Opening democracy - BBC allowed to film Aberystwyth Town Council meeting

Aberystwyth Town Council struck a small blow for a more transparent democracy last night when they allowed a BBC cameraman unrestricted access to film their meeting for the first time.

A few weeks previously the Council had altered its standing orders to allow the possibility of filming at meetings in the wake of the controversy surrounding Carmarthenshire Council which resolutely continues to ban all cameras and has had a transgressor with a mobile phone arrested. Aberystwyth Town Council voted unanimously last night to allow the filming. Ceredigion Council is currently considering its own policy.

The BBC were filming as part of a programme about the planned development of Mill Street car park.


Ceredigion health projects put on hold

The Welsh Government’s Health Minister, Lesley Griffiths, has put all unstarted health service building projects on hold until at least the new year because she is new to the health portfolio. That was the surprising announcement made in an Assembly debate last week. The stoppage may affect plans for Aberaeron, Tregaron and Cardigan hospitals in Ceredigion, but not Bronglais Hospital in Aberystwyth which already has a major A&E extension scheme well underway.

Elin Jones, Ceredigion's Assembly Member and Plaid Cymru's Shadow Health Spokesperson, said in a statement,
“This amazing admission by the Health Minister suggests mind-boggling ignorance of the economic crisis that we’re in. Here in Ceredigion, everybody knows that there is a real need for new healthcare facilities to replace the ageing buildings which we currently have in Cardigan, Tregaron and Aberaeron. This revelation means that local people will have to wait even longer for these proposed new buildings to materialise, and I fear that the longer they’re put off, the less likely they are to see the light of day.

“The previous One Wales government outlined priority projects for the NHS in 2011-12. Although there’s a £17m reduction in next year’s capital budget, this in no way merits putting all projects on hold in this way”.

As everyone knows, the change that’s taken place in the Welsh Government since the election in May has been from a Labour/Plaid coalition with a Labour Health Minister (Edwina Hart) to a soley Labour government with another Labour Health Minister (Lesley Griffiths). With that degree of continuity you might think that the process of government would be able to continue, and that the new Labour Health Minister might stick to the decisions made by her predecessor. However the more significant change might be the absence of Plaid Cymru in government to stand up for Ceredigion.

The Bronglais Hospital development managed to secure full funding just before the election and can now be seen heading skywards from my bathroom window (see photo, although it is, of course, possible to view the development from places other than my bathroom).

The general funding disarray around election times leads professionals working in a range of fields dependent on public funding to despair. With everything having to stop before an election and, it seems, for some time afterwards, and with an Assembly election normally taking place every four years with other elections in between, it means that no-one can plan anything more than three years ahead at most. One might expect a slightly smoother transition with the same party holding the health portfolio but apparently not. There has to be a better way of doing government.

The County Council elections next May could be the next funding complication with ministers unwilling to make any announcements that could hit their party in the polls.

Meanwhile the £38 million Bronglais scheme continues on schedule. The new building will reach its full height in November and work will then commence to the external walls and interior. The new building should be completed by February 2013. The remaining work will then be internal, with the whole scheme scheduled for full completion and ready to open by November 2015.

The new Health Minister's announcement underlines how important it was that Bronglais funding was agreed before the election and what might have happened if it hadn't been...


Aberystwyth's Mill Street plans - Ceredigion releases details

Ceredigion Council have released details of Aberystwyth's planned Mill Street development, incoporating a multi-storey car park, a large Tescos supermarket and three other shops. The Council's press release reads as follows:

"Ceredigion County Council is pleased to confirm the appointment of Chelverton Deeley Freed as the Council’s preferred developer to deliver a strategic development of Mill Street Car Park Aberystwyth.

"This appointment results from an extensive UE compliant competitive dialogue process that has been ongoing for the last 18 months, culminating in three bidders submitting final tender proposals within the deadline of 18th July 2011.

"The three proposals were evaluated against four substantive areas of assessment:
• Planning content and design
• Economic Benefit
• Deliverability
• Financial proposal.

"Chelverton Deeley Freed’s proposal scored the highest against the agreed evaluation matrix, resulting in the Council’s decision to award the contract to this party.

"The development of Mill Street Car Park has been a key strategic aim of the Authority for some time. This is on the basis that increased car parking provision in Aberystwyth would support the needs of the town and some form of commercial development fronting Park Avenue would strengthen the town’s offer and support its vitality and viability.

