AS part of the coverage of the May 5 local elections the Local Democracy reporter Alex Seabrook interviews the Vale of Glamorgan’s Plaid Cymru leader on how the council should be run

A new heritage museum could be established in Barry if Plaid Cymru takes control of Vale of Glamorgan council in May.

Streets suffering from graffiti across the Vale would also be cleaned up and council tax could see much smaller increases than in recent years.

Despite leading a vocal role in opposition, Plaid Cymru currently only have four councillors in the Vale although that could change after local elections on May 5.

Over lemonade in a pub in Barry, Ian Johnson put forward his case for how the Vale of Glamorgan would look if he were made council leader, in a detailed interview.

Cleaning up the Vale’s streets would be one priority of a Plaid-led council after May. In particular the shopping street Holton Road in Barry would be cleaned up, after many new graffiti tags appeared last year.

“We would be focused on communities and people,” he said, “with regeneration of our town centres, cleaner streets and making the public realm somewhere where people want to live, and that means keeping everywhere tidy, keeping on top of fly-tipping and graffiti. People don’t want to live in or visit dirty towns. Last year we had a huge spate of graffiti, some of that was on public buildings and some was on privately owned buildings. We had a lot of arguments with council officers about the council’s responsibility for cleaning private buildings.

“I think it’s a major part of the council’s responsibility for all of the public realm, the places people see. When you have a building that’s been left vacant and has been graffitied, and that takes months and months to deal with, then the local residents and businesses have to deal with a shop that’s been left in disrepair for a long time. That doesn’t give anybody confidence in the community or the council that things are going well. These things need to be dealt with a lot more swiftly.”

Asked what he found frustrating about the council, Mr Johnson said often councillors in the Vale tend to go along with what council officers recommend, with not enough challenge.

“The Vale council sometimes has too much deference towards officers. There needs to be a greater amount of challenge and a greater reflection of what people feel in the real world, outside of the ivory towers. We see that in planning decisions more than anything else, where it feels that officers go through a technical, tick-box exercise. Model Farm is a great example of that, where there’s a tension between the economic growth goals and statements the council and the Welsh Government have made regarding the climate and nature emergencies. The decision made by the planning department was that the economic growth imperative was more important than the climate change and nature imperatives. It’s also probably worth remembering that Model Farm was put in the local development plan by the Conservatives when they were in charge prior to 2012.”

For several years a major issue the councillor has campaigned on is the new biomass power plant in Barry, by the Docks train station. The power plant, which will ‘gasify’ wood, has caused a lot of local concern around the potential for increased air pollution and carbon emissions.

“Plaid Cymru was accused of scaremongering before the 2017 election. We’re now seeing Labour leaflets going out around Barry explaining how they’ve opposed the incinerator. We’ve seen changes in discussion, if Plaid hadn’t been there making those points consistently for a long time, then those things wouldn’t have happened. Despite being a small group on the council, we have changed the dynamics of debate in the Vale.”

Another key issue is the Vale council’s high level of financial reserves. Each year before the council’s budget is approved, opposition councillors tend to call for a smaller increase in council tax than proposed, instead suggesting that more money is spent from the millions in reserves. This March council tax went up by 2.9 per cent.

“We don’t need to have inflation-busting council tax rises. We have the money. It’s more important for me—and I represent Barry town centre where there are a lot of people relatively close to the poverty line and have difficulty with the cost of living crisis—that their needs should be prioritised above the needs of the council. In the last five years council tax has gone up by about 20 per cent, and 20 per cent in the previous five years. Does the council really need all of that money? We’re not responsible for Brexit or inflation, but we are responsible for people’s council tax. The Vale council can shoulder this burden better than households can.”

Three years ago power switched hands in the Vale without an election. After a fallout in the ruling Conservative group, some councillors switched to form the new Vale Independents Group and took control of the council in a coalition with Labour. Mr Johnson said this move raised questions about how much difference there is between Labour and the Tories locally.

“What’s interesting is how easily long-serving Conservative councillors joined in a coalition with the Labour party. Sometimes you sacrifice being ideologically pure for getting things done. But in reality what they’ve shown is the Vale council was really run by the same people with the same mindset for decades—a very centrist, officer-led position, because actually nothing changed when you went from having Labour in charge to having the Conservatives in charge, to having Labour with a whole load of those Conservatives supporting Labour. The fact there doesn’t seem to be substantial difference between Labour and Conservative administrations suggests that there’s not much ideological difference.”

