Thursday, 23 December 2010

Nadolig Llawen a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

St Cyngar, Llangefni - 1908

St Cyngar, Llangefni - this morning

Just over a hundred years ago -- on the 24th April, 1908 -- severe snowstorms swept across the country leaving carts abandoned in the streets, forcing the cancellation of sporting events, and bringing many parts of Ynys Môn to a standstill. According to a contemporary postcard from the island written the following day, "the snow was over our boot tops". The top image was taken of St Cyngar's church in Llangefni just after the snow had come down in 1908, the one below it was taken this morning -- proving that the more things change, the more they stay the same...

...on which thought I wish you and your families a peaceful and merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year in 2011. Nadolig Llawen i chi gyd a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

See you in January.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Travel Trouble Through The Tundra

With no sign of a thaw and predictions of more snow on its way, Ynys Môn is beginning to look like an arctic tundra. Although most trunk roads are open and ice-free, like many other people I have spoken to, I have had a few hairy moments on some B roads and in town centres. The exit from Llangefni's one-way street yesterday morning for example was something resembling an ice-rink. Pedestrians are also suffering due to icy pavements thanks to lack of surplus salt. Business leaders throughout Wales are complaining that access roads to business parks and industrial estates have not been gritted and that staff and deliveries just aren't able to get through. What effect this is having on Anglesey's struggling businesses -- at what should be their busiest time of the year -- is exceptionally worrying.

And it could be about to get worse as, according to WalesOnline, many Welsh councils now only have a few more days worth of salt left -- meaning that if more snow does come as predicted we could all find ourselves snowed-in. Apparently WAG is awaiting the import of 12,000 tonnes of extra salt "at the end of the month" -- which is still some time away. After all the chaos of last winter's salt and grit shortages -- and the ample warnings of another cold winter -- I would have hoped that the Welsh Assembly Government and Ieuan Wyn Jones as Transport Minister would have been better prepared this time.

I would be very interested in what experiences you have had trying to get around the island in the snow. Have you been able to get to work? Have you had trouble getting to shops? Any un-passable roads?

Friday, 17 December 2010

One step closer to Wylfa B?

The Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, yesterday announced a number of proposals designed to make energy companies -- such as Horizon Nuclear Power, the joint venture behind Wylfa B -- more confident in investing in low-carbon energy ventures.

The proposals (in plain English) are four fold:

  • First, there will be a new and higher minimum price for carbon emissions from power generation (i.e. a 'carbon floor').
  • Second, those who invest in nuclear plants, wind farms and other forms of low-carbon energy will be guaranteed a price that yields them a profit.
  • Third, there will be additional payments to those who create reserve capacity in the energy system, to cope with surges in demand or unexpected cuts in supply.
  • Finally, there will be prohibitions on the construction of dirty power stations (notably coal).

These proposals have been welcomed by the French nuclear firm EDF, who I believe have been lobbying for a 'carbon floor' for some time. EDF have plans together with Centrica to build four new nuclear power plants in the UK. Hopefully Horizon will also react positively to these changes bringing Wylfa B yet one step closer.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Holyhead Coastguard to close

The UK Government today announced that the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Holyhead, better known as Holyhead Coastguard, will be closed in 2014/15 as part of a complete modernisation of the HM Coastguard service. You can read the full consultation document here.

I had written to the Secretary of State for Transport and stressed the important work carried out by the Holyhead Coastguard, along with the serious jobs situation in Anglesey and Holyhead in particular. While it is very saddening to learn that the station will close, I have been reassured that this change will not affect the front-line services carried out by volunteer Coastguards or the RNLI and that there will be no fall in the provision or standard of service to the North Wales coastline, which remains the most important factor.

The proposed closure of Holyhead Coastguard will not take place until 2014/15 and some staff will have the opportunity to transfer to better paid roles within the Coastguard. I will be making further representations to both the UK Government and to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to ensure that everything possible is done to help all the current staff. If you would like to speak to me in more detail regarding this announcement or the consultation into the modernisation of the HM Coastguard service, please get in touch via the 'contact me' section above.

