West Wales News Review

Economy, environment, sustainability

Archive for the category “Local government”

Opinion: Whistleblowing Plunges Maesybont Couple into Disaster

Whistleblowing too often leads to blowback which flattens the complainants, even ending their careers and badly hurting them financially.

Whistleblower Trisha Breckman and partner Eddie Roberts, from Maesybont, blew the whistle against Carmarthenshire Council’s Planning Department, and are about to lose their house.

The connection between the whistleblowing and the immediate likelihood of being turfed out of their home is complicated and convoluted, but real.

Trisha Breckman: neighbour’s planning breaches were ignored, to her detriment. 

It all began 16 years ago when Trisha and Eddie moved to a six-and-a-half acre smallholding, Pantycastell  Fach, in Maesybont, and realised that the property next door, Blaenpant Farm, was not solely a farm but also an unlicensed site for heavy haulage and quarrying. They discovered that other people had complained, including a previous owner of Pantycastell  Fach. News of their investigations got back to Blaenpant’s occupants, recycling company owner Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas. Their retaliation spiralled into severe harassment and intimidation, revealed in print and in television documentaries.*

Blowback 

The county council and its Chief Executive, then as now the about-to-retire Mark James CBE, declined to do anything to curb the planning breaches at Blaenpant, and instead labelled Trisha a persistent complainant and prevented her from contacting councillors.

Trisha’s and Eddie’s view from their cottage was blocked by a scrap lorry placed there by the occupants of Blaenpant next door. This was just one of many acts of harassment.

The conflict damaged Trisha’s health. She became too nervous to be at home alone, in case Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas launched into a new tirade of aggression, so Eddie gave up his work in Sussex to be with her. The access track to Pantycastell  Fach passed over Blaenpant land, and to make life difficult, Mr Thomas erected motorway-style barriers to narrow the track from 14 feet to nine, and put gates across, so it was hard for Trisha and Eddie to leave their home, and to return, and large vehicles could not use the track at all. All the aggravation meant that they did not open the cattery for which they had planning permission, and because Eddie had given up his work to stay with Trisha, and because of the legal fees they were incurring, they could no longer repay their mortgage.

Maladministration

On Christmas Eve 2018, what might have been a Christmas card was in fact a letter from a firm called Mortgage Agency Services, asking for more than £80,000 before the end of January, to clear the mortgage. Trisha and Eddie do not now have that money.

Although the county council denied all responsibility, in 2010 Planning Inspector Clive Cochrane backed up Trisha’s and Eddie’s complaints. In 2012, the then Public Services Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, found the council guilty of maladministration, but the council did nothing. In 2016 the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys at the time, Christopher Salmon, issued a full apology for wrongful arrests of Trisha (six arrests instigated by Karen Bowen Thomas and Andrew Thomas). The Chief Constable then, Simon Prince, also apologised. Trisha and Eddie’s County Councillor, Cefin Campbell, tried to help. So did Assembly Member Rhodri Glyn Thomas and his successor, Adam Price. But no breakthrough.

Legal loophole

Trisha and Eddie applied to the council for compensation, but this was rejected by the council’s lawyers Weightmans late in 2016 because “the law of England and Wales does not allow an individual to recover compensation from a public body where the statutory duty or power involved did not itself confer a private law cause of action for a failure to exercise it”.

It all boiled down to the legal point that a planning authority can investigate planning breaches, but is not obliged to do so. In the case of Trisha and Eddie, Carmarthenshire County Council actively chose not to investigate, or to admit publicly what certain planning staff already knew. A culture of denial held sway.  This advantaged those operating at Blaenpant without permission, but gravely disadvantaged Trisha and Eddie. Their lives have been blighted for sixteen years – seven years of strife and nine of coping with the repercussions. Eddie is now 82 and Trisha is 75. The past 16 years have been exceptionally stressful for both of them.

Ex-gratia payment surely due

The harassment has stopped, and the track to Pantycastell Fach is back to its former width, but that cannot wipe out the years of aggravation. Surely the fact that the Ombudsman found Carmarthenshire County Council guilty of maladministration means that Trisha and Eddie deserve an ex-gratia payment?

Whistleblowers are essential to help society battle corruption and criminality, but how many of us would be whistleblowers if the evidence we present is ignored and buried, or turned into a boomerang to attack us?

*e.g. Wales This Week in October 2007 and March 2008, and The Good Life Gone Bad, October 2012. They can be watched on You Tube.

PDR

Opinion: Republishing Y Cneifiwr’s ‘Mark Leads Us to the Promised Land’

Excellent article by Y Cneifiwr, first published in October 2017, on the financial risks threatening the planned ‘Wellness Centre’ in a marshy area of Llanelli. Since 2017 even more black, thundrous clouds have clustered over the site at Delta Lakes.

Meanwhile, the people of West Wales face a continuous barrage of cuts to public services.

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Y Cneifiwr’s article

Mark leads us to the Promised Land

Despite all the regeneration schemes, the Valleys and the west of Wales remain some of the poorest, most disadvantaged parts of Western Europe with creaking infrastructure and heavy dependence on low-paid employment. Every year droves of talented young people leave for Cardiff and the big English cities to earn a living, while heading west is a steady flow made up disproportionately of pensioners, unskilled and poorly educated inner city families and younger people who bring their own problems with them.

At first glance initiatives such as the Swansea Bay City Region, or “the City Deal” as it now seems to be known, and the ARCH wellness village at Delta Lakes on the outskirts of Llanelli offer the prospect of many thousands of highly paid jobs. A welcome departure from Carmarthenshire County Council’s love affair with shopping centres, supermarkets and handouts to owners of holiday cottages, punctuated by grandiose development schemes built on wildly optimistic forecasts which somehow always seem to end up making pots of money for a very few, while being a drain on local government finances for decades to come.As always, however, the devil lies in the detail, and seasoned observers of the Carmarthenshire scheme could be forgiven for being more than a little sceptical when they see that we are being led into the new promised land by some old familiar faces whose track records stretch all the way back to prestige developments such as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, the Technium fiasco(s) and other “won’t cost you a penny” white elephants.

In Carmarthenshire, all roads lead to the door of our teflon-coated chief executive, Mark James CBE, who when he is not doing his day job running the county council, is busy building up his own property empire, setting the lawyers, the courts and police on Jacqui Thompson and now also at the epicentre of both the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village – two originally separate schemes which are coalescing into Mr James’s biggest ever bid for glory.

Politicians and councillors who question these schemes, currently with a price tag of around £1.5 billion and rising fast, know that they will be accused of undermining opportunities to create jobs and transform the local economy, and the likelihood is that Mr James will ensure that they sign off a huge borrowing spree in a blitz of spin and corporate PR which will leave taxpayers in Carmarthenshire and neighbouring counties exposed to huge risks, with any upside being scooped up by private sector fat cats, many of them resident in sunny tax havens.

But there are signs of growing concern among some of the participants, with accusations of secrecy, lack of transparency and byzantine legalistic draft agreements, of “partners” not being kept informed, of chaotic planning, over-optimistic forecasts, spin and what amounts to a plan by Mr James’s authority to fleece his friends and neighbours. Add to that a lack of accountability, an onslaught against what is left of democratic oversight and cronyism.

That does not sound anything like our widely loved and admired council chief executive, does it?

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Before we take a closer look at the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village, let’s take a small detour to draw attention to a lecture given the other day by Martin Shipton, chief reporter of the Western Mail and a self-described old-fashioned journalist.The full text of his sobering address on the state of the Welsh media can be found here, and it is well worth reading.

“It is a fact universally acknowledged that a democratically elected administration must be in want of some scrutiny”, he begins before going on to examine how the Welsh Government and so many other of our public bodies like to claim that they are models of openness and transparency while being anything but. 

He details Jane Hutt’s shocking responses to the plight of NHS patients; the ways in which the Freedom of Information Act can be and is used to deny freedom of information; the Circuit of Wales fiasco with its strange parallels to what is now happening with the City Deal and ARCH schemes; legal bullying designed to silence the press, and the culture of fear and clientelism which prevents whistleblowers from coming forward.

He goes on to describe the ways in which serious news is being edged out by the revenue-driven click-bait culture of media companies, before ending with a passage from his recent book on George Thomas:

Our society continues to have too much ‘cap-doffing’ to our perceived ‘betters’ and a craving to ingratiate ourselves with them for social and career advancement. There remain, to this day, too many politicians like George Thomas, who combine a self-seeking ambition with the readiness to pretend that Britain persists in being a great power built on the remnants of an empire that makes it superior to all other European countries.

Martin Shipton’s lecture is a cri-de-coeur for journalists to hold the powerful to account and submit them to scrutiny, and is a world away from the media’s obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle, “click-bait” online articles (“10 things you never wanted to know about Katherine Jenkins”) and the unquestioning cutting ‘n’ pasting of press releases churned out by the PR merchants employed by public bodies.

The trouble is that newspaper companies, Martin Shipton’s employers included, find it difficult to understand why resources should be devoted to the sort of hard-nosed political reporting he specialises in, when the punters prefer reading about Katherine Jenkins and Weatherspoon’s menus.

Serious journalism is, in their eyes, expensive and time consuming, and they have a point when you consider the effort needed to try to find out what is going on with schemes such as the City Deal and the ARCH wellness village.

