Sunday, 13 May 2012

How to resolve the Wind Turbine crisis on Ynys Môn

A resolution to the public outcry over wind turbines on Ynys Môn requires some clear strategic thinking coupled with political will.

Because of its flat landscape and the fact that Anglesey County Council has not updated its planning policies on wind energy for over a decade, Ynys Môn has over the past year been specifically targeted by wind farm developers — as testified by the extraordinary surge of planning applications for giant turbines.

Public outcry ensued and, despite having initially been caught with their pants down, Anglesey County Council did the right thing by speedily carrying out a public consultation on new wind energy supplementary planning guidelines (SPG) together with introducing a far more stringent planning 'checklist' for wind developers designed to reduce the number of speculative applications.

A leaked discussion document prepared by planning officers after the public consultation showed that planners were broadly opposed to introducing any blanket guidelines for wind turbines on Ynys Môn — including publicly supported minimum separation distances, maximum height restrictions, and the preservation of Anglesey's AONB together with a suitable buffer zone. The leaved document showed that in essence planning officers would prefer to be allowed to consider each turbine application on its individual merits. This is clearly unsatisfactory but we cannot really blame the officers as their role to merely interpret and be guided by national policy — in this case TAN 8 — and not to propose political fixes, which is the preserve of our elected Councillors.

TAN 8 is the Welsh Government's primary planning policy for wind energy, and establishes a number of geographically defined 'Strategic Search Areas' (SSAs) in which large-scale wind farms should be clustered. It also goes on to provide guidance on what local planning policies can and should be introduced by local authorities. As Ynys Môn falls outside any SSA areas, the most crucial part of TAN 8 to this discussion is as follows (emphasis mine):

"Most areas outside SSAs should remain free of large wind power schemes. Local planning authorities may wish to consider the cumulative impact of small schemes in areas outside of the SSAs and establish suitable criteria for separation distances from each other and from the perimeter of existing wind power schemes or the SSAs. In these areas, there is a balance to be struck between the desirability of renewable energy and landscape protection. Whilst that balance should not result in severe restriction on the development of wind power capacity, there is a case for avoiding a situation where wind turbines are spread across the whole of a county. As a result, the Assembly Government would support local planning authorities in introducing local policies in their development plans that restrict almost all wind energy developments, larger than 5MW, to within SSAs and urban/industrial brownfield sites. It is acceptable in such circumstances that planning permission for developments over 5MW outside SSAs and urban/industrial brownfield sites may be refused."

This essentially tells Councils that although they cannot introduce local policies which would "result in severe restriction on the development of wind power capacity" (which would, for example, rule out blanket height restrictions), they are able to introduce what would in effect become local mini-SSAs to restrict development to one area only ("there is a case for avoiding a situation where wind turbines are spread across the whole of a county"). The question therefore is: which part of Ynys Môn would be most suitable as a housing area for large-scale turbines whilst (a) providing minimum disruption to the Island's landscape and tourism industry; and (b) providing the largest possible public utility to Ynys Môn residents?

Existing wind turbines already visible from the Rhosgoch site
The answer is the 198-acre disused Shell site at Rhosgoch which was gifted to Island in the 1980s and is now administered by the Isle of Anglesey Charitable Trust. The area is fairly out of the way, close to the existing small-scale wind turbine farms in the north of the Island, and the contaminated land which has stopped any other development on the site would not be an issue for erecting wind turbines. Therefore, if a local planning policy was put in place which meant that all wind turbine applications above 15 metres tall were restricted to the Rhosgoch site, then all ground rents from these giant turbines could be captured — through the Isle of Anglesey Charitable Trust — for the public good and used to preserve the various public services, such as leisure centres, now being threatened by cuts. With just 198 acres available (not including the area several football pitches large that could be taken up by the proposed giant transformer farm on Rhosgoch to convert the wind energy coming off the Irish Sea wind from AC to DC) the administrators of the scheme would be able to auction parcels of land off in 25-year leases to developers thus even further maximising revenue.

The scheme could be set-up as a giant Social Enterprise, and even go a step further by allowing various community councils and other local groups first option to rent land, thus allowing them to erect turbines which would provide a regular income for their activities. The scheme would not affect micro-wind generation and farm diversification as smaller wind turbines of up to 15 metres tall would still be possible throughout Ynys Môn outside of the AONB.

