Friday, February 28, 2014

Punishing The Toys

Windsor Castle is home to more than a few of the 1,200 items of ivory in the Royal Collection.  The 1,200 items that Prince William would like to have destroyed as a gesture against poachers in Africa.  Never mind that he’s not above (legally) shooting the odd bit of wildlife himself.  The fact is that devastating the Wessex heritage won’t save a single living elephant.  Don’t they teach anything useful at Eton?  (And what about all those piano keys, in humbler homes across the land?)

Sadly, this isn’t the only case recently where those in the public eye have sought to 'make a point' or 'draw a line', punishing their toys instead of going after the real issue.  Our friends in Mercia have suffered a lot through the incompetence of the management at the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust.  The management clearly need to be replaced with others who are competent.  Instead, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, taking a short break from yet more power-grabbing, announced on Tuesday that the Trust is to be dissolved and many of its services redistributed to other facilities across a wide area.  So how do patients benefit from having to travel further for treatment?  Haven’t they suffered enough?

Isn’t this just a smokescreen for some dodgy accountancy, like the rest of the ‘marketisation’ of health care, where treatment seems to matter less than how PFI can transform the property portfolio, at a price?  And why too, incidentally, is there such a pervasive culture of fining public sector organisations when they get things wrong, leaving less money available for services, instead of pursuing the individuals who are culpable?

If there’s a problem, solve it.  Don’t go after inanimate objects or blameless geography, to the detriment of our heritage or our health. 

Expect the toy-punishing to increase, as London politicians look for excuses to merge poorly performing local authorities, or police, or fire services, with better-run ones.  (Why assume that good will thereby influence bad, rather than the other way round?)  Leaving things to the local ballot box wouldn’t satisfy their cravings to interfere.  In the NHS, there isn’t a local ballot box.  Just one reorganisation after another, with nothing to show for it unless you’re a management consultant.  Just one more fix and it’ll work.  Honest.

If this is what a national health service produces, micro-managed from London, why not try a regional one?  In the devolved nations, London already has no say, yet the inter-operability of the service remains in place.  The NHS in England was first set up on the basis of autonomous Regional Hospital Boards, so ‘back to the future’ may well be the way to go.  Although it never served the whole of Wessex, the Wessex Regional Hospital Board, which 40 years ago became the Wessex Regional Health Authority, lasted 35 years in total, from 1959 to 1994.  None of its successors has even lasted ten, being reorganised again in 1996, 2002, 2006 and 2013.  Better luck next time.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anybody Listening?

The following extract from the current issue of Population Matters Magazine is written by its editor, Norman Pasley:

“There is great concern in Fareham about plans for a new town called Welbourne to be built on farmland north of the M27 motorway.  The debate is giving rise to many letters in the local paper, The News, from irate residents who don’t want it.

The choice is either building Welbourne or filling in the green gaps in Fareham between the motorway and the Solent.  There is no ‘do-nothing’ option – the population keeps rising.  In November, the Leader of Fareham Borough Council was quoted as confirming that Welbourne is needed.  Cllr Woodward mentioned various issues: the need for new affordable homes; Fareham’s rising population; growth in the local economy attracting new workers who need homes; existing residents trading up to larger homes; and our ageing population.  Between 1951 and 2011, Fareham’s numbers have more than doubled from 43,000 to 112,000.  If the same growth rate continues into the future, Fareham’s population will double again by about 2061 – to 224,000.  Has anyone thought about the consequences of such growth?

In December, The News interviewed the Leader of Portsmouth City Council.  Under the headline ‘Leader warns about uncertainty brought by population boom’, Cllr Vernon-Jackson provided population data supplied by the Office for National Statistics.  ‘It’s a national issue and the Government will have to work out how we are going to cope if it happens,’ Cllr Vernon-Jackson said.  In my view, he’s right about government getting involved.  ‘If it happens’?  It is happening – quietly, out of sight, every day, everywhere.  Portsmouth’s population is expected to rise by 9,000 people by 2021.  Almost entirely surrounded by water, the additional people can only be accommodated by constructing higher buildings in the city, thus increasing population density, or by building elsewhere.

