Monday 28 October 2013

What can we learn from Llangyndeyrn?

Celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the "Battle of Llangyndeyrn" are coming to an end, but if you can, it is worth making the effort to watch a superb documentary broadcast last week on S4C before it disappears into the archives. It can be accessed here for a couple more weeks (English subtitles available).

There is also an excellent community website which tells us about the events of 1963 here.

For those not familiar with the story, it is simple enough. The village of Llangyndeyrn lies between Carmarthen and Pontyberem, and in the early 1960s Swansea Corporation decided that it wanted to create a reservoir covering a large part of the valley above the village. The plan would have led to the loss of a good many family farms and a lot of fertile farmland.

The first most people in Llangyndeyrn knew about it was when they read a report in the local newspaper, but the community came together, formed a committee and set about fighting the plan with ingenuity, humour, determination and a lot of hard work.

Against all the odds, they won, although officialdom then as now was never going to admit that it had lost. Swansea Corporation chose another site instead, and the people of Llangyndeyrn learned of their victory only when they read about the decision to build at what is now Llyn Brianne in the papers.

The S4C documentary was more than an exercise in nostalgia, because what emerged was a lesson in how communities can campaign and win which is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

Llangyndeyrn is a small village which united against an external threat. There are some press reports from the time which claimed that there were splits, but they seem not to have amounted to anything. In fact the villagers knew that their campaign of civil disobedience might mean that some of their number could end up in prison, and they even agreed among themselves who would go to jail if necessary in order to minimise disruption to family life and work.

As in any campaign, the villagers had some luck on their side. They were lucky that Swansea Corporation was ill-prepared, and that they had a "spy" working on the inside of the local authority who tipped the campaigners off and kept them one step ahead of the municipal juggernaut. The village was also lucky to have two natural leaders, Cllr William Thomas and the Rev WM Rees, but Cllr Thomas and the Rev Rees would no doubt have been the first to acknowledge that they could not have pulled it off without the active support of so many other members of the community.

To a very large extent, then, the village made its own luck and seized on opportunities as they presented themselves.

The villagers also decided early on not to make the campaign "political". Of course, everything about the campaign was political, but they wisely decided not to accept overt political support and so risk turning the campaign into a party political controversy. That surely has to be one of the most important lessons for any local campaign group. Keep your campaign local and do not allow it to become tied to any single political group or other pressure group, no matter who they are.

What also emerged from the documentary, and what is even clearer from the village's website, is how adapt the campaigners were at public relations, long before anyone had even heard of PR. This was David versus Goliath, and the defence committee played on that image for all it was worth.

Not only did the villagers have no PR training, they also lacked any expertise in civil engineering. Nevertheless, they identified an alternative site which turned out to be much better than what the experts and planners in Swansea had come up with.

In every way, the Davids of Llangyndeyrn outwitted and outflanked Swansea Corporation which initially appeared to hold all the cards in its hands.

Watching the S4C documentary and reading up on the campaign on the village website brought back memories of the two-year battle which was fought out in Newcastle Emlyn against plans to build what would have been a gigantic supermarket in the middle of town - gigantic in that it would have been bigger than all the other shops in town put together.

Opinion in town was not quite as united as it had been in Llangyndeyrn, but in a community of around 1,500 souls, we collected around 900 names on a petition.

Just as in Llangyndeyrn, the "experts" were demonstrably wrong. Two pensioners spent one Sunday morning out in the town with tape measures, measuring the road and pavement widths to prove that the figures given in the consultants' report were rubbish. And if Llangyndeyrn had its bell ringer to warn of the approach of the men from the Corporation, the planning committee was greeted in Newcastle Emlyn by a tractor and muck spreader, a coal merchant's lorry and a wagon load of fox hounds mysteriously passing up and down the main street several times to contribute to the usual traffic chaos.

The campaign ended two years ago with Carmarthenshire County Council approving the plans despite the evidence and despite the feelings of the community. But thanks to the campaign, planning approval came with a very long list of conditions attached, and two years on there is no sign of anyone wanting to take on the site.

But if anyone gets any bright ideas, a special screening of Brwydr Llangyndeyrn will be arranged to remind everyone what a community can achieve when it sets its mind to it, and the muckspreader and hounds are on standby.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just to ask rhetorical questions -- what is the purpose of politics, if not to represent all local people? If local campaigns are supposed to be apolitical, do we need political groupings any more? Have we moved to a techno-managerial model of decision making, from which ethical and philosophical considerations have been ousted because they cannot be 'measured'? Do we need to reject managerialism before politics can become relevant again?