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There are countless gushing press releases, slick videos, artists’ impressions and Twitter streams which verge on soft pornography as they record all of the conferences, lavish receptions, “envisioning days” and other junkets associated with these schemes. Everything is brilliant, inspired, fantastic, innovative and imbued with excellence. Take a look as the ARCH Programme’s Twitter feed, for example.

What you will not find are any meeting minutes, reports or sober assessments of the costs and risks involved. Even finding out who the movers and shakers are requires detective work.

Almost the only exception to this is a report published by Neath Port Talbot Council here, which was  the subject of a two-page spread in last week’s Carmarthenshire Herald and blogposts by Jacqui Thompson (here) and Siân Caiach (here). There is also an interesting piece on WalesOnline here.

The NPT report, dated 4 October 2017, shows that all is far from well with the City Deal which is relying on four county councils – Swansea, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Pembrokeshire – to stump up £396 million to fund an array of projects, at least some of which should be ringing alarm bells across the region. ARCH is now also touting a very large begging bowl around the region’s county halls, having discovered that the Welsh Government and the NHS are strapped for cash. Who would have thought it?

The City Deal 

In addition to the £396 million which is to come from “other public sector” bodies (that is the four participating councils), the UK and Welsh governments are expected to chip in £241 million, with a further £637 million predicted to come from the private sector for the 11 projects which make up the City Deal. The ARCH wellness village is not one of them.

The Swansea Bay City Region has been rumbling away for years, and as far as the public is concerned has so far produced nothing more than a torrent of press releases and snazzy videos. The PR orgy came to a climax in March of this year when Theresa May met Carwyn Jones to sign off an agreement.

This was just before Mrs May went for her famous walking holiday in Dolgellau and decided to call a general election. At the time the Tories had high hopes of winning seats in and around Swansea, including Carwyn’s own backyard.

We all know what happened next, and Mrs May’s love affair with Wales seems to have cooled dramatically, with the ditching of the scheme to electrify the Great Western Mainline all the way to Swansea and a distinctly chilly response to hopes that she would back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project.

The NPT report notes,

The Welsh Government wants the process led by a Joint Committee of local authority leaders (consistent with their approach to local government reform) whereas the UK Government has insisted upon a private sector led Economic Strategy Board (ESB) as part of the arrangements.

The report then tells us that an ESB was “pretty much what we had prior to 31 March 2017 in the form of the Swansea Bay City Region Board; but the Welsh Government effectively abolished it”.

Hands up all those who remember Jamie Owen telling us that Carwyn had sent Sir Terry Matthews and the other board members packing, in the nicest possible way.

That report was published at the beginning of this month, and for all we know the UK Government is still insisting on a private sector led board, or possibly an even more byzantine arrangement where an ESB exists alongside a public sector led body. Meanwhile, the councils are ploughing on with what they term a “provisional governance structure established in shadow form”.

The trouble is that after six months of wrangling and a draft Joint Working Agreement (JWA) commissioned by Mark James, the councils cannot agree on  how the City Deal should be run. Mr James’s draft, produced at no doubt huge expense with the aid of external lawyers, ran to 70 pages, with NPT saying that, if asked, its officers could not explain to councillors how the agreement would work.

Who would have thought that a legal framework drawn up under the auspices of Mr James would be so opaque?

So they have agreed to start again, although the UK Government could yet veto their efforts, especially now that the Tories’ very brief love affair with Wales has ended in heartbreak.

As things stand, this £1.3 – £1.5 billion scheme (and rising) has no formal governance structure, and Mr James has effectively replaced Sir Terry Matthews as the ring master of a shadow body made up of representatives of bodies with very different agendas.

Top slice

Even less welcome news for Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Pembrokeshire councillors are reports that Mr James not only plans to siphon off a chunk of the City Deal money for the wellness village in his own backyard, but that he is also proposing to “top-slice” (i.e. pocket) a hefty chunk of the funds for projects outside Carmarthenshire, as well as charging them a stiff  annual “administration fee”.

It’s the not the sort of stuff to inspire private sector investors to part with their cash or the sort of thing that will improve relations with the neighbours.

This is just the tip of an iceberg of a catalogue of concerns and problems facing the City Deal and ARCH mega-schemes.

Chicken, and chicken and egg

While the shadow governance team struggles with agreeing the rules of the game, the Welsh Government has told the councils that it will not release its share of the project funding until the business cases for all 11 projects have been approved. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?

Unless the Welsh Government drops this insistence, all 11 projects will have to move at the pace of the slowest, with NPT adding that this “could also result in the local authorities taking all the risk by funding projects up front with no absolute guarantee that the Government funding will follow immediately or at all, if one considers how they have been trying to re-write the clauses in the JWA”.

In other words, councils are having to contemplate what could be a very risky and expensive game of chicken.

If that were not bad enough, NPT, in common with all other Welsh councils, faces huge budgetary pressure, and the report warns councillors that “the City Deal featured as a potentially significant financial pressure in that [budget, Ed.] presentation (albeit largely unquantified at this stage), so this begs the question of competing priorities for prudential borrowing and finance”.

The bottom line for NPT is that it has many other pressing local priorities, that it lacks the bandwidth and resources to work on this time-consuming project, that the risks are significant and that the extent of its financial commitment is unquantifiable.

And there is much, much more where that came from, including the likelihood that there will need to be significant changes to accounting rules which would have to be approved by the government and
new legislation.

Meanwhile progress on the 11 City Deal projects is mixed. By far the most important of these is  something called Internet Coast.

Internet Coast

The centre piece of the City Deal and by far the most ambitious project would have as its starting point a trans-atlantic fibre optic cable between New York and Oxwich Bay. This project alone would account for £500 million of the £1.3 billion City Deal package, and Sir Terry Matthews, former chair of the city region board, told the BBC back in February 2016 that the aim would be to create up to 33,000 hi-tech jobs in the region over the next 20 years.

Here is what the NPT report says:

The digital infrastructure agenda was very dependent upon the active engagement of the former City Region Board Chair and his wide senior level network; but the board was abolished and that opportunity put at risk. The simple truth is that the necessary expertise (or contacts) exists neither in the Welsh Government nor local government. As a consequence, little work has been done in recent months to progress the project, although a part-time external adviser has now been appointed.

Unelected Sir Terry Matthews may have been, but he does at least come with an impressive business pedigree. In effect responsibility now lies with the equally unelected and apparently unsackable Mark James, whose first major project was what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena.

In addition to his many and varied other duties and interests, Mr James is also heavily involved with the ARCH wellness village project, about which there are almost as many worrying questions and mysteries as there are with the City Deal.

Here is what the NPT report says:

A major issue is the uncertainty around the so called ARCH (regional Health Collaboration) programme which is linked to the City Deal. A bid was submitted to the Welsh Government by the two health boards in the region in January of this year and we are well aware of the competing priorities for revenue and capital funding within the NHS. The ARCH programme has been asked to look at “alternative sources of funding”; but assumes more than £100 million from the City Deal. Increasingly, we do not believe that the ARCH programme will secure significant medium to long term funding from the Welsh Government. If so, there can be no question of Councils being invited to plug any gap. This uncertainty could, in turn, undermine the ability of projects to attract the even larger required private sector match funding. These matters therefore remain unresolved.

Bearing in mind that this quotation is taken from a report published two weeks ago, it is interesting to contrast what NPT has to say with this message currently fronting Carmarthenshire County Council’s website:

The ambitious project – which will see an investment of more than £200million – is being led by Carmarthenshire County Council in partnership with Hywel Dda and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Boards and Swansea University.

It is also a key project for the Swansea Bay City Region and is earmarked to receive £40million as part of the £1.3billion City Deal funding.

If, as NPT says, the Welsh Government is unlikely to help fund the wellness village and the councils will not plug the gap, who is providing that £40 million?

ARCH

The wellness village is just one part of a much bigger collaboration between the health boards and universities, and its origins are shrouded in Delta Lake mist.

According to ARCH’s own website, the wellness village board is chaired by none other than Meryl Gravell, representing Carmarthenshire County Council. It may be that someone has not got around to updating the website because, as a former county councillor, Meryl no longer represents anyone and is even less accountable than she was when she sat in County Hall.

The fact is that the wellness village was Meryl’s baby right from the beginning, and as one half of the Mark and Meryl dream team, there is no need for a paternity test.

One of the first clues as to what was being planned for the Delta Lakes site came in Carmarthenshire’s vast Local Development Plan. Anyone who buried deep enough in the labyrinth of documentation would have been surprised to see that the site had been ear-marked for “private healthcare”.

That was unusually and almost uniquely specific. Normally you would expect to see the much less transparent “employment land”.

The convoluted way that LDPs are put together means that the designation for private healthcare was inserted at least 5 years ago, and it suggests that some very specific discussions had taken place with unknown third parties well before then.

The wellness village, predicated on being a private healthcare development, almost certainly dates back to when Meryl was council leader.

According to the minutes of a Carmarthenshire County Council executive board meeting held in 2016, however, the idea first saw the light of day when the council was approached by the health boards and the universities in mid-2015 – well after the council had adopted its LDP and the private healthcare provision.

Like so much else in this story, things just don’t add up.

The trouble is that potential private investors would have been unwilling to stump up the money to transform a desolate brown field site. Roads, drains and other basic infrastructure don’t come cheap, and so it was an immense stroke of luck that Carmarthenshire decided that the existing leisure centre in Llanelli was no longer fit for purpose, and that the ideal location for a new centre would be Delta Lakes, well away from where most Llanelli residents live.

