Reviving Llandovery: It Can Be Done
The allocation of land for new housing in Llandovery is far from the best option for this ancient but beleaguered town.
by Pat Dodd Racher
Background to the housing allocation
The Welsh Assembly Government required Carmarthenshire to identify sites for 10,720 homes to be constructed between 2006 and 2015. The county council opted to distribute to six Tier 2 service centres, including Llandovery, 11.3% of the allocation, land for 1,211 homes. A mathematical weighting process was employed, resulting in a requirement for Llandovery to provide land for 148 homes. This allocation is thus a weighted proportional share of the housing land which the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) required Carmarthenshire County Council to identify, and is not related to identified need within Llandovery.
The forward planning process decides on possible, not actual, outcomes. Carmarthenshire County Council no longer builds homes. This activity is left to the private sector and to housing associations, which have avoided Llandovery because of the flood risks from the converging Bran, Gwydderig and Tywi rivers. The last major flood was in 1998. Since then flood alleviation works have been carried out adjacent to the river Bran, but climate change results in more intense weather events including torrential downpours. Therefore it is vital to retain porous land surfaces which prevent immediate run-off and thus cut the risk of flash floods. For Llandovery, this is critically important east of the town, where overflow from the west-flowing Bran and Gwydderig rivers would escape into the town centre.
The sites selected for future housing, coded T2/3/h1 and T2/3/h2, lie between the Bran and Gwydderig rivers. T2/3/h1 lies behind and beyond the street called Dan y Crug, and T2/3/h2 is opposite Dan y Crug, across the A40 road. Approximately 50% of T2/3/h1 lies within the flood risk zone C2, identified by the Environment Agency as “having a high risk of flooding and without significant flood defence infrastructure”. An additional 10% of T2/3/h1 is within the even higher-risk zone C3.
Llandovery is a market town in decline. The state secondary school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn, will close in 2015. Despite overwhelming opposition from the people of the town, the local authority said that falling pupil numbers left it with no alternative. The proposed new school will be about 13 miles south-west of Pantycelyn, on the far side of Llandeilo, and up to 20 miles from the homes of many pupils living north and east of Llandovery. The closure decision removes state secondary education from about 400 square miles of Central Wales, the area bounded by Lampeter, Builth Wells, Brecon and Llandeilo, 400 square miles with Llandovery at its heart.
The town retains the independent, selective Llandovery College, which came close to closure in 2012 because of a debt burden. The annual day fees of £14,370 in 2012-13 are unaffordable for the majority of Llandovery households, for whom median income in 2011 was £19,570, according to CACI PayCheck. Therefore most residents with children could not consider Llandovery College as a substitute for Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn.
It is worth noting at this point that the sustainability assessments of candidate housing sites require the availability of services such as education and health to be taken into account. The assessments undertaken for Llandovery include a secondary school within walking distance. This is true in the sense that Llandovery College is within walking distance, but it is not an open-access school and is too costly for the great majority of Llandovery families. An additional factor damaging to equality of opportunity and thus to future sustainability is Carmarthenshire County Council’s decision to charge pupils for transport to school from their 16th birthday. This will impact severely on Llandovery and its hinterland when the secondary school closes.
The decline of Llandovery is accelerated by the closure of HSBC bank and with it an external cash dispenser; the closure of the Trade Secret clothing shop in a prominent location adjacent to the Castle Hotel; the closure of the Royal Mail sorting office; and the rising incidence of empty shops, even before the secondary school has closed its doors. Late in 2012 LATRA (Llandovery Area Tenants and Residents Association) counted more than 70 empty properties in the town. In September 2012, 50 properties were advertised for sale, plus 57 more in the remainder of the SA20 postal district.
Proposal for a scheme to help arrest future decline
There are areas within Llandovery where housing can be built with low flood risk. If houses on these sites, incorporating workspaces such as offices and workshops, were constructed to the standards envisaged in WAG’s ‘One Wales One Planet’ set of policies, they would contribute to revitalising Llandovery’s prospects, by attracting new residents for whom sustainability is important.
