Local government watchers in the Aberystwyth area are viewing with some trepidation an expected announcement in the next month of major changes to local government boundaries in Wales as a result of the review by the Welsh Government's Commission on Public Service Governance headed by Sir Paul Williams. A planned reduction in county councils from the current 22 to a drastically smaller number, leading to the loss of Ceredigion as an authority in the longer term, is widely expected.
The period between 1974 and 1996, when there were only eight county councils in Wales, and Ceredigion was a part of Dyfed, now seems to be viewed as a more efficient model by central government. However it should be remembered that during this period there was also a layer of 37 District Councils beneath the counties, ensuring a local feel to government.
That was prior to the creation of the National Assembly and no-one would want to go back to two layers of councils now. But, because we’ve been there in the past, there’s an assumption amongst many people that Dyfed is where we’re going to end up again.
Whilst the idea of re-creating the pre ’96 county with its HQ in Carmarthen probably wouldn’t bother the people of, say, Cardigan in South Ceredigion too much, the idea appals people in Aberystwyth who would be relegated once again to the outer northern periphery of the new county and would have to travel 50 miles to the county’s capital.
Resources of any government structure inevitably shift towards the centre and, in a Dyfed scenario, it would seem unavoidable that Aberystwyth would diminish in importance both culturally and economically.
The difference between then and now is that Aberystwyth, and transport links to it, has developed considerably in the past twenty years, partly with the assistance of Welsh Government money, and it is now without question the most vibrant and economically healthy town in Mid Wales.
Going back to the old Dyfed isn’t the only idea that’s been mentioned during the course of the review. I’ve no idea how seriously the others are taken - some of them have probably been laughed at - but these are a few ideas I’ve seen or heard being promoted involving Ceredigion and at least they get us thinking outside the Dyfed box:
- A huge Dyfed-Powys authority - this would leave Aberystwyth still reasonably central.
- Splitting Powys and Gwynedd up to create a new Ceredigion/Montgomeryshire/Meirionydd authority.
- Ceredigion to merge with Powys to form a central Wales authority - this would fit in with various collaborations Ceredigion Council have already developed with Powys in response to urgings from the Welsh Government for local authorities to make savings through co-operation.
- Ceredigion to merge with Pembrokeshire to create a South-west coastal authority
- A huge West Wales coastal authority covering everything from Ynys Mon down to Pembroke.
Whatever emerges from the Review, the point is that what happens to Aberystwyth is not just a concern for Aberystwyth – the prospect should be a concern for everyone in Wales. Mid Wales – I’m going to call it Central Wales from now on – is not just the green desert between the populous belts of north and south Wales. Nations need a middle. If we have a governmental structure that essentially pulls everything south of the Dyfi to Carmarthen and everything north of the Dyfi to Caernarfon/Bangor, that effectively drags the nation apart and concentrates power and resources at each end, leaving the geographic centre - which is crucial to any nation’s cohesion - ignored. You don’t have to be a Welsh nationalist to see this as a problem. Anyone who supports a Wales level of government should be able to see that we need a strong middle that can pull the whole thing together.
At the demonstration in 2012 outside the National Assembly in support of Aberystwyth’s Bronglais Hospital, the most powerful image (above) was on a banner showing a map of major hospitals in Wales, with Bronglais being the only one between Carmarthen and Bangor. It brought home the geographic importance of the place. The last thing Wales needs is to diminish Aberystwyth.
It was therefore very encouraging to see the recent report from a Welsh Government Task & Finish group into the future of the Welsh language which has recommended the setting up of ‘city regions’ based around Aberystwyth, Bangor and Carmarthen.
If Wales is to develop in a balanced way into the future we need to be thinking outside of the old traditional boundaries, useful though they may have been once. Although the Task & Finish group may not have had overall national cohesion in mind, not for the first time it could be that the needs of the Welsh language are pointing us towards the most progressive future for everyone in Wales.