UPDATE: Following careful consideration of the consultation documents I do not believe that the MCA have put forward a credible case for the closure of Holyhead Coastguard. Their proposals make no allowance for the Welsh language, no allowance for the difficulties non-Welsh speakers face understanding Welsh place names, and no allowance for Holyhead's proximity to the RAF's UK Search and Rescue Headquarters at RAF Valley. For these reasons I don't understand the MCA's logic in wanting to close Holyhead ahead of other stations for example.

I have now raised these concerns with Nick Bourne AM, the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, and we agree that the emphasis absolutely must be put on safety and have decided to seek a meeting with the Minister responsible as soon as possible in order to put the case for retaining the Coastguard at Holyhead.

One Wales? or Three Wales?

How we are linked by human connections
as mapped by analysing phone-calls
Source: The Economist
Wales is not one country, but three different ones when looked at through the prism of human relationships, according to a fascinating article in this weeks Economist magazine.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have analysed 12 billion of phone calls within the UK in 2005 to find which regional clusters communicate with each other most and to see how they corresponds to the official administrative borders. The study's hypothesis in a nutshell is that the more and longer people in two locations talk on the phone, the more likely there are human connections binding those those places together into a cluster.

The results show that Scotland is the most cohesive region in the UK, with more than 75% of all calls originating in Scotland calling other parts of Scotland.

It is the results for Wales which are most fascinating to me -- showing that there are three distinct regions within Wales with only limited human interaction between North, South and large portions of mid Wales. North Wales in particular is much more linked in terms of human interaction with Liverpool, Manchester and the North West of England, with between 65-75% of all phonecalls originating in this area being to other places in North Wales and the North West.

What does this tell us?
GVA per head variation between regions. Following
Wales the North West is the next poorest.
Click to enlarge

  • It shows that North Wales's economy is inextricably linked to that of Liverpool, Manchester and North West England. This fact is reinforced when you look at the relative GVA per head figures between regions. After Wales (with Anglesey at the bottom) the next poorest region is the North West (with nearby Wirral at the bottom). For North Wales to grow, it is essential for the North West to also grow, therefore there should be much more communication and collaboration between WAG and the North West in terms of economic development.
  • In terms of tourism, it shows that the natural market to attract visitors is from the cities of Liverpool, Manchester and the North West. As there are already plentiful human relationships between us, strategically promoting Anglesey as a destination to these regions should be like pushing against an open door.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Llangefni Magistrates' Court to close, County Court repreived

The UK Government this afternoon announced the findings of HMCS's Court Estate Rationalisation programme. There is both good and bad news for Anglesey.

The bad news is that, following the recent consultation, Llangefni Magistrates' Court will be closed along with 12 others throughout Wales. The good news is that the Government has confirmed that the County Court in Llangefni has won a reprieve.

The closure of Llangefni Magistrates' Court will be implemented as part of a phased programme starting in April 2011. I am informed that it is hoped that staff will only be reduced by natural wastage, but voluntary redundancy packages will also apparently be considered. Cases that would previously have been heard at Llangefni will now in all likelihood be heard at either Holyhead or Caernarfon Magistrates' Courts.

Many of the courts which will close in Wales are quite old and not able to provide suitable facilities for victims or witnesses. These changes will mean that the money saved from closing under-used or not-fit-for-purpose courts will be able to be reinvested into modernising and improving other courts.

Even though I am very glad that the County Court in Llangefni has been reprieved, I am personally very saddened to see Llangefni's Magistrates' Court close -- I would have preferred if they could both have stayed open. However the rationalisation of the courts throughout the UK is part of a larger reform of the justice system which also includes sentencing and rehabilitation and changes to legal aid. If you are affected by these changes and would like to speak to me regarding them I am happy to meet with anyone at any time -- please get in touch using the 'Contact me' section above.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Parking and Collaboration

At Thursday's full council meeting, the proposal to convert several free council car parks into pay-and-display ones resulted in well over two hours of often heated debate. This followed the Executive's original proposals being 'called-in' to scrutiny in November and then sent to the Full Council on Thursday.

