Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Column, August 30, 2005

CORRECT me if I’m wrong, I often am, but did the sky fall in this past week?
I only ask because Plaid Cymru have been doing a pretty fine impression of Chicken Licken.
The cause of their distress is a plan by Gordon Brown to sell off the entire housing stock of North Wales to the moneybags English who are going to salt away every bit of brick and mortar between Connah’s Quay and Holyhead in their burgeoning pension funds.
The Iron Chancellor has gone a bit soft on the idea of second homes and second homes, as we all know, are the work of the Devil.
While the housing crisis in rural Wales, and any other bit of the UK with a view of a field for that matter, is undeniable, Plaid should really keep their powder dry for battles that are worth fighting. And this one isn’t.
Instead they go yapping like Pavlov’s dogs at the mere mention of ‘second’ and ‘home’ in the same breath. You have to respect politicians who stick by their guns and are consistent, it makes such a change from the present incumbent of Number 10, but now and again you have to check yourself for being consistently wrong. Yes, I can hear the tramp, tramp, tramp of hostages to fortune when I say that, but as I’ll explain I think Plaid are making a fuss over something which will hardly affect Wales.
I hesitate to mention the word pension, as in most people, myself included, it causes an immediate desire to jam fingers in ears and hum loudly until whoever brought it up has gone away.
I’m with those who think the endowment fairy will see me right when I become too old, short-sighted and mad to continue writing. Two down one to go.
But basically the changes in pensions introduced by Gordon Brown mean that people can buy buy-to-let properties and put them in their pension pot. The advantage of this for high-income earners is that with tax breaks they basically can get 40% of the cost of a second home back if they’re putting it in their pension.
Ah, say Plaid Cymru, yet another ruse for the English to buy holiday homes in North Wales and now they get a tax break for doing it.
On the face of it that might seem what will happen, and the Affordable Rural Housing Commission is also worried saying that this scheme will drive up prices in the countryside.
But there’s a great big spanner in the works of those who want to buy holiday homes and then put them in their pension pot.
Namely that if you do that, you have to pay your own pension fund a commercial rent for the time that you spend in the property.
Lots of people like holiday homes, but I’m pretty sure they would not be keen to pay themselves for the privilege of staying there, especially when they’re already paying for the place with a mortgage as well.
All of a sudden 40% off doesn’t seem so attractive when you’re having to stump up rent. And the rent will be determined not by you, but by your pension fund trustee who by law will have to enforce a proper market-value rent and we all know how high they can be in summer in Wales.
For these investment properties to be effective as well they need to be occupied most of the year, and given the fact that many refer to our holiday-home-owning friends as ‘swallows’ because they’re only here for the summer, we know that isn’t the case in North Wales.
The idea that the hordes that make their way down the A55 to their holiday homes will soon be doing it with a fat tax break too just doesn’t hold water.
This new system will drive up house prices, but mainly in cities where there is housing stock that the buyers do not want to live in themselves but that they will rent out on a long-term basis. Simple as that.
Plaid should pick a better battle than this one.

IT would seem that the law has not served the family of Richie Davies very well.
He was killed in a hit and run accident, and the car’s owner, who was a passenger in it at the time, has hidden behind his right to silence and refused to name the driver.
The courts have been powerless to extract that name from him and so Richie’s killer walks free today.
But only for today.
I hope the Davies family will take some small crumb of comfort from the fact that, on as is blatantly evident from the court case, we are dealing with low-life scum here.
They should remember that there is little honour among these people and their loyalties shift like the wind.
The killer, is relying for his liberty, on a network of people who are not talking….for the moment.
But things change, relationships with girlfriends end, best friends become worst enemies. When that happens all of a sudden the police start getting helpful phone calls.
I’m prepared to bet that the killer’s friends are people that are ‘known to police’ as it were and I’ll bet too they’ve got a pretty good idea who it might be.
The next time any of the killer’s cohorts are up on a string of offences they might be looking to cut a deal by giving the police a bigger fish to fry.
And Chief Constable Bernard Hogan-Howe is on the case as well.
I trust the killer is enjoying his liberty, because I think his days are numbered.

