Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The old roadbuilding approach isn’t working

Column in Llanelli Star on 27th September 2017

People say that the definition of madness is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

So it must be madness to spend £1.1 billion on 15 miles of new motorway just south of Newport when we already know the outcome: traffic will go up, the motorway will clog up, and the same voices will be calling for yet more money to build yet more road. The Road Haulage Lobby are already saying it needs another lane - before it is even built!

We can’t keep building our way out of the problem of congestion when we know that roads simply fill up again before too long. Our society is dominated by the car and I think it’s time we changed that.

Instead, we need to spend the small amount of money we have, doing things that will enable and encourage us to make journeys using other means. Our public transport system is in dire need of an overhaul and our local roads are jammed with people driving very short distances.  

Two thirds of car journeys are less than five miles and one in ten trips is less than a mile. These are journeys that could easily be done by bus, bike or on foot - as they were a generation ago. Freeing up our roads for when we really do need the car. This is where I think our money should be invested.  

More teachers face being laid off in the next year, and more bus routes will be cut and leisure centres closed. Yet in this ‘age of austerity’ we are on course to spend a colossal £1.1 billion (and that’s without ongoing maintenance costs) on one project in one part of Wales which the UK Treasury regards as low value for money.

Imagine if we spent this money on a Swansea Bay Metro system instead? A cheap and reliable bus and rail system that would link up communities across Llanelli, Neath, Port Talbot and Swansea. And a network of walking and cycling routes that would knit our streets together to tackle the school run.

But we’ll never have the money to invest in an ambitious plan like this as long as we keep ploughing money into roads. It’s time to admit the old approach isn’t working. It’s time to try something new.

Austerity hits home

Column in Llanelli Herald on October 6th 2017

After 7 years of austerity the Welsh Government has a very tough job deciding how to share the pot of money being passed down from Westminster - a pot that is £1.2 billion smaller than it was.

Meanwhile the amount of money the NHS needs to cope with a population living longer is going to need to go up significantly.

I do feel sorry for the Welsh Government’s Finance Minister Mark Drakeford. He is a decent man with a very tough job.

When he presented the first details of next year’s budget to the Assembly this week he made clear that he has had to prioritise to reflect the manifesto commitments we have made. But there’s much that we want to do that we simply cannot because of Tory austerity.

The Welsh Labour Government has managed to find an extra £230 million for the NHS next year, and to protect funding for social care and education. Crucially - in an agreement with Plaid - we have agreed to protect the Supporting People grant to give housing-related support to help vulnerable people to live as independently as possible.

As Labour only have 29 of the 60 seats in the Assembly we prefer to reach agreement with Plaid where we can to agree joint prioritie. Plaid have agreed to let the budget go through, even though they won’t actually be voting for it.

We are also putting money into childcare to achieve our promise of delivering the most generous childcare package anywhere in the UK by the end of this Assembly, and there’s £70 set aside over the next two years to get us to that point.

Mark Drakeford has also responded to the growing problem of homelessness. We have all seen the effects of UK Government welfare cuts, they have resulted in many more homeless people on our streets.  The Welsh Government are right to set out plans to spend an additional £10m to tackle this next year.

There will be a cut of the amount to money passed on to Councils of around 1.5% - which compares to the 25% cuts in Council budgets in England in recent years. The Welsh Government have sheltered Councils from the storm of austerity as much as they have can.

There’s money for our target of building 20,000 affordable homes. And this year - for the first time in 800 years - a Welsh Government has been able to levy taxes. The powers are quote modest at the moment but we are able to use them to make a difference to help people onto the housing ladder.

Under the plans house sales up to £150,000 will be tax free next year in Wales only - which will mean a saving of almost £500 on the average house. This will really help in the Llanelli constituency and is a real devolution dividend that people will be able to feel in their pockets.

Aneurin Bevan famously said the religion of socialism is the language of priorities. We have had to prioritise again this year, but we have protected the services that vulnerable people and working families need the most.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

An M4 fit for future generations

Speech in the National Assembly on October 4th 2017

Let me just start by saying that the M4 can be horrendous. At rush hour I have regularly been sat in endless queuing traffic.

This isn’t just a problem at the Brynglas tunnels but at several points along the motorway. And if there’s ever an accident, the whole thing can grind to a halt.

People are rightly fed up with the situation - in particular the fact that we have been talking about taking action for 15 years, and yet nothing ever seems to get done.

