Election 2016 – Leader Q&A

Over the course of last week, BBC Wales ran a series of five half-hour ”Ask The Leader’ television programmes, broadcast from around Wales. Each featured the leader of a political party, who was questioned by the members of a small audience.

Monday’s programme featured Andrew R.T. Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, UKIP’s Nathan Gill was in the spotlight on Tuesday, Kirsty Williams of the Liberal Democrats took to the stage on Wednesday, followed by Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood on Thursday and finally Carwyn Jones, the leader of Welsh Labour, on Friday.

This blog post mainly discusses the points I singled out as being noteworthy from a climate and/or transport perspective.

Andrew R. T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives)

Andrew R.T. Davies was asked whether he supported carbon taxes, but didn’t give a straight answer either way. He dodged the question by saying he favoured a mix of low-cost energy sources, which to me sounded like “cut subsidies for renewable electricity generation and keep burning fossil fuels”.

Another question accused Labour of concentrating mostly on the Cardiff area and ignoring the rest of Wales, asking whether the Conservatives would be any different. I may not have been paying full attention at the time, but the only specific project mentioned was making the A40 (in Pembrokeshire, presumably) into a dual carriageway. More capacity for more polluting cars, and speeding up journeys for motorists at the expense of the rail network; not my idea of a good policy.

A few days later, the Welsh Conservatives announced that they intend to try and introduce 80mph speed limits on the M4 and A55, again speeding up journeys for motorists at the expense of the rail network. When will the counter-productive transport policies stop?

Nathan Gill (United Kingdom Independence Party (Wales))

Nathan Gill confirmed my fears that UKIP are a reckless party of environmental suicide. I still accuse both Labour and the Conservatives of similar, but they’re not quite as bad as UKIP.

Happily, one audience member had the courage to dub UKIP’s plan to ignore climate change as their craziest policy yet. Against a statement that almost all scientists agree that current climate change is man-made, Mr Gill tried to defend his position by suggesting that most of those scientists are not climate scientists, and that we should look it up on the internet. So I did, and most climate scientists also seem to agree that we are causing climate change. Even in the unlikely case that humanity is not the cause, consider the other part of Nathan Gill’s argument. He didn’t deny that the climate was changing, but suggested that stopping it was akin to trying to stop the tide coming in. The tide we know about, and can generally allow for. On the contrary, we have no idea what the world will be like if the 2 degree climate threshold is passed. Natural climate fluctuations in the distant past are suspected to have caused mass extinctions, so it is not unreasonable to fear a mass extinction might occur should the current changes to our climate continue. Thus, if we accept Nathan Gill’s stance on climate change we must accept that we are doomed. Thankfully, we don’t have to vote for his party.

On transport, Nathan Gill stated that UKIP preferred the ‘Blue Route’ M4 relief road at £400m to the £1bn second motorway (Labour’s ‘Black Route’). Sadly, this saving on the M4 wasn’t to fund public transport; instead he proposed spending the rest of that £1bn on the A55 and A470, suggesting it was currently easier to drive via England (using motorways) than use the A470.

Nathan also suggested he would break EU law if elected, by making the Welsh government use only Welsh steel. If he did this, would Wales be fined by the EU? Also, a survey has apparently shown that immigration is the second most important issue for voters in the forthcoming election, despite the fact that is not a devolved matter. These are issues for the EU referendum in June; clearly the role of the Welsh Assembly hasn’t been made nearly clear enough to the people of Wales.

Kirsty Williams (Welsh Liberal Democrats)

One of the questions Kirsty Williams was asked was similar to one of those put to Andrew R.T. Davies earlier in the week; regarding paying more attention to / spending more money on, more of Wales than just the Cardiff area. Her response was in stark contrast to the Welsh Conservative leader’s; rather than pledging future road investment she focused on other issues such as education. For example, she stated that her party had in the past achieved a better spread of schools funding across Wales, presumably as a condition of the Liberal Democrats supporting Labour’s budget.

