Sunday, 28 April 2019

A new voice from an old idea

Protests at the official opening of the Tryweryn dam 

Reflections on the 'Cofiwch Dryweryn' graffiti

by Ap Dafydd

A few weeks ago somebody vandalised a national monument here in Wales.

The monument was a wall by the side of the A487 near Llanrhystud that had been painted with the legend ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ translated as ‘remember Tryweryn’.

This was a profound symbol of native resistance against a tyrannical government that trampled all over Welsh feeling and interest. The wall was first painted by journalist and author Meic Stephens in 1963.

Over the years this mural has become a landmark and every generation has looked after it and preserved it, it has never had any official status but has instead been claimed by the people as a symbol of hope.

The words specifically refer to the compulsory eviction of the village of Capel Celyn so the valley could be flooded by the new Tryweryn reservoir built to provide water for Liverpool, but over the years they have become shorthand for ‘Cofiwch Cymru’ - ‘Remember Wales’.

Without the consent of local Welsh authorities, Liverpool City Council rode roughshod over any Welsh sentiment and following parliamentary approval the village was flooded in 1965. A centuries-old Welsh-speaking community was destroyed. All this despite protesting in Liverpool, London and Wales and Liverpool council failing to respond to concerns via formal planning enquiries presented by residents of Capel Celyn.

Welsh people could do nothing, we were helpless.

So the wall means so much more than 'remember Capel Celyn', as the village itself was a microcosm of Wales and the continued struggle for the survival of Welsh language and culture. The wall was a national symbol of hope against a heartless landlord, the wall was a cry in the night, a scream in the darkness.

Initially my instinct told me that the need to preserve the original wall and mural was paramount, but the more I thought about it, the more I considered this to be not only futile, but against the purpose and spirit of the original piece of graffiti.

The fact that this wall, that has taken on huge significance over the last 50 years, has no protected status is exactly as it should be, because as a country we have no autonomy. The fact that such a high-profile piece of our culture can so easily be damaged shouldn't be a surprise, because our Senedd is a sop and, until we have control of our own destiny, it will remain so.

As a nation we are as vulnerable as that wall on the A487, wide open to the elements and the whims of anyone hostile to our language, to our history, to our very existence.

Then it happened.

As I debated with concerned friends and considered what we could do, pieces started appearing all over Wales, on the side of pubs like Saith Seren in Wrexham, on the side of roads, my friend Adam of the Cambria Band painted one on the side of the road which was subsequently erased with a few hours, creating more publicity. Yesterday, one appeared on the Kop at The Racecourse. It was manna from heaven.

And then, better than all of this, the words began to appear on stones, on stickers, on T-shirts, hoodies. This was the rebel spirit, this was in keeping with the very first piece painted on that wall by Meic Stephens all those years ago.

Don't put it in a museum to die, don't cover it or protect it, pull it down and paint a thousand more, the wall itself is nothing, it is the idea that matters.

If the wall is preserved and Wales stays as it is then it means nothing, but if the sacred wall is sacrificed (as it surely should be) then we will have defeated those who wish to hurt us, those who marginalised us, ignore us and trample over us.

Paint it, write it, scratch it, see it, hear it, whisper it, say it, sing it, scream it and think it...think about it, learn, discover, wake up.

It is the idea that matters and once the idea takes root, we will be building something... a consciousness.

A new voice from an old idea.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The man driving the ban on Welsh patients in Chester

The man driving the ban on patients from Wales accessing the Countess of Chester hospital is Margaret Thatcher's former permanent health secretary and England's first NHS chief executive.

Sir Duncan Nicol, knighted for his services to the NHS, now chairs the Countess of Chester Hospital (CoCH) Foundation Trust. It's unilaterally decided to ban new outpatient referrals and urgent suspected cancer cases for patients from Wales due, it says, to a long-standing dispute over funding between NHS Wales and NHS England. Admissions for existing outpatients, maternity and A&E are being permitted.

Despite negotiations between the two bodies continuing, the CoCH has taken the unprecedented step of banning patients from care despite the Countess being the nearest hospital to thousands of patients in Flintshire, just over the Welsh border. In fact, the Countess relies on funding from Wales to ensure it's viable because a fifth of all its patients are based there.

The ban is thought to affect about 8,000 Welsh patients a year, who will have to be accommodated in nearby Ysbyty Glan Clwyd and Wrexham Maelor hospitals by the north Wales health board, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.

