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Author: gweinyddwr

Remembering Mick Bates

I was sad to read yesterday that Mick Bates, a former member of the Senedd (back when it was an Assembly) had died.

I knew Mick as a tireless and brave campaigner for renewables during a time when many politicians refused to participate in the debate. It seems crazy now, in the world of climate and nature emergencies, but there was a time in Wales – and in mid-Wales in particular – that renewable energy was something of a pariah topic. Mick was someone who was unafraid to put his head above the parapet, and was a key driver of the main advocacy group in the Senedd at the time – NASEG (National Assembly Sustainable Energy Group).

As someone who was relatively early in their career, I really appreciated the NASEG meetings as an opportunity to travel down from Machynlleth to network with colleagues in Cardiff, as well as to stay with my brother and enjoy a night out. Pretty much all the main policy wonks and practitioners from the sector were at those events, and I remember them fondly. It’s how I got to meet people from organisations as diverse as Dulas, Awel Aman Tawe and Arup.

Mick was a brilliant and inspirational Chair. He played an important role in the renewable energy sector in Wales. I will miss him.

May 22/ Infrastructure and well-being in Wales

Infrastructure is inextricably linked to well-being. Good infrastructure, well-designed and well-located, developed according to sound principles and in collaboration with the end-users, will likely produce outstanding results for a long period of time. The converse is also true.

The new commentary from the Wales Centre for Public Policy (WCPP) – “Infrastructure and long-term wellbeing” – highlights the complexities of integrating well-being into infrastructure decision-making (TL:DR; what works in one place won’t necessarily work in another, but the right principles applied everywhere will produce results that likely meet expectations).

The report aligns strongly with my personal perspectives on the design of future infrastructure. Yes, infrastructure must align with the needs of current users. But at least as important is the ability of infrastructure to be adapted as those needs develop. Sometimes our requirements will develop in shocking or unexpected ways. We don’t have to reach too far back in our memory to understand viscerally how society can change radically, in just a few short weeks.

Sadly we are unlikely to have to wait too long until future changes also start to impact our society and our infrastructure, and also in radical ways. Wales is going to face increased levels of flooding, coastal erosion, drought and wildfires. Our creativity and imagination will be tested as we seek to procure the infrastructure of the 21st century, still with a limited understanding of the future impacts of an increasingly unstable and ferocious climate. 

The long-lived nature of infrastructure investments and developments increases the need for, and value of, getting things right at the outset. Outcomes, both good and bad, can be locked in for many decades. 

In this aspect, the WCPP paper is spot-on. I agree that traditional ‘cost-benefit analysis’ has generally favoured approaches that externalise costs, to the detriment of nature, and to the poorest in society who are least able to ‘buy’ their way out of adverse circumstances. However I would go still further. For example, the UK Treasury Green Book approach to public financing of large infrastructure projects does not currently allow for many of the hard-to-calculate (but very large) potential benefits, way in the future, to be calculated.

As an illustration; if a tidal lagoon were developed that could deliver renewable electricity, whilst at the same time offering protection to a vulnerable coastline against erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels, would current valuation methods enable us to calculate the putative benefits for tens of thousands of future householders who then might not suffer the psychological anguish of being flooded? I think not; and yet, those are precisely the sorts of discussions that might offer the best overall value to society.

My personal opinion is that the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon was a public amenity and a pilot coastal protection project foremost, with the renewable electricity generation as a side benefit. But how to make that argument with current siloed funding streams? From the perspective of a project developer, the path they took was entirely rational – and it nearly succeeded.

With the tools currently at our disposal we are unable to calculate, or even estimate, the myriad different potential outcomes that arise from any given piece of infrastructure. But the WCPP is making a useful contribution to the conversation by emphasising that well-being is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but an integral part of Welsh public policy.

Many parts of the WCPP report align with my personal thinking about how the next National Infrastructure Commission for Wales should operate. Given that construction of grey infrastructure creates a large environmental impact, the most important question should be whether we need it in the first place, followed by other considerations, such as ‘could policy changes achieve a similar result’, or ‘can green or blue infrastructure mitigate the need for grey’? My view on the ‘black route’ of the proposed M4 extension is that these wider considerations were ignored by the previous Welsh Government, and only implicitly embraced when Mark Drakeford became First Minister.