The same focus on other areas was evident when the subject of the M4 came up. Like UKIP, the Lib Dems would scrap the hugely destructive £1bn ‘Black Route’, but would spend the money saved on creating more ‘affordable’ housing. She didn’t say where the houses would be built, but provided they are put somewhere with strong public transport links the policy articulated by Kirsty is by far the most sensible position of all the leaders questioned so far in the BBC’s series. Such a shame then that her party is still being attacked over some of the Tory policies they were unable to block in coalition, particularly university tuition fees. The British public needs to get over this; the tuition fees went up because they voted the Tories in, not because of the Lib Dems.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru)

Some of the questions on the fourth evening were quite different to those put to the other four leaders over the week. Nobody else was asked about Bovine TB and the controversial (and apparently futile) measures to eradicate it. Neither did the issue of nuclear power receive as much attention in the other programmes, making this episode the nearest the series came to discussing measures to tackle climate change. Plaid Cymru, it was revealed, are opposed to ‘fracking’, would not open new open-cast coal mines and don’t want to see a new nuclear power station anywhere other than on Anglesey, where they are looking to safeguard jobs following the shutdown of the current plant.

Leanne seemed keen to avoid a coalition with another party following the election, but only ruled out the Conservatives and UKIP as potential coalition partners.

Carwyn Jones (Welsh Labour Party)

The incumbent First Minster was at least the third leader to be asked about the Cardiff-focus of the current Welsh Government. Specifically, in this case (with the programme being broadcast from Llangollen), the question was why North Wales sometimes feels more remote Cardiff Bay than Westminster. Much like the Conservative’s on Monday, the Welsh Labour leader turned to roads in his attempt to address this. Apparently, Labour’s preferred hugely destructive M4 project being funded via borrowing would leave the current roads budget untouched, allowing major work on the A55 as well including a new bridge across the Menai Strait.

While Labour, along with the Tories, seem to be planning the most destructive roads, the Labour leader did at least have something to say about public transport as well. Carwyn Jones announced a ‘North Wales Metro’, to be paid for via a ‘City Deal’, and claimed improvements would come from devolving rail and bus services. Exactly what they would do with the powers if/when they get them devolved was not elaborated on though.

The Missing Party?

There the BBC’s series ended, there was no sixth programme to feature Alice Hooker-Stroud, leader of the Wales Green Party. The recently-started ‘BBC Wales Today’ election tour features a large cut-out figures of the five leaders discussed above in the tent, but Alice Hooker-Stroud is not pictured. Neither UKIP nor the Greens have any seats in the Welsh Assembly, so why does UKIP feature in the BBC’s coverage as much as the four parties who do have seats?

I suppose the BBC do occasionally acknowledge the existence of the Greens. ‘Wales Today’ covered the launch of the Green’s manifesto on Tuesday, just before the UKIP leader’s programme. The BBC will also be including all six main parties in a forthcoming televised debate, but I don’t believe the amount of coverage they are getting in comparison to UKIP is at all fair.

Reckless by name…

…reckless by nature.

Open-top bus in UKIP yellow and purple colours
The nearest UKIP will ever get to a sustainable transport policy? Creative Commons photograph of UKIP bus by Ian Roberts
Today, UKIP is due to publish their manifesto for the Welsh Assembly election in May. With the election just a few weeks away, right now the party are probably the biggest threat in Britain to the well-being of future generations, and of wildlife. Although they won just one seat at last year’s general election, this was with the deeply flawed ‘First Past The Post’ voting system. Conversely, there is a proportional element to the assembly election, if this is made clear to the electorate then there’s a real chance of UKIP having quite a number of assembly members following the election.

That, to me, is a frightening prospect.

Of course, I am writing this before their new manifesto is published, so cannot know their current policy in full. But I have two documents produced for the Westminster election, their national manifesto and the one produced by UKIP’s Welsh arm.

The latter document doesn’t mention public transport at all, at least not in the section on transport policy (half of which relates to opposing tolls on roads). The only mention comes under the heading ‘economy’ where they say they will cancel HS2.

In fairness, UKIP do seem to have a few sensible policies. Is cancelling HS2 one of them? If HS2’s current planned route is the only option on the table then I have to agree with UKIP, but we probably do need new lines to provide greater rail capacity.

