Reflecting on 1992 the Queen of England declared it had turned out to be an annus horribilis – a horrible year – for her. Almost a quarter of a century later, for many people in Ceredigion and around the world 2016 was something of a political horror story: the confusing and divisive Brexit referendum, the ongoing slaughter in Syria, the heart-breaking plight of refugees from the Middle East and beyond who were cast adrift on deadly seas or abandoned in desperate camps, the election of Donald Trump as President in the USA, a man the Obama Whitehouse deems morally repugnant for his various assaults on women, immigrants, disabled people, and so on. No matter how distant they may sometimes seem, all of these events and their ramifications will have an impact on our everyday lives in Ceredigion in 2017. The Herald asked our political representatives plus some of our civil society activists and community leaders about their hopes and fear for the year ahead: What are the big social, economic and environmental challenges facing Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Wales, the UK and the big wide world? And how can we pull together to meet them?
Simon Thomas AM
‘Climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. Each year, global temperatures and extreme weather events underline this trend. If we are serious about cutting Wales’ emissions by 80% by 2050 and reaching the cross-party agreed target of cutting emissions by 40% by 2020, we must act now. Westminster still has too much power over energy decisions. If the Wales Bill is passed this year, Wales will have consenting powers over energy projects up to 350 megawatts which would draw an arbitrary line separating projects depending on their scale. Furthermore, both financial incentives over renewable energy and the future of the electricity and gas grids are decided in London. This is an unacceptable constraint on Wales by UK Government policy decisions. However, there is a big step which the Welsh Government can take to increase energy generation from renewables. That is to set up a national energy company, Ynni Cymru, which will run as a not-for-dividend company at arms-length from Welsh Government, investing profits in improved services and prices.
‘The decision to leave the EU means we should be accelerating the pace towards energy self-sufficiency. We believe that we can produce as much electricity as is consumed in Wales from renewables by 2035. Ynni Cymru would have a crucial role in fulfilling this aim and also in contributing to the Welsh Government’s climate change targets. For agriculture and the environment, exiting the European Union means we have to develop our own policies. The threat is that the Westminster government will claw back powers when they return from Europe.’
‘There is now a trend in Western democracies of anti-establishment rhetoric being utilised by the wealthy and powerful as a route to power. Many people have been genuinely left behind or alienated by politics and economic policies. In both the United States and Wales, some of the areas which voted most strongly for Trump or for Brexit are those which lack opportunities. Plaid Cymru will not write those people off and we will continue to reach out to those people who are now attracted to right-wing populist parties because, on issues like inequality of wealth, there is a clear case to answer.’
Mark Williams MP
‘There is little doubt that Parliament and Westminster will be dominated by the ongoing issue of Brexit and the triggering of Article 50 in 2017. Even though this will likely be the main preoccupation of MPs and Government, it’s important that we don’t begin to think it is solely an issue for those in the political bubble. It is vital that the Government hears our voice and assures us that our communities will not be ignored as they push towards Brexit. Brexit is going to have an impact on almost every industry and sector in our country and on our communities. Two issues that should be of concern for many people in Ceredigion are the impact that Brexit has on agriculture and on our Higher Education sector.
‘For those who live in many of Ceredigion’s small and close-knit communities, agriculture could see big changes over the next year as we get closer to understanding what kind of Brexit the Government wants, and inevitably could see a huge change in Wales’ rural landscape. Those in the farming community have received little in the way of assurance over long-term funding. We need clarity on what schemes that farmers currently benefit from will continue to be available to them in the long-term, as well as assurance that we will continue to have full access to the EU single market, which is so important to our agriculture sector. If the Government fails to recognise the importance of funding to our farms, or the freedom to trade, there are real worries that many family farms in Ceredigion, and our communities that rely on them, will simply not survive.
‘Our County also benefits substantially from having two highly regarded universities – Aberystwyth and the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. Yet there are growing concerns that our Higher Education sector could suffer if the Government fails to get a deal which allows our universities to continue to be some of the most open and diverse institutions in the world. It is this openness and diversity that has allowed our universities to undertake some of the best research in the world, to develop innovative new technology and thinking, and to attract more and more students from around the world who wish to benefit from our world-class university sector. If the Government chooses to make it more difficult for our universities to continue to be so open and so diverse, it could have a huge impact on the finances of the entire sector, and massive consequences for those areas, such as university towns like Aberystwyth, that rely on the sector’s success.’