Such a policy may be open to legal challenge by developers, but in reality such an outcome would be unlikely as any challenge would be costly and take years — during which time it is likely (bearing in mind the national public disquiet regarding wind turbines) that the current generous subsidy regime for wind energy will be ended. Developers would recognise that if they want to make money on Ynys Môn they would need to rent land on the Rhosgoch site. As per the report in this week's Holyhead & Anglesey Mail about developers 'threatening' planning committee members with appeal, it is clear that developers are keen to rush through their plans as soon as possible to escape whatever restrictions may eventually come via the revised SPG and due to any changes to national policy.

Having any giant turbines on Anglesey may be unpalatable to many residents, however the fact is that without the introduction of a scheme such as I've outlined above then there is no doubt that wind turbine will multiply throughout Ynys Môn and have a real effect on tourism on the Island (all available research shows that between 10-30 percent of holidaymakers will not return to rural areas whose landscapes have been ruined by wind turbines). However, to make such a scheme a reality requires political will and unity from Anglesey's councillors — something which would provide a perfect public showcase for their strategic thinking and care for the Island as the Commissioners prepare to start handing power back to them from October onwards. It would also make 'Energy Island' a far more intelligent concept as a share of money generated from energy schemes on the island would be directly captured for the wider public good.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Minister for Local Government, announced today that he could see light at the end of the Anglesey Tunnel. The Welsh Government's intervention on Ynys Môn will begin to be phased back from the end of September, said Sargeant, from which time power will gradually be transferred back to our own councillors. A smaller number of commissioners will stay on to oversee and advise, whilst members of the Executive will begin to receive their senior salaries again.

He applauds himself at the end of his statement by saying, "if Councillors and officers carry on showing the same commitment as they have so far, we will be able to complete a fundamental and swift turnaround on Anglesey in little over two years", conveniently forgetting the two previous years of Welsh Government intervention under David Bowles when things when badly backwards.

The full statement below.
Title: Isle of Anglesey County Council
Date: 9 May 2012
By: Carl Sargeant, Minister for Local Government and Communities

Last February, I updated the Assembly on the progress that the Isle of Anglesey County Council was making under the stewardship of my Commissioners. I was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for reducing and ending my intervention in the medium term.

Events since then have shown that that optimism was justified. My Commissioners have concluded that while there remain some concerns about the Council’s governance, there are no longer any serious risks. The Auditor General has reached a similar view, and recommended that I should begin planning how to end my intervention.

I agree with and accept the views of both. There is increasing evidence that a Council that was once a byword for misbehaviour, under-performance and petty squabbling is now concentrating effectively and consistently on the issues that matter to the island. Differences remain, as they always will in any democratic organisation. But the days of petty personal rivalries dominating the Council’s business seem to be largely over.

Recent developments have underlined that. In March, the Council had to set a budget and council tax rate in very difficult financial circumstances: it has operated on a shoestring for many years and has much less scope to make savings than many other local authorities. Yet Councillors approached that challenge with real maturity. They engaged fully with the Commissioners in formulating a draft budget and passed it almost unanimously after a sensible and focused debate. That would have been impossible just over a year ago.

There have also been problems with the proposed development of Wylfa B, when the leading companies withdrew. The potential that Wylfa B has for the economic regeneration of the island means that is undoubtedly a major setback for the island. But the response from the Council has been sensible and serious, with a strong mutual interest in securing fresh involvement from another company. There have been none of the recriminations and accusations that we would have seen in the past.

Finally, Councillors have been working with the Commissioners, the WLGA and my officials to overhaul the Council’s constitution and to make sure that it embeds and sustains some of the improvements we have seen. Again, those discussions have been highly positive and productive. They have yielded some radical changes which will strengthen good governance and which other local authorities may well want to emulate. They have also been free of the jockeying for personal advantage which so bedevilled Council politics in the past. Indeed, one of the main aims of the changes is to prevent that from ever happening again. It is clear that almost everyone wants to move on.

That intention is sincere and commendable, but I am not yet convinced that the Council is able to fulfil it alone. I have said before that the recovery will not be complete until we have renewed democracy on the island, and until elections take place on terms which are more likely to yield a representative and accountable council. That cannot happen until next year.

The Council also needs to finish recruiting a new and strengthened senior management team to bring stability, capacity and expertise; and to tackle some intractable problems of service delivery. Progress so far on this has been very good, with a high level of interest from some highly-qualified and well-regarded public servants. But until that team is in place and clearly functioning well, I cannot be sure that the recovery will be sustained.

I will therefore be extending my direction to the Council from the end of May to the end of September, to allow that recruitment to finish. Commissioners will remain in full control until then. If at that point they and I are content that the senior team is ready to take charge, and if progress elsewhere continues to be maintained, then I will start bringing my intervention to an end.

