New houses are not solid foundations for our economy

Houses without jobs — planning for yesterday, not tomorrow:

Construction jobs are a short-term fix not a long-term basis for a sound economy. Ask Spain.



Sharp cutbacks in care for the elderly

See West Wales News Review for how budget cuts in Carmarthenshire will chop services for elderly people.

Spend less on schools, more on the rural economy

This item is also published on West Wales News Review 

Carmarthenshire’s ‘21st Century Schools’ programme is, stripped to essentials, a plan to replace small local schools with large new ‘hub’ schools. The impetus comes from the falling numbers of school pupils. The decade April 2001 to March 2011 saw 25 closures, mainly in rural areas, and a net fall of 1,873 school places in the county.[1]  The axe is poised to continue falling on under-subscribed schools.

Caio Primary School is set to close to pupils in July 2012. By the spring term 2012 only four pupils were enrolled. The catchment area contained more children than this, but their parents opted to send them elsewhere. The explanations are politically sensitive. Your reporter has been told that the exodus is increased by parents moving in from England who reject Welsh-language education.

Originally, the decision to maintain Welsh-medium primary schools in the rural areas of Wales made sense because the rural farming communities spoke Welsh, our priceless link with Celtic civilisation. That is no longer the case in the rural tracts of Carmarthenshire with which your reporter is familiar. The last four decades of in-migration, largely from England, have changed for ever the linguistic map. Farmers retiring from the land and without a successor, and farmers who converted outbuildings into homes, have ensured a plentiful supply of desirable real estate for buyers from outside. Welsh speakers remain, of course, and some incomers enthusiastically support Welsh-medium education, but by and large their numbers are not sufficiently large to keep Welsh-medium rural schools alive.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s plans include the replacement of four surviving primaries with an area school in Cynwyl Gaeo ward, and another area school in Cwm Tywi East. The Cynwyl Gaeo school, expected to be in Llansawel, would replace Caio, Brechfa ,Talley, and the current Llansawel school. A fifth school in the cluster, Rhydcymerau, has already shut. The new school for Cwm Tywi East would replace Llangadog, Llansadwrn and Llanwrda.

Language is such a fundamental expression of identity that its decline is cultural impoverishment, but efforts to force its preservation through compulsion in education will fail unless more is done to strengthen Welsh-speaking communities, and that means a different form of planning system in which tightly defined employment zones are rejected in favour of permissions for small and medium-sized enterprises to start and grow within rural areas, so that there are many more opportunities for people of working age to find jobs locally, instead of having to move away, generally to places where English is supreme.

A major handicap of ‘21st Century Schools’ is its lack of flexibility for the future. Once an expensive new school has been built, and the redundant old schools have been sold, it will be hard for the education authority to adjust to changing needs in the future. The ‘Strategic Outline Programme’ published by Carmarthenshire in October 2010 makes the point, at the end of a section on ‘benefits, risks, dependencies and constraints’,[2] that “lack of capacity to model an uncertain and fast changing future” is one of the main risks.

The flip side of the costly ‘21st century schools’ programme may emerge to be an even more expensive ‘rural revitalisation’ programme, to spur the local food and fuel production that will be required as water and energy shortages  make imports scarcer and much dearer. There is a case for less money to be allocated to school building, and for freed-up funds to be spent in re-firing the rural economy.

Story of my election campaign part 4: The End and The Beginning

“I can’t vote Plaid, I’m not Welsh,” said one woman, who shut the door firmly, making it clear that she had nothing more to say on the subject. Hereby hangs a tale of identity. In the minds of some voters, Plaid Cymru is inextricably linked with an old-fashioned form of nationalism, and it can be a tough task to explain that the Party of Wales, the Party for Wales, is for everyone in Wales who believes in grass-roots action, investment in home-grown businesses and social enterprises, and respect for local opinion. It’s not just about autonomy, but a democratic autonomy in which people come before Big Government and Big Corporations.

It’s not a fairy tale, though. There are tensions, for example between people’s desire for cheap food and the long-term damage wrought by supermarkets on suppliers and on the environment, as they source the cheapest possible products and transport them over long distances. There are split opinions affecting virtually every important decision. Should Llandovery’s high school close? In north-east Carmarthenshire many parents say ‘No, the school is too important to us and our community’, but in County Hall the majority of councillors have said ‘Yes, close it, we want to build a smart new school, no matter that it will be miles away’.