CHARLOTTE Church, we hear, disapproves of the behaviour of Abi Tittmuss on Celebrity Love Island.
For those of you lucky enough not to have encountered her yet, Ms Titmuss is a model famed for not wearing many clothes.
Charlotte was once famed as a singer, but is now better known for not wearing many clothes on holiday where she is pictured with surprising frequency. I wonder how on earth the photographers always seem to know where she is, particularly when she has a new album or single out.
I’m not sure I have space in my brain to care what Ms Church thinks of Ms Titmuss but I am tempted to say strand the pair of them on a desert island and let them fight it out between them.
But then Channel Five would probably get a 10-part series out of it.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Column, August 23, 2005

I FEEL it is something of an achievement to have attained the age of 40 and not, as yet, been made the subject of an asbo.
I only mention it because it would seem they are handing them out like Green Shield stamps nowadays.
Getting your first asbo seems to be as much a rite of passage as passing your driving test or convincing unwitting off-licence staff that you really are 18 despite your soprano voice and could you have two crates of the blue alcopops please.
Even OAPs are getting in on the act.
There was a time when eccentricity was a celebrated trait in this country. Every community had its fair share of crusty old fogies who would go off like a bottle of pop if you so much as cast a shadow on their front gate.
They were generally left to their own devices on the grounds that most of them had fought in wars for our freedom so the least we could do is leave them in peace to cultivate a garden full of weeds and develop a smell indistinguishable from that of their large dog that looked every inch capable of tearing your throat out should you have the temerity to knock on the front door.
Harmless? Well, very probably not, in fact a little bit dangerous and unhinged, but such is life.
It would be a very dull world if everyone was nice, middle-class, middle-aged and in possession of a full set of marbles.
But that is, apparently, the kind of society that we are trying to produce with our courts handing out asbos left, right and centre.
Of course there are some people whose lives are made a misery by anti-social behaviour and they should be protected by the law. However, you have to wonder just how effective asbos are when week after week you read of youths up in court having breached theirs for a fortieth time and that finally the courts have got round to thinking a period of detention might just curb them.
This government likes asbos, you can tell by the way they let all and sundry hand them out. Quite why they haven’t seen the sense in giving traffic wardens and lollipop ladies asbo powers is anyone’s guess – no doubt it will be in the next Queen’s Speech.
But now the police have even wider powers to deal with the youths that lurk on our streets in their dangerous hooded tops.
They can now seek a dispersal order for an area where there is nuisance behaviour going on. That means they can order anyone there to leave and not return for 24 hours and they can forcibly return under-16s to their homes if they are unaccompanied by an adult.
The question is what constitutes nuisance behaviour? For many of these youths there is little else to do other than to hang around in groups. And for some people of a nervous disposition it would seem that any group of more then three over-12s is as threatening as the Mongol Horde riding into town, only this time they’re on BMX bikes.
The simple solution is to ban them and force them back into their homes, where I’ve sure their parents will be absolutely delighted that an evening’s peace is disturbed by the early return of a truculent teenager accompanied by the Old Bill.
Is it altogether surprising that teenagers hang around in groups and try to buy alcohol when the alcohol industry targets them so ruthlessly?
After all, alcopops were hardly invented as an alternative tipple for the real ale brigade were they? You don’t get beardy chaps of a certain age walking into their local tavern and foregoing their usual pint of Ostlethwaite’s Dark and Peculier and going for something blue and fizzy instead do you?
They’re bombarded with advertising that says alcohol is cool and pubs are allowed to open 24 hours a day to sell it, yet we expect them to behave like they’re Trappists until they’re 18.
They may look sullen, but they’re not that stupid. They know they’re missing out on something and so they’ll do their best to try it. Show me a teenager who hasn’t got drunk before their 18th birthday and I’ll show you a very, very bored child.
All asbos do is sweep teenagers and mad old men under the carpet. We all know the problem is there, but it looks like we’re doing something about them if we slap an asbo on them.
The reality is that we’re just moving the problem round, not solving it.

THE burghers of Rhyl getting in a froth about comedian John Sparkes would do well to remember Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on the matter.
Thoughts on being talked about that is, not Rhyl – he had many memorable aphorisms, but I don’t think he ever passed judgement on Rhyl.
Unlike South Walian Mr Sparkes, whose routine includes a grandfather dying on a trip to Rhyl whose relatives are consoled with the thought that he has ‘gone to a better place.’
Wilde said that ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not.’
Or to put it another way, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
No-one is going to cancel a trip to Rhyl because of a stand-up comedian’s act and the more it gets talked about the more likely people are to visit to find out what all the fuss is about.