That would initially mean reducing the Commissioners’ presence and responsibilities. Councillors would resume control, subject to being overridden by Commissioners if they proposed to act unwisely or unreasonably. Commissioners would also support councillors and officers; and they would continue to monitor progress and advise me on that. I will discuss with my Commissioners the level of their personal involvement under this approach; but it is unlikely to entail having five Commissioners with a continuous presence in the Council.

As a consequence, I will also be asking the Independent Remuneration Panel to consider restoring senior salaries for members of the Council’s executive. I withdrew these last year when I transferred the executive’s powers to Commissioners; it can only be right that they are returned in some form if and when those powers are handed back.

This approach will allow us to test the sustainability of change in a controlled environment. It will mean an early return to local decision-making, with appropriate safeguards. If that proves successful, I should be able to end my intervention completely soon after next year’s elections.

Those elections will take place using new boundaries, and I expect to receive the Local Government Boundary Commission’s final proposals on those boundaries shortly. Many within the Council did not support their initial proposals. They are of course also free to oppose the final proposals: they will have at least six weeks to make representations to me. I will consider all constructive representations seriously; and I trust that in approaching this issue, Councillors will display the same maturity as they have on other major issues recently.
All I am doing now is making appropriate plans to phase out my intervention. I could restore the Commissioners’ full powers at any time, and will do so if the recovery stalls or if Councillors prove unable or unwilling to resume proper control.

On the other hand, if progress continues under the Commissioners’ stewardship, and if Councillors and officers carry on showing the same commitment as they have so far, we will be able to complete a fundamental and swift turnaround on Anglesey in little over two years. I look forward to being able to do so.

I will make a further statement to the Assembly in due course.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Guest Blog: The Decline and Fall of Plaid Cymru in Four Acts

During better times in Act 1 and before the
Llanwnda scene in Act 3.
Now that the dust has settled on this weeks local elections, one of the most revealing and largely unreported vignettes from polling day was the re-election of Aeron Jones, a Llais Gwynedd councillor, to Llanwnda despite an energetic campaign led by Plaid Cymru 'royalty' Dafydd Iwan and Dafydd Wigley to unseat him. Llanwnda was just one example of the declining support Plaid is currently experiencing in its Gwynedd heartlands. On a larger scale, at a time when the personal ratings of the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are all in negative figures and at an all time low, why wasn't a party like Plaid Cymru able to capitalise on the general dismay with politics-as-usual?

Here in a Guest Post, a seasoned and anonymous veteran of local politics in Gwynedd and beyond charts the decline and fall of Plaid Cymru in Four Acts.

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YMLAEN! YN OL. I LAWR.

Last Thursday 10 million people voted in an election of 15,000 candidates contesting nearly 5,000 wards across England, Wales and Scotland. The eyes of most commentators, as ever, were drawn to London and a reaction from No 10 – or here in Wales, to events in Cardiff. It is understandable that with 70% of the population in Wales living within 60 minutes of the capital this will happen. But the latest unreported episode of a story with real significance for Wales unfolded in Gwynedd: the drama in four parts which depicts the rise and fall of Plaid Cymru is now moving into its final Act.

ACT I: SMALL BEGINNINGS

Act I saw the formation of Plaid broadly in response to poor governance and threats to our Welsh nation-hood and culture – especially our language. Even today the constitution reflects this, promising to secure social justice, equality, a bi-lingual society and nation-hood. Some 90 years later, in part through their actions and voice, the Welsh Language enjoys protection and promotion from an Act of Parliament and Wales has its own Assembly with some significant devolved powers. Many regard this progress as a success (many do not – both as too little and too much, but that is not the point of this piece). 

However, these achievements have presented Plaid with two big questions over its identity. The first is simple: what do they stand for now? Polling on support for Welsh autonomy barely moves into double figures who favour separation from the UK. This removes nationhood as a serious campaign platform for any Party with national ambition. We might compare it perhaps to the status of UKIP campaigning on withdrawal from the EU – irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue, the largest amount of voters just don’t care enough. 

The second question is raised by the fact that both of these achievements came through mainstream UK parties. It was a Conservative government, moved by Conservative MP for Bangor and Conwy, Wyn Roberts, who introduced the Welsh Language Act. Labour introduced the Assembly. Once again, this defines Plaid in the role of cheerleader and agitator. It is a sobering truth that having secured an Assembly for Wales (albeit by the narrowest of margins in a national referendum), the closest Plaid have come to power is brief tolerance by a grateful Labour administration that they propped up for four years. 

Which brings us to Act II of this period that Plaid shared power in the Assembly.

ACT II: POWER AND GOVERNMENT

This is a short Act and not a very happy one. Not just for the period of time it represents – just one term out of four so far – but for another reason. A big, awkward, question that won’t go away and can never be hidden from anyone who wants to know the answer.