Petitions against the proposal, signed by over 3,000 islanders, were presented to the meeting and several councillors argued effectively against the changes, citing the effect parking charges have on local businesses - especially in our struggling town centres. The full Daily Post report on the meeting is here.

As a result of this backlash there will now be a complete review of the council's car parks policy in the New Year. I hope that the Executive will now take this opportunity to consider how it can adjust parking charges on all its sites so as to support local, town centre shops and businesses by making visiting them less inconvenient for potential shoppers. Shops in Holyhead and Llangefni in particular have suffered for many years due to:

  • the reduction of street-side parking places;
  • the inconvenience of having to pay to park in town centre car parks even for short periods; and 
  • the fact that supermarket car parks are large and free.

Indeed, to illustrate this point, just last year, Holyhead attracted considerable attention in the Daily Telegraph, the Mirror, the BBC, and other national media for having the most empty town centre shops in the United Kingdom. As pointed out above there are many reasons for this, but the Council has in its power one important lever: the ability to adjust car parking charges to make visiting Anglesey's town centres hasslefree.

Accordingly I would urge the Council to use the opportunity of a full review to adjust parking charges such that the first half- or full-hour was free (or just a nominal charge of 10p as in other places in North Wales). This would make visiting town centre businesses a far less troublesome experience for car users, would undoubtedly provide a boost for local shops, and would also demonstrate to Anglesey's small businesses that it is not "some kind of massive monster that just wants to fleece them" (in the words of Cllr Ken Hughes of Llanfaethlu) but a forward thinking and business-friendly organisation.


In other non-Parking news, Thursday's Full Council meeting also unanimously voted in favour of Carl Sargeant's order suggestion that Anglesey County Council should collaborate more with Gwynedd Council in order to share resources and save costs. In response Aberffraw's Cllr Glyn Jones made the following pithy plea for more collaboration within the council itself too:

"We have just heard of the need to collaborate with other Authorities, let us start by collaborating here in this Chamber today. Let us make history today in this Chamber, let us put Anglesey in the Media with good news ... Let all 40 Members collaborate, let's form an Alliance of 40 Members to move this Council in the direction that the electorate of Anglesey expects and deserves of us."

Hear, hear.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

++ Ynys Môn still poorest place in UK ++

According to the latest GVA per head figures for 2008 released by the Office for National Statistics this morning, Anglesey is still the poorest locale in the whole United Kingdom:

Bottom five GVA per head 2008
click to enlarge

If we compare the bottom five for 2008 with those for 2007 the one bright spot is that at least Conwy and Denbighshire has managed move up and out.

Comparing the Bottom Five for 2007 and 2008
click to enlarge

Personally I'm not surprised to find Ynys Môn still stuck to the bottom of the prosperity league table. I don't know about you but I haven't detected a sense of urgency by the Welsh Assembly Government to tackle Anglesey's economic problems. Just last week we learned that Holyhead is the worst place in Wales to find a job with 7.4 benefit claimants for every advertised job. The latest official data regarding European convergence funding on Anglesey revealed how over three years only 102 new jobs have been created on the Island -- compared to a University of Wales estimate of 2,100 private sector jobs having been lost over roughly the same period. Similarly, the EU JEREMIE funding figures revealed that Anglesey-based companies had received less than 0.1 percent of the total spent in Wales. On top of that, Agriculture -- one of the Island's largest employers -- has been in decline for some time and likely to suffer further due to the expected abysmal uptake of the new WAG Glastir agri-environmental scheme. Do either our current AM or MP have a vision or a plan how to improve the situation...?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The good and the bad news...

