Despite the huge challenges facing local government, the Plaid Cymru-led Carmarthenshire County Council is well on the way to turning its manifesto vision statement into reality, for the economic and social benefit of the county’s residents. In his first Annual Report to today’s Full Council meeting as the authority’s Leader, Cllr Darren Price listed the council’s priorities and delivery across a wide range of services and strategies, including education, social care, job creation and decarbonisation.
Modernising Education Programme. “It’s imperative to ensure that every child in Carmarthenshire has the best start in life,” said Cllr Price, who noted that new primary schools were opened in Kidwelly and Gorslas during the year. Referring to the Welsh in Education Strategic Plan, approved by Welsh Government last summer, he said that more schools will be moving to become Welsh-language medium over the next 10 years, creating more opportunity for learners. A training programme will increase the number of teachers able to teach through the medium of Welsh.
Free School Meals. Cllr Price also detailed the roll-out of Universal Primary Free School Meals, a provision enabled by Plaid Cymru nationally as part of its co-operative agreement with the Labour Welsh Government. “We are on track to deliver to all primary school pupils by April next year. We are already providing UPFSM for Nursery, Reception and Years 1 and 2.”
Protecting schools from Tory cuts. All this is happening despite the relentless Tory UK Government’s austerity programme continues to savagely squeeze council budgets, forcing cuts and savings. “We have tried to protect schools from cuts and will continue to do so but each year it becomes more and more challenging. I’ve complete confidence in our Department of Education and their dedication to deliver the best education possible for our children, but I worry about the pressure on school heads and senior managers as they strive to deliver more with limited resources.”
Children’s Services. The council’s focus is on preventative measures, and at present has one of the lowest rates of Looked after Children in Wales. “Over the last year we’ve been noted by the First Minister and the Deputy Minister for Social Services for our work in this area. We’re in the middle of Foster Care Fortnight, aimed at increasing numbers and providing greater support for Foster Carers.”
The Cost of Living Crisis. Over a third of Carmarthenshire households live in poverty, as the county continues to face a cost-of-living crisis. “We remain committed to tackling this issue head on. We have advisors in our HWBs who provide budgeting and benefit advice. £180,000 was made available from the Poverty Fund for local residents and community groups to deliver Warm Welcome Spaces, we opened our libraries in Carmarthen, Llanelli, and Ammanford as warm places as well as supporting third sector partners to deliver support in the community. We’ve established a cross party advisory panel on tackling poverty to report to Cabinet regularly.”
Affordable homes and empty house / second homes premiums. “We’re acting decisively to tackle the affordable housing shortfall by introducing a premium on second homes and empty properties, to either encourage greater use of these properties or ensure that their owners contribute more towards our communities. By the year 2025/26, the total premium for both classes could potentially raise anything up to £3m, or release houses to become homes for Carmarthenshire residents, depending on the response of owners. We've continued with our programme of providing many hundreds more council houses and affordable homes. Those on our newer sites have exceptionally high levels of insulation, resulting in lower energy bills for tenants and reduced carbon emissions, which supports our commitment to tackling climate change and becoming a net zero carbon local authority by 2030.”
Environment. “The Eto development at Nantycaws and Llanelli gives a second life to repaired, re-used and re-purposed items. We’ve started the greening of our refuse fleet and made significant changes to our refuse collection to meet stringent Welsh Government recycling targets.
Economic Development. “Prosperous communities need employment, transport, leisure, and services that are accessible to all. Providing secure and well-paid jobs for local people is crucial. Our Innovation Strategy launched last week will identify proposals to support the recovery and restructuring of Carmarthenshire’s economy. We also launched the Shared Prosperity Fund which will provide an additional £32m investment to help provide new opportunities for local communities, support the development and growth of local businesses and the recovery of our town centres. We’ve also launched the second phase of the £11 million ARFOR Programme, to deliver an economic boost and strengthen the Welsh language across Carmarthenshire and three other counties. This again comes as part of the Co-operation Agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government.”
“Local procurement has a significant part to play in terms of economic growth and we’ve tasked officers with reviewing the way our procurement frameworks work to increase the level of local procurement. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the officers for their work in supporting the three Town Centre Taskforces in Llanelli, Carmarthen and Ammanford and the Ten Towns initiative and I’m of the firm view that we need to spread economic development across the county.”