Column, August 16, 2005

IN less enlightened times the insane would be displayed for public entertainment in the infamous Bedlam asylum.
Sometimes I feel this column fulfils the same purpose.
It seems that those who feel that to say out loud quite what the voices in their head are telling them might attract the attention of the men in white coats often feel that dashing it off in a letter to me will do just as well.
I’m happy to help, but you do worry a bit about folie a deux – that to be exposed so often to those to whom Mr Sanity is only an occasional caller might lead to barking at the moon myself.
Witness the two letters which dropped on my doormat this week – from opposite ends of the spectrum, as you’ll see, but both delightfully barmy in their own very special way.
The first is from, well, we’ll just leave her name as H shall we? She knows who she is and I’m not sure it’s wise that her neighbours should know who she is and what she’s writing about them.
H is unhappy at my support for Liverpool in its offer to host the 2007 National Eisteddfod. Here goes, you were warned.
“Dear Mr Banks,
After living next door to a couple from Liverpool for 43 years I have not got a good thing to say about Liverpool. Most of the time I kept out of their way, they were evil, they hid behind curtains watching me all the time.
I was quite sure someone was paying them for watching me, they had quite a few crooked friends around. I could go on and on 25 times and more.
She had men going to see her, found out that she was saying that they were coming to my house, whom to I just don’t know, not me that’s for sure. How evil can you get?
The reason why they blame me for everything is because I’m Welsh and a Welsh speaker and proud of it, and I wouldn’t go bowing to them.
If I had money I’d give it to Flint to hold the National Eisteddfod of Wales there. I’d hate to see it going to Liverpool. When I hear people saying that Liverpool is the capital of North Wales I shiver. I think of Caernarfon as the capital of North Wales, I was born in Caernarfonshire.
I can’t think of one good thing to say about Liverpool after 43 years of hatred, they left their hatred behind to the woman that’s living there now, her family are from Liverpool.”

Well, H, all I can say, and I think it’s inadequate in the face of such an onslaught of bitterness, is that it’s time to let go of the hatred. Whatever your neighbours did or didn’t do to you, it’s a little unjust to think ill of a whole city on the basis of two people who happen to come from it.
I dare say there are one or two rum coves in your beloved Caernarfon, but you wouldn’t write off the whole town because of them would you?

The next is another from my new-found correspondent in Rhyl. You know the one, he thinks the Welsh Not never happened and he has, incredibly, found a pub in Rhyl where everyone switches to Welsh to talk about him when he walks in.
A friend e-mailed to point out that it’s a little puzzling to make such a claim, because if you don’t speak Welsh, how do you know everyone is talking about you?
Anyway, without further delay, here’s the next instalment from Rhyl:
Who are you to criticise my spelling!!
You can’t wrote, it allways goes pear shaped in that s*****e (here he even manages to misspell an expletive) paper!
And get your facts right I sent the letter days before that muppet Cottle said what he said. I’m 100% genuine, problem is Welsh nationalists like you don’t like the truth!!
The pub in Rhyl I went to is near my flat in West Rhyl they won’t serve me cos I’m English.
and about that resuvror (he means reservoir, we established his inability to spell it in his first letter) it had to be built cos people wanted water, where do you think it should have been built? Moon? Mars? No-one lived there anyway cos it was full of trees and sheep.
I won’t be writing again so I bet you won’t publish this letter.
From a proud Englishman”

If I were a betting man I’d say that, despite his promises, this is not the last we’ve heard of him, more’s the pity.

LEIGHTON Andrews writes of take me to task for crediting him with being the first AM to draw attention to the Natwatch website.
This honour, he points out, was not his, but the Lib Dem AM Peter Black got in there first and would I mind setting the record straight?
I am, of course, happy to do so and confirm that a whole day, 24 little hours, before Leighton Andrews pointed people in the direction of the Natwatch site, Mr Black had got in there before him.
So that’s clear then.
What is not so clear is who is behind Natwatch. It could be a private individual with an intense interest in Scottish and Welsh politics, particularly those of a nationalist persuasion.
On the other hand, as has been suggested, it could be a little project by political opponents of parties like Plaid and the SNP.
While you’re perfectly at liberty to say what you want about any political party, if you do so from behind a cloak of anonymity, you shouldn’t be entirely surprised if people wonder who you are.

AS I’ve mentioned recently, I moved house in the past couple of months.
Having been invited to dinner by our new neighbours this week it was revealed to us that the lounge of my new home was, until we took up residence, used for meetings of the local Conservative party.
Just think of it. In my house they were toasting Maggie’s election victory; glasses were raised to the defeat of the miners. They probably had a wild party to celebrate the introduction of the poll tax and who knows what debauchery ensued after John Major’s against-the-odds victory in’92.
I was wondering whether to have some sort of exorcism.
Or should I just welcome them back and offer them tea and sympathy?
Your suggestions are welcome.

