29/12/2009

Ceredigion councillors to be culled

Ceredigion is set to lose at least seven and maybe up to twelve of its 42 councillors at the next local elections in 2012 – that’s likely to be the conclusion of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales when they complete their review into the county’s electoral arrangements in 2011.

This is a long post with a few figures in it so zip up your anoraks and settle down. The Commission, which is reviewing a number of other Welsh county councils at the same time, is conducting its review on the basis that no councillor should represent fewer than 1750 electors, a new, nationally agreed figure. Even though the review uses the projected increased county population for 2014 as its benchmark, only ten of the current council wards achieve that figure, meaning that we are set for wholesale changes in Ceredigion’s political structure.

Dividing the expected 2014 electorate of 62,703 by 1750 leaves 35.8 councillors. But because the review needs to avoid cutting across community boundaries whilst also trying to find rough parity between the different wards , most of the new wards will need to have a significant number of electors over the 1750 figure. Even taking the number of councillors down to thirty, the minimum possible to form a Council, the average number of electors for each ward would be 2090, not considered an unreasonably large number.

In Aberystwyth the likely outcome of the review is that the town will lose one councillor (click on map of current wards to enlarge). We currently have six, down from eight after the last review in 2002, but the figures show we should be entitled to no more than 5.5. There is perhaps a remote possibility that, because of recent housing developments, the commission could decide to expand the boundaries of the town and keep the number of councillors as it is. But the likelihood is that the town’s representation will be cut down to five. In fact most town wards already do, or will, exceed the 1750 figure. The exception is Penparcau which is currently ‘over-represented’ by having two councillors for an electorate of 2277.

If that might seem bad for the representation of Aberystwyth on the Council it’s nothing compared to other parts of Ceredigion. Whilst the population numbers in Aberystwyth might be a bit borderline, the situation in other towns and the rural areas is much clearer. The figures show that Cardigan will be reduced from three to no more than two councillors whilst Lampeter will be reduced from the current two down to one. The sole councillor for Llandysul, Council Leader Keith Evans, currently represents just 1149 people and is likely to see his ward greatly expanded at the expense of one of his rural neighbours. The councillors for Tregaron, New Quay and Aberaeron are all in similar positions where neighbouring rural wards will undoubtedly be lost.

In terms of party politics the effect of the review is hard to predict because the figures show that Plaid Cymru wards and Independent/Lib Dem wards will be impacted more or less equally. The key power change brought about is likely to be geographic. For years people in Aberystwyth have puzzled as to why what is by the far the largest town in the county seems to exert so little influence. The figures show that the more rural south of the county currently wields undue influence for its population.
During a recent presentation, the Boundary Commission were particularly emphatic about one thing. “The idea that rural wards should have fewer electors because of the distance the councillor has to cover is completely undemocratic”, said the Review’s Chair. His emphatic tone indicated that this was an idea that had been seriously suggested to him but rejected.

If the current number of councillors was allowed to continue the average councillor in the north of the county would represent 1636 people whilst their equivalent in the south would represent 1374 – a clear democratic deficit. A starker figure is that, by 2014, of the nine councillors currently representing ‘greater’ Aberystwyth (i.e. the town, Llanbadarn Fawr and Waun Fawr) 55% will fulfil the 1750 mark the reviewers are looking for. In the rest of the county that figure is 14%. Although councillors will be lost everywhere, the review looks set to correct a serious imbalance against the north of the county.

The pending reduction in county councillors will be following a pattern around Wales where reviews of four other councils, using the same criteria, have already begun with more to follow. Older councillors may take the opportunity to retire at the next election, leaving the rest to battle over a diminished number of council seats. Whilst the process may fill councillors with trepidation, many of the electorate will regard cutting their numbers as a jolly good thing, especially since reducing councillors will save money. Next to the public purse, the other winner from the process could be Aberystwyth.

24/12/2009

The best dressed shop window in Aberystwyth

To go into Christmas with a good news story, here’s the winner of the Best Shop Window in Aberystwyth, as chosen by the town’s mayor, Trevor Shaftoe, on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce.

The winner was Polly’s in Chalybeate Street.
Second was Ty Gemwaith/Jewellery House in Terrace Road.
Third was M & Co in Great Darkgate Street.

Nadolig llawen a blwyddyn newydd dda i chi gyd.

23/12/2009

Cliff could collapse says council report


The cliff behind the old North Road Hospital site in Infirmary Road Aberystwyth is far more dangerous than previously thought and poses a serious threat to the half-completed flats below. That’s the conclusion of a report by council engineers submitted this week.

The report was commissioned by Ceredigion Council after major cracks developed at the top of the cliff during the summer. A report by engineers commissioned by the developer in October had previously concluded that the cracks only extended down a few metres to the bedrock. This new report points out that the cracks are in line with a fault line exposed near the bottom of the hill in an earlier small landslip and concludes that the whole cliff side could collapse.

Land at the top of the cliff is part of Parc Natur Penglais, a conservation area owned by the Council and overseen by an active committee of local people. They have been continually warning of the dangers of the developer cutting into the hill to make more space for flats. The Council’s report says,
“It is unlikely to be merely a coincidence that they have opened up shortly after the excavation at the top of the slope".

The report concludes,
“There is the potential for a very large rockfall to occur which will affect the amenity of the nature reserve and also impact the buildings and workers below. What is clear from our inspection, and our reading of the available documents, is that there is a serious risk of a large scale landslip occurring which requires urgent attention. The landslip will endanger members of the public accessing the park and workers on the building site.

"The nature reserve is crossed by a number of paths, some of them informal, and it is
possible for members of the public to get to the top of the unstable area quite easily. We suggest that, as a minimum, immediate measures should be put in place to warn members of the public of the possible unstable area.

"We also recommend that the housing developer is made aware of these findings so that they may put in place appropriate safeguards – at least for their workers and any suppliers etc who may have access to the site".

After receiving the report the Council yesterday wrote to the developer threatening an injunction if immediate action was not taken to obviate the danger to their employees and the general public. Warning notices and fencing were installed on the cliff today.

21/12/2009

Aber University plans new environmental research building

Aberystwyth University have applied for planning permission for a new building on the Penglais campus for the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS).

This is part of a planned £25 million investment in IBERS on the Penglais and Gogerddan campuses over the next five years. IBERS conducts biological research from the level of molecules up to the impact of climate change and bio-energy on agriculture.

The building is apparently designed to BREEAM ‘excellent’ standard, the highest standard for environmental sustainability in large buildings.

12/12/2009

2.5% Council Tax rise in Ceredigion

Ceredigion Council voted on Thursday for a 2.5% rise in Council Tax in the coming financial year. The Plaid Cymru group proposed keeping the rise down to 2% on the basis that a substantial amount of money is now available from the Housing Revenue Account which could be used to keep the increase down. This money was set aside for spending on council house maintenance but remained unspent (why, you may ask) and now cannot be used for its original purpose following the transfer of council housing to Tai Ceredigion. However the ruling Independent/Lib Dem group argued that savings such as this should be kept back in order to soften expected serious public sector cuts in future years.