The council’s plan, to my mind, is based on a belief that the future will be like the past, a future in which resources like oil, gas, food and water will be plentiful and not unduly expensive, a future in which people will be able to afford to run cars, commute long distances to school or work, and largely ignore issues of food and fuel supply. If you have this frame of reference, you are likely to take very different decisions from people who assess that, because resources are finite, we will have to become more self-sufficient, more resilient to outside shocks, more reliant on local services. From this perspective, continuing to close local services, and to lose local jobs, is misguided and short-sighted.

This is what Plaid is about, the long view. Culture is of course extremely important in this view, because linguistic and cultural heritage shapes our sense of who we are, but we also need to know where we are heading, and how we are going to manage the journey.

Most people I met were far from disinterested in local government. Only one elector said to me, as she waved at me to go away, “I’m just not interested”. At the gates of Llandovery’s primary school, parents were vocal about the importance of keeping the high school open. Schools are crucial to communities, and we need rural communities to flourish. Our future food, and work for local people, will come from these communities.


Thursday May 3

The polling stations in the country were very quiet. “I’ve never known the turnout to be so low by this time of day,” was one comment. In town, they said that the turnout was typical. That means there is a chance of maybe half the electors voting, at the last opportunity for five years to influence local policies. It’s not really a ringing endorsement for any winning candidates if half the electorate refuses to vote.

Friday May 4

Not an auspicious start. Strange smell outside the back door, investigation revealed sewage bubbling up through a drain grating. No time to deal with it, off to Llanelli for the count. I hadn’t reckoned on the overflowing car park, but there was only one entry point to the hall so there was quite a queue and a delay before the start. Lots of red rosettes for Labour, candidates and supporters looking cheerful after a night of wins across the country, a few Conservatives with muted expectations. As for Plaid, the good news of being (again) the largest single party on the council was counteracted by the probability that Labour working with the Independent Bloc would (again) exert total control and thus few policies will be likely to change.

The result in Llandovery came late in the morning. The incumbent councillor, Ivor Jackson (Independent), who was unopposed last time in 2008, was a clear winner with 518 votes. The Conservative, Andrew Morgan, received 208, I got 167 and Gill Wright, Independent had 164. The turnout was, I think, 49%, as there are 2,140 electors in the ward.

Negatives: The fact that Prince Charles has a home just outside Llandovery, and does a lot for the town, means that there are voters who are at present reluctant to support Plaid’s new leader, Leanne Wood, because she is more republican than monarchist. Leanne (for whom I voted) has only been in the job for a few weeks, and so electors have not yet had the chance to get to know her, or her innovative and sensible policies.

Another negative is the fact that I am more of a back-room labourer than a born politician! An ideal candidate for Llandovery would live in the town and have a long history of involvement in all sorts of local organisations. I live outside the ward and belong to organisations but they are not particularly local.

Positives: If I had not stood, there would have been no Plaid candidate between 2004 and at least 2017 – too long. Elections are good for democracy. In the past people died as they battled for the right to vote, a right that too many of us now throw away. There is now the opportunity to build a Plaid branch from scratch. So there are positives to draw from defeat.

Next step: learn to speak Welsh properly! My Welsh is terrible. No excuses now, I have the time.

Another positive, husband Patrick has rodded the drains, they are flowing freely and the awful whiff has evaporated.

Close the local school and chop the school transport service!

Free transport to and from school for students aged 16 and over is to be axed in Carmarthenshire from September 2013. That is, unless a new administration reconsiders the decision.

That’s not all. Pupils aged under 8 who live within two miles of their school, and pupils over 8 living within three miles of school, will no longer be able to travel as fare-paying passengers on registered school bus services.

The end of free transport for students aged 16 and over will save the county council £65,000 in 2013-14 and £412,000 in 2014-15, according to the budget figures. The removal of fare-paying seats on school buses will apparently save £200,000 in 2013-14.