“The regeneration of Llanelli town is something that I am personally committed to. We want to make it a place for more people to live and work by bringing empty shops back into use and creating much-needed new homes. work has started on Pentre Awel and work is progressing on the YMCA building in Llanelli, and Market Street North is due to start in the next few weeks. The regeneration of Tyisha is key to the town’s development, providing an important link between the town centre and the Pentre Awel project.
In Carmarthen work will soon begin at the HWB development which will house our customer service teams, as well as a town centre gym, NHS and education facilities, and a museum. We’ll press ahead with the Jacksons Lane and Oriel Myrddin development. Improvement works to Carmarthen bus station are nearing completion, and the £500k Shared Prosperity Fund Tackling Towns funding has identified five projects to be undertaken within the town.
In Ammanford progress is being made through the Taskforce to further support the town centre. A new 3G sports pitch and leisure facilities will add to the fantastic sporting facilities in the town. We will continue to lobby Welsh Government and regional partners to re-open the Amman Valley railway to provide services right to the top of the Amman Valley as part of the Swansea Bay Metro, which would be a significant boost for this part of the county.
Leisure. “Pendine Tourism Attractor Project opened in March. Pendine has a unique history in terms of the land speed record as well as being one of the most picturesque stretches of beach in the country. Overlooking the beach, the Caban accommodation facility includes a restaurant and will cater for the walking holiday and outdoor sports adventure market as well as those seeking a coastal experience. I'm sure this will benefit both local residents and visitors to the area.”
Planning. We published our second draft Local Development Plan (LDP) to deliver economic development and housing across the county, and strengthen our landscape protection policies. It’ll be submitted to the Welsh Government for examination later in the year.
A Responsible Employer. As in the past five years, our Pay Policy Statement once again endorsed the Real Living Wage supplement to ensure that our lowest paid receive the equivalent of £10.90 per hour (including fixed allowances). At Cabinet on Monday, we approved the new Cycle to Work and Car Loan Scheme, to reflect rising costs and pressures. We’ve been awarded an Investors in People Gold Award which is remarkable considering the circumstances of the last three years.
The Strategic Equality Plan, currently out for consultation, sets out the principles of our commitment to equality and diversity and outlines how we intend to fulfil our responsibilities as an employer, a service provider and as a community leader. I’m also pleased that progress is being made in a commitment from the Vision Statement to increase the level of in-house provision within social care.
SOME FUTURE CHALLENGES
“The next few years are likely to be as equally, if not more challenging, as external cost increases are likely to place extra strain on budgets. We are also likely to continue to see significant increases in demand for services such as social care. Although the last two years have brought unprecedented challenges for this Council, they came on top of a decade of constant challenge for local councils due to the Tory UK Government slashing public funding. Being able to meet greater service demands with less funding is testament to the innovation and creativity shown by Council staff in identifying ways of delivering high quality services in more efficient ways.”
Schools. “The Modernising Education Programme (MEP) has been reviewed over the past few months. Our school footprint continues to provide cost and staffing challenges. We’re working with Llanelli Town Council and the Welsh Govt on developing a solution to the Ysgol Dewi Sant situation, and are keen to find a solution for schools in the Ammanford area.”
Roads. “The result of over a decade of year-on-year cuts in the block grant from the UK Government can be seen in the state of many of our roads – especially in rural areas. This is true of highways across the UK. It’s a deplorable situation which can only be resolved by extra central funding. New road scheme have also been curtailed, but we continue to press for the too long-awaited Llandeilo by-pass.”
Welsh Language “The 4% drop in Welsh speakers between 2010-20 was particularly disappointing and we must take action to reverse this trend. Earlier this week the Cabinet agreed to implement the Welsh Language Promotion Strategy 2023-28. Its aim is to increase the number of Welsh speakers, boost people’s pride in the language, and the use of Welsh in our communities and the workplace.”
Cllr Darren Price concluded: “We’ve achieved a great deal over the past year under very challenging circumstances. We will continue to turn our vision statement into reality over the coming year, in the face of whatever new challenges come along. We have a clear strategy on how to achieve that.”