Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Welsh Constituency Boundaries Review.

The Wales Boundary Commission has published its 'interim' report for the review of Parliamentary constituencies in Wales. This is the last stage in the reform of constituencies which began over five years ago. The Boundary Commission will now consult on today's proposals and publish a 'final report' by September 2018, when there will be a vote in the House of Commons to approve the constituency boundaries for the 2020 General Election.

Let us consider the context in which these proposals have been prepared.  It began with the election of the Coalition Government  in 2010. During the previous Parliament there had been an almighty row about MP's expenses. No punishment was deemed too harsh for MPs. Amongst the various actions was an agreement to reduce the cost of democracy by cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Actually, the manifesto commitment was a reduction to 585 - but let's not split hairs. A bill was taken through Parliament to enact this, and entirely logically it included equalisation of constituency size, which had not been reviewed for too long. The Act included a provision that meant all constituencies should have the same number of electors - around 75,000. Crucially, it included the stipulation that only a 5% tolerance be allowed in variation of size of constituencies. This Act passed into law, and it was assumed the new constituencies would be adopted for the 2015 General Election. But the Liberal Democrats undermined their own Act in the House of Lords by joining with Labour and others to delay final approval of the actual boundaries for 5 yrs. Though this suited me very well, it was a constitutional outrage in my opinion. This 5yr delay will be up in Sept 2018.

It's no point MPs shouting at the boundary commissioners. Not their fault. It was MPs who stitched up the restrictive rules, ensuring that consideration of geography, cultural and historic considerations counted for nothing. Especially in Wales, where I can only concede there has been 'over representation' for decades. And that's not making allowance for powers being transferred to the Welsh Parliament. The Wales Commissioners were required to reduce 40 constituencies to just 29. They had very little freedom of movement. Today, we have seen the results of their handiwork. And for me, it's devastating.

Let's consider the position in my constituency of Montgomeryshire. The electoral wards of Glantwymen, Banw, Llanrhaedr, Llansilin, Llanbrynmair, Llanfair, Llanfihangel, Llanwddyn, Meifod, Llandrinio, Guilsfield, Welshpool, Trewern, Llanfyllin, Llansantffraid, Machynlleth, Llandysilio go into a Clwyd South and North Montgomeryshire seat.

The electoral wards of Berriew, Caersws, Churchstoke, Dolforwyn, Forden, Kerry, Llandinam, Montgomery, Newtown and Tregynon go into the Brecon, Radnor and Montgomery seat.

The electoral wards of Blaen Hafren and Llanidloes go into Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire.

This is a total demolition of the historic county of Montgomeryshire. Montgomeryshire is being torn into three pieces to 'top up' other constituencies. Parliamentary democracy in the old County of Montgomeryshire will be much diminished. MPs will become as little known in future as MEPs are little known now. This boundaries review may well be 'fair' in a statistical sense. But it's heart breaking for me. The only consolation is that the Welsh Parliament constituency will remain Montgomeryshire. This will be confusing at first, but less so as familiarity with MPs decreases. These new constituencies will resonate with very few in Montgomeryshire. And at its root, the cause of all this was the abuse of expenses by MPs several years ago - nothing whatsoever to do with most of today's MPs.

I'm typing this at 3.30am because I'm so upset about it that I can't sleep. I've always lived in Montgomeryshire. Always will. I don't have a single ancestor who was born anywhere else. For 40 yrs I've represented Montgomeryshire in one way or another - well as representing Montgomeryshire in stock judging, public speaking, squash, won bardic chairs at Montgomeryshire eisteddfodau, and a whole lot more. Three of our children with their five children have moved back to be near us at Berriew No way could I ever think about representing a different seat. If these proposals are approved in 2018, that will have to be it for me. But I won't be leaving politics. Politics will be leaving me.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Our Welsh Parliament is here to stay.

There's been a flurry of media comment over the last few days (mainly driven by politicians) suggesting that if there were to be a referendum on the future existence of the Welsh Parliament (or National Assembly for Wales if you prefer) the people of Wales would vote In favour of abolition. No chance. Not sure why this is being taken so seriously. Perhaps the media and commentariat so enjoyed the Scottish Independence Referendum and the EU Referendum that they cannot bear to see Wales left out! Two people asked me whether they were going to have the chance to vote 'that circus in Cardiff' out of existence at today's Berriew Show Charity Lunch. Told them this is one circus I approve of! Even if I did campaign with great vigour in opposition to its creation in 1997. Should add that I don't think their views were a reflection of current Welsh public opinion.