Column, August 2, 2005

AS contributions to political debate go, the one tapped out by Aled Cottle is hardly the most helpful.
Wales has had more than its fair share of great orators, men and women who were often able to sway public opinion solely through the power of their words.
Lloyd George, Nye Bevan, Gwynfor Evans and Neil Kinnock have all made their mark on the character of this country through their speeches.
It’s fair to say that Mr Cottle’s memorable, albeit brief, remarks were about as useful as Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army who often volunteered of the enemy that they: “Don’t like it up ‘em.”
Writing to a website so obviously partisan as Natwatch, the one to which Mr Cottle is said to have fired off his intemperate e-mail, was a mistake.
Pointing out that the Anglo Saxons originally came from Holland/Germany was about as useful to a 21st century audience as telling them that Julius Caesar arrived here from Rome.
Using abusive language rather negated whatever mixed up point was trying to be made in the first place.
It’s easy to see why a website set up to expose “the failure, mendacity and xenophobia of nationalists in Scotland and Wales” would stir up hostility in some quarters. But to respond with a tirade like that is simply playing into their hands.
What a shame there was no-one there to say in the finest traditions of bar-room brawls: “Put down the keyboard Aled, they’re not worth it.”
It was a brave move of Labour AM Carl Sargeant to call for Mr Cottle’s job. I trust he will be insisting this set a precedent and that AMs and MPs, all of whom, like Mr Cottle, are paid from the public purse, should forfeit their jobs if anything other than honeyed words are uttered by them. Unfortunately at the moment we have to wait until an election to remove them if we are offended by their words or deeds.
It’s good to see Mr Sargeant taking a stand over the decline in political debate though and I’m sure he will be insisting his political colleagues live up to the same standards that he sets for Menter Iaith staff like Mr Cottle.
But what of this site Natwatch. Well you can see it for yourself at www.natwatch.co.uk/blog and make your own minds up.
You’ll notice though that all of its messages are by the conveniently anonymous “price4president” and that while the site is keen to expose the mendacity of nationalists, it’s not so keen on debate, as you cannot post a message to the site yourself, unlike many other Blogs.
It’s latest contribution to the Welsh political scene is this: “Tomorrow Nat Watch will be gate-crashing Seimon Glyn's annual family holiday. Yes, you've guessed it. We're sending a correspondent to the Eisteddfod (lucky her!). We will bring you a series of special reports from the maes, at the biggest Welsh nat festival of the year.”
You and I thought the Eisteddfod was a cultural festival where all shades of political opinion were present. It would seem price4president knows better.
And it is interesting, very interesting, that the two AMs who have drawn our attention to a site that has only been running since May are both Labour AMs. First Leighton Andrews and now Carl Sargeant. How very public-spirited of them.
If you want the alternative view, log onto natwatchwatch.blogspot.com which has a healthier attitude to debate.

AND talking of unhealthy contributions to debate, this missive recently arrived after a recent column.
Now, I have to preface it with a health warning – I don’t believe someone could be stupid enough to hold these views.
It’s timing, coming so soon after the Cottle e-mail scandal is somewhat suspicious as well. Almost as if it were intended as a diversion. Make your own minds up anyway.

I read your column last week, I agree 100% with Chris Bryant , cos no one cares about Welsh language, no one speakes it, I moved here 10 years ago from London and I’ve heard little Welsh. We are in Britain don’t these thickoes speak English?!
Its not a real language anyway, it should be BANNED! Only sheep*******s speake it! And for your information Welsh not never happened, its just propaganda from nationalists who should be shot. So a valley drowned for a resov resouvir, who cares?
If I had my way I’d drown the whole f***ing Wales! And you’re ignorant, cos I walked into a pub other nite in Rhyl and everyone turned Welsh – all talking about me! Why don’t you wright abot that.
From a PROUD Englishman”