Around the same time, the council signed an exclusivity deal with a company called Kent Neurosciences Ltd “with a view to ensuring the aspirations of the Wellness and Science Village within Carmarthenshire”. KNS, part of a group of companies based in the British Virgin Islands tax haven, was a remarkable choice of partner, as you can read here.

It then went on to ear-mark another £7m originally allocated for a council care home to fund an “assisted living village” as part of Meryl’s vision for Delta Lakes.

Slowly but surely Mark and Meryl were scraping together the funding to make Meryl’s vision a reality, and the raid on the City Region is a part of that.

Meanwhile, the cost and scope of the wellness village have soared. Early in 2016 it was put at £60 million. By the middle of that year it had risen to £100 million. Now the council puts the figure at £200 million.

Perhaps a little too confidently Mr James told the press a couple of years ago that he did not think he would have to put the project before councillors for their approval, presumably because he was not planning to have to get them to stump up the (borrowed) cash.

Now, to soften them up, they are to be treated to a special slide show. We can expect a report asking them to sign off on a hefty loan not long thereafter.

If Mr James gets his skates on, councillors can expect to be told that not only will the wellness village deliver untold thousands of new jobs, but that the cost of borrowing is at an all-time low – for now, although the Bank of England may have other plans.

Perhaps we should all suspend disbelief, but past experience and the typically Jamesian way in which the wellness village has taken shape, with all its contradictions, mysteries and evasions, do not inspire confidence.

Know Your Place! Don’t Annoy Big Shots!

The dangers inherent in upsetting people who are richer and more powerful than you have not been removed from our particular political system.

This week Jacqui Thompson, the Llanwrda blogger who in 2011 was arrested, handcuffed and detained for trying to film part of a public council meeting on her mobile phone, was in court to argue against the immediate forced sale of her family home, owned by her husband, forestry worker Kerry, and herself.

The court appearance was the latest episode in the long-running conflict between Carmarthenshire County Council’s chief executive Mark James, one of the highest paid government officials in Wales, and housewife and (unpaid) community councillor Jacqui.

Mr James secured a publicly funded indemnity to sue Jacqui for libel, specifically for calling him a Pinocchio and for referring to a slush fund.  His action was in response to Jacqui’s  high-risk decision to sue him for libel, after he had criticised her and her family on another blog, Madaxeman, run by Mr Martin Milan.

A key factor is the elected councillors’ decision to offer an indemnity for Mr James’ libel claim. The Wales Audit Office said this was unlawful, and it is forbidden in The Local Authorities (Indemnities for Members and Officers) (Wales) (Order) 2006 — but apparently allowed under a catch-all clause of Section 111 of the much earlier Local Government Act 1972, which permits  authorities to do “anything (whether or not involving expenditure …… ) which is calculated to facilitate or is conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of its functions”. Even rob a bank, perhaps, the wording is so permissive. The council relied on the loophole contained in the 1972 Act, as described in People First’s article below:

http://www.peoplefirstwales.org.uk/2016_11_01_archive.html

The Executive Board meeting which agreed to the indemnity, as reported above, heard that any damages would be paid to the council (paragraph 12, sub-section i).

    “(i) The Head of Paid Service has confirmed that he is not motivated by a wish to benefit financially and that accordingly should his action be successful any damages awarded to him will be paid over to the Authority and will not be kept by him.”

Mr Justice Tugendhat, at that point soon to retire, awarded Mr James damages. In his opinion — and libel is often all about opinion, about balance of probabilities, not hard evidence — Mr James was all right and Jacqui was all wrong. The judge’s words prompted Jacqui’s insurers to cancel her conditional fee agreement, leaving her personally liable for every £. She cannot pay it all, even if the family’s bungalow (which has an agricultural tie) is sold.

Last week the judge in the County Court, Carmarthen, declined to allow Mr James permission to sell the house immediately. Instead, there is a ten-year stay of execution, and Jacqui has to pay £250 a month towards the damages bill of £25,000 plus interest and fees, a total around £36,000 before the County Court hearing. The total now exceeds that by over £14,000, because the judge added the latest fees to the damages. Even so, it’s not as much as the nearly £22,000 which Mr James’ team wanted.

Mr James was supposed to pay damages over to the council. That was the arrangement when the indemnity was agreed. Yet last week he appeared to have changed his mind. The court heard, through his counsel, that he could “stuff the money in the gutter” if he wanted.  That’s not what the Executive Board agreed to!

Elections are coming, on May 4th. The Executive Board will have some changes due to retirements, and perhaps after the vote there will be a completely fresh line-up. Hopefully the new board will remind themselves of paragraph 12, sub-section i.

Especially as residents all over the county are looking at their new Council Tax bills and wincing.

PDR

 

 

 

Spending per Head on Council Services — It’s Not Enough

Which local authority in Wales spends the most, per head, on running services?

The answer is Rhondda Cynon Taf, at £2,503 per head in 2016-17 — £620 more than Monmouthshire’s £1,883, at the foot of the table.

But in the context of rising need, neither of these figures seems sufficient.

The figures are for gross revenue spending, the amounts councils spend on their operations, in contrast to capital spending on new buildings and infrastructure.

The four authorities with per head spends over £2,400 are all former coal and steel heartlands which have suffered during the years of industrial decline in Wales, and in the UK overall. Neath Port Talbot still, tenaciously, retains its steelworks, but workers there have just traded future pension income for continuing jobs today.

West Wales authorities do not feature in the top ten. Carmarthenshire is 11th, with spending per head of £2,237. Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, 15th and 18th with £2,207 and £2,194 respectively, are rural counties where service provision is relatively expensive, there are miles of highways to maintain, and ageing populations with rising needs for social care. Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion both have over 20% of their residents aged 65 plus, and in Pembrokeshire the over-65s are almost 22% of the total population. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, though, barely over 17% are over-65s, and in Merthyr Tydfil under 17%.

The three authorities with the lowest spend per head all border England, and Monmouthshire at the bottle of the table is relatively affluent, certainly compared with the old industrial valleys, but is not exactly Kensington and Chelsea.

Perhaps the main question should be whether any of the per head spending figures are remotely adequate — and if they are not, where on earth additional resources could be found.

Authority Population Gross revenue spending £ Revenue spending per head £
Rhondda Cynon Taf 237626 594740636 2503
Merthyr Tydfil 59139 147089203 2487
Blaenau Gwent 69549 172392888 2479
Neath Port Talbot 140879 342450123 2431
Denbighshire 95144 227048068 2386
Torfaen 91799 217125719 2365
Caerphilly 180481 423500568 2347
Newport 147749 344970686 2335
Gwynedd 122605 278949310 2275
Bridgend 142038 322011255 2267
Carmarthenshire 185485 414917359 2237
Conwy 116561 260430342 2234
Swansea 243046 541221865 2227
Anglesey 70170 155129718 2211
Ceredigion 75864 167432294 2207
Cardiff 360491 794863354 2205
Powys 132303 290899698 2199
Pembrokeshire 123858 271721880 2194
Vale of Glamorgan 127985 275225417 2150
Wrexham 137929 287429837 2084
Flintshire 154372 309230624 2003
Monmouthshire 92639 174477964 1883

Population figures are for the start of 2016-17. Gross revenue spends are from the Welsh Government. 

Stagnant Rural Hinterland or Vibrant Interconnecting Centre? The Challenge for Mid Wales in the 21st Century

by STEVE PACKER

‘’Meanwhile an ongoing dilemma in rural Wales, in both Welsh and English speaking communities, is maintaining the balance between sufficient development to maintain a viable community whilst avoiding levels of development that would destroy its character and social cohesion. This key issue for rural Wales has yet to be satisfactorily addressed by a Welsh Government.’’

Roger Tanner – Brave New World-Planning under the Welsh Government 1997-2014

Mid Wales – Past, Present and Future

Defining ‘Mid Wales’ as encompassing the current Local Authorities of  Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, and Powys it is clear that a combination of topography, soil quality, climate, poor communications infrastructure and relative remoteness have resulted in a scattered population with few urban centres, and a rural economy typified by low incomes; characteristics shared with other rural parts of Wales but Mid Wales having its own particular problems.

Whilst it is always dangerous to idealise the past, if one looks around the area one can see evidence of a  previously larger and less fractured community . Everywhere there are signs of previous cultivation and enclosure high up on the hillsides, abandoned farmsteads and mines, ruined watermills on almost every sizeable stream, an abundance of small churches and chapels – remnants of a world before the industrial revolution.

Agriculture remains the most visible activity but employs a tiny fraction of the previous workforce and is becoming increasingly ‘industrialised’ with large intensive rearing units for chickens and egg production and, more recently, dairy cattle. One of the positive aspects of the industrial revolution investment, the railway network, has survived in part, but is not used by the majority of inhabitants and businesses who rely to a great extent on private road transport; not an indicator of affluence but of necessity. This makes the area’s economy particularly reliant on oil and its by-products and vulnerable to price fluctuations and forthcoming depletion. Public services are the major current source of employment but are themselves under threat from budgetary constraint and are becoming increasingly focussed on the few urban centres.

Whilst is easy to idealise the past and see nothing but problems in the present, it is possible to envisage a future where Mid Wales prospers as an essential element in the revitalisation of the country and acts as an exemplar of low impact, truly sustainable development nationally and internationally.

Much is already happening at the individual and community level but what is so far lacking is any coherent plan of action which is fit for purpose at local and national government levels.

