THE Leader of Bridgend Council said his time at the helm has been a “rollercoaster”.
Re-elected as a councillor at Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) in 2017, Huw David replaced former leader Mel Nott to become the youngest council leader appointed in Wales.
However, the past five years have not been without its challenges with local authorities across the country grappling with the effects of a global pandemic and economic hardship.
With another local government election on the horizon next May, here’s what the council leader had to say about some of these hurdles.
“In addition to those profound global and national events, of course we have had Brexit as well,” said Mr David.
“We have led a minority administration, but I would undoubtedly say that the biggest challenge has been the pandemic and I never dreamt that when I became leader I would be making decisions overnight whether we opened schools or closed schools.
“I never thought I would be talking about whether there was enough room in the cemeteries and crematorium in the darkest days and working out if we had enough PPE for our care homes to keep our staff safe.
“And, at the most difficult periods, would we be able to keep services going. There were times before the vaccination when there were lots of staff who were infected.
“They weren’t able to work and we weren’t sure if we were able to keep services going.”
The Cardiff University Economics graduate’s appetite for politics was first whetted during the 1997 General Elections, later taking his first steps in local politics in 2004.
Never did he see himself leading the county borough through a global event like the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.
He hopes the event which threw up “major dilemmas” and that required careful “balancing” has shaped him for the better.
Mr David added:
“We weren’t sure if we could continue to collect recycling, but most importantly it came very close at certain times to us not being able to deliver to thousands of people across the county borough – children, older people and people with disabilities.
“Not knowing and thinking that we would not be able to deliver was obviously a very difficult period for everyone on the front line of the organisation.
“Overnight [we] were converting our schools into child care hubs, asking our transport [staff] to start delivering free school meals to 8,000 families across the borough, repurposing our depots as ambulance stations.”
Looking to the future, Mr David touched on other issues occupying his mind – notably the regeneration of high streets in Bridgend County Borough.
Bridgend itself has suffered in recent years with more shops and buildings lying empty in the town centre than ever before.
Whilst also keeping an eye on matters in his own ward, Cefn Cribwr, the council and Labour group leader acknowledged that this has been a “big challenge”.
He said: “I think there were trends before the pandemic that were accelerated during the pandemic. I know a lot of people shopped online before the pandemic and suddenly it was their only option.
“Once they have started to shop online, they haven’t reverted back to old habits because it is more convenient for some people and I don’t think that has helped any of our high streets. We have tried to help.
“As a local authority, we don’t own any of the shops in Bridgend town centre or for that matter, Maesteg and Porthcawl.
“We don’t set the rents and we don’t set the rates, but we are trying to help.”
Free parking was introduced in Bridgend and outdoor markets were brought to Bridgend and Porthcawl to boost footfall.
Multi-million pound investments in Bridgend and Porthcawl through a proposed new college campus and seaside redevelopment project respectively are also aimed at reviving high streets.
However, as many residents point out, buildings in Bridgend remain empty shells without – it seems – any hope of redevelopment in sight.
Mr David added: “There are some green shoots. There are some award-winning businesses in terms of Morgan’s cocktail bar, La Cochina’s tapas bar.
“We have got a new Greek restaurant opening up in Bridgend. What we are seeing is a shift.
“What people can’t do online is eat and drink.”
On the new college campus that has been proposed for Cheapside in Bridgend, Mr David said: “Colleges are very busy and vibrant places and what that will do is bring thousands of students that are currently located out of town into town. Students like to go to shops and they like to use cafes and bars.
“We think that will bring footfall and different clientele into the town.”
More residents in Bridgend County Borough, particularly in the Llynfi Valley, were left disgruntled by the publication of a report earlier this year that highlighted the council’s failings in an energy saving scheme.
Hundreds of homes in Caerau near Maesteg were left with serious damage caused by damp and mould after shoddy insulation was fitted in a bid to improve their energy efficiency 10 years ago.
An internal audit report found that no due diligence checks were carried out for the companies that were contracted by the council to carry out the work.
Green Renewables Wales Ltd. (GRW) and their sub-contracted companies – which were awarded funding through the Arbed Scheme by BCBC – carried out work on 25 properties in Caerau.
The internal audit report also highlighted potential breaches of the council’s Members Code of Conduct.
The director of the now dissolved GRW, Phil White, who died in October was a BCBC councillor at the time.
It was found that one of the companies subcontracted by GRW did not exist.
Asked whether he thought the matter would rock voter confidence in Bridgend Labour, Mr David said: “I think most people will be focussed on how we responded to the pandemic. They will be focussed on the school modernisation programme.
“It will be an issue for some people in Caerau obviously, but I think for lots of people there are other challenges and issues around that cost of living crisis that will feature more in their thinking on who they will vote for.
“We have had confirmation [that] South Wales Police have been asked a second time now to investigate and pursue criminal charges and they are very clear that they do not believe that there is a case to pursue there.
“Likewise, the local authority has been in touch and referred itself to the ombudsman and Audit Wales as well as the South Wales Police.
“The authority made every effort to make sure that we are addressing the issues and that any action that needs to be taken has been taken.”
The cost of rectifying the damage has been set at £3.5m – with £2.65m coming from the Welsh Government and £855,000 from the local authority.
Councillors were told in February that there is no guarantee of compensation for residents who have spent their own money on trying to rectify the damage.
Reflecting on the state of local democracy in the run up to this year’s local government elections, Mr David said there is “never enough engagement in local politics”.
This year will be the first that 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales will be able vote in local government elections.
However, many still feel as though changes in local democracy are needed, like making the role of a councillor more accessible, particularly for younger people.
Mr David said:
“I wouldn’t want any young person to be deterred from that [if they have] major work commitments. There is some flexibility there and we need to get that message across to people that, actually it is a welcoming chamber.
“We have made efforts to try and get people to come forward so that the chamber better reflects the communities that it serves and we have seen that in recent elections.
“I have never seen so many young people in the chamber. We could do with more, but I have never seen as many as I have done now and we have had more women than we have had since I first started and we have had more members from our BAME community than we have ever had before.
“We are making progress and we are making strides.”
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