Dear God almighty where to start, where to start?
Well, 14 errors of spelling, grammar or punctuation in the space of 135 words does rather make one wonder just what this little man is so proud of. These ‘thickoes’ probably do speak English, and I’m prepared to lay money that they have a better command of it than the rather loose grip he has of its intricacies.
They’re my asterisks, not his, this is, after all, a family newspaper and there might be children reading, and I’m already exposing them to his atrocious spelling, best to spare them his appalling language as well.
While claiming in his first paragraph that no-one speaks Welsh, he says as he signs off that when he walked into a pub in Rhyl everyone started speaking Welsh and they were all talking about him. A contradiction which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t strike our letter writer all that readily.
It does rather make one wonder which pub though, because Rhyl is hardly a heartland of the language. If it did happen, I’m sure that if the letter’s author looks as mad as he sounds most people were indeed talking about him and one word would have been on their lips – NUTTER.
I’m taking it that a ‘resouvir’ is a reservoir, and as for drowning all of Wales, well you had a go not so long ago and gave up. But I would point out that Wales is generally a good bit higher than England and so if you ever succeeded then England would sink below the waves long before we did.

ONTO a far more rational correspondent. This is from Stan Granton, a reader from Anglesey, who like many parents is fighting the council’s decision to make parents cough up a lump sum to pay for children’s bus fares.

“Dear David,

Thanks for highlighting the plight of Anglesey parents, of which I am one. This ridiculous new charge is horrendously high, I have two children at high school and one more going in Sept 2006, yes that magic £180 comes to mind.
There is a side of this situation that I think some people have missed. Many parents such as myself, will choose to do the school run themselves, I am in a position to be able to take and collect my children on a daily basis.
I know many more from Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, who will also be doing the same. Can you imagine the congestion at approximate. 8.30am and 3.30 PM, dreadful, and I suspect that other parents on Anglesey with children at the other high school will do the same.
This will go against both UK Government, Assembly Government and police policies. We parents are forever being told to stop the school run in order to reduce early morning and early afternoon congestion.
I am unable to comment on the situation at the other high schools on the island, but I do know that Ysgol David Hughes's site will struggle to cope with the numbers that will be involved.
Just to give you the figures relating to Ysgol David Hughes, 600 children between Llandegfan and Llanfairpwllgwyngyll. Yes that £36,000 for school transport should we all be mug enough to pay.
I would be grateful if you could ask parents of Anglesey, both high school and junior level(after all they will one day be affected if we do not stop this) to write to Anglesey Council Education and Leisure Department to protest.
The more of us that do this the more they will realize that this situation is going to get out of hand should they go ahead. I for one do not have the ability to keep £180 a year spare with three growing children around, getting them back to school and though the year is expensive enough without this added cost.
I reckon I spend approximately £1,830 per year on my children's requirements for school, (uniform, trips, shoes and coats, dinner money and school equipment.)
Hoping that you are able to help and thanks for your comments in your column lots of us are affected and support form someone such as yourself is grateful appreciated.”

The decision by Anglesey is bad for children, bad for education and bad for the environment and it is time that someone with an ounce of common sense on that council got a grip of the situation and revoked what is a bad policy.