The reality is that it is simply not going to happen. There will be no referendum. Not in any foreseeable future. We've had enough of referendums. And if there were to be, all the evidence I've seen suggests to me that devolution is here to stay. I know not everyone agrees with me about this, and it's very much in fashion to be opposed to anything remotely to do with the 'establishment' or any form of Government. Voting No has become the default position on constitutional issues. But for me, discussion about the future of the Welsh Parliament comes under the heading of 'harmless fun'.

In fact, I may become a great champion of retaining the Welsh Parliament come September 13th. That day we learn of the Boundary Commission for Wales proposals for reform of Welsh Parliamentary constituencies. Inevitably, since they fall in number overall of Welsh parliamentary constituencies from 40 to 29, these proposals will inevitably inform us that Montgomeryshire will be no more by 2020 General Election. Over 40 yrs I've been active in the public life of Montgomeryshire. I'm building myself up for a very sad day. The only way to retain our old historic county of Montgomeryshire will be as an Welsh Assembly seat. But that's a blog post for when we see the detailed proposals. I will write a blog post summarising the background to all this tomorrow. In the meantime, better get used to having the Welsh Parliament around.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

What's to be done about Hinckley Point.

Most disappointing consequence of recent Government convulsions is that the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee will be no more. I've been a member since the last Genetal Election. Select Committees 'shadow' Govt departments and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been merged into the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department (BEIS). I'd put a lot of effort into educating myself on this subject. That 'education' process was to some extent a waste of my time - though I will retain an interest in 'energy' issues,

Which brings me to Hinckley Point C. I've written about this before. It's now a month since the French energy business, EDF committed to building the new power station. And almost as long since our new Prime Minister put the whole project on hold. We don't know why - beyond her entirely reasonable wish to consider very carefully before signing off the deal. Media reports suggest the reasons are to do with the scale of Chinese involvement in the overall package, which extends much further than Hinckley. Whatever, we will soon be approaching decision day.

EDF Chief Executive, Vincent de Rivas has written a confident 'bullish' article for the Telegraph extolling the virtues of the Hinckley Point project. He's quite a character is de Rivas. It's easier to nail jelly to a wall than corner him in debate. He cites the Chinese involvement as hugely positive. Must admit I agree with him, even if it grieves me to write so. The shameful neglect of nuclear by the Blair/Brown Gov'ts left the UK without expertise to do the job ourselves. The Hinckley project is too big for EDF on its own, and the Chinese are probably the only realistic potential partners. We do have two other nuclear projects (Wylfa B and Moorside) coming along as well and quietly, but we need them all.

There has been much made of the price the UK Govt has agreed to pay for electricity generated by Hinckly Point over a 35 yr period. It's a lot of money. The comparison usually featuring in comment is "twice the current cost of energy" which has fallen dramatically over recent years. True- but the real comparison is with what the price of energy will be when Hinckley Point comes on stream in the mid-20s. It's unlikely that current low prices will continue (my opinion). Interestingly, the current price of offshore wind is nearer three times the current energy price, though likely to come down over time.

Our future energy needs will be met by a mix of energy sources. Gas (shale or imported) will feature strongly (if we are to stop burning coal). Renewables will continue to expand, particularly if storage technology develops as we hope (interesting to see Vattenfall securing a contract to build a 22MW battery next to its South Wales onshore wind farm at Pen Y Cymoedd).  Interconnectors will play a part as well. And we still hope tidal power will become competitive. And I'm a supporter of solar power. But nuclear is crucial to provide the base load power. We need new nuclear as current aging nuclear plants are decommissioned. Maybe Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) will become a reality in time, but there is not one operating yet. Today, we need large scale nuclear. I have no idea whether the Prime Minister will give Hinkley Point C the go-ahead. On balance it seems sensible to me that we should (if we take decarbonisation at all seriously).  I have a suspicion that she will.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Brexit - Two months on.