A sum of £5m has been allocated for additional school places in Portsmouth to 2021.  The article didn’t mention the additional costs for: college places; social services; affordable housing; GP and hospital services; more and larger supermarkets; and relieving road and rail congestion.  Have these costs been estimated?  Who will pay?  Won’t we need higher local taxes and higher utility, food and transport prices?  The News article also states that the other six districts in [and adjoining] south east Hampshire: Fareham, Chichester, East Hampshire, Winchester, Havant, and Gosport could have an extra 46,000 people by 2021.  That’s an increase of nearly seven percent.  But I think we need to look farther into the future to see the true population growth picture – say to 2061 when today’s 17-year-olds will reach 65.  The present population of Portsmouth, and the six districts above, is 882,000.  If this grew by seven percent per decade, by 2061 the population would reach 1,228,000.  The extra 346,000 new people would need about 150,000 homes built on perhaps 6,000 hectares of land.  At what cost in taxes, natural resources, and loss of countryside, and so on?

I welcome these Councillors talking about population…  In my view, it’s high time national and local government found their voice and became outspoken about this most serious problem.  Starting today, they need to work in partnership with the people to do the right thing – plan for growth reduction.  Today’s young people have the most to gain by enjoying a less crowded and less damaged planet.  A friend of mine sent me this: ‘With increasing concerns about overpopulation, climate change and environmental degradation, a few of the passengers and crew are becoming increasingly concerned, but the winners are on the bridge and this ship will take some turning’.  It’s high time all the passengers and crew signalled the bridge to turn the ship!”

Clearly a man who asks the right questions.  But not one familiar with the right answers.  The existing political system has, whether by accident or by design, caused the problem and cannot admit it, let alone solve it.  So there’s no point whatsoever in trying to gain the captain’s ear.  The way forward – the only way forward – is to insist that the captain walks the plank.  The despotic, Norman-imposed Parlement at Westminster, dancing, as ever, to the tune of City swindlers, must be cast aside and replaced with a Wessex Witan that responds to the will of Wessex folk.

Identity Censorship Rules!

The Kernow Branch of the Celtic League is to be thanked for posting on Facebook the following cautionary tale:

“Heritage Kernow a study in ‘English’ Heritage sabotage

European Objective One funding was awarded to Cornwall some years ago.  Its Single Programming Document was supposedly legally binding and its Priority 5 identified Celtic affinities, heritage, language and identity to be beneficiaries of the funding.  This did not sit well with UK officialdom (national and local), which has tended to trivialise and diminish Cornish culture as the Eden Project and Trebah Gardens.  As John Angarrack remarked, this is like defining French culture as being represented by Disneyland, Paris.

That the ‘legally binding’ part was to be ignored came first from the unelected South West Regional Development Agency who stated: ‘It doesn't particularly help this (the Government's) building of a regional identity from Cornwall up to Gloucestershire and across to Dorset to have the European Union recognising Cornwall as a separate region’.  The Government Office for the South West also urged an avoiding of Priority 5 because: ‘it will encourage the separatists’.

Nonetheless, and after the European Court of Auditors had visited Truro, the Objective One Heritage Task Force employed consultants to look at the Cornish heritage and culture issue.  In October 2001, they recommended setting up an organisation to be called Heritage Kernow, which would develop a Cornwall Heritage at Risk Programme, to conserve and protect key elements of Cornish culture, with an initial budget of £1,400,000.

Two months later, 100 guests were invited to a conference in Truro where Heritage Kernow was officially launched, with its operations to commence in April 2002.

It never happened.

Objective One officials eventually confessed to giving way to pressure from ‘English’ Heritage. ‘English Heritage was not happy (with the proposal)’, they said. ‘English Heritage felt that Heritage Kernow would not be able to deliver much more in the historic environment sector than was already being delivered, or could be delivered, by existing bodies’.”

