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Llynfi Independents group leader gives his thoughts on some of county’s most pressing issues

AT the age of 34, Ross Thomas is part of a minority of younger councillors at Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC).

However, with 14 years of experience as a councillor – 10 of them at county borough level – he concedes that he could still be considered “old hat” in some respects.

Indeed, the Maesteg councillor certainly experienced political turbulence earlier on in his career when he, along with Keith Edwards, Edith Hughes, Gareth Phillips, Cleone Westwood and Martyn Jones were deselected from the Labour party in 2016.

All of the then councillors, except for Mr Westwood, were told it was due to defying the party whip in refusing to back BCBC’s failed merger bid with the Vale of Glamorgan in 2014.

Ross and Mr Edwards later decided to run for re-election to their seats in the Llynfi Valley in 2017 as independents – forming the Llynfi Independents.

Describing his relationship with Maesteg and the Llynfi Valley – in many ways, his inspiration for getting involved in politics – Ross said: “I couldn’t really imagine living anywhere else so I want to play a role in supporting Maesteg to be the best it can be – and shaping what the valley looks and feels like in the future.

“I am never prouder than when I have a platform to speak about the Llynfi Valley and take every opportunity to talk about what makes it a special place. It’s a community with the biggest heart – most recently on display when people dug deep for the rally held in the market square to support the people of Ukraine.

“People care about each other and they care about the valley’s prospects.”

Key local issues

There is no one “silver bullet”, as Ross puts it, in terms of local issues to be tackled in the Llynfi Valley.

He said: “There are a number of issues in Maesteg that could easily feature in a local campaign anywhere in Wales: dog-fouling, littering, fly-tipping and speeding vehicles to mention just a few. These are the issues that people see when they open their front doors.”

However, he did say that the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the Maesteg and the Llynfi Valley, as it has done in communities across the UK.

This, along with addressing the problem of empty properties in Maesteg, is among some of the issues that Ross said he will be focussing on if he was to win a seat in the local government elections on May 5.

Ross added: “More generally, I’m looking forward to supporting the local community to get back on its feet in the wake of the pandemic. There has always been a vibrancy to community life in the Llynfi Valley through a range of choirs, sports groups, dance groups and activity-based clubs, just to name a few – so they will have our support.

“Moreover, like me, a lot of people will be frustrated with empty properties – including retail premises in the town centre for example – that have been left to go to rack and ruin for years and are an eyesore.

“We are committed to working in collaboration with the council, traders, funders and any interested parties to bring such properties back into use to realise their potential. There are already a couple of good examples in the town centre – but more needs doing.”

This year, Mr Edwards has decided not to stand for re-election at BCBC due to personal reasons. However, the Llynfi Independents have welcomed a new councillor into their fold in the past year.

Chris Davies, councillor for Caerau before the 2022 local election period, will be standing for re-election. The village to the north of Maesteg has been the centre of an inflammatory saga, in which over a hundred homes were left with serious damage caused by poor insulation work.


“The Arbed scheme is, in my view, a huge stain on the council’s standing in the Llynfi Valley and more widely,” said Ross.

“What was originally a scheme set to deliver energy efficiency and lower energy bills has actually ended up ruining some people’s homes.”

An internal audit report published earlier this year found multiple failings in relation to the Arbed Scheme in Caerau – an energy saving scheme that saw poorly fitted insulation in homes 10 years ago result in problems with damp and mould, affecting the health of some families and seeing them fork out their own money to carry out repairs.

The report highlighted that “no due diligence checks were evidenced” in BCBC’s contracting of Green Renewable Wales Ltd (GRW) in 2012 – a company owned by then councillor Phil White – to carry out work on 25 properties.

Internal auditors also found indications of potential breaches of the council’s Members Code of Conduct and that public money may have been awarded to a company that did not exist – one of the companies subcontracted by GRW.

Mr White died in October 2021 and GRW no longer exists.