It's now over two months since the referendum in which a majority of UK voters, Wales voters, Shropshire voters and Powys voters decided they wanted the UK to leave the European Union. It was a hard fought referendum. In retrospect, I think I was weak to take so little part in it. I might not have approved of the campaigns, but life is like that. Biggest battles are fought in the gutter. What has surprised me is how some of those who voted Remain refuse to accept the voice of the people. I'm still having earache for voting Leave by many of my friends. Had some more at a local function tonight. It makes no impact that if it was a clear result on a huge turn-out. The majority in favour of Leave was over a million votes. There are calls for another referendum (so that we could make the 'right' decision!).  Or for a vote in Parliament to approve the terms (yet to be negotiated) on which the UK will leave. This is nothing more than a legalistic delaying tactic, dressed up in legalistic language. It seems some 'clever' lawyers reckon the referendum was 'advisory' only. Tell that to the people. 

Dear 'A View from Rural a Wales' readers, it's not going to happen. It's time to get real. As our new Prime Minister, Theresa May has said again and again "Brexit means Brexit". This might be open to interpretation, but there will not be a re-run of the referendum, no matter how many petitions there are, or how many lawyers produce reports. The BBC's relentless pro-Remain bias will not succeed - except to damage the BBC and increase the level of discord. The unelected House of Lords will not be free to frustrate the will of the people. If they were to, it would quickly lead to a power-reducing reform of the Upper House. The voters of Britain have spoken and there voice will be respected. In any case, my view is that another vote would only deliver a bigger Leave majority, as the voters of the UK expressed their outrage at being misled.

Let's consider what has happened over the last two months, compared with the disasters that we were told were going to happen before the referendum. We were warned that the city would suffer a meltdown. But the FTSE has risen to near record levels. As has the FTSE 250. It's true that the value of Sterling has fallen, encouraged no doubt by Bank of England money creation. This has been a major boost to exporters, the tourism industry, and to my own industry of livestock farming. We were told there would be more unemployment, higher mortgages and big falls in house prices. Reality is that jobs have carried on being created - to record levels since we voted to leave. Businesses which threatened to leave the UK have decided to invest here after all. There has been no 'emergency budget'. The Governor of the Bank of England has been left with egg yoke all over his face. Consumer spending is going well, despite the best efforts of self-justifying 'remainers' to talk us into recession. The impact of a Leave vote has had nothing like the impact that was predicted. All this is really good news for the UK, and already we are seeing growth predictions being revised upwards.

But it's not time to celebrate yet. The UK will be a full member of the EU for another two/three years at least. International markets do not like uncertainty. During the next two years, we will need to establish new trading agreements across the world. We will need to have negotiated a new agreement with the EU. It will happen, but I do think it will be complex. There will be disappointments along the way. Perhaps most controversially, I do not think we will see net immigration numbers falling to the levels that some hope. Neither do I think our financial obligations to our neighbours will fall as some hope. But I remain entirely confident the British people took the right devision on June 23rd. They decided to 'Take Back Control' and I think they were absolutely right to do so.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Let Labour set its own leadership rules.

I don't now if there any lawyers versed in constitutional law who might read my blog posts. If there are maybe they can explain to me and help me understand why the High Court should be getting involved in the Labour leadership election. Surely this is a matter for the Labour Party. Surely it's a political matter that the High Court should keep its ermine-clad nose out of.

A few days ago I took about two hours to write a post about the 'political' interference of the European Court of Justice in European Union matters. This court, more than any other body delivered the vote to leave the European Union. It took its decisions in support of the political objective of "Ever closer union." The people of the U.K. decided they'd had enough of this and voted to Leave. There is a proper place for courts to decide. And there are times when courts should decide not to decide. How the Labour Party chooses its leader is one of them. In my opinion (as a sheep farmer and gardener that is)!! 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Helping Syrian Refugees

The dominating story in UK media a few months back was the difficulties faced by young Syrian refugees in Calais, who wanted to apply for Asylum in Britain. I was on the wrong side of public opinion at the time. But I stuck to my position, despite ferocious lobbying. Lord Dubbs had led a campaign to have the UK allow several thousand young refugees resident in Calais to come to Britain to claim asylum. It was said that they would not be treated sympathetically or fairly in France. In passing, I'm not sure what this says about France!! Anyway, even though I did not agree with this policy, I accepted the Dubbs amendment to the Immigration Bill. In my opinion it was not facing up to the refugee issue, but it did help a few Syrian refugee children. So it was beneficial to a small number, even if it did nothing to help the wider Syrian refugee problem.