If you live in the middle of Carmarthen, Llanelli, or Ammanford, these cuts may not seem too drastic, but in the rural north of the county, they are extremely serious. The county council still wants to press ahead with the closure of Llandovery’s high school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, and impose long journeys to Ffairfach on pupils from the town and the surrounding, very rural, catchment area. Once those pupils reach 16, they will have to pay for the dubious privilege of spending two or three hours a day on buses. What an incentive to remain in education!

The ending of paid-for travel on school buses for young pupils who have to travel up to two miles, and for over-8s travelling up to three miles, would also bring new problems. How many parents these days have the time to walk with their children up to six miles on a return trip every morning, and another six miles in the afternoon? What happens if they do not have a car? If they have a child under 8 who can ride the bus and one over 8 who cannot? The rural areas do not have pavements, so children would be walking in the road. Over a century ago, before the motor age, this might have been safe, but today roads are for fast traffic, not for pedestrians. If parents decide that their only option is to drive their children to school, they will increase the demand for motor fuel and increase carbon emissions, when we know that fossil fuels are finite and that the climate is changing, and we should be doing everything possible to cut both fuel use and gas emissions.

The current county council is controlled by an Executive Board selected by the Leader, Meryl Gravell. Not one of the members of this powerful Board represents north Carmarthenshire. Perhaps that is why they agree policies that harm the rural parts of the county. Their transport and education policies conflict with national sustainability objectives which require us to move about less, unless by low-emission public transport.

The cost savings from these decisions are minor when compared with the £30 million-plus expense of building a huge super-school by the river Tywi at Ffairfach, on the other side of congested Llandeilo from Llandovery, which is 13 miles up the valley. No doubt the council would claim that the new school will be energy-efficient, but what is the point of constructing a low-carbon school if pupils rack up high-emission miles in cars and buses to get there? Not to mention the wasted hours commuting.

Story of my election campaign, part 3: Disempowered

Why did Carmarthenshire County Council build a mini-estate of homes outside a village which now has no services?

How can a community regenerate itself when all its amenities have gone? No school, no pub, no hall. No public meeting places.  An empty chapel for sale.

These questions arise from visits to Cynghordy this week. Cynghordy is a dispersed village below the striking, curved, viaduct carrying the Heart of Wales railway between Llandovery and Llanyrtyd Wells. The primary school closed this year. The pub, the rambling Glanbran Arms, is closed and for sale. On the fringe of the village, a street of local authority homes appears to have scant relationship with the landscape. The houses are solid, but where are the jobs for the occupants? Where, in fact, is the community?

Lack of public services means no focal points for the village, and not even a public convenience, quite a significant absence when one is in the area for several hours. My first thought was to try the pub, before realising that those doors were closed, too. Even tourism, so often regarded as the saviour of rural areas, needs a certain level of services including places to eat and drink, or visitors will not return.

Back in Llandovery, I met a shopkeeper who said he is unlikely to carry on beyond the end of 2012. “Accountants’ fees and taxes mount up, but I have fewer customers,” he said. “This street is often deserted.” Supermarkets’ home delivery services are perhaps the killer blow. Tesco and Asda vans buzz up and down the byroads, and Sainsbury’s intends to join in. “Supermarkets undercut the prices I can sell at,” said the shopkeeper.

Online delivery services are one reason for the painful squeeze on local shops. Locally, high car parking charges are another. Carmarthenshire County Council charges 50p for a stay of up to 60 minutes in Llandovery’s town-centre car park, but the Co-op on the Brecon Road charges nothing. The simplest initial step to bring more people into the town would be to chop the charges. The county would lose revenue, but as more businesses close fewer people would have a reason to stop in Llandovery, and so income from the car park would decline anyway.

The main message this week from the lanes and streets is that many people in North East Carmarthenshire feel forgotten and some also feel disempowered. “Even if I did vote, what difference would it make?” a man said to me, near the Co-op. “None at all.” This is an alarming view, but one that the county council has exacerbated by ignoring public opinion (especially over the unpopular decision to close the high school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn), by discouraging the public from attending meetings, and by refusing to allow meetings to be recorded. The council has become too remote from the public that it is supposed to serve.

Story of my election campaign, part 2

“What a coincidence!” I said to opposing candidate Ivor Jackson as we met on the same spot while out canvassing yesterday, Friday April 13th. It was not just any spot but Pantycelyn Farm, the home of the 18th century Methodist preacher and hymn writer William Williams, creator of almost 1,000 hymns, mainly in Welsh and including ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’.