Can anyone think what was achieved during that time? 

What did having Ieuan Wyn as Anglesey’s representative (for a quarter of a century), the Deputy Leader of the Assembly, and Plaid’s own Party Leader achieve for Mon man? What vision was shown, what benefits gained, what resources were wrestled from the outstretched hands of a populous, needy, South? What evidence is there of strong local leadership and careful investment for the future wellbeing of Anglesey and its residents? An airline. A failing local authority. And the lowest GVA of any county in the UK. 

To be fair, this is to ask a lot of both IWJ and Plaid. But for the LibDems inability to organise themselves, it might have been a rainbow coalition against Labour. After eight years, people were already well aware of their failures. The Daily Post and Western Mail both ran big spreads on the 10 year anniversary of the Assembly, reviewing progress, celebrating achievements and asking people what the Assembly had done for them and for Wales. How had the billions of pounds spent made a difference to them? The answers? Bus passes and free prescriptions. I can only imagine the discussion in the Editors’ offices. The stark and simple truth is that under a Labour led Assembly, Wales has plummeted down international rankings for economic competitiveness. Worse still, under the management of our own Assembly, outcomes in health, education and more are now worse than our nearest neighbour, England. In the Welsh valleys we have managed to cultivate some of the most impoverished places in the UK. 

ACT III: A NEW DAWN

At this point of the play we are ready for the entry of a charismatic figure to herald a new dawn and lead the oppressed out of gloom into sunlit uplands. 

To say that Leanne’s election as leader was a “surprise” is not strictly true. Her cry of “Ymlaen!” and her ability to mobilise young people invigorated the Party membership and boosted its numbers. However politics and the fortune of nations turn on wider support. As a federalist and an avowed Marxist she occupies two of the smaller constituencies from which to build a majority. “Outflanking Labour from the left” is not a credible political strategy and the warm endorsement of the Welsh Communist Party will not feature on the Party’s letterhead. 

And so the to the Leader’s first test in battle. Setting the broad paint brush of strategy aside, could the finer brush strokes of local elections on local issues prove this analysis wrong? Would the devil be in the detail? Could personal politics and the handfuls of votes cast in remote, rural polling stations demonstrate a deeper connection and broader appeal to Welsh citizens? Could she reach good, honest, hard working Welsh folk, wanting a bit of help for their families in touch times, hoping for a lift in the local economy? Would she win the support of those proud to be Welsh and proud to vote for the “Party of Wales” in a local election? 

The results suggest otherwise. Plaid it could be argued, held its own. Indeed it remains the majority party in several counties. Net gains/losses might suggest little movement. But in truth, it failed. This was a huge setback. When dissatisfaction was deepest, hopes were highest, the simple truth is that by midnight on May 4th not a single Welsh council is run by Plaid. Anglesey of course had no election and only Labour can claim success and gains. The independents and NOC (“no overall control”) continue to be a big player in Welsh local politics. However, it is in Gwynedd that we see the true reflection of the demise of Plaid.

Back in 1925, Gwynedd was the birthplace of Plaid Cymru. Today some two-thirds of residents are first language Welsh speakers. If not Leanne’s personal politics then surely this is the safe ground from which a movement could be rebuilt?

In truth, this has not been safe ground for Plaid for years. Llais Gwynedd is a story worth telling but better told by others. However, what was dismissed as a narrow, single interest group that sang songs on the steps of Cyngor Gwynedd Council in protest at the closure of rural village primary schools has turned into a stone in the shoe of Plaid Cymru. The harder they stamp, the more it hurts them.

The 2010 general Election in Gwynedd heartlands also revealed the wobble in Plaid’s support base. Hopes for a “magnificent seven” seats in the UK parliament were revealed as baseless and they did well to hang on to the three they had, including the new Arfon seat. With proposed boundary changes we may never know what could happen in Arfon’s boundaries over time, but the general election was dominated by a two prong tactical pinch: voters calculated who was most likely to beat Plaid in Caernarfon and who was most likely to beat Labour in Bangor. Plaid’s majority tumbled. Labour came within touching distance. The Conservative vote grew dramatically, through the middle, a local candidate drawing on dissatisfaction with both and memories of the effective Lord Roberts.

Plaid’s majority on Gwynedd Council – never the strongest and always under threat – is now gone. Its hopes for a majority reduced to the outcome of a by-election in a ward where neither they (nor any other Party) could manage to raise a candidate. This is as damning an indictment of local political governance in Gwynedd as any economic statistic. Seasoned Gwynedd watchers will also know this is not an isolated event. Several more urban wards were decided on less than a few hundred votes cast.