I am hugely encouraged by the Welsh Government’s recent declaration of both a nature and climate emergency, and by the way that Future Generations has started to be integrated into infrastructure planning in Wales. In twenty-plus years of devolution, I have never been more inspired by radical talk emanating from Cathays Park. I should really say ‘radical-sounding’. The only truly radical position these days is business as usual, which will guarantee us a future far less palatable than the past climate we have had the privilege of enjoying, and to a certain extent, squandering. 

Where we go next in terms of truly internalising well-being in all its facets is hard to say, but those conversations were once heard only on the fringes of academia and in third-sector meetings. I’m delighted to see that they are becoming mainstream. Our Future Generations have a right to expect no less.

Dr David Clubb is the Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales. This blog post represents his personal views, and does not represent the views of the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales.

Dec 21/ A worthy infrastructure strategy for Wales

If I tell you that It’s not often I’ve found myself excited by a piece of infrastructure policy, I’m sure I’ll be in good company. 

Hold on to your hats; the just-published Wales Infrastructure Investment Strategy (WIIS) is about to smash your concept of what infrastructure policy can mean to the environment, well-being and social justice.

What can I mean by that? Well, take this direct quote for example:

“Infrastructure investment programmes must embody the value of social justice and move to eliminate inequality in Wales.”

It’s true:, this strategy explicitly sets out Welsh Government’s intention to use a strategic approach to infrastructure investment to help tackle social inequality.

In fact, the themes of social justice, environment and place are embedded throughout the document. There is frequent reference to the foundational economy; to the ‘Town Centre First’ approach; and to green infrastructure and natural solutions. Sustainability runs through the whole thing like electrons in a wire.

The increasing focus on improving well-being outcomes from infrastructure isn’t ‘just’ a Wales thing. If you look through some other recent infrastructure strategies, such as the New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy, the preliminary stage on Canada’s Infrastructure Assessment, and the 2021 Australia Infrastructure Plan, you’ll see that well-being is becoming less a peripheral ‘bolt-on’ and more a core component and desirable outcome of infrastructure delivery. Indeed – not that we should be evaluating strategies with this sort of metric – Australia’s Plan contains the word ‘sustainability’ no fewer than 614 times.

The New Zealand draft infrastructure strategy clearly links infrastructure with well-being

But the WIIS goes a bit further; there is a very tight integration between the well-being goals, the nature and climate emergencies, and infrastructure, throughout the document. It appears to explicitly set out to break down the walls between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure, demonstrating that social and natural infrastructure are of equal importance to what might be perceived as ‘traditional’ forms of infrastructure such as roads or buildings.

This aligns with my personal ‘philosophy’ of infrastructure that prioritises happiness, health and long-term sustainability over more straightforward but less helpful indicators such as GDP. This is not to say that economic indicators are irrelevant; but to accept that the playing field has been highly skewed towards increasing outputs that are tangential to well-being, at least once a certain amount of wealth has been achieved at a country-level. 

In order to redress the balance – as required by our understanding of the near-unbearable pressures that our activities are causing to local and global ecosystems – we must therefore radically amend every policy, budgetary and social tool at our disposal. 

Readers of the WIIS will probably be pleased to see frequent mentions to the transport hierarchy and to Llwybr Newydd (the Wales Transport Strategy). The circular economy is also a significant beneficiary of focus, with support earmarked for repair and reuse-type projects. 

Other sectors receiving considerable attention are housing (particularly with regard to decarbonisation efforts), biodiversity and natural capital, and the revitalisation of town centres.

In the foreword to the WIIS, Rebecca Evans AS says:

“Instead of thinking first “what infrastructure should we invest in?” the question must be “what should investment in our infrastructure enable?”.

It’s exactly the right way to structure the discussion. Wales’ infrastructure needs to enable, empower, support and safeguard. In a complex world, replete with wicked problems, we need to create a framework that provides us with the principles and guidance to deliver long-term improvements across every facet of society. 