I am so used to bearing bad news through this blog that it makes a welcome change to be able to be able to report some good news for a change -- particularly with regards to jobs and the Welsh economy. According to the latest quarterly Manpower Employment Outlook Survey, Welsh employers are finally looking to start hiring again after almost two years of negative intentions:

Employment Outlook for Wales
Click to enlarge

Not only that -- and this makes a big change -- Welsh employers are more confident about hiring than any other region in the UK bar the South West:

Regional comparison of Employment Outlooks in the UK
Click to enlarge

With the employers in the North West also buoyant about hiring let us hope that this trend also benefits Anglesey and North Wales.

However, predictably, any good news is bound to be leavened with bad news. And yesterday's announcement of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Test results -- which compares 10,000 15-year-old students worldwide in reading, maths and science -- were seriously bad news for Wales. The results for Wales were the lowest in the United Kingdom and clearly shows that a considerable gap has opened up between the attainment of Welsh students and those from other regions in the UK, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland:

PISA Test Results - all ranks out of 67 countries
It is difficult to reconcile these results with the annual procession of ever better GCSE and A-level passes. For a small country on the periphery of the United Kingdom, education is the most important weapon in our armoury to continue creating better, well paying jobs in the future -- however these PISA results show that there are grave problems with the current Welsh education system. This is a subject to which I intend to return.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

From Aluminium to Data?

For Sale: the Anglesey Aluminium site in Penrhos,  Holyhead
If you have deep enough pockets, below you can find the sales prospectus for Anglesey Aluminum's Penrhos site near Holyhead. The total land comes to 33.5 Hectares (184 acres), with 114,781 sqm (1,235,500 sqft) of internal floorspace within the various buildings on the site. AAM will continue to operate a re-melt facility at the site on land rented back from the eventual purchaser. Furthermore, a portion of the land has been earmarked for a biomass plant pending planning permission. AAM have already commenced the decommissioning of the remainder of the site which will take up to 18 months to complete. According to the Daily Post, offers are expected in the region of £10m -- the equivalent of approx. £54K per acre.

Apparently the site has already attracted significant interest from energy and fabrication firms -- indeed, the sales prospectus confidently informs readers that "Expressions of Interest are to be submitted ... by 12.00 Noon on Monday 10th January 2011", in triplicate.

One of the most important aspects of the site's infrastructure is its direct 120MW connection to Wylfa nuclear power station. When operational, Anglesey Aluminium used to use up to 20% of the total electricity consumed daily in Wales. Accordingly possibly the most suitable use for the site would be for a business which requires both huge amounts of energy coupled with an uninterruptible connection to the grid. A regular commenter on this blog has suggested that a Data Centre could fit this bill.

The trend towards cloud computing means that Data Centres -- gigantic, secure facilities which house thousands of computer systems and servers -- are becoming more and more important. Indeed one such plant, the £200m Next Generation Data Centre, was recently completed with some WAG support on the site of an ex-LG factory in Newport, South Wales. As the AAM plant already enjoys a direct electricity supply from Wylfa, has potential access to the "fibrespeed" fibre-optic network already installed at the adjacent Parc Cybi, and access to sea water for cooling purposes, might a Data Centre not only be a suitable use for the site but also provide much needed skilled work in the region too?
Anglesey Aluminium For Sale

Saturday, 4 December 2010

WAG orders Anglesey and Gwynedd to collaborate

WAG Local Government Minister Carl Sargeant has told Anglesey and Gwynedd councils to find ways of collaborating and sharing resources together in order to jointly deliver services and save money. If that sounds like a merger of the two councils, Carl Sargeant in a written statement (below) is at pains to point out that that is not the case, stressing the following points:

  • it is not about merging the two authorities;
  • it is not a "take over" by Gwynedd; 
  • and it is "not primarily a response to or a solution to Anglesey's [governance] problems." 

