it, something I'm not aware of any of Wales' pseudonymous crowd having been (though I'm happy to be corrected on that point).
And even in the world of the identifiable, there are limitations. I won't, for example, link to blogs by current, former or future AMs or MPs of other parties; they can waste taxpayer's money advertising their own bits of electronic real estate without me using my turf to help them out. And in any case, it's not as if I'd recommend any of the current blogs in those categories because of the brilliance of their intellect or the soaring power of their rhetoric...
There's always the journalists to fill out a few slots and I'm not unhappy to have them there as I tend to think they're all right as bloggers; the problem is that some of them are a heck of a lot better as bloggers than they are as journalists and even that often isn't saying much... Beyond that, there's Dylan Jones-Evans (who I grant an exception as his academic standing outweighs his party affiliation) Alwyn ap Huw, Ian James Johnson and... well...
So I don't know. If anyone can recommend someone I've missed I'm happy to check them out, but I've done plenty of trawling of other people's blogrolls with very little to show for it. That lack of talent willing to stick its head above the parapet doesn't say much for the "Ie Gallen Ni" generation.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Let's not kid ourselves, it's a tentative start, but as Daran Hill said in the build-up, it probably ought to be. Then again, it's not a text that's lending itself to quick hits, though I suppose front-loading the facts of the first 100 days is a necessary evil in this scenario. But while it's all very true and very worthy, you can see from the hall that it's not exactly exciting stuff, talking more to the room than the cameras.
And then the first punch-out line is punctuated by a very unusual usage; girl as an interjection instead of boy. The etymologists will have to judge on whether that's actually the unnecessary regendering of an expression that it feels like, but I suppose if you're going to underline the election of a female leader, you might as well go the whole hog with it.
Still, it takes us onto the traditional Lib Dem turf of civil liberties, which in the Welsh context is exactly what's required. At the UK level we spend far too much time ploughing our safe ground when we should be kicking Labour and the Tories off theirs; in Wales, the way to kick Plaid off their supposed safe ground is to point out that it isn't their safe ground at all, that while they are left-wing, they are communist, not progressive and certainly not liberal.
The text is starting to come alive now, and much as Toby would criticise Will for it you have to love a line like "where your character and not your credit limit opens up opportunities".
And again this question of what conference is for. As someone who feels we must trumpet the open debate of policy that characterises our conferences (if only to put the lie to the idea that Labour members can absolve themselves of the sins of their government by claiming "well I'm still a socialist" when their party inherently doesn't give a toss what they think) the BBC coverage was hugely frustrating for the extent to which it doggedly stuck by the idea that the purpose of conference is for the leader to take on the party and win. We demonstrate our power in a different way and at this conference we did that and then some.
Speaking of the powerlessness of Plaid members, now we're getting somewhere, because as Kirsty is saying the Plaid U-turn on tuition fees is about more than an electoral edge in Ceredigion. It's about nothing less than the moment Plaid became New Labour. Because when a party that thinks it is led by its members is told by its leader "I want to ignore the policy you have decided upon and this is a matter of confidence in my leadership" your only option is to kick the living crap out of him. Anything else is an admission that you care more about being in office than delivering your ideas, and from that day on your party has a blackened heart.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Ah, the joys of a Lib Dem conference agenda. Sid and Doris will know that it's been quite a while since I managed to get to any form of one (pretty much bang on two years, as it goes) and while things are being made fairly easy for me this time, it would be churlish not to go when it's pretty much as close to Cardiff West as it's possible to be without being in Cardiff West (and we'll gloss over the fact that both the Tories and Plaid actually did have their conferences in Cardiff West, splitters...)
Still, it's great to finally be able to get stuck in, if only to help put the lie to one of the more corrosive elements of Plaid's rhetoric. I have no problem with them banging on about how Tory and Labour policy is imposed by diktat from London; that happens to be true. But Welsh Lib Dem policy is made in Wales, by Wales and for Wales and no level of amateurish tubthumping on Plaid's part should distract anyone from that. Then again, I guess you can't expect much from a party whose ignorance of how the Liberal Democrats work (mixed with a soupçon of cowardice) cost them a shot at running the show...
(Oh, and by the by, I wrote that paragraph before I saw Welsh Ramblings “independent” post outlining how they're sufficiently stupid not to understand what federalism is...)
It's a packed weekend of policy, covering topics ranging from repossession support and affordable housing to high-tech jobs and infrastructure. I'm also duty bound to give a trailer for the motion on retrospective planning application (given that my ward colleague Kirsty Davies is proposing it after we got a similar motion passed by Cardiff Council a few months ago) but I'm hoping that one won't reach any sort of level of controversy. There are undoubtedly some battles to be fought over the weekend, however, although none of the “I'm a new leader hear me roar” type (and let us reflect once more on how impressive Kirsty's comments on the policy making process during the leadership campaign were).
Wrexham and Clwyd South's motion on tackling alcohol abuse is very welcome, and it comes with an interesting amendment calling for the party to oppose minimum pricing of alcohol. It's an important debate and one that should get the philosophy buffs going at full tilt. I suspect I'll come down against the outright statement of opposition; while I have no doubt that the SNP would cock the whole thing up if they introduced it in Scotland (they being, after all, the SNP) I think there are ways to make it work (as I've previously stated with respect to the VAT system generally) and I'd probably prefer to give the Assembly group the discretion to look at it in that context.
IR Cymru (the youth and student wing formerly known as MIDR) have a pretty comprehensive motion calling for compulsory social and sex education in all schools, regardless of ownership or faith status. You'd hope from the constructive nature of the amendments offered that this important change would be backed, but compulsion in education, particularly in the faith sector, is always likely to be divisive.
And then there's the question of direct elections to police authorities. Now I can quite understand why Rhondda Cynon Taf have raised it; the recent shambles of the South Wales Police Authority's budget setting process is well documented and Labour's dominance of that authority was undoubtedly a prime factor in that debacle. Indeed, you may well say that the crippling of South Wales Police because of an edict from Transport House that the council tax precept must not go above five percent had rather a lot to do with the fact that Labour's lead Euro candidate sits on the authority and doesn't want to be branded as a council tax hiker; you may very well say that, I couldn't possibly comment...
It's also worth laying much of the blame for the shambolic nature of the process at the part-time chair of the authority, Russell Roberts. I say part-time, because Russell (who owes his position on the authority to the fact that, outside of the Lib Dem-controlled councils, a seat on the police authority is clearly regarded as being one of the perks of being leader of the council) is also Leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf and Chair of Cwn Taf NHS Trust; can anyone else say Three Jobs Bob?
That being the diagnosis, is direct election of all non-council appointed members the cure? As the motion points out, it's a better idea than the Conservative proposal for directly elected sheriffs (and if you need proof that a single elected official shouldn't be in charge of policing in an area, I'd refer you to a certain B. Johnson, Esq.)
But the existing independent members of the authority aren't the problem and direct election would entail a massive change in their role and function. Certainly, they could be more representative of the communities they represent and more formally in touch with the public (as the Swansea and Gower/Newport amendment suggests) but directly electing them does not necessarily deliver either of those changes.
As for the political side, in case we hadn't noticed we already have the solution; a little thing called PR. Heck, there's even a fringe on that very subject on Sunday lunchtime (and I suspect I'll give in to my inner geek and go to it myself). For all that our opponents may deride us for our commitment to it, we should never forget that it is the biggest single thing we can do to improve the way Britain is governed at every level.