Merthyr’s Progress

Rhys David measures the gap between vision and reality in the contemporary development of the first town of the industrial revolution

Is Merthyr Tydfil getting there? For those who only know the Welsh borough from its usual ranking at the foot of a range of prosperity and health league tables, the question might hardly seem worth asking. Yet, in the view of Alistair Neill, the determinedly optimistic Scots chief executive of the council, the figures that usually make the newspapers reflect a different past from which the area is now escaping.

According to Neill, a former senior executive with a number of multinational companies who is now in his seventh year at Merthyr, perceptions of the town are changing – whether they be those of its own residents, those returning after a long absence, or potential investors. Census Office statistics suggest that after declining for most of the past 100 years to a point where Wales’s once biggest town is now home to fewer than 60,000 people, the population has grown in each of the past two years, and is expected to continue to do so, albeit modestly.

The body blows that have hit the town over recent years have not stopped. The most recent was the cessation of manufacturing at the iconic Hoover plant, Merthyr’s biggest employer in the post-war period. It still has daunting socio-economic problems with some of the highest rates of sickness and lowest skills not just in Wales but in Britain as a whole.

Nevertheless, Neill argues, much of what was set out in Vision 2010, the plan adopted shortly after his arrival, has been achieved, starting with a transformation in the services provided by ‘Team Merthyr’, the 4,000 people who work for the borough. The Local Government Data Unit’s 2008 annual assessment found Merthyr to be the highest performing council in Wales. This was a marked turnaround from earlier Audit Office reviews that had identified it as a potentially failing council where intervention might be needed.

The changes have been brought about first of all by making sure councillors enjoyed a greater role in policy formulation – rather than implementation – and by ensuring staff were more aware of  what was going on in departments other than their own and could contribute ideas more widely. Improvements have been sought through a bottom up rather than top down approach. “We wanted staff to know that their actions did make a difference and we were keen improvement teams were not just run by senior management. Someone on reception who sees 200 people coming in to the council each day is going to have a powerful set of views on how we react to visitors,” Neill says.

Working with the Welsh Government and a range of other partners, the council has been able to embark on a large scale programme of regeneration across the town. In part, Neill explains, the aim has been to provide for the people of Merthyr, and its catchment area of up to 300,000 people across the Heads of the Valleys, a range of facilities and services not previously available but which would be taken for granted in most communities across Britain.

A new retail park has brought in big name outlets such as Debenhams, Next and JJB Sports and also family restaurants. Such has been its popularity, a 65,000sq.ft Tesco superstore on land alongside the station has already had to add an upper deck to its surface car park. It is seen as a key support for smaller niche and locally-owned shops nearer the centre of town. The pedestrianised town centre has been paved in granite, and it is hoped one of its previously disused buildings, the old Town Hall, will re-emerge as a theatre and arts centre – a facility the town currently lacks.

A new business park has also provided the accommodation modern enterprises require and the Welsh Government has moved its social justice department to a site just outside the centre. Though many of those working there will be commuting from Cardiff, it is hoped some will decide to settle permanently and as staff move on they will, it is expected, be replaced by locally recruited replacements.

So, much of the ‘hardware’ – the town centre, new leisure, retail and business parks, riverside and heritage trails – have been put in place or repaired. Stock transfer of the council’s housing to a housing association promises to release substantial funds for bringing properties up to modern standards.

More difficult will be the ‘software’ – the educational attainment of school leavers, the  skill levels of the working population, the poor health of not just the elderly retired but of many of those of working age. The investment that has taken place will be of little long term value if those problems cannot be sorted out.

An unstated part of the overall strategy has been to make people feel better about living and enjoying life, leisure and work in Merthyr and hence about themselves too. The next stage is to try to turn this into more positive attitudes towards learning – the sine qua non pathway to stimulating and well-paid jobs. Though many of Merthyr’s schools have been getting positive ratings from inspections and have had new buildings, this has not been reflected in the proportion of pupils going on to achieve good GCSE and A Level results, which still lag those for the rest of Wales.

Because of Merthyr’s small size its schools have not been able to offer a wide enough choice of curriculum options at sixth form level. There is also a problem of disengagement among young people not interested in academic options, many of them, in Neill’s words, having great brains and fantastic talents but weak literacy and numeric skills.

The proposed solution – currently out for consultation and not without its opponents -is a move to a new-build post-16 tertiary education system, the Merthyr Learning Quarter. This would cater on one site for academically and vocationally orientated young people, entering through the same gates for different courses enjoying equal levels of esteem. The centre will be developed jointly with the University of Glamorgan, which merged with Merthyr College in 2006. It is hoped the new Merthyr Learning Quarter will double the number of curriculum options available and greatly increase the numbers interested in carrying on with their education beyond 16 years.

Another ambition, is a university presence in the town. The idea is not simply to add to the already long list of Welsh universities. A university institution in Merthyr would begin by offering foundation courses designed to encourage individuals who might not otherwise have the confidence or the necessary qualifications to take the first steps towards a degree. “This is about saying ‘Look, we will bring a foundation course to you, we will work with you so that you don’t have to go away to study. You can prove to yourself you can do this and go on to another university to finish it’” says Neill.

New approaches being developed jointly with the health authority and local authority social services will attempt to persuade older people not to see themselves as “poorly” or less than fully fit, a significant attitudinal problem in the area.  The aim will be to try to keep people away from hospital, or, later, a care home.

For other age groups a health park is planned opposite the retail park which will bring together GP surgeries, and a range of other primary care services, with a strong emphasis on the importance of diet and leisure activity as a means of maintaining health and preventing illness. It is hoped that this prevention strategy will reduce the high numbers in the area on incapacity benefit and speed their return to the workforce.

The aim is for the Merthyr that emerges from all this activity to have a growing population with higher skills and greater confidence and fewer individuals on benefits. At the same time infrastructure will improve. The town centre will be renewed with good communications along the upgraded Heads of the Valleys road and the A470, plus a doubling in the frequency of train services to Cardiff. Merthyr will be in a much better position to market its dramatic geographical situation and its potential as the southern gateway to the Brecon Beacons. All of which should make the town more attractive for investors

The gap between vision and reality could, of course, remain wide, particularly if the resources needed to complete developments in the pipeline – like the tertiary system – are not made available as a result of forthcoming public sector expenditure cuts. With the era of significant large scale overseas investment projects now over, it will be a challenge to create the jobs needed to keep an increased population in work, even if skill levels can be dramatically improved. And, of course, there always remains the prospect that the brightest and best will continue to flow out to the Welsh coastal plain and beyond.