We understand that the dispute is over a sum of £2 million a year - which amounts to 1% of the CoCH budget. It's also a fraction of the £12m overspend the Foundation Trust is expected to make this year. BCUHB pays CoCH about £25 million a year for services.

In trying to understand the motivation for the unilateral ban, it's worth explaining that the internal market in England's NHS, where there is a distinct division between commissioners of care and providers of care, does not exist in Wales. Health boards in Wales both commission and provide care and there is no unnecessary bureaucracy surrounding delivery of service.

The wrangle over finances turns around the need for the Welsh NHS to pay an extra 8% for services provided through that internal market.

Sir Duncan is an unusual civil servant because he was an integral part of the Thatcherite drive to create a health market within the NHS in the late 1980s. Sir Duncan fronted a lot of the changes, which made him popular with his political bosses. 

He and another CoCH director, Christine Hannah, were described as the NHS "dream team" and, despite now being in his late 70s, he is still driving the ideological agenda. How else can we explain that 50 other English hospitals take patients from Wales but his won't?

Health experts in the field say Nicol in particular and CoCH in general are expert at playing "the Welsh card" to distract from any little local difficulty. It's regularly played but now the stakes have been upped. We can only wonder why... 

It's believed this is the first time that patients from a neighbouring country within the UK have been banned from accessing a hospital.

At the time of writing, patients from north Wales have more rights via their EHIC card to treatment within the EU than at their local hospital.

Although the prize for the Countess may be relatively small at £2m a year, there is a bigger prize if all patients from Wales accessing services in English hospitals have to pay an extra 8%.

It also helps with a Conservative political narrative to attack Labour's handling of the NHS in Wales. Labour First Minister Mark Drakeford has made it clear that he "won't be blackmailed" into backing down in the ongoing negotiations.

So it looks like thousands of patients will be used as little more than bargaining chips in a complex cross-border political game that shows no sign of ending. A Plaid Cymru petition demanding an end to the ban while negotiations are ongoing is gathering traction locally but it remains to be seen if unelected bureaucrats such as Sir Duncan are actually listening.

• Please sign the petition and send a message to Sir Duncan.

HS2 an affront to the Welsh taxpayer, Plaid Cymru

New analysis puts HS2’s spiralling costs over £150bn

HS2 has been branded an “affront to the Welsh taxpayer” by Plaid Cymru’s Transport Spokesperson Jonathan Edwards MP, after new analysis showed costs spiralling to over £150bn.

Analysis by the Midlands Economic Forum (MEF) shows that the original construction cost of £30bn could reach as much as £106.35bn. This excludes further costs such as local infrastructure connection terminal (£43bn) and rolling stock (£2.5bn).

Mr Edwards said that Welsh taxpayers would be paying for an English railway, without receiving any benefit. The Westminster Government has already refused to give Wales any Barnett Consequentials – the normal mechanism by which a population share increase in funding for Wales is received relative to spending in England – for the project.

Transport expert Professor Stuart Cole has also demonstrated how HS2 will have negative consequences for Wales, particularly in the south of the country, as journey times to cities in the midlands and north of England are reduced and new technology encourages companies to areas with HS2 stations. Professor Cole’s analysis was supported by a report from Greengauge 21, which drew on analysis by KPMG, that found that HS2 could reduce employment growth in Wales by 21,000 jobs between 2007 and 2040.

The MEF report also claims the power requirement costs of HS2 would be approximately one third of the output of Hinckley C, and would cost £5bn.

The overall cost of HS2, as calculated by MEF, would be £156.95bn, which equates to 7.4% of UK GDP in 2018.

Commenting, Jonathan Edwards MP said:

HS2 has always been bad news for Wales – independent analysis shows it will mean an economic hit for our country. These latest figures, however, shows how much of an affront to the Welsh taxpayer HS2 really is.

“When costs are spiralling over £150bn for a railway between English cities, the Westminster Government remains committed. But when it comes to Wales, the British state can’t find the money to electrify a few miles of track between our two biggest cities.

“Welsh infrastructure is creaking. You can’t even get from the north to the south without going into a different country.

“Not only is this state of affairs symbolic of Westminster’s disdain for Wales, it is hurting our economy. Wales is stuck with a 20th century transport system, whilst helping fund the development of a multi-billion pound new transport system in England.

“We simply cannot trust another country to dictate our transport policy for any longer.”

Friday, 12 April 2019

Hundreds oppose nuclear waste dumping in Wrexham

Hundreds of people in Wrexham have signed a petition against nuclear waste dumping.