And what of the fight itself? In Llanwnda, a leading Llais figure was targeted by Plaid. They rolled out their local man and an intensive campaign, blessed by the aging, but iconic Dafydd Iwan as Agent and Lord Dafydd Wigley as canvasser-in-chief. To no avail, as the result was an increase in the Llais majority.

In Deiniolen a long serving, senior Plaid Councillor very active in the Gwynedd administration was defeated by a local independent who was “well liked” in the village. The Plaid candidate's list of activity, every Chairmanship and senior position held filled a side of paper. The independent noted that he lived with his parents and enjoyed playing snooker in the evenings.

Bethel ward was perhaps the biggest shock, lost to the diligent work of an active Labour candidate.

ACT IV: AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

So the “narrative arc” of our drama comes full circle and Act IV has returned us to where the story started. We all care deeply for Wales and things Welsh. I am the first to acknowledge the importance of a Party built on national interest and the preservation of language and culture. These are valid perspectives and vital – in its truest meaning, they are “essential for life” for Wales.

From its humble origins “Y Mudiad Cymreig” (the Welsh Movement) has made huge gains and left a permanent and proud mark on Welsh politics. But the high water mark has been reached and that tide is now running out. With just one Welsh EU seat, less than one-tenth of Welsh Parliamentary seats, one-sixth of local government and Assembly seats, Plaid may always have a proud voice. But it has not proved its ability to govern and by overlooking leaders with the potential to influence and appeal beyond the Party, not just within, it has settled for the Opposition benches. The results confirm this.

This Act is still being written, but it appears the plot line is set. The inconvenient truth is that gains we have in Wales have come from mainstream parties. Not English parties, but Welsh. Voted for by Welsh people.

One way or another, mainstream politics and parties are the future in Wales. We must grapple with their agendas to secure the best deal for Wales.

For all our sakes, the debate must move now towards the damage done by a fourteen year experiment in socialist politics here in Wales. In Anglesey alone the loss of aluminium production and power generation goes beyond metaphors such as “asleep at the wheel”. We still rely on Objective 1 EU funding, seemingly locked into deprivation and dependency.

Plaid does not have an answer and as a result, is rapidly losing its relevance and meaning to those who should care the most.

And “most” is what is counted in politics.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Wylfagrad B, Leanne Wood, and Political Cowardice.

I'm puzzled. Almost a month has now passed since the German owners of Horizon announced they had decided to pull the plug on Wylfa B — yet Plaid Cymru's new leader Leanne Wood has not uttered a single word about nuclear energy since. This is strange because arguably one of the central planks of her leadership campaign was her outright opposition to ANY Nuclear energy in Wales, including a new plant at Wylfa. Indeed, immediately after she won the leadership contest in mid March she said this to the Daily Post:

“Plaid Cymru’s stated position is in opposition to a new nuclear power station in Wales. That isn’t to say jobs in North Wales isn’t of vital importance. I have put forward an alternative jobs plan for the North West and for Ynys Môn, those jobs are in the renewable energy sector so we can build a clean, green industry that doesn’t risk our future.”

You would therefore assume that when RWE and E.On made their announcement just two weeks later Leanne Wood would have welcomed their decision and reaffirmed her commitment to a nuclear-free Wales. You might even expect her to have redoubled her efforts to promote the "alternative jobs plan for the North West and for Ynys Môn" she mentioned above — essentially to set up a massive Quango on Ynys Môn called the "Energy Department for Wales" funded by the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency.

Instead we have heard absolutely nothing from her whatsoever on the topic. Why not? Apparently anti-nuclear posturing is fine and dandy until what she said she wanted actually happens and thousands of jobs are suddenly put in danger. It looks more and more to me like political cowardice which doesn't bode well for the rest of her term as Plaid leader.

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Should we be concerned with reports that Rosatom, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation, is interested in buying up Horizon and progressing with Wylfagrad B? Probably yes, but not for the "Chernobyl" scaremongering by people like PAWB. The disaster at Chernobyl was caused by unauthorised experiments carried out by the operators to see just how far they could push the reactor without causing a meltdown, involving the disabling of several failsafe mechanisms which would normally have prevented it. The consequences were horrifying, but it is fantasy to think that the involvement of Rosatom at Wylfa could lead to anything similar happening here. Should Rosatom be given the go ahead they will have to use the exact same designs developed by the Germans, and make the exact same choice between either the Areva or Westinghouse reactors — essentially the only thing the Russians will be supplying is the funding.