Column, July 26, 2005

UNTIL now the travails of the country landowner are not something that have furrowed my brow unduly.
Having lived in a flat where the sum total of the acreage under my control amounted to one balcony; followed by a Victorian terrace where, were I cruel enough to swing a cat, it would have bashed it head against the four walls of a tiny back yard – I have been untroubled by the onerous duties that rest on the shoulders of the landowner.
But then I moved house. Now I have gardens, or, as I like to refer to them when getting ideas way, way above my station, grounds.
Hedgerows, a rose garden, stone walls, lawns, and even a small woodland comprise Banks acres. I can now order someone off my land and it will involve a longer walk than them stepping out of the front door.
Since acquiring the spread I have come over all bucolic and it can only be a matter of time before the Country Landowners Association come a-calling offering me honorary membership, or even life presidency.
Our nearest neighbour is a farmer, we’re surrounded by fields, and our two-year-old having spent his summer in the great outdoors, has acquired the bronze perma-tan of a horny-handed son of the soil rather than a pasty-faced son of a hack.
I was half-wondering whether I could set aside the front lawn and claim EU subsidy for it and is a tractor really out of the question as a second car?
My agricultural credentials duly established I feel I can hold forth with farmers on an equal footing. While my fortunes are not so wedded to the vagaries of oil seed rape prices as are theirs, nevertheless I feel their pain.
So it was that conversation on Saturday fell, as it does when you’re a custodian or our rural heritage, to the subject of hedgerows and when to cut them.
I was feeling rather proud to have neatly-trimmed my rambling row, but my farming acquaintance revealed that he could not tackle his until the end of the summer.
This wasn’t because other farming duties took precedence, but it was because of something called cross compliance.
I can see your eyes glazing over, and so were mine, you’re thinking here’s another whinging farmer aren’t you? And you wouldn’t be wrong, but he was whinging with good reason. Furthermore he drove a modest Ford Mondeo, not a large, new Volvo.
Here’s how it works. To get his full subsidy he must comply with certain environmental regulations – and hedgerow cutting is one of them. No cutting between March 15 and August 31 in Wales, March 1 to July 31 in England.
This is to allow birds to nest, breed and for the young to fly the nest.
This all seems to make perfect sense if you’re a bird lover and who can argue against such a regulation, even if it means untidy hedges?
Well, my new farming mate could give you one or two things to think about.
For a start the dates apply from the southernmost tip of the UK to the northernmost. You’re not telling me that birds in the balmy southern climes of Kent nest and breed at exactly the same dates as those on the Llyn, or in Northumberland are you?
Secondly, my new-found friend said that a hedge cut now produced a dense, thick hedge which was accessible to small hedge-nesting birds, but was impenetrable to predators such as magpies. By leaving the cutting until later, the hedge was loose and so the magpies can get in and kill the very birds that the rules are trying to protect.
Thirdly, by the end of the summer the thorns on hedges like hawthorn have hardened, and so when they’re cut they get into the hooves of livestock causing suffering to them, which they wouldn’t if they were cut earlier when the thorns are still soft.
All of this is as a result of well-intentioned rules being imposed on a on-size fits all basis. We all know that the climate of North Wales is different from that of the South East of England and yet the rules are being applied across the board instead of allowing for some local leeway.
This is just a small example of the sort of bureaucracy that farmers have to cope with now when dealing with the minefield that is subsidy.
Of course, you might argue that they shouldn’t be getting subsidy in the first place, but without subsidy we’d be paying more for our food, so take your pick.
Some cynics might argue that if farmers were allowed a free hand there wouldn’t be a bird left and every hedgerow in sight would have been grubbed up in the name of profit.
But if you’re going to have rules, surely it’s better to have rules that make sense and work rather than ones which endanger the very species you’re trying to protect.

I’M not surprised parents on Anglesey are less than thrilled at the council’s latest cost-cutting wheeze.
Making parents stump up £60 to pay for the school bus fares must have seemed a stroke of genius to whoever it is that counts beans at the council, but if you’re the one who foots the bill you might not be as impressed by a display of penny-pinching that would make Scrooge blush.
Imagine if you’ve got three kids of school age – that’s £180 that you’re expected to find in one go.
As father-of-two Eddie Gardner not unreasonable asks, why can’t the kids still pay on a day-by-day basis, even if the fares go up?
The council spokesman, while neatly passing the buck to the Assembly, does not explain why they want the cash in one, difficult to find, lump sum, rather than allowing children to pay the fares on a daily basis.
Surely they knew this would create hardship, or are they so out of touch with their own electorate that they imagine a family with three kids has £180 lying around doing nothing in particular?
Bringing up kids is expensive enough without ill-thought-out policies like this one making life even harder.
The end result of this will be children walking to school because their parents simply can’t afford to fund Anglesey’s ham-fisted attempt to cut costs.
And when a child gets knocked down walking on an unsafe route to school, where will those who made this decision be then?
My best guess is: Nowhere to be seen.
The council should reconsider this decision immediately and allow parents to pay fares on a daily basis.

