Local Government Reorganisation, Again!

INTRODUCTION

I’m old enough to remember the term ‘Wales and Monmouthshire’ being used, which gave us the thirteen old counties, and then there were the four county boroughs (Swansea, Cardiff, Newport and Merthyr).

This system was swept away by the Local Government Act 1972 which in 1974 gave us a two-tier system of local government, made up of eight counties, thirty-seven districts, and, if I counted them all, 43,736 councillors. It was probably the most absurd system of local government ever devised by man.

Mrs Jones would go her district council office with a query or a complaint only to be told that the issue vexing her was a matter for the county council. (And vice versa.) To further confuse us I seem to recall that responsibilities were often shared or split. Didn’t district councils collect the rubbish but counties dispose of it?

The obvious thing to have done, of course, would have been to do away with the districts leaving us with eight good-sized unitary authorities. But no, this is Wales, and other factors influenced decisions. Such as lowering the minimum population level to 60,000 so that Merthyr could be one of the new unitary authorities.

Quite obviously, twenty-two local authorities – and Powys having more councillors than New York City – is no real improvement on the two-tier system in a country of just over three million people.

The two local government reorganisations introduced in 1974 and 1996 were the work of the UK government and the Boundary Commission with considerable input from political parties and others. But now the power lies with the ‘Welsh’ Government.

For this is the age of devolution; Wales is a land of milk and honey, where lambs frolic under the planet-saving wind turbines (watered daily by the local hippies). Freed from the tyranny of labour by the introduction of AI we fly from Cardiff airport to our villas in the sun – even those from the north can reach Cardiff International in two or three hours on the new motorways and train lines that traverse the land. Students from Vladivostok and Valparaiso fight to get into the Assembly in order to see and hear for themselves our leaders, men and women globally renowned for their wisdom and their probity. Poverty is forever banished, everyone has a nice home and a new electric car or three . . . and I really must lay off the Malbec.

Back to reality. For a few years now the ‘Welsh’ Labour Government down in Corruption Bay, that monument to the late Nicholas Edwards, has toyed with the idea of yet another round of local government reorganisation. The subject seems to surface from time to time, often when Labour needs a distraction, or wants to be seen as ‘visionary’.

Earlier this month the ‘Welsh’ Government’s Local Government Secretary Alun Davies resurrected the suggestion to trim down our twenty-two local authorities to just ten with the publication of a Green Paper. So let’s examine the proposal in a little more detail.

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NORTH, MID AND WEST

In the previous, two-tier system, the north had two counties, Clwyd in the east and Gwynedd in the west. In the map above you’ll see three counties mooted for any future reorganisation. But why?

I suggest that the answer lies with the Labour Party itself. Lump together Flintshire and Wrexham and you create a council that might just have a Labour majority, or certainly a council that could be run by Labour in coalition with Plaid Cymru and/or assorted Independents. (There being no less than three different Independent groups on Flintshire council!)

But add Denbighshire to the mix, where Labour currently has 13 (out of 47) councillors, and a resurrected Clwyd would be much less likely to be a Labour fiefdom. Which makes the union of Flintshire and Wrexham far more acceptable to the bruvvers.

This would leave the combined Denbighshire and Conwy with the burden of almost the whole of the north coast and its problems, ranging from the importation of criminals and assorted deadbeats into Rhyl and other towns to the granny trafficking that gives this littoral its nickname of the Costa Geriatrica.

Gwynedd and Ynys Môn is a natural unit in every way and of little interest to the Labour Party. Though in the former Gwynedd these two were joined with Conwy.

Moving south, to other areas where Labour has little chance of success (and consequently little interest), we see that the ‘Welsh’ Government has no wish to change the status quo or the status quo ante, with Powys left untouched and Dyfed reborn.

THE STEAMY SOUTH

Now we move into the south, where Labour most definitely does have an interest in the new boundaries.

First, Swansea Bay, where my understanding is that Swansea and Neath Port Talbot councils have already agreed in principle to merge, thereby formalising what is happening on the ground, with Amazon’s ‘Swansea’ distribution depot and Swansea University’s new Bay Campus both in Neath Port Talbot.

Aerial photo (courtesy of Swansea University) from 2013 showing the old, Mumbles Road, campus, top star; and the yet to be built Bay Campus, lower star. Also shown: River Neath, M4, Port Talbot to the left, Swansea to the right. Click to enlarge.

Next, it’s suggested that Bridgend links up with Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr. Which makes a certain sense in that they are three staunchly Labour areas covering the central valleys and approximate to the old Mid Glamorgan. Things get more complicated, and contentious, as we move east.

Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan comprised the county of South Glamorgan under the two-tier system, and it’s proposed to bring this back. This respect for history must be the reason for the proposal, and not the fact that the Vale is (with the help of an Independent) a Tory-run authority, with Labour holding just 14 of the 47 council seats.

Merged with more populous, and Labour voting, Cardiff, the proposed new authority would almost certainly have a Labour majority.

GWENT

Moving yet further east, things get really, really complicated.

Under the two-tier system Gwent was one of the eight counties, now it’s proposed to link Newport with Caerphilly, while Monmouthshire merges with Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. The first we can almost overlook, seeing as it brings together two Labour areas, but the second is gerrymandering on a scale that old-style Ulster Unionists would applaud.

Monmouthshire council today is Conservative run, with the party holding 25 of the council’s 43 seats. At Westminster level Monmouthshire is represented by David Davies MP, and at Welsh Assembly level the AM is fellow-Tory Nick Ramsay.

Next door we find one of the poorest areas in Europe, an area that the twenty-first century – maybe also the twentieth – seems to have passed by. Blaenau Gwent should be held up as an example to the rest of the world of how not to handle the decline of traditional industries.

For whereas in well-run countries the post-industrial era means metal-bashing and extractive industries being replaced by clean, new industries, in Blaenau Gwent it just means neglect and decline. But, God bless ’em, for after a brief flirtation with the People’s Voice, Blaenau Gwent is back to blaming the Tories for its deprivation.

Perhaps I’m wrong, so let’s hear Alun Davies – the AM for Blaenau Gwent – argue that this proposed merger of Monmouthshire with Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent is not a kick in the plums for Dai Davies, nor an act of socialist vindictiveness against wealthier neighbours.

CONCLUSION

Within days of Alun Davies bringing out his Green Paper it came under attack from a very predictable quarter – the Welsh Local Government Association.

Despite all the flim-flam from the WLGA about ‘services’, and the ‘public interest’, and worries about ‘who’s gonna feed the gondolas?’, the real objections to local government reform from this Labour-controlled group are pretty selfish, and no different to the objections to earlier council reorganisations.

If you’re a council leader who’s schemed and back-stabbed his/her way to the top then you won’t take kindly to a plan to dismember your little empire or have it taken over by someone else’s empire. (The big fish in little pools syndrome.) Something similar goes for ambitious younger councillors with dreams of making it to the top.

And even if you have no ambitions beyond turning up now and again, snoozing on the comfy benches in the centrally-heated chamber, and picking up your allowance, you will still be alarmed because mergers must mean fewer councillors.

Which leaves Wales in a dangerous place.

For just about everyone accepts that we need fewer councils. But if the debate is restricted to the ‘Welsh’ Government on the one hand and the Labour-led WLGA representing the councils on the other then party unity will be the priority rather than the public or national interest.

This would be a disaster.

The ‘Welsh’ Government must be firm and force through reorganisation, and it must also fund reorganisation. The money needed to implement the changes will soon be recouped from the savings made in having many fewer councils.

And rather than go for crudely political and frankly illogical mergers why not just revert to the eight counties we knew up until 1996 and with which many of us are still familiar?

To avoid local government reorganisation becoming an internal Labour Party matter I encourage those reading this to make your opinions known; with letters to your local ‘paper, to your AM, your MP, and also make your local councillors realise that you want fewer councils and councillors even it means them losing out.

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Devolution as Prozac

But first . . .

A LESSON FROM HISTORY

Following victories over the Persians at Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea (479 BC), and with mainland Greece liberated, the Spartans withdrew from their leadership of the wartime alliance. Athens seized the opportunity and in 478 BC created the Delian League.

Athenian greed and heavy-handedness soon made the other city-states realise that what they’d thought was an alliance of equals was nothing of the kind. Everything now flowed to Athens and the other city-states were little more than colonies. The League’s treasury was used to enhance and glorify Athens, funding prestige projects such as the Parthenon.

Courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia

Eventually, the other city-states could take no more and rebelled. They appealed to Sparta for help and so began the Peloponnesian War, which ran, in three phases, from 431 BC to 404 BC. At the end of the war Athens was defeated and ruined, Thebes and Corinth even wanted to destroy the city and enslave its citizens, but Sparta said no.

The Peloponnesian War was bloody and destructive. Due to Athenian selfishness the other Greek states were even prepared to seek Persian help in bringing her down and ending the golden age of Greece.