There is an institutional danger, too, that the constant urge to re-organise public sector organisations in Wales – this time to reduce the number of local authorities from the present 22 – could yet see the borough distracted by further upheaval just as its plans begin to show promise.

For the moment, however, there is enough going on in the town and sufficient plans for a brighter future for the gloomy statistics not to appear to be all that the town is about. As Neill says: “Merthyr’s place in the past is secure as a driving force of the industrial revolution. Its current regeneration aims to restore it to a significant status in the economy and life of south Wales once again.”

March 3rd 2010

Nantgarw: The Welsh cog in world aeroengines

Mention Nantgarw to Weng Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and his eyes will light up. The second most powerful man in the world’s most populous nation is one of a stream of dignitaries who have visited the giant GE aero-engine maintenance plant near the former mining village close to Cardiff and come away highly impressed. Indeed, on a  visit to London several years later he made sure the former Welsh Development Agency chairman, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, received an invitation to one of the occasion’s formal dinners and sought him out to tell him  he would never forget the hospitality he had received (or in all probability the opportunity to press some of the buttons on the huge pieces of test equipment on site).

GE’s 1.2m sq. ft Cardiff plant, like the Nissan plant in Sunderland or the Halewood factory of Jaguar Land-Rover, both of which have recently benefited from investment by their overseas owners, is an illustration that Britain’s less favoured areas can cut it in big and competitive engineering operations. Employing more than 1,000 highly skilled individuals, the plant, winner of the Company of the Year trophy in the most recent IWA Business Awards, is in the words of its Welsh managing director, Adrian Button,  harder to get into than Oxbridge.

It recruits from around 10 miles  for its 25 annual apprenticeships, receiving more than 900 applications in the latest search.  After an initial three years apprentices spend another two  training on the job before becoming fully productive,  a five year investment by the company in its staff.  There are a further 50 graduate or sandwich course interns who join for a year across a range of management and engineering disciplines and are then taken on if they and the company decide they like each other. “It’s not possible any longer simply to put an advertisement in the paper and recruit the people we need,” says Button.

With a turnover of more than £1.2bn a year GE’s Welsh plant is a big cog in the wheel that keeps the world’s aircraft flying, looking after a total of  90 power plants at any one time and sending back to airlines this year a total of 500 good-as-new engines that could then stay on wing for a period of five to six years and last up to 40 years. Engines are trucked into Nantgarw from many parts of the world and are subjected to inpection by borescope (a flexible telescope for looking into inaccessible locations) so that engineers can determine what work needs to be done.

Some may need to be completely disassembled into as many as 20,000 pieces, which will then be cleaned, non-destructively tested, and x-rayed, for the serviceability of each part to be determined. They are then repaired, replaced and put back together, firstly as modules. Some will be sent to other GE centres of excellence as far away as the US or Singapore for specialist repair. Nantgarw itself carries out such work on behalf of the group on large engine cases. After repair every engine is put through further tests typically lasting six hours, before a final test replicating conditions encountered in flying, in particular take-off.

The Nantgarw plant looks after several different engine types but principally the CFM56, the world’s most popular engine with 20,000 currently in service worldwide on narrow body aircraft. The plant also has other engine work, notably the GE90, the  biggest aero-engine in service, developed exclusively for the Boeing 777. “We are lucky here that the engines we have the capability for are leading-edge, new technology products. All airlines are looking to buy aircraft powered by the most efficient engines,”says Button, a Llantrisant native who joined GE as a quality engineer, then went off to run a GE ignition plant in Jacksonville in the US  before returning to manage Nantgarw.

Nantgarw’s competition is both internal and external from some 20-30 plants sharing at least some of its competencies across the globe. Some airlines, such as Air France/KLM and Delta in the US, have their own maintenance operations and indeed GE’s Welsh plant derives from a previous British Airways facility set up after the second world war. British Airways remains a big customer as, too, are Emirates and several Chinese airlines.  The low cost airlines –  big narrow body airline operators relying heavily on the CFM56 – figure prominently in the order book, preferring not to undertake their own maintenance. Easyjet, Ryanair, Tui and Thomson among others all send their engines to Nantgarw.

Business like this has to be won, however, not just in competition with other big maintenance organisations but against other GE plants. Parent GE, which has long held on to a position among the world’s top ten companies, with products ranging across financial services, healthcare, imaging and power generation as well as aero-engines, has aviation division plants at several locations in Britain, in Prague, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, and across the US. The CFM56 and the other engines Nantgarw works on is maintained in a number of these and they could either win or be allocated work the Welsh plant currently handles in negotiations the parent has with the airlines.

Nantgarw has managed to continue to thrive, however, generating profits for its owner. “We always run the risk of losing  to competitors. We are never the lowest on cost. Others will have rates of labour that are much lower but we win work based on the quality of what we produce here in Wales and on our turnaround times,” says Button. “Our workforce is highly skilled with a  technical background second to none. Another advantage, he asserts, is that as a small country Wales has the capacity to move quickly. Support from the Welsh Government  – which last year  helped to fund 100 posts being created to service the GE90 – has been strong. Close links have also been established with local universities, including, a few miles further north along the A470, Glamorgan, which has its own aeronautical department.

To continue to offer  high quality, well-paid jobs the plant must, according to Button, continue to win business to work on the latest GE engines. The Boeing 777’s new triple composite engine, is a target. “We would like to have the investment to offer that.” It is a business, too, in which nurturing good customer relationships is vital. The Nantgarw team has to make sure that airlines from as far afield as China that currently entrust it with their aircraft are willing to continue to do so.