Last month the Plaid Cymru group of councillors e-mailed Wrexham Council's chief executive to ask whether the council had discussed taking part in the Government's nuclear waste disposal programme at any level in advance of the deadline - which is this weekend.

Plaid group leader Marc Jones said:
"We have not had an answer to the direct question we asked, which is disappointing to say the least. In addition, we are not aware what the council's Executive Board intends to do in light of the £1 million bribe on offer to communities who express an interest in taking the nuclear waste. 
"We will continue to press for clarity on this matter from the council with the intention of stopping any plans to dump nuclear waste in Wrexham and Wales as a whole.
"We're proud that Plaid Cymru has led the campaign against the disposal of nuclear waste and that counties including Anglesey, Ceredigion, Denbighshire, Powys, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea have made it clear that they will not allow nuclear waste to be dumped there. We need Wrexham to make the same unequivocal declaration: we will not allow nuclear waste to be dumped here." 
• Please continue to share this petition with friends and family - hundreds have already signed but we need more.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

School student organises Wrexham's first climate strike

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish school student who started a global movement of youngsters against climate change.
A school student is organising the first youth climate strike in Wrexham on Friday.

The international protest against climate change began with Greta Thunberg in Sweden and is now a global event each month with thousands of young people striking in order to make clear that they want action on climate change.

The protest at Llwyn Isaf green by the Guildhall at mid-day has been organised by Lily Simpson, an 18-year-old student at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd.

She said:
"We feel that officials in charge and the older generation have been failing us by destroying our future and we are no longer willing to let that be the case. The change in climate is affecting people and animals already, it’s not a problem we can continue to ignore. I went to the strike protest last month in Manchester and realised how much awareness was raised just from that one event. I figured that by starting a protest closer to home in Wrexham our message would reach an even wider group of people.

"Our demands are simple:
1- The Government declares a climate emergency and prioritise the protection of life on earth, taking active steps to achieve climate justice.
2- The national curriculum is reformed to address the ecological crisis as an educational priority.
3- The Government communicates the severity of the ecological crisis and the necessity to act now to the general public.
4- The Government recognises that young people have the biggest stake in our future, by incorporating youth views into policy making and bringing the voting age down to 16."
Her calls were backed by Councillor Carrie Harper, Plaid Cymru's chair of lifelong learning scrutiny committee on Wrexham Council:
"I can't think of a more important lesson for young people to learn than organising for themselves to save the planet. From speaking to the protest organiser, I can see that it's a peaceful event and is all about raising awareness about the situation we face in terms of climate change. They have the full support of the Plaid Cymru group of councillors."

Monday, 8 April 2019

Call for assurances over delivery of new Welsh-medium school

A proposed two-year delay in opening a new Welsh-medium school has prompted calls for assurances that the new school in Borras will now open in September 2021.

In response to the report being heard by Wrexham Council’s Executive Board, the chair of the council's Lifelong Learning committee Cllr Carrie Harper said: 
“It’s disappointing to hear about the two-year delay for opening Borras but I believe a number of factors have contributed to the decision. Delays in terms of naming the school to give parents confidence in applying, along with additional Welsh-medium capacity coming on stream at Ysgol Bro Alyn in Gwersyllt at the same time have meant this was a likely course of action. The original plan was to use Hafod y Wern from this September and then move to the new site in Borras in two years time, there were always questions as regards how practical this proposal was.  
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in demand for Welsh-medium education in Wrexham over the last 10 years and that is set to continue. It’s easy to understand why, given the cultural and economic benefits of being bilingual, the majority of the demand is coming from non-Welsh speaking parents, which is also very encouraging in terms of the future. I know lots of local parents will be looking forward to the new primary school, which will also potentially free up space at our other Welsh medium primaries. 
"With our Welsh-medium schools in Wrexham being at or near capacity, the Borras school is needed to cater for growing demand on this side of town. We also know that where new schools are located, demand increases in the surrounding areas as well so the growth will continue. We now need categorical assurances from the council leadership that the new Borras primary will open in 2021 to meet this demand.”

Among those looking forward to the new school is Rhosnesni parent Michael Harper, who is looking forward to sending his one-year-old son Charlie to the new Welsh-medium school in Borras when it opens: 

“We decided early on that we want Charlie to be a Welsh speaker and have the benefits of a Welsh-medium education, with the location of the new school being in walking distance for us it’s just perfect and we’re really looking forward to it. I’m not a Welsh speaker myself unfortunately and neither is Charlie’s mum Becca but we wish we’d had the opportunity.  
"Children can learn so easily but it’s much more difficult for adults. Now we’re getting an increasing number of Welsh schools in Wrexham, I think it’s great that everyone who wants their child to have this chance will have the assurance that there will be a school place for them.” 