The meeting, held at St Peter’s Church Hall in Lampeter, was highly contentious with the Chair being accused of showing favouritism by frequently asking Plaid councillors to keep their contributions brief whilst allowing his own side to speak unhindered.

09/12/2009

Elin Jones wins AM of the Year award... and Rhodri's reflections on Ceredigion

Ceredigion's Assembly Member Elin Jones won the Assembly Member of the Year Award during a ceremony in Cardiff last night.
She received the recognition during the annual Welsh Yearbook Awards, "for developing into a Plaid Cymru heavyweight through her highly competent running of a department not usually seen as an obvious portfolio for a woman" (what on earth can they mean?).

Elin responded,
“I’m privileged to receive this award in recognition of my work as the Assembly Member for Ceredigion and the Minister for Rural Affairs. The people of Ceredigion are demanding and challenging of their politicians, and that's exactly how it should be. They keep me on my toes everyday in the Assembly and in Ceredigion”.

Shortly afterwards Elin paid tribute to Rhodri Morgan following his formal resignation as the Assembly's First Minister earlier this week,
“Rhodri Morgan has made a great contribution to Wales during the past decade and, under his leadership, our political process in the Senedd has become mature and stable. I wish him well now that he has decided to resign as First Minister and I hope that he will have more free time to spend on having restful holidays at his caravan in Mwnt”.

During his final address to the Senedd as First Minister, Rhodri Morgan had highlighted his fondness for spending time at his caravan in Mwnt, just north of Cardigan. He also expressed his gratitude to Ceredigion residents for their continued warm welcome and for respecting the fact that he was on holiday during his periods in the area,
“In the future, of course, Julie and I and the family—especially Julie and I—will have more time to spend a few extra weekends in Mwnt. Mwnt has been extremely important and I would like to convey my thanks to the very kind people of Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire, and especially the people of Cardigan, Aberporth and Mwnt, where we have the caravan. It has been an eye-opener for me to see how considerate people are in thinking, if the First Minister is on holiday for two or three weeks over the summer, that you should not bother him with your personal problems or your own political ideas.

"To be honest, everyone has always respected that. For 10 years running, no-one from Ceredigion, Aberporth or Cardigan has bothered me while I'm on holiday. That is quite incredible and it means that I, Julie and the family can spend three weeks of genuine holiday time without the need for some entourage to protect me from the people because they are so considerate. They understand that anyone who shoulders the burden of being First Minister is under strain. It is as if they think, 'Leave him alone—he's on holiday’. On occasions, I've heard people saying that when someone is perhaps thinking of approaching me on the beach or when I'm out walking”.

06/12/2009

Tai Ceredigion up and running

Now that the new housing association Tai Ceredigion is up and running (with their newly decorated vans zooming everywhere) a few people are asking how to get in touch with them. These are the details:

General Enquiries: 03456 - 067654
Repairs and out of hours: 0800 - 1114228
Uned 4, Parc Busnes Pont Steffan, Llanbedr Pont Steffan, Ceredigion, SA48, 7HH

03/12/2009

Ceredigion's Credit Union wins £100,000 grant

Ceredigion’s Credit Union, CredCer, has been awarded a grant of £99,995 by the National Assembly.

The money was awarded so that the organisation can buy its own property, computer and office equipment. Brian Gibbons, the Assembly’s Social Justice Minister announced that CredCer would receive a tenth of the £1 million being made available to credit unions across Wales to enable them to reduce their costs by purchasing their own properties. This in turn will boost their balance sheets by ensure that they have long-term ownership of a substantial asset.

Elin Jones, Ceredigion’s Assembly Member, said about the award in her press release,
“During the current economic difficulties, credit unions have become increasingly important both as a way of providing a local and safe place for savings as well as tackling financial exclusion. By providing this funding, the Assembly Government is ensuring that CredCer has an even stronger financial footing through the ownership of its own office”.

Penri James, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster candidate, said,
“I know that CredCer’s presence in Ceredigion has made a great effort to tackle financial exclusion and poverty in the Ceredigion. From my work on the need to address child poverty levels in Cardigan, I appreciate the positive contribution which a credit union like CredCer can make and I hope that this additional funding can allow the union to further extend its activities”.

CredCer, which is based in Cardigan but operated throughout the county, was formed in 2005 as a way for people in Ceredigion to save and borrow money at beneficial rates of interest whilst retaining the money saved in the local community. It’s a not-for-profit organisation and is owned and controlled by its 1,200 members.

30/11/2009

Aberystwyth street parking control breaking down


Street parking around Bronglais Hospital and other areas of Aberystwyth has broken down, with car drivers openly flouting double yellow lines. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from pictures like those above, taken outside Bronglais Hospital yesterday.

In the photos, not only is a row of five cars parked on double yellow lines but the pavement is blocked to pedestrians. Most of the cars were still there several hours later.

Aberystwyth has two traffic wardens who both work extremely hard and also have to cover other areas of the County. The problem is that a town the size of Aberystwyth needs far more than this. Anyone working in the field, like the police and council highways officers, will tell you that the police have no more resources to provide extra traffic wardens and that what’s needed is for parking control needs to be transferred from the police to the County Council. That’s what local authorities across the country are increasingly doing. Instead of parking fines going straight to the UK Treasury, as do those from Aberystwyth at the moment, this enables them to be collected by the Council who can then recycle the money into more wardens and improved facilities.

In a sense it’s working in Aberystwyth already. When Ceredigion Highways Officers walk along the Prom in yellow jackets the tourists parked illegally all clear off sharpish. This is because they’re used to Council Officers booking them at home. The locals know better and stay put. It's time Ceredigion caught up with the rest of the country.

26/11/2009

Housing transfer goes ahead on Monday

The transfer of Ceredigion’s 2600 council houses and flats to the new housing association Tai Ceredigion will go ahead on Monday following a meeting of the Tai Ceredigion board today.

Although the date of transfer had been announced two weeks ago it became apparent that there were still considerable negotiations to be undertaken before all aspects of the transfer could be agreed. From their point of view, Tai Ceredigion were determined to avoid a financial settlement that would have restricted their ability to undertake the £40 million worth of improvements needed over the next five years to fulfil the all-important
Welsh Housing Quality Standard. Agreement on the key issues was finally reached this week after officers and legal representatives of both organisations worked round the clock.

A formal signing of documents and transfer of the council’s housing staff will now take place as hoped on 30th November, a year after tenants
voted to accept the idea.

23/11/2009

More can be less when it comes to leaflets

Penri James's blog quite rightly draws attention to Ceredigion Council’s recently published ‘Highways During Winter/Priffyrdd Dros y Gaeaf' leaflet. This was sent out to absolutely everyone on the county’s electoral roll, resulting in some households receiving four separate copies in different envelopes.

The issue was raised in last week's Highways Scrutiny Committee who were told that the Council employed a private contractor to distribute the leaflets for a fixed fee on the basis of one for every household. For their own reasons the contractor chose to send their leaflets out the way they did without any additional cost to the Council.