As a good corporate citizen, GE has reciprocated Government and local support. Its  social responsibility programme  has won  a number of awards, including at another IWA  ceremony, the Inspire Wales Awards 2012, for its work with Llamau, a charity helping socially excluded, homeless young people in south Wales. It has strong relationships with a number of schools in the area and has recently broken through the £1m mark of support for children’s hospice, Ty Hafan. It has also made efforts to attract more girls on to its apprenticeship schemes but finds itself  up against the choices girls make at 13. If they have not been able to offer maths and sciences at GCSE they are unlikely to secure places.

As far as possible purchases are made locally, though much of the plant’s requirements has to be obtained from international suppliers. Nevertheless, some £20m a year is spent locally on support and other purchases, and items such as tools are also obtained locally if possible.

Complacency would nevertheless be dangerous. The aviation business is already growing much faster in developing markets such as China, India, Brazil and the Middle East than in Europe where a greater degree of saturation has been achieved and it is inevitable that aero-engine maintenance will grow just as rapidly in those territories. It also means, however, there is a bigger world market for Nantgarw to chase.

More could be done, Button believes,  to improve Welsh competitiveness. GE would like to bring freight into Cardiff Airport but finds it has to use London Heathrow or Manchester. Nantgarw reports to GE Aviation’s headquarters is in Cincinnati so a direct flight from Cardiff to the US would also be helpful, a priority other businesspeople in Wales have also identified.

The key, however, is to stay at the forefront of GE Aviation’s business. “The plant currently has the capability to work on engines that have a potential life of 40 years so we have that market in front of us. We have to maintain that  position. We are not going to sit back. We must go out and grow, “ Button says.

Rhys David

June 18th 2012

Subtle Stirrings in La France Profonde

A regular visitor to France, Rhys David finds much to admire and possibly lessons to learn in the efforts rural areas are making to revive

Peter Mayle should probably take some of the blame. Charmed by his 1989 book A Year in Provence, a generation of comfortably-off Britons set out to find their dream rural retreat in La France Profonde.  The French appeared not to mind.  The post-war drift from the land, as mechanization replaced the large peasant labour force of old, had left countless properties in town, village and countryside vacant and, by the native population at least, unloved. Doing up old buildings was a British passion – the French thought it more sensible, if they were not moving to the big cities to buy a modern detached property on the edge of town and to abandon the thick stone-walled cottages without modern plumbing and damp courses – and sometimes gas and electricity, too. They knew what life in winter in such homes was like.

Twenty years later the pendulum seems to have swung. This year evidence suggests there are now even more À Vendre signs than for some time but this time many of the sellers are British people who have enjoyed their visits over the past decade or so but are now older and find their children are less enthusiastic about maintaining a distant property on which two sets of French taxes have to be paid. These come on top of routine maintenance that sometimes has to be negotiated from a distance or through the agency of friends. Holiday options are different, too. The French idyll now has to compete with, among others, the cruise – 10 destinations in 14 days perhaps – and with more exotic locations such as Cuba or the Maldives, or a visit to family in Australia or New Zealand.

Yet, the picture the British visitor conjures up from travelling through eerily quiet, shuttered town and village centres might not be the right one. Though the stone cottage or farmhouse may have to wait for another change in holiday fashion or a new wave of outside investors, there is an unseen vitality in many of France’s communes and a strong desire among those who have stayed to secure a future.  In Mouliherne a small town I have known (as a visitor not an owner!) over the past 16 years, much has changed, on the surface at any rate. The restaurant there in 2000 has gone, La Poste has moved from its Napoleonic villa style building, complete with a row of serious-looking clerks behind metal grilles, to a modest bureau run on an agency basis next to the Mairie, the fancy goods shop has closed, and the church now only has services once a month. School buses apart, there is virtually no public transport.

With a population of between 900 and 1,000 – less than half the figure immediately before World War One, the town centre now only supports one boulangerie, the other having closed long ago but there is a reasonably well-stocked village shop trading under the Viveco brand (a French Spar equivalent) and a long-standing bar, intermittently open and patronized entirely by locals. There is, too, a high quality butcher and charcutier selling local meats, though he only opens in the mornings, trading during afternoons at one or other of the local village markets.

It is what happens beneath the surface, where the visitor rarely penetrates, that is most interesting, and which perhaps offers some insights that could be valuable to our own policy-makers keen to find solutions to rural problems in Wales and elsewhere. In super-efficient but paradoxically low productivity Britain there would be gasps of horror at the thought that Mouliherne operates at the fifth tier of local government – a commune in the canton of Longue, in the arrondissement of Saumur, in the Department of Maine et Loire, in the Region of Pays de Loire. Yet, M. le Mayor Rene Louvet and his community council have considerable powers and responsibilities and a budget that would make bigger British community councils weep with envy.

There are eight commune employees and they look after the streets and sanitation, the green spaces and public buildings, the school canteen and school support services, the post office and local admin at the Mairie. (How strange that Veolia, as the former French water company Compagnie Generale des Eaux is now known, carries out local government services such as rubbish collection even for big cities in Britain while in France it is a local matter.) A few minor services are being added, too, following a reform and regrouping of some local government in the area. The commune has also recently taken over responsibility for a town website started by a local IT club and developed it into an interactive facility for communicating information on local developments and enabling residents to make their views known.

This fits with the priority identified by the mayor and his council of sustaining a viable village, and the choices made at the Mairie meetings reflect this. When officials in faraway Nantes decided in 2014 to cease to operate the previously state-licensed Tabac in Mouliherne, the commune decided its bar and restaurant were too important a local amenity to allow to disappear. The building was bought and refurbished by the commune using local and regional funds at a cost of nearly €150,000 and a local entrepreneur and chef found to run the new Sur Votre Route, the name an acknowledgment of the town’s role as a crossroads on the old Gallo-Roman roads linking Tours and Angers and Le Mans and Poitiers.  In its first six months it served 4,000 meals and has been judged a success.

The next project to be funded, again drawing on local and regional resources is a Salle de Sport. The local Community of Communes is making available €4m over five years on facilities in a number of small towns locally and when completed in late 2016 Mouliherne’s new hall will offer indoor tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball, football and handball. The commune already supports an extensive open-air facility, the La Louisière Plan d’Eau, one of the many bodies of water found on the outskirts of small French towns for aquatic-based activities, and a Salle des Loisirs next to the Mairie for indoor events and official gatherings.

