Sunday 30 August 2015

The five Year Rule - build and never be damned ??

In these difficult times, the "5 year rule" which all levels of government tend to adhere to becomes especially important. This is the rule that decrees that as most electoral cycles are around 5 years, if you think can get away with something for  at least 5 years, it will not seriously affect your reputation or political prospects of re-election. It gives time for civil servants and others involved in a dodgy plan or decision  to cover their tracks or retire gracefully out of reach of any embarrassing fall out.

Following on my last post, this gives the great sell off strategy of my local authority magnificent impetus as those involved may well feel that the repercussions will never catch up with them.

For instance, large plots of land around our out of town retail parks are now planned to be sold off  for whatever money we can get .No strategic environmental or economic plans relating to the area have been released. Expressions of interest have been requested, how widely and with what information I don't know.The local town traders in Llanelli are concerned that more out of town retail will affect their already precarious business trading. Perhaps the Plaid leadership of the  Council will listen to that argument and think instead of housing or a business park, not any more sensible as  the housing market slows and falls and existing local business parks are not fully used.

All of the council's senior officers and all of the Councillors know that Llanelli is in great part a low lying town with horrendous sewage and drainage problems. The town escapes twice daily flooding from the sea by the automatic closure of tide locks, mechanical flap valves which cover the mouths of all rivers and streams flowing into the sea. They also know that we have a sewage system which overflows and dumps untreated sewage into the sea hundreds of times a year. This is due to massive volumes of rainwater which fall on the town, 3 times that of nearby Swansea. Followers of earlier 5 year rules  allowed much of the ground water drainage to run directly into the sewage system knowing they would never be fingered for it. Huge tracks of land were drained and reclaimed from the sea with no idea of the environmental changes to come in the future.

Welsh Water/Dwr Cymru, our local water company, continually try to improve the situation only to find that the Council Planning Committee, devotees of short termism, ignore their efforts and give planning permission for more and more homes to overwhelm any improvements to the sewage system. By the time the sewage floods your garden or gives you hepatitis as you swim in the sea, the culprits will be long gone. All of this land proposed for sale around Parc Trostre is probably needed just to soak up groundwater. WWDC ask our planners to stop urban creep, stop concreting off areas around the town and repeatedly state that their planned improvements are not to facilitate new development.

The planning committee, however, realise that by the time permission is given, stuff is built and the consequences obvious, they will have escaped blame, as our current council leader, Emlyn Dole once said to me as I begged him and the Plaid planning committee members to not allow building in my ward on a flood plain which the hydrology report showed would worsen flooding to surrounding existing homes, "I am insulted, Sian, that you suggest that I am in any way liable". And he was visibly angry that I suggested such a thing.

The members of the planning committee also know that there is an issue called global warming and that the local sea level is likely to rise by at least a metre and probably more in next 50 years. Under the 5 year rule, new builds can be put on islands of raised land and by the time the surrounding areas are flooded the decision makers will have moved on.

The existing retail parks were built without regard to all these problems, the neighboring areas have flooding , sewage even back flows up shop toilets [especially the ladies in Tesco's - that's why its sometimes closed, sisters, and we are asked to use the disabled loo].

You see now that the Plaid/Independent Executive Members can sell off this land with a "clear" conscience, No-one, perhaps, will have mentioned the flooding and drainage problems in the area. The environmental impact assessments and hydrology reports will not likely be done before sale. The developers will produce them for the planning department, perhaps  months later. By then its too late, the land has been sold as development land and all the planning officers can do is ask the new owners to mitigate the damage that they possibly had no idea about. Well over 5 years before any "come back" on the elected politicians, and that retribution also depends on someone being able to front up the money to actually sue the planning committee, not likely in impoverished Llanelli..

So we are left with the only real sanction, the political fall out when the electorate realise what their representatives have done. but will the voters still be there to vote for them.? The scenario in southern Llanelli and Burry Port is that the sea will rise, the tide locks will continue to do their work until one or even both of the following scenarios changes the planning outlook:

A. Sudden Catastrophe.

In 1896 a hurricane produced a 3 metre tidal surge which, hit Llanelli , like a Tsunami, washed away the railway embankment and breached the flood defenses at Machynys and Pwll., flooding the ground floor of over 500 houses to a depth of 5 feet. There are over 4 times the number of homes in this area now, and other buildings too, many of them new builds of recent decades, some even bungalows for the elderly. The town was flooded up  to the steps of the Thomas Arms in 1896, a huge area including the whole town centre.

The incident occurred in daylight but before people had set out for work and most people were able to get up to their upper floors and wait for boats to rescue them.  When I first brought up this incident as an argument for not building on the reclaimed land of south Llanelli I  was told that it had a one in a thousand year probability and could be ignored as highly unlikely, more recently I've been told its more likely to be one in 100 years. The planing committee  clearly believe that it won't be in the next 5 years.

