Cymru’s rural communities are under siege. Holiday dwellings on the one hand, and the annhiliation of social hubs of all kinds on the other, are having a detrimental effect on the viability of Cymraeg, let alone the quality of life and standard of living of the inhabitants of these communities.
But the official mainstream narrative of cenedlaetholwyr (nationalists) does not appear to want to acknowledge these two elements. And despite the fact that people in the south west of Cymru know full well that holiday dwellings have been bleeding our coastal villages in particular for decades, it is only now, when it is almost too late, that those wielding power appear to be beginning to acknowledge that particular reality.
I have recently celebrated my sixtieth birthday. I can say with hand on heart that I was aware as a young child of the way in which the influx to the area of people who had no desire or intention of learning Cymraeg was in danger of denying the villages and towns of western Cymru of the essence of their life, their Cymreictod. For the most part, Cymraeg, the language, was being the subject of ignorance and apathy, and unfortunately in too many cases, open animosity. It wasn’t just the coastal villages that were exposed of course, nor could holiday dwellings be singled out. I was also aware that we were totally helpless in the face of what was happening to us and in trying to come to terms with its effects on a day to day basis.
Throughout the past half century I have been waiting for a political answer to the puzzle. Throughout that time I have felt that the perceived wisdom is silence. We were and are expected to suffer quietly, willingly, for fear of upsetting Plaid Cymru’s election prospects, or, worse, for fear of being accused of racism. And we the Cymry, are adept at retreating out of sight and out of mind when subjected to bullying. Whether it be the Welsh Not or the Welsh Mirror the effects can be longlasting.
The nationalist movement is still reeling from that empty, absurd defamation when the word ‘racist’ was touted by privileged, white, wealthier people who were quite prepared to use their privilege and their wealth to carry out linguistic, cultural and economic oppression. By uttering that one word they succeeded however to silence any meaningful discussion about the economic inequality that had led to the crisis the last time a handful of fearless individuals dared to mention it.
The mental wellbeing of Welsh speakers is secondary in all of this. This is the reality we are expected to grapple with, however unnatural it seems. And so it was that the phrase ‘And for the benefit of our English friends’ would feature prominently in social events in the church hall in Llanybydder in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps we should have been grateful since many an evening in village halls in this day and age consist of material for the sole ‘benefit of our English friends’. Thus Welsh speakers are conditioned to think that their Cymreictod is their problem – not something with which those choosing to live in these communities are required to engage. The moral onus is on Welsh speakers to be accommodating, not on newcomers to accommodate. Accusations of racism simply reinforce that unjust moral asymmetry. In the same way, it is the problem of the inhabitants of Trefdraeth that they have felt for years that they are strangers in their own habitat and have susbequently felt they had no other choice but to move away. I can only imagine how the one person living throughout the year in Cwm yr Eglwys must feel.
I am sick and tired of waiting for an answer to the puzzle. The inward migration of privileged people remains a sore point. Nobody with a smidgen of power has succeeded to grab the bull by the horns. Valuable decades have passed since the Assembly and then the Senedd in Cardiff Bay became part and parcel of our democracy during which the political parties, in particular of course Plaid Cymru, could have rolled up their sleeves and tried to mitigate the effects of what was a crisis well before it was exacerbated by Covid-19 and people’s understandable desire to escape from cities and populated areas in order to set up camp in places affording more fresh air and more space to wander on foot.
Even in the context of tens, hundreds of Ceredigion’s houses for example being bought, seemingly overnight, by people with cash burning in their pockets during the summer of 2020, the public discourse on the influx into these communities is rare. It is only mentioned in relation to holiday dwellings and their impact on local people’s ability to partake in the housing stock. Recently, there has been much noise, albeit late in the day, about the detrimental effects of holiday dwellings on rural communities. Although creating a framework to prevent some further erosion is of course to be welcomed, many a village is now so saturated with holiday dwellings that talk of a quota so late in the day is utterly meaningless. Furthermore it is doubtful whether doubling the Council Tax on holiday dwellings will have any impact when their owners can collect thousands of pounds of weighty pocket money per week for letting out their charmed properties.