Or, to put it explicitly, by EH themselves, who know best how to tell the State-approved lies in place of the truth.  Any excuse will do if it slows down the building of a Europe of real regions, and substitutes a load of impractical nonsense about ‘The South West’ that dates from the days of Dad’s Army.  And why mention this now, 12 years later?  Because a lot of folk have short memories.  Some of them would like to see Ed Miliband sitting in No 10.  And his bureaucratic hellhounds sent west once more to sneer and belittle and suppress, Wessex no less than Cornwall in their grip as they roll out London's new imperial project yet again.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Plantation of Wessex

Last April, one of Eric Pickles’ Planning Inspectors opened a public inquiry in the Oxfordshire village of Bloxham.  The Coalition promised localism – local decisions made by local folk, without interference from London – but – as we have mentioned many times – their localism is a lie.  Under real localism, there would be no such thing as a Planning Inspector because there would be no such thing as a right of appeal against a local decision.

At the inquiry, local residents gave their views on a proposal to build up to 85 more houses on farmland east of the village.  One argued that: “There has been a remarkable expansion of Bloxham in the last fifty years.  Recent developments have been on agricultural land and have clearly put further strain on the village infrastructure…  Six farms within the village boundaries have been lost and due consideration should be given to future demand for agricultural land for food production and our future food security.”  A local councillor added that: “The village is already bursting at the seams with traffic and flooding problems, power outages and surgeries and schools that are at capacity.”

The Inspector, if he recognised the arguments at all, gave them short shrift in his report: “I accept that Bloxham has seen a considerable amount of development since 2001 and note that residents consider it to be now ‘full’.  However, … I cannot accept that the quantum of development can be a determining factor in this appeal…  Government policy is strongly directed towards an increase in housing designed to stimulate the economy.  Nowhere is there guidance that requires the retention of agricultural land per se for future food security.  This is not therefore a matter that can weigh against the proposed development.”

Pickles duly concurred.  His assistant issued a grant of planning permission, noting that: “The Secretary of State agrees with the Inspector that there are no grounds for weighing the loss of agricultural land per se for future food security against the appeal proposal.”  The Government’s view then is not that food security matters generally, but that other factors outweighed it in this particular case.  It is far more stark than that: it simply won’t acknowledge the problem at all.  And so the fantasy continues: Britain will build houses to accommodate a bigger workforce that will do stuff in ‘financial services‘ to pay the bills, enabling us to buy whatever food we need on world markets.  Until one day the food isn’t there, because the growers have kept it to feed their own growing families.  One does have to wonder if there isn’t a grand plan by self-loathing loons (Pickles included) to create the conditions for starvation in that old imperial power off the north-west coast of Europe.

So who is standing up for our farmland?  Farmers?  Landowners?  Certainly not.  Watch the food security card being played for all it’s worth in defence of subsidies, to go on farming marginal land that might be better used for wildlife or forestry.  But go on watching and the card magically disappears if good, productive land on the edges of towns and villages can be generously contributed towards solving the nation’s housing “crisis”.

Two quotes from Peter Clery’s recent polemic, Green Gold: A Thousand Years of English Land illustrate the point.  On one page he tells us that: “In a time of pending world shortages of food and fuel, a nation which relies too much on others to feed it is unwise to say the least.  The next war, when our land will again be crucial to survival, may not be military but a creeping economic attack.  Others, who work harder or more efficiently than we do, may outbid us for food on world markets leaving us even more dependent on what we can produce at home.  In any case, food issues will become more important and food will cost more.  The interests of bats and badgers will take second place in the public mind if there is insufficient bread in the shops.”

Yet on the very same page he also tells us that: “There are few landowners in England who would not be willing to release perhaps one per cent of their land for intelligent well designed housing or light industry and offices.  One per cent of farmland is some 220,000 acres – more than enough to meet the perceived housing need with increasing supply reducing the price to a more sensible relationship between plot cost and building cost.”  That’ll be 1% now, 1% later, 1% after that, and so on bit by bit to the crack of ecological doom.  Elsewhere, Clery is good enough to point out that 100,000 acres – roughly the area lost to motorways since 1945 – is 300,000 tons of wheat foregone every year, forever.

Such confused thinking is not at all unusual among those with a vested interest in making the most money from land.  We need to rethink not only the planning laws but also laws on the ownership, tenure and taxation of land if we are to remove the huge incentives for farmers to destroy the most basic tool of their trade.  Old Labour tried three times to establish a betterment tax to capture the unearned increase in land value upon change of use; three times their work was undone by the Tories.  New Labour, a perfect poodle of the propertarians, never bothered.