The Well-being of Future Generations Act is that framework; and this Infrastructure Strategy is a worthy complement to it.

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Some key Welsh policies referred to within WIIS:

Feb/21 What the Romans can teach us about the value of the Welsh language

The Roman Empire was pre-eminent in terms of trade, agriculture and international networks of information and trust.

Not until industrial times did the earth see a city as large as Rome, and as needing such huge quantities of food – and wine. How was it that the Roman empire was able to sustain a population of 1 million people in a city – a population that required nearly 250,000 tonnes of grain annually? And how could it sustain itself at that population for half a millennium?

In principle, transactional costs at each step of the way, say from the food producing regions of the Nile, through to the trading houses at Alexandria, and on to Rome, should have crippled this market, and Rome should never have become a pre-industrial metropolis.

And yet, in the face of informational uncertainty, and these transactional costs, the city survived – and indeed thrived – for hundreds of years. Not until the London of the 19th Century did a city become bigger.

It was estimated that the additional cost premium of moving grain from Spain to Rome, rather than from obtaining it close to Rome itself, was just 16%, which was a pretty remarkable achievement for the time.

Part of the reason for this success was the ability of the Roman state to eliminate transaction costs at certain parts of the supply chain, through (effectively) a salary, or the promise of gifts due to services rendered.

The benefit of transactional cost efficiency, however, comes at the price of moral hazard – in other words, a misalignment between the interests of the people who want the profits, and those who generate the profits. For example, people making bread in Rome had to pay for future deliveries of grain at an acceptable price, and they had to do that at risk – for what was to stop the farmer at the far end of the supply chain from reneging on their part of the agreement? One must have considerable confidence in the likelihood of generating a return on capital before it is going to be put to work in a far-off land.

The Romans solved this problem partly because they had an efficient and functioning legal system which could be used to verify the contracts. However a strong legal system – on its own – is insufficient for constraining agency costs. This formal legal system was underpinned by an informal ‘moral contract’ of behaviour which was embedded in the relationships between slave owners and freed men who mutually gained from the reputation of the other. 

Trust and reputation therefore acted as a way of constraining systemic agency costs in Roman times, just as it still does today – although it is transferred and imbued in very different ways.

Which brings me to the Welsh language.

The Welsh-speaking community is relatively small within the UK context, and extremely so within the international context. This means that the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept – the idea that any two people on the planet are, on average, six or fewer social connections from one another, shrinks to maybe two or three degrees of separation within the context of Welsh-speakers.

This creates a relatively higher level of social risk associated with acting in bad faith, or fraudulently, within the context of the Welsh language, than in the English language. 

In the same way as a trader within a small village lives – or not – by the quality of their service and their reputation – traders who embrace the Welsh language are making a commitment to the quality of their product or service within the ‘village’ of the Welsh language.

This reputational alignment brings benefits to organisations both small and large. Small companies benefit from provision of Welsh language services by demonstrating their understanding of, and commitment to, language issues, which could arguably be seen as a proxy for their commitment to Wales as a national entity. Large organisations who offer services in Welsh – whether based in Wales or not – benefit from the perception that they have invested sufficiently within the language to understand the value of it to the people of Wales, and further that they value it sufficiently to employ people to be able to deliver their services through the medium of Welsh.

In other words, using Welsh in the world of commerce reduces the risk to the purchaser that the supplier will provide sub-par products or services.

There’s another benefit – to the ‘resilience and prosperity’ parts of Wales – related to organisations domiciled in Wales, and paying local and national taxes, because companies trading through the medium of Welsh are overwhelmingly likely to be domiciled within Wales, and furthermore to be of insufficient scale to avoid paying their taxes here.

So by using Welsh as a preferred language of commerce – for those of us privileged to be able to do so – we are both reducing our risk as users of products or services, and increasing the likelihood that the profits retained from our purchase of said services will be taxed within Wales. For those of us who aren’t able or confident enough to use our Welsh, we can still benefit from the increased levels of trust in those companies that are providing their services through the medium of Welsh.