A Plethora of Initiatives – Up to 2015

Since the 1950’s there have been a number of initiatives and bodies set up to consider/address the problems facing Mid Wales.

The most concrete achievement was the expansion of Newtown following the setting up the ‘Mid Wales Newtown Development Corporation’ in 1968 resulting in a doubling of that settlement’s population and some success in attracting employment. However, this proved to be a ‘one off’ with limited benefit to the area as a whole. Aberystwyth is now often referred to as the forthcoming ‘regional capital’ with the setting up Welsh Government Offices and an influx of private investment but, again it is questionable whether this will, in itself, provide benefit to the area overall.

The list of bodies set up over the years to look at the problems of Mid Wales includes:

  • The Development Board for Rural Wales (assimilated into the now defunct Welsh Development Agency)
  • Central Wales Economic Forum
  • Mid Wales Transport Collaboration Board
  • Powys Regeneration Partnership
  • Tourism Partnership Mid-Wales
  • Mid Wales Regional Committee
  • Growing Mid Wales

Strategies which have affected/ affect Mid Wales include:

  • One Wales-Connecting the Nation (2007)
  • The Wales Transportation Strategy (2008)
  • Regional Transport Plan.
  • Mid Wales Joint Local Transport Plan.
  • Winning Mid Wales (2015)
  • Strategic Search Areas (TAN8) (2005)
  • Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities (TAN6) (2010)
  • Wales Spatial Plan
  • (2004/2008)
  • Planning and Energy Act (2015)

The coming of devolution to Wales has delivered a degree of independence which promises the ability to revitalise the nation. However, over the years, there has been the perennial problem of ‘departmentalisation’, with initiatives being developed without full involvement of all the functions necessary for successful implementation (e.g. the lack of initial involvement of the transport section in the formulation of the wind farm strategy proposed in TAN8).

Planning Policy-Pre 2015

Whilst the Wales Spatial Plan came close to developing a set of regional entities and connections between them its contents were ‘vague and unoriginal – largely a summary of what different Welsh Departments were planning to do anyway’(Tanner).

Not being linked to land use or to a development plan, the Wales Spatial Plan has largely been ignored in the process of producing the Local Development Plans which began to replace Unitary development Plans in 2010.

The Local Development Plans themselves, based on existing Local Authority jurisdictions have, in spite of intentions to the contrary, been largely abbreviated versions of the former Unitary Development Plans with only token acknowledgement of wider, strategic relationships. Indeed dissatisfaction with the inability of the Local Authorities to work together and share resources has resulted in Welsh Government considering a radical re-organisation of Local Government and is also reflected in the emergence of the Planning Act of 2015.

Ceredigion’s Local Development Plan was adopted in 2013 and Carmathenshire’s in 2014 whilst it is anticipated that the Powys Plan will be finalised in 2016.Whilst all these documents acknowledge, and seek to address, the problems of provision of services, employment and housing in their areas, whilst factoring in sustainability, they follow the traditional approach of projecting future growth and accommodating it within a settlement hierarchy base on existing population sizes and services. Disappointingly none of them have included policies which fully and truly reflect the radical opportunities offered for rural development in TAN 6 and particularly they fail  to acknowledge and accommodate ‘One Planet’ Development.

Individually the Mid Wales Local Development Plans are reasonable approaches to their areas’ development in the short term but they are reactive and inward looking and, taken together, do not offer a template for successful future strategic development of the ‘region’.

Planning Policy from 2015

The passing of the Planning Act in 2015 with the setting up of a National Development Framework, within which will sit both Local Development Plans and new Strategic Development Plans, provides an important opportunity for a much needed coherent approach to the future development and prosperity of Mid Wales.

This is a very significant step as the setting up of a land use strategy will provide a focus and framework for all the forward planning activities of national and local government which has, so far, been conspicuously lacking.

Unfortunately, so far as can be ascertained at present, the current thinking of Welsh Ministers and officials is to focus Strategic Development in the most populated areas i.e. A South Wales City Region and North Wales Corridor along the A55. This is symptomatic of a long standing mind-set where the predominant emphasis is on urban Wales with the larger part of the country seen as not requiring strategic initiatives unless it be for large-scale renewable energy projects (which assist national targets but do not provide substantial long term benefits to the communities in which they are placed).

In the Development Plan Prospectus published by Welsh Government it is stated that:

SDPs will only be required in areas where there are matters of greater than local significance.’

and..

Strategic Development Plans will provide a consistent, cost effective and efficient approach, with key decisions taken once at the strategic level. This will allow larger than local issues such as housing numbers, strategic employment sites and supporting transport infrastructure which cut across a number of local planning authority areas and often frustrate the LDP  process, to be considered and planned for in an integrated and comprehensive way.’

Given these statements it is considered that there is, in fact, a compelling case for a Strategic Development Plan to assist with the challenges and future development of the rural heartland of Mid Wales which, along with its endemic problems of insufficient housing provision (particularly of an affordable nature), high unemployment and inadequate transport infrastructure, offers an environment wholly suited to new forms of sustainable rural development strategically planned, along with a coherent approach to sustainable recreation and tourism which would be of benefit to both urban Wales and the economy as a whole.

Conclusion-The Relevance of the Heart of Wales Line Forum and Calon Cymru Initiative

It is acknowledged that, whilst to many the case for the setting up of a Strategic Development Area for Mid Wales, is self- evident, there is a need to provide justifications for such an approach and further work  will be needed to persuade Welsh Government, as the ‘directing authority’ to set the process in motion.

There is, in fact, a very short time scale for the case to be considered before areas are designated and Strategic Planning Panels set up.

It is, therefore, of great relevance that a considerable amount of work has been undertaken already by the Heart of Wales Line Forum in association with the Transport Minister and others to improve the railway service through Mid Wales, and by Calon Cymru who have provided a vision of strategic development based on ‘one planet’ policies linked to the railway network.

It is suggested, therefore, that the work of these two bodies form the basis for further discussion and consideration by Welsh Government as it has the potential to act as a template for Strategic Planning for Rural Wales far beyond what is currently achievable through the implementation of individual Local Authority Local Development Plans.

 

Carms Planners Censor Field Shelter (Allowed Elsewhere in England and Wales)

Carmarthenshire’s planners have caused consternation all over England and Wales by insisting that a moveable field shelter, also called a mobile field shelter, must have planning permission.

This is contrary to custom, to the advertising of field shelter manufacturers, and to the view of the UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government.

Oaklands Equestrian Buildings of New Tredegar says “no you do not need planning permission for a mobile field shelter. They do not constitute any ground work and sit on their own base”. Prime Stables Ltd, of Rudgwick in West Sussex, says “No planning permission is required for the Prime Stables range mobile shelters”.

Manufacturers, though, are a little less emphatic than they used to be, because of Carmarthenshire’s out-on-a-limb decision. The Colt Stables firm of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, notes:

“In 2011, in a well publicised case, a horse owner from Wales was fined over£1,000 for failing to move his mobile shelter frequently enough. The case was thought to be the first conviction of its kind and shone a light on an ambiguous ruling that has many people confused and unsure of their responsibilities.”

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‘Council’s shock ruling’: Carmarthenshire County Council makes the cover of Horse & Hound

The horse owner was Mr Andrew Robinson-Redman, and the ‘moveable shelter’ was in his field, Cae Derwen, at Broad Oak near Llandeilo. Carmarthenshire County Council had not given him time to move his mobile kit ‘frequently enough’ because, Mr Robinson-Redman said, it arrived in the first week of October 2010 and the council issued an enforcement notice with alacrity, on November 7th.

Carmarthenshire’s crackdown on moveable shelters contrasts with a much more permissive attitude to far more intrusive developments in the county’s countryside, such as two industrial-style buildings near Laugharne, constructed as a cattery without permission, but allowed to remain; a new four-bedroomed house in countryside at Henfwlch Road; and damage to the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation which proceeded in full public view.

Andrew Robinson-Redman and his wife Meg-Anne moved to Carmarthenshire from Oxfordshire in 2010 and rented a field of 6.2 acres with access from a minor road, about five miles from their home in Milo.  They bought the field late in the year, and subsequently moved to Capel Isaac, within half a mile of the field — but, said Mr Robinson-Redman, the council told the Conservative AM Nick Bourne that they were not resident in the area.

The couple thought that normal practice elsewhere in England and Wales would be normal in their new county. Field shelters on metal or timber skids, and not on an artificial base, are generally regarded as ‘equipment’ and not as ‘buildings’ because, like a trailer or a water tank, they can be towed to another location. Moveable field shelters must be on skids or wheels, have towing hooks, be fully moveable, not be connected to mains water or electricity, have moveable flooring (if any), and not be on hard standing.

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The Cae Derwen field shelter was on metal skids and had towing hooks (one is clearly visible in the photo). It was not connected to mains water or electricity, and sat directly on the field.

The odd council here and there has tried to act against moveable field shelters. Purbeck District Council in Dorset issued an enforcement notice in 2001, telling a Mr Bennet to remove his newly acquired moveable field shelter because in their view he had changed the land use from grazing to the keeping of horses with the addition of a shelter. Mr Bennet appealed, and the planning inspector said the shelter did not amount to operational development as defined in section 55(1) of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, and the inspector also said that grazing horses was not a change of use but fell within the definition of agriculture in section 336(1) of the 1990 Act, and so by virtue of section 22(2)(e) of the Act, planning permission was not required.  This ruling gave livestock owners confidence that moveable shelters did not and would not require planning permission.