This led to a bit of head scratching in the committee followed by the supposition, and it was supposition, that the contractor must have had the software to send one leaflet to each elector very easily but that employing someone to manually reduce their electoral list down to single households would have cost them more than the extra leaflets. Still, as one councillor pointed out, although the additional leaflets didn’t cost the Council any more, there’s been some wastage somewhere and four identical envelopes on the door mat didn't look good. When you’re a local council, being seen to be economical is almost as important as actually being economical.

Council officers accepted that, as part of any future contract, they’d actually have to spell it out - that one leaflet for every household means just that, and more is less in the eyes of the public.

20/11/2009

Ceredigion 'acting in the interests of the taxpayer' shock

In the wake of the opening of the new Council offices – Canolfan Rheidol - in Boulevard St Brieuc many people have asked when details of the prices obtained for the seven now redundant former council offices in Aberystwyth town centre will be released.

Ceredigion Council has come in for criticism for refusing to disclose the price of the sales made so far with doubts being cast as to whether the best price is being obtained on behalf of ‘the taxpayer’. Yesterday the Council defended their silence as good sales strategy adopted on the advice of the two estate agents working for them, one local, the other based in Cardiff.


Now it's too easy for Councils to use 'commercial confidentiality' as an excuse for keeping the public in the dark. But, to be fair, you don’t have to be a corporate estate agent to appreciate that the price of one large building in a small town like Aberystwyth will affect the price of similar others. And that disclosing any sales figures before the whole package has been sold could result in a lower return to the council and hence the taxpayer. That’s the thinking of the Council and their estate agents anyway, and it seems to make sense - a case of the taxpayer's interests outweighing open government (an interesting essay topic for politics students). My criticism is that, with a bit of imaginative thinking, one or two of the buildings could have been retained for renting to the numerous local charities desperate for space.

Two of the properties, which can all be seen here, have been sold so far with negotiations on others at an advanced stage. I’m assured that once all seven offices have been sold the prices obtained will be made fully public and that this may happen in a matter of weeks.

In a related development, the Council’s Highways Property & Works Scrutiny Committee heard yesterday that the new Council offices will save an initial £30,000 a year in energy bills compared to the old offices and that these savings are likely to increase over the years as fossil fuel prices rise.

19/11/2009

New Co-op opens in the supermarket shuffle

I don’t much like supermarkets. I prefer to shop in small independent shops. But there is one exception – the Co-op. It’s ethical, environmental and customer involvement policies set it apart from the rest of the field. So, for those who like to temper their supermarket shopping with some ethics, it’s good news that today the Co-op opens a large new food store in what was previously Somerfields at the Ystwyth Retail Parc off Park Avenue in Aberystwyth.

The Co-op bought Somerfields in July. Under competition rules, they then had to sell their smaller supermarket at Waun Fawr to avoid monopolising trade in the Aberystwyth area, already owning a further small shop in Penparcau. The Co-op on the Waun was bought by CK Supermarkets, an independent chain based in south Wales. This is the latest addition to the supermarket shuffle in Aberystwyth but unlikely to be the last as Aldi are still awaiting the outcome of their planning application to build on the old Quik Save site on the other side of Park Avenue.

At some stage the question has to be asked how many supermarkets does a town need? Whatever the answer, the Co-op look to be here to stay.

15/11/2009

Ceredigion Housing Stock Transfer Date Announced

Ceredigion County Council and the new housing association Tai Ceredigion have released a joint statement announcing the date for the transfer of the Council’s housing stock. This will be Monday 30th November. Negotiations have been quite difficult at times but the parties feel confident enough that agreement can be reached on exactly which properties and associated land will be transferred to give a transfer date. Many staff in the Council’s housing department will also be transferred over to the new organisation.

The transfer comes a year after Ceredigion tenants voted by 58% to 41% to support stock transfer so that funds could be found for the repair and maintenance necessary to bring the stock up to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard.

06/11/2009

Assembly to bring in plastic bag charge by 2011

The National Assembly’s Environment Minister, Jane Davidson, has announced legislation to charge for plastic bags by the time of the next Assembly elections in 2011 following a consultation over the summer. All money collected will be distributed to good causes, with an emphasis on those involved in environmental projects.

Despite the problem of plastic bag pollution now being well known, many shops still seem reluctant to take initiative on their own, even though some of those doing so have seen a 90% reduction in bags used. Pontypridd was a rare exception when last year it became the first plastic bag-free town in Wales but still an astonishing 13 billion plastic bags are given to shoppers in the UK each year and these can take up to 1000 years to break down.

Ceredigion’s Assembly Member Elin Jones said today,
“I know that businesses in some Ceredigion communities such as Cardigan have been working together to introduce local ‘bags for life’. “However, even though good progress has been made over recent years to decrease the number of single-use plastic bags handed out every day in Wales, it’s increasingly evident that a mandatory charge must be introduced in order to lower our use of plastic bags even further."


Some things can't be left to the market. Voluntary schemes amongst major retailers have produced only modest results so actual legislation at the Wales level is probably the most effective way to make a substantial difference. Well done Jane.

03/11/2009

Ken Jones book signing

Ken Jones's writing is a unique combination - haiku poetry about the Cambrian mountains.
His booksigning is in Ottakers, Great Darkgate Street in Aberystwyth

01/11/2009

Parc Natur Penglais - residents consider the damage

Following up on the last post about the cliff top in Infirmary Road, Aberystwyth made unsafe by a developer cutting into the hill, I’ve now received comments and photos from local residents concerned about the effect on the nature park at the top of the cliff – Parc Natur Penglais.

One local resident, Moira Convery, takes up the story,
"This land is not just a bit of waste ground as the developer would like to think. Parc Natur Penglais was created as a Pocket Park in 1991, received a Prince of Wales Award in 1993, was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 1995 and in June 1997 was selected by UNESCO for inclusion in its network of the best urban reserves. At the time it was the only Welsh site on the list. These honours and designations should imply that PNP would be protected against encroachment for purely commercial gains.

"The bank is clearly unsafe but any remedial action must take into account the conservation of the park. Removal of the moving material will destroy a large area of vegetation. Because of the presence of the partially completed buildings, it is now difficult to remove the unstable ground by pushing it down the slope. It will have to be pushed backwards into the valley behind it - more complete destruction of trees and other vegetation. Heavy machinery will be required. There is no present access so more of the park will be trashed taking it in.

"It is important that restoration is left in the hands of the conservation bodies. Who would be happy to entrust it to a company which has demonstrated such a complete indifference to the nature reserve? Expert advice and most of all an interest in the end result is required. All costs must be met by the developer.

"However it is done, permanent visual damage will occur. The area is a significant part of the scenery of Aberystwyth. The view from the town will be of a wire netted cliff face with the trees and the old wall vanished."