Two news items this week have reminded me of Athens and the Delian League.

BACK TO THE 1960s

The first was that the ‘Welsh’ Government will not back the Circuit of Wales in Ebbw Vale. This is something most of us knew weeks ago, it’s why announcing the decision was postponed until after the general election.

But don’t worry! Economy and Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates, softened the blow with: “The Welsh Government is therefore today committing to building a new automotive technology business park in Ebbw Vale, with funding of £100million over 10 years, with the potential to support 1,500 new FTE jobs. We will begin this work with the delivery of 40,000 sq ft of manufacturing space on land currently in public ownership.”

So the ‘Welsh’ Government kills off the Circuit of Wales yet still plans to build an ‘automotive technology park’ in Ebbw Vale. Apart from Ferrari’s Cafe what links does Ebbw Vale now have with the automotive industry? Or to put it another way, after 18 years of devolution and ‘Welsh’ Labour rule we’ve gone back to the 1960s with depressed areas offered nothing better than industrial parks. God Almighty!

But this saga may not be finished, for what if the scheme’s backers are able to find full private funding for the venture, will the ‘Welsh’ Government then support the Circuit of Wales or continue to be obstructive? I know where my money would go.

Let’s be absolutely clear: The Circuit of Wales was not supported by the ‘Welsh’ Government because Ebbw Vale is too far from Cardiff and the project didn’t offer enough benefits to Cardiff.

MAJOR TRAUMA

The nearest major trauma centres to Wales are in Liverpool, Stoke, Birmingham and Bristol. Some time ago the decision was taken that south Wales should have its own trauma centre. The two candidate sites were Morriston Hospital in Swansea and the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.

On Wednesday we learnt that some anonymous panel had recommended that the MTC  should be located in Cardiff . . . despite Cardiff being so near to the existing centre in Bristol.

The centres in England are located where they are for the very good reason that patients suffering serious injury or sudden and serious debilitation benefit greatly from being treated within the first hour; in fact, it’s a matter of life or death. This period is referred to as the ‘golden hour’.

The maps (kindly supplied by BBC Wales) below show the ‘golden hour’ distances from those Major Trauma Centres closest to Wales together with the predicted ‘golden hour’ ranges for MTCs located in Cardiff and Swansea.

The first map, for existing MTCs, tells us that Cardiff and Newport are already within the ‘golden hour’ for the Bristol MTC, while anywhere west of Bridgend is not covered.

Turning to the second map, the Cardiff option, we see a slight improvement, in that Swansea Bay is now covered by the ‘golden hour’, but not western Gower, nor, I suspect, Llanelli. What’s more, rather than complementing the Bristol MTC to form a network of coverage – as we see in England – a Cardiff MTC would almost be in competition with Bristol. The overlap is huge.

The Swansea option, however, provides a real improvement, with the ‘golden hour’ now extending deep into Pembrokeshire and reaching the Cardigan Bay coastline. The ranges of the Swansea and Bristol MTCs overlap around Cardiff and Newport, but they don’t duplicate each other to anything like the same extent as the Cardiff option. Swansea and Bristol would complement each other perfectly.

Of course it’s being argued that, ‘Cardiff has this, and Cardiff has that’, to justify a MTC, but anything can be built or transferred. What cannot be changed is geography, and the critical and determining criterion for locating the Major Trauma Centre should be saving lives in the ‘golden hour’. You cannot emphasise the golden hour all the way through the process and then ignore it in order to locate the MTC in Cardiff.

To put a large area of the south west outside the ‘golden hour’ through handing Cardiff yet another prestige project – for that’s how it’s viewed in Cardiff – will be a difficult decision for politicians to defend.

The role of the ‘Welsh’ media in this debate has been somewhat bizarre, though predictable. On Wednesday WalesOnline ran this story. Putting the case for Swansea was Rob Stewart, leader of Swansea council. (Though the story was quickly updated and for some reason Stewart was replaced with Clive Lloyd, his deputy!)

Putting the case for Cardiff – which is what I assume he was doing – was a ‘speed flyer’ named Niall McCann. (Though by the time the story appeared this morning in Llais y Sais McCann’s contribution had disappeared.)

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McCann had shattered his spine speed flying off Pen y Fan and it had been put together by the University Hospital of Wales. McCann opined, “I’m 100% on board with anything that will improve the NHS services on offer. We are a capital city and we should be leading the way in Wales.”