Column, July 19, 2005

IS having a form in Welsh the biggest issue to face our country?
Well, I suppose some might say it depends on what’s on the form. I rather think it does not matter a jot what’s on the form unless you are simply paying, if you’ll pardon the pun, lip service to us being bilingual.
Elfyn Llwyd thinks it matters and asked Tony Blair why pub landlords in Wales had not been given the opportunity to have new licensing forms in Welsh.
Blair replied that urgent discussions were going on between the secretary of state for Wales and the culture secretary on that very matter.
One imagines that the discussion might have gone something along the lines of:
Welsh sec: “What do you bloomin’ well mean you didn’t know we spoke a different language here – get typing.”
You can perhaps, just about, forgive tourists venturing here for the first time and who are initially thrown by bi-lingual road signs. But for a whole ministry to forget we speak a different language is beyond the pale.
One person who, apparently, did not think it so important was Chris Bryant, MP for the Rhondda valley.
You can I suppose, understand, if not forgive him not being that bothered about the lack of a Welsh language form. There would not be that many votes in it in the Rhondda where the closes they get to the language is to correctly pronounce the double-d.
“Was the availability of a Welsh language form the biggest issue in Wales?” he asked, having jeered at Mr Llwyd while he was asking his question of the PM.
Perhaps it isn’t.
I’m fairly certain that Wales will get up tomorrow and get on with the business of being Wales, unhindered by the absence of a Welsh language form for licensees.
But it’s just another little chip away at our identity, another inconvenience to be overcome by those who choose to use the language of their birth.
This is how languages die.
No one, not even Chris Bryant, is going to introduce the Welsh Language (Kill It Stone Dead) Bill to parliament. But what they do, which is just as bad, is ignore it, forget it, fail to take account of the fact that people want to speak it.
The days of the Welsh Not are, thankfully, so far behind us now that I’ve met many English people who seriously doubt it ever existed. But if the pub licensing forms are allowed to stand then the Welsh Not is replaced with the Welsh Can’t. Instead of being punished for speaking Welsh it is just made more and more invonvenient.
To protect the language against death by a thousand cuts like this it needs guardians more vigilant than Labour’s Chris Bryant.
But to return to his question – is this the biggest issue in Wales at the moment? Perhaps not.
Are we to take it then that Mr Bryant spends his Parliamentary time dealing with matters more weighty than this?
Well, he is very busy voting that’s for sure and he’s only disagreed with the Government nine times in 1,007 votes thus far, giving us an altogether new definition of lobby fodder some might say.
But he’s full of bright ideas and came up with an Early Day Motion on a very important matter only a month ago.
His EDM read: “That this House commends the Registrar-General, Len Cook, on his recommendation to relax the rules governing the list of readings, songs or music that contain reference to a god or deity in civil wedding ceremonies; and looks forward to the Government bringing forward new guidelines as soon as possible.”
Now, of the availability of Welsh on licensing forms is a pressing issue, then I’m surprised that what you can and can’t sing at a civil wedding has not been the subject of a Panorama special.
Superb. Worth £1,000 – the usual cost of an EDM – of anyone’s money. Only this time it wasn’t anyone’s money it was the taxpayers’ wasn’t it?
But nice to know what a New Labour loyalist views as important in Wales. The language – not very, but what you can sing at a civil wedding – that’s important enough to waste taxpayers’ money and parliamentary resources on.
If I were Elfyn Llwyd, in the face of such mighty intellects, I would rather be jeered than cheered.

IN the aftermath of the London bombing London’s commuters continued with life as normal as they could.
Our stout allies in the war on terror – the US air force, was told to stay out of London, but hey, they’ve got a track record of hanging about on the fringes of things before getting stuck in haven’t they?
But quite a few people were wary of going back on the Tube, and in the wake of the atrocity they were less than keen to get on a bus either.
Cars are expensive and you get hit with the congestion charge and taxis are exorbitant.
So what did they do in their droves? Went out and bought bikes.
Cycle shops reported huge increases in sales in the days after the London bombing as those scared of going underground sought other ways of getting into work.
The cycle shops – unlike London’s hotels who profiteered their way through the bombing by shoving up room prices for one day only – sold bikes at massive discounts so they were not profiting from the atrocity.
But did no-one whisper in the ear of these new cyclists one little statistic.
Last year in the UK 134 cyclists were killed in accidents on the road. The toll of the London bombs stands at 55. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who is the biggest threat to you.
It’s not terrorist atrocities, it’s the driver behind you who’s taken his eye of the road.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Column, July 4 2005

Sorry I've been remiss.

Here's one from July, more to follow.

If there's anyone out there reading them that is.