Reason I revisit this heart breaking issue today is the decision by the Court of Appeal to over-turn a decision taken by the High Court in January to allow four refugees in Calais to travel to Britain to have their asylum applications heard. This was a test case. The UK Govt lodged the appeal, because the court decision would have fatally undermined the Dublin Regulation, which insists refugees must make their asylum applications in the first safe country they arrive in. This is an important principle, which helps separate genuine asylum seekers from economic migrants and others who want to move to the UK. 

Inevitably, those who think as I do were dismissed as callous and uncaring (even if the opposite was the case). It was quite aggressive criticism on times. However, I tend to study the evidence before I take a position, and support what I believe delivers the greatest good, rather than meet the emotionally charged line driven by the media. Now here is the reality about the UK's contribution. No European country has done more to support Syrian refugees than the UK. The UK has focussed its efforts on helping Syrian refugees where it's most beneficial - near the Syrian border. While the attention of the U.K. media was on Calais, the true refugee suffering was (and is) in Syria. I read reports that there are over 6 million Syrian refugees displaced in Syria. Almost 3 million in Turkey. 1.5 million in Lebanon and 1.2 million in Jordon. This is where the British effort was, is and should be concentrated.

When this issue was 'in the news' a few months ago, I and others were vilified for being concerned that over-riding the Dublin Regulation would encourage refugees to take desperately dangerous journeys in unseaworthy crafts, leading to deaths at sea. Since then, there has been a deal agreed with Turkey to attempt to counteract this 'refugee pull' - though whether that agreement with Turkey is functioning now is uncertain. I suspect Syrian refugees are still dying in the Mediterranean, though it's no longer being reported on our TV screens every night. The media caravan has moved on. The tragedy hasn't.

Anyway, back to this week's Court of Appeal judgement. I was opposed to the Dubbs amendment because it undermined the important Dublin Regulation and did not help the greatest number of refugees. Ok, I was not unhappy that a majority of MPs supported it. I spoke at length with the immigration minister, and accepted the position. It was not so much wrong, as not as right as it should have been. And I must admit I don't much enjoy being shouted at and accused of being callous. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this is that the Court of Appeal judgement passed almost unnoticed in the media this week. The media has moved on. The British Govt's policy should always be to help the largest number of refugees that it can. It's what we are doing.

Friday, July 29, 2016

What is going on at Hinckley Point?

Must admit I was very surprised by last night's Govt statement that it was 'pausing' the final decision on signing the deal with EDF (the French Govt) and the Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation. Like most people, I had assumed that the key decision was that of the EDF Board on Thursday, and that the Friday signing would be no more than a formality. The Chinese certainly thought so, having travelled over to Hinckley from China for the party. The marquee just flapped in the Somerset breeze - unused and empty. Actually we had two surprises. First was the degree of  disagreement and opposition within the EDF Board. And second Greg Clarke's statement that the UK Gov't was going to study the deal before signing it off. There may have been some connection. Was certainly a thought in my mind.

Anyway, it's interesting to indulge in conjecture about why. I don't think we have any real idea. Firstly it may just be that the new Prime Minister wants to have a detailed look at the books before signing it off. Fair enough, but does seem a bit late in the day. We did know the EDF decision was coming a good while back. Couldn't have been a surprise. Personally I don't think the Prime Minister (if it was her decision) was being unreasonable. So much concern about the project (particularly the technology) that it's no surprise she wants to consider it carefully. It seems not even the French are fully sold on the deal. As soon as it emerged that there would be a pause, the shares in EDF jumped skywards.

The media seem to think it's about the involvement of the Chinese - a long term security consideration. 
And not so much the £6 billion investment planned for the Hinckley Point project, but subsequent investments in Sizewell and Bradwell.  No way we can know if this is true. But if it is, it would mark a big change in attitude towards Chinese investment by the new Prime Minister/Chancellor team from previous regime. The Chinese are reported to be "bemused" and "frustrated". I suspect that's Cinese for absolutely bl*****y furious. 

