Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Victory!


Within the last hour we have seen a landmark victory for justice in the House of Commons. On a Liberal Democrat motion the House of Commons voted by a majority of more than twenty to reject the Government's mean-minded response to the Gurkhas and instead to give - in the words of Nick Clegg - "the right for people who are willing to die for this country the right to live in this country". Given that the Government normally has a majority of more than sixty votes, this shows the strength of anger at the inadequate government response on this issue. Earlier in the day at Prime Minister's Questions, Gordon Brown argued that we couldn't afford justice for the Gurkhas. But when you think of some of the things that the Government spends our money on, this simply doesn't wash. It was great to be able to come out of the Houses of Parliament after the vote to celebrate with Gurkha campaigners who had gathered across the road. Now the Government needs to respond swiftly to the will of Parliament and make sure that these brave soldiers are given the dignity that they deserve.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Debt to make your eyes water

Today's Budget contained the usual barrage of figures, but one number really stood out. The Chancellor admitted that this year the Government will spend £175 billion more than it raises in taxes. It's hard to grasp what numbers like this actually mean. But this is a colossally large sum of money.

What it means in practice is two things:

- taxes will be higher for years to come; we've had some early indications - a top rate of 50% on the highest earners, a first slice at pension tax relief and a general increase in National Insurance Contributions; it's hard not to think that there's more to come, though with a General Election in the offing I don't suppose the Government or the official opposition will want to come clean on that;

- public spending will face a severe squeeze; Government's don't talk about 'cuts' any more, they talk about 'efficiency savings' - but the effect is the same; compared with the growth in spending in recent years everything will suddenly feel a lot tighter; class sizes will start to rise, NHS waiting times will start to go up, access to social services for elderly people in the local area will start to take even longer and so on; the Chancellor today took many billions off the planned spending levels in these areas, and you just can't do that without hitting services.

Apart from this, the Budget had the usual ragbag of measures, many of them reannounced. It is very hard to believe that in years to come this Budget will be remembered other than for some extraordinarily large numbers.

Friday, 17 April 2009

A barrage of options

After a year of discussions and evidence gathering, we have this week published the results of a joint inquiry by West of England and Welsh Lib Dem parliamentarians and councillors into tidal power from the Severn. You can find it here. At the start of the inquiry, our group had a wide range of views on the subject but we were all determined to come with an open mind. We wanted to harness the tidal power of the Severn but wanted to see where the evidence led us on which approach would get the best combination of maximising the renewable energy generated, minimising the environmental downside, getting best value for money and doing most for the local economy.

The more we looked at the 'big barrage' (which would run roughly from Cardiff to Weston), the less convinced we were. The Government now thinks it could be 2030 before this up and running, which is pretty hopeless when we need to cut CO2 emissions much more rapidly than that. The Government estimates that a big barrage would wipe out 80% of the 'inter-tidal habitat', and it's inconceivable that this could be replaced anywhere else. Partly as a result of this, any big barrage would be bound to be bogged down in court action for many years and perhaps further delayed as a result. A big Cardiff-Weston barrage would also blight the Port of Bristol which is not only bad news for the local economy but means freight coming to the UK going to ports which are much further from centres of population and therefore generating many more lorry miles. And a big barrage probably generates two huge power surges a day (generating on the ebb tide only) which can be hard to make full use of, especially if they are not at times of peak demand.

All in all, we felt that relying simply on a big barrage was not the answer. In the end we reckoned the best package would be likely to be:

- a smaller barrage, such as at the 'Shoots' (ie near the Second Severn Crossing) especially if this could be used as the route for a new high-speed rail link between South Wales, Bristol and London;

- to pilot 'lagoons' around the estuary, which would spread the period over which power was generated through the day;

- to fund proper research into 'tidal reef' technology which holds out real hope of getting a better balance between power generation and environmental impact, but is still in its early stages of development;

Any use of the Severn for power generation will involve trade-offs, but we believe that this combination offers the best chance of serious renewable energy in a realistic timescale, whilst producing much less environmental impact than a single huge barrage.