The more pertinent question regarding Russian involvement at Wylfa is whether the UK really wants a country which has used energy supply as a diplomatic weapon in the past obtaining a foothold in our own energy market?

For what it is worth I suspect that there are many more runners and riders in the race to buy Horizon and that the Russians are just the most vocal.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Wylfa: What next?

Regular commenter Mairede Thomas succinctly sums up Ynys Môn's current position and dilemmas:

"As far as Anglesey is concerned this is how it stacks up:- the Biomass plant site at Anglesey Aluminium, that has gained planning approval, may be able to source cheap waste wood and other imported biofuel but if the experience of DRAX the Uk’s biggest co-firing coal station is anything to go by the cost of buying in imported biofuel could be prohibitive. In mid February Drax decided not to build a £1.3billion pair of 290MW biomass plants reasoning that the Uk subsidy is not attractive enough. And the Banks are not playing ball either, so putting together the finance is not proving too easy. So big biomass projects like the one on the north of our island may not materialize.

Now the Wylfa B site is up for grabs but EDF and Centrica will want taxpayer support too. Who knows what the Russians will want, but do we want them?

There does not appear to be any type of new, sizeable and reliable power generation plant, that is also acceptable in terms of the C02 targets the Uk has burdened itself with, being brought forward for development by the international power companies, or indeed smaller developers, unless they are given assurances that they will get a huge public subsidy.

So do we ditch the CO2 targets and go for coal and gas? Or do we nationalise nuclear?

I would look seriously at both of these options otherwise we may not have enough reliable new power plant and infrastructure being built to keep the lights on. And unless we find some significant new gas reserves (shale?) we will be at the mercy of imported fuel prices to heat our homes and run our businesses.

I hope our politicians will do everything possible to ensure that the skills built up in Anglesey over many years in the nuclear industry are not lost to the island or dispersed abroad. The excellent facilities at Coleg Menai offer young people who study there the prospect of sustainable and rewarding careers, let’s hope they can fulfil their career ambitions on Anglesey."

In the meantime, French energy giant EDF has shown its hand early and declared that it is not interested in taking on Wylfa whilst back on Anglesey the Head of the council's Energy Island project has announced that she is leaving.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

++ Horizon partners pull out of Wylfa B ++

Instead of an expected announcement of what reactor type they planned to use at Wylfa B, Horizon's joint venture partners E.ON and RWE npower have this morning instead announced that they will NOT proceed with plans to build Wylfa B and will instead seek to sell Horizon as an ongoing concern to new investors. The press release from RWE describes the reason as follows:

  • The global economic crisis has meant that capital for major projects is at a premium and nuclear power projects are particularly large scale, with very long lead times and payback periods; 
  • The effect of the accelerated nuclear phase out in Germany, which has led to RWE adopting a number of measures, including divestments, a capital increase, efficiency enhancements and a leaner capital expenditure budget;
A combination of these strategic factors, together with the significant ongoing costs of running the Horizon joint venture, has led to a situation where capital investment plans have been reviewed.
Press releases here, here and here.

Rumours began to surface last July, following the Fukushima disaster and Kanzler Merkel's decision to close German nuclear plants, that E.ON and RWE npower would "struggle to convey to investors the billions of euros in investment that would be required for building new reactors in the U.K. at a time when cash flows and earnings are under increased pressure after Germany decided to exit all nuclear energy". More recently there had been further rumours that the two partners were looking for a third partner in order to spread risks. With hindsight it becomes clear why the reactor vendor announcement has been continually delayed for the past few months. 

The implications of this news is catastrophic for Ynys Môn as so many other developments are predicated on Wylfa B going ahead, the following being just two examples:

  • Land & Lakes holiday resort development on the majority of the Anglesey Aluminium site has a business plan based on providing housing for Wylfa B construction workers
  • Coleg Menai's Energy Centre built to train a new generation of nuclear workers


Will this be the end of Wylfa B? I don't believe so: the Department of Energy and Climate Change's own estimates show that of a total of around 75GW in UK generating capacity, 20GW will disappear by 2015 as various ageing nuclear and coal plants will need to be decommissioned over the next few years. And as they current peak demand is around 65GW and growing, that means that the UK could be facing energy blackouts within the next decade — as made clear by the adjacent graph from The Economist.

The reality is that the UK government needs Wylfa B more than Horizon needs to build it — which means that by hook or by crook Wylfa B will eventually have to be built.

The fact of the matter is that the decision to replace the UK's ageing nuclear reactors should have been made years ago, instead Labour spent its 13 years in power obsessing over renewable energy and introducing ever more stringent carbon targets, under Energy Secretary Ed Milliband, which have led to our countryside being covered with hundreds of useless windmills but with no replacement for lost baseload capacity. (Ironically, according to the RWE and E.On's press releases they plan to instead invest in more UK renewable projects, no doubt due to faster returns due to a crazy market deforming subsidies!) 