Heathrow airport
The Runway To Runaway Climate Change. Creative commons photograph of Heathrow airport by ‘Panhard’
It is their stance on the environment that is scary. The anti-HS2 policy heads the transport section of the national party’s document, but this followed by an alarming view on London airports: they are in favour of expansion. They claim there is currently a lack of airport capacity in the south-east and propose re-opening a former airport to increase overall airport capacity. Clearly, they don’t care that allowing the aviation sector to emit even more greenhouse gas makes the task of keeping warming under 2 degrees much harder, perhaps even impossible. Not that they recognise the need to do that, the national manifesto also has a section entitled “Housing And The Environment”, which is mostly about housing and doesn’t mention climate change at all. Elsewhere in the document, they propose abolishing the Department for Energy and Climate Change and repealing the Climate Change Act.

But that was last year. Have UKIP cleaned up their act? Obviously, I haven’t seen their new manifesto yet, but unfortunately it doesn’t look good. Apparently:

On Wednesday March 2nd, the Climate Change Commission for Wales hosted their last meeting in its current form. All Welsh political parties were invited to sign a commitment to the Paris Agreement to demonstrate Wales’s commitment to tackling Climate Change. The Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats the Conservatives and the Green Party all signed the pledge, while UKIP declined to sign.

The inspiration for this post, and its title, comes from the shockingly irresponsible stance UKIP has taken here. UKIP’s Mark Reckless, acting as director of policy development for UKIP’s assembly campaign “responded to the request to sign the pledge from the Climate Change Commission for Wales with the one word email – “NO”“. Now do you see why I am frightened by the prospect of UKIP winning many seats in May?

Mark Reckless of UKIP
Reckless By Name And Nature: the man who said NO to climate change action pledge. Image by ‘Mobilelinkchecker’ released under a creative commons license
I’d be surprised if Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives can convince me that they are taking their pledge seriously, but UKIP it seems aren’t even pretending to be doing enough to cut emissions.

The full Climate Change Commission for Wales story reporting the reckless decision Mr Reckless has made can be found here.

Railcards For All?

Class 150 train at Fishguard & Goodwick station, with passengers leaving
Who had to pay full fare? Passengers leave a train at Fishguard & Goodwick
What are railcards for? One school of thought is that they are a public-service obligation, designed to help the parts of the population who are likely to be financially less well-off. An alternative view is that Railcards, rather than existing only to help those less able to afford travel, are there to increase revenue.

The range of national railcard products inherited from British Rail lends some credence to the former. They are available only to certain sectors of the population:

  • young people (and mature students) (16-25 railcard)
  • disabled persons
  • senior citizens

There is also a railcard for members of the armed forces. I do not know if the armed forces are well paid, so the ‘financially less well-off’ idea may or may not apply there. There is however one ex-BR national railcard which people outside these groups can purchase, the ‘Family & Friends Railcard’. This requires a group including at least one child, whether this makes such groups any less ‘well-off’ than a family group including students who are too old to be classed as children is an interesting question.

If railcards increase revenue, then that is achieved by encouraging more rail journeys than would be the case without railcards. This perspective is supported by the fact that the only national railcard introduced since privatisation is available to all age groups, regardless of profession and without the need to travel with children. The ‘Two Together Railcard’ does exactly what it says on the card, namely that a pair of named users must travel together to get the discount. Of course, running one car costs much the same regardless of the number of travellers, but the cost rail travel increases dramatically if everyone has to pay full fare; so you can see why the Two Together Railcard could help the trains win business. Adults travelling alone however currently cannot benefit from a national railcard, how many more could be persuaded to travel if there was a railcard product for one person, like the 16-25 railcard but available to everyone?

There are a few arguments against a ‘universal railcard’. The first is that, while it would probably increase rail travel, it could result in an overall reduction in revenue. Another is that you might as well just have lower fares to begin with, not bothering with railcards, and of course there’s the ‘railcards are only there to help the less well-off afford to travel’ argument.