And if public money is the alleged problem in so far as maintaining rural schools is concerned, why not charge a rural school tax on the owners of holiday dwellings? That would doubtless be far too revolutionary for our docile country; which begs the question: whose interests exactly are our Senedd’s politicians serving by allowing such a charabang to freewheel us unfetteredly to our very own oblivion?
The crisis had evidently to strike Gwynedd sorely before both mini and mighty politicians would begin to stir. One could venture to suggest that there is a populist surge to the objection to holiday dwellings which has arisen in the wake of Covid. And populism is what drives politicians of all parties in this post-Brexit age.
Yet this populist surge does not appear to have extended as far as backing rural schools. It would be reasonable to assume that the omnipresence of the world-wide pandemic would act as a catalyst for people to rethink and reconsider pernicious policies by local education authorities the length and breadth of Cymru such as setting out almost systematically to shut Cymraeg-medium rural schools; and that it would be reasonable also to expect that the clear vision of those wishing to flee from populated areas in England would be echoed in the desire of fervent Cymry to protect rural schools, where children could social distance whilst benefitting from plenty of fresh air.
Isn’t it rational to assume that you cannot oppose holiday dwellings without also opposing the closure of rural schools? If you are in favour of Cymraeg communities, surely you are also in favour of Cymraeg-medium village schools? In fact isn’t closing a school certain to change the nature of a village to that of a commuter village – people travelling from there first thing in the morning to be schooled/to work, only to return at night? A place merely in which to sleep. A place where neighbours are strangers. Where children do not play together. That is only a hair’s breadth away from allowing any and every village to become a holiday dwelling village. Shutting a village school is not a sure way of attracting young people to live there either. And the future lies with the young.
Strange therefore to see Plaid Cymru, having been cosily nodding off by the fire for decades, deciding to wake up suddenly to deride the holiday dwelling market. It is hard to comprehend the irrationality of rejecting the holiday dwelling market on the one hand (a market that the party has apparently been able conveniently to ignore for many decades) and rejecting rural schools on the other. Rather than seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to do a proper U-turn, and to celebrate the value of small units by declaring unreserved support for Cymraeg schools of every shape and size, what the Plaid Cymru administration in Gwynedd did, it seems, was join forces with the education minister in the Labour government in order to hasten the closure of Ysgol Abersoch.
Hasn’t our national party in fact been blatantly inconsistent throughout the difficult winter months by loudly proclaiming on the one hand that enough is enough where holiday dwellings are concerned, and laying the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of the Labour party, whilst at the same time being chummy to say the least with that party in their endeavours to hurry along the closure of rural schools closed for business because of Covid-19?
Plaid Cymru-run Carmarthenshire Council announced a series of commendable last minute measures in an attempt to get to grips with the holiday dwelling problem, yet with the same kind of zeal as Gwynedd County Council went about announcing a consultation on the closure of Ysgol Mynydd y Garreg, also shut during the lockdown, the village from which the legendary Ray Gravell hailed and in which he lived, having campaigned to keep the village school open a decade and a half ago.
The relentless attacks on Cymraeg communities from every direction are cumulative yet deadly in their effect. The blows rendered by those who are perceived to be friends of Cymraeg are very hard to comprehend yet alone digest. When someone feels under threat, the instinctive response is to lie low and hope the axe will fall on some other poor soul. That is what happened when Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Garnswllt, the other side of the mountain from Ysgol Felindre, was shut by Swansea Council. As parents and teachers of Ysgol Felindre we were acutely aware at the time that Garnswllt was operating as a dreadful kind of sacrifice to safeguard us from suffering the same fate. We were well and truly afraid that, if we were too vocal and were to draw too much attention to ourselves, we would be next. It still plagues my conscience. Of course, our worst fears were realised several years later and although the axe wasn’t actively applied during our children’s time at the school, it was only a matter of time before the nightmare was played out and Felindre was closed by the council.