And I agree with them.

But we need to fashion a solution that will last, an M4 fit for future generations.

And I don’t believe the proposed M4 relief road will be anything more than an expensive stop-gap.

In fact as a policy approach it manages to do something quite remarkable - it succeeds in being both outdated and premature at the same time.

Outdated, because the evidence of the last 50 years of transport policy is that building new roads - increasing capacity - only leads to more people using their cars, quickly filling up the new space.

And premature because it pays no attention to the game changers coming our way.

I think it was Einstein who is meant to have said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.

In transport planning we continue to do just that. We’ve become wedded to the so-called ‘predict and provide’ approach. Simply put, engineers predict traffic will grow in the future so they build more roads to deal with it.

This is a model of never-ending traffic growth, first set out more than 30 years ago, which frankly is nonsense.

Think about it,  if you take it to its logical conclusion and and you follow the trends, this approach has each of us earning an income of £1million by the year 2205, and a lorry on the road for every man woman and child.

Now aside from the pay rise, I don’t think this is a future any of us want to live in. And it's certainly not the type of future we created the Future Generations Act to try and shape.

Yes, there’s a problem at peak time around the Brynglas tunnels. Yes, something must be done about it. But we cannot build our way out of this problem.

We’ve been trying that for generations and it doesn’t work. Traffic builds up, roads once again seize up and we rapidly find ourselves back at square one. If we’re not careful, we could end up with a £1bn car park.

Already the Freight Transport Association - the haulage industry lobby body - are saying a new three-lane motorway at Newport will be inadequate to meet demand and we ought to be creating four lanes.

Trying  to relieve congestion by engineering ever bigger roads is no more than a short-term fix. And an expensive one at that.

The new stretch of M4 is currently estimated to cost £1.1 billion pounds for just 15 miles of tarmac. And - bearing in mind two years ago people were insisting that the cost would be “way below” a billion - it may go up even further.

Yesterday the Finance Secretary outlined the grim economic picture we face, and how money will get even tighter in the coming years.
Is it wise to tie up all our borrowing capacity in one scheme, in one corner of Wales?

If the government was to offer any of us £1.1 Billion to spend on something that would make Wales better, how many of us can honestly say that a six-lane motorway over a protected wetland would be the way we’d choose to use it?

Our entire line of new credit will be blown on a project that in economic terms will barely repay the investment over 30 years.

Even using a formula that has been manipulated to exaggerate the benefits of road schemes, we will only see a return on investment of just £1.60 for every £1 spent - which the Treasury classes as Low Value for money.

And in that time-frame rapid technological development and a fully functioning Metro project may well transform the way we travel.

Which brings me to my second point. We are trying to fit a fixed solution to a rapidly evolving problem.

We are so blinkered in our approach to transport management, that we’re failing to take a look at the bigger picture. And there are some substantial changes coming at us fast.

If you speak to business people they acknowledge the world of work is changing quickly. Soon, we won’t need to be shuttling people back and fore between desks every day.  

Rapidly evolving technology means that we need to be developing digital - not transport -infrastructure. But the roomfuls of Highways Engineers in Cathays park are never going to voluntarily face up to that.

The formula used to justify a road as the best way to deal with congestion at the Brynglas tunnels takes the most optimistic view of the possible benefits.

Meanwhile the projections for the Cardiff Metro take the most pessimistic view. Transport officials have suggested to the public inquiry that of the 11,000 journeys made every hour in peak times on the M4 the metro will - at best - only take 200 off the roads.

I don’t buy it.
But if this really is the case - if it will only have a minimal impact on rush-hour traffic - why are we not setting out to develop a public transport system that will tackle peak hour M4 demand?

I fear the project is being set up to fail.  It is being starved of investment, by the UK Government cancelling electrification and by the disappearance of EU grants because of Brexit, and by the road building lobby who are trying to minimise its impact.  

It is for policy-makers to tell engineers what society needs, not the other way round.

The other innovation that is upon us is the development of autonomous vehicles.

We simply do not yet know what the impact of driverless cars will be, but it is highly likely that this new technology - which will see cars driving side by side and bumper-to-bumper - will allow us to use existing road-space much more efficiently - making the extra capacity unnecessary.

But perhaps the biggest development this approach fails to factor in, is the law this Government passed just two years ago.

The Well Being of Future Generations Act.

On 13th September the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales -  the person this National Assembly empowered in law as the watchdog of the Act - made a significant intervention.

