Carmarthenshire Council closes Ysgol Pantycelyn against tide of public opinion

Carmarthenshire Council this week had one of its first big meetings since the now-infamous #daftarrest incident last month.

That day, when the council announced it would close Llandeilo’s Noddfa Teilo Day Club, the local authority got an unprecedented amount of attention, most of it negative.

On Monday the executive board approved the closure of Ysgol Pantycelyn, in Llandovery.

This act garnered no coverage in the national media, no celebrity columnist comments, but it was opposed by 91 per cent of those involved in the public consultation – that is, local parents, teachers, governors, and residents in surrounding area.

As with the closure of Noddfa Teilo, this was a decision rather than a debate. Council procedure meant objectors, including Pantycelyn chair of governors Dai Dyer, were stopped from speaking.

Despite the widespread public disapproval executive board member for education  Gwynne Wooldridge told the chamber:

We have reached another milestone in the transformation of Dinefwr schools.

It is the most inventive scheme I have ever come across and will benefit the children fantastically.

Pupil numbers at the school – now at around 300 – have plummeted, and there is a large deficit.

But talking to parents, teachers, and governors in the months before and days after the debate it is clear some questions are still unanswered about the consultation process (the document can be found in PDF format here).

The closure of Pantycelyn, part of a county-wide schools reshuffle, is the first stage in a plan to merge it with Ffairfach’s Ysgol Tre-Gib. The new Dyffyn Tywi School, as it would be called, would also be built in Ffairfach, near to the current site of Tre-Gib, but 13 miles away from Pantycelyn.

Residents of both Llandeilo and Llandovery are especially concerned about the position of the new building. Almost 150 of them wrote letters of objection. But the council has accused campaigners of proliferating misinformation in an attempt to raise this figure, a claim which the campaigners angrily deny.

Moreover, the council appeared to bring forward the date of the decision overnight without telling anyone. This was originally scheduled for the autumn.
This meant Mr Dyer and the other school governors were only able to attend after Radio Cymru told them about the date change two days before.

Rob Sully, the council’s director of education, said the authority’s previous statement, that the decision would be made in the autumn, was down to a “drafting error”.  But in councillor Wooldridge told me at the Carmarthen Journal two months ago:

A report is now being prepared taking all the information gathered through this consultation into account and it will go before the Executive Board in the Autumn.

Perhaps Mr Wooldridge, the most senior councillor when it comes to education, didn’t know the date and merely took the consultation document – and its “draft error” – at face value? If that is not the case, though, it puts Mr Sully’s statement in a bit of an odd light.

Many campaigners, namely the Ysgol Pantycelyn Action Group and their vociferous secretary Marianne Goddard-Peperzak, opposed the closure completely. But not all of the objecting 91 per cent opposed the closure outright. Some, including the the school governors, had conceded the inevitability of the council’s will to close the building – indeed, the Welsh Government had already pledged £23.7 million towards to the build in March, months before the consultation ended.

What this contingent opposed was the council proposal to put the new school at a site in Ffairfach (the flag on the above map). They suggested a far better location would have been at Llangadog (the question mark), almost bang in the middle of the two current schools.

Their main concerns about the Ffairfach site were:

  1. Claims it is on a flood plain.
  2. It would increase congestion and pollution in Llandeilo, which is already at record levels.
  3. Travel times for children taking the 14 mile-bus route from north of Llandovery would be unacceptable.
  4. The closure would have a detrimental effect of the town of Llandovery, making it one of the only areas in Wales without a state secondary school within ten miles and therefore an unattractive prospect for young families.

The council have responded in their documentation:

  1. That 90 per cent of the site lies outside the 1 in 1,000 year flood risk, the other 10 per cent is planned as playing fields (this claim has been contested by people who have land near the site).
  2. There will be appropriate vehicle access and extra parking. But the council have not mentioned Llandeilo residents’ main concern: that the extra buses will increase pollution.
  3. All commute times will be within the Welsh Government limit of 60 minutes (again, disputed by residents, including parent governor Sara Fox, who lives to the north of Llandovery. The normal service bus, with seven stops, takes around 40 minutes).
  4. The sole function of schools is to provide education. The effect their presence or lack thereof has on the surrounding area is not taken into consideration.