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Close up of metal skid.

In Carmarthenshire, Mr and Mrs Robinson-Redman grazed their horses, bought a moveable field shelter and two moveable stables, and placed them in the field. Later they acquired some pigs, sheep and poultry to raise, got an official agricultural holding number and applied for the necessary animal movement licences. But everything was already fast unravelling. An adjacent landowner complained. Mr Robinson-Redman thinks the complaint likely to be linked to the fact that a previous owner of the field wanted to build a house on it, but failed to get planning permission.

An enforcement officer from the county council told Mr Robinson-Redman to take the shelter and stables away. Why? Apparently because he had put some washed river stone on part of the field to try and reduce waterlogging and, because the equipment had only just arrived, he had not shifted it around the field.

Carmarthenshire’s planners were adamant that no part of the field’s surface could be changed in any way, and that mobile shelters must be moved at least five or six times a year (although they had evidently decided not to allow time for this to happen).

 

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Andrew Robinson-Redman: argues that the field shelter conforms to requirements for moveable equipment which does not need planning permission. 

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The field shelter in October 2015, in its final position before removal, near the roadside hedge (right). 

A long battle ensued. The Robinson-Redmans sold the two moveable stables, leaving just the field shelter. This must go too, said the planners. The Robinson-Redmans applied for planning permission for the 24 feet by 12 feet open-fronted shelter (which elsewhere does not need permission), but were turned down. They appealed, but lost. The notice from the inspector, PJ Davies, dated October 1st 2015, did not refer at all to ‘moveable’ or ‘mobile’ structures but to ‘building’ and ‘shed’. The fact that the planners had insisted on a planning application for a moveable structure which normally does not require it probably further confused the already tangled issue. The inspector, to judge from the wording in the appeal rejection notice, may not have known that the ‘building’ was in fact a moveable shelter which is normally permitted without planning permission.

The rejection notice said: “I acknowledge the appellants’ case that enforcement issues have curtailed agricultural activity, but nevertheless, this should not prevent the submission of adequate evidence to demonstrate the need for the building  (my italics) in an otherwise unsustainable location where new development should be strictly controlled.”

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This tall hedge separated the shelter from the road.

The meaning of the word ‘unsustainable’ is not at all clear. The county council’s case appears to be that Cae Derwen is not, in their view, sustainable as a farm business because the activity of grazing a few livestock could not yield an income sufficient for the Robinson-Redmans to live on. The field is too small to allow an agricultural building to be constructed with permitted development rights, because the threshold for this is 5 hectares (12.36 acres), almost double the size of Cae Derwen.

But, then, moveable shelters are not, officially, buildings.

So what rights do people have in Carmarthenshire if they buy fewer than 5 hectares of farmland and want to keep livestock as a hobby, and maybe to supply a supplementary income stream? Most livestock need some shelter and some handling equipment. The UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government in London allows for this and told the magazine Horse & Hound* that “field shelters are considered temporary and do not need planning permission if they are fully mobile. But it depends how long they’ve remained static, the degree of portability and if they’ve changed the use of the land”. In the Robinson-Redman case, the shelter was recently moved within the field and the land use remains agricultural.

The impasse with Carmarthenshire’s planners has cost the Robinson-Redmans a shedload of money. They paid more than £4,350 an acre for the field. They have had to pay nearly £3,000 in fines for losing, so far, their battles with the county council. Their moveable stables and shelter have had to be sold at a loss. They still have the field but without a shelter or livestock handling equipment there is little they can do with it.

The implications of this saga are serious, both for the Robinson-Redmans and more widely.

  1. Public confidence in the impartiality of the planning system is further damaged.
  2. Planners’ opinion of what constitutes ‘agriculture’ is revealed, in this case, as a stereotypical view in which agriculture is a full-time business activity. In reality ‘agriculture’ includes crop and livestock production at every scale from the hobby field to the landed estate of hundreds of acres.
  3. Opportunity is denied to new arrivals in the county, through insistence on planning permission when it is not normally required elsewhere in England and Wales, and through refusal of planning permission for ventures which meet all the requirements of the relevant planning policies (as in the case of Rhiw Las near Llanboidy).

Underlying these contrary planning decisions there may be a genuine if inexpressed wish to protect the Welsh language, still widely spoken among the established farming community, from dilution by non-Welsh-speaking newcomers. The other side of the coin, though, looks like a dog-in-the-manger antipathy to the interests of incomers, which harms community relations and, by implication, the long-term prospects for Welsh language and culture.

PDR

* June 23rd 2011, ‘Councils target field shelters’ by Amy Mathieson

‘Barngate’ Saga Highlights Planning Confusion

What’s up with Carmarthenshire’s planning committee? This week members pushed through approvals against the professional advice of the planning officers.

Not all members, of course, but enough to come to confusing decisions which appear to privilege some members of the community.

Which members of the community? Prominent people, influential people, and people who have already flouted planning regulations but make a persuasive case for allowing their development to remain — or so it seems to me.

That is the story from yesterday’s meeting of the committee, as well as from other recent meetings.

Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee has seven members of Plaid Cymru, six Independents, and six representing Labour, a total of 19. In addition there are ten ‘reserves’ who replace absent members. The reserves are four from Plaid Cymru, three Independents and three from Labour.

Two controversial applications were approved yesterday, despite planning officers having recommended refusal. The approval of a third, which planning officers had also opposed, was confirmed.

 

The Barns That Were

The decision, by a margin of one vote,* to allow construction to continue on a hairdressing salon and a holiday let, at the home near Pontyberem of council leader Emlyn Dole (Plaid Cymru, Llannon), is a controversial rebuke for the planning officers who tried to stop the unauthorised work, which replaces a double barn sited next to the public roadway, at right angles to it (see photo).

The barns saga began with a 2012 application from Mr Dole’s wife, the singer Gwenda Owen, to convert them into two holiday flats and one business unit. This was approved. Then part of one barn was demolished and in 2014, after an investigation triggered by the demolition and thereby non-compliance with the original permission, the planning department received retrospectively a new application, to rebuild the demolished part. Planning officers advised the planning committee to reject this amended plan (S/30698), but committee members disagreed and passed it.

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The barns in 2011, taken from the public road. They have since been demolished. Photo from Google Earth

Since then, however, the whole double barn has been demolished. And in the view of planning officers they were no longer dealing with a building conversion but with a completely new build, slightly smaller than the original barn duo and comprising a hairdressing salon and one holiday flat.

Planning committee members all had the chance to read case officer Gary Glenister’s report on the second retrospective application, which included the following:

“Whilst the principle of rural enterprise is supported by local and national policy in order to create jobs and diversify the rural economy, the policies are predicated on the re-use and adaptation of rural buildings. As an exception, new development in rural areas is only allowed when a sequential approach is taken and it can be demonstrated that there are no premises available within settlements…and any new build is immediately adjacent or directly related to sustainable settlements. In this case a sequential approach has not been taken and the business and holiday accommodation is new development in the open countryside between the settlements of Pontyberem and Pontiets and is not therefore immediately adjacent or directly related.” The report advised refusal as contrary to policies for new employment locations and for visitor accommodation.

Cllr Terry Davies (Labour, Gorslas) was adamant that passing this second retrospective application, for a building which is almost ready for its roof to be put on, would send the wrong message to the public, and former council leader Kevin Madge (Labour, Garnant) agreed, fearing that the floodgates would open as people got the message that if you build what you want without waiting for permission, you have a good chance of getting the committee to back you. Of course, it probably depends who you are, and this largesse would, perhaps, be unlikely to extend to applications from known felons or even from brand-new arrivals into this proud nation.

Councillors who voted to allow the building to be completed did not agree that it is a new build. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) said it is not really a new building because original stone would be used for cladding. Cllr Eirwyn Williams (Plaid Cymru, Cynwyl Gaeo), found it difficult to think of it as a new building, and  thought it would have much better foundations than the old barns. Cllr Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said he had heard that the builders were of good repute and the new building would be sounder than the old one. Cllr Jeff Owen (Plaid Cymru, Tyisha) argued that the new building would be sustainable, and an amenity for the community. For Cllr Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) the building would support the rural economy and benefit small-scale tourism, and Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) said jobs would be created.

By nine votes to eight, Emlyn Dole and Gwenda Owen have approval to keep their completely rebuilt building.

Whether full public approval will be forthcoming is another matter.

 

The Cattery That Is

Two new buildings totalling 277 square metres, covered in grey profile steel cladding, went up at Broadway Farm, Llangain, near Llansteffan, without permission. The buildings, for G and D Williams, replaced old Dutch barns and are in use as a cattery. A retrospective application was refused in June 2015. This week, the planning committee had a resubmission before it (W/32479). Case officer Stuart Willis had prepared a long report detailing reasons for refusal. His conclusion was that “having regard to prevailing planning policies and material considerations, it is not considered the development complies with the relevant policies of the Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan or national guidance”.

The retrospective application form for the cattery states that it is not an agricultural holding. It might have been possible to grant approval on the grounds of farm diversification, but if there is no farming it cannot be diversified. Mr Willis’ report says that the “application has not demonstrated that the proposal would be subordinate to or support the continued operation of an agricultural activity. The information provided suggests a limited level of agricultural activity at present and has not demonstrated that the proposal is a farm diversification scheme in compliance with the policy.”

Broadway Farm is 18 acres in open countryside and carries two goats, six ewes, eight horses and some poultry, according to Mr Willis’s report. The cattery has capacity for over 30 felines and would therefore be the dominant activity.