Class 442 trains at Gatwick Airport railway station
Born of NSE: the class 442 ‘Wessex Electrics’, like the ‘Network Railcard’, were introduced by Network South East
All of these are challenged by the confusingly named ‘Network Railcard’. These days, the term ‘Network Railcard’ may lead people to believe it is valid on the whole rail network, but in this case the word ‘Network’ refers to British Rail’s ‘Network SouthEast’ (NSE) area. Thus, the ‘Network Railcard’ railcard is restricted to a certain area, like the Pembrokeshire railcard and similar local railcards, but the ‘Network Railcard’ is more significant since NSE covered a large area. At £30, the ‘Network Railcard’ costs the same as most national railcards, but can be bought by anybody and your discount can extend to a small group you are travelling with. NSE, unlike Regional Railways, required little if any subsidy, and most of the privatised train operating companies running in the ‘Network Railcard’ area now pay a premium to the government. That suggests that, if allowing everyone to purchase a railcard reduces revenue, it doesn’t do so by much.

A ‘railcard for anyone’ might even increase revenue, indeed Railfuture have claimed that a 2003 study they commissioned shows that it would. Although anyone would be able to get 1/3 off fares, the railcard itself would not be free. Therefore, sales of the railcard are therefore producing revenue, which shows the argument that this is no different to cutting all fares by a third to be false. Having spent money on the railcard, passengers may also be inclined to travel more by rail to maximise the value-for-money they receive through the purchase of their railcard. It might even improve the perceived value-for-money of the train ticket itself, especially if the passenger is booking online where the non-discounted full fare would be shown to them.

And providing value-for-money is important. According to transport focus’ Autumn 2015 survey rail passenger satisfaction survey, less than half (48%) of passengers were satisfied with the value-for-money of their journey. Under ‘satisfaction on the train’, the only areas which performed worse were availability of staff (Department for Transport take note, stop trying to remove guards), dealing with delays and toilet facilities.

The current range of national railcard products (senior, 16-25, disabled, family-&-friends, two-together and HM Forces) all seem to have different restrictions, eg. for travel during peak times. I would suggest replacing them all (except the disabled persons card, which I would leave unchanged) with a smaller range of products, which would be available to all age groups but with more variations in pricing:

  • Anytime Railcard a railcard for one person with few, if any, peak restrictions (similar to the current senior railcard).
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £100
    • Concession price: £60
  • Leisure Railcard a railcard for one person subject to a minimum fare if used between 06:00 and 09:30 on weekdays (similar to the current 16-25 railcard)
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £80
    • Concession price: £30
  • Group RailcardSimilar to the Anytime railcard, but (like the ‘Family & Friends’ and ‘Network’ railcards) would allow passengers travelling with the holder to receive a discount too.
    Possible pricing:

    • Base price: £120
    • Concession price: £75

The suggested prices are just for illustration. Were this to be implemented, I would hope some careful consideration of the optimum price would be carried out. ‘Concessions’ would be persons who belong to the age groups covered by the 16-25 and senior railcards, as well as those who are eligible for the ‘Forces Railcard’ and the ‘Disabled Railcard’ although the latter is likely to be a better option for most eligible passengers than the new products proposed above. I’m not entirely sure the Group Railcard is really necessary, since there is a separate ‘Group Save’ scheme which provides similar discounts to groups of 3 or 4 people without them requiring a railcard, but there may be a case for both (or for replacing ‘Group Save’ with the new ‘Group Railcard’). As for the maximum size of the group, I would suggest one card would allow up to 6 people, of which up to 4 may be adults (1 adult and 5 children would also be permitted) to receive the railcard discount. The ‘Group Railcard’ would be valid regardless of whether any children are present in the group and would remain valid for the holder even if the he or she is travelling alone.

South west trains services in London Waterloo station
Britain’s Busiest Station: London Waterloo (caught at a quiet moment by the looks of it)
If Railfuture are correct that allowing anyone to buy a railcard would increase rail industry revenue, then I can see only one reason which might be preventing the introduction of such a scheme: capacity. Quite simply, if the railcard were available, would the trains be able to cope with the increase in rider ship? Then again, the busiest part of the network already has an area railcard available to all.

Transport Focus survey
Railfuture study