Its worth noting however that the use of the word 'primarily' does clearly indicate that WAG sees some form of greater collaboration with Gwynedd as a partial solution to Ynys Môn's issues. This is reinforced by this section of the statement: "if Anglesey’s members and officers show the leadership and commitment necessary to make it succeed, it will be powerful evidence of progress towards a sustainable recovery." Presumably the implicit message here is that not showing such "leadership and commitment" would indicate the opposite.

What will this mean in practice? Well, Carl Sargeant notes that Anglesey and Gwynedd already have a good record of working together, having operated a single education support service for many years and are currently also cooperating in developing a new joint Local Development Plan. However he wants both counties to go much further and look at "the full integration of major services" and "moving towards a shared senior management team". This means that in all probability there will be no direct successor to Anglesey's Interim MD, David Bowles -- the highest paid civil servant in Wales.  Instead it is now far more likely that Gwynedd Council chief executive, Harry Thomas, could become the joint head of both Councils. Furthermore in order to unlock the kind of savings which Sargeant is after, there would also presumably need to be further rationalisation of Service Heads between the two councils.

Councillors will not be effected -- Sargeant's statement says, "I have no wish to reduce democratic autonomy; I want to help safeguard essential services. If this programme is implemented, both councils would continue to exist as separate democratic entities. Councillors would have the same range of responsibilities as they do now, and would be accountable to local people in the same way."

The Leaders of Anglesey and Gwynedd councils, Clive McGregor and Dyfed Edwards, have already issued a joint statement indicating their "willingness to consider" moving forward, and a joint 'scoping study' will now take place to identify exactly what collaboration of services and senior management is possible. The results of this study will be reported back to WAG in February 2011.

Personally I am in favour of greater collaboration and greater sharing of resources between the two councils. It is clearly not acceptable for taxpayers in the UK's poorest locale to pay the wages of Wales's most expensive civil servant. However, as I have often argued in this blog, I would be against any kind of more wide-ranging merger of the two councils. It is imperative that Ynys Môn retains its separate identity as I don't believe that its quite specific needs and problems could be addressed as effectively by a larger, 'super-council'.

You can read the full statement by Carl Sargeant, and the terms of reference of the scoping report below.
Written Statement by the Welsh Assembly Government

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Helping Holyhead and Ynys Môn to create jobs

According to figures compiled by the GMB Union, Holyhead has the most jobseekers per vacancy in Wales. This month there are 781 unemployed claimants in Holyhead chasing just 105 unfilled job vacancies -- a ratio of 7.4 potential applicants per job. Bangor, Caernarfon and Llangefni are in 17th place, with 2,138 unemployed claimants chasing 1,077 job vacancies -- a ratio of 2 applicants per job.

Holyhead in particular was severely hit by the recession -- two of its largest employers, both of which had been operating in Holyhead for well over 35 years -- closed within three months of each other at the end of 2009:

  • Anglesey Aluminium started smelting in 1971 and continued production all the way through the 80s and 90s, only closing with a loss of 450 jobs in September 2009
  • The Eaton Electric plant in Holyhead opened in 1960 under the name Midland Electric Manufacturing Company, it operated all through the 80s and 90s and closed in December 2009 with a loss of 250 jobs

Between them they directly accounted for 700 jobs, not including all the other jobs in small suppliers, support industries, and shops which depended on their trade.

Large companies like Anglesey Aluminium and Eaton Electric cannot be replaced overnight, and it is for that reason that the economic wellbeing of Holyhead and Anglesey must rest with its indigenous small businesses -- a point explicitly addressed in the People's Manifesto:

"the Council needs to recognise that the Island’s economic future rests on promoting and supporting multitudes of small businesses - not just one or two large employers. Accordingly the Council must: (a) avoid supporting developments which merely contribute to the cannibalisation of sales from existing small businesses and shops; (b) prioritise reducing the bureaucracy and costs involved in running small businesses on the Island; (c) provide meaningful and high-quality support to encourage both the growth of existing small businesses and the establishment of new ventures."