Another resident, Laurie Wright, has sent the pictures below illustrating digging which took place two years ago leading to the long hilltop cracks over a metre deep illustrated in the last post. The space at the foot of the cliff has since been built on.






29/10/2009

Developers risking landslides by cutting into cliffs

Two separate housing development schemes on the north side of Aberystwyth are risking major landslides after attempting to gain land by eating into cliffs.

Developers at both the Infirmary Road development by the old North Road Hospital and the proposed flats behind the old Boars Head in Queens Road have cut several metres into the cliffs behind.

In the case of Infirmary Road deep fissures have now formed in the land at the top of the cliff, the Parc Natur Penglais owned by Ceredigion Council (pictured). An urgent survey has shown that rock six metres down remains solid but the cliff top is unsafe and substantial remedial work will be necessary.

In Queens Road there is, as yet, no similar evidence of subsidence but diggers have cut back to within two metres of the foundations of houses above and the risk is clear.

The problems highlight the need for greater scrutiny of large developments by Ceredigion Council.

27/10/2009

Major funding bid for heritage buildings in Aberystwyth

A major bid has been launched to fund a Town Heritage Initiative for Aberystwyth - the kind of scheme that has transformed Cardigan in the last five years.

County Council officers have until 30th November to submit a bid to the lottery fund for the renovation of the many buildings of heritage value within the town centre. If successful, the lottery will match any money that can be raised locally.

Ceredigion Council have pledged £40,000 per annum for five years. The National Assembly, which has just awarded Aberystwyth ‘Strategic Regeneration Area’ status, will put in substantially more. Aberystwyth Town Council look set to put a smaller amount of money in and other donations may also be found. The lottery will then double any money raised.

Experience from the Cardigan scheme (pictured) shows that success breeds success and that, after the first year’s work, others are willing to put more money in which then also gets doubled by the lottery. Building owners are expected to pay for 30% of the costs of any work but the other 70% is funded by the scheme. This is more generous than the Town Improvement Grant scheme launched last year which has so far only been taken up by four properties in Aberystwyth.

In Cardigan the Town Heritage Initiative eventually brought in £5.9 million and resulted in major improvements to 70 properties, completely transforming the town. In all but one case the work was done by local craftspeople. Aberystwyth, being a larger town, could potentially attract much more money.

As well as raising the spirits and sense of identity of local people, heritage schemes also have a major economic value in attracting visitors. It may be that this kind of a scheme can ultimately have as good an economic effect on Aberystwyth as the controversial Sorting Office Scheme was hoped to have but by enhancing what the town already has rather than by destroying a large section of it.

The result of the bid will be announced next April. Letters of support should be e-mailed to
garyc@ceredigion.gov.uk

24/10/2009

Aber 350


Students and youth groups in Aberystwyth and Borth today took part in the worldwide 350 campaign. The campaign is aimed to highlight the 350 parts per million judged by scientists to be the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The current figure is 390. The event is being held across 181 countries today ahead of the UN Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen in December.

18/10/2009

No place is home for Assembly hotdeskers

It was the desking arrangements that most intrigued visitors at the Open Day of Aberystwyth’s new National Assembly building yesterday.

In the interests of saving space, there are apparently only eight desks for every ten of the 460 workers at the new building, this on the basis that at any given time 20% are expected to be out at meetings, on annual leave etc. This means that all desks have to be cleared at the end of each day and any papers neatly put away in a small personal locker. Anything left won’t be there the next morning, presumably ending up in the materially-differentiated recycling bins dotted around the office. When people turn up for work in the morning they take their paperwork from their locker and put it down on the first desk they can find before logging into that computer - hotdesking.

Now we all know that the promise of computers saving paper hasn’t turned out to be true. Whilst they do reduce paper in many ways (e-mails instead of printed letters, scanning etc) this has been far outweighed by the ease of printing out documents. I can’t see the Assembly’s policy working in the Council’s Planning Department, for example, where in-trays are regularly stacked taller than the planning officers themselves, at least when they’re sitting down. Genuinely creating a paperless office requires managerial ruthlessness. This is what they’ve apparently done for years at Microsoft and it’s what they’re trying out now at the Assembly.

“Ah”, said one visitor on the guided tour, “If no-one know where they’ll be sitting, how can they be reached on the phone?” The Assembly had thought of that. “At the same time as logging into a computer they also log into the nearest phone so the switchboard always knows where they are.”

Another question: “Won’t the huge open plan offices be noisy?” Apparently the ceilings are designed so that noise goes straight upwards and out and doesn’t echo around.

These then are the offices of the future. They require a different way of looking at work, a shift of office culture, a new philosophy. They'll take a bit of getting used to - it’s not possible to put down the little homely knick-knacks that human beings seem to need to identify their own personal work space and I can imagine some lockers stuffed to overflowing with the dreaded papers. Since I work in the NHS, which seems to be institutionally behind the curve when it comes to IT, I doubt if I’ll see this kind of thing for another 15 years. Still, the offices we saw were certainly tidy. Maybe I’ll try some of the philosophy at home.

16/10/2009

No to privatisation - Ceredigion abandons plans to share services with the private sector

Plans for Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys councils to combine with the private sector in providing current highways and other services have been abandoned.

A business review of the proposals carried out by the consultants Deloitte has concluded that a joint venture with the private sector is 'not conducive' in the current economic climate. The three councils are still intending to work together to save money through economies of scale but without involvement from businesses.

The decision was hailed by many Ceredigion councillors as the best possible outcome at yesterday’s meeting of the Highways Property & Works Scrutiny Committee. It’s been made clear by Brian Gibbons, Assembly Local Government Minister, that councils are expected to work more closely together in the future to save money and that working with the private sector should be considered. Hints have been made that councils refusing to work together could end up being re-organised or amalgamated. But many councillors on both sides of the chamber were very suspicious of linking up with the private sector as any efficiency savings brought about by their involvement would inevitably be eaten up by their need to make a profit.

There were some grumblings from councillors in the south of the county that it would be better to work with Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire but council officers pointed out that the nature of those counties meant that Ceredigion’s interests would come very much third in that kind of partnership, whereas Ceredigion can operate on an equal footing with the more similar (in terms of rurality) councils of Gwynedd and Powys. Plans for inter-authority collaboration are still being investigated and senior officers have been asked to draw up proposals.

15/10/2009

2.1% - Assembly passes on increase to Ceredigion

Ceredigion County Council will be receiving a 2.1% increase in funding in the next financial year - the same percentage increase as the Assembly Government itself has received from the UK Treasury. The announcement of provisional figures for the financial year 2010-11 was made on Tuesday by Brian Gibbons the Assembly Government’s Minister for Social Justice and Local Government.

Ceredigion fared better than all other rural councils in Wales, including all its neighbours, some of whom were as low as 1%. Assembly Member Elin Jones is particularly pleased.

The Council is relieved that this year's settlement is significantly better (or at least less bad) than anticipated. However much worse is expected in following years, especially if the Conservatives win the next Westminster election. Inflation is currently running at a 5-year low of 1.1%.