"The Chelverton Deeley Freed proposal includes an anchor Tesco store comprising some 25,000 sq ft of net food sales space and 12,000 sq ft of non food net sales area. Three additional retail units are proposed fronting Park Avenue, with the proposed Tesco store located behind these units. The 3 retail units have a total ground floor area of 14,500 sq ft with the potential to double this floor space with a first floor mezzanine level. The scheme will also include 7 residential units and 500 car parking spaces – almost doubling the existing parking provision.

"The proposed public car parking spaces comprise 134 spaces over three levels which will be transferred to the Council to run as appropriate and 366 spaces will be operated by the Tesco store as a short stay car park providing 3 hours free car parking for shoppers visiting both the Tesco store and the town centre. The availability of this number of free car parking spaces in such close proximity to the town centre will be of significant benefit to retailers in the centre.

"In addition to the benefits of free car parking, the proposal will generate well in excess of 200 FTE jobs within 12 months of the scheme being created. The close proximity of Mill Street car Park to the town centre will result in significant linked trips between the proposed development and the town centre - estimated at between £1.6 and £3.5m net additional turnover per annum for the core town centre.

"The support for this proposal from Aberystwyth Chamber of Commerce demonstrates the positive benefits for traders in the core town centre that will result from this proposal.

"Ceredigion County Council is very pleased to confirm that the commercial element of the scheme will be developed to the highest possible BREEAM Excellent standard [note, BREEAM is the envivonmental sustainability building standard] and the development will incorporate a minimum 10% of recycled material in the construction phase. The Council will be working with the developer to deliver additional community benefits in terms of recruitment and training long term economically inactive persons as part of the construction workforce whilst also creating training and apprenticeship opportunities."

"It is anticipated that the development will be complete by mid 2014 and the developer will be invited to provide further information via stakeholder engagement events in advance of the statutory planning process."


Major block of student flats planned near Aberystwyth town centre

A planning application has been submitted to convert the former Department of Work and Pensions and Passport Office (pictured) in Northgate Street, Aberystwyth into 62 student flats.

The plans to change of the use of the four-storey building, currently open-plan office space, have been put forward by the Cantref housing association. The plans include the provision of 13 common rooms across the site alongside the single-person flats. There are 12 parking spaces at the building. The offices have been vacant since August after the Passport Office closed.

Comments on the application, which is currently out for consultation, can be sent to Ceredigion Council’s Planning Department at Penmorfa, Aberaeron, Ceredigion, SA46 0PA.


Aberystwyth, the Romani and the Daily Mail

In 1991, the then Cyngor Dosbarth Ceredigion (Ceredigion District Council) agreed to put the flags of 20 stateless nations on the North Prom in Aberystwyth. They published a booklet about the flags (pictured) which explained,

“When a Welsh person visits another country it is often the case that a display of flags is encountered adorning some public building or space. More often than not, the Red Dragon of Wales is not found amongst them. Realising that inhabitants of minority nations throughout Europe probably experience similar disappointments, the District Council of Ceredigion has resolved that as many as possible of the flags of Europe’s minority nations should be flown at Aberystwyth every summer.”

The nations originally included in the display were Alsace, Brittany, Catalonia, Cornwall, Corsica, Estonia, the Basque Country, Latvia, Lithuania, Isle of Man, Galicia, Occitania, Val d’Aosta, South Tirol, Friesland, Sardinia, Wales, Scotland, Flanders, Wallonia. Since then, Lapland has been added.

The South Prom has a further 30 flags of a more random selection of recognised states.

Recently Plaid Cymru councillor Mark Strong suggested in an Aberystwyth Town Council meeting that it would be in keeping with the spirit of the project to add a Romani flag, which has existed since 1933.

Although the Romani, more colloquially known as gypsies, are dispersed across most countries of Europe, the majority live in central and eastern Europe, often on the margins of society and facing considerable discrimination.

However in Wales, the Romani played a key role in helping to preserve Welsh folk music at a time when the Methodist establishment was trying to extinguish it. The descendants of Abram Wood, thought to be the first Romani in Wales in the 17th century, were trilingual in Welsh, English and Romani and contributed significantly to the Welsh harp tradition, one of them teaching Nansi Richards who became one of Wales’s greatest harpists .

Following Mark Strong’s suggestion, local paper the Cambrian News, published a small responsibly-written article about the idea on page 9 that week.