In all, the report gives ten separate reasons why the application should be refused. In the planners’ eyes, the cattery is composed of two industrial buildings inappropriately sited in the countryside, but not on a working farm which needs to diversify to remain viable.

Cllr Daff Davies (Independent, Llansteffan) led the charge in favour of the cattery. The new constructions are more visually appealing than the previous sheds, he said. The owners live on the premises and so are on hand to look after the cats. Cllr Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) regretted that the development was completed before the owners put in a planning application, but considered the cattery to be an asset to the local community and of value to the rural economy. Cllr Hugh Richards (Independent, Felinfoel) referred to the benefits of farm diversification ventures such as this.

Labour members Terry Davies (Gorslas) and Kevin Madge (Garnant) were both strongly opposed to approving the application, Cllr Davies going so far as to say the committee would be subject to public ridicule, and Cllr Madge predicting a big increase in the numbers of buildings going up without any permission.

They were in the minority, though. The planning officer’s advice was overturned, and the committee voted for the grey-clad buildings to remain, by a margin of two to one.

 

The House That Will Be

Permission for a four-bedroom house in the countryside, 40 or so metres from the farmyard of Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road, was confirmed. An existing smaller, unoccupied house in the farmyard has to be demolished. Planning officers had originally recommended refusal for the plan (W/32578), submitted by Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales.

 

Influence Helps?

Is the applicant a well-known individual of good repute? Has he or she already put up a substantial building without permission? Or have they got permission for a development and then decided to go and build something completely different?

If so, they would seem to have quite good odds of success in Carmarthenshire.

I have no quarrel with catteries, no hatred of new houses, no desire to dismiss farm diversification, and am positively enthusiastic about small-scale agriculture and re-use of old buildings, but a reputation for, let’s call it inconsistency, is bad for the council and bad for public attitudes to local democracy, no matter if planning officers and councillors may be trying hard to achieve a correct outcome.

The tangled complexity of the myriad of planning policies and regulations means that it is often possible to find part of a policy which supports the case in question even if other relevant policies oppose it — and if the applicant is an influential person, they are more likely than a shy, retiring, little-known individual to attract the support they need to achieve their goal.

Even if that goal involves some highly selective interpretations of the rules.

* Two Plaid Cymru councillors voted against the barn replacement and the chair, Plaid’s Alun Lenny, abstained.

PDR

Trisha’s Torment: When Turning a Blind Eye Lets Abuse Escalate

Police Apology Leaves County Council Isolated

When two powerful institutions both decided to back one party to a dispute without properly evaluating the evidence, the result was denial of justice.

In the case of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts, a couple in their 70s living in Maesybont, Carmarthenshire, that denial of justice is a little eased by a recent full unreserved apology from Dyfed Powys Police – an apology which Trisha and Eddie say goes far beyond any statement so far made by Carmarthenshire County Council, the other authority in the case.

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Trisha Breckman has now received a full apology from Dyfed Powys Police — but she notes that Carmarthenshire County Council has not yet followed suit.

Rhodri Glyn Thomas, the Welsh Government member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and county councillor Cefin Campbell both believe that Trisha and Eddie have suffered because of intransigence by the county council, and have supported them through difficult times.

The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys, includes these words:

“It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities (my emphasis) and for the part played by Dyfed Powys Police in this we apologise whole heartedly.”

In addition to the apology from Dyfed Powys Police, Trisha Breckman received a further apology from Christopher Salmon, as follows:

“We are apologising for all the hurt and pain caused throughout your experience, including any implied attack on your integrity.

“I do not want to lose the force of an unbounded apology. However it absolutely applies to any unsubstantiated comment or accusation, implied or otherwise, against your integrity. We acknowledge they are hurtful, embarrassing and deeply personal. For that we are sorry.

“Officers will continue to do all they can to help you with any ongoing issues. You are not accused of anything and your integrity is not in doubt.”

Despite this apology, the repercussions of 11 years of officialdom’s hostility remain, and include financial problems which the couple cannot easily resolve because Trisha and Eddie have advanced in age, Trisha to 71 and Eddie to 78.

The couple bought Pant y Castell Fach – a cottage, outbuilding and over six acres — in 2003. Trisha was looking forward to a quiet life on the smallholding with its pretty cottage, and enough land for her elderly Connemara mare Minnie and for the cattery she hoped to establish – and for which she obtained planning permission. The couple paid mostly in cash but also took out a mortgage to fund construction of the cattery.

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The pretty but not-so-tranquil setting of Pant y Castell Fach. 

The cattery was never built, because of problems which emerged as soon as the couple moved in, and which left Trisha feeling too nervous to remain in the cottage on her own. This meant that Eddie, who had been intending to live in Sussex for part of the week and repay the mortgage with earnings from his taxi business there, decided he had to live in the cottage full-time, so that Trisha would not be alone.

Why had Trisha become anxious? She was embroiled in a dispute with their neighbours, a dispute which took over her life, and which diminished the pair’s financial resources so much that the only way they can repay the mortgage is to sell the property.

But their long-running history of dispute with the next-door landowner, which would have to be declared to an intending purchaser, has depressed the market value.

 

Injustice is Blind

Above Pant y Castell Fach, across a field, lie the yards of Blaenpant Farm, which when I visited in September 2015 was quiet and peaceful, with just one heavy goods vehicle parked in the yard. What could possibly be amiss?

The twilight zones of planning law are amiss. Twilight can hide, in its long shadows, changes of land use from agricultural to industrial.

Blaenpant Farm completely surrounds Pant y Castell Fach. The farm even includes the top of the access track from the B4297 road  to Pant y Castell Fach, over which Trisha and Eddie have a right of way.

For Trisha and Eddie, Pant y Castell Fach was to be their country retreat, and they expected a degree of peace and quiet, but instead found themselves living next to a heavy haulage business operating without planning permission – a business which the county council’s planning department omitted to notice. In the opinion of the then-Planning Enforcement Manager, Brian Canning, and the Head of Planning Services, Eifion Bowen, there was no breach of planning regulations, and no industrial business operating without the need to pay business rates (because farms are exempt). Instead, officers in the planning department accused Trisha and Eddie of making baseless complaints. Eventually the pensioner couple were put on a list of persistent complainants and for a time were stopped from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.

The council’s verdict that the scale of industrial activity on the yard at Blaenpant was acceptable for a farm meant that both council and police took the side of the then-occupants of Blaenpant, Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas when they, enraged that Trisha and Eddie had complained about industrial operations on Blaenpant, embarked upon a campaign of harassment.

Film evidence of the harassment was presented in television documentaries, but failed to persuade the authorities to reconsider their positions.  In 2010 a planning inquiry by inspector Clive Cochrane determined that an area of land on Blaenpant Farm, away from the yard and adjacent to the Carmel telecommunications mast, was being used unlawfully to store a long list of non-agricultural equipment – industrial skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, container body shells, excavator and bulldozer plant, a fire engine, tarmacadam planings and more –and must be returned to agriculture. Later Mr Cochrane, then retired, told the BBC that he could confirm everything that Trisha and Eddie had said about operations at Blaenpant lacking planning permission

Commenting on the main farmyard of Blaenpant, Mr Cochrane said in his inquiry report:

“During the inquiry, copies of two VOSA (Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, since replaced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) licences were produced to show that Blaenpant Farm is an operational base for six lorries and five trailers owned by two different haulage companies. I understand that the appellant also operates haulage and scrap metal businesses at other licensed vehicle operating centres in the Swansea area.

“The licensed operations and the use of the yard and buildings as a haulage depot, storage of related items and HGV maintenance area, combined with the keeping of horses, is not an agricultural use of the existing buildings and open yard. This appears to be in contravention of the conditional planning permissions for the buildings and may be unlawful without further planning permission for an apparent change of use.

“It demonstrates to me that there is very little genuine farming activity at Blaenpant and that other, possibly unauthorised, commercial activities are occupying the land and the buildings reserved by planning conditions for agricultural use.”

This contradiction of the ‘Blaenpant is a farm’ position maintained by Carmarthenshire’s planning department was reinforced in 2012, when a verdict of maladministration from the then-Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, had to be accepted by the county council, but to Eddie and Trisha it seemed that acceptance was grudging, and they did not notice any change in the council’s attitude to them.

The 188-page anonymised report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council.

The Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman, in his reply to the draft report, that

“I consider the contents of your report in relation to my involvement in this very long-running and difficult case to be biased and lacking in any evidential basis. You insult my professionalism [and that of the Head of Planning] in stating that our ‘dislike’ of this woman (Trisha Breckman) would influence the manner with which we dealt with her many and varied complaints over the years.”

His reply maintained that “we acted with integrity in not being intimidated by this woman, who would seek to move heaven and earth to get her way”.

He went on to challenge the  validity of the Ombudsman’s findings, and said “It is my fervent hope that Carmarthenshire County Council seeks counsel’s advice in order to vigorously challenge your recommendations in this matter”, concluding “I did not want to get involved in this matter from the outset. I have absolutely no interest in your final conclusions so would be grateful if you would refrain from contacting me again.”