Pantycelyn, a graceful house still inhabited by William Williams’ descendents, gave its name to Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, Llandovery’s comprehensive school which Carmarthenshire County Council, chaired for the past year by Ivor Jackson of the Independents, intends to close.

Why should our paths cross unexpectedly at this very special house? For the moment, it’s one of the stranger incidents of the campaign, which seems to have been going on for ages although I collected my leaflets only on Wednesday and now is Saturday.

My first day learning to be a postman was on the western side of Llandovery. All the hazards of a postman’s life, which I had stumbled upon while a temporary employee of Royal Mail when, years ago as a student, I helped deliver Christmas post, came flooding back. ‘Beware of the Dog’ signs and large dogs between you and the letter box; doors without a letter box; and a 21st century phenomenon, letter boxes so effectively draught-excluded that they repel all attempts to push mail through them. Some houses advertised ‘No Unsolicited Callers’, which I imagine includes election candidates. The streets were almost deserted.

The next day, Thursday, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Assembly Member for our constituency of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, kindly came to boost my campaign. Good weather, a few more people about. Patrick, my husband and a (semi-retired) photographer, took some shots of us standing on the castle mound above Llandovery car park, to illustrate one of the pledges in my ‘manifesto’, to work to cut the parking charges.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Assembly Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, in Llandovery to canvass for the coming local elections, discussing Car Parking Charges with me.

We headed to Maesglas, one of the longer streets in the town, in fact the street where Ivor Jackson lives. Rhodri Glyn Thomas knocked on the odd numbers, and I knocked on the evens, aided by my granddaughter Zoe, who noted down the concerns raised by the residents we met. Car parking charges were among the issues. One elector said that it was too far for her to walk into town, so she needed to drive, but the coming of residents-only parking zones (in 2011) and the 50p minimum charge in the car park, for up to an hour, were big discouragements. Fifty pence is far from a trivial amount, especially to pensioners, and Llandovery has an elderly population because there are too few jobs for people of working age. Another issue, and a very big one.

I like walking around Llandovery, which is a town of colourful and carefully tended gardens, Georgian buildings, a cobbled market square, and a ruined 13th century castle. It is also a town with a shrinking commercial heart. Today I walked past the closed-down Royal Mail sorting office, a garage site up for sale, some empty houses, a gift shop that shut its doors this afternoon and a clothing seconds store that stopped trading a few days ago.

The issues today spanned the range from the future of the town’s swimming pool, to rocks falling from the castle ruins, to late-night drinkers causing a nuisance. I got chatting to a man sitting in his garden, and he said: “Didn’t you know about the Co-op’s application to sell alcohol until 11 o’clock at night? A lot of people around here will be scared to go out.”

Back home I looked up the licensing applications and yes, on March 14th the Co-ops in Llandovery, Llandeilo and Kidwelly applied to sell alcohol from 6am to 11pm Mondays to Saturdays and from 10am to 10.30pm on Sundays. In Llandovery, next to the Co-op, is a peaceful development of over 50 bungalows, mainly for independent elderly people. Somehow the idea of late-nighters visiting the Co-op in search of booze does not sit easily with over-70s wanting a tranquil night’s sleep. There are houses on the other side of the store, too. Could the applications for such extended hours be anything to do with the plans for Sainsbury’s superstores outside Llandeilo and in Cross Hands? If so, the response smacks of desperation, and I say this as a Co-op member.

Store opening hours were not mentioned yesterday, in the countryside east of Llandovery. The issues were different, including the lack of broadband, and the distance from the general hospital in Carmarthen, some 30 miles from the farmlands on the edge of the Epynt. On a doorstep in Llandovery one voter made a similar point, the problems of travelling to Accident and Emergency in Carmarthen and the short opening hours of the minor injuries unit at Llandovery Hospital, 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.

No canvassing tomorrow, but planning for the week ahead, including sending leaflets by post to addresses I haven’t been able to find and planning the routes for delivery and canvassing. Regardless of the outcome, it’s all very educational. Maybe, on my travels, I’ll meet the other candidates on the road, but it’s hard to think of anywhere more iconic than Pantycelyn.