So in the expert opinion of Niall McCann of Cardiff the new MTC should be in Cardiff, ‘Cos Cardiff’s the capital, innit?’ For reasons best known to itself WalesOnline even included in the article a video of McCann speed flying to remind us of the unnecessary risks he takes.

Perhaps the message we were expected to glean from this article was that having injured himself on the Beacons McCann would have been dead or crippled ere the donkey carrying him could have reached an MTC based at Morriston Hospital. If not, then I have no idea what purpose Trinity Mirror thought it was serving by including McCann’s cameo.

Then on Thursday, the BBC rubbed it in with a story headlined “Swansea ’10 to 15 years behind Cardiff’, think tank says”. Obviously unsuited to have a Major Trauma Centre.

TIME TO RETRACE OUR STEPS

But the problems of Wales today go beyond putting all the nation’s eggs in the Cardiff basket, they reach into every corner of our national life. Just look around you and ask what 18 years of devolution have achieved. Go on, and be honest!

Wales is poorer relative to other parts of the state, and other parts of Europe, than she was before we voted for devolution. Outside of Cardiff our urban and post-industrial areas are suffering managed decline, while our rural and coastal areas serve as recreation and retirement areas for England, with the Welsh population, and their identity, marginalised in both situations.

We have a self-styled Labour ‘Government’ in Cardiff docks that refuses to use even the limited powers it has for fear of upsetting anyone in London – including its own MPs and peers! Competing with Labour we have a Conservative Party currently in league with the Orange Order and the UDA, and a ‘national party’ that is, as Martin Shipton described it this morning, “a pressure group”. (And it’s not often I agree with Shippo!) Though it’s questionable whether Plaid Cymru really is challenging Labour.

‘Ah, but we’ve got devolution now, it’s something to build on’, I hear, from those who are in reality satisfied with this simulacrum of self-government, where free suppositories or some such nonsense qualify as radical initiatives. So who’s going to do the ‘building’? We know it won’t be Labour. It will never be the Conservative and Unionist Party. And there’s not a hope in hell of it being the pressure group.

Devolution has delivered a comfortable and undemanding level for ambitious councillors. To serve these politicians we now have a burgeoning and expensive bureaucracy. Because the party in control is Labour devolution has resulted in a vast and corrupt Third Sector sucking up billions of pounds to keep otherwise unemployable Labour supporters in jobs.

Yet we have no media to hold this juggernaut to account. (Though it’s debatable which is worse – the absence of a Welsh media or the constant bigotry exposed in the English media.) There is no real oversight or control of expenditure, and no justice for anyone wronged by this system. Yet if you investigate ‘devolution’ in any depth you soon realise what a sham it is.

For example, the ‘Welsh’ Government pretends it has its own Planning Inspectorate. The truth is that the Planning Inspectorate for Englandandwales answers to the Department for Communities and Local Government in London, it merely has a branch office in Cardiff. Which means that the Local Development Plans for Welsh local authorities are determined in London . . . and the ‘Welsh’ Government goes along with the charade!

P.S. Soon after publishing this post my attention was drawn to a perfect example of the ‘Welsh’ Government’s relationship with the Planning Inspectorate. This development at Llay is part of a wider strategy to turn our north east into commuter territory for north west England. And Carwyn Jones knows it.

The ‘Welsh’ Government and the whole apparatus of devolution soaks up money that could be better spent in Wales, and might be better spent if the useless edifice was swept away. Which is why I plan to start a petition to the UK Parliament asking for a referendum to be held to determine whether we should keep the Welsh Assembly and all that goes with it. (This will be done once a new Petitions Committee is formed.)

Yes, I know such a petition will attract Kippers and other BritNats, but I don’t care, there are bigger issues at stake. On almost every issue that matters we are still ruled from London anyway – so what do we stand to lose? Devolution is used to hide this fact, and to make us believe that we control our own affairs. It acts like some national dose of Prozac.

When you’ve taken a wrong turning you have two choices: either plod on until you fall off a cliff or sink in a bog, or else admit you made a mistake, retrace your steps, and next time make sure you know where you want to go.

Devolution was a wrong turning.

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Tesco Delivers an Uncomfortable Truth

Most of you reading this will by now be aware that Tesco is closing its call centre in Cardiff and concentrating its operations in Dundee. Inevitably, this has caused Labour politicos to weep and wail but equally predictably the buggers are also lying, because they will never admit to the political realities at work here.

Don’t get me wrong, this is, fundamentally, an economic decision by a major company, but I guarantee that political influence has been exerted in favour of Dundee, not because those exerting the influence give a toss about Dundee or its people, but Tesco having its major call centre in Dundee, creating more jobs in the city, can be exploited for political advantage. What do I mean by that?