The Planning Enforcement Manager had told the Ombudsman’s enquiry that he could not recall earlier complaints made by the previous occupiers of Pant y Castell Fach, he could not recall seeing a log of HGV-related activity completed at the end of 2001, he could not recall if he had been aware that former occupiers had said they were threatened by Mr Thomas after complaining about the extent of haulage activities at Blaenpant. He did not recall if Blaenpant was licensed as an operating base for one HGV, but he did recall that the operating centre for the lorries was elsewhere. He never saw anything to suggest that a change of use from farming to industry had occurred. He did not recall being shown photographs of lorries, he could not recall if he was offered video footage of HGV activity during a meeting with Eddie Roberts and his surveyor. He could not recall a planning report of September 2006 which referred to the primary uses of the site as being equine and a lorry base, and he believed that statement to be incorrect, based on a snapshot assessment of the planning officer and going beyond what the officer was in a position to say.

Mr Thomas had said under oath during the 2010 planning inquiry that for ten years he had been using the farm as a base for five or six lorries, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement. In his view, the late Karen Bowen Thomas, who died at the end of 2008, would have had a clearer idea of what had been going on.

In what seems a revealing statement, the Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman that he was extremely principled and would never desist from taking action on the basis of some other ulterior motive, for example, because an officer was being intimidated.

He also claimed, falsely, that Trisha had been convicted of assaulting Karen Bowen Thomas.

In his view, Trisha was a “complete nutcase”, and the Ombudsman’s investigation was “a worthless process”.

The Head of Planning Services was the immediate superior of the Planning Enforcement Manager, and he did not consider that the council had failed to do something it should have done. He did, though, suggest to the Ombudsman that planning enforcement was not the best process for mediation, and therefore it could be helpful to have a more formal mediation service.

In the absence of any mediation, this is what happened.

 

Evidence Disregarded

When Trisha and Eddie first became concerned about the scale of haulage and other industrial operations on Blaenpant, the council’s planning department advised them to get some evidence. So Eddie and Trisha started filming the lorry movements. The film evidence convinced ITV Wales’ current affairs programme Wales This Week, which reported on the dispute six times between June 2005 and March 2008, and also persuaded BBC1 Wales, which broadcast The Good Life Gone Bad in October 2012. The programmes are on You Tube for anyone to watch.

The Thomases had arrived at Blaenpant in 2001, and the lorry operations, branded KBHS Ltd, got under way on the site.  A former owner of Pant y Castell Fach, John Lawday, logged the movements and informed the council, and so did John Bleasdale, who lived nearby at Ffynnon Goch. Mr Lawday sold up soon after the Thomases arrived next door, after 26 years in the cottage. The next occupant was Anne Gifford, who quickly put the property back on the market and was gone in the space of a year. She sold to Trisha and Eddie.

Coming from the south of England, Trisha and Eddie had no idea that complaints about their neighbour’s haulage activities were accumulating in the county council’s planning department, and they say nothing was uncovered during legal searches. The fact that the vendor wanted to move away so quickly might have rung alarm bells, but did not. The fact that the top section of the access track was on Blaenpant land should have prompted questions but did not. In the year after they moved in, Trisha and Eddie became aware that all was not well. “It was actually within a few months of moving here, planning officer Ceri Davies informed me there had been problems here,” said Trisha. “He was here to discuss our plans for the cattery. Nigel Stringer of the Countryside Council for Wales also visited the first year and told us the same thing. In addition, an officer of the Country Land and Business Association informed us that ‘there have been lots of problems here’.”

Alarm bells now sounding loudly, Trisha made a Freedom of Information request for data on complaints relating to Blaenpant which had reached the council’s planning department, and was given a file documenting complaint after complaint. But according to the council, Blaenpant Farm was merely a contact address for a haulage business operated elsewhere.

When Andrew Thomas and Karen Bowen Thomas found out, somehow, that Trisha and Eddie were asking questions about the haulage business – and about quarrying and lorry maintenance work at Blaenpant — retaliation started. Karen unfortunately died prematurely in 2008 and so is unable to comment, but incidents are on film.

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An old heavy goods vehicle looms above Trisha’s and Eddie’s home.

A huge removals lorry appeared on Blaenpant land by the boundary with Pant y Castell Fach, becoming a major element of the view from the cottage. A couple of pigs called Eddie and Trisha were penned outside a bedroom window, and Karen would sit with them making personal comments which, when heard on film, sounded threatening. A large board on stilts was erected blocking the view from a bedroom. But worst of all, the Thomases narrowed the access track from 15 feet to nine, erected motorway-style crash barriers on either side of it, and put in two gates which they threatened to lock. Trisha and Eddie felt like prisoners.

Incidents on the access track, including Andrew Thomas letting a horse loose down the track into Trisha and Eddie’s garden, led to police action but, bizarrely, against Trisha, who was arrested on five occasions, and on the horse incident day she was taken away in handcuffs because police believed Karen Thomas’s accusation that Trisha had assaulted her. The film evidence reveals Trisha to be frightened and panicked, but not the aggressor. Police later did drop the charge.

Trisha never has been convicted of assault, but Andrew Thomas has. In 2006 he assaulted two young women in Carmarthen, who were trying to stop him from haranguing Eddie Roberts. Eddie, working as a taxi driver, was in his cab at a taxi rank, and Andrew was outside the car. The two young women gave evidence and Andrew Thomas emerged from the court a convicted man.

First haulage lorries, then buildings and other development — for which there were planning applications, no less than 16 between 2002 and 2011, all but one for  agricultural or equestrian activities, and none for industrial uses. Planning officers did in fact worry about a lack of agricultural activity on the farm (although not to the extent of taking Eddie’s and Trisha’s complaints seriously) and rejected an application for an implement store and hay shed 99 feet long and 50 feet wide, but permission was granted on appeal. In 2009, Andrew Thomas applied for permission for an area of hardstanding adjacent to the Carmel transmitter mast, on the south-western side, to be used for storing agricultural vehicles and implements. Carmarthenshire County Council refused, one reason being insufficient farming activity at Blaenpant to warrant it. So Mr Thomas made an appeal, but as we have seen, an inquiry heard by planning inspector Clive Cochrane turned it down.

When in 2012 the Ombudsman found in Trisha and Eddie’s favour on those issues where clear evidence existed, and against Carmarthenshire County Council, the council delayed putting the report before any councillors for several months. The full council never was shown the report. Instead, an edited version was presented to the planning committee.

Andrew Thomas had, after a three-year civil court case ending in 2008, been obliged to widen the access track and to take away one gate and leave the others open, to give unimpeded access to Pant y Castell Fach and remove the sense of claustrophobia which the line of gates had created.

But nothing has been done to compensate Trisha and Eddie adequately for the emotional trauma they suffered after the council cast them as villains in the drama.

 

Flow of Planning Applications

Planning applications for buildings on Blaenpant streamed in to Carmarthenshire County Council and included the following.

In April 2004 came an application (E/06708) for intended permitted development on Blaenpant, construction of an agricultural implement store and hay shed, 99 feet by 50 feet. This did not get the go-ahead, and Karen Bowen Thomas was told to submit a formal planning application. She did so in July, asking (E/07519) for a store for farm machinery and hay, but the planning committee said no. The refusal letter, from Head of Planning Eifion Bowen, explained that there was “insufficient justification for the proposed development at this location due to the lack of agricultural activity at the farm unit” and also because the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the shed was reasonably necessary for agriculture.

So back in 2004 the council was well aware of a lack of agricultural activity at Blaenpant.

Karen Bowen Thomas appealed, and the appeal was upheld, albeit with conditions, such as a stipulation that the building be used for storage only. The shed was built, with the help of another permitted development (E/09576) from the council, for the excavation of quarry overburden and rock and the use of the material for levelling the ground on which the building would be constructed. Far from being used for storage, the building housed horses, as subsequent photographic evidence showed.

Next, in October 2005, Mr and Mrs Thomas applied (E/11544) to convert a former cowshed to a farm office and tack room, and received permission. In August 2006, they applied (E/14109) for a detached garage, which was allowed. They were not so fortunate with a much larger application (E/14145) the same month, for a cow shed 97 feet by 30 feet, which was refused for the same reasons as the agricultural implement store two years earlier: lack of agricultural activity and no demonstrable need for a large cow shed.

After a minor application (E/14648) for roof alterations on another building, which was approved, the cow shed application was resubmitted in all but name, this time (E/17981) as a notification of permitted development and in the guise of a hay and implement shed, a little smaller at 78 feet by 30 feet. This would be the second large implement and hay store, on a farm where there was a “lack of agricultural activity”.  The planning department agreed that this was indeed permitted agricultural development not requiring planning permission, and so therefore there was no need for the councillors on the planning committee to consider the application.

The first and second buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles.

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Storage buildings on Blaenpant Farm, Maesybont. Trisha Breckman’s home is below the end building, to the left. There is a quarry to the right of the buildings.

The applications continued. In January 2008 Mr and Mrs Thomas requested permitted development rights (E/18176) for a new road, opening into the access track to Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ home and continuing across a field up towards the Carmel telecommunications mast. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the application was withdrawn — but by summer 2015 the road was completed, without permission.

Also in 2008, in September, Mr and Mrs Thomas asked (E/19928) for a replacement agricultural building, which was allowed as the footprint was only slightly larger than the existing structure.

In July 2009 Mr Thomas, who by now was bereaved, applied retrospectively (E/21494) for a hardstanding area adjoining the Carmel Transmitter Mast, for the “parking and storage of agricultural vehicles and implements”, but this was turned down and the subsequent appeal was dismissed. As noted above, the items stored by the Carmel mast had included skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, excavating and bulldozing equipment, containers, a fire engine, and tarmacadam planings.