If you don't believe me that Labour didn't make the necessary decisions, then believe Unite regional secretary for Wales, Andy Richards, who told the Daily Post in January 2009:

"The origins of [Anglesey Aluminium's problems] pre-date the current economic crisis, which is why Unite has been calling for the Labour Government to make the important decisions on energy supply for years. The procrastination over Wylfa means we are now looking at a probable closure, which would be catastrophic for Anglesey and Wales."

It wasn't until the Coalition government came into power two years ago that plans to replace our ageing nuclear fleet were finally put in place. The delay by the previous Labour government has meant that the UK now needs to make the necessary immensely costly infrastructure investments both post-Fukushima and during Europe's lowest economic ebb since WW2. Which puts the recent furore about Pastys into perspective.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Suspension of Island Democracy finally debated in the Senedd

Last Wednesday the suspension of local democracy in Ynys Môn was debated in the Senedd for the first time since Welsh Local Government Minister, Carl Sargeant, announced by diktat in January that local elections on Ynys Môn would be postponed until 2012 — one year after every other county in Wales goes to the polls. The debate was prompted by the Lib Dems tabling a motion to annul the Minister's decision.

The elections were postponed following the following recommendations by the Auditor General for Wales following his March 2011 re-inspection of Anglesey County Council:

"I also recommend that the Welsh Ministers direct the authority to develop and implement a strategy that promotes democratic renewal, and that Welsh Ministers provide assistance to the authority under section 28 of the Measure in pursuit of that renewal. In so doing, I also recommend that Welsh Ministers request the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales to review its proposals published in 2010 to ensure that the changes proposed adequately address the need for democratic renewal in Anglesey in terms of the number of councillors and the introduction of multi-member wards. If it is not possible to complete and implement this review by May 2012, I recommend that the Ministers consider using powers under section 87 of the Local Government Act 2000 to delay the Council’s elections until 2013."

Whatever you may think of the postponement of elections on Ynys Môn in order to ensure that the next election is conducted under an entirely new electoral system, it is surely not right for such a major decision to have been taken on the recommendation of just one man, the Auditor General for Wales — who is, after all, unelected. I would even go further and say that Huw Vaughan Thomas, the Auditor General and former Chief Executive of Gwynedd and Denbighshire councils, went beyond his remit in:

  • recommending changes to the electoral arrangements which will result in Ynys Môn having uniquely different arrangements to every other county in Wales;
  • recommending postponing elections in order to facilitate these electoral changes.

Either way, to my mind it is surely entirely proper that these dramatic and far reaching decisions should be subject to proper examination and some degree of democratic accountability through the means of a debate in the Senedd. Well done therefore to the Lib Dems in tabling the motion!

This is not however a view shared by our own AM, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who told the chamber:

"I am disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have decided to bring up this issue."

...before going on to say...

"The auditor is independent, and we need to be very clear in our reasons for going against the truly independent views that he has expressed. If the auditor believes, in his advice to the Minister, that democratic renewal can best be achieved by ensuring that multi-member wards are created, the best thing that we can do is allow time for that to happen."

So, according to Ieuan Wyn Jones, there is no need to even debate or discuss a recommendation made by the Auditor General. In which case, why do we need politicians like him? Its also worth remembering that Ieuan Wyn's own Plaid Cymru councillors in Ynys Môn were unanimous in opposing the delay of elections. The Lib Dem, Peter Black, succinctly explained why Ieuan was wrong:

"I refer to the comments from the Member for Ynys Môn, Ieuan Wyn Jones, when he said that he was disappointed that this motion was being brought forward. I believe that, on principle, if we are going to defer elections, then at the very least, Assembly Members should vote on the matter. I think that that is responsible and is absolutely right.  The situation in Anglesey is unique, which is why we need to tread carefully and ensure that we do not forego the democratic principles, which is what we are doing by proceeding with this Order. The auditor general, who, by the way, is unelected, wants democratic renewal—that is precisely what we suggest and what we propose here as part of this motion."

Here are some other highlights from the debate.

