Saturday 18 August 2012

A tale of two towns

The council headquarters of Carmarthenshire and neighbouring Ceredigion neatly symbolise the radically different cultures of the two local authorities.

The ancient town of Carmarthen is dominated by the former prison which now houses the county council. High on a bluff overlooking the old river meadows, now partly covered by a sprawling and incredibly ugly retail park, glowers the granite bulk of County Hall, protected from the rest of the town by the largely fake turrets and walls of the old castle. Visitors are greeted by a uniformed attendant who operates a traffic barrier before they enter the gloomy building. Parked in special reserved spaces in front of the building are various shiny black BMWs and Mercedes.

Members of the public who want to observe a public meeting are made to go through an intimidating, Kafka-esque procedure involving reading statements and filling out forms with personal details, including their home address, before being escorted to the public gallery that smells of BO, boiled cabbage and mildew. There they are locked in with only a partial view of the chamber below, and the heat is often stifling.

By contrast, visitors to the Penmorfa headquarters of Ceredigion County Council in Aberaeron will find a pleasant, modern building by the sea. There are no security guards, and the grounds are open. Visitors arriving by car can just drive up and park, and there are no heavy-handed entry procedures.

In Carmarthen the centre of gravity has now shifted away from the old heart of the town to a shiny new shopping mall; the American term seems appropriate here. The Carmarthen Journal devoted a big spread to praising St Catherine's Walk this week, reporting that the last two empty units have just been taken. The gushing prose and the figures quoted, courtesy presumably of the council press office, painted a picture of phenomenal success and a town swimming against the tide of decline.

Perhaps there is something in all of this, but the boarded up shops in the old town centre tell a different story.

As luck would have it, I reluctantly had to pay a visit to St Catherine's Walk late in the morning on Thursday. It was one of those days when the sun shines one minute and it is overcast and dull the next, with the occasional shower thrown in. A day in mid-August at the height of the tourist season when you might have expected lots of visitors "from away" to be indulging in a bit of retail therapy.

After all, we've now got Miss Selfridge, Debenhams, Top Shop, Pizza Express, Orange, a Harvester "restaurant" and all the other shops you would expect to find in a shopping mall in Essex, Manchester, Hull or Croydon. Home from home for the visitors.

For all those grumpy old men who loathe shopping, Cneifiwr can at least report that going into Debenhams is not painful. In fact, it was like a retail version of the Marie Celeste. A determined male shopper could be in and out of there in less than 10 minutes, wife's present gift wrapped as well.

The rest of the shops did not seem to be any busier either as Cneifiwr sped towards the market hall for a haircut (£8 and no appointment needed). Followed by a Cwtsh Bach breakfast, including mug of milky coffee, for £3.60.

The Market Hall was quite busy, and this part of the development at least seems to be a success and feels as though it is a part of the town rather than an alien graft.

According to the advertising feature article in the Journal, 7.4 million people visited St Catherine's Walk last year, and the place is attracting visitors from a 60-mile radius.

I did hear a Brummie and an American accent during my visit, so perhaps it should read 2,000 mile radius, but I somehow doubt that 7,399,999 other people have traipsed through the sterile concrete, glass and stone precinct in the last year. That's more than the entire population of the town every day. Or two and a half times the entire population of Wales every year. Bollocks.

To the right of the Journal puff was a timeline giving the history of the St Catherine's Walk development. This told a rather different story of protests and legal battles, big developers, bloody-minded councils and little people. It even included a subversive reference to Simons Group, the East Anglian developers whose advertising material features council chief executive Mark James, a customer of theirs when he was running Boston Borough Council.

At one point in the saga, townspeople were planning to hold a referendum on the proposed closure of St Catherine Street. Naturally, the council was opposed to any such exercise in consulting the people of Carmarthen. Eventually, after legal proceedings and months of stand-off, the council blinked.

A couple of miles away on the other side of Carmarthen, the council is now determinedly pushing through plans for a huge extension of the town in what is known as the Carmarthen West Planning Brief, with 1,200 houses. Huge questions remain over who will pay for the infrastructure, including a £4.5 million link road, and there is fierce opposition from the town and its elected representatives once again.

As usual, then, this is a story of confrontation, top-down "we know what's best for you" government, big business and wrecking of an ancient landscape and the identity of the oldest town in Wales.

Over in Cardigan, another ancient town, work has finally begun on restoring the castle. The County Council bought the historic pile and sold it to a trust formed by local people for £1. When the work is complete, the  heart of the town will be transformed, with facilities including attractive grounds, a Welsh language centre (imagine that, people of Carmarthen!), a cafe and a venue for weddings, conferences, etc.

The project is being run entirely by local volunteers, and it is a true community project involving people from all sorts of backgrounds, unlike Carmarthenshire County Council's evangelical bowling alley.