Mouliherne has also instituted a new farmers’ market, currently held once a month with the aim of supporting local producers and ensuring that money earned in the area is re-circulated there, too. The district’s main industry is forestry but it also has mixed farms and a large enough acreage of apple orchards on its outskirts to justify the holding annually in October of a big regional Foire des Pommes.

Yet, it is not just the initiatives directed by the commune that are contributing to the re-invigoration that seems to be taking place. There is a volunteer-organised after school club, parent teacher association, old people’s club, two types of boule, yoga, IT, a fishing club, a theatre group, seniors football and horticultural, floral, canine, and walking groups. The efforts seem to be working, too. Over the last eleven years there have been 45 marriages, 100 births – 15 more than the number of deaths so a small increase in population may be occurring if incomers are also balancing departees. The annual birth rate means a small primary school with a modest 70 pupils is being sustained.  Though there are other similarly small centres nearby and a bigger centre at Baugé, ten miles distant, consolidation of classes elsewhere has not taken place.

Attracting more tourists appears not to be a priority. It has a fine Mairie, a 13th century church with a twisted spire typical of the Baugé region and outside a Lanterne des Morts built on an old ossuary, a prayer place and a beacon for travellers high above the town.  It also boasts a preserved communal lavoir where clothes washing in the town’s River Riverolle took place. Nevertheless, Mouliherne’s attractions merit only a mention and not even a star in Michelin. Its charm is in part its ordinariness and with second home owners retreating It seems to have set its hopes on renewed growth from within.

Whether all its activity amounts to more or less than is achieved in a similarly-sized small town in say Powys or Cumbria would require a full scale academic study comparing and contrasting. The differences between Britain and France in culture, history and organization, particularly the role of the state and local government are enormous. Nevertheless, to the outsider it does look as though rural France is giving survival a good shot. When we leave the European Union it would be good to think we do not cease to look outside our borders for examples of just the sort of good practice that could bring improvements within our own communities as well.

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Rhys David is an author and Honorary Life Fellow of the IWA.

Brexit: Seminal Event or Secular disaster?

Brexit could be a turning-point in more ways than one but much will depend on implementation and what follows, Rhys David suggests.

Peak oil, when the maximum rate of extraction, followed by decline, is reached, keeps getting pushed back but does the Brexit vote suggest peak globalisation – the progressive breaking down of barriers to global free trade – has been reached or perhaps faces a significant pause?

Economists have been worrying about a slowing down in the process for some years and their fears will certainly have been given momentum. Even before Brexit the signs were there in a slowing down in merchandise trade compared with the two decades leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. China, the export industries of which have been the driver behind the rapid growth in trade since the 1990s, has slowed down and is seeking to re-orient its investment towards the domestic market; and trade deals such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have become more difficult to negotiate in the face of opposition from trade unions and others in Europe. They fear further marketization of the European economy, including cherished sectors such as healthcare.

Following the June 23rd vote Britain now needs to negotiate its own trade deals outside the EU in a world where multilateral organisations set up to promote freer trade, such as the World Trade Organisation, have been losing their potency and becoming increasingly side-lined by the spread of bilateral deals. Across developed economies the impact of austerity is, too, continuing to be felt with some economies, such as Italy, unlikely to reach pre-crisis levels and hence consumer demand for internationally traded products until the 2020s.

How could this threat to what has seemed an inevitable progression have come about when so many people across Europe, including Britain, have benefitted greatly from freer trade? The price of those two human necessities – food and clothing – has fallen in recent years, helping to keep inflation at near record low levels. The previously inexorable rise in the price of running a car or a vehicle fleet has dropped as a result of an oil glut. Every imaginable commodity can now be summoned to the door with a few computer keystrokes from the mega-warehouses deployed across the Continent by Amazon and its competitors. In recent months British airports have been reporting record numbers of Britons flying away to take advantage of cheap flights and accommodation. Are we now be entering a period when barriers could creep up again?

Britons, albeit with a small majority, appear to have rejected the very instrument that has brought about these trading benefits – the EU. Why? Is there not a safety net for those poorer areas that have suffered from the global economic transformation brought about by the interaction of two factors – the standard shipping container and information technology, the combination of which lies behind today’s almost instant servicing of consumer needs and desires? What about all those blue signs proudly crediting the EU for the roads, bridges, arts centres and other projects in Britain’s poorer regions?

All true but if the British public has shot itself in the foot (and if some in other Continental nations are tempted to do the same) it could have done so in the true sense of the expression rather than the one in which it is now usually used. Like the World War One soldiers who carried out this act, it could be because they actively wanted to avoid something worse (going into battle in the case of the poor bloody infantry) rather than as an act of unintended self-harm. It could be that in rejecting the EU market vision, they are saying they also want a different kind of Britain.

At a recent finance conference in London in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote there was a sheepish acceptance on the part of several speakers that while Joe Public had indeed sprung an unwelcome surprise, the elite classes as represented by the overpaid denizens of the City of London had in large measure brought it on themselves. One admittedly pro-Brexit speaker at the FT’s Festival of Finance suggested neo-liberal policies as favoured by the EU had been oversold, with promises made that we would be moving into a period of permanent prosperity. The medicine globalisation would force on ordinary citizens would, like castor oil, taste horrible, they had been told, but it would be good for them in the end.

Instead, it had proved hard to swallow and had not made most feel any better. Wages for many people, including the middle classes had stayed the same or got worse; houses had become unaffordable and young people were unable to leave home to set up on their own; neighbourhoods where individuals had grown up and where parents and grandparents had lived before them now seemed unfamiliar as a result of large numbers of migrants moving in; schools with scores of languages being spoken were making people feel uncomfortable about the impact on their children’s educational prospects; moreover, austerity policies as a result of the financial crises of 2008 and its consequences had torn away large parts of the social security safety net on which the poor relied.

In a perceptive piece written four months before the Referendum vote the left-wing commentator John Harris writing in The Guardian could see what was coming, declaring that, although a Remain supporter himself, he had respect for the Leavers. On the Conservative side David Cameron had famously described UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, and one of his colleagues saw them as “mad, swivel-eyed loonies”. On the left, Harris noted, millions of Britons were seen as “gullible, if feeling charitable; as nasty and bigoted, when things turn cruel”. Harris had visited parts of Britain – the small towns of the agricultural East -where free movement was a reality, and where as a result, he argued “people had a feeling that huge and rapid social changes had been imposed on them by a power beyond anyone’s reach”.

