A business Hustings, which focused on what could be done for the town of Llanelli to turn around its fortunes was held at the Best Western Diplomat Hotel on Thursday (Apr 6). Organised by the Llanelli Chamber of Trade and Commerce a panel made up of candidates from the main parties standing at the local elections faced questions from an audience made up of what appeared to be a predominantly party political representation. Only a few business owners from the town turned up.
The first question to the panel was from businessman Paul Oram. He asked, ‘What does Llanelli need re manufacturing’?
Independent candidate Sian Caiach answered first saying that Llanelli needed hi tech businesses. Plaid Cymru’s Emlyn Dole commented that it was about supporting existing companies. He said that the council had bought The Beacon to support entrepreneurship.
Welsh Conservatives candidate Stephen Davies said that it was intrinsically linked with everything in the town. He said, “Everyone needs to be involved. It is being missed by the council. We need to get moving and adapt.”
Labour’s Jeff Edmunds saw manufacturing as the area that brings true growth. He said, “We need to work closely with colleges and universities.”
UKIP’s Keith Evans said that Manufacturers need assurances. Speaking about the council’s involvement he said, “This council interferes more than it should. It does not have the expertise. Once we are free of the EU manufacturing has a real opportunity and Llanelli will draw the benefits.”
The modern Welsh economy is dominated by the service sector. In 2000, services contributed 66% to GVA, the manufacturing sector contributed 32%, while agriculture, forestry and fishing together contributed 1.5%. Llanelli retains its manufacturing base at Trostre and a few smaller businesses but the town’s heyday of numerous factories employing thousands of people has long gone. The decline has had a massive impact on the local economy and that has been reflected in the levels of disposable income people now have to purchase goods making online shopping a far less expensive alternative to travelling into town to park and pay face value prices. It is difficult to see any return of a manufacturing base to Llanelli however the service industry may do well as a result of the City Deal and the needs of the businesses we have been told will be attracted to the area.
The second question asked the candidates how their party was influencing the Welsh Assembly Government to secure trade in Llanelli?
Emlyn Dole kicked off by saying that Plaid Cymru were putting regeneration back where it belongs. Not in Cardiff or London but in the local economy. He said, “Regeneration is best done at a regional level by the people in that area.”
Keith Evans alluded to being freed from the shackles of the EU and his belief that manufacturing had shrunk as a result of being in the EU but once free we would be able to compete.
Sian Caiach pointed out that most of the council funding comes from the Welsh Assembly Government and said that Carmarthenshire gets around £550mil. She was not keen on the council borrowing money. She said, “A lot of your council tax money pays interest on debts we have accrued. I feel a lot of these projects are not good. We have put millions into Eastgate and given the land away.”
Stephen Davies believed that the support from the WAG never seemed to be enough. He said, “That is the main problem.”
Jeff Edmunds pointed out that the current AM Lee Waters was undergoing a consultative process to see what is needed in Llanelli. He said that Labour had lobbied on the non domestic rates and that it was crucial to small and medium businesses. He said, “We (the council) should speak to WAG irrespective of party politics.”
Llanelli is one of the BID districts and it is hoped that the funding available will go some way towards improving conditions for trade. Following a feasibility study of 70 businesses in Llanelli, a program is being developed based on these findings. This looks to;
Improve access and parking in the town centre.
Market Llanelli’s distinctive assets and change perceptions
Advance safety and cleanliness
Increase retail vibrancy and strengthen the business community
The third question was – How can the loss of talent and skills be reversed?
Sian Caiach began by pointing out that the education system was behind in many ways. She said, “The County is responsible for education. We don’t have technical education. A lot of what is taught is behind the curve. We should be looking to the future and giving people technical skills.”
Emlyn Dole said that the council already run an apprenticeship scheme and a graduate scheme. He said, “Those people get jobs. There is a Vocational Village in Bryngwyn school. We need to develop talent and skill in preparation for the City Deal £40mil project.”
Keith Evans said that he thought there was a ghost in the room meaning that there were no independent candidates present. He continued, “We have two left wing parties who have been running the show. Unfortunately we have a backdrop which is politically toxic. We do not concentrate on maintenance of infrastructure.” He continued: It is not just what the council can do. The council is crowding out private enterprise. They have a tendency to think they are all powerful. Eastgate and Scarlets stadium draining and drowning financially.”
Stephen Davies echoed what Keith Evans had to say commenting, “It has to be done with colleges and universities. It is time the council stuck their beak out of it. Things are changing faster. Education is based on the industrial revolution. There has been very little change.”
Jeff Edmunds said that Llanelli now had a situation with three generations living in despair. He said, “We have a lot of people who have not worked. Children will follow academic or vocational education. How could we support education and take £6mil out of that budget? The Special needs children suffer as a result of cuts. We need to give children ambition and self worth. We have to invest in them.”