She said the Welsh Government - in its approach to the M4 - was setting “a dangerous precedent” in its interpretation of one of our newest pieces of legislation.

In its evidence to the public inquiry, the Government admitted the new motorway will cause harm, but argued this harm is justified because of the immediate economic benefits it will bring.

A good old-fashioned trade-off. Or as the Government's QC put it, a “balance between different desiderata”.

This is the standard line. There are four elements to Sustainable Development,  the argument goes, and one of them is economic.

And so a project that brings economic benefits is by definition helping to bring about  Sustainable Development

Sophie Howe’s challenge to the Government is that this is wrong as a matter of law.  One pillar of Sustainable Development cannot override the others.

Trade offs are no longer lawful in Wales.

Under the Future Generation Act we can no longer bargain the long-term interests of future generations for short-term benefits today.

I don’t see how an initiative that not only builds in traffic growth, and rising emissions, for generations to come - whilst also saddling them with the cost of it - can be labelled as anything other than harmful for Wales’ future.

This is a substantial challenge, one I believe that should not be confined to a debate amongst lawyers at the Public Inquiry, and this intervention was a key catalyst to me bringing this debate to the Chamber today.

Once the Future Generations Act became law, the Welsh Government should have looked afresh at the problem of congestion around the Brynglas Tunnels and developed a solution consistent with all the principles of the Act - not just the one that suited its predetermined plan.

And there are solutions to the problems of congestion. There's lots of evidence of how improvements in public transport, and for short everyday journeys active travel, can cut car use.

On top of an ambitious Metro project congestion can be cut by a battery of interventions - for example, prioritised bus lanes, traffic signals that give precedence to sustainable transport, park & ride, workplace car parking charges, targeted and tailored information about bus routes and times.

Combining policies to encourage behaviour change with hard infrastructure to improve public transport has been proven to work.

This is not revolutionary.

This happens in successful cities all the world. It's just that for 50 years we’ve turned our back on it, and now we are paying the price through poor air quality, congestion and the highest levels of child obesity in Europe.

There is a way of tackling the problems on the M4 which does not harm the needs of future generations, in fact it can help a whole range of policy interventions that we are trying to make work.

And I would ask the Cabinet Secretary to quickly set up an expert group to find a solution to congestion issues on the M4 which doesn’t involve trading off the needs of future generations with short term aims.

The public inquiry isn't doing that, it is looking at a series of roads based options to deal with the problem of congestion.

And who have we asked to adjudicate the best answer: a civil engineer!

I would urge the Government not to reject the independent Commissioner’s judgement on this. If they fight her in the courts they risk undermining their very own landmark legislation.

We created this Act. It requires a new approach - not a retrospective defence of what we were planning to do all along.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Embracing the chaos

Published in the Western Mail on September 18th 2017

The metaphor of the perfect storm has become overused, but it is difficult to think of a better one to describe the potentially calamitous confluence of a Hard Brexit and the disruptive destruction of automation. And that’s the context in to which the Welsh Government will this week launch its long-awaited new economic strategy.

But as Rahm Emanuel - Obama’s colourful Chief of Staff at the time of the 2008 slump - famously said, you should never let a serious crisis to go to waste. Chaos offers an opportunity to do things previously unthought of.

Both automation and Brexit will transform our communities. The choice we have is whether we try and shape these forces to support people who have been largely left behind by globalisation, or whether we try to struggle on to preserve the status quo.

In the past our obsession with following conventional templates has meant we’ve fixated on roads, business parks and attracting foreign firms to Wales. And the results have been clear – in nearly twenty years of devolution, the wealth gap we have with England remains the same; the value of the goods and services we produce is just three-quarters of what it should be.

Turning this around is clearly not easy. Our current GVA figures are not for the want of trying. But the lesson of the last two decades is that we need to ruthlessly focus on a small number of interventions that will make a difference.

There are five things I think we must do to enable the new economic strategy to stick.

First off, we must be alert to the challenges coming our way. The robotic and digital forces being unleashed through the fourth industrial revolution will re-shape our world of work, and the speed of change is unprecedented.

The automation we’ve witnessed replacing workers in our factories is turning to new professions. The ability for computers to process huge quantities of information at the touch of the button and to ‘learn’ from each other means that we’ll be turning to robots and mobile apps for anything from house-buying to x-ray results. Finance officers, admin workers, pharmacists, doctors, accountants and lawyers are all at significant risk - an estimated 700,000 jobs are predicted to be lost in Wales alone over the next twenty years.