Ten years on, the Welsh Government has awarded BCBC £2.65m, subject to an acceptable business case, to carry out essential remedial work on affected properties. With £850,000 being contributed by BCBC, the total repair fund is currently at £3.5m.

A number of residents and councillors feel outraged that it has taken 10 years for such action to be taken.

Ross said:

“The original cost of the scheme was just over £350,000 – and a decade on, a financial package has been put in place which is more than 10 times that amount. I share residents’ frustration and anger at the length of time it’s taken to get to this point.

“While Caerau isn’t my ward, I know that our Llynfi Independent candidate there, Chris Davies, is committed to working with residents as the details of the remediation programme become clearer in the coming months.”

South Wales Police have confirmed that they will not be carrying out an investigation following the findings of the internal audit report.

County borough issues

The issue of public transport has played a central theme in national, as well as county borough-wide, discourse.

School transport has also been a concern for parents, with the current Welsh Government Learner Travel Measure meaning high school pupils who live less than three miles from their school are not entitled to free school transport – often leaving those who fall just short of the threshold with a 30-minute-plus walk to school.

This has been highlighted more recently in Cornelly, where parents whose children attend, or are due to attend, Cynffig Comprehensive School in Pyle are campaigning for a change to the eligibility criteria for access to free school transport.

Ross said:

“My fear with the current policy, combined with the cost of living crisis, is that parents and carers will be forced to choose between paying for school transport and other essentials. In some of our most disadvantaged communities, it may mean increased absenteeism – which in turn can really affect education attainment and life chances.”

In response to concerns over free school transport, the Welsh Government said it will soon be publishing the findings of its initial review of the existing Learner Travel Wales Measure, with a more detailed review to follow later this year.

The council’s decision to remove all remaining bus subsidies in May 2019 is also something Ross said needs to be revised.

He added: “Further with transport, in this last term of council, a number of bus subsidies were removed which led to some local services being completely withdrawn. Added to that, local operators have also reduced or cut some routes.

“It’s a case, in my view, of knowing the price of everything but not the value. The knock-on impact on physical and mental health through isolation or being unable to get about is huge – so we’re keen to explore options.”

Diversity in the chamber

Attracting more diversity in local democracy is still seen as something of a major issue in councils across the country. Strides are being made, but the consensus is that more needs to be done, particularly with attracting younger councillors who work and have families.

One of BCBC’s youngest councillors, Sorrel Dendy, said she will not be standing for re-election – partly due to the difficulty of balancing council commitments with career aspirations.

Sorell, 27, said: “Although you might have a passion for it, you need to put food on the table at the end of the day.”

Providing his thoughts on the issue, Ross said:

“When I first joined the council in 2012, it was clear that a majority of colleagues favoured meetings during the day – which presented difficulties for those like me with full-time jobs or other commitments.

“That continued for a number of years and it was a difficult juggling act. That style of set-up would mean the council chamber would continue to be most accessible to those who are retired, but not younger people or those with young families.”

For Ross, the answer to the issue could lie in an approach that the council has been adopting recently.

“If we’re to really ‘open up’ democracy across the board – whether it’s younger people, disabled people, those with caring responsibilities for example – we really need to consider how and when we meet,” said Ross.

“The onset of the pandemic where councils have been meeting online has introduced a new and easier way of working. I’m keen for a hybrid approach moving forward – where, if you want to attend in person you can, but equally the option of attending online is offered.

“While the number of younger councillors has increased since I’ve been a member, it’s plain to see there is a job of work to be done if the council chamber is to better reflect the communities that we serve across Bridgend. That might mean looking at the culture and processes of meetings and decision-making.”

This year, Ross is standing for re-election in Maesteg West. He will be up against Labour candidates Richard Collins and Rosemary Martin; Mary Emment-Lewis and Robert Lewis for the Conservatives; and Plaid Cymru’s Benjamin Southgate.


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