Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Planning for the future - or for developers?

Here's a little example of how the planning system is broken.

The Plas Coch retail area is a very popular place to go shopping. It has one entry off Plas Coch Road, which is also used by the University, the Plas Coch pub, Ysgol Plas Coch primary school and surrounding residents. It's already a busy road and, at times, is gridlocked.

Over the past couple of years there have been several planning applications to develop the area. These have included:
  • Costa Coffee drive through
  • Extending the Plas Coch into a hotel
  • 400 new apartments on the University campus
These have all been assessed by the planning committee in isolation and the latter was passed despite the highways officer recommending refusal on the grounds of congestion.

At the same time, Ysgol Plas Coch has now been expanded to accommodate 315 pupils (it was originally built for 210) with resulting added traffic at pick-up times.

There are now two new planning applications that will have a serious impact on this part of town:
  • Plans for 455 new homes on the Stansty Chain Road - just the other side of the dual carriageway. These will be accessed via Mold Road as well as Stansty Chain Rd but anyone wanting to avoid the B&Q roundabout will doubtless be using the back road.
  • Just before Christmas plans for a 24-hour drive through McDonald's were submitted for the car park section in front of The Range. 
The cumulative effect of these developments, if passed, would be to increase traffic, increase pollution and clog up Plas Coch Road and surrounding areas for more and more of the day. It would be bad for local residents as well as local businesses - who wants to spend an hour in traffic to get to the supermarket?

But when the planning committee comes to decide on whether the new housing estate and the McDonald's should be allowed, they'll be unable to take into consideration the other pending application. They'll have to take them all on their own individual merits.

We're not planning for the future - we're allowing the planning system to be dictated to by those with the deepest pockets, who can pay experienced consultants to navigate the system. Local residents, by contrast don't have those resources.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Turnaround our town

A plan to improve Wrexham town centre

For too long, our town centre has been in decline. It's not unique in that respect - towns across the UK have suffered from a decade of cuts and hardship, changes in shopping habits and the rise in homelessness and drug misuse. 

It is a profoundly worrying decline and impacts on many businesses and jobs in the town centre. The problem is clear - too many empty shops, not enough to attract people into town, poor public transport, anti-social behaviour from a small minority and a visible homelessness issue that makes many people worry about their safety.

Every year, various agencies spend hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to manage the situation. To what extent can we use existing funding more effectively and access new funding to transform our town centre.

Plaid Cymru locally does not pretend it has a magic wand to remedy the situation overnight but we want to turnaround our town.

This starts with a series of practical measures:

1. Cutting business rates for small businesses
In its annual conference in October, Plaid Cymru passed a motion proposed by Cllr Carrie Harper to introduce far-reaching changes to the business rates system. It would enable us to alter business rates to provide better support for small businesses while expecting out-of-town shopping malls and large supermarkets to pay a differential rate. This is already the case in Scotland and is one practical way to reduce costs for local businesses.

2. Better bus services
Wrexham has lost half its bus services in the past three years. De-regulation of bus services has been a disaster with private companies picking and choosing the profitable routes while the council has a reducing budget to subsidise the rest. Welsh Government has not increased the Bus Service Support Grant for the past seven years and this has meant a reducation in services. Wrexham urgently needs more funding for improved bus services to bring people into town

3. Trial free parking
The council already offers free parking in the run-up to Christmas and on special occasions. It needs to be more radical. While we seek to improve public transport, a more immediate impact would be to trial free or reduced parking in council car parks for six months. This would also have the knock-on effect of reducing parking on residential streets around the town centre.

4. Dealing with drugs
Hundreds of thousands of pounds each year is spent in Wrexham to maintain the current services for drug and alcohol misuse. It does not address the root cause of addiction and we believe prohibition of drugs has been a failure. The ease with which drugs can be purchased in any part of the UK demonstrates that. We support the work done by Police and Crime Commission Arfon Jones to tackle the drugs issue by making it a medical rather than a criminal problem. We would use the money saved by doing this to improve drug and alcohol rehabilitation and detox programmes to enable people to instantly access these services rather than go on a waiting list. 

5. Safer streets
Plaid Cymru is committed to the devolution of criminal justice, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A Plaid Cymru government would increase police numbers and ensure an extra two police officers per community - a significant and visible presence for areas such as our town centre. We will turnaround our town by making it a safer place to enjoy shopping, leisure facilities and food and drink outlets.