13/10/2009

No funding for latest town centre plans say Assembly

The National Assembly says the latest radical plans for Aberystwyth town centre are too ambitious to receive public funding. That is despite the developer putting forward new unpublished proposals said to have taken into account the views of the public following widespread protests in May.

The Assembly’s statement reads,
"The Welsh Assembly Government has been presented with revised proposals for the Post Office site in Aberystwyth. The proposals put forward by the developer have clearly taken into account some of the views put forward by local people and are now more sympathetic. “The illustrated scheme would still, however, require the purchase of significant additional areas of property and appear to be unviable without considerable public sector funding. The developer has been told by Welsh Assembly Government officials that these revised options are therefore unlikely to receive public sector funding support at this time, but has been invited to discuss alternative proposals in the future should he wish to do so."

It should be remembered that there was general support and hardly any opposition to the original Masterplan proposals for the site. These were properly consulted on in November and December last year and envisaged developing simply the old sorting office site without demolishing any of the small shops around (see above). It's only since the attempt to greatly expand this scheme out of all recognition from the public consultation that it's run into difficulty.

Although economic conditions have worsened since plans were first broached, it seems likely now that the controversial expanded scheme was never going to be viable, protests or no protests. The developer should now surely go back to the original Masterplan proposals for the derelict sorting office that won public backing. The statement from the Assembly certainly leaves that possibility open

12/10/2009

Fairtrade status for Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University today declared itself the UK’s 100th Fairtrade University.

The announcement solidifies Aberystwyth’s status as a Fairtrade town which it achieved in 2005. Since then Ceredigion has become a Fairtrade county and, in June last year, Wales became the world’s first
Fairtrade nation.

In order to become a Fairtrade university students and staff must make a commitment to supporting Fairtrade. This includes ensuring that
Fairtrade goods are available in on-site cafes, restaurants and shops, and raising awareness of Fairtrade and the benefits it brings to producers in developing countries. Towns, counties and nations have to demonstrate that they have met similar set criteria to qualify.

The Fairtrade Mark can only be displayed on products - like tea, coffee and bananas - that meet internationally recognised criteria. All products that display the mark are independently audited to ensure they're genuinely providing a fair deal for producers.

It’s the adoption of Fairtrade status by large institutions like the University, with serious buying power, that has a real effect on small farmers in the developing world. The goods, most of which are not produced by farmers in Wales, are bought direct from the farmers for a fair price rather than through exploitative multinational companies. The campaign is revolutionising farming practice and local communities in the developing world.

10/10/2009

Stalemate - Officers and Cabinet disagree on parking enforcement

This week’s meeting of the Ceredigion Traffic Management Consultative Committee (17 syllables – not a bad effort but not quite in the premier league of unfeasibly long council committee titles) brought out into the open something many of us have known for years - that council officers and cabinet members have opposing views on the best way to manage parking in Ceredigion, resulting in chaos in many streets.

This summer the whole of Aberystwyth has been policed by just a single, hard-working traffic warden. The police have made it clear that they will not be devoting more resources to this at any time in the future and have even suggested that they may one day withdraw from parking enforcement altogether. They would like to hand the job over to the County Council, a move known as ‘decriminalisation’. The great benefit of this is that, instead of parking fines going straight to the UK Treasury, as they do at the moment, the fines are paid to the Council who can then recycle the money into more staff and resources to manage traffic.

One by one, councils across Wales are doing this. Then, as well as properly enforcing yellow lines, they use their new powers to introduce residents parking schemes to bring order to street parking by taking on commuters who would rather park in the street than use a car park.

Using residential streets as a free car park may seem understandable from the point of view of commuters and shoppers but it can make life intolerable for local residents. There is little sympathy for this problem from people living in more suburban or rural areas – they regard it as simply a price people must expect to pay for living in a town - but it has serious demographic knock-on effects. People have increasingly moved out of town centres due to the daily inconvenience of being unable to park in the street anywhere near their own homes. This is particularly a problem for people with young children and the elderly.

When town family houses are sold they are frequently bought by developers who break them up into flats, turning town centres into bed-sit land. There’s nothing wrong with a few bed-sits but town centres need the right mix of flats and family housing if they’re to retain their core community that holds the place together. That is in danger of being lost in Aberystwyth.

Tourists visiting the town aren’t part of the problem - they generally assume that Aberystwyth has the same standards as everywhere else and use the car parks. People regularly commuting into town however know the situation and tend to park wherever they like, making the streets increasingly chaotic. Council officers, who read their trade journals, know the way things are going across the country and have gradually become convinced of the need for the Council to take on the parking enforcement role from the police. Cabinet members on the other hand, mostly representing out-of-town areas where car commuters live, don’t want to see better enforcement and certainly not residents parking.

Ceredigion's Cabinet member for Highways, Ray Quant, was honest this week in saying that he and the Council’s senior officers are in disagreement. The result is a stalemate leaving Aberystwyth’s street parking largely unpoliced.

03/10/2009

New poll predicts Plaid win in Ceredigion

The largest ever poll of UK marginal constituencies released on Friday by the respected polling company Politics Home/YouGov has marked Ceredigion down as a Plaid Cymru gain at the next General Election.

The poll was carried out in September questioning 34,610 people across 238 constituencies. The picture in the 18 most marginal seats in Wales showed eight Conservative gains and three for Plaid Cymru – Arfon, Ynys Mon and Ceredigion – taking the party to its largest ever representation at Westminster.

Voters were weighted by age, gender and social class and then asked their voting intention, whether they were likely to vote and whether they would vote for the party they wanted to win or tactically. Finally they were asked to consider the candidates and parties in their own constituency.
It's this kind of consituency-based detail that makes the poll more significant than most.

The poll concluded that the Conservatives would win a majority at Westminster of 70 seats. Those in Wales that would change hands are:
Aberconwy: Labour (notional) to Tory
Arfon: Labour (notional) to Plaid
Bridgend: Labour to Tory
Cardiff North: Labour to Tory
Carmarthen West & South Pembs: Labour to Tory
Ceredigion: Lib Dem to Plaid
Gower: Labour to Tory
Newport West: Labour to Tory
Vale of Clwyd: Labour to Tory
Ynys Mon: Labour to Plaid
Vale of Glamorgan: Labour to Tory

02/10/2009

And the latest news on Aberystwyth's town centre development is....there is no news.

The many people eager for news about the next plans for the development of the old sorting office site in Aberystwyth town centre will have to wait a little longer.

A meeting of the County Council’s ‘Economic Development, Tourism and Europe Overview and Scrutiny Committee’ (24 syllables in that) heard yesterday that the developer had come up with a new scheme and had discussed it with the National Assembly but that the Council had not been involved in those discussions. Councillors present expressed surprise and concern that Council officers hadn’t been involved at all and drew the conclusion that they had been sufficiently stung by the furore over the last set of proposals, involving the demolition of a substantial section of small shops, to want to distance themselves from any new proposals as much as possible. It’s not clear where this stance leaves local input and accountability.