Do I personally buy all my products or services from companies with a Welsh-language service? No, and partly because that information isn’t readily available. Whilst the likes of Ffônlyfr from Menter Caerdydd are helpful local tools, what Wales needs is a location-based map, response for mobile devices, where you can search for your nearest cafe, pub, hairdresser or professional service that can deliver that service through Cymraeg. This is my challenge to Wales’ vibrant developer community! And I think that there’s a sound business model for such a product. For example, my own company, Afallen, would happily pay a monthly subscription for inclusion in such a directory.

I believe that the growing confidence and numbers of Welsh speakers will have a small but positive impact on our society and economy, and particularly for those organisations who can offer all their services through the medium of Welsh. Now – where’s that app for Welsh language businesses…I fancy a take-out coffee.

Dec 20/ Welsh Government’s approach to ‘digital’

Welsh Government’s approach to digital is being described through a series of blog posts.

I’m really encouraged by this approach to a new #digitalstrategy for Wales – and for public services in particular.

 I like the way that a blog is being used to describe each of the ‘missions’ which underpin the strategy, and I think that there are many positive aspects (and potential outcomes) from the missions. 

But….so far, there’s been a notable omission from any of the narrative for me – and that’s any explicit mention of #opensource.

Open source software (yes, and even hardware in some cases), underpins most of the world’s IT infrastructure and systems. It liberates, educates, and is a tool to lower barriers and costs for billions of existing and potential digital users globally.

In the context of Wales’ Future Generations legislation, it’s a slam-dunk for many of the goals, and more so in many cases than closed-source tools.

At the outset of a digital strategy development cycle, we have the incredible opportunity to embed a philosophical and practical commitment to using, supporting, developing and championing open source technologies. With the devolution of education, we also have the opportunity of developing this theme through formal education in schools, colleges and universities; and through informal routes such as Code Clubs.

I’ve previously written about the dangers to democracy from untrammelled use of ‘corporate surveillance’ platforms. The other side of that coin is the growth of the open source social media world – the ‘Fediverse’ – which points to a more responsible, respectful and kinder online world.

It’s not beyond imagination that Wales becomes a standard-bearer for open source solutions, playing a significant role in global contributions to software and hardware. The outcomes for us – and for the world – could be huge. Look what happened when Estonia developed a strong Governmental interest in digital and cybersecurity!

I look forward to seeing future blog posts from Welsh Government, and I hope that open source starts becoming a more visible component of future updates!

Nov 20/ What drives the IndyWales conversation?

As someone with a strong interest in politics and public affairs, I’ve been following the IndyWales discussion with interest for many years.

Nothing has the potential to change the nature of our politics, constitution, society and environment as much as becoming an independent nation, and whilst these discussions have taken place as long as my political awareness has been in existence, they have hitherto not been part of mainstream public discourse.

The meteoric rise of YesCymru membership which now numbers more than 13,000 (from just over 2,000 at the start of 2020) has changed the framework of public debate in Wales. According to some sources, paid-up members now number more than any political party in Wales except for Labour.

A picture of a tweet of YesCymru's membership reaching 12,000, with the comment that YesCymru is the second largest political force in Wales

I decided to take a look at mentions of YesCymru on Twitter, from the very first days (August 2014) until now. I was curious about what was driving the discussion. Taking mentions of YesCymru as a proxy for interest in the organisation as a whole (and therefore IndyWales more generally) and I wanted to test the theory that pronouncements made in Westminster have an impact on YesCymru interest.

The early years

The first graph shows the frequency of mention of YesCymru over the whole span, from August 2014 until the present day.

By recent standards, there was very little activity over those early years; the activity tended to be catalysed by events within Wales itself, such as marches for independence.

However more recently there are clearly defined peaks in activity which correlate more strongly with specific events in Westminster. For example, there was a flurry of activity on the day following the General Election in 2019 in which the Conservatives were returned with a significantly increased majority.

The next big peak occurred during a period in mid-April when it was revealed that England’s health service had superseded the Welsh Government’s provisional deal for PPE equipment, and that England’s Covid death figures had not included those occurring in care homes.

The big peak(s)

Most interesting for me has been the more recent direct correlation between events in Westminster, and mentions of YesCymru on Twitter.