In addition, the council has accused campaigners of running an “orchestrated campaign” of misinformation, designed to get people to object.

Perhaps this is the reasoning the council making a decision which is diametrically opposed to the vast majority of people it affects: that it feels many of the objections were unfairly influenced by this so-called propaganda and were therefore not valid?

If so, its position poses two questions: 1) did the council take into account how many of the objections had been influenced in this way, and 2) to what extent was this a factor in pushing through plans it had drawn up months ago?


Carmarthenshire blogger arrest: how we broke the story

On Wednesday my colleague Graeme Wilkinson and I were at a full meeting of Carmarthenshire Council. We knew it had the potential to be newsworthy on a local level because campaigners were presenting a 1,500-strong petition to stop the closure of Llandeilo Day Club.

But this was overshadowed by the arrest of blogger Jacqui Thompson, who tried to film the meeting from the public gallery.

My story on #DaftArrest (a hashtag devised by lawyer and New Statesman legal correspondent David Allen Green) has since been followed up by two national papers and countless bloggers.

Set against a backdrop of the wider debate about bloggers and council transparency, it looks set to run and run.

I was on the steps of County Hall and saw the events unfold. You can read about what happened here but below is how we broke the story, and how the week has progressed:

Blogger Jacqui Thompson is arrested at Carmarthen County Hall. Picture by Alexander Smith

The main item on the council’s agenda that day, as far as we were concerned, was the petition to save Llandeilo Day Club. Graeme was covering the meeting, but about an hour after he had gone to County Hall a contact rang me to say Jacqui Thompson, who regularly criticises the council on her Carmarthenshire Planning Problems blog, had just been arrested in the chamber.

All of our photographers were on jobs so I grabbed one of the office compact snappers and ran the (thankfully) short distance to County Hall.

There were two police cars already in the car park. Carmarthen Unison branch secretary Mark Evans had left the meeting and was on the steps lamenting what he thought had been a fairly unsuccessful morning, the petition had but glossed over with no debate.

I can’t have been on the steps longer than five minutes when four police officers led Mrs Thompson, in cuffs, round the side of the building. They didn’t see me coming, but I only managed to take one photo before the blonde officer (pictured, right) grabbed my arm and tried to take the camera. I wriggled free and explained I was from the Journal. After showing my press pass I asked them what the arrest was for. One of the male officers replied: “That’s none of your business.”

I went back to the office, put in calls to the council and police, and started putting something together for next week’s paper (published the following Wednesday). I used Graeme’s quotes from inside the chamber. I also wrote a side-panel on UK Coalition attempts to reform policy on citizen journalists recording meetings (based on this letter local government secretary Bob Neill wrote to English authorities in February).

I did write a short piece for our sister paper, The South Wales Evening Post, which was published online the next day. But I thought we would be OK to hold off publishing the full story until we went to print.

But when I got a DM and then a phone-call from David Allen Green, of the New Statesman, saying he wanted to write something on the arrest and link to whatever we published online, it became increasingly clear the story wouldn’t hold.

Mrs Thompson then DMed me saying she had just spoken to the Telegraph, so we decided to publish online what we had immediately.

The story has since been followed up by The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday, as well as blog posts by Richard Wilson and tweets from Ben Goldacre. David Allen Green said he will post an analysis on his New Statesman page, questioning the actions of both the council and police.

Blogger Mike Rawlins has taken this one step further. He is asking people to submit their experiences of council heavy handedness and plans to publish a data spreadsheet of the results.

The incident has even sparked interest from Carmarthenshire’s erstwhile uninterested neighbour, Swansea. Tory council leader René Kinzett recently tweeted he has written to Dyfed-Powys Police chief constable Ian Arundale to complain.