Emlyn Dole challenged the Labour candidate saying, “In 2015 Labour proposed £16.5 mil of cuts. You can all see it.” Jeff Edmunds quickly added, “We did not cut a penny in education. In fact we added.”
Former town and county councillor Jan Williams asked a question regarding the possible closure of the DWP buildings in the town. She said, “The DWP building is in danger of closing. 90% of the people employed there spend money in Llanelli. What are you going to do to ensure it continues?”
This time the Welsh Conservative candidate Stephen Davies went first saying, “The public consultation has been extended to May. Staff have to deal with management telling them to go find other jobs. The DWP offices should remain where they are. I have written to the Minister for the DWP and I am awaiting a response.”
Emlyn Dole said that the council had offered alternative office space to the DWP, which they had refused. He also revealed that he had written to the Minister for Work and Pensions as well as Ken Skates at the WAG. He said:, “They (DWP) want to move people from Llanelli to Pembroke Dock. It takes 2hrs 10mins to get there.” Mr Dole questioned the cost of travel involved for staff and concluded by saying: “They are going to close it and they are going to displace.”
Audience member Terry Davies asked the fourth question. He wanted to know what incentive could the Conservatives give to small business when it is unviable to take on apprentices.
Stephen Davies replied that he thought it was a case of lobbying so employers could take on apprenticeships.
Emlyn Dole said that the council already work with both Swansea and Trinity St David’s University to get apprentices into jobs. He said that he was in awe of a quad built at Heol Goffa School by apprentices who had been involved in the CYFLE scheme. He said, “We are working with CYFLE in Ammanford and the apprentices made a sensory area. The work they do leaves me in awe.”
Jeff Edmunds was clear that if Labour gained control of the council they would want to look at contracted out services. He said, “Taking it back in house will create local employment.”
Keith Evans said that he believed that there was too much of ‘the council knows best’. He said, “The facts are the things you must examine not wishful thinking. Labour and Plaid have never had a majority. It will have to be a coalition.”
Sian Caiach replied: “We can’t expect small medium businesses to have apprenticeships. It is a cost not an investment.”
Audience member Sharon Bowler asked – Should council services be outsourced?
First to answer was Jeff Edmunds who said, “We want to put care before profit. We provide services. We should be an employer. We have to look at the effectiveness. If we can do it in house we should. Savings can be spent elsewhere.”
Stephen Davies pointed out that council budgets are stretched. He said: “The country is going into debt and we need to act.”
Sian Caiach said that staff would be on lower wages to save money. She said, “They (staff) would have no pensions. It is disgusting. The council has outsourced most of our social care. It is not nice. The County Council would like to have an arms length company.”
Emlyn Dole replied, “We need to make caring a profession. We will get more people joining that profession. We don’t do zero hours.” He pointed out that Labour had proposed an arms length company during their administration and said, “We (Plaid Cymru) have put policies in place to bring that service back in house.”
UKIP’s Keith Evans did not agree. He said, “Look at the facts. They bear neither of these two speakers out. They have stimulated private companies in office. Its about NHS Social services and GP front line services working together. Llanelli has an appalling suicide rate amongst young men.”
Emlyn Dole reiterated his point about brining social care services under council control. He said, “We stopped Labour’s intention to put it out at arms length and we will continue to bring it back in house. Health is not a business. It is a caring profession. Hywel Dda are not answerable to anybody. Primary care needs to come back.”
It remains to be seen whether either of the administrations will make good on their promise to bring social care back in house. As it stands Llanelli is still waiting for a new residential care home but developer’s plans show that located at the Delta Lakes Wellbeing Centre. Some experts believe that the outsourcing of private social care is now beyond a big turnaround and beyond the scope of the finances of most local authorities.
Chairman of the Llanelli Chamber of Commerce and Trade Andrew Stephens asked the next question which was: What is the future for Llanelli?
Sian Caiach began answering by focusing on the cleanliness of Llanelli. In the lead up to the elections just about every candidate has been photographed in the local press with a litter picking stick and numerous rubbish bags. It is also apparently one of the high priority issues being relayed to the candidates by residents.
Sian Caiach said, “The streets kept clean in Carmarthen but not in Llanelli. The Council are responsible for the parking problems. If people have free parking in Trostre it is a disincentive to visit Llanelli. We don’t know. We are doing good things trying to improve the town. I am in support of council plans to buy shops.”
Stephen Davies also saw a Llanelli Carmarthen divide. He said, “All the money is going to Carmarthen not to Llanelli. The outdoor market is getting better and better. Businesses don’t feel empowered. It is stupid mistakes going on over and over again. The market has always been the heart of the town. There should be more done to support local traders.”
Jeff Edmunds came up with his own solutions saying, “We could look at sharing units, new starters coming in and being mentored. We need to look at the whole appearance. We must help people who want to come in and stimulate the local economy. We could create an emporium in the town. It is clear that we cannot compete with out of town shopping centres. We need to concentrate on what is different. Think outside the box and attract a mix of businesses.”