The furore around Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight resulted in more than 3,000 mentions of YesCymru over three days. And the vote by MPs in Westminster not to extend free school meals for the poorest children in England caused many Twitter users to vent their anger, resulting in much more activity for YesCymru.

And most telling of all, the ‘big’ peak of more than 4,000 mentions came following the more generous furlough agreement made after Johnson’s decision to lock down England for a month, despite rejecting pleas by Wales and Scotland for more support in the weeks prior to the decision.

Analysis

As with many social media movements or campaigns, there was not much in the early years to report on.

Typically, early activity from any social media account consists of regular engagement to build up ‘brand’ awareness and forge relationships.

The science of social media demonstrates empirically that large social media accounts grow more quickly and have far greater interaction, so even in the absence of external factors, there would have been an increasing trend of mentions of YesCymru over time.

However, what we can see from the data is that external factors are playing a huge role in engagement, and that the factors which appear to be playing the biggest role are indeed those performed by UK Government – as highlighted by Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts.

I find it particularly interesting that even where decisions are taken in Westminster that do not directly affect the people of Wales – the decision not to provide free school meals to the poorest children in England as a prime example – this still results in a huge amount of increased discussion around IndyWales.

This appears to suggest that the institutions of Westminster are becoming increasingly scrutinised by the people of Wales for unfairness, not just to Wales, but to citizens in other parts of the UK.

It’s still very early days for discussions about independence in Wales, but it’s certain that analysing Twitter will continue to provide a rich seam of data for researchers examining politics and society here.

Sept 20/ The Fund (short story)

I took the arrival of a recent pension update letter as inspiration for a short story. Enjoy!

The year is 2020. It’s August, and lockdown is nearly over. Whilst this has been an extraordinary epoch in the life of Dave, some things are as mundane as ever.

The post drops on the floor, and the letterbox slaps shut. Outside, the clouds hover ominously. Autumn rides on the midday sun, lower in the sky than during the preceding months of gloriously too-hot heat.

The house is quiet; a rare spell when the children and wife are out of the house, and he’s able to boot up the computer to ‘hit the mainframe’. Dave gets up off the stool and heads to the door. 

Katie, Katie, Katie….here’s one for me. Fuck! He thinks; it’s that time of year.

Every summer, regular as clockwork, comes the pension statement. No money input to *that* pension since I left *that* job. It’s a sad reminder both of colleagues abandoned for better things, and of the total inadequacy of his pension provision.

Holy crap…this one’s a record loss. £3k in one year…that’s more than 10% of the total fund. What the *fuck* do these fund ‘managers’ (mirthless laugh) do for their money.

Summoning The Force, Dave crouches to his knee and leaps, punching a hole clean through the ceiling, through the bedroom, out of the roof and arcs high into the air. 2.339 seconds later he is smashing through the window of his fund manager’s office in London.

The Occupant is stunned for a moment, before recognising his client. 

“Ah – Mr. Clubb. How nice of you to drop in! Don’t worry about the window. We absorb those kinds of costs into our management fee”

He pushes the rolex self-consciously up his slender arm, as if to conceal it below his shirt cuffs. 

“Is it the £3k loss, or the annual management fee. Again.”

Clubb breathes in and out. “I guess retiring at 50 is out. Just hand over the keys to the safe and I’ll be out of your office.”

The Occupant blocks the path to the safe; rips off his shirt and trousers in a one-two, hands sything across his body. Revealing a skin-tight black lycra suit.

“You know the rules, Clubb. Hard way, or easy way.”

“Your rolex just popped its strap, buddy.” As The Occupant glances down, Dave glides forward, seemingly without touching the floor. One billionth of a nanosecond later, The Occupant disappears in a magnesium-white pillar of flame. 

“It’s Dr. Clubb to you” says Dave, smashing the safe open with the heel of his hand.

Inside lies a single scrap of paper, with IOU scrawled on it in large letters.

With a slurping noise, Dave melds into the floor. There is only the sound of blinds flapping in the wind. They beat a scattered rhythm. “Next year. Next year. Next year”.