To increase the otherwise scant prospects of encouraging new residents, state-funded secondary education should be provided in the town, whether by a joint venture with Llandovery College or by a scheme such as a 3-16+ campus using existing, suitable local-authority-owned buildings, or as part of an 11-16+ federated campus.
The intended housing land on sites T2/3/h1, 7.94 hectares, and the smaller T2/3/h2, is currently undeveloped. One planning application, E/26681, relates to part of T2/3/h1. This application is for 76 homes including 15 for social housing, six 2-bed and nine 3-bed. The open-market homes would comprise two 2-bed, 41 3-bed and 18 4-bed. The mix of housing types and sizes, as revealed in the application documents, is suitable more for families than for the single people and couples aged over 65 who account for 25% of the population of the town (2010 small area population estimates). Families are essential to the town’s future. The death rate, according to the 2010 figures, was at 13.2/000 a huge 27% greater than the birth rate.
The 76 homes in application E/26681, at 2.34 persons per dwelling, the average employed by the local planning authority, would accommodate 178 persons. The full allocation of 148 homes would house about 346. The whole Llandovery electoral ward contains only 1,173 households, so 148 represents an addition of 12.6% to the housing stock of Llandovery and its environs, a rise of over one-eighth.
As well as the mapped flood risk, the creation of a large housing estate at the eastern entrance to Llandovery would clash with and detract from the ‘heritage’ environmental and built environment improvements that are being prepared by the Llandovery Partnership in conjunction with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.
J Evans Planning Ltd has lodged with the local planning authority a document detailing and justifying objections to T2/3/h1 and T2/3/h2.
J Evans Planning Ltd has also prepared documents in favour of alternative sites. On Carmarthenshire’s candidate sites map they are 094-001 / CS 0004, 6.13 hectares, and 094-006 / CS 0637, 3.44 hectares.
The larger of the sites, land at Maes y Felin south of the river Bran, also has flood risk issues. About 30% of the land is in the C2 flood zone, but the access is outside the flood risk zone. This site is nearer to the town centre than T2/3/h1 and T2/3/h2, but currently the road between the site and the town has no pedestrian walkway. This site could accommodate 130 dwellings, according to J Evans Planning.
The smaller site, behind Towy Avenue on the western edge of Llandovery, also has part in a flood risk zone but is adjacent to the station on the Heart of Wales railway and closer to the town centre than T2/3/h1 and T2/3/h2. As part of a scheme on this site, existing elderly warehouses within the flood zone would be demolished and replaced with amenity open space. The entrance would be widened and the 40 houses proposed would be constructed on land not mapped as high flood risk.
The four sites outlined above – behind Dan y Crug, opposite Dan y Crug, at Maes y Felin and Towy Avenue – could all be incorporated in a plan to provide Llandovery with 148 units of zero-carbon or near-zero-carbon housing and additional green open space suitable for uses such as allotments and orchards. Housing constructed on land at the lowest flood risk within each site, using local materials and minimising energy requirements should attract new residents who in turn could arrest the decline of the town and prevent the loss of those amenities which serve a substantial area of Central Wales. Each lost amenity imposes longer journeys on its users, and higher emissions from mechanised transport.
The addition of some 346 new residents, of all ages and not weighted towards the over-65s, would boost custom for businesses in the town and improve the demographic profile. Tourism is likely to remain a principal economic activity, and would benefit from a town centre with open cafes, pubs, and shops. New housing meets sustainability criteria only if crucial services can be accessed on foot or easily by public transport, and the achievement of this objective depends on a holistic approach to planning, sensitive also to linguistic and cultural heritage.
Should application E/26681 be approved, a suburban estate, its houses not constructed to the highest standards of sustainability, would rise on the eastern edge of town. This would represent a missed opportunity to revive Llandovery’s declining fortunes. The alternative proposal outlined above presents a better way forward for the town, beneficial to its social and economic fabric.