I’M sorry I’ve been busy in the last week but can you tell me which day they found a cure for cancer?
And my attention must have strayed quite a bit, because apparently they also saw off heart disease.
Respiratory diseases became a thing of the past while I nipped to the shops and didn’t have my eye on the game.
Strokes were solved while I was having a nap.
Medical miracles every one and this can only explain why the British Medical Association’s illustrious membership turned their mighty collective brain to the subject of that other mass killer – cycle helmets.
Or rather, that is, the lack of cycle helmets.
Cyclists venturing out without the benefit of a large lump of expanded polystyrene was something up with which the BMA would not put.
I tell you, they must blooming well hate that Alexander Fleming chap, he had it easy didn’t he? Grew a bit of mould on a few melons, found it patched up cuts something marvellous and hey presto he’s got penicillin and he’s saved half the planet.
They’re running out of fixes like that one, hence they turn to cycle helmets. Whichever member of the Brains Trust it was that put this on the BMA agenda, I suspect he’ll be waiting a while before the Nobel Committee come a calling.
But why get so worked up at what seems a very sensible idea? Helmets are bound to make you safer as a cyclist aren’t they?
Well, this is where it gets bit complicated, but basically the answer is yes, but only some of the time.
And why should we get worked up about it in Wales, especially if we don’t go biking? I’ll get to that in a minute, stay with me.
A helmet only protects you from certain types of impact, and if your brain gets rattled about enough there’s nothing a helmet will do to protect you. Sadly some cyclists don’t realise that and they think a helmet makes them indestructible – it doesn’t as they and their next of kin find out.
Secondly, a helmet makes motorists think you’re indestructible and they drive even more recklessly around you.
Thirdly, and this is where the BMA should have been really paying attention instead of seeking to grab headlines. Where they have made cycle helmets compulsory, such as parts of Australia, people gave up cycling. And what happened then? The rate of heart disease went up.
Fewer people got on bikes, they got fatter, they got coronary heart disease and they died. All because an Australia politician thought it would be a great idea to make everyone wear helmets.
Which brings us back to where I started. In 2002 there were about 500,000 deaths in the UK. Of those deaths 39 per cent – 195,000 – were due to coronary heart disease.
And how many cyclists died on the roads that year? 130.
Now, even if every one of those deaths could have been prevented by the using of a helmet, and I’m prepared to bet that quite a few of those killed were actually wearing helmets, you have to wonder at the BMA’s sense of priorities.
Instead of focusing on the UK’s number 1 killer they decide to wade into something they clearly have not read the research on, and, after a particularly short and ill-informed debate, they decide they want cyclists to be compelled to wear helmets.
Because heart disease is a much tougher nut to crack. They’re going to have to get us to change our whole lifestyle. Instead of laws to compel cyclists to wear helmets I’d like to have seen the BMA try to ban chips. They’d need more than a good bedside manner to push that through.
Now, you might be tempted to trot out the well-worn cliché “Well, if it saves one life….etc, etc” Just don’t, we’ve already shown that for all the lives it saves, more will be lost because people won’t take up cycling and they’ll die of heart disease as a result.
Which brings me round to Wales. Why should we care here more than anyone else?
Because we’re trying, and succeeding, in cornering the activity holiday market in the UK.
As was revealed last week, for every £1 spent on promoting Wales as the great outdoors, tourists spend £25 in return, which is better than most of us do on the lottery every week.
So just as we win a hard-fought battle for visitors, the BMA starts putting them off cycling by telling them that if they do it without a helmet some policeman should nick them. And I’m sure the police are well pleased with the BMA for handing them that victimless crime to pursue in the masses of free time they have left over from tackling the binge drinkers who really are filling most hospitals’ A&E units.
Still, who am I to stand between the BMA and another headline? After all, it probably won’t be this generation of doctors who will pick up the pieces. It will be the next, whose wards will be full of even more cardiac patients whose presence could have been avoided if the BMA had listened to sense instead of its own prejudices.

GREAT concerts, great bands, wonderful cause and Sir Bob, eh, well, he’s a saint isn’t he?
Well, let’s leave aside the crushing irony of some of the world’s most fabulously wealthy rock stars telling us we should do something about world poverty.
Let’s skate over the fact that more than a few of them will have teams of accountants working for them to help them evade tax which goes, amongst other things, toward overseas aid.
And let’s turn a blind eye to the fact that amongst their number may be a fair few tax exiles whose convenient country of residence may not even pay overseas aid at all.
And let’s just imagine that the G8 leaders will give two hoots what was said at the Live8 concerts even though they know full well that if they cut us a tax break come election time we will troop to the polling booths like loyal little voters no matter how many starving Africans fill our TV screens.
So how do we make poverty history. Well trading fairly might be a start, and let’s take the example of sugar.
The EU grows masses of it, and it subsidises its farmers who grow it to the tune of €1.5billion a year.
It closes its sugar markets to third world imports and then dumps its excess production onto markets in the rest of the world, preventing developing countries from getting a decent price for their sugar.
So lets make poverty history, lets trade sugar fairly. To do so will mean some revision to the Common Agricultural Policy and as we’ve seen recently, that’s not going to happen overnight.
Making poverty history is the noblest of causes, but it is not a cause that is served well by a bunch of overpaid rock stars getting up on stage and saying it’s an easy thing to do.
That sort of trite reasoning invites the same sound-bite response from the G8 leaders and that is the last thing that those in poverty need.