When they eventually reach the light of day, the new proposals will be reported via the Council’s Cabinet.

The Committee heard that discussions were being held with the National Assembly about the possibility of Aberystwyth becoming a Strategic Regeneration Area (SRA) and that it was hard to proceed with any major developments until this was decided upon.

30/09/2009

Hywel Dda Debt Cancelled

Assembly Minister Health Minister Edwina Hart today announced the writing off of Hywel Dda NHS Trust’s historic debts totalling £40.469 million.

The debts were accumulated by Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Derwen, and Carmarthenshire NHS Trusts prior to their amalgamation into a single Hywel Dda NHS Trust last year and will now be paid by the National Assembly.

Of course the campaign to have the debt written off hasn’t half been helped by the presence of Ceredigion’s Assembly Member Elin Jones in the Assembly Cabinet alongside Edwina Hart.

The commencement of the £30 million extension scheme for Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth is expected in the next three months.

Whilst the decision to cancel the debt must be a tremendous relief to Hywel Dda Trust, no one should assume they are now in the money as they will still struggle to break even this financial year.

29/09/2009

New gate opens up 300 yards of cycle path


Sometimes small things can make a big difference. A simple little thing like a new gate at the entrance to the footpath at Llanbadarn Fawr level crossing has connected Llanbadarn village to the Rheidol cycle trail which links Aberystwyth town centre to Capel Bangor and beyond. The 320 yard path alongside the railway line that links to the trail was previously only accessible to walkers through a small ‘kissing gate’.

Following co-operation between the University, who own the land, and Ceredigion Council, this has now been expanded into a ‘cycling kissing gate’ that bikes can be wheeled through.

Next year it’s hoped to add a further spur to the Rheidol trail by taking the cycle path across the railway line by the green bridge and alongside the river to Parc yr Onnen, linking the east side of Llanbadarn also.

Ten years ago there were no cycle paths around Aberystwyth. We now have the Rheidol trail and the Ystwyth trail. Although these have seemed painfully slow to develop at times, the latest developments show that the expansion of the town’s cycle network hasn’t been forgotten and that extending it can be very easy.

28/09/2009

75 People Turn Up at Empty Town Hall

Today was the first working day since Aberystwyth Town Hall was emptied of County Council staff, leaving just the Town Council Clerk and his secretary rattling around in the large building.

Despite the door being locked with a notice on explaining that County Council services are no longer provided there, the Clerk had to answer the door bell and explain the situation no fewer than 75 times throughout the day, thus demonstrating the folly of leaving the town centre without an access point for County Council services .

27/09/2009

First Ysgol Gymraeg Celebrates 70 Years

The pivotal role of Aberystwyth in the survival of the Welsh language was emphasised on Friday with the 70th birthday celebrations of the first Welsh language school. Originally begun in 1939 with just seven pupils at the now demolished old Urdd centre in Llanbadarn Road, the Ysgol Gymraeg has been sited in Plas Crug Avenue since 1989 and is now a thriving school of 370 pupils. In February the school’s latest Estyn Report awarded it the maximum Grade 1 in all seven categories. Only 48% of children are from homes where the main language is Welsh but all reach full fluency by the end of the second year.

The school’s success in attracting children from outside Aberystwyth is sometimes blamed for threatened closures of small rural schools. However moot points like this are massively outweighed by the school’s proven quality and its crucial role in the development of the Welsh language in the Aberystwyth area.

25/09/2009

Aberystwyth Town Hall Raised in the Assembly

Following on from the article below, yesterday Nic Bourne, Conservative Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales and an Aberystwyth resident, questioned the Assembly’s Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones (pictured), about the future of Aberystwyth Town Hall.

“The Minister will be aware of the iconic nature of Aberystwyth town hall which, sadly, Ceredigion County Council is proposing to mothball, having built new headquarters costing £15 million. The council is now finding that there is an excess of buildings in Aberystwyth, one of which, predictably, is the town hall, and there is not a ready market for town halls. The town council is interested in buying it back. There is currently a dispute about it but, given the town council’s willingness to acquire it, will the Minister use his good offices to ensure that it is not mothballed, because it is an iconic building, and encourage the two sides—the town council and the county council—to get together so that it can be acquired and continue to be used in the community in Aberystwyth?”

Alun Ffred Jones, Plaid Cymru Heritage Minister, replied,
“ I am happy to encourage the better use of any building, particularly one that, as you said, has such iconic status. If I am able to bring my influence to bear on this issue, I am happy to do that.”

Nic Bourne later commented,
“ I am very pleased that the Heritage Minister has indicated that he recognises the importance of this building and the need to preserve it as a community facility. I very much welcome his influence as a cabinet member in helping to lobby to bring this about. The town hall’s accessibility and central location means that this is a building which the people of Aberystwyth traditionally identify as their own civic centre.”

24/09/2009

Town Council to Remain in Rapidly Emptying Town Hall

Aberystwyth Town Council will be staying in the Town Hall following last minute negotiations with the County Council. The Town Council use just two offices in the large building which is being vacated next week as all other departments move to the new County Council offices in Boulevard St Brieuc (the picture above shows packed cases ready to go). The Town Council’s presence in the iconic building will mean that it will not be boarded up – the fear of many people in the town – but the footsteps of the Town Council’s two employees will certainly echo around the otherwise empty building. And they may be spending quite a bit of time answering queries they have no jurisdiction over.

Now I understand the new County building – Canolfan Rheidol – has a great many advantages and long-term cost savings from having all council officers working in the same new building. But, in pursuing this, the County Council have taken their eye off the ball in terms of their service to the public. Maintaining a County Council presence in the town centre - the new building is almost a mile out of town - should have been part of the plan all along. The point has been made many times over the past year but it’s fallen on deaf ears. Now that the crunch has come people in the Council are starting to take notice.

At the very least the public pay office, where local people go to pay their bills, should be maintained in the town hall together with a front desk to deal with public enquiries. That’s what local residents need and expect. And the offices left empty should be made available to some of the many local charitable organisations in severe need of these facilities.

In any other country in the world, leaving a fine building like Aberystwyth’s Town Hall almost empty would be seen as a terribly poor reflection on the competence of the local authority. Ceredigion Council should wake up and take steps to maintain its presence in this symbolic town centre building.

Y Crynwyr yn Sir Aberteifi

Cyflwyniad yn Gymraeg gan Dr. Owain Evans
fel rhan o wythnos y Crynwyr

Dydd Mawrth 6ed Hydref, 7.30 pm
Tŷ Cwrdd y Crynwyr, Maes Maelor, Penparcau, Aberystwyth

Mwy o wybodaeth: 01970 – 610056
neu
gethine45@yahoo.co.uk



The Quakers in Cardiganshire

A talk in English by Dr. Owain Evans
as part of Quaker week


Monday 5th October, 7.30 pm
Quaker Meeting House, Maes Maelor, Penparcau, Aberystwyth

More information: 01970 – 610056

or gethine45@yahoo.co.uk

15/09/2009

Council in Disarray Over Town Hall

I was contacted yesterday by the local paper asking about the future of Aberystwyth Town Hall in Morfa Mawr/Queens Road. The County Council seem in disarray about the building’s future. The Finance Department staff currently housed there amongst others are due to move to the new council offices at Parc y Llyn on Friday week, leaving the building almost empty. At one time there was an intention to move the town library there. Now there’s a funding problem with this and in the short term the building is to be ‘mothballed’, i.e. closed but maintained in good order until someone comes up with an idea. The Town Council, which occupies two small rooms there, have been told they will have to move out and have been half-promised another central location (at least they won’t be moving out of town).

