The occasion was an exhibition of the proposed LDP held in Newcastle Emlyn, where two young representatives of Forward Planning had come along with a stack of maps and plans, probably thinking that they would spend their time looking out of the window and twiddling their thumbs. Instead they were being treated to a roasting from assorted groups of angry residents from the town and surrounding villages.
If Newcastle Emlyn is anything to go by, Carmarthenshire County Council may well have to take its master plan back to the drawing board, especially if the Planning Inspectorate is anything like as well informed and rigorous in its questioning as the locals were.
The plan itself is set out in lorryloads of documentation, but in essence it is based on the premise that the population of the county is about to explode, and that we will need thousands upon thousands of new houses to accommodate all the people wanting to move here.
Preparation of the plan started way back in 2007 when property prices were at their peak, the markets were booming and Gordon Brown was telling us that he had put an end to boom and bust. Obviously things have changed a bit since then.
But despite all the thousands of man-hours spent in the production of the glossy documents and maps, the consultation meetings with "Key Stakeholders", etc., the grand plan is starting to look like one of those sad TV programmes where some hapless couple has poured their life savings into a Spanish villa complex, only to find a few goats grazing under some olive trees when they get there.
If Newcastle Emlyn is a microcosm of the rest of the county, things are really not looking good. Of the 5 sites proposed for housing, only one looks like a realistic proposition. One site is notoriously prone to subsidence, and any developer, surveyor or planning officer who knows what's good for them would run a mile rather than face the lawsuits which building on that site would inevitably trigger. Another site is accessed by two single track roads with dangerous junctions out on to the main road. Without spending huge amounts of money improving road access, it is hard to see how this site could ever be developed. Two other sites are in the grounds of a large private house whose owner is reportedly opposed to any development. Certainly, any development there would run into opposition from householders whose properties back onto the site.
And from what I could tell, the picture was much the same with the developments proposed for neighbouring villages.
I asked about the county's population estimates. These are based partly on the 2001 census and a study carried out by a university. No account will be taken of the 2011 census because the results will not come out in time, even though the plan itself is not due to be adopted until 2013. The officer I spoke to was unable to comment on suggestions made by Cllr Alun Lenny and others that the reality at the moment is zero population growth.
It's all about the future, you see. The population may be stable at the moment, but the council is convinced that people are queuing up to come here.
One very serious issue is, of course, the impact on the Welsh language. The Welsh Government's policy is not to allow large scale development of housing in areas which are deemed to be "linguistically sensitive" (which means that 25% or more of people are Welsh-speaking). No language impact assessments have been carried out in the 4 years that the plan has been under preparation. And in the thousands and thousands of pages of documentation, the Welsh language seems to merit less than a single side.
One way round the language obstacle is to phase development of large housing estates over a period of years. In that way, there is less likelihood of triggering an impact assessment. And guess what the Head of Planning, Eifion Bowen, has said will happen in the controversial Carmarthen West development (1,200 new houses)? Yes, you've got it, development would be phased. And the impact would be mitigated by putting up lots of nice bilingual signs and using Welsh place names. So that's all right, then.
The Welsh Government is currently revising its policy in this area to give language impact assessments more teeth. So, for example, rather than taking one smallish development in a town or village into consideration, planners would have to look at the cumulative impact of all proposed developments on an area.
Unfortunately for the language, the revised policy will not be ready in time to affect the LDP.
Many people have started asking where all the money will come from to build new schools, hospitals, doctors' surgeries, etc. The planning officer was optimistic. Development would unlock funds to do all of that. Except, as we now know, the Welsh Government's coffers are empty. Money for its schools building programme is not there. Commitments have already been made without the money to fulfil them.
In many of the smaller communities, unsuitable land or land with shockingly poor access has been allocated for housing, sometimes against the wishes of the owners of that land. Targets have been set for so-called affordable housing which will never be built. Land has been zoned for light industrial or office use against the wishes of the landowners.
In the larger towns and settlements, which are what really matter to the county council, the reverse is the case. There huge developments have been pencilled for Llanelli, Carmarthen, Cross Hands and Ammanford. Objections will be brushed aside, ways will be found to get around obstacles such as linguistic impact assessments.
Why are they doing this?
The answer is that councils like development. Working on big, brash exciting new projects where you can stamp your "vision" on the map is much more exciting than dealing with Mr and Mrs Jones's single storey extension. But more importantly, big development means money. Money for new roads, schools, hospitals, more council officials, more council tax. More of everything. And more money means more power.
What can we do?
The LDP needs to go back to the drawing board and be made to reflect the realities of the world we now find ourselves in and what communities across the county want. As it now stands, the plan is being driven by developers and council power machines.
- Respond to the LDP consultation by filling out this form. You have until 19 August.
- Lobby your county councillor and give him or her a wake-up call.
- Lobby your Assembly Member. For many of us that will be Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
- Sign this petition which is calling for the re-call of all LDPs across Wales.