Not only does this make good common-sense, it is also backed up by research: for example studies show that nearly two-thirds of all net new jobs in the United States in 2007 were created by companies less than five years old. Therefore it is clear that a country such as Wales which suffers from an under-developed private sector should strategically focus on providing support to its small businesses as a way of growing the number of private sector jobs.

Unfortunately the economic development policies currently being pursued by the Welsh Assembly Government -- Ieuan Wyn Jones's "Economic Renewal Programme" -- do the exact opposite: i.e. they support a few large employers in Wales at the expense of the multitudes of small businesses. It has done this by limiting the amount of economic support available and then restricted it only to companies operating in six "key sectors":

  • Creative industries
  • Information Communication Technologies
  • Energy and Environment
  • Advanced material and manufacturing
  • Life Sciences
  • Financial and Professional services

How were these sectors chosen? Nobody knows. The majority of companies operating in these sectors are not small companies. And most importantly to us, none of them (with the possible exception of energy companies) are well represented on Ynys Môn as is clear from the following breakdown of workplace employment sectors in Anglesey and North Wales:

In case you can't read the key: the sectors (left to right) are: Public Administration, education,
health and other services; Agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing; Production; Construction;
Distribution, transport and communication; Finance and business services. (Source: WAG)

As you can see: Anglesey has a large distribution and transport sector thanks to Holyhead port, fair sized construction and production industries (although this data was collated before the closure of AAM and Eaton, etc.), and the largest proportion of people in North Wales working in areas related to agriculture and food production. None of these sectors are supported by the Economic Renewal Programme and therefore do not qualify for any support. Financial services are supported but, as you can see, Anglesey has the lowest proportion of these companies in the whole of North Wales.

As Anglesey has the highest proportion of people working in Agriculture sector in North Wales it is also important to note that there are severe problems here also. Single Farm payments are denominated in Euros, whose value is falling against sterling because of economic turmoil in Europe. Furthermore the current existing WAG agri-environmental schemes (Tir Gofal, Tir Mynydd, Tir Cynnal, and the Organic farming Scheme) are in the process of being phased out and replaced by the over complicated and widely derided Glastir scheme.  Indeed at a meeting I recently attended of the Anglesey Grassland Society, out of approximately 40 farmers present, only one said he was applying for Glastir. There is trouble ahead.

So what can be done to help the situation in Holyhead and the rest of Ynys Môn?

  • WAG needs to change its focus to supporting our small indigenous Welsh businesses. It can do this by reviewing the focus of the Economic Renewal Programme and also by reviewing Business Rates -- which are currently higher in Wales than anywhere else in the UK. (the Welsh Conservatives plan to take all small companies with a rateable value of less than £12,000 out of paying business rates all together).
  • More needs to be done to ensure that European funds like JEREMIE (of which Anglesey firms have so far only received 0.1% of the funds available in Wales) are better advertised and taken up by Anglesey companies.
  • Closer to home, Anglesey County Council needs to recognise the dangerous effect which expanding the number of pay and display car parks will have on struggling town centre businesses. Gwynedd Council has made all car parks free during the Xmas period to help their small businesses -- why can't we do the same here? I will be pushing the Council to reconsider parking charges entirely.
  • Noting the importance of Agricultural and food-based businesses in particular to Anglesey, WAG needs to consider the effectiveness of Glastir. Closer to home we need to look at how we can promote Anglesey produce better.
  • Tourism will become more and more important to the Island. I have already discussed here what can be done to help the industry on Anglesey.
  • And finally, Planning policies on the island needs to become more business friendly. Present policies are based on the adopted Ynys Môn Local Plan (1996) and the stopped Unitary Development Plan (2005) -- both of these documents are seriously outdated in all areas. Accordingly we need to ensure there is sufficient consultation into the new Local Development Plan (currently being jointly produced with Gwynedd Council) to make sure that planning represents Anglesey's modern needs.

If you have any more ideas or suggestions, please do let me know.