We must be mindful of these changes as we consider the jobs we are creating and attracting. And in the skills we are teaching in our schools.

But this technological innovation isn’t something to be halted, it’s something to be harness. Our assumptions of what is possible are constantly being challenged and we must exploit these. However our window of opportunity is short – we are already behind many other countries, and reversing our laggard reputation will require significant investment. Crucially, not every emerging technology will prove lucrative – countries, and other regions of the UK, have already established early dominance in some. For example, we are not the only ones who are trying to grow our Life Sciences sector, and we are going to struggle to try and compete with the so-called Silicon Fen between Oxford and Cambridge.  

The new economic strategy must be supported by a clear analysis on where we have existing expertise – agriculture, car manufacturing, compound semiconductors, insurance, creative industries and bonded composites amongst others – and how best these will be leveraged in emerging markets.
The second area for focus is efficiency.

I welcome the regional approach the strategy is said to be taking. The ability of the Cardiff area to attract investment has left wider parts of Wales scrabbling for scrap ends. And it’s right that regional teams will be best placed to decide what the priorities of their communities should be to try and catch-up.

But in an era of increasingly pressured budgets, the pursuit of new opportunities will require a rationalisation of existing investments. Ken Skates, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, has spoken about the need to slim down the absurd nine ‘priority’ areas that feature in our current nationwide economic plan - but this hard-headed approach could well be stymied by the devolution of decision making to regional areas. We can’t sidestep the tough task of prioritising and there is little point moving away from an unfocused national approach to an unfocused regional one
It’s crucial that regional authorities are tasked not just with identifying which sectors should be prioritised, but which specific sub-sectors should receive precedence.

We must also ensure that a localised approach doesn’t diminish our ability to be ambitious nor compound Wales’ ability to innovate. The disparity in the quality and creativity of the Cardiff City Region and Swansea Bay City Region bids – for example - demonstrates how Welsh Government, whilst able to facilitate innovation, has to date failed to drive it. And it is deeply worrying that just one of the three Regional Skills Partnerships, tasked with analysing the economic challenges their region faces, references automation as a source of future risk. And equally troubling that when tasked with setting out their plans under the Future Generations Act, none of the Welsh Councils identified automation as an issue.
We need to find a way to get people from different regions and from different areas of industry to sit around the same table. Unless we put in place measures that identity future growth threats and seize fast-emerging opportunities then we will simply be treading water. This will require extensive technical expertise and expert dexterity - something our civil service has so far failed to demonstrate.

Importantly, a truly efficient approach to growth will mean grants to private businesses must only be used in the rarest of circumstances, instead we should prioritise low-cost favourable loan agreements that are easier to access and that are ambitious in their criteria. Partnering with firms by taking an equity stake and having a representative on the board ought also be encouraged.

The third test for the implementation of this new strategy is its relevance to the so-called post-industrial communities, those ‘left behind’ when heavy industry departed and nothing took its place. We mustn’t simply rebrand the status quo, we have to move beyond the conventional approach and support our communities to be more resilient to future shocks. A number of my Welsh Labour colleagues have called for a greater focus on the economy of the everyday, the so-called foundational economy; the ‘mundane’ industries and businesses that are there because people are there - the food we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive.

The drive to reduce administrative budgets has led to the domination of large-scale, privatised companies in the delivery of our public services – at the cost of small, localised businesses. And the consequence of a focus on attracting Foreign Direct Investment to Wales has also meant too little emphasis and resource has been placed on spurring indigenous growth. Quick wins have too often been allowed to overshadow slow-burners.

Take two widely-touted examples of economic success over the past few years - Airbus and Ford. Two very large employers in Wales (together employing 8,000 people across Wales) who have both recently admitted they’re a flight risk in the face of Brexit; and yet both companies continue to be in receipt of substantial Welsh Government support. Over the past ten years, Ford has received more than £24m in support; Airbus has received £33m in the last eight. In 2016 alone, Ford’s pre-tax profits were close to £8bn, and Airbus’ were more than £2bn.