Tony Geraghty and Claudine Young
Like Mark Williams, Tony Geraghty, a prospective Labour Party Candidate in May’s County Council elections in Ceredigion, is concerned with the threat to farmers in Wales. He also told the Herald: ‘Opportunities for our young people to prosper and remain in Wales are few – we have a long history of exporting them, to make their lives elsewhere, and there is little evidence of a coherent strategy to reverse this trend. The lack of affordable housing in Ceredigion, coupled with stagnant wages and a culture of low pay that exists throughout Wales, makes it a struggle to afford rent, let alone a foothold on the property ladder. Changes to in-work benefits will naturally hit low-income families the hardest, and we are already witnessing large rises in child poverty. The need for food banks will become a common feature in many of their lives.’
Another prospective Labour Party candidate for the Council, Claudine Young picked up on a particular aspect of the threat to higher education: ‘Further, racism and racist attacks increased after the EU referendum result and prospective overseas students commented that they would not be studying in British universities because they did not feel welcome in Britain. This will impact upon the economy throughout Britain, including Wales. Two towns in Ceredigion will feel the effects of this, Aberystwyth and Lampeter. Aberystwyth is proud of its diverse cosmopolitan population and it is crucial that we hold onto this despite the increase in fear of the ‘other’ and hostility within our communities and the worrying rise of UKIP and negative nationalism which feeds on racist ideology. Perhaps the best thing the universities in Ceredigion can do in 2017 onwards is maintain lower fees and develop more diverse degree schemes to attract more students to study in our county.’
Neil Hamilton AM
‘Few of us will be able to recall a year as momentous as 2016 for Wales and the UK. In May, UKIP gained its first seats in the National Assembly, providing a fresh perspective for Welsh politics. Indeed, much has changed internationally to shake the established political class to its core. I believe such political upheavals bring great opportunities for Wales as we take increasing control of our own affairs. With Brexit, and the redefining of powers in the Wales Bill, 2017 heralds an era of greater government accountability. I will continue to provide a voice for my constituents in Ceredigion, by opposing the expansion of the National Assembly, advocating greater autonomy for farmers on issues such as Nitrates and Bovine TB and safeguarding jobs in all sectors, notably education and farming. As Britain embarks on a forward looking and ambitious period of history, I am confident the future for Wales, whilst challenging, is filled with promise and opportunity.’
Town and County Councillor Alun Williams told the Herald how Brexit might impact Ceredigion: ‘It’s going to be another tough year for all councils with the latest funding settlement showing that even more savings will be needed whoever is in charge after the elections in May. In recent years the Ceredigion economy has been benefitting by an average of around £57 million a year from our EU membership. £44 million of this is CAP payments to farmers and the rest is structural funds and higher education grants. The figures equate to about £768 per person in the county per year. Ceredigion is unusual in that our economy is heavily dependent on a combination of agriculture and higher education, two sectors that receive a lot of money from Europe, plus we receive structural funds due to our status within the EU as a ‘less developed region’. This combination makes us particularly vulnerable if our present EU funding is not directly replaced to the same level if Brexit happens.
‘On the positive side, in the last year Ceredigion has been recognised by the Welsh Government as being the top recyclers in Wales and for providing the best education service as well as having the cleanest streets. We’ve also invested in renewable energy on council buildings, saving both money and carbon. I’m optimistic that Ceredigion can continue getting these things right despite the financial challenges. On the wider front, the people of the Aberystwyth area, in particular, responded magnificently to events in the rest of the world last year with a strong vote to remain in Europe and excellent support for refugees.’
Kim Bryan and Lindsay Cardwell
Ceredigion, mid and West wales has indeed responded to the refugee crisis in a variety of ways. Echoing the sentiment of the Bridges Not Walls campaign, which was set up to counter intolerance and hate-crime, Kim Bryan of Mid Wales Refugee Action told the Herald that the group ‘hopes that 2017 is a year we build bridges, not walls. That the UK and the EU open their borders to allow refugees, fleeing persecution and conflict, the possibility of seeking asylum. There are currently tens of thousands of refugees trapped at borders, in makeshift camps living in sub-zero temperatures across Europe. We also hope that the UK and EU will review the relationship between immigration and integration policies to make the processes of settling into our multicultural society smooth and harmonious for all. In the meantime, as a grassroots organisation, we will continue to work with others to raise awareness about the plight of refugees, organise and ship donations, volunteer to work in refugee camps and fundraise to support organisations working in camps.’