In other parts of the country, too, there has undoubtedly been a feeling in older working class areas for some time that the system was rigged against them. The Brexit vote was a way of saying enough was enough. Literally billions have been spent in the south east on shiny infrastructure projects – Crossrail, Thameslink 2000, a £900m new station at Reading, with Heathrow’s new runway or some alternative still to come. Wales, by contrast, struggles to put together the funding to finance a relief road around Newport to remove M4 bottlenecks without breaking the budget, or to create a modest metro system on existing rail-tracks to better connect Cardiff with the poorer valleys that surround it.

People have tired of being told that spending on Heathrow, Crossrail or wherever will really benefit them 200 or 300 miles away because of some long-promised but never-delivered trickle-down effects. Nor is there much confidence HS2 will make Britain less centripetally focused on London. Yet, the concentration of infrastructure spending in the southeast has been rendered necessary because of a heavily over-stimulated finance sector much of which has largely detached itself from the rest of the British economy in order to service the needs of the multinational corporations central to global capitalism.

Other examples of unfairness can be cited. Agonised discussions over ways of relieving the pensions liabilities at Tata as a means of saving the company’s British jobs contrast powerfully with the sweetheart tax deals that British Governments over recent years have offered multinationals such as Google and Amazon, the latter itself responsible for changes in retailing that have destroyed thousands of jobs on British High Streets.

And, of course, there is the issue of executive pay. UK chief executives, backed by self-serving remuneration committees have become the beneficiaries of absurdly high pay packages and bonuses which often seem to bear no resemblance to performance. At the same time to reward shareholders, companies have chosen to retain profits and hire cheaper labour rather than share the benefits with their employees or invest in new technology that would help to boost Britain’s poor productivity record. Trade unions and many of their members have begun to realise that the vastly bigger labour market which employers could choose to dip into is not, as they had hoped and been promised, going to produce a one-off jolt to workers in industries across Britain but a permanent and long-lasting negative impact on their wages and their prospects.

To this extent the momentous decision taken by a small majority of the British people is not anti-immigrant per se or anti-Europe but a sign that sometimes ordinary people can see more clearly than their “betters” and, called upon to speak, have said, “All this is wrong. You promised us that globalisation/EU membership would bring prosperity but where we once made goods or delivered services we could be proud of we now despatch orders for products made half way around the globe to wealthy customers from an Amazon warehouse where our every activity is tracked and monitored.”

It will be argued that these examples of unfairness felt by ordinary people up and down the country could all be put right within the existing British political structure while retaining EU membership. After all, Government can still, despite the EU, legislate on executive pay, choose more broadly where to place infrastructure spending, and impose higher taxes – particularly on excessive rewards – to fund more generous social security payments It has not, however, happened.

Likewise, if there are aspects of the EU that we find unacceptable – its lack of accountability, its overweening bureaucracy, or perceived democratic deficiencies – we should, it will be argued, stay in and press for reform. The counter to this, however, is that campaigners have been calling for reform for most of the 40 years Britain has been a member with few tangible results. This in itself is hardly surprising, given that agreement has to be achieved on every occasion among 28 members, possibly to be joined by others in the years ahead. It is not hard to argue that the EU has become just too unwieldy for its own good or that even more importantly that it can never resolve its serious internal economic problems unless it proceeds to full political as well as economic union – a process Britain has always resolutely opposed.

Though the EU has always muddled through this fundamental structural weakness was identified a very long time ago and has been repeated many times since. Writing in the London Review of Books in October 1992 before the introduction of the Euro, the economist, Wynne Godley pointed out: “What happens if a whole country – a potential region in a fully integrated community- suffers a structural setback? So long as it is a sovereign state it can devalue its currency. It can then trade successfully at full employment, provided its people accept the necessary cuts in their real incomes. With an economic and monetary union this recourse is entirely barred and its prospect is grave indeed, unless federal budgeting arrangements are made which fulfil a redistributive role …There has to be quid pro quo for giving up the devaluation option in the form of fiscal redistribution…If a country or region has no power to devalue, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline, leading in the end to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation.” One example of the distortions EU policies are creating will suffice. In 2016, as The Guardian reported a few weeks back there are 25,000 Greek doctors in Germany. Surely Greece did not unwittingly train 25,000 more doctors than it needed?

It is some of these central issues relating to the EU, international capitalism and globalisation which the public in their wisdom have grasped well ahead of their politicians. So it is interesting that in her manifesto ahead of winning the job Theresa May the new Prime Minister made tackling one of these – executive pay – one of her first promises, called for employee and consumer representation on boards, spoke up for the defence of important industrial sectors, and made the moral case for taxation. Following her appointment, she has gone further, declaring her government will be driven not by the interests of the few but by those of ordinary people. Implementation – and there will be many opponents in business and elsewhere –  must follow but if it does they are changes that could bring reality to all the previous pledges made by Governments of all hues to tackle imbalances and inequalities in society.

It will only become apparent over a period of time whether Brexit will prove a turning point for globalisation as a whole, with other countries looking to adopt an as yet largely ill-defined British model, much as privatisation swept the world in the era when neo-Liberal policies were gaining ascendancy in the 1980s. As the days pass, however, it is starting to look more like a seminal event and perhaps not the secular disaster many had predicted.

 

Rhys David

July 13th 2016

 

 

 

For steel, read chemicals

Retiring Welsh economy minister Edwina Hart has a difficult last month in office trying to sort out the Tata mess and will perforce be leaving her successor an unenviable portfolio. My assessment of her record in office – she has been in every Welsh cabinet in a variety of posts from health to finance to economy since 1999 – appeared in the latest edition of Agenda, the magazine of the Institute of Welsh Affairs and can be found at www.clippings.me/rhysdavid

Surprisingly no link has been made by commentators between what has happened at steel with the similar fate a decade back of the British chemical industry. Remember ICI?  A company that went from being Britain’s biggest to complete disembowelment in a matter of years. Or for that matter Courtaulds, Fisons, Albright & Wilson et al. Britain was still among the top ten world producers of chemical products in 2014 but only just – at number nine just ahead of Italy. China is now responsible for nearly half world chemical output by value, well ahead of the US on 21 per cent. The UK industry is now little more than half the assize of that of South Korea with only wo per cent of output by value.

