Abergavenny Market and now Education: Monmouthshire Council’s failings are endemic

All legal avenues, to stop Monmouthshire County Council closing Abergavenny Livestock Market and selling the site to Morrisons, have now closed.  With great sadness, the KALM group has withdrawn its appeals.   This is terribly sad news for the town. The Council’s plan will have disastrous effects on the town, its local businesses and the surrounding communities. The thousands of people and local groups who oppose it remain utterly at a loss as to how the Council can justify it.

Meanwhile, the Welsh education inspectorate, ESTYN, has just reported on Monmouthshire’s education performance. They have judged it ‘unsatisfactory’ and Monmouthshire is facing ‘special measures’.  What is clear from the Inspectors’ report is that Monmouthshire County Council suffers from deep-rooted and systemic failings in leadership, scrutiny and accountability.  The exact same patterns of poor performance as we’ve seen in the market saga are endemic across the whole of the Council leadership.  

And whilst the Welsh Government has acted swiftly to deal with education failings, we remain at a loss as to why it has declined to be ‘more curious’ (to use the phrase popularised by Leveson, the Savile Inquiry and others) about what’s gone behind the Abergavenny Market story.  Is it too late to hope that the latest scandal about ‘horsemeatgate’ has prompted a new realisation that sustainable food needs sustainable farming systems – and effective, transparent, rigorous democratic systems…?

As well as all that we’ve highlighted in our previous blogs, here’s another instance of the differences between what goes on inside the Council and what Cllrs Greenland and Fox say in public.

Minutes of the Monmouthshire County Council meeting of 28th January discussed the livestock market. 

1.  Almost none of the quotations which appeared in the Abergavenny Chronicle of 31st January appear in these Minutes. In particular, the Chronicle’s quote from Greenland saying, “Without granting the auctioneers the long-term lease for the replacement site we couldn’t have acquired the current site for redevelopment” doesn’t appear in the Minutes.   Do the Chronicle reporters attend meetings or do they rely on press releases or quotes supplied by the Council?  So much for investigative reporting in Abergavenny. 

2.  The substantive motion that was approved by Council (page 4 of the Minutes) clearly specifies  “only the funding of a livestock market, fit for purpose and compliant with current standards. Any additional facilities that are deemed to be useful should be provided from sources other than Monmouthshire County Council, or at a rate to provide a commercial return to the Council.”   This is NOT the ‘state-of-the-art’ livestock market promised to the farmers.  It is what could easily be provided on the present site by modernising it, and for less than the £5.5m now being quoted.  What they are now promising is simply a tarted up version of what we already have, but moved 8 miles down the road to a greenfield site. 

3.  The substantive motion (p. 4) reneges on the ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the farming unions, which emerged during the CPO Inquiry in Jan 2012.   That MoU promised to guarantee a market in the county for at least 50 years whether it was economically viable or not. This motion says, “Neither should the Council provide “open ended” support to run the market for the next 50 years, if it becomes apparent that the facility is no longer required by the farming industry.”  We have always said the the MoU wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, but we didn’t expect to see the ‘about-face’ come so soon.  Farmers unions and the auctioneers should reflect long and hard on what they’ve squandered in exchange for this weak commitment…

4.  One of the bullet points – top of page 4 – says, 

“Funding for the new market would not come from Council funds but from the sale of the current site.”  This contradicts statements given to the CPO Inquiry that the £5M needed to build the market had been found from existing resources and was NOT dependent upon the sale to Morrisons.

5.  A subsequent bullet point on page 4 says, 

“In response to a question as to whether it would have been possible for the Council not to deal with Abergavenny auctioneers it was stated the AMAL had wanted the contract to run the new market.”  What an utterly inadequate explanation of why ANMAL were awarded the contract to run Bryngwyn. What about competitive tendering?  The fact that ANMAL wanted the contract is surely not sufficient reason as to why they were awarded it.

This whole saga has been characterised by secretive deals, and information withheld from voters at points when they could exercise their democratic choices.  And also, it seems now, not disclosed to Councillors either, so they could exercise proper scrutiny.  That Councillors have not done their own due diligence and asked better questions themselves is unfortunate.  What IS clear is that the people leading this project, and who are responsible for properly briefing Council, have been, at best, economical with the evidence, in disclosing information to Councillors so that proper debate and scrutiny could be exercised.  