So reports that the foundational economy might feature in a future economic strategy for Wales are very welcome. But my concern is that the term will be misappropriated or diluted without any meaningful commitment to doing things differently being embedded into our economic practice. We need a sincere commitment to trialling different approaches which support the Foundational Economy. Interventions must be at both the demand and supply side of transactions, and mustn’t just focus on the support supplier firms need. Brexit offers us a potential opportunity to exploit the £5.5bn the public sector spends every year buying in goods and services to Wales to boost our foundational economy. But to achieve this we will need to urgently address the skills shortage in public procurement. And we need to face-up to the fact that working with multiple local, smaller, suppliers will be more expensive in the short-term.

Of course, to achieve such a radical shift in economic policy - both in terms of the ambitious market capture of emerging industries, and in shifting our focus to the foundational economy - we need to be honest about the scale of the challenge faced and ready to admit failure. This is the fourth test for the strategy to achieve meaningful change.

There is no silver bullet for economic development; anyone who argues otherwise is attempting to advance their own, specific agenda. And theories of economic growth remain untested in this new industrial landscape.

In unpredictable times we need to focus on rapid, agile approaches which adapt easily to changed circumstances. But with this will come risk, and with risk will come some failure. The new strategy should prepare us for this, and should have a clear, consistent and transparent monitoring strategy that will enable us to quickly scale up initiatives seen to be working, and quickly put an end to those that are not.

The final, fifth element that the new strategy must embrace is that it must have a positive impact on the things we actually care about.

Success that is only measured by increasing GDP or jobs figures fails to consider the quality of the jobs generated, or the extent to which national wealth is shared. Rising levels of in-work poverty and inequality in Wales demonstrate how inadequate this approach has been to date.

In fact, most families in Wales don’t give two figs about Wales’ GDP or GVA figures. And the age-old adage of the rising tide lifting all boats has consistently been proven false. People care that they have decent jobs, that their families are healthy, their communities are close-knit, their town centres are lively and that their kids go to a good school.

If Wales is to truly set ourselves apart, this is how we should measure economic success. It’s a bold move, but it’s one that’ll mean the effort and money we invest is best spent for the results we ultimately want to achieve.

Some of the biggest economic challenges Wales has ever faced are coming at us at an alarming speed. We have an opportunity to prepare for them, to cushion the blow of harmful knocks, and to position ourselves at the forefront of emerging opportunities.

But to achieve this we need to be brutally honest - on the state we’re currently in, the challenges coming our way and the risks we need to take if we are to emerge not just unscathed, but strengthened.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Last ditch appeal to save Llanelli benefits office

Column in Llanelli Herald on 14th July

When Teresa May became Prime Minister she said she wanted to spread opportunity to people who had been left behind, and spread wealth around the country. Fast forward one year and her Ministers are determined to strip 150 jobs from Llanelli town centre.

On Wednesday Nia Griffith and I held our second meeting with the man behind the plan, Department for Work & Pension Minister Damien Hinds. As before, he was charming but indifferent to Llanelli's plight.

The DWP are planning the centralise the staff from Crown Buildings working on sicknesses benefit claims, work capability assessments and crisis loans, and move them to 'hubs' based in Cardiff, Swansea, Bridgend and Pembroke Dock.

I've been working with Ministers in the Welsh Government for months to come up with a Plan B but the UK Government just haven't been willing to play ball. Welsh Government Minister Julie James is also meeting with Damien Hinds in an attempt to get him to re-think. 

The Welsh Labour Government have already offered to make space available at offices they fund in the area in order to keep work here, and I asked the DWP Minister to keep an open mind to see if a local solution can be found to keep these jobs in Llanelli, but based on our meeting I'm not optimistic.

We patiently explained the local jobs situation, the congestion problem as people already commute out of the area each morning, and the enormous difficulties staff with caring responsibilities will have in moving offices - especially the people who work part-time on fairly modest wages.

He listened, and explained they wanted less office space overall and there'd be benefits from working in larger offices. Despite his manners and charm it was at this point I concluded this was a dialogue of the deaf. 

DWP managers will begin holding 1:1 meetings with staff in the next few weeks to discuss where they may be moved to. Staff will be given help with travel costs and those who aren't able or willing to travel will be offered voluntary redundancies.

We sought assurances that if staff are moved that they won't have to move again in a year or so once a planned big new office near Cardiff is ready. The Minister said the moves would be permanent and at equivalent grades.

