Tuesday 9 August 2011

The Welsh Language and the Local Development Plan

Carmarthenshire's treatment of the Welsh language in its proposed new LDP illustrates very well what is wrong with the plan in more general terms, and that is a massive expansion of housing development with almost no consideration of its impact.

Among the endless pages in all of the scores of documents which make up the plan, the language gets hardly as much attention as the marsh fritillary butterfly, yet Carmarthenshire is vitally important to the future of the language. Not only does the county have the largest number of Welsh speakers in Wales, but it also acts as a bridge linking the remaining Welsh-speaking communities of the south-east with the rest of the Bro Gymraeg.

The county council therefore has a very special responsibility towards promoting and safeguarding the language, but it is failing in every respect, preferring PR and gloss to action.

Earlier this year the council launched its latest Welsh Language Scheme. The presentation hits all the right notes, talking of "the equality of the two languages", the council's "commitment", the importance of the language in the community, and so on. But you will search in vain for any serious commitments, and if you track the process leading up to the adoption of the scheme, you will notice that the draft scheme was quietly stripped of proposals which might cost money or involve any real degree of commitment.

The same applies to the LDP. Part of the LDP process involves gathering evidence on all sorts of things, ranging from rare species habitats to population forecasts. But no separate study of the language or the impact of the council's policies on it, such as the village school closures programme, was thought necessary.

And as I have pointed out before, the LDP timetable means that the results of the 2011 census, the most important source of statistical data on the language, will not be taken into account.

As we know, the LDP itself projects a massive increase in the need for new housing in all of the main towns and many of the secondary settlements as well. In Carmarthen, population 13,148 in 2001, the plan is to allow the construction of a further 1,793 new homes, many of these on a vast greenfield site to the west of the town.

The authors of the plan reluctantly acknowledge that this might be a bit of a problem for the language, with a large influx of new residents diluting the Welsh-speaking base still further. To tackle that they propose four measures:
  1. Phasing of development (building "just" 200 houses a year in Carmarthen?)
  2. Affordable housing
  3. Bilingual signage
  4. Unspecified "support for the development of the language in the community"
It is safe to write off (3), and without any detail or specifics as to what is meant by (4), we can forget that too.

Carmarthenshire has a very poor record on the provision of affordable housing, and in the last couple of years it has given the go-ahead to several very large housing developments in Llanelli and Ammanford without any affordable housing element whatsoever. For the LDP, the council proposes a guideline ratio of 20% affordable housing for new developments, but experience here has shown again and again that, when push comes to shove, developers always manage to whittle their commitment down. Often to nothing.

And just as the council has not bothered to undertake any study of language use or the impact of its policies on the language, it does not present any evidence for affordable housing either. A key question here would be, what evidence is there that affordable homes have been let to or bought by local people, and how many of those were Welsh speakers? If this area is anything to go by, the answer would be "next to none".

It is clear from the deposit LDP that the main weapon in the council's armoury to protect the language is the phasing of development on large sites. The trouble is that the scale of the proposed development is so huge that the most phasing will achieve is to slow down the demise of the language.

In quite a few of the county's smaller towns, housing development allocations are spread across a number of smaller sites, typically with between 10 and 30 houses on each. Currently, each of the proposed developments would be looked at in isolation when it comes to language impact assessments. This makes life a lot easier for developers, of course, because they do not have to argue against the cumulative impact of 5 or 6 developments. This approach has to be changed.

Which brings us to language impact assessments. A recent case in the village of Waungilwen near to Drefach Felindre highlighted serious flaws with this process. The community council produced an assessment, and the developers produced another. The two assessments came to opposite conclusions. The council noted politely that the developer's study was conducted in an unorthodox way and did not follow the criteria normally used.

This is not an isolated case. In complex developments, applicants have to submit quite a wide range of reports dealing with issues ranging from flooding and geology to environmental sustainability and the language. Time and again the reports submitted argue that black is white, and some are so untruthful that the council could probably bring a successful prosecution for deliberately providing misleading information in order to gain planning consent.

Surely it is time for the Welsh Government to take a lead here and insist on the use of objective and impartial specialists who follow agreed procedures when presenting evidence for a planning application. And applicants should be warned that if they do submit misleading information, their applications will be dismissed and they may face criminal prosecution.

But back to Waungilwen. Bwrdd yr Iaith was asked for its opinion three times by the council. It came back twice saying that the proposed development would have a detrimental effect on the language. The third time the council told the Board that the proposed development was within the UDP. Bwrdd yr Iaith responded by saying that it did not normally comment on developments within a UDP. Case closed.

When looking at language impact, the council says it will define "language sensitive areas". Under "Planning and the Welsh Language: The Way Ahead (2005)" a language sensitive area is defined as one which has 25% or more of Welsh speakers. That would cover most of Carmarthenshire, but the council seems to have decided on a different approach. Language sensitive areas will be defined at an unspecified date in the future using unspecified criteria and will form "Secondary Planning Guidance". In other words, this most crucial detail will not form part of the LDP we the public are being asked to comment on.

Finally, the strength of the council's commitment to equality between the two languages is best shown by the council's website. If you choose the Welsh menu options you have to start by selecting "Yr Amgylchedd" (The Environment"). The equivalent English option is more usefully signposted "Planning and the Environment". Six clicks later, and you are presented with "Y Cynllun Datblygu Lleol Adneuo" (Deposit LDP). Click, and up comes the LDP in English.

1 comment:

Photon said...

It's all a mess. Try using supporting local families and preserving the Welsh language as reasons to support a planning application. They both get dismissed as somehow irrelevant, despite the column-miles given over to stressing their importance.

Left hand, right hand...