Stephen Davies was scathing of historical actions by previous administrations. He said, “This hasn’t happened overnight. You are chucking little bits out. There has been a lack of actions by yourselves and that is why it’s happened.”
Emlyn Dole pointed to the successes. He said, “The market is now full. It is a success story. We have put 750,000 into buying stores and another 800,000 this year. We own the Iceland building. It (Llanelli) needs to be distinctive and different and offer something you can’t get anywhere else.”
The mic was open to the floor and audience member Dave Webb said that the Council had given retail permission at Crosshands and that they were actively supporting out of town retail centres. He asked, How can they justify that?
Ken Rees said that the council should bring back freeparking for business people. He said that the top two floors of multi storey-car park were empty most of the time. He too blamed the out of town shopping centres for the town’s demise and said, “We need a link system to and from Llanelli to the out of town centres.”Ken Rees
Emlyn Dole answered, “There is no real evidence to say that free parking makes a difference to footfall. There is free parking to be had behind Llanelli Town Hall on weekends. We are advertising that. What we are aiming for is what most towns do and that is to charge for parking when they leave not when they arrive. At Crosshands a development company want to open up a retail centre to improve the economy.”
Audience member Sue Webb was not having any of it. She said, “Crosshands Development Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mc Donalds, Co-op, Lidls and now building a new supermarket. That will not encourage people to come to Llanelli.”
Emlyn Dole replied: There is no supermarket coming there.
Stephen Davies added his ideas saying, “There are countless things we can do. A shuttle bus for example. We need to see more investment. We should not charge for parking.”
Keith Evans also blamed historic abuses of power for the town’s demise. He said, “The history of retail in Llanelli was ruined by the corruption of the Borough Council. The word developers is the key word. Developers have been swimming around like sharks. If it carries on like it (Llanelli) is it has a very poor future. We need to reopen Stepney Street. We need free parking. The future is stop putting out press releases to paper over cracks.”
Jeff Edmunds called for cooperation. He said, “We all agree we want to see growth in Llanelli. We need to put our heads together stop arguments. There are areas of the multi storey car park, which not used. A debenture style selling spaces to companies might work. We need to look at the internet and possibly a buddy system for shopping.”
Sian Caiach alluded to looking at the problems before finding the solutions. She said, “We have not looked into the problems. The local authority have suffered no consequences when they get things wrong. Eastgate is a case in point. We should consult business people.”
Emlyn Dole said that the council already have a masterplan. He said, “The ambition and vision is a 30 yr masterplan and it is in the public domain for all to see. We should defend public services and regenerate the economy.” Mr Dole said that for the first time he had heard the words Llanelli and Penthouse in the same sentence.
Keith Evans replied, “Llanelli is pawn brokers and charity shops. The only Penthouse I see in Llanelli is a magazine. Llanelli has got to change as a dynamic. We need to look at the make up of the population, the transport. We need to bring up lower end.”
Living in a bubble is what Sian Caiach thought the council had been doing. She said, “We should not stop concentrating on the town. We should do research into what people need and want. The Council lives in a bubble. We love Llanelli. The alternative is a dead area and everyone needing a car. The problems of town are through not having prosperity.”
Concluding the hustings Jeff Edmunds said: We must grow our economy and create jobs. We want a municipal bus company. We need to think about diversity and the internet. Carms and Llanelli can only succeed when working people succeed. They come into the town centre and share their wealth. Openness and transparency is what we need. We need more debate in council. We need engagement with people.
The event was meant to be a business hustings but it was evident that there were scant numbers of business owners in the room but plenty of political activists. The general flow of the hustings did not lend itself to finding ideas and solutions to the town’s problems nor to challenging the panelists on their answers, some of which needed to be checked.
Comment: Perhaps Andrew Stephens painted the true picture of the town from his perspective as a young man who had left school as a Saturday boy at the Co-op and seen the town’s fortunes change being right in the centre of retail and becoming the manager of the St Elli Centre. His brief historical overview showed quite clearly that someone somewhere had sold out the town to developers without ever thinking of the consequences for the people who live in Llanelli nor the independent traders. There was something very familiar about the picture, which emerged and one felt a sense of deja vu as some on the panel maintained that development and regeneration however disjointed was the saving grace of the town. History is often the lesson best studied if we are to learn from our mistakes and our successes. UKIP’s Keith Evans was a class above all in that area. The youthful Stephen Davies was ever the angry young man we need pointing out the historic let downs to generation after generation in the town. Sian Caiach the Bohemian Boudacean like doctor is always open to consultation with the people issue by issue. Emlyn Dole has a masterplan but he is going to have to rob Peter to Pay Paul and relies heavily on the City Deal to bring back prosperity to the town. Jeff Edmunds wants to create that prosperity through the council’s own new army of workers. Whatever the elections bring one can be sure that the problems will not be solved easily or quickly.