Devolution: Wales’s smouldering settlement

Why has devolution caught fire in Scotland but only smouldered in Wales?

Two similar countries but two apparently very different responses to the devolution process set in train with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly 16 years ago in 1999. In the one a momentum that could lead to independence, in the other a cautious step-by-step acceptance of the new institution and a reluctance to move too quickly to the assumption of new powers. On the surface it might seem puzzling, yet Wales has come further than people realise in that period. Moreover, there is a debate going on in Wales on wider constitutional matters that is rarely heard in England. Yet, the issues are of importance to the whole of the UK.

National feeling has been strong in both Wales and Scotland for a very long time but “nationalism” – which, of course, I do not want to equate directly with devolution – has arguably been a stronger force in Wales over much of the past 150 years than in Scotland. Indeed, in some respects and at times Welsh nationalism has had similarities with Irish nationalism, though it has never been as violent. This is perhaps because the British Empire – the historical project which helped to unite our four nations for the 200 years or so until the post WW2 period – was always much more an Anglo-Scottish creation, delivering more to those two nations and attracting greater participation from their citizens than from Ireland and Wales, even though both those latter countries also enjoyed its benefits.

A minority in Wales, however, has always wanted the country to stand apart. There was a vigorous Home Rule movement in Wales – taking its cue from that in Ireland – at the end of the 19th century, with Lloyd George, among its leaders. It is often forgotten now that this is how he sprang to prominence.

And, just as in Ireland a difference of religion produced a sense of detachment from the broader state’s aims and objectives, so, too, in Wales a separate language – spoken in the late 19th century by half Wales’s inhabitants and subject, like Roman Catholicism, to discrimination – cultivated a sense of distinctiveness.  National sentiment, already spreading across much of Europe, grew under these influences in Wales resulting in the late 19th century in a period of institution-building – from national university, library and museum to international football and rugby status. The Home Rule impetus of the previous decades petered out, however, in the years leading up to and including WW1. In Wales its most tangible legacy was not independence and civil war, as in Ireland, or even what we would now call devolution, but the still quite important (for Welsh people) disestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1920.

Nevertheless, nationalism in Wales did not die and Plaid Cymru was actually founded – in 1925 – nine years earlier than the Scottish National Party in 1934. It also elected the first Nationalist MP since the Irish Nationalists – Gwynfor Evans in 1966, one year ahead of the SNP’s Winnie Ewing in 1967. There was also a long-running, if generally low-key, campaign of violence in support of broadly nationalist objectives in Wales across several decades. In the 1930s three leading figures in Plaid Cymru – all of them academic, and including its founder– were tried and jailed for blowing up an RAF bombing school being established in the deepest of Non-Conformist, pacifist, Welsh-language strongholds, the Llŷn peninsula. They were all gaoled, including Saunders Lewis, one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, and a leading Welsh scholar and playwright. (By contrast the theft of the Stone of Scone in 1950 from Westminster Abbey seems a little tame.)

The 1960s and 1970s were characterised by a recurrence of direct action. Bombs damaged public buildings such as tax and other Government offices in Cardiff and elsewhere, and targeted reservoir pipelines carrying water to Liverpool and Birmingham, the former city being seen as having acted in a colonial, undemocratic way in expropriating Welsh land to collect water for its citizens, even though its Parliamentary Act was opposed by every single Welsh MP bar one – and he abstained. The 60th anniversary of this event has been commemorated this month in Wales with rallies, newspaper and broadcast stories. Indeed, in nationalist circles the outrage it generated is credited with setting Wales on the road to devolution some 40 years later.

Long before Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols outraged public decency with his famous anti-royal version of God Save the Queen, the Royal Family was being mocked in Welsh pop songs, notably in the run-up to the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles, as Prince of Wales. Bombs went off before the ceremony, and there were casualties including one death, causing considerable anxiety on the part of the authorities, concerned as to the safety of the Royal Family on the day.

For a prolonged period, too, from the 1960s through to the 1980s the second homes of English people who had bought country cottages in Wales were being attacked and in some cases burnt down by the Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glyndwr) movement. Much of this – like the daubing of monolingual English road signs and protests against the lack of official status in public life and the legal system for Welsh – was, of course, language-oriented rather than directly political. Language protest and nationalist sentiment at this time did, however, share common boundaries and supporters.

So, why has Scotland leapfrogged Wales in pressing its demands? Why has the core independence vote in Wales never moved outside the 10-15 per cent range whereas in Scotland at the referendum last year it was up to 45 per cent? To some extent the language concessions that followed the earlier protests – which included a threat of a hunger strike to death by Gwynfor Evans leader of Plaid Cymru, if the Thatcher Government elected in 1979 reneged as it intended on a pre-election pledge to set up a Welsh language television channel – have taken the sting out of more extreme nationalist sentiment. And, could it be the Welsh are relatively happy with the degree of devolution and the incremental improvements in the settlement that have been achieved since 1999?

It is probably a bit more complicated. Scotland is a very different country from Wales with a different history. In recent times it has had the benefit of oil revenues that it could claim as its own, giving it a degree of assurance that if it did become independent it would not find itself significantly poorer and could perhaps even be better off. It goes back further, however, than the perhaps artificial boost to confidence that being an oil producer has given. It had its own separate monarchs for 350 years longer than Wales and retained institutions dating back in time, such as its legal and educational systems. It has memories of its important role in the European Renaissance and of diplomatic relations with other states.

Wales was, by contrast, united with England by force, firstly by Edward I and then under the Acts of Union of the 1530s under Henry VIII. I think this has left Welsh people instinctively less confident and more embattled in their mentality. The country has wrestled for many years with adaptation away from basic industries, giving Welsh people much less confidence that they could afford to contemplate ending their financial link with the British purse without the comfort of oil revenues, and thus much less willing to contemplate political independence

Thus, in the first devolution in 1979 towards the end of the Callaghan Government, only 20 per cent of those who voted said yes to the limited devolution on offer, despite promising opinion polls for several years previously. In Scotland there was a majority but because it did not reach the 40 per cent of the electorate threshold set by the Bill, the devolution mechanism was not implemented.

