The dreaded words Local Development Plan are almost guaranteed to get people switching off in droves, but it is hard to exaggerate the importance of these plans for everyone in Wales, and here in Carmarthenshire time is ticking away towards the end of the consultation on the county's LDP on 19 August.
The Welsh Government is keen to ensure that LDPs take much more account of public opinion and the wishes and needs of local communities than the UDPs which went before them, and another key difference between the two systems is that LDPs are about much more than just land use. In theory, they are supposed to create a framework from which other policies on all sorts of things, ranging from public health, social care to the Welsh language will flow.
But it's not just the public which is struggling with this concept; the councils which are going through the process are still to a large extent stuck in the old way of thinking. Here is an extract from the foreword to Carmarthenshire's deposit LDP,
"Whilst taking account of national plans, policies and programmes, the Carmarthenshire LDP provides a locally distinctive means of shaping the future use of land within the County."
Maybe it does, but the point is that the LDP is meant to be about much more than that, just as the council has failed to embrace the concept of democratic consultation as a part of the process.
Given that the LDP is the single most important thing the council will do for the next 10 years, you would think that we would by now be awash in a tidal wave of informative brochures and booklets explaining the plan in simple terms. Or that the council's newspaper would have found space for it. Or that the council's website would give the LDP a prominent place on the home page of its website. Or that the consultation would be held at a time of year when people are at home. Not a bit of it.
Caebrwyn in her blog Carmarthenshire Planning Problems has written a very interesting post about aspects of the LDP and touched on one of the most controversial aspects of the various LDPs which are being presented in different parts of Wales, and that is the issue of population growth. More can be found on the excellent Plaid Wrecsam blog, and I would urge all readers from all parts of Wales to sign the Welsh Assembly petition calling on the government to recall all LDPs and make councils go back to the drawing board to reassess their population and housing projections. The petition can be found here.
Admittedly, the wording of the petition is slightly flawed, but let's go with what we've got.
The position on population figures is that the Welsh Government's Statistical Directorate drew up population forecasts which were to be used as guidelines by the councils. The councils are free to reject the government figures, provided they can justify their alternative projections.
The Cardiff Bay projections are widely considered to be way off the mark, as they forecast a rapidly rising population in Wales over the next few years and a massive expansion of the need for new housing.
Carmarthenshire commissioned its own study from a company called Edge Analytics, and in simple terms, the conclusion was that while the years between 2000 and 2007 saw high levels of inward migration into the county, the recession had reduced net inward migration to a very low level. Against that background, the council decided that the best approach was a strategy somewhere between the two.
Now, the county kick-started the LDP process in 2007, and the expectation underlying the whole plan is that the economic slowdown was a temporary blip, with growth and inward migration recovering from their current lows. As things stand, that would appear to be unlikely. The consensus among economists would appear to be that at best we can expect a very long period of low growth interspersed with recessions extending well beyond the timescales of the LDP.
Perhaps more important than raw forecasts of population numbers, however, are the projections for the number of households. The assumption here is that more people are living on their own, particularly as the population ages.
The Welsh Government forecast for Carmarthenshire was for a 23% increase in the number of households for the period 2006-2021 from 78,000 to 95,900, meaning that 1,193 new households would be created every year.
The council has modified this projection, which it finds to be too high, and predicts that the increase over the same period will be "just" 19.4% to 93,197. That equates more or less exactly to an additional 1,000 households per year.
In other words, after a great deal of huffing and puffing, Carmarthenshire has come down in favour of a strategy which is in reality very close to the Statistical Office's projections produced at a time when the economic outlook was very, very different.
Edge Analytics wrote a very important caveat in its report, recommending that the council should wait for the results of the 2011 census, due in September 2012, before making a final decision on the single most important piece of information underlying the whole LDP. But like the German mobilisation process in World War One, it seems that once Carmarthenshire has started on something, nothing can stop it.
The same flaw applies to the council's disastrous "strategy" for the Welsh language. The single most important source of data on the use of the language and trends is the Census. But unfortunately, the council appears to have forgotten about the timing of the census when it drew up its LDP timetable.
The UDP is not officially due to expire until 2016, and so the county has plenty of time to re-think its plans and come up with an LDP which will not turn Carmarthenshire into a vast housing estate.