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.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Leanne Wood, the bell curve, and Wylfa B

There are very little votes to the Left of Labour
Yesterday Leanne Wood was elected as the new Leader of Plaid Cymru. A self professed socialist and avowed republican, she was throughout the leadership campaign the Plaid Activists' choice (the various Plaid supporting blogs have spent the last months collectively swooning over her). The problem for any political party however is that there is generally something of a gulf between what its own activists want, and the views of the average person who may vote for that party. This will be especially true for Plaid Cymru which has anyway relied on cobbling together support from two diverse demographic constituencies: the 'iaith a gwlad' vote in North West Wales and the Left of Labour vote in the South. Ieuan Wyn Jones actually manage to hold these two groups together pretty well, but I think its obvious that Leanne Wood — a first language English speaker from South Wales who wants to attack Labour from the Left — will probably end up alienating a considerable portion of Plaid's traditional support in the North. No doubt she will appeal to some who have never voted Plaid before, but the problem for her is that the majority of votes are to be found in the centre ground of the political bell curve: on the centre-left and centre-right. Putting forward a policy agenda on the friges of the centre-left may excite Plaid's activists, but it will necessarily bring only diminishing demographic returns. 

(Incidentally, in case you are thinking "well, he would say that wouldn't he", I note that John Dixon, Plaid's former National Chair, has just written something similar).

On top of all this, and as fellow Plaid leadership contender Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas himself repeatedly said, Leanne Wood will also especially alienate Ynys Môn voters because of her hardline stance against Wylfa B. She reiterated her complete opposition to Wylfa B just last month in front of local Plaid members during a campaign visit to Llangefni — a meeting in which she also first revealed her plan to replace the thousands of lost Nuclear jobs by siting a massive Quango called the "Energy Department for Wales" on Ynys Môn instead. According to Leanne this will be paid for by winning "control of Crown Estate revenue and a fair share of nuclear decommissioning funds". Even in the unlikely case that Crown Estate monies could be won, I find it extremely difficult to understand how money which is supposed to be spent on safely decommissioning Wylfa could instead be diverted into funding Leanne's pet Quango? Obviously this policy was not meant to be taken seriously — it is merely a convenient crutch for her and Plaid's Ynys Môn local election candidates to use next year to try to show that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they do not want to further damage Ynys Môn's stumbling economy for the sake of burnishing Leanne's 'socialist', anti-nuclear credentials. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

Found: 21 of the endangered 30 Anglesey Teaching Assistants

Just days after being coerced by the Welsh Government and its Commissioners to rubber stamp the highest council tax rise in the United Kingdom — a rise supposedly necessary to save the Island's swimming pools and 30 Teaching Assistants from the axe — Anglesey County Council yesterday started advertising for the following entirely new senior management positions:

£113,630 p.a.

£98,581 p.a.

£98,581 p.a.

£79,683 p.a.

None of these are replacement positions, these are all brand new posts which did not previously exist. In total they add an extra £390,475 to the senior management salaries bill, which is equivalent to 1.5 percent points of this year 4.5 percent council tax rise. I don't know how much the endangered species of Teaching Assistants get paid, but I would imagine it is not far off the median wage for Ynys Môn of £18,331 — which means that Anglesey County Council could secure the employment of 21 Teaching Assistants for this sum. No doubt it could have also gone some way towards preserving the Beaumaris leisure centre which the council seems intent on spinning off.

Are these new positions really necessary? Do we really need to pay someone almost £100K to "develop, lead and deliver Anglesey’s community outreach, engagement and support function" (Director of Community)? And even if they are needed, as the Commissioners in their wisdom seem to believe, in what parallel universe are salaries of this magnitude even remotely justifiable in the third poorest county in the United Kingdom? These sums are an insult not only to Anglesey ratepayers in general, but also to the vast majority of council workers getting by on far less inflated salaries.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Our seasons to come?

Between 1988 and 1989 the renowned Anglesey artist Keith Andrew RCA painted the well known and well loved 'Four Seasons' series of paintings: each one depicting the same traditional Penmynydd cottage, and its inhabitants, in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The paintings were an instant hit on Ynys Môn and beyond, the prints selling in their hundreds and hundreds. Now, 20 years later, in order to warn of the threat to Anglesey's beautiful landscape from the recent influx of planning applications for giant industrial-sized wind turbines, Keith has repainted the 'Four Seasons' cottage and its inhabitants to show Anglesey's possible future landscape:

Is this how Ynys Môn will look and be known for in a few years time?
(c) Keith Andrew 2012

If you want to help stop this becoming a reality, please join the next general meeting of Anglesey Against Wind Turbines on 7pm on 13th March at Ysgol Llanfairpwll.