The opposition in Wales in 1979 was led by Neil Kinnock and the backbench MP, Leo Abse, inheritors of the Labour Party’s tradition of internationalism, espoused earlier among others by Aneurin Bevan. This scorned support for national causes in Wales as parochial, insisting efforts to improve the lot of the working man and woman everywhere should have priority. The No campaign, which also enjoyed strong support from the south Wales press, raised fears that Wales could not afford devolution, that any settlement would profit Welsh-speakers at the expense of monoglots, and that Wales was divided anyway between north and south and that the latter would stand to gain most.

Yet, within a few years the devolution campaign was up and running again and enjoying much wider support. The galvanising factor was the assumption of office by Margaret Thatcher and the subsequent miners’ strike and pit closures Heavy rounds of steel redundancies also affected Wales in the 1980s. This led to a change of view on the part of many of the more influential members of the Labour Party who concluded Wales might just as well have more control over its own economic and social affairs, if the alternative was Conservative Government in Britain. (Labour has won 21 elections in a row in Wales!) A new solidarity across Wales also emerged from the strike, rendering arguments about a north-south divide less cogent. Changing attitudes were reflected in the media, too, with the national newspaper, the Western Mail, previously an opponent of devolution, changing sides and the television media becoming interested in Welsh identity issues and putting on programmes that reflected this.

Large parts of the perennially dominant Labour party were, however, still unenthusiastic and reluctant to the end to join with other groups to campaign for a Welsh Assembly, making it always likely the vote in Wales would be close. The Scots, by contrast, had been much more united in wanting greater powers. Following the failure of the 1979 referendum prominent individuals north of the border from across a wide spectrum resumed the campaign with the publication of a Claim of Right, a device from the 14th century Declaration of Arbroath, declaring that Scottish people had the right to choose their own form of government.

This evolved into the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which brought together Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Communists, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the Small Business Federation, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church, and, initially, the SNP, to draw up a blueprint that eventually became the basis for the eventual Scottish Parliament. (The SNP later withdrew when the Convention declined to feature full independence as one of the options.)

In Wales there was no similar organisation working well ahead and bringing all parties together, and Labour largely left it to Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems to get the vote out on referendum day in 1997. Significantly, the prospect of a referendum had not been welcomed by the pro-camp in Wales, knowing how easily the public could be influenced by scare stories. The initial intention merely to legislate without a public vote being was dropped because the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was fearful that the proposal to give Scotland tax-raising powers would affect the UK’s budgetary balances. He insisted that a vote on tax raising powers be included on the referendum paper in Scotland alongside the basic devolutionary proposal. So, by default, if Scotland had a referendum, Wales would have to have one, too. These factors combined to result in a decision by the narrowest of margins in favour of devolution. In 1999 the Queen opened the new Assembly.

So, what did Wales inherit? The Government’s nervousness about granting devolution in any form in Wales – and there were still strong opponents in Labour, particularly among MPs who feared they would be marginalised by any new institution and that their numbers would be reduced – led the Labour government of the day to give Wales a decidedly inferior new constitutional arrangement, and this explains many of the subsequent problems. The model in Scotland was reserved powers – everything devolved except those powers retained in Westminster. Wales only received devolved powers, with all other powers retained at Westminster. So, in the one case, everything devolved except what is retained, in the other everything retained except what is devolved.

Secondly, the Assembly was set up as a corporate body without separation between the executive and members, a largely unworkable arrangement designed to prevent a body that might call itself the Government of Wales from emerging. Instead of a Cabinet Government drawing up policies, these were expected to emerge organically from groups within the chamber. (Needless to say the Assembly soon converted itself into a de facto Parliamentary structure with a Cabinet and an Opposition.)

Thirdly, devolution in Wales has been crippled by having a chamber of only 60 members, one of the smallest democratic chambers anywhere in the world, and a real constraint on proper scrutiny, given that a large proportion of the members will be ministers or their shadows.

Perhaps most importantly, under the original Act the Assembly could not make law and to all intents and purposes existed primarily to decide on how monies voted by Westminster as part of the Welsh block grant should be spent, with discretion to switch spending between priorities and to differ from England. As hitherto, new Welsh law could only be created at Westminster at the instigation of the UK Government in accordance with its own priorities or in response to lobbying by the Assembly or other outside interests.

These deficiencies in the architecture of the new structure have resulted in much of the past 16 years being taken up in discussions on process rather than policy, and the impact the Assembly might make has as a result been hindered. So, within three years of its establishment the Assembly had asked Labour grandee, Lord (Ivor) Richard, to examine the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly and the way Wales was to be governed. His commission reported two years later in 2004 called for an 80 member Assembly and law-making powers but stopped short of suggesting tax-raising powers, as some had requested.

Even Richard’s widely accepted recommendations were to prove too much, however, for Westminster. Instead, Peter Hain, the then Welsh Secretary – and, incidentally, one of the heroes of devolution – brought in a new Government of Wales Act in 2006 which was intended to offer a half-way house towards legislative powers. Under Section 3 of this Act the Assembly could pass “measures” on specific “matters” within 20 designated “fields” where it had been given competence.  Additional legislative powers could be obtained through legislative competence requests, but these were subject to the veto of the Secretary of State for Wales, the House of Commons or House of Lords. To pass into law measures requested by the Assembly had to be tacked on to another Bill on a related issue passing through Parliament, or Westminster could itself hand over new powers by making it a clause within a new Bill.

Because of its cumbersome nature and the difficulties of securing time within the congested Parliamentary timetable, this arrangement predictably failed to work well but there was another provision in the Government of Wales Act 2006 – Section 4 – which allowed the Assembly to acquire full law-making powers if endorsed in – yes – another referendum.

