With less than a week to go before the county council elections, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire, Mark James, has given the South Wales Evening Post his views on why Carmarthenshire should become part of a city region embracing Swansea, Port Talbot and Llanelli. The article can be found here, and there can be no doubt that he is very much in favour of it, as he promises both jobs and cash.
It is probably fair to say that most people in Carmarthenshire will not have come across the concept of city regions before, and so it is worth spending a little time exploring what it means.
In the UK, the idea goes back to Tony Blair's initiative to set up regional assemblies in England. This initiative fell at the first hurdle in 2004 when voters in the North East of England rejected the Government's proposals in a referendum, with attention then shifting to the creation of large regional city "hubs" to promote a framework for transport, planning, skills training and economic development which cut across local authority boundaries.
The Blair Government went on to create a legal framework to make this kind of collaboration possible, and in 2009 it was announced that Greater Manchester and Leeds would be the first city regions to be given the new powers. The Tory-LibDem coalition which took power in 2010 overturned the idea, although it did allow the creation of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2011. Responsibility for economic development and regional planning was handed to Local Enterprise Partnerships.
In Wales, however, the Government is looking at the matter again, and Edwina Hart, Minister for Business, Enterprise and Technology, launched a consultation back in March (here).
The consultation was not exactly well publicised, and it does not appear on the Welsh Government's official list of public consultations, but it has nevertheless attracted responses from bodies such as the WLGA, the quango which represents Welsh councils, and various academics. Whatever else this exercise is, it is hard to see it as in any way rooted in local democracy.
"So what?" might be the reaction of many people in Carmarthenshire. It all sounds a little remote and technical, but there are determined efforts to breathe life into the concept of a Swansea Bay City Region, as we can see from another South Wales Evening Post article here.
The article names no fewer than 5 Labour MPs who are all in favour, but none from any other party. Only one of them, Nia Griffiths, actually represents a Carmarthenshire constituency, but the scope of their ambition is clear from comments made by Dr Hywel Francis, Labour MP for Aberavon, who thinks that "Swansea Bay City" would cut across 6 separate local authorities, including "Dyfed", which older readers may remember included Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion as well as Carmarthenshire.
Certainly, there is a debate to be had here, and there may well be merits in the arguments put forward by the Swansea Bay City lobby, but so far discussion seems to be restricted to Labour MPs (why no AMs?), and a minibus load of unelected academics and council chief executives. How many of the academics appointed to Edwina's consultative panel have links with the Labour Party is another pertinent question.
Most people would probably agree that Welsh local government is in need of serious reform and that we have far too many local authorities. The current Labour Government in Cardiff made it clear from the outset that it would not be embarking on a root and branch reform, but would instead encourage cross-border partnerships in education, waste management and social care. The City Region idea shows all the signs of being another exercise in tinkering at the margins and transferring more local government functions to quangos.
There is an alternative vision to this eastward-looking view of South West Wales, and that was set out by Adam Price in his programme to mark the 50th anniversary of Saunders Lewis's famous broadcast on the fate of the Welsh language.
Adam advocated new local government structures for the whole of West Wales, from Carmarthenshire in the south to Gwynedd in the north. He pointed out that these parts of Wales have more than attachment to the Welsh language in common, and certainly there are swathes of Carmarthenshire which have much stronger economic, cultural and geographical ties with Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire than ever they do with Port Talbot or Swansea.
But back to the local government elections. Despite being a Labour Party project, the idea of city regions does not make it into Labour's manifesto for Carmarthenshire, and it is not mentioned in Plaid's manifesto either. Since the Independents don't bother with a manifesto, there is no point asking what their view is.
The chief executive's intervention is also remarkable, bearing in mind that just two weeks ago he told the BBC that he could not comment on a report about the Towy Community Church because of the elections. After all, the City Region idea would have much more profound and lasting consequences for the county.
Whatever the results of the council elections
this week, there will be no mandate for anyone to pursue the Swansea Bay
City idea, but no doubt the academics, the quangos and the chief
executives will continue to push it.
What we have, then, is two radically different views of where we belong, and it is relevant to see the county's proposed Local Development Plan, with its allocations of huge housing developments, as part of the Swansea Bay City vision. If we go down this path, Carmarthenshire would turn east and become a kind of development zone wrapped around the older urban and industrial centres.
Both the Local Development Plan and the City Region concept go to the heart of how we see ourselves and what kind of future we want for our communities.
Let's not leave it to the academics, chief executives and quangos to decide.