The reports, logs, investigations, photographs and films documenting the disputes between Trisha and Eddie and Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas, and between Trisha and Eddie and officers of Carmarthenshire County Council, form an archive in themselves, containing more detail than can be summarised here. The Ombudsman, who had access to this library of information and to the principal participants, came to conclusions which Carmarthenshire County Council resisted.

In response the council officers, who include the Chief Executive, Mark James, opted to try and bury the Ombudsman’s findings — under the tarmacadam, so to speak.

 

No Answers

I contacted the county council’s press office at 9.13am on Friday October 9th, with these three questions:

  1. Will Carmarthenshire County Council also issue a complete apology to acquit Mrs Breckman from blame for  the breakdown in relations with Mrs and Mrs Thomas which resulted in Mrs Breckman’s arrests? (The Ombudsman required the county council to issue an apology, but in Mrs Breckman’s view it was very restricted and failed to absolve her from all blame.)
  2. Will all councillors be given access to the Ombudsman’s full report? (The Ombudsman required this to happen, but I have been informed that only an edited version was offered, and then only to members of the planning committee.)
  3. Has the county council amended the procedures around planning enforcement, so that when there is a profound disagreement between a complainant and an enforcement officer, an independent arbitrator is brought in at an early stage? (This was a suggestion made by Mr Eifion Bowen, former Head of Planning Services, and reported by the Ombudsman.)

A reply came at 1pm on Monday October 12th, in the form of a statement by Mark James. The statement did not, in my view, respond to any of the questions I had asked. Mr James said:

“The most recent outcome of an investigation (August 2015) by the Ombudsman on a complaint by Mrs Breckman concluded: ‘I believe that the Council has taken the appropriate steps in investigating the breaches of planning control reported and identified and issuing proceedings to either restore the land to its former condition or, in the case of the unauthorised track, consider its planning merits through the submission of an application. Again, I cannot identify any evidence of maladministration in the way in which the Council has acted.”

I had not asked about an unauthorised track. On the matters of events leading to Mrs Breckman’s arrests (for which the police have now apologised); of the 2012 Ombudsman’s report being withheld from the full council; and of any plans to bring in independent arbitration — silence.

PDR

Impartiality in Carmarthenshire? Not for every Tom, Dick and Harry

Councillors in Carmarthenshire have pressed officials to trawl through a gamut of planning policies to find reasons/ excuses for them to reject recommendations made by those same officials.

Two examples from the county council’s planning committee this week:

The first relates to a plan for a roomy new farmhouse for Mr Brian Walters, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales (FUW), whose farms include Clunmelyn, Ffynnonddrain, and Esgairhir Uchaf, Henfwlch Road. The two are about two and a half miles apart by road. Mr Walters and Mrs Ann Walters farm some 500 acres with their sons Aled and Seimon. They are dairy farmers with a herd of 200 cows, 200 followers, and about 40 beef cattle, according to the biography released by the FUW. Mr Walters is a chapel deacon, and offers work experience to agricultural students.

The new farmhouse will be – for councillors have given permission – at Esgairhir Uchaf. The building will be over 40% larger than and about 40 metres away from the existing one, which is currently unoccupied and would be demolished. There will be a requirement to demolish, although the local county councillor, Irfon Jones (Independent, Cynwyl Elfed) saw no reason to impose this condition. Several councillors spoke in support of the application. Tom Theophilus (Independent, Cilycwm) said the location of the new house would be safer because it is 40 metres from the farmyard. Joseph Davies (Indpependent, Manordeilo and Salem) and Mansel Charles (Plaid Cymru, Llanegwad) both thoroughly supported the application. Ken Howell (Plaid Cymru, Llangeler) said he was disappointed with the attitude of the planning officer who recommended refusal. The new house would be easier to heat and less draughty, he said.

Councillors overruled the planning officer, who recommended refusal because the design of the new house would not be appropriate for the location, or to the character of the area. The scale, mass and design features of the house would have “suburban connotations” at odds with its location in open countryside.

Now that the committee has decided to allow the house, the planning department will have to find some small print in a planning policy somewhere which can be used to support a substantial new house, with 309 square metres of floor area, sited away from existing buildings.

Not one councillor asked if a pedestrian path linked the new house with the nearest village, or if it was served by public transport.

Yet these were the reasons found by planning officers to try and justify councillors’ refusal of an application they had been recommended to approve, because it met all the requirements of the policy under which it was submitted.

While an application from a man of considerable local renown, and a pillar of the farming establishment, met with councillors’ approval against the advice of the planning officer, an application from relative newcomers to the area, made under the One Wales One Planet sustainable development policy of the Welsh Government, was turned down flat although they were advised to approve it because it ticked all the boxes of the policy.

The reasons which councillors gave for rejecting Dr Erica Thompson’s application for a mini eco-hamlet at Rhiw Las, near Llanboidy, included personal opinions that occupants would fail to make a sufficient living, that they could live elsewhere and work on the land during the day, that it would encourage similar applications, and that it was too far from a village. In the end, planning officers extracted three policies from the 2014 Carmarthenshire Local Development Plan and applied them to the One Planet policy in such a way as to make it very unlikely that any One Planet application for a rural location could ever be approved in the county.

The proposed site for the venture is inadequately served by an integrated transport network catering for pedestrians, cyclists and public-transport users, and so conflicts with policy GP1 of the Local Development Plan, planning officers suggested. The site also conflicts with policy TR2, at least officers thought it might, again because it is deemed too remote from public transport, and is accessed from a road which lacks a pedestrian pathway. Policy TR3 was also cited, requiring public transport to be accessible.

None of these transport issues were raised by committee members during the discussion about the new farmhouse, which is in just as rural a location.

The decisions to allow a big new house for a well-known farmer, against professional advice, and to refuse an eco-hamlet of four dwellings and land-based businesses for “Toms, Dicks and Harrys”, as one councillor supposed, also against professional advice, suggests that decision making by the planning committee is not as consistently impartial and even-handed as it should be!

The Esgairhir Uchaf planning application is W/32578. The Rhiw Las application is W/31160.

PDR

Blow, Blow, Blow, the Regime Wobbles but Doesn’t Fall Down

Looking ahead to 2015 and beyond

What if President John F Kennedy had not been assassinated? How different would our world be? This may seem an odd start for a blog about West Wales, but the malign repercussions of organised political assassinations last for generations. History is written by the winners, as they say, and when the winners have devious intent, the history they write is woven of fabrications.

This is not a plea for absolute truth, because we best we can hope for is an approximation. We are all likely to interpret the same ‘facts’ in different ways because of the unique resources we each bring to analysis, shaped by our different histories. When we cannot rely on the veracity of the ‘facts’ themselves, it is tempting to retreat into our own bubbles and hope that nothing nasty comes along to puncture them.

Staring out through the holes of punctured bubbles in West Wales this year, I saw:

  • The frailties of our confrontational legal system, in which technicalities seem more important than ethics, and in which the prospects of success appear proportional to the ability to pay. One consequence is that a blogger, who at the time was learning the skill, stands to be dispossessed of her share of the family home for — if I remember correctly — writing three words: ‘Pinocchio’, and ‘slush fund’, the latter two chiming in essence with criticism from no less than the Wales Audit Office.
  • A dearth of imagination, especially within Carmarthenshire County Council, where a fear of being sued by moneyed companies appears to prevent planners and councillors from challenging the ridiculous forecasts of demand for new estate-built homes, and where ‘supermarkets’ and ‘jobs’ are still linked like horses and carriages, although any ‘new’ jobs are balanced and often exceeded by job losses in shops that are forced out of business.
  • Acceptance, by the majority of the said council’s officers and members, that ‘rural’ is a dying concept and that the future will be CITIES.

Rural north Carmarthenshire is replete with more businesses for sale than buyers coming forward. Our village school was emptied of pupils in July, and stands silent while the children are bussed and taxied elsewhere. The nearest shop and filling station closed yesterday. Yet the planning authority shies away from allowing job creation in what they call ‘open countryside’. People would start land-based businesses, if they could afford the land, but land is a financial asset and its value is out of all proportion to its productive capacity. Ideas buzzing about in the political group Gwyrddion dros y Blaid, Greens for Plaid, include a national Land Bank for Wales, to acquire land and make it available at modest cost to new and small businesses, particularly those which will contribute to the Welsh Government’s stated aim of the nation using no more than its fair share of planetary resources within a generation.

What fate awaits Ysgol Gynradd Llansawel, an   under-occupied Welsh-medium primary where scarcely any children speak Welsh at home.

Closed: our village school shut its doors in July

As for local government, I have the impression that in Pembrokeshire it is waking after years of deep slumber, thanks to the unceasing efforts of a handful of truth-seeking councillors who weather the insults flung in their direction. Carmarthenshire is still trailing in the wake of its westerly neighbour, one reason being that the alertest, most questioning councillors – there are some — do not receive enough support from the others.

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Do we want our rural areas to look like this? Edwinsford, a grade II* listed building, has fallen down. Photo by Paul White, http://www.welshruins.co.uk

There is change, not enough yet to shake the foundations of local politics, but a wind blowing with greater force as our next local government reorganisation looms, and with it a great opportunity for local government to help create a Wales which uses no more than its fair share of global resources, a One Planet Wales. If the opportunity passes, it may not come again. Future generations won’t thank us for fudging, even contradicting the evidence – but that is a hard habit to break.

PDR

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