The response was another Commission, this time led by the former diplomat, Sir Emyr Jones-Parry, set up by the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition elected in 2007. This was tasked with reviewing Wales’s constitutional arrangements and spearheading the campaign to increase the powers of the Assembly to a full legislative Parliament similar to that in Scotland.   A key part of its remit was to gauge the Welsh public’s enthusiasm for such a move, and in doing so another lobbying body Cymru Yfory – Wales Tomorrow, this time led by the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, strove to keep the Jones-Parry commission’s feet to the fire.

This referendum held in 2011 did indeed endorse law-making powers and by the biggest pro-devolution majority yet in Wales – 64 per cent to 36 per cent, with all authority areas voting Yes with the exception of Monmouthshire, where there was a virtual dead heat. The Assembly can now legislate without having to consult the UK Parliament or the Secretary of State for Wales in the 20 areas that are devolved. A remarkable result given what some might consider the mental cruelty imposed on the Welsh people with all these Commissions of inquiry and referenda. Yet another commission, headed by economist, Gerald Holtham, looked into the financial aspects of devolution, reporting in 2010.

Issues between Wales and Westminster were still hardly settled. The UK Government referred the first Welsh Act under the new arrangements to the Supreme Court, claiming the Cardiff Assembly had acted ultra vires – and lost. Two other Acts were also nearly referred but the Westminster Government backed down.

You can, therefore, probably guess what happened next – another commission this time under Paul Silk, a former House of Commons clerk, charged with reviewing the case for the devolution of fiscal powers and the means for improving the financial accountability of the Assembly. Reporting in 2013 and 2014, it recommended powers to raise around 25 per cent of the Welsh budget, and the devolution of responsibility for a number of powers including water, broadcasting, transport regulation, criminal justice, policing, youth justice, and medium scale energy projects. It also recommended a reserved powers model and an increase to at least 80 members.

In its response the Government promised in this year’s Queen’s Speech a Bill offering Wales the following powers.

  • Decisions over energy projects generating up to 350 megawatts of power on or offshore larger projects to remain the responsibility of the UK government
  • Transport – responsibility for ports, taxi regulation, registration of bus services and speed limits
  • Fracking – licensing for all onshore oil and gas exploration in Wales, including shale oil and gas
  • Elections – whether 16 and 17-year-olds should vote in assembly and local council elections
  • Assembly affairs – control over its name, size and the system used to elect its members
  • Permanence of the assembly and the Welsh government to be enshrined in law
  • Reserved powers model outlining the list of policies that remain under UK government control, with all other matters considered devolved.

Most of these provisions have now been included in a draft Wales Bill published on October 20th 2015, which is now out for consultation until the final Bill is brought forward in February 2016

So, the direction of travel within Wales has clearly been in favour of devolution and of increased powers, despite the obstacles. Polling suggests no more than 20 per cent now say they would abolish the Assembly, (the exact opposite of the 1979 referendum vote when an 80 per cent No vote was recorded,) 10 per cent wanting independence and the remaining 70 per cent generally in favour of the status quo or wanting a law-making Parliament like that in Scotland.

What has been ushered in during the sixteen years has been a second great phase of institution-building, a kind of Welsh Renaissance. The Wales Millennium Centre has given Wales a performance space that is a source of pride to all Wales as is one of its main tenants, Welsh National Opera; the National Museum has been transformed to give it a much bigger role as a centre for great art and host to a major international art event, Artes Mundi; and across the public and voluntary sector, and to a lesser extent the commercial sector, too, organisations have reshaped their Welsh activities to relate to the new political and administrative structures. In many cases, these had previously simply added areas of Wales to their nearest operations to the east in England. A notable example of the change has been the creation for the first time of an all-Wales rail franchise which has made it possible to develop a wider range of services connecting different parts of Wales. Previously, Welsh operations had been run out of Stoke-on-Trent with a different and less sympathetic set of priorities.

These developments have received little coverage in the British media, however, and there is little, too, on the new powers Scotland will be given in its new devolution legislation. In Wales a debate has been taking place over the future of the Union but that, too, has not been replicated elsewhere. In responding to Scotland’s Joan of Arc, Nicola Sturgeon, we have a bidding war taking place with offers being tossed out, rejected, improved and offered again without any attempt at a wider consideration of what might be in the best interests of Britain as a whole – the prerequisite I would have though for maintaining the Union, if that is what the people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland want.

We already have what might be described as asymmetrical devolution in Britain – different systems in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England – to which we are now adding health service and other expenditure devolution to Manchester, special funding to other big cities, including even to Cardiff and Glasgow in the devolved territories, all on top of a local government structure which varies from place to place, single tier here and two tier there. Following the Parliamentary vote this month on the Government’s proposal to introduce a separate committee stage for English Bills we now have the prospect, too, of a divided House of Commons where only English MPs will vote on certain matters.

Should we perhaps at long last be moving to a federal constitution such as serves Germany, Canada, Australia and other countries well – a proposal that has been around since the debates on Irish Home Rule starting in the 19th century? This is the suggestion made by David Melding, the deputy counsel-general of the Welsh Assembly in an important book, The Reformed Union: Britain as a Federation.

 At the very least it needs a debate not driven by considerations of party political advantage in which all the peoples of the United Kingdom join in. Otherwise we risk drifting into another set of ad hoc solutions to the national aspirations of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and, indeed, England, that will prove no longer-lasting than the settlements of 1999 and their subsequent revisions.

These observations were delivered at a Centre for Social Policy seminar at Somerset House, London, October 20th 2015.

 

 

The seminar text can be seen at www.clippings.me/rhysdavid

Other talks given lately have been to Cardiff Castle Probus on the 53rd (Welsh) Division’s campaigns in the Near East (Gallipoli, Egypt, Sinai and Palestine) in World War One. Based on my book Tell Mum Not to Worry (ISBN: 978-0-9930982-0-8) this will also be the theme of future talks to a U3A group (November 18th) and the London Welsh Family History Society (November 21st), and the South Wales branch of the Western Front Association (February 5th, 2016).

rhys.david@btinternet.com

My reflections on the difficulties of getting food to soldiers in the Near East in World War One have just been published in Oxford Today Online and can also be seen on the above website, or alternatively at http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/cigarettes-bully-beef-and-camel-meat-how-first-world-war-soldiers-survived-near-east