Last summer a major controversial planning application went to the council’s planning committee, for a giant business park on a family farm near Cardiff Airport. Legal and General are planning to build the business park on Model Farm, but some fear the plans could harm the climate and the local environment. Others have argued that the development could create good quality local jobs, preventing Barry residents from commuting long distances.

“Model Farm is a huge policy tension between the idea of economic growth and climate change and the nature emergency. There’s a struggle there with the type of jobs and the impact of the jobs that Model Farm would be looking to create. It’s for the aerospace industry, therefore it would have an impact on climate change. I don’t feel that the jobs that would be created are necessarily those that are useful for people in Barry. I’m not sure that the need is there for the business park in the way that they envisage it. There are alternative potential sites, particularly around St Athan which are probably more relevant rather than building on a greenfield site. If you think of the worst thing you could try and do, isn’t this it? You’re facilitating greater climate change issues through the support of the aerospace industry, because of the emissions related to flying.

“During the planning meeting [last July] the officers said that there had been no major planning changes since the local development plan was adopted in 2017. But hang on, the Welsh Government has adopted a climate change emergency, and the Vale of Glamorgan has declared a climate emergency. To simply throw out declarations of climate and nature emergencies because ‘this isn’t part of planning’ seems completely ridiculous.”

The 42-year-old group leader was first elected in 2012, and also serves as a town councillor in Barry, as well as playing an active role in the town’s football club. He said he first joined Plaid Cymru after seeing the party’s former leader give a speech about community responsibility.

“I’m from Barry. I’m very passionate about where I live. We’ve always had a strong Welsh identity in my family. Plaid Cymru has values of social justice and of being rooted in the community. That’s always been something very strong for me, and there was a lot of public service ethos in my family. I got involved with Plaid Cymru when I saw Dafydd Wigley give a speech in the Barry Hotel, and he was talking about community responsibility.

“It’s relying on the people around you rather than relying on somebody else to take decisions for you. So you build your community through a common responsibility. If you want to make your community better then you can’t rely on somebody from outside to do that for you. From a young age I was involved with the football club and volunteering in the community to make things better. That’s at the heart of where I see Plaid filling that gap. The problem with the council is that it’s behind a big red building and not in the community.”

One major area Plaid is campaigning on in the Vale is to create a new heritage museum for Barry, so residents can learn about the history of the town and some of its famous and successful people such as the celebrated journalist Gareth Jones and the diplomat Abdulrahim Abby Farah.

“The community needs to know where it’s coming from and where it’s going to, so you have a feeling of what’s made us, what are the influences upon us, what’s turned us into what we are today. When I was growing up in the eighties and nineties, Barry had a fairly negative perception. There was a headline ‘the car crime capital of Europe’. The docks had gone, Butlins was on the wane, there was no real industry in Barry, it wasn’t a place that you moved to, it was ‘you have your education and you leave’, it wasn’t the place to be. And Barry has definitely changed in that time. Lots of people like myself who went away, perhaps to university, and have over the decades come back and are looking at the place with a fresh pair of eyes. But we still need to have more recognition that Barry was a big town, the biggest coal port in the world pre-World War One. We need some of those narratives and stories of how people came to Barry, what people from Barry did. And people from Barry don’t know those stories and don’t hear those stories often enough.

“Only recently we had a Hollywood film about Gareth Jones who was a Welsh-born journalist from Barry. His dad was one of the first headteachers of the main school in Barry. This guy literally interviewed Hitler. He went to Moscow and just rang up and said ‘hello, can I speak to Mr Stalin please?’ He wasn’t granted an interview on that occasion. He was Lloyd George’s private personal secretary, and he wrote his foreign affairs speeches after he was prime minister. He was the first western journalist to write about the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the winter of 1932–33. He was murdered by Mongolian bandits believed to be on the pay of the KGB, on the day before his 30th birthday. And this guy was from Barry and people barely know about him.

“Abdulrahim Abby Farah was from Thompson Street, went to Gladstone Primary and Barry Boys. He was president of the UN security council’s meeting in Addis Ababa, which was the first time the UN security council had met outside New York in more than 20 years. He was in charge of the UN delegation which oversaw the undoing of apartheid in South Africa. So in the context of Black Lives Matter, this guy is from Barry and yet nobody has heard of him. He died a few years ago aged 98. This guy was the senior UN official in charge of ending apartheid, which is mindblowing.”

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