If Scottish nationalism has a heartland, then obviously it’s not in the south, nor is it in the Highlands and the islands, or even the three biggest cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. No, if the SNP and Scottish nationalism have a stronghold, then it’s in Scotland’s fourth largest city, Dundee.

In the September 2014 independence referendum, Scotland voted 55% No 45% Yes, but in Dundee the result was overwhelmingly Yes.

This was followed up by the elections for the Scottish Parliament in 2016, that saw the SNP gain close to 60% of the vote in both of the city’s constituencies.

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The Scottish Parliamentary elections were of course followed in June by the EU referendum. Although Dundee voted to remain it was by less than the national figure due to Dundee being – in Scottish terms – something of a depressed area.

The Gross Weekly Pay for Dundee City for full-time workers (2016) was £484.20 against a Scottish average of £536.60. By comparison, the averaged out Gross Weekly Pay for Rhondda Cynon Taf, where many of the staff at the Cardiff call centre live, was £495.40. The figure for Cardiff itself was £532.80, and the Welsh average £492.40.

(Surprisingly, the figure for Swansea was just £470.80, for Merthyr £447.80, Blaenau Gwent £433.90, which suggests that many residents of RCT benefit from Cardiff pay rates, but the benefits of the never-ending investment in Cardiff don’t stretch much further afield.)

After that wee diversion let us return to Dundee and consider the most recent election result, those for the UK general election earlier this month.

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As we know, the SNP lost votes and seats across the country, but we can see that Nicola Sturgeon’s party still managed to hold the two Dundee seats with comfortable majorities.

Just as in medieval warfare so in contemporary politics, if your enemy has a citadel, then weakening or capturing it provides a great psychological boost for your troops and damages the morale of your enemy. Equally effective can be winning over the inhabitants, or sowing doubt in their minds. There will be others living far from it who will also be affected by the loss of a citadel.

Which explains why Tesco is concentrating its call centre resources in the SNP stronghold of Dundee and why the move will be subtly presented thus, ‘This is the call centre for the whole of the UK, but of course, if Scotland goes independent it will move south of the border’. The hope being that this will weaken support for the SNP and independence.

The message here is quite clear: the strength of the SNP and the threat of a second independence referendum guarantees that Scotland will be treated well. Not only by direct government intervention, but also by political pressure being exerted on private companies like Tesco to favour Scotland.

But political and economic leverage attaching to considerations of the Union are not confined to Scotland; for we also have to witness the political representatives of murderers, drug-dealers and terrorists demanding £2bn from the UK government for lending their support.

‘Welsh’ Labour’s alleged leader Carwyn Jones splutters and whines but knows there’s nothing he can do about it – nobody’s listening to him because he hasn’t got a single card to play. (Though I wonder how him and the boys would look in balaclavas . . . and I’m sure they could find baseball bats in Cardiff?)

In fact, in a situation like this, Carwyn Jones’s instinctive response is to expose a bit more of his ample belly for tickling, as with his offer to accept nuclear submarines in Milford Haven. Go find something useful to do, Jones, like being clerk to Cwmscwt council, because you’re doing nothing for Wales.

So here’s where I’m going with this. To all of you who voted Labour on June 8th – weren’t you clever!

For the benefit of Labour’s donkey voters, let me try to explain it as simply as I can. Ew votes Labour, right. Now, if there’s a Labour gov’ment up in Lundun, they ignores ew and takes ew for granted. But if there’s a Tory gov’ment up in Lundun, well, they just ignores ew’.

And here’s a special message for Blaenau Gwent, which is a perfect example of the system I’ve just described operating at a more local level. You voted Labour again on the 8th, and now that Carwyn and his gang know you’re no threat, they’re going to shit on you over the Circuit of Wales. And you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves! 

But the real culprits in all of this are Plaid Cymru. Because if Plaid Cymru had a message that resonated with the Welsh people then we wouldn’t be in this mess, and people in the poorest part of the country wouldn’t still be voting for the party responsible for their poverty. And Cardiff wouldn’t be losing jobs to Dundee.

Which is why from now on this blog will encourage the creation of a new movement, that might or might not contest elections, but will certainly promote Welsh patriotism and the defence of the Welsh national interest. It will be Wales and Welsh people first and foremost; and will regard all political parties, all Englandandwales organisations, all media outlets, etc., as inimical to the Welsh national interest unless they prove otherwise.

A fresh start is the only way Wales can make progress.

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