Democratic deficits in Carmarthenshire (updated)Posted: July 22, 2011
Rumblings of discontent about the standard of democracy within Carmarthenshire County Council have become louder in recent months, or at least I have noticed them more. Two local government issues are particularly contentious for us in the north-east of the county: the planned closure of Llandovery’s comprehensive school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, and an application from Sainsbury’s to build a superstore on the outskirts of Llandeilo.
Llandovery: the school
In the case of the comprehensive school, disappearance of state secondary education from Llandovery will mean long journeys to school, at least 13 miles for pupils living in Llandovery and over 20 miles for some in the far north and east of the county, on narrow, twisty roads, with added detours to pick up children living away from the principal route. The council does have to grapple with the costly problem of surplus places in the Llandovery school – on which large sums of money have been spent in recent years, to provide a sixth form centre and to improve the playing field – and the governors were, I understand, prepared to consider a new school to serve both Llandeilo and Llandovery, on a site in or near Llangadog, which is equidistant between the two towns. Instead, more than 300 school students will have to travel through the county to a new campus to be constructed on the floodplain of the river Tywi. The journey includes the narrow, congested main street of Llandeilo, for which no feasible alternative route exists, unless a bypass is constructed.
Llandeilo: the superstore
Sainsbury’s, in its transport impact assessment for the proposed Llandeilo superstore, refers to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans to start construction of a town bypass for the A483 in 2014, the year before the new school would be completed. However we don’t know if the money will be there, and even if it is, by no means everyone in Llandeilo wants a bypass. Sainsbury’s, thinking ahead, knows that a superstore and filling station off the roundabout east of Llandeilo, at the junction of the A40 and a new A483 bypass, would entice most road users to stop there, and not to bother going into the town itself. (The fact that the county council levies charges for parking in the town centre is a further disincentive.) Hello Sainsbury’s, goodbye Llandeilo.
It is quite possible that traffic congestion and pollution resulting from the siting of a superstore outside Llandeilo would, in the end, force the Welsh Assembly to fund a bypass. Sainsbury’s does not envisage any sort of traffic problem, according to its planning application, but the store would have 293 parking spaces for cars, deliveries by heavy lorries, and home deliveries by van. The store itself, with a gross area of 3,936 square metres, and 2,590 square metres of sales area, would be nearly five times larger than the Co-operative store which currently serves the town, and three times bigger than the Co-operative supermarket in Llandovery. Oh yes, there would also be 12 filling points in a Sainsbury’s petrol station, a short stroll (traffic permitting) across the roundabout from a privately owned filling station.
Sainsbury’s does have attractions for many people in Llandeilo. In fact the community is divided. Shoppers on tight budgets are more likely than the town’s current traders, and the residents who fear that the hard-surfacing of nearly seven acres of low-lying land will worsen flooding, to be in favour of the store. Residents have many and diverging views, and want Carmarthenshire County Council to listen to them. The council has not considered Sainsbury’s application yet; people can send their comments to H C Davies at the council’s planning department in Crescent Road, Llandeilo, until at least August 15th, or so I understand.
It’s worth asking how much notice the council is likely to take. The issue of the school in Llandovery does not set a happy precedent. The formal ‘consultation’ on school reorganisation ended in June and in less than three weeks, the closure of Pantycelyn school in Llandovery was approved by the council’s Executive Board.
I quote from the agenda before the Executive Board on July 4th 2011:
“34. The significant majority of the responses [to the consultation] came from Llandovery and the surrounding area. Almost all of these expressed concern over the selection of the recommended site for the new school.
35. This may have been influenced by an orchestrated campaign of opposition to the Council’s proposals by groups from the Llandovery area. Both the Governing Body of Ysgol Pantycelyn and the Save Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group have been proactively encouraging people to register opposition to the Council’s proposals. Included in the Appendix to the Consultation Report are copies of letters written by the Chair of Governors at Ysgol Pantycelyn urging people to submit formal objections and a copy of an advertisement taken by the Save Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group published in a community magazine circulating in the area, encouraging similar action.
36. Whilst these groups are free to promote their opinions of the County Council’s proposals it is of concern that the documentation circulated by them contains inaccuracies and offers misleading information to the public. Given the importance of this consultation exercise and its subject matter it is imperative that members of the public, in particular parents, have an objective understanding of the Council’s proposals and it is, therefore, appropriate that the misleading information in circulation is corrected. This is particularly important in that it appears from the written submissions received that a number of respondents have been guided by this misleading documentation.”
So the many objections from the Llandovery area were dismissed as misguided or just plain wrong.
The Executive Board
Who are the councillors who sit on the Executive Board? I wondered. They are chosen by the Leader since 1999, the respected Independent councillor Meryl Gravell OBE, from the complement of 73, and there are just nine: six Independent and three Labour, giving a composition of 66.6% Independent and 33.3% Labour. This does not accord with the political composition of the council itself, which is 41% Plaid Cymru, 38% Independent and 15% Labour, with a Liberal, two People First and one unattached councillor making up the total. The Independents and the Liberal work as a group with Labour to control decisions, with the result that the largest group of councillors, those belonging to Plaid Cymru, are sidelined.
The geographical distribution of the asymmetrical Executive Board is even more skewed. All nine members are from the south of the county, the most northerly member being the Independent councillor for Abergwili. No one on the Executive Board represents Llandeilo, Llandovery, or the rural north and east of the county.
So if it feels as if no one on the council is listening to the people who live in and around Llandeilo and Llandovery, it’s probably at least partly because their elected representatives are not among the Chosen Few. They have not been selected by the Leader to sit on the powerful Executive Board.