Protecting Welsh? No Rush, No Panic, Insist Labour and Independent Councillors
by Pat Dodd Racher
Political differences take precedence over collaboration in Carmarthenshire’s corridors of power, or so it appeared during last week’s debate on the need to strengthen protection for the Welsh language in national planning policy.
Councillor Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru, Llanfihangel Aberbythych), chair of a working group set up to consider this critical issue, said he was disappointed that Councillor Callum Higgins (Labour, Tycroes), the group’s vice-chair, had not mentioned his intention to amend (oppose) the proposal before the council, which was to suggest to the Welsh Government how the Welsh language can be defended, specifically through the guidance in Technical Advice Note (TAN) 20, The Welsh Language – Unitary Development Plans and Planning Control. This document (http://wales.gov.uk/topics/planning/policy/tans/tan20/?lang=en), published in June 2000, is currently being revised.
The proposal, from Councillor Alun Lenny (Plaid Cymru, Carmarthen Town South), was for the council to ask the Welsh Government to strengthen TAN 20 by treating as a ‘material planning consideration’ the potential impact of a development on the local strength of the Welsh language, and by establishing a statutory agency to advise planning authorities on language issues. The term ‘material planning consideration’ is important because it is only ‘material planning considerations’ that planning authorities will consider when deliberating on applications.
Minority languages, like endangered animals and plants, are under threat everywhere, and in Wales the erosion of the language is worryingly rapid. Carmarthenshire recorded the biggest drop in Welsh speakers between 2001 and 2011, from 50.3% of residents to 43.9%: http://wales.gov.uk/topics/statistics/headlines/population2012/121211/?lang=en
One of the conventional ways of ‘protecting’ the language is to require a small percentage of newly built homes to be offered to local people, the assumption being that they will be (a) Welsh speaking and (b) relatively impecunious . These assumptions ignore the realities of demographic change, caused by insufficient employment. Young adults leave, many of them fluent in Welsh after a bilingual education, and retirees arrive, often not Welsh-speaking.
The planning system itself is, in practice, most unhelpful to young people who want to build their own home, or create a new business, because land for development is zoned as such and landowners expect to sell it for many multiples, maybe 100 times, its agricultural worth, which is itself inflated by investors who buy it as a shelter from inheritance tax.
In theory, the One Planet Development policy of the Welsh Government (http://wales.gov.uk/topics/sustainabledevelopment/publications/onewalesoneplanet/?lang=en) allows new homes and enterprises on land not zoned for development, if they meet tough criteria on sustainability and self-sufficiency, but in practice permissions under this policy are almost as rare as flying pigs.
Planning authorities are supposed to do all they can to safeguard Welsh language and culture when they consider planning applications, but the guidance in TAN 20 is often so convoluted as to be meaningless. On page 2, for example, “policies which take into account the needs and interests of the Welsh language should not seek to control housing and occupancy on linguistic grounds”, and (page 3) “In determining individual planning applications and appeals where the needs and interests of the Welsh language may be a material consideration decisions must, as with all other planning applications, be based on planning grounds only and be reasonable”. I am none the wiser. The wording indicates that TAN 20 can be safely ignored , which is what has happened.
Given the rapid decline in the numbers of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, I would have expected Coun. Lenny’s proposal to have attracted widespread support, but Coun. Higgins was having none of it. He wanted to “take the politics out of this”, he said, although the impact of his amendment was to inject a big dose of politics into the debate. He wanted no motion until the working group had spent more time discussing the issues. As noted above, this was a surprise to group chair, Coun. Campbell, who revealed that Coun. Higgins had said nothing to him about further delay. Proposals for strengthening TAN 20 need to reach the Welsh Government straight away, said Coun. Campbell, because publication of the revised document is expected in October, and if the working group’s deliberations carried on, any comments would be too late to have any influence. In fact, said Councillor Glynog Davies (Plaid Cymru, Quarter Bach), the Welsh Government wanted proposals by the very next day, June 13th!
Councillor Giles Morgan (Independent, Swiss Valley ) backed Coun. Higgins’ delaying tactics, saying that he did not want barriers between Welsh and English speakers, although quite how missing the opportunity to influence TAN 20 would create a barrier between Welsh and English was not really explained.
Seconding Coun. Lenny, Councillor Emlyn Dole (Plaid Cymru, Llannon) lobbed a verbal firecracker into the chamber when he said that no less a personage than Mr Eifion Bowen, the council’s head of planning, had himself suggested the formation of a statutory agency to protect the Welsh language. Mr Bowen’s reported concern to safeguard Welsh in the planning system was echoed by Coun. Glynog Davies as well as by Coun. Campbell.
Perhaps Mr Bowen would like to clarify his views? This was an instruction from chief executive Mark James. Mr Bowen, who I think looked less at ease than I have seen on a number of past occasions, used the word “certainty” to give a non-committal reply. It wasn’t just TAN 20 which needed “certainty”, but other Technical Advice Notes too, such as TAN 15 on development and flood risk. Mr Bowen confined himself to urging more “certainty” in the planning system and avoided any specifics.
Councillor Sian Caiach (People First, Hengoed) plunged in to these chilly political waters with an important point about jobs, saying it is “ridiculous” that we are exporting our children out of Wales because there are insufficient jobs for them, and then importing non-Welsh speakers to come to retire. Referring to the June 13th deadline, she said “If we aren’t prepared to write to our own government by tomorrow we are a disgrace to this county”.
Councillor Ryan Bartlett (Labour, Betws) asked if the deadline was indeed June 13th. Mr Eifion Bowen, in reply, was non-committal again. “I’m not sure if tomorrow is the last day for observations or not,” he said.
Councillor Meryl Gravell (Independent, Trimsaran), could not understand the panic, a view shared by the ruling Labour-Independent coalition, who duly supported Coun. Higgins’ amendment to delay making any proposals until they had been thrashed out by the working group, beyond the sight of the cameras in the council chamber.
The outcome was never really in doubt. The Labour-Independent coalition can outvote Plaid Cymru whenever they want, although Plaid are the largest group, with 28 councillors, compared with 22 Labour and 22 in the Independent grouping.
Yet the rapid decline in the numbers of Welsh speakers really is a crisis, and each passing month of policy vacuum wreaks further damage.