So if those most directly affected are not defending our land, who is?  If you’re a Tory, appalled at the development frenzy that Cameron’s gung-ho City yobs are now getting away with, where do you turn?  The LibDems?  The Chair of that party’s backbench housing committee is Annette Brooke, MP for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.  Her solution to the housing “crisis” is a wave of ‘garden communities’ of around 10,000 homes.  Where promoted by local councils and enjoying local support.  (As if.)  But according to Brooke, “local people will need to understand why they are needed”.  Classic London-speak.  It’s now the common currency of all three main London parties, this patronising tone that politicians use when they talk down to the implicitly thick electorate, whose views they’re supposed to be representing, not manipulating.

For as long as voters think they have only three choices, the only alternative to the Coalition parties is to re-elect the last lot of rogues who were unseated in 2010.  According to design consultant Andy von Bradsky, who has his finger on the Labour pulse, that party is more comfortable with top-down approaches.  It has no need to justify itself to a Wessex electorate that, thanks to the voters of the rest of the UK, can be safely ignored.  Labour’s housing review, led by Sir Michael Lyons, is looking at “how the pace of development might be forced”, according to von Bradsky.  Shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds, who sits for Wolverhampton, has suggested that up to five new towns could be created under a future Labour government.  Not all necessarily in Wessex, but who knows for sure?  The means envisaged aren’t at all subtle.  Either imposition through national legislation, or an unbeatable offer to exhausted councils desperate for an alternative to the salami-slicing of treasured environments that goes on daily thanks to the appeals system.

The best that can be said about the prospective plantation of Wessex with new towns is that it will concentrate the environmental damage in a few places instead of spreading it thinly.  Which is not a great recommendation.  It isn’t the fault of Wessex if London cannot manage its population and so casts envious eyes on our broad acres for overspill.  The Wessex dialect and the customs, traditions and memories that make Wessex special are in retreat across much of the east of our region.  It‘s not so much because of cockneyisation in principle that this happens – anyone is capable of adopting a mix of identities – but because we lack the political institutions – and even the cultural ones – to defend our regional differences and encourage native and settler alike to value them.  London sets the tone for us all and whatever London doesn’t value is trampled underfoot and ridiculed.

Suggest five new towns in Cornwall or mid-Wales and watch the active reaction take hold.  Suggest them in Wessex and the reactions will range from indifference to resignation.  What can we do?  What can you do?  Rip up that membership card from the party of self-annihilation: whether Cameron’s, Clegg’s or Miliband’s, or Farage’s too for that matter.  And join the party of the Wessex resistance instead.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Is Democracy Legal?

The European Free Alliance is well worth following on Facebook.  Especially this month, with the EU’s José Manuel Barroso demonstrating exactly why it’s time he retired.

Barroso’s attempt to put the entrenched interests of Member States above the will of their peoples attracted a withering response from John Palmer in the (London) Guardian, one that concluded: “The EU is currently waging a desperate struggle in Ukraine and elsewhere with Moscow to demonstrate the superiority of its democratic values.  The idea that the Scottish people could be ejected or indefinitely suspended from the EU for opting for national independence is laughable."

That’s not the best quote though.  The prize must go to Jordi Solé of the Catalan republican party, ERC, responding to Madrid’s view that a proposed Catalan referendum on independence would be unconstitutional and therefore against the law: "What is not normal is to ban voting, not anywhere.  There is no excuse to stop people from voting.  The law comes from the people, not the other way round."

In London, not so long ago, in October 2011 to be precise, the House of Lords removed the flagship 'local referendum' provision from the Localism Bill.  This was a provision that would have allowed communities to launch a referendum on any local issue, including those tricky planning issues where communities might actually not want what developers are determined to offer.  Watered down by amendment after amendment, it was still deemed too dangerous to be allowed to live.

The one part of Europe where referenda are taken really seriously as a tool of government is Switzerland, which this month voted to tear up its free-movement agreement with the EU.  The proposition had been fiercely condemned by Swiss business groups and opposed by the federal Parliament, President and Government.  Voters made up their own minds.  Good for them.  Whether you agree or disagree with the outcome, the process is beyond reproach.