B. Planned retreat.

Currently the coastal plan for low lying areas of Llanelli and Burry Port is "Hold the Line" i.e. keep the flood defenses and tide locks as is. However, all the environmental experts agree that at some point the rivers will be "locked" in for too long and start to back flood frequently. This will create the need to re-engineer the defenses and actively pump out each of the rivers and streams over the sea walls to prevent flooding, expensive and requiring frequent checks and maintenance.

 The consensus is that this will not be "economic" and most or all of the areas currently protected by tide locks will eventually be abandoned. Ironically, every bit of urban creep or new development reduces natural water storage in this area speeds up the process and brings closer the day when the retreat will be forced on Llanelli. Again, covered by the 5 year rule and the belief that no one will bother to sue the Councillors who made the decisions. Even if they do the Council will  use public money to defend their actions  so they feel protected. Maybe they think the area is "doomed" anyway and accelerating matters is neither here nor there as it will take more than 5 years to deteriorate enough for action to be considered.

My question is this. Even if the Councillors on the planning committee who make these decisions are confident that they are untouchable as regards personal consequences, are they really content to risk the premature sacrifice of the comfort and safety of thousands of local people by recklessly approving development in these areas?

 Siân Caiach,


  1. "This is due to massive volumes of rainwater which fall on the town, 3 times that of nearby Swansea." Not quite, according to Met Office data they both get about a meter of rain per annum - some weather stations give Llanelli slightly less - the "rain shadow" effect thanks to The Gower.

    Your predicted sea level rise figures don't seem to correlate with the IPCC predictions for the end of the century either (the met Office have broken it down further for us). For Cardiff (the closest city for which a prediction is given), the "strongest" confidence prediction is about 45 cm - half that of your quoted stat. So "The members of the planning committee also know that there is an issue called global warming and that the local sea level is likely to rise by at least a metre and probably more in next 50 years", well if they do "know" that, they "know" more than the IPCC and the Met Office.

    1. Thanks Geoff,
      The 3 times figures are those quoted by Welsh Water Dwr Cymru and i'll ask them where they come from.? Predictions of sea level rise are just that but the consensus is that it will rise.
      When the land making up much of South Llanelli was reclaimed from the sea there was no consideration of a possible future rise in sea level.
      My honest opinion of my colleagues on the planning committee is that they should take all these matters you mention into consideration but they don't.
      A few years back they approved a development of 3 homes on a C2 flood plain as they were assured, by the officers report recommending approval, that an adequate escape route for residents would be included in the planning conditions.
      Nowadays huge piles of earth are being laid down by large commercial builders .to raise the new builds in this area "out of" flood plains irrespective of the likely displacement of any flood water into surrounding areas, many of which are residential.
      . I feel these approvals are insane and dangerous, Unfortunately our 3 major party groups have long held the view that building homes is the only way of growing our economy. Ask how building homes grows our economy and the explanation is that housing produces jobs. When we apply for grant hand outs we claim to be one of the poorest, depressed areas of Wales. In supporting planning applications for large housing developments we are a vibrant growing economy which needs new houses for our growing workforce.I suspect the former is view is closer to reality but the Council leadership has no plan B as regards economic development..
      When i was first elected a County Councillor in 2008, the year the IPCC directive came in , a senior Councillor greeted me with the words "welcome to the madhouse ".I thought he was joking.

  2. I think the sentence "This is due to massive volumes of rainwater which fall on the town, 3 times that of nearby Swansea.", is a slight mis-quote from a Welsh Water presentation of a couple of years ago. (I think I may have seen that on a CCC webcast?).

    I believe they said that 3 times the amount of rainwater enters the sewage system in Llanelli compared to Swansea, and that is the reason for the much higher level of sewerage spills in Llanelli, despite the lower population.

    Regardless of the predicted rise sea level rises, I think Cllr. Caiach is correct in suggesting that the planning committee is ignoring that fact that any rises are coming.

    Based on the NRW flood maps, the Llanelli coastline is lower lying and less protected than Cardiff, so rises will have a greater impact here.

  3. Thanks both. The quote from Dwr Cymru re the pressure on the sewerage system in Llanelli makes sense now. If the predicted sea level rise does occur, what should we be doing now then? How do we provide resilience and future sustainability to communities like Burry Port if further development at sites like the Grillo works are non-starters? My own view is that Carmarthenshire should be looking further afield (and in some cases not that far!).
    Pembrokeshire have recognised that the future of Saundersfoot lies in seriously developing the Tourist infrastructure - a massive investment in the harbour (one that actually works!) as a county they consistently receive significantly more investment from the Welsh Government in essential tourist infrastructure. For example, a Freedom of Information request from the Carmarthenshire Cycle Forum relating to cycling facilities on trunk roads found that we have had about £60k in the last 8 years whilst Pembrokeshire have had about £1.8 MILLION - Carmarthenshire Cycle Forum are currently trying to get a sensible explanation for this from Edwina Hart's office!
    Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire CC don't even update tourist information displays in hotels, pubs, and so on.
    I firmly believe that low lying land can and should be developed but we need to look at low impact tourist infrastructure - pubs, cafe's and small retail (think "marina") which can be protected easier than a housing estate and have more soak away land.


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