Not really sure where we are now, or what view to take. I had been very much against the UK pulling out of the deal, because of the reputational damage it would do to the UK and to investor confidence. But the French Govt reaction may be a great sign of relief, that a humiliating decision had been taken for it. Since the strike price was agreed EDF has spent £2/3 billion on preparing the site. That's a very big sum to write off. 

Anyway we will have to wait and see. What I really do hope is that there is no knock-on negativity impacting on Wylfa B and Moorside. 

My submission to Sec of State re quashed wind farm decisions

Dear Secretary of State...

Re-determination of planning applications by RES UK and Ireland Ltd and RWE Renewables Ltd to build onshore wind farms at Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen in Montgomeryshire. 

"This letter is my response to your invitation (dated 6th July) to comment on the two above re-determinations (Carnedd Wen and Llanbrynmair) which the Secretary of State will make following the quashing of the two previous refusals made by his predecessor in 2015. It should be treated as a joint response to both re-determinations.

I am the Member of Parliament representing Montgomeryshire, and am opposed to both of these developments. I took part in the Mid Wales Conjoined Public Inquiry which took place between June 2013 and May 2014. Large numbers of my constituents made their opposition clear to the Inspector at the Inquiry. Large numbers of us cooperated in opposing the wind farm developments, particularly the associated transmission infrastructure, which we believe would cause great damage to the economy, landscapes and environment of Mid Wales. We were pleased that the previous Secretary of State refused the Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen proposals, and were desperately disappointed when the two decisions were quashed. We hope that the two developments will again be refused by the new Secretary of State.

My principal reason for opposing these two wind farms is the cumulative impact they would have on one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom. The greatest damage would be inflicted by the necessary grid infrastructure, without which these wind farms could not be built. The central feature of this infrastructure development would be the 'Mid Wales Connection Project' proposed by National Grid to serve the wind farms. It would a 42km 400kV carried for most of its length from North Shropshire on 50 meter high pylons along the length of one of our beautiful area's narrow valleys into the heart of Montgomeryshire. It is a transmission line dedicated to wind farms, so it seems clear to us that once built, it would lead to perhaps another 15/20 wind farms, utilising the unused capacity. There is a 'trigger point' of guaranteed connection sites before the Mid Wales Connection Project would go ahead. I have been very surprised that both National Grid and OFGEM have refused to tell me what that 'trigger point' is, flying in the face of public commitments made by both bodies about transparency. National Grid has also refused to contemplate undergrounding, except for a short length around the village of Meifod. The line would cause particular damage around the village of Llansantffraid, and surrounding areas where tourism is of great importance. In the vicinity of the village, the proposed line crosses the Vyrnwy 12 times in 3 miles.

In my evidence to the Inspector, which I repeat in this submission, I emphasised that the wind farms and the power line, while separate projects, should in fact be considered as one single project. The electricity cannot be transmitted to the Grid from the wind farms unless the line is built. I believe that at an early stage in the Inquiry, the Inspector asked the developers to show how the power could be transmitted without the Mid Wales Connection Project. After initially claiming this would be possible, it was admitted that this is not feasible. In addition, there has been an attempt to portray the Mid Wales Connection Project as contributing to 'a stronger network' to serve the Mid Wales economy. This is totally baseless and no more than false justification. Local protestors, including myself and Powys County Council, pressed the Inspector to adjourn the Inquiry until an environmental assessment of the impact of the transmission line was carried out. We were both disappointed and mystified why the Inspector refused to accede to this request. The absolute linkage of the proposed wind farms and the Mid Wales Connection Project was clear to all, when National Grid ceased all work as soon as the planning applications were refused.

In conclusion, this letter should be regarded as an appeal to the Secretary of State to honour the Government's 2015 manifesto commitment to only support onshore wind farms where they have the support of local people. The applications at Llanbrynmair and Carnedd Wen are very strongly opposed by local people, by Powys County Council and by both the local Assembly Member and Member of Parliament. These two wind farms, and the damage they would cause have been hanging over the heads of the people of Mid Wales for far too long.  I appeal to the Secretary of State to reaffirm the previous decisions to refuse permission for them.