The Council’s unwillingness to engage with its citizens who ask difficult questions is beautifully illustrated by this exchange between Phil Bowyer, who lives opposite the Market in Abergavenny, and Cllr Peter Fox, Council Leader.  Peter sent a leaflet to farmers asking for their support (the response to which is highlighted in an earlier blog – in short, he didn’t get it).  It took Phil 9 months and repeated prompts to get a reply to his letter. And when it eventually comes, it simply declines to answer any of the questions.  

15th December 2011

 Dear Councillor Fox,

I was very pleased to be given a copy of your leaflet.  

After hearing on numerous occasions from supporters of the Bryngwyn project that the ‘silent majority’ is in favour, it was very pleasing to see you, as leader of MCC, actually asking people what they think.

Good initiative.  Congratulations.

As you write, a livestock market as a permanent feature of our fantastic county …is non-negotiable.  I could not agree with you more. Although I have different views about where it should be sited I agree with  you that it is important to have a well informed debate about this.

So without going into too much detail about the content  I would like to point out that there are a number of misleading statements

‘The current one is past its sell by date.’  It might have been helpful to point out that the MCC as the landlord of the current site has failed to carry out its responsibilities to ensure that the site is maintained and kept up to date.

‘The Council does not have the money to upgrade the current site.’  It might  have been appropriate to point out (as you did to me in a previous correspondence) that you have never ‘considered ‘ this option.

Its a bit difficult to say the MCC does not have the money if it does not know what the price is and has never looked at means for financing the costs of upgrading the site.

‘Unloading/loading stock is a nightmare at the  moment.’   It might have been appropriate to point out that the MCC has fenced off about a third of the available space including another entrance/ exit to the site.  Like the lack of maintenance this  looks like a self inflicted wound.  Opening up the whole site and with a little traffic management the situation could be improved beyond recognition, I am sure you would agree.

‘Animal welfare and hygiene standards are not to the standards that we all want.’  It is a nice appeal to the animal lobby and difficult to argue against.  We all want ensure that animals are treated properly.

Except of course that the situation is a result of MCC self imposed neglect and a proper upgrading of the site would solve the problem. 

I was also wondering to whom the message was sent.  I acquired it by accident but I assume (from the text of the message itself) it was targeted at a particular group of farmers. I am not sure  which farmers.  Was it those around Portskewett or those around Abergavenny who rely on the market – or all the farmers in Monmouthshire who use the market? And what about people like me who live next to the Abergavenny market or those who live close to the Bryngwyn site?  Was it your intention to consult us?

I am afraid  that after taking such a good initiative it might be spoiled by being rather restricted in terms of the people consulted. 

You write at the end of the message ‘I need your support.’   Does that mean that this is a personal message?  As a personal appeal,  it is hardly appropriate that the MCC should be shown as having the copyright, is it? 

Just one final observation.  Towards the end of the message you wrote:

‘We all want to make sure that making this huge financial investment has your support.’  I take it that it is a Royal ‘we’, but more importantly if people are asked to support this ‘huge financial investment’ would it not be appropriate to tell people how much the investment is?

In that spirit I would ask you again: 

1. How much has the MCC spent so far on the Bryngwyn project including the price of the land, architects, lawyers and other specialists fees?

2. How much more does it intend to invest in the Bryngwyn site overall?

3. Where can I find  the business plan for the Bryngwyn market?  Given the huge investment involved it might be easier for people to support it if they can see how much the market will make in revenue in the future, how maintenance will be ensured and paid for in order to avoid the neglect such as has occurred in Abergavenny.

4. How much did the leaflet ‘Your market etc..’ cost to produce and distribute and who is paying for it?

5. And finally when will you be publishing the results of this consultation?  I think  it could be interesting for everybody concerned.

Once again congratulations on a good initiative and sorry about the questions. I am sure you will agree it is best to clarify these issues so that people will know exactly what they are being asked to support.

When you publish the results of your enquiry, in case it was not clear, you should count me as one preferring to modernise the Abergavenny market and against the Bryngwyn project.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Philip Bowyer, Kings St, Abergavenny

 

14th