The London parties distrust referenda.  They distrust anything that will commit them to implementing the ‘wrong’ decision, in their infallible Olympian judgment.  We can change that.  We can do it by never voting them into office ever again.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Bailing Out

‘A message from 10 Drowning St’.  That was the headline in Metro on Wednesday.  And the message is that it’s all under control, apparently.  Though not before time.  Metro also reported that residents in Somerset, who have faced the floods for weeks, said that recovery efforts only intensified after the crisis got closer to London.  Faye Cary, from Farmborough, told the paper: “Suddenly the Thames spills over and a few inches of water threatens homes – the Government are all over it like a diseased rash and the military are helping out already.”

‘Money is no object in this relief effort’.  So the Prime Minister assures us.  But money is never far below the surface in discussions about priorities.  The Environment Agency has explained that Treasury rules require an 8:1 ratio of benefits to costs, so flood defences will tend to protect high value properties – those of the rich – ahead of low value ones.  Therefore, if the average house price in Surrey (£419,957) is over twice that in Somerset (£205,141), Surrey will qualify for spending on flood defences twice as soon, even though the mayhem and the misery may be exactly the same.  The reason why the average house price in Surrey is higher is centuries of public spending in and around the capital of the British unitary state.  Verily, unto them that hath shall be given.

For economists, disasters are almost as good a driver of growth as wars.  The more ruined carpets and furniture there are, the more replacements will be ordered.  There are concerns about looting too, though for economists crime is almost as good a driver of growth as....  And the public health issues give a whole new meaning to Cameron’s goal of ‘getting rid of all the green crap’.  Free market fundamentalists love a good epidemic.  State action to stop one would be unspeakably altruistic and that would never do.

According to the BBC earlier this week, Thames Water has faced sustained criticism from its customers in the Lower Thames Valley for not knowing where its sewerage assets are located or how to protect electronic control systems from the floodwaters.  If that’s true, it’s no great surprise.  Private Eye this month reported that Thames Water – which manages its tax affairs from the Cayman Islands – has put away nothing for a rainy day.  Since 2000, it has paid out £3.6 billion to its (now largely foreign) shareholders.  A normal company earning a commercial rate of return on capital invested?  Or a cash-sucking parasite allowed to exploit a natural monopoly for profit, with no corresponding requirement for competence?

Is the blame game fair?  Well, yes.  On 5th February, the website of the (London) Guardian published a map showing the exceptional rainfall recorded in the Upper Thames Valley in January.  Newbury MP and former environment minister, Richard Benyon, tweeted that he feared the flooding in the Lambourn Valley was reaching levels not seen since 2007.  It takes no great scientific ability to work out that the water would within the week be overflowing the banks of the Thames and seeping through the chalk and gravel into east Berkshire towns and villages.  Long enough to at least organise the filling and distribution of sandbags, one would think.  Instead, the general feeling is one of abandonment.  The Morning Star reported on Thursday that Environment Agency staff, doing their best to help, had been withdrawn from some areas in the face of public hostility directed at the one contact point with authority that actually ventured out.  This is the Agency still faced with losing hundreds of staff to Cameron’s austerity drive.  ‘Money no object’?

It’s entirely understandable that communities are pulling together to find their own self-reliant ways through current difficulties.  Small local councils, their funding cut to the bone, are in no position to respond.  Christchurch, in Hampshire, has been told off by the London regime for charging for sandbags.  Christchurch does not have huge resources.  London does.  What else is Christchurch supposed to do?  Where is the national response that will take the strain off extremely finite local budgets?  And why do the Tories always expect things that benefit them to be provided free, while others are expected to pay for items no less necessary?  It’s cruel but fair that those who wanted the cuts to collective provision should be among those to suffer the consequences.  It's just such a shame others have to suffer too.

We have argued before that a community-benefit State in Wessex does not need an army.  It needs a regional defence capability that can protect us from the full range of threats we now collectively face, and will continue to face into an ecologically much harsher future, very few of which bear any relation to conventional military objectives.  Food, water, power, transport.  Nothing is actually as secure as it’s been made to look.  So where’s the Territorial Army when it’s needed in Wessex?  Filling bodybags rather than sandbags, in parts of the world where it has no business to be.

