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Word is my bond

Betsan Powys | 10:15 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

If politics is all about timing, then you wonder whether Plaid Cymru aren't questioning theirs this morning.

The pre-election fray may have been delayed by the need for the parties to work "to-ge-ther" for a Yes vote in the referendum - but now it's up and at 'em time.

Plaid are the latest to enter with their £500m Build for Wales infrastructure fund proposal, which, they say, would create up to 50,000 jobs over the next Assembly term, building roads, hospitals, schools and houses.

This is going to be the centrepiece of Plaid's offer on the economy for the Assembly election. Advisers have been round talking up the announcement as a keynote pledge for May, with the leader Ieuan Wyn Jones announcing it in a speech in Cardiff last night.

How would it work? Well, the Fund, a new independent entity would be set up by a Plaid Assembly Government. It would be responsible for raising the finance and procuring, managing and monitoring the building projects. The Fund, according to Plaid, could raise up to half a billion pounds from City banks.

The same City banks, incidentally, that Plaid Cymru blame for the crash and public sector cutbacks - but that's not the issue here.

The main problem is that around 24 hours before Mr Jones' speech, the Treasury categorically ruled out a near-identical scheme for Scotland, proposed by the SNP as part of the debate on the Scotland Bill. The proposal had originally emanated from a cross party committee in Holyrood chaired by Labour's Wendy Alexander. You can read more here and my colleague Brian Taylor's take on it here but here is the key quote from Treasury Minister David Gauke:

"As borrowing through bonds is likely to be more expensive than raising finance through UK gilts, these higher costs would be reflected in increased UK debt interest payments," he said.

"This would ultimately be a higher cost to the UK. In these uncertain times, we cannot afford the risk of extending the power to issue bonds."

So that's a no, then. And given much of politics is about timing, it's unfortunate to say the least.

In the briefing paper to accompany Mr Jones's speech, Plaid Cymru say "Discussions with the UK Treasury are underway to enable the establishment and operation of this entity (the Fund) to take place."

It would seem that those discussions are not likely to be fruitful.

Does David Gauke have a point about bonds? Well, Plaid themselves admit that they would have to pay annual interest to the bondholders. Where would the revenue come from for this?

After all, the much quoted Glas Cymru bond model for Welsh Water has a guaranteed income stream every year from water customers. Where's the income stream from schools and hospitals built using these bonds? Roads can be tolled, certainly, but unless it's the £1bn M4 relief road, it's hard to see that being a runner for improvements on the A470.

On hearing the Plaid Cymru proposal, one party leader remarked, "This is the one, isn't it?" What did they mean?

Their view was that there is always one proposal in a Plaid Cymru manifesto which leaves the party wide open to attack - and even ridicule - by the other parties. In 2010 it was their "maximum wage" policy as Elfyn Llwyd found out so painfully on Dragon's Eye during the campaign.

The other parties have all come up with their own take on the Fund for the Welsh electorate. It is, say the Conservatives, irrelevant because it's "a completely un-costed sweeping announcement".

Labour's take? "Questions are bound to be asked as to why Plaid Cymru have waited until they are about to leave Government before unveiling a plan to create thousands of jobs and bring in half a billion pounds. The assumption will be that it is completely unworkable and electioneering of the worst sort."

The "gobsmacked" Lib Dems send an image of a slice of pie in the sky.

The problem for Plaid is they've nailed their colours very firmly to the mast now on the Fund. This isn't kite flying a year out from an election, but number one on a list billed as "Headline proposals for the 2011 manifesto".

What do they do now? They will have to stick to their guns now, of course but it makes it far more tricky for them to "pledge" the £500m fund and their 50,000 jobs to the voters.

What they can do, mind you, is ask the Welsh electorate for a mandate to take their argument for a Fund to the Treasury. And when the Treasury say 'no', you can bet it'll be "London standing in Plaid's way".


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