The old joke is: “I went to fight and an ice hockey game broke out.” It is used precisely because of the tendency for men with skates, pads and sticks to beat upon one another mercilessly, that this phrase was coined. Hockey games have several, oft-times bloody fights in them.
And a real fight was the last thing I expected attending what should have been another mild-mannered Policy for Wales conference. You know the drill. Politicians stand at the rostrum and speak in mindless platitudes about how important infrastructure is, how they have made a huge difference with their plan and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… The room was filled with the usual suspects of consultants, hangers-on and sycophants of all stripes wishing a hit from the EU/Westminster/Welsh Government’s teat for new projects.
Well if you were late to THIS meeting, you missed the arrogant first shot fired across the nation’s bow by the Rt Hon David Jones MP, Secretary of State for Wales. Aside from making a pitch for nuclear and a veiled one for fracking, he was quick to point out that the biggest project, electrification of the main Paddington line to Swansea, was being held up because the Tory Government in Westminster was busy claiming the Welsh Government had ‘welshed’ on the deal struck in 2012 to electrify the line and continue on up into the Valleys. He claimed the project was ready to go and that it was all the Labour Government’s fault for not being willing to pay their part.
Jane Hutt, AM and Minister for Finance, Welsh Government had a different take and chose not to dignify the attack by Jones in the room. She saved her powder not for the 200 people in the room, rather for the BBC Wales cameras afterwards outside her speech.
By day’s end, it was a full-on row between the now four year old Tory/LibDem government of David Cameron in Westminster and The Welsh Government led by Labour and Carwyn Jones.
And it turns out the real sticking point in the negotiations is that the Government wants Wales to include the stretch of the Paddington to Swansea line between Cardiff and Bridgend in ‘The Valleys’ section of the project. They demand that the Welsh Government pay for it. The Welsh Government position is that this section of line is unbroken from the main line and is indeed part of the main Swansea line and should be included in the Westminster funded side. As usual, it’s a shame the most memorable part of the day is this latest episode of Men and Women Behaving Badly. But it didn’t end there.
The day was filled with references to renewable energy from wind and tidal floes but the 500 pound gorilla in the room was the Secretary of State’s overt focus on nuclear power, considered so dangerous and controversial that few companies or governments undertake it and a veiled reference to gas from fracking and coal seam gasification.
When this reporter posed a direct question to the panel, only The Woodland Trust executive expressed concern. The rest dove for cover because the Welsh Labour Govt. also supports fracking and UCG. When I mentioned to Tessa Blazey, Head of Engagement for Tidal Lagoon, Swansea Bay that coal seam gasification would go on directly underneath her tidal programmes, the response was, “we only focus on our projects.” Indeed the only honest reaction came from Cllr. Pat Hackett of the Mersey Deeside Alliance who supports fracking because of the jobs (he thinks) it will provide.
Infrastrucure for Wales is a lot more than highways, railroads and energy. John Pockett of Passenger Transport Cymru (buses) mentioned 110 million people use buses while only 1/3 of that amount uses trains. We’re investing £79 million in upgrading bus lines but hundreds of millions on trains. Why?
Germany generates a huge percentage of electricity from solar. We talk about building a nuclear plant? The enormous wind farm off Colwyn Bay could be expanded and generate even more electricity yet we want gas from the dirtiest process known, fracking?
The fracking agenda is running silently full speed ahead despite very real fears and stories from around the globe on its aftermath. Swansea Bay is a huge resource but if the water is fouled or methane flares dot the Mumbles countryside, how serious will real reform?
The real shame of this Policy Forum for Wales event was that a serious question about the dissonance between progress made via wind and the promise of tidal was all for nought as both Governments seem ready to pursue a policy of fracking now and fracking forever, despite the risks to water, earthquakes and health.
Denis G. Campbell is editor of UK Progressive and a Principal with B2E Consulting in London. He helps large organisations improve their customer focus and change their internal culture. His book “Show Me You Care! Winning the Customer Excellence Mission,” is available from amazon Kindle.