The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph then picked up on the story. The Mail reported, ‘Council chiefs are planning to fly a gypsy flag on Aberystwyth's seafront promenade” (it’s interesting how a suggestion by a community councillor can end up being portrayed as clear plans by ‘Council chiefs’).

All hell then broke loose on the newspaper’s message board. There followed an avalanche of misinformed, abusive comments, many directed at Aberystwyth, which ironically provided living proof of the persecutory attitudes that Romani often suffer:

“My wife and I were in Aberystwyth not three weeks ago and to be honest it will be the last - what a dump.”

“Deranged Liberal elite crackpots”

“Another local council full of left wing Civil Service Nutters.”

“Political correctness gone bonkers again. The only flags that should be flown, are the flags of the four Nations that make up the United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland. I hope their tourism suffers, until they repent of their folly.”

“How the hell do these left wing liberal wets get in to positions where they can influence soppy decisions like this.”

“How many hours of council staff time has it taken to come up with this initiative, design it, discuss it further, develop it and implement it, plus what is the cost of "raw materials" and "construction"?”

“When you thought these loony council officials couldn't get any more stupid they jump up and prove us wrong. Sack them now without their gold-plated pension.”

“Why don’t they just go ahead and replace the whole lot with the hammer and sickle, that’s the ultimate goal of these silly seaside Labour councils.”

“The obvious solution is to take down the Union Jack. It will fit in with the ongoing policy of trashing anything British wont it?”

“Why not just fly it over Downing Street! I give up with this country, run by the left loonies and has been for years...”

“How about taking down all of them flags and replacing them with the British Union Flag.”

“How about remove the flag of St. George. I wouldn't want it flown in a country like yours.”

“This place is a complete dump and why anyone would want to go there is beyond me.”

“I bet that the Union Jack will be removed to accommodate this”.

Many comments equated Romani with the residents of Dale Farm in Essex, who have been in the news recently but are not Romani.

More positively there were these:

“I'm glad that Wales have seen sense and welcomed this community. We should all be treated as equals, there has been too much bad publicity since the Dale Farm fiasco. I am not a traveller but feel too much is being done to turn these people into monsters. “

“I salute Aberystwyth Town Council for this very small but important recognition of the role the Roma people have played in the local community and the Welsh nation. Thank you.”

The world of the current UK press is a surreal one. It apparently only takes a community councillor to make a suggestion one night in a small meeting room in an Aberystwyth side street for a twisted version to end up at the breakfast tables of millions of people, some of whom, for whatever dysfunctional psychological reason, then feel the need to expound their intolerance on newspaper message boards.

Now clearly the Romani are a different category to most of the stateless nations on the Prom in that they don’t claim any particular territory. And I’m prepared to give at least some credence to the popular view that a few Romani must accept a degree of blame for the discrimination they’ve experienced. That, though, wouldn’t be the same thing as saying their significant contribution to European culture shouldn’t be acknowledged. And whether or not the Romani flag ends up on the Prom, the issue has highlighted how unique Aberystwyth’s minority nation flags are.

Lib Dem Town Councillor Alec Dauncey has had this to say on his blog.

“Frankly, this sort of thing makes me glad I live in this strange and interesting town.”

Supporting Mark Strong, he’s now suggesting that the Aberystwyth small nation flags project should be extended to stateless nations outside Europe like Palestine (alongside Israel), Tibet and Southern Sahara.

So here we have representatives of the two major political parties in Ceredigion on the same side of the debate in support of small and stateless nations. That probably says something about the different perspective on the world that apparently peripheral Welsh towns like Aberystwyth have to offer.

Anyway, when actual ‘council chiefs’, i.e. those Ceredigion officers who are responsible for putting up any flags, heard about it, they quickly put out a blunt, dampening statement saying, “Ceredigion County Council has no immediate plans to amend the current display of flags”.

Whatever flags are put up in the future, I’ll leave the final (slightly misinformed) comment to someone on the Daily Mail message board from Chesterfield,

“Well done to the tourist board of Aberystwyth, for the cost of a flag and a flag pole tourist officials have managed to gain thousands of pounds of free publicity for the town. I didn't know about all the flags until I read this story but now I do know about the display I will definitely visit the town when I'm next in the area.”

To people like this, ‘different’ equals ‘interesting’. Hopefully there are more out there like him.