Commentators are beginning to ask whether this year’s weather will change British politics.  It ought to, as communities come to recognise a shared sense of being abandoned by the State they pay to protect them.  Their reaction will determine its future.  For years we have seen politicians, in thrall to the City, treat the environment as something that can safely be ignored, certainly as less important than the Alice-in-Wonderland world of high finance, the world of make-believe money.  Damaging the real, natural world in order to sustain the illusion of that imaginary, numerical world has become what they do, along with paring public services to the point where they collapse in a real emergency.

The London parties may not get away with it much longer.  Ecology is bigger than economics.  From having no choice but to build on floodplains, to accommodate an ever-rising population, to having no choice but to build ever more expensive defences, to keep the houses dry, all the sums are going to have to be reworked.  Someone is going to end up paying and it won’t necessarily be those with the greatest ability to pay, nor the greatest reason to be made to.  It’s very traditional that the victims of natural disasters (like floods) or social disasters (like riots) receive more sympathy than the victims of economic disasters (like unemployment) but it’s at times like these that folk begin to ask why these distinctions are made.

Since the London regime lacks the will to think long-term, and therefore collectively, it needs to give way to those who can.  We’ve bailed out the banks, for no good reason; now we’re bailing out flooded households and businesses that also took one risk too many (a risk increased, through no fault of theirs, by building and other land use changes upstream).  We’d be better off bailing out altogether from a failed system and co-operating regionally to promote sustainable solutions.

Underpinning our thought-through actions there needs to be a lot more respect for science.  Yet on Thursday, the Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey called for the Government to take on nature instead of working with it.  Farmers and their representatives, who have always understood far less about holistic water management than they pretend, would have us believe there’s a townie conspiracy to put wildlife ahead of their profits.  Angry folk wanting something done, and politicians wanting to be seen to be doing it, even where it’s counter-productive, are joining the worldwide war on science.  As with climate change, it’s infantile to believe that rejecting the facts will alter them.  In the absence of responsible politicians willing to explain those facts, it’s not unlikely that the long tradition of effigy burning on the Levels will start up again soon.

Politicians need to be standing up for science, not giving in to sectional interests.  In 2010 Parliament passed the Flood & Water Management Act.  It set up a process for requiring sustainable drainage systems to be installed in new developments.  Scared of the building industry, the Coalition has still not implemented those provisions.  Since the floods of 2007 there has been a string of reports spelling out what needs to be done.  The result?  Legislation that has been emasculated, resources that have been withheld.

Instead of building resilience, a London regime that is clearly nothing but the City’s glove puppet has gone on imposing more and more homes on reluctant communities and so added more and more to the problem.  We cannot expect its conversion to sanity, now or ever.  And so it follows that Wessex, along with every other region of England, must seek its own answers and then take back the power to put them into practice.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Looking Ahead

It’s happened.  The seawall at Dawlish has been washed away, leaving the main line railway track suspended in mid-air.

Fortunately, the London regime is known for looking ahead, anticipating such problems as arise from climate change and planning new infrastructure to cope with them.  It could have wasted tens of billions building unnecessary new lines in the London area, in response to the clamouring of bankers for shorter journey times to their provincial fiefdoms.  Instead it had the foresight to listen to real experts and re-open the line from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock – or any one of a number of alternatives – to provide a diversionary route.  What could have been a disaster – Plymouth cut off from the national rail network for up to six weeks – was thus carefully avoided.

In much the same way, the London regime listened to those warning that Wessex cannot take more housing and other development because its environment is at breaking point and can only get worse.  The regime responded by stopping any more building, either on floodplains or on the higher ground from which water runs off, and made it clear that the population of Wessex, far from growing even further, needs to decline from its current, unsustainable level.  Large-scale tree-planting was then undertaken, to retain excess water and provide the raw material for future renewable energy projects.

It would be nice to think that that’s what happened.  A government at Westminster dependent for its survival on the votes of Wessex Regionalist MPs would indeed have had to do all of the above.  As ever, it’s not the difference you can see when we’re elected that counts but the difference you can see when we aren’t.