Just round the corner from the castle is another site called Pwllhai. This was formerly the home of the farmers' cooperative and was acquired a couple of years ago by another community group who managed to raise enough money to buy it and save it from a commercial property developer.

The Pwllhai site is large, and includes a number of buildings and two car parks. It now houses a veterinary practice, a local produce market, an eco shop, a museum of agricultural and maritime artifacts and a family centre.

The local produce market is currently held once a week, and there are usually two local farmers selling meat (including lots of old-fashioned and unusual cuts), people selling bread, cakes, eggs, fruit, vegetables, cheese, excellent takeaway food and shellfish. Most of the stallholders are Welsh-speaking, and all are local.

The museum is quirky and great fun. It is run by a few volunteers who are not much younger than their exhibits. I recently went in (entry is free) to have a look, and asked about an ancient copper basin. This simple question kicked off a really entertaining half hour of reminiscence about slaughtering pigs and brewing beer.

The family centre is a drop-in for young mums (and a few dads) with small children where the children can play safely and the parents can relax a bit and socialise. It also runs courses, including one designed to introduce young parents and children to basic, everyday Welsh.

The car parks not only provide much needed additional parking in the town, but they are deliberately cheaper than council provided parking, with charges starting at just 30p. This is because the 4CG, the group which runs the site, feels strongly that high parking charges are driving people out of town centres.

Now 4CG (Cymdeithas Cynnal a Chefnogi Cefn Gwlad) has launched a new project to raise enough money to buy the town's former police station and court house. If it goes anything like the Pwllhai venture, the organisers will succeed in raising money from private well wishers around the world. You can check out their website (English only, unfortunately) here.

All of this is being driven by local people, rather than the county council, although it is true to say that the council has been cooperative and helpful.

Cardigan has more than its fair share of social problems, and Ceredigion County Council is by no means  perfect, but the contrast with dictatorial and arrogant Carmarthenshire is striking.

Next time you go to Cardigan, drop in at Pwllhai (markets every Thursday) and have a look.


Anonymous said...

I hate to say it, as I wish it were not so, but I find Carmarthen the most soul-less town in West Wales. There is no heart to the place; no central public area; no architectural gems; no proper use of its riverside location. Just a joyless and uninspiring collection of shopping developments and car parks in various stages of decay.

The old shopping area in King Street was partly killed by the shopping centre behind the bus station. These in turn are being killed by the new concrete jungle shopping area, and I expect that in turn will be killed at some point when they are short of money, by the Council approving a huge out of town development.

Lammas Street leading up to the Picton Memorial have a bit of character, but the new Tesco dumped on the old playing field has almost put paid to that.

The best but of Carmarthen is approaching it, and leaving it it by train from the west with the lovely views across the estuary.

Anonymous said...

I will go off on a tangent. Finish education and the fact that there are no Primary Schools in Finland.

Local papers would hate this what would fill there pages, but your point on private ownership and co-op style use drives me to the Finish model.

The children in Finland go to Comprehensive at age 7 under age 6 go to kindergarden. To cut a long story short. A Primary schools function as we see it is becoming old hat,not only as we fo not have enuff children in them but it can no longer keep pace with education.

BUT i think as its been said here there is an opening for Private co-op style Kindergardens in Wales possibly paid for on a slideing scale and the state.

this would keep the Welsh language alive and provide a top level education right here in Carmarthenshire.

oops ! did i just give you an idea that would cost over half a million in consultants fees to find out.

caebrwyn said...

great post. I also noticed the staggering 'footfall' figures in the advert for St Catherine's Walk, finding it hard to believe that almost twice the population of Wales had enjoyed the windswept retail experience. I looked at the figures for Arndale in Manchester and the Bullring in Birmingham both claim figures of around 40 million. Either we have become a nation of wealthy individuals (not a theory borne out by the caebrwyn household) or the figures relate to every passing man and his dog who takes a shortcut from one side of town to the other.
As you say, it's bollocks.

Anonymous said...

I agree with webswonder. I started working in Carmarthen town centre a few months ago. One thing I have realised (in stark contrast to Llanelli) is that there is no real outdoor park/piazza where you can spend lunchtime outside. The only real public space in Carmarthen is the Guild Hall Square which is too small really. This compares to the Shopping Centre Pyramid, the bandstand, the Spring Gardens and the Town Hall in the centre Llanelli.

Carmarthen has a strange layout which is probably down to a mix of history, geography and poor town planning.

Anonymous said...

I was shown a tourist "3 fold" map of Carmarthen (produced by the Council I'm pretty sure) a few months ago by a holiday cottage owner from Llanpumsaint.

She was incensed because the large rectangle of the st Catherine's development was shown in solid red with the bold text "Central Shopping Area". No other shopping area was shown in red or any solid colour. Neither did the words shopping or shops appear anywhere else.

Desperate measures indeed. If I were a shopkeeper in any other part of town, I would feel abandoned and aggrieved.