Looking down Portland Street towards the Town Hall (above) it seems almost unthinkable that the building should simply be abandoned. It’s not as grand as the original, which was burnt down on 8th September 1957, but the building and it’s position at the junction of two roads has an imposing look about it that dignifies the town.

I've got mixed feelings about the new County Council Offices at Parc y Llyn. I hear the criticism about extravagance in difficult economic times but I can also understand the case for a new building meeting modern standards in one place rather than the patchwork of old buildings dotted all over town that council workers are currently housed in.

But it’s absolutely essential that the County Council maintain a presence within the town centre for the many people who need to make payments or enquiries etc whilst doing their shopping or in their lunch hour. It's just not good enough that these people should all have to trek a mile out to Parc y Llyn. With the Town Hall set to empty, those people are entitled to ask why it can't be kept open as an easy town centre access point to Council services.

Council Opens the Doors


Ceredigion County Council is opening the doors of its new building at Parc y Llyn, just outside Aberystwyth to the general public next Monday 21st September. Conducted tours of the building, which will be a workbase for 400 employees, will be held on the hour from 10am until 4pm.

I’ve covered some of the issues around the building here and here but one question I’ve constantly been asked is how is the building funded. Here’s the answer:
£4.1m via the general capital allocation given by the Welsh Assembly Government
£2.0m via capital receipts from the sale of surplus offices
£8.9m via prudential borrowing.

I’m told that the savings made from substantially reduced energy costs will go some way towards offsetting the interest payments but the actual figures on this are hard to come by.

13/09/2009

Capel Bach Conversion


Y Capel Bach, a tiny historic chapel in Stryd Newydd / New Street, Aberystwyth, is to be converted into a dwelling after planning permission was passed this week.

The chapel was built in 1853 and run as a stable house before being used as a meeting place by the Quakers followed by the Unitarians. A plaque on the outside commemorates David Ivon Jones, a regular worshipper there who emigrated for health reasons and eventually became one of the founders of the South African Communist Party.

The building has been a derelict curiosity for many years and it’s to be hoped that the conversion is done sympathetically.

04/09/2009

A487 - Time to Act

Last night I happened upon another serious accident on the A487 between Blaenplwyf and Llanddeiniol, just south of Aberystwyth. I was second on the scene (behind the author of a recent well-received book on R. S. Thomas) and found three young men having just emerged miraculously unscathed from a car that was lying on its roof in the road. Judging from the state of their car, they were all very lucky to be alive. No other cars had been hit.

This is the third serious accident I’ve seen seen on this stretch of road this year and only last month a motorcyclist was killed. It’s a tempting spot to overtake following a series of bends at either end but is deceptively short at high speed and cars seem to run out of road. Since 2006 the A487 through Ceredigion has seen nine people killed and 136 injured, 44 of them seriously.

Today Ceredigion Council Leader Keith Evans issued a press release calling for a road realignment, presumably with the idea of lengthening the straight stretch and improving visability. Despite being identified as an accident blackspot, this part of the A487 doesn’t feature in the Assembly’s recently published National Transport Plan.

There’s no doubt that something has to be done - people are dying. However, given that we’re not going to see a dual carriageway here (nor would want to), it could be argued that, rather than making overtaking slightly less dangerous, in pure road safety terms it would make more sense to actually put in another bend to rule out high speed overtaking as an option altogether.


Diolch i Dogfael am y llun

21/08/2009

New Council Offices - Green Transport or Traffic Chaos? Or Maybe Both.

I’ve recently given credit where it’s due to the excellent green energy credentials of the new council offices due to open next month on the outskirts of Aberystwyth. Now for a more difficult issue – transport arrangements for the site.

Whilst the current council offices are dotted all around the town centre, with easy access to the town’s car parks, the new offices – Canolfan Rheidol - are the best part of a mile outside the town. 465 staff will be moving there whilst the number of car parking spaces provided is 201. I haven’t got the figures for the new Assembly building next door but I imagine they will be quite similar, thereby doubling the problem.

Of course, at any given time a number of staff will be on annual leave or working off site and many staff already walk, cycle, bus to work or car share. But even taking this into account, in a dispersed rural area where public transport to work often isn’t an option, the difference between the figures suggest a problem; especially when you consider there will be no parking places at all for visitors to the building wanting to stay more than an hour, not even for invited guests who may have travelled some distance. You don’t have to be Jeremy Clarkson to think that’s quite tough. The distance from the town’s car parks isn’t unwalkable of course – the nearest one will be about half a mile away - but it’s certainly a lot further than people are used to walking for business purposes.

Over, then, to the Council’s Highways Department who’s hour has come. When it became clear there wasn’t going to be sufficient land or money to cater for everyone who’d like to drive to the building the department were suddenly given an opportunity to put into action all the green transport strategies they’d been thinking about for the past few years. So staff moving to the new building are being presented with superb cycling facilities, new bus stops, car share schemes and a Park & Ride together with flexible working hours and opportunities to work from home. Coupled with these incentives is a blunt refusal to allow any member of staff living within the boundaries of Aberystwyth or Llanbadarn to use the building’s car park at all.

Figures from a recent survey show that council staff are already considerably better than the Ceredigion average at making green transport choices. Even so, the same survey indicates that demand for staff parking places is still likely to exceed supply.

At least staff will have been fully briefed and know what to expect. The biggest problem may well be with visitors. The number of people visiting the various council offices in town each day must number well into the hundreds and the new building is being billed as a one-stop shop for all of them. I don’t envy the car park attendants standing by a barred entrance with the task of telling visitors the nearest car park for them is half a mile away at the Park & Ride from where they can catch the next bus back. Although this kind of scenario is already happening in many places, it’s new to Aberystwyth.

Now human beings, including those who should know better, are notoriously recalcitrant when it comes to their car-related behaviour. I remember being given a lift by a fundamentalist green activist. On the journey he was full of all the familiar complaints about poor roads and slow drivers in front, until I pointed out that he was supposed to be in favour of all that. Many perfectly intelligent, community-minded people, despite the best attempts to educate them about alternatives, will always try to get their cars to as close to where they’re going as possible.

The question is, given this, where are those excluded from the building’s car park, and bull-headedly intent on finding a nearby parking spot, going to go? Residential streets near the site await the opening of the new buildings with trepidation. It could be an interesting exercise into what happens when some good principles come up against the reality of people’s transport choices, a reality that more urban councils have had to face years ago. This summer there has been just a single traffic warden for the whole of Aberystwyth due to the Council Cabinet’s stubborn refusal to take over responsibility for parking enforcement from a police force willing them to do so.