Wales: A Way And A Warning

In 2012 we noted the Welsh Government’s plans to create a powerful, integrated environmental body.  Those plans took effect in April 2013 with the launch of Natural Resources Wales.

NRW is the end result of a long process of bringing together powers that were once spread very thinly.  Forty years ago, those powers belonged to no fewer than seven different authorities or types of authority:

  • the Countryside Commission (based in London) dealt with landscape and recreation
  • the Forestry Commission (based in London) dealt with forestry 
  • HM Factory Inspectorate (based in London) dealt with air pollution
  • local councils dealt with waste disposal
  • the Nature Conservancy (based in London) dealt with wildlife
  • river authorities dealt with fisheries, land drainage and water pollution (Wales had seven)
  • the Welsh Office (based in Cardiff, but actually run from London) dealt with the farmed environment
Now, for the first time, one organisation can look at the environment in Wales as a whole, in a joined-up way.  It still has to deal with cross-border issues, but it has no single English equivalent.  It will go on dealing with four separate bodies (the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission, Natural England, and parts of DEFRA).  Could they be similarly unified?  Well, yes, and it has been talked about, but given the size of England the resulting organisation would be a nightmare of administrative complexity.  It could only work effectively through a network of regional offices, in touch with events on the ground, and this Coalition really doesn’t like doing regions.  The Welsh example isn’t exactly replicable for England.  It is replicable for Wessex.

The Welsh environment is a precious heritage, pivotal to defining what Wales is culturally.  For us, the Wessex environment should be viewed as no less precious and pivotal.  Yet under the London regime it isn’t deemed worthy of the same integrated approach to ensuring its protection.  Given the pressure from London for endless overspill housing, that’s a catastrophe in the making.

Wales then is worthy of study, and often emulation.  But let’s not jump to the conclusion that all’s well west of the Severn.  Some of the devolved choices made haven’t worked out, with education and health policies in Wales coming in for some sustained criticism.

Most importantly, Wales, unlike Scotland, has failed to grasp what an opportunity devolution is to really do politics differently.  It remains governed by a Labour Party that ultimately answers not to Wales but to Ed Miliband in London.  Plaid Cymru, having led the campaign for self-government over the past century, can only sit and watch the opportunity slip away.

It is when Labour implements policies that are no different from the Coalition’s that you see how the promise of devolution has been subverted.  Take the Planning Bill, published in December.  Launching the Bill, housing and regeneration minister Carl Sargeant said that the Welsh planning system needs to be repositioned from regulating development to enabling appropriate development.  He could have been quoting Osborne or Pickles.  Regulatory capture again: forcing the regulators to act as cheerleaders for the industry and to ask no questions.  In a typical piece of Labour nonsense, detailed rules are to be prescribed for delegating decisions to council officers, to avoid ‘inconsistency’ (as Labour describes local democratic choice).  The Welsh Government also wants to regulate the size of planning committees (no fewer than 11 nor more than 21 members) and the procedures they follow.  Has it really nothing better to do?  Does it understand decentralisation and localism any better than the Coalition?  It appears to understand them less.

Last month, just to demonstrate how far the plot has been lost, the Welsh Government revealed plans to plunge local government in Wales into its third comprehensive reorganisation in 40 years.  County councils like Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, restored in 1996 after a 22-year gap, are now set to vanish again after little more than 17.  Cutting the number of councils in Wales by half or more will also mean fewer councillors, less scrutiny of decision-making and more power for the bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, since key services like police remain non-devolved in Wales, any talk of a better integrated public sector will continue to come up against constraints imposed by the London regime.  You can blame the Tories under John Redwood for the 1996 reorganisation - and its failure to ask how, if at all, this would fit a devolved Wales - but you can blame all three main London parties for still not answering the question of what shape devolution will ultimately obtain.

Wales shows how devolution can mean better governance.  It also shows how, left in the hands of Labour, devolution can fail to deliver its full potential.  Constitutional change is a necessary step towards political change but it is not a sufficient step.  Real change comes only with a willingness to reject the London parties at the ballot box.