Monday, May 18, 2009

More than Gavin & Stacey

Barry is a town which has a surprising place in the history of Welsh politics. Historically it was a major coal exporting town because of the docks, and was a stronghold of the trade unions. For reasons that are unknown, Barry has also produced a significant amount of Welsh nationalists, and not just Gwynfor either. More recently the town's entire identity and image has become associated with the TV programme Gavin & Stacey, an image which has also penetrated into local politics, with Dave Cameron visiting the town after last year's local elections to proclaim the show's slogans and punch lines with glee, even though the Tories had only won 2 new council seats in the town (the same as Labour). Politically, the two British parties (the Lib Dems don't exist in Barry) are setting out the town's future as being based on a military base to be delivered at St. Athan, where facilities for the aerospace sector and RAF already exist on a smaller scale than what is envisaged for the future.

Against this backdrop the reality of life in Barry often gets forgotten. It is a town that does not appear to have a viable future of its own and exists as a suburb of Cardiff. The reason this is a bad thing is because this process is leading to Barry losing its identity (beyond the coincidence and circumstance of a famous TV programme that could easily have been set elsewhere) and independence, and more importantly, a huge amount of people in Barry being unable to find work because there are simply very few jobs in the town. Public transport to Cardiff is better than average, but a sizeable amount of the town's population don't live near to a train station and are disincentivised from accessing services and jobs in the nearby capital.

The local economic and cultural situation is dire. There are virtually no facilities or services east of the town square. There has been succesful regeneration in the town centre, but this has been offset by the decline of the local private sector, with the iconic cinema being a prominent victim not of the recession (it was profitable until closure), but of the whims of the market. The developer could make more money selling the cinema for housing to serve the commuter stream than he could running a cinema. Campaigners have tried to buy the building back at the market rate, because they would make money, but have been turned down. It's housing or nothing.

These are the real local issues that were on the agenda alongside the European elections when Plaid's MEP Jill Evans visited Barry for a Public Meeting. She doesn't come to Barry often so I was very fortunate to hear her and Plaid's Vale candidate Ian Johnson who is extremely well known locally. I wasn't sure how the meeting would go. People in Barry are disillusioned with politics and not particularly motivated. I was concerned that St. Athan is a risky topic because of the 'jobs bonanza' that the main parties are promising. The Tory leader of the Vale has said that the military base will be as important to Barry as those historic docks were. Now I know 5,000 jobs are supposed to be created, but seriously...Nonetheless, my fears were dismissed by a positive meeting which reminded me of what the party stands for.

I have always associated Plaid Cymru with our communities in Wales, and as being the party for local people, serving the changing needs of communities through decentralist socialism rather than the monolithic centralist agendas of the British parties. But the claim to this tradition isn't Plaid's alone. The Lib Dems also call themselves 'the local party', but perhaps more so because they focus on local elections, rather than for ideological reasons. Where Plaid needs to step forward is in linking these local issues with the wider struggle for self-determination and social justice in Wales. The reason Barry is a town in decline is because developments in Barry (a town of 50,000 people) are based on the market- the property developers and out of town retailers, rather than on local needs and local priorities. The same factors are responsible for the pockets of long-term poverty and boarded up buildings in the town.

The other parties cannot challenge this system and the vested interests that support it. Indeed, the three main British parties are all funded by big business and have all done well out of the property boom that has been responsible for our identikit town centres and loss of heritage. The alternative is that we strengthen our communities from the bottom up, investing our time and energies in democracy at the grassroots level. This was the solution being advocated by Dr. Johnson, and it fitted in with what Jill was talking about at the European Parliament. She is not fighting to impose the EU's agenda on communities in Wales, but to impose Wales' needs on Europe. All of these struggles are bound together in the fight for Wales to have its own voice at every level. After all, we are a community of communities. The sun had come out as I left the meeting, and the potential for change in Barry was for once bigger than the boarded up shop down the road.

And I think the cinema campaigners will be voting for Plaid.

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