He gave us the impression that this was a done deal and the Minister had no sympathy for getting jobs in west Wales. They are pushing ahead with a big centralisation programme which will take jobs out of the parts of Wales that need them the most and concentrate them in Cardiff. That was not what Teressa May promised when she became Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Seeing more of Wales on the BBC

Column in the Llanelli Herald on June 30th 2017

People in Wales watch the BBC, and value it, more than people in any other part of the UK. And yet over the BBC Wales have cut the number of hours last 10 years by a massive 22%

In my last job running the think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, I made the case for reversing this cut by publishing detailed research about the poor state of the media in Wales, and since I’ve been in the Assembly I’ve been heavily involved in efforts to put pressure on the Government and the broadcasters to better serve Welsh audiences.

This week I had another chance to put the Director General of the BBC, Lord Tony Hall, on the spot when he came before the Assembly’s Culture Committee. You can watch the session on Senedd TV if you want to!

The pressure has had an impact. Despite facing significant Tory cuts the BBC have agreed to provide an extra £10.5 Million a year to BBC Wales. The Beeb are now creating 40 new jobs in Wales, including 25 additional journalist posts.  The main BBC network will also be airing three major TV dramas set in Wales in 2018 – the biggest ever commitment to homegrown drama. These are currently being shot in Newport, Carmarthenshire and north west Wales and include Keeping Faith starring Eve Myles and Requiem starring Lydia Wilson and Richard Harrington.
On top of that there’s be a new short bulletin at 8pm on weeknights on BBC One Wales, produced in Cardiff, covering global, UK and Welsh stories for the first time. And the late evening Wales Today bulletin will be extended to more Welsh news on BBC One.

News and sport coverage will also be strengthened with a focus on reaching younger audiences, and BBC Wales will expand its specialist correspondent team to provide greater expert coverage in important areas such as social affairs, home affairs and under-represented communities - as well as a BBC Wales Brexit team working between Cardiff, Westminster and Brussels and a new current affairs strand, BBC Wales Investigates, to carry out major investigations across television, radio and mobile.

As part of its new 11-year Charter the BBC is now committed to improving the way Wales is represented across all its coverage, and they’ll be monitored by the regulator, Ofcom, to make sure they deliver.

We’re still not getting the same kind of funding, and there’s lots of room for improvement on the way Wales is covered on the main BBC news coverage.  But things are getting better and it’s largely because of the pressure that has come from people and organisations in Wales.

Even though broadcasting is not something that is formally devolved to the National Assembly, we are now increasingly treated as the rightful voice for Wales and we have the results to show for it.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Carmarthenshire Council need to listen

Column published in Llanelli Herald on June 9th

“Change must be discussed with the public rather than announced to the public" Health Secretary Vaughan Gething said to me in the Senedd the other week after I’d raised Hywel Dda Health Board’s failure to engage with people before deciding that the surgeries in Burry Port should merge.

The Health Board have not proved very good at taking people with them when they make changes, and neither has Carmarthenshire Council.

There is a clear pattern of high-handed decision-making by the Council leadership as we have seen in the way they changed the status of Llangennech school, have chosen to dig up Llanerch field to build a new school, and are pushing ahead with developments in Parc Howard.

Of course, it’s a good thing that the Council has taken the park off the asset transfer register and is willing to invest in its future. That it is only right given the investment the Council has put into Carmarthen Museum (£1.5 Million) and Oriel Myrrdin Art Gallery £199 (which has had lose to a million pounds).

The grounds of the park are the crown jewel of Llanelli, but the mansion house is not achieving its potential. The museum has some fascinating exhibits but badly needs modernising to bring these displays to life to better tell the remarkable story of the town.

Council Leader, Emlyn Dole, has developed a ‘masterplan’ for the park but many of its details are shrouded in secrecy - for ‘commercial reasons’ we are told.

The Council is not showing itself to be open to discussing with the people of Llanelli how the potential of the park can be harnessed.

At last week’s public meeting about the proposals by Carmarthenshire Council to build a car park within the grounds the Chair of the Parc Howard Association, Gareth Morris, denied that they had been consulted; in fact he said they have had no voice in discussions with the County Council, and instead they were being told what they would get.

“All of a sudden we are given 21 days to protest against quite a drastic change in the park. The wedding venue discussions have been between the leader of the County council and people he knows. There are people like myself who can’t understand what the County council’s philosophy and main aim is” Gareth Morris told the Parc Howard Association meeting.

I’m concerned that the Council are rushing their plans, and the paused work on the new play area is proof of this. The planning application for a car park is causing great anxiety and I think it should be withdrawn.

Park Howard belongs to the people of Llanelli, its future can’t be decided in secret.