In many ways the Council’s Highways department is being very brave in attempting to confront the sheer impossibility of our society’s car expectations, even if this has been forced on them by the restrictions of the site. There's a green transport argument that says that, given people’s mesmeric attachment to their cars, the only way we will ever learn to act green is to provide no car facilities whatsoever and, only when that results in traffic chaos, will we finally learn to make environmental choices. It looks as if we may be about to see that theory put to the test in Aberystwyth.

20/08/2009

Diolch

I’d like to thank anyone who had the generosity to vote this blog in at number 45 (out of 105) in this year's Welsh Blog Awards. I suppose it’s not bad for a blog about only one small town. I’ve no idea how many people have to vote in order to attain the dizzy height of number 45, quite possibly a very small number indeed. Even so, whoever you are, thank you.

17/08/2009

Funding Announced for New GP Surgery in Aberystwyth


National Assembly Health Minister Edwina Hart today announced full funding for a new primary care centre on Penglais Hill in Aberystwyth whilst on a visit to Bronglais Hospital.

The new health centre, which will house a GP Surgery, pharmacy and university creche, received planning permission in September last year but, despite the site being cleared and fenced off in readiness for building, funding for the project had stalled until now.

The scheme is led by local GPs at Padarn Surgery who are currently housed in an 1880s terraced house in the town centre and will enable them to expand from their current 9,000 patients.

The site (seen above) is sensitive as it’s currently a green space on the northern approach to the town and bordering a hidden beauty spot known as the Dingle. However the developers, being local themselves, seem to have understood the concerns of nearby residents and employed landscape architects from Conwy to put together a scheme retaining the majority of trees on the site. Meanwhile, local campaigners acted to have a footpath running alongside the site designated as a public right of way.

Building is expected to start soon and the new surgery is planned to open in April 2011. Edwina Hart also gave reassurances about the Assembly’s commitment to the Bronglais Hospital expansion scheme.

Council Succumbs to the Plastic Tide

Wednesday’s decision of Ceredigion Council’s Development Control Committee to allow around 50 new plastic UPVC windows in a University hall of residence has disappointed Aberystwyth Town Council who strongly objected to the plans.

The Town Council are waging a campaign against the increasing replacement of attractive wooden windows in the town with UPVC and Cllr Mark Strong has a front page article on the issue in this month’s edition of Yr Angor, the town’s papur bro. Although the university is far from the centre of town and has hundreds of UPVC windows anyway, the Town Council felt that the scale of the scheme and the opportunity of the planning application provided a good opportunity to test the commitment of the County Council and the Assembly towards sustainability issues.

As well as the clear aesthetic superiority of wood, there are strong environmental arguments against UPVC. It uses eight times the amount of energy to manufacture as wood. In both its manufacture and disposal, UPVC creates toxic chemicals which are released into the environment. Every ten UPVC windows use half a tonne of CO2 more than the same number made of of wood. And there are certainly a lot of windows in the university building in question.

In recent years UPVC manufacturers have been mounting a vigorous campaign to convince people that their product is in some way environmentally friendly. This is based mainly around a big increase in the use of recycled plastic in the industry coupled with the argument that the cheapness of their windows helps to increase the take-up of energy-saving double glazing. But, although the increased recycling is undoubtedly a good thing, it’s a deeply flawed argument because this only delays the real problem. Unlike other recyclable materials which biodegrade, when plastic finally comes to the end of its life it’s consigned to landfill where it lies for hundreds of years leaching chemicals into the earth.

Of course the main reason for the use of UPVC is its relative cheapness and low maintenance. This is a real consideration for ordinary residents on low wages with limited time. But, although it may be cheaper in the short-term, a study by Camden Housing has found that well maintained timber is actually 25% cheaper over the whole life cycle because it lasts much longer. Presumably the University is here for the long term.

The ironic thing is that the University is stuffed with clever environmentalists who, if they’d been asked, would have told their estates department all this. You might expect that the University as an institution would use its own intellectual resources to pursue environmental best practice.

Guidance in both the Ceredigion Unitary Development Plan and the Assembly’s Planning Policy Wales encourages the use of sustainable materials. The Council’s planning department therefore contacted the university asking for this but were apparently met with a refusal on the basis that something more sustainable would double the cost of the project.

The officers didn’t feel that the policy guidance was strong enough to win a fairly inevitable appeal to the Assembly in the case of a refusal, leaving the Council with costs to pay. On hearing this the majority of the committee voted to approve the application.

I’m not blaming the Council’s planning officers – they may well be right about the likelihood of losing an appeal and at least they tried. But if the Assembly is serious about sustainability it really needs to make its planning policies far more robust because, if ordinary people can’t afford not to use UPVC and big institutions say they can’t either, organisations like the Town Council need much stronger support if they’re to stand against the plastic tide.

Whilst all the debate was happening, the University had pushed ahead and put the new windows in anyway - without planning permission. In the face of such apathy from much bigger fish, what’s an environmentally concerned tiny Town Council to do?

13/08/2009

Traffic Delays - Is the Problem in our Heads?


The local paper contacted me the other day asking my thoughts about recent traffic delays around Aberystwyth caused by various roadworks. They were asking if the tourist season was the best time of year to be doing this work. Then it occurred to me that I’d been asked a similar question before, but at an entirely different time of the year. And I wondered, is there actually any time at all when people don't mind roadworks?

The tourist season may seem at first like a bad time to do these works, but then tourists aren’t in a hurry, the university students aren’t here, many local people are on holiday and there are no school runs happening twice a day. So the timing could be worse and I suspect reasons would be found against roadworks at any time.

The blockages to Park Avenue/Boulevard St Brieuc in Aberystwyth are being caused by two different sets of work - a sensible bit of co-ordination it could be argued. At the Llanbadarn end bus stops and pedestrian refuges are being built to serve the new government buildings, due to open next month, in an attempt to make it easier for people to reach the buildings without a car. At the same time, at the town end, a new rising water main is being laid to reduce the incidents of sewage flooding in the town centre, currently running at a very smelly three incidents a year.

Then, on the Llanbadarn Road approach, traffic has been delayed by changes being made to the entrance of Penweddig school, aimed at making the road safer for schoolchildren when they return in September. All this is worthwhile work.

Of course, we've all seen situations where roadworks could have been better planned and co-ordinated. But why is it seemingly so important that cars aren’t delayed for even two minutes, not even for clearly important work?

Maybe we ourselves should take more responsibility for our own impatience rather than blame the Council or the Trunk Road Agency for trying to improve services. As a car driver myself (as well as a cyclist and pedestrian) I confess to the occasional bout of frustration at delays when I think I need to be in a hurry. But then, in better moments, I switch the car ipod to
Pharoah Sanders and try to take it as an opportunity to chill out and contemplate the illusion of haste. Maybe the Council should put on relaxation classes.