Dead Horse, Dead Community
by Pat Dodd Racher
Banging on about an unpopular issue is not the way to win friends and influence people. One issue that I bang on about is said to be a lost cause. I am accused of flogging a horse so dead it has rigor mortis. The horse is a high school, Ysgol Gyfun Pantycelyn in Llandovery, Carmarthenshire. The local authority is going to close the school. There is already an impact evident in a falling roll and in unsold homes depressing the housing market. Families don’t want to come to a town without a secondary school.
Llandovery is a small place, population under 2,000, with another 4,250 or so living in the surrounding countryside, some 100 square miles for which Llandovery is the nearest town. This swathe of hilly countryside, which includes part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, has a clear future unless current policies change. Social housing is in rapid retreat, public transport is rare, primary schools, post offices, shops and pubs have nearly all gone. The hills and valleys will become a rural playground for millionaires, who do not depend on local public services because they can afford to buy privately.
When Carmarthenshire County Council decided to close Pantycelyn and to build a new school over 13 miles to the south-west, at Ffairfach on the far side of the town of Llandeilo, public opposition was huge but had no impact on the local authority. The secondary school in Llandeilo would close too, but the replacement is a 10-minute walk, not over 13 miles.
Pantycelyn is under-occupied and by the time of intended closure in 2015 the remaining pupils will probably be rattling around a half-empty campus. Yet if we continue to shut public services because there are too few people for them to be financially viable, small towns like Llandovery and their hinterlands are locked in to a spiral of decline because no one is willing to take the risk of spending more than can be justified to achieve short-term cost-effectiveness.
Gwynedd in north Wales is also a profoundly rural county, more mountainous than Carmarthenshire overall. Gwynedd faces similar problems of apparently uneconomic small schools, and the county council asked Cardiff Business School to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of rural secondary school consolidation. The report, by James Foreman-Peck of the Welsh Institute for Research and Development, within the business school, came out in April 2011.
Mr Foreman-Peck pointed out that local authorities “are not obliged to treat losses to some people as offset by gains to others – even when the magnitudes are balanced – if a major policy concern, such as maintaining rural communities, was involved”. He drew attention to guidance from The Treasury, quoting “proposals might have differential impacts on individuals, amongst other aspects, according to their…geographical location. It is important that these distributional issues are assessed in appraisals”. Therefore, the impact of school closures on the viability of rural communities should be fully taken into account in any assessments of cost efficiency.
These impacts include job losses and the imposition of higher travel costs and longer journey times. The burdens of extra travel time should be costed, says the Cardiff Business School report, which for journeys to school suggested a figure of over £5 per pupil per hour. This should be added to the costs and environmental impacts of additional buses.
The AA’s route planner says that Ffairfach is 13.2 miles from Llandovery, and at a constant 45mph that would take just on 18 minutes. School buses, though, do not travel at a constant 45mph. They stop for children to get on or off, there are roadworks, roundabouts and especially on the way through Llandeilo, hold-ups. Llandovery to Ffairfach in a school bus would be about 25 minutes on a good day, 45 minutes on a slow day – and that is each way. With many children already having spent 15 to 30 minutes travelling into Llandovery, the extra travel burden is severe, and one that families seek to avoid by moving away.
The Treasury’s view that immediate cost savings are not necessarily synonymous with good policy-making gives local authorities the freedom to consider long-term impacts of radical changes. Emboldened with this knowledge, Carmarthenshire County Council could turn to the Integrated Community Strategy for the county. This document is supposed to guide all other policies. The community strategy aims to reduce the resources used in the county from 4.4 global hectares per head to 1.88. The biggest resource consumers are homes (21%), transport (21%) and food and drink (27%). All of these must be slashed, so any plan requiring transport to increase seems to run completely counter to the strategy.
The community strategy document has a section headed ‘Supporting opportunities for the building of economically viable and sustainable communities’ followed by several methods to accomplish this. One is ‘by developing a low carbon economy that strengthens local economies through promoting local jobs, skills, and training that strengthen communities for the future’. Another method is ‘by improving access to goods, services, jobs and learning in low-carbon ways so that that people are able to work closer to home’. Under the heading ‘Developing resilient and sustainable communities’ there is the requirement for ‘providing the infrastructure and services to enable people to live low-carbon lives’.
Both The Treasury’s guidelines for assessing the wider impacts of costed policies, and the Integrated Community Strategy, implicitly reject the narrow framing of project costs and benefits which understate, or completely ignore, longer term costs such as the terminal decline of rural areas. As the community strategy states, more local food production will be necessary. Food production requires land, and land needs people to work on it.
Dying communities are the opposite of sustainable. They create social costs as more and more services are withdrawn, and we finish where we came in, with a demographically unbalanced countryside full of independently financed millionaires and empty of nearly everyone else.