6. Shelter the homeless
Tackling homelessness needs to be two-fold. In the short-term, Wrexham has a night shelter but it also needs a day shelter for people without homes. This could be used to store clothes and personal possessions safely as well as providing cover from bad weather and accessing services more effectively. In the longer term we need to provide housing for all our residents and that means increasing the number of council houses we build as well as ensuring that all new housing developments have an element of affordable housing. All too often, developers have opted for maximum profit rather than community benefit.

7. Pride in our town
Wrexham people want to be proud of our town. We've had a few knocks over the years but we will fight back because we want to turnaround our town. We have a proud history and heritage, we have some stunning architecture and real characters, we have a thriving music and cultural scene as well as a sporting heritage second to none. 
 We have worked with others to ensure Wrexham's place as the spiritual home of Welsh football has been recognised - our plan for a national football museum is coming to fruition after a long campaign. We can also be proud of the recognition that Focus Wales gives the town as well as numerous unique venues such as Ty Pawb, Undegun and Saith Seren. 
 We will continue to work with anyone who wants to turnaround the town and make it somewhere to shout about.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Why I'm proud to come from Caia Park

With attention fixed on Wrexham for the upcoming General Election, my community of Caia Park has been in for a bit of a rough ride from UK tabloids and the press generally. Whilst many (understandably to a point) use Caia to put a spotlight on rising poverty levels and the impact of Tory austerity, there is a real danger that the genuinely rich character and flavour of our community is bypassed in favour of more attention grabbing poverty laden headlines.

Caia Park has recently featured in articles in the Guardian, the New Statesman and the Mirror, along with TV broadcasters Sky News focussing in on our patch as part of their election coverage. Each have highlighted rising poverty levels, many have used pictures of the Red Dragon derelict pub for a bit of added gloom (a building due to be refurbished imminently by the way) and some have even resurrected the 2003 so called ‘Caia Park riots’ to add to the picture of community living in deprivation, desperation and division.

This is not the Caia Park I know, far from it. It’s difficult not to be political about all this given the General Election is driving all this attention and the fact that I’m a Caia girl standing in that election for Plaid Cymru. Because of that, I’ve been told repeatedly that I can‘t have a quote in many of the press articles or be interviewed for the TV coverage. Luckily social media allows me to disregard that in favour of a bit of balance and have my say, so here we go.

I grew up in Caia Park and still live here, as do many members of my family and countless friends. I’m a Plaid county councillor for the Queensway ward in the heart of Caia which is so often the focus of attention and also a local community councillor here too. The recent press attention has been upsetting for many of the people I know and represent, as they feel vilified by the growing hate filled comments and the judgemental bias being levelled at them online. We are often painted by those who see themselves as a cut above as drug fuelled scroungers, who are lazy and uneducated. Other commenters revel in offering their profound and often sarcastic advice to those living in poverty regarding finding cheaper bags of pasta, or getting a couple of pence off tinned food. It makes my blood boil.

I know better of course but that doesn’t make reading some the online comments any less infuriating. Far from the grim press image, my community is in fact a complex network of families and friends who stick together in tough times. We all know each other too. Like so many others living here, my Mum and Dad live around one corner, my Gran in the next street and my brother down the road. As well as knowing my immediate neighbours, I’ve probably got a connection with someone on most streets across Caia Park, we all have. We have a powerful sense of community that many across the UK would envy.

On a professional level, I can also tell you that my community doesn’t wait around for the often distant powers that be to arrive to address many of the day to day challenges we face. We get on and do it. I could give you countless examples over the years where this community has worked together to address so many wide ranging issues, whether it's clearing up litter to tidy up a local field, looking out for scammers targeting our elderly neighbours, or organising food pick ups for struggling families on Christmas Eve, we get on and we do it.

In fairness to the local council, of which I'm a regular critic, huge amounts have been invested into housing locally. Over the last decade thousands of rooves have been replaced, new kitchens and bathrooms installed, solar panels fitted in many homes and a programme of work to replace fencing and overhaul gardens has begun. The ward I represent is 70% council housing and although there is still work to do, the estate is currently looking a lot better than I ever remember it growing up.

So yes we have rising poverty levels here thanks to Tory austerity, much of it impacting on families who are in work as well as those who are not. It’s heart-breaking to see people left with literally not a penny in their bank accounts for weeks on end thanks to Universal Credit and welfare reform. It’s also heart warming and shattering in the same breath to see someone split a days food parcel with their sister because neither have any other way to get a meal.

The poverty is very real for some and it is undoubtedly a disgrace that almost half our children in several Caia Park wards are living in poverty in 2019. But to only see that perspective would give you a purely black and white view of a proud community that is in fact vibrant and full of colour.

When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Caia Park with my head held high.