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Call to review business rates to kickstart our town's economy

Plaid Cymru councillors want a radical overhaul of town-centre business rates to kickstart a town's economy.

Wrexham has a number of empty shops and among the main complaints from local shopkeepers is the high cost of business rates in town-centre locations.

Councillor Marc Jones, Plaid Cymru's group leader, represents much of the town centre, which lies in his Grosvenor ward.

He said:
"Small businesses and landlords alike complain that business rates in the town centre are out of all proportion to the footfall and income generated in that area. This is largely due to changing shopping habits, with people spending more online, in out-of-town shopping centres and the large supermarkets. Despite this, shops in the traditional town centre and high street are still being clobbered with premium rateable values and therefore higher-than-necessary rates.

"Although councils collect rates, it's the Valuation Office Agency that decides on a property's rateable value and the Welsh Government that sets the rates every year. So our campaign to make it easier to re-open and keep open town centre shops, pubs and restaurants is aimed squarely at the Welsh Government and the VOA, which is controlled by the Treasury.

"Our call is simple - for Welsh town centres to be given a kickstart by ensuring business rates better reflect the radical changes in our shopping habits. If we don't make that change, our high streets will become ghost towns.

"The Scottish Government has adopted a two-tier system for small retailers and larger businesses such as supermarkets, which is one way forward. As a Plaid Cymru group, we're also advocating a review of all property values to reduce that town-centre premium as it's not reflective of reality any more. We believe our town centre can be revived and regenerated but it's unrealistic to expect businesses to open there when they face the burden of enormous business rates. Landlords too must accept their part in this by reducing rents to realistic levels."
He said the Welsh Government's £23 million fund over the next two years to enable councils to reduce rates for businesses by "up to £2,500" was a small step in the right direction but didn't address the fundamental shift in shopping habits:
"This will temporarily reduce the rates for some town centre businesses but it's not the gear shift town-centre businesses need. I don't think this Welsh Government understands the difficulties facing small businesses who are trying to keep their heads above water at the moment, let alone the deterrent premium rates are for new businesses. Rate relief needs extending for the smaller businesses and that means rebalancing our rating system in favour of struggling town centres. 
"If we don't have a radical overhaul of how we tax our town-centre businesses, we're in danger of losing them."
Cllr Jones added that the Plaid Cymru councillors would be consulting with town-centre businesses about the idea in the coming weeks.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Henblas Square and Rhosrobin: Affordable housing in planning spotlight

Two critical planning applications were decided by Wrexham planning committee tonight.

The first was whether to permit Mandale Ltd, which has planning permission to turn the Henblas Square building into 53 first-floor flats, to renege on its commitment to pay about £300,000 towards affordable housing in the borough.

Instead the company, which only received planning in November, had come back to say it couldn't make enough profit out of the scheme and was proposing to offer the council just £28,000 instead.

This was based on a new set of figures that were significantly different from those in the original application.

Cllr Marc Jones (Plaid Cymru), who had originally called for the application to be deferred for more information, told the committee that he felt misled by the developers: "We were told that 20% was an acceptable profit in the initial planning application. We are now told that 8% is acceptable on a new set of figures. I have to say that I've lost faith in the developers and we should not be bounced by threats that the planning inspector will back the developer into accepting a development without a contribution to affordable housing."

Cllr Jones, who represents the ward, made it clear he would not support the revised application to drop all but £28,000 of the affordable housing contribution. He added: "There are many young families in my ward and across the borough that are current living in overcrowded conditions due to a lack of affordable housing. The money we should be getting from the Henblas Square development could go towards helping build and buy more affordable housing for those people."

The vote was carried 9-7.

The committee also voted marginally against granting permission for Wales and West Housing Association to build 23 affordable houses on agricultural land between Rhosrobin and Gwersyllt. There was a long debate where the positives of getting more affordable housing were weighed against the dangers of urban sprawl and building new housing on the last remaining green field between the two communities.

On balance, Plaid Cymru councillors Marc Jones and Gwenfair Jones felt that protecting the green wedge and having a consistent approach in not supporting building estates on green field sites outweighed the need locally for affordable housing. If we'd accepted this development, large-scale housing developments on greenfield sites could have been given the green light.