Antoinette Sandbach AM (Conservative):

"People have a regular democratic right to give their verdict on their council at the ballot box, and this mandate has been removed from the voters of Ynys Môn. Meanwhile, the Welsh Government and Ynys Môn County Council have made decisions that will have a huge impact on the residents of Anglesey, and which those residents are powerless to do anything about this year because they have been denied the right to judge the council at the ballot box. 
If there was an election in May, would the council have imposed the biggest council tax hike in the whole of the United Kingdom, at 4.5%? I do not think so. Would it have decided just days after this announcement to advertise four brand new senior management posts with a combined salary of more than £400,000 a year? I do not think so. Who is footing the bill for all of this? The answer, of course, is the council tax payers—the voters of Anglesey. Clearly, there are problems in Ynys Môn, but is the democratic process one of those problems? At the last council election, 25% of the council seats changed hands. The council was refreshed by the voters, so it is not as if the electorate did not use their democratic right to give their verdict on the conduct of the council at the ballot box. The people of Anglesey have the right to ask why its council is the only one in Wales to have multi-member wards imposed on it by the Welsh Government. Does this make the system more democratic, or do multi-member wards serve to widen the gap between the councillor and the constituent? Does this make political campaigning prohibitively expensive for independent candidates? Is the imposition of multi-member wards by the Minister really happening because the Minister does not like the results of the election in Anglesey? Postponing the election does not solve any of the problems; all it does is to remove the democratic right of the electorate."

Peter Black AM (Lib Dem):

"Democracy is about empowerment and not about diktats from the centre. The question is: what do we mean by 'democratic renewal’? In my view, it means a democratic election in which voters can judge matters for themselves. Yet the residents of Ynys Môn are being denied that, which is why we believe that this Order has to be overturned. We have supported the intervention and the auditor general’s judgment on this issue, but it is argued that we cannot allow this issue to continue without elections. If elections took place, it would not mean the end of the intervention board, as the Minister indicated, but would give the board the opportunity to work with councillors with a fresh mandate and those councillors could demonstrate the support of the electorate. Decisions are being taken that would not have been considered if there were elections this year. That cannot be right and we believe that if we are to restore any credence to the democratic process, we have to have elections in Anglesey along with the other 21 councils on 3 May."

Mark Isherwood AM (Conservative):

"The Isle of Anglesey council has been dogged by scandal since its formation in 1996. Serious allegations relate mainly to planning and to grants, and specifically to the council’s senior management and corporate governance. However, only in his statement last month did this Minister finally acknowledge that these areas need radical reform. Until now, the rhetoric from Welsh Government has all been about democratic renewal to tackle 'chronic political infighting and misbehaviour’. Three weeks ago, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales dropped a case against Anglesey councillor Elwyn Schofield on the grounds that the evidence was contradictory and largely uncorroborated. This case was brought by the former interim managing director, who also obliged council group leaders to sign terms of engagement that forced them to publicly and robustly condemn this councillor and other named councillors. That ultimately led to the appointment of commissioners, the postponement of local elections and drastic local boundary changes. Last March, the Minister announced that he was replacing the elected executive with commissioners paid £500 a day. The first two commissioners he announced were a Flintshire Labour colleague, criticised for presiding over a series of scandals at Flintshire County Council—all documented by independent reports—and the man who was chief executive of the then Labour Cardiff County Council when it was rocked by a multi-million pound scandal over unlawful expenses. When I met leading Anglesey councillors last December, they told me that
'the problem was always corporate governance in an Officer led Council, not members with horns on their heads’.
They said:
'Councils in the rest of Wales are being allowed four years to change their electoral boundaries, but Anglesey was only being given 4 weeks just before Christmas’."

Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem):

"Our reason for bringing forward this motion is that it is our judgment that the boundaries are not the reason for the political challenges facing the county. Many county councils that consist entirely of single member wards do not face the same political difficulties that led to the imposition of commissioners. Similarly, there are multi-member ward councils that do not operate effectively.The council has just had to pass a budget recommended to it by the commissioners. Given the situation, and the fact that the council is under heavy supervision from the Government, in reality it would have been impossible for the council to reject the budget. This has led to an increase of 4.5% in council tax next year, which is the highest of any council in England and Wales. If there are no elections this year, and the commissioners remain in place, an additional budget will be passed next year by the council based on representations made by the commissioners. We believe that this denies the people of Anglesey an opportunity to vote for an administration of their choice to take the island forward for the next few years. Furthermore, there is little evidence in the council’s internal minutes to suggest any real action taken with regard to efforts of democratic renewal with the current councillors. Therefore, the position will be that, if democratic elections are held next year and the same councillors are returned, to all intents and purposes, no real effort will have been made to change behaviours that have, quite clearly, been in place in that county for a number of years.A delay of a year before elections are held on the island is unacceptable. If any council is in need of democratic renewal, it is Ynys Môn, and the best way of ensuring democratic renewal is through holding elections."

The motion was defeated 33 votes to 17.