A similar dynamic can be seen in Rhieni dros Addysg Gymraeg’s (Parents for Welsh Education) effectively conceding that both schools should shut – the sacrifice of a small school here allowing the Labour led County Council to create a few more places in a bigger school over there. What is in essence the shrivelling of our culture should serve as a warning to anyone who truly cares about the future of Cymraeg and serve as a red flag also to Plaid Cymru. After all it is easy to understand how sticking up for the language can be a bit of a pain for the Labour party in Wales’ unchangeable order of I’m-fine-as-I-am-thank-you-very-much. But Plaid Cymru? Aren’t they, by going about the closure of rural schools, denying themselves a future?
Perhaps it was a similar Owain-Glyndwr-under-siege feeling that led a certain faction in Gwynedd to distance themselves and otherise the community of Abersoch, a community still fighting for its breath, still doing its utmost best to voluntarily hold on to the fraying threads of its Cymreictod. Was there a reluctance to face up to the cruel truth, in the sense that Gwynedd Council passively allowed what is portrayed on social media as ‘Abersock’ be realised? Or was it the feeling of ‘we’ll be next’ that compelled them to collaborate with the Labour Party in the person of the Education Minister to rush ahead with the attempted closure of the school? I find it very hard to make sense of the fiendish desire to attempt to use the schools organisation code – a code that I believed in my misled innocence was formulated to protect the interests of small schools – in order to accomplish something that was completely at odds with the assumed spirit of that code in the first place.
There is something seriously wrong with us Cymry that we do not stand together to firmly oppose these attacks. And there is something greater wrong with Plaid Cymru since it wields the power in places like Gwynedd and Carmarthenshire that enables it to follow a different path.
Since we are faced with no other substantial electoral choice, language supporters – including myself – are reluctant to condemn Plaid Cymru since this is the party which is supposed to fulfill rhe role of protecting the language. But Plaid’s weak record in relation to Cymraeg often shows that we seemingly cannot depend on it to accomplish hardly anything in that respect.
I have written before about how each and every school has to fight its own corner and is therefore basically powerless. And so it is that the principle of ‘divide and rule’ persists in the context of rural schools. The authorities of course are fully aware of this, thus the relentless reaping continues. Yet there is an almost Pavlovian response amongst parents, teachers and supporters of small schools in that we are being conditioned, in the face of no other apparent choice, to partake in a sham of a consulation process which is rotten to its core. In so doing are we merely upholding the prevailing system and facilitating the reaping? Because the number of consultations which so far as I can see have resulted in keeping the doors of a school permanently open are very few and far between, however robust the evidence in favour and unanimous the support for it on the ground.
Nor is this peculiar to rural schools, as has been seen recently with the shameful decision to shut the Paddle Steamer in the Butetown area of Cardiff and build yet another block of flats instead of the social centre there, in direct opposition to the will of the local community.
Plaid Cymru, the Labour government, the Schools Organisation Code, consultations by local education authorities on the future of small schools: none of these are of course unique in their ambivalence towards the language. This ambivalence is reinforced by legislation which is intended to support the Welsh language. The journalist Richard Youle (in contrast to the numerous scythe bearers) before writing his report about Ysgol Felindre for the Evening Post, came to visit the school and village to meet us campaigners following the stupid idea to shut the school. During the campaign to keep the school doors open I remember his phone call when he put to me the question ‘Is the system broken?’ in the context of the Welsh Language Commissioner’s lack of power. Perhaps we need an Englishman to spell it out to us.
The present so-called consultation process is not fit for purpose and despite being compelled to participate in it, all we are doing is ensuring the continuation of the current flawed system. I have previously written about the need for an individual/institution with the sole purpose of ensuring justice for small schools. Until that system is in place I believe a moratorium should be placed on the closure of Cymraeg schools.
In the meantime everyone who cares about the future of Cymraeg, including the most conscientious of our politicians, needs to call for strengthening education legislation to ensure that education authorities are subject to an obligation to consider and consult widely on the effect on Cymraeg within the communuty and on the quality of life of the members of that community, as well as the economic effects before being given the right to announce or to hold a consultation on the future of a school. That plea has thus far alas fallen on deaf ears.
If we have an ounce of self-respect, surely we deserve better than the present devastation. If we do not express our dissatisfaction, the devastation is certain to continue. And we will only have Abersocks left. We shall have no-one but ourselves to blame for that.