Lindsey Cardwell of Aberaid told us: ‘With so much wonderful support from the people of Ceredigion in 2016, Aberaid are very much hoping to continue where we left off. We hope 2017 will see the Community Sponsorship Programme - where the local community fundraise to bring a family of Syrian refugees to Ceredigion - continue to flourish, and ideally be able to bring more than one family to make their home in our beautiful county. The refugees who are already living in Aberystwyth have been so touched by how welcome they were made to feel - as we saw when a group of them went out onto the prom to hand out flowers with a message of thanks to local people. The support mechanisms put in place for them have been largely successful. However, as with all new programmes, there have been teething difficulties in some aspects and it would be great to see more collaboration across sectors to enable more and different support mechanisms for the refugees already here. We will continue to encourage the Council to accept more than ten refugees a year.
‘As a group we are also keen to continue efforts to fundraise for refugees who are either displaced within Syria or in refugee camps. Local people have shown so much compassion and heart, but the challenge will be keeping that momentum going - keeping the refugee crisis at the forefront of people's minds. At a time when so many are struggling themselves, it has been inspiring to see people's generosity - not only financially, but also in bringing much needed items for collections, donating to table-top sales, giving their time and showing solidarity in attending events. We are hoping the people of Ceredigion will continue to support us in 2017 as they have done in the past - if we come together as a community we really can make a difference!’
Elin Jones, AM
‘2016 was a turbulent year, both domestically and globally. I hope that 2017 will prove to be a more peaceful and tolerant year, and that we see a permanent end to the war within Syria and that people fleeing that war can gain some hope that they will be able to return to a peaceful country. In Ceredigion, our businesses and institutions are desperate for some detail on EU exit and I hope that important NHS building projects in Cardigan and Tregaron will commence construction this year.’
Eluned Morgan AM
‘I see 2017 as the start of real possibilities for Wales. One thing which is absolutely clear is that people voted to have more control over their future. Our work now, as politicians is to help lead the way as to what that future might be. For example, on economic development, it’s clear as I go round the region that what works as an economic model nearer the bigger cities, is not necessarily the right model for more rural communities. I’ve been discussing with those I meet – members of our communities, local businesses, Councillors - what a bespoke model for our region might look like. Brexit will impact on every man, woman and child in Wales from job opportunities to the price of food in our shops. As politicians we must make sure the UK Government explains how they are going to make up the difference to those who lose out as a result of Brexit, and explain how the Welsh Government’s views will be taken into account during the negotiations. We must also lead the way in ensuring our nation takes full advantage of the opportunities which lie ahead. There’s a lot of talent in Wales. Aberystwyth, with its leading university, is ideally placed to come up with innovative solutions for our country’s future. The appointment of the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Elizabeth Treasure, who hopefully can help to drive economic development in the area in addition to driving academic excellence, is great news.’
Joining the dots
Facing up to 2017, Herald readers can take some encouragement from our movers and shakers, most of whom seem to be keeping their eye on the political football despite the distraction of a baying crowd. In passing (sic), talking of football, a number of the contributors to this article did of course mention the feel-good factor still emanating from the Wales team’s inspiring success at the Euros. At different government levels, our representatives remain alert to the fact that the existential threat of climate change and the longer term environmental agenda must not be ignored in any insular Brexit furore: Wales still needs to make the change to renewable energy sufficiency.
The challenge for politics of encouraging political participation is also clear: Politics at all levels needs to work to counter intolerance and hatred, to re-enchant the disaffected and engage everyone in constructive conversations about building a better future together. It would be all too easy for some of us to slip into depression given the events of last year, but we must counter the horrible by creating and exploiting new opportunities. And that means healing the division of Brexit, learning to disagree and move on. The specific challenges to a couple of key sectors of our community and economy, farming and higher education, are apparent and not to be underestimated. As our contributors noted, the Westminster government must make it clear sooner rather than later how our farmers’ futures are to be secured. To ensure the future of our universities, moreover, we must keep the pressure on the UK government not to restrict the access of international students.
This imperative extends to how we are going to deal with the movement of people generally, and in particular how we will extend a helping hand to refugees both at home and abroad. How we continue to respond to the refugee crisis may define how we are thought of by future generations as well as how we meet each other’s eyes in the here and now. On top of all the grand and new challenges, Tony Geraghty is right to resound the perennial call to combat rural poverty and to provide opportunities and homes for young people in Ceredigion. So, let’s politically embrace the new year by engaging fully the issues. Let’s engage with council elections in May and turn out in record numbers to vote. Because the fight to create a new international politics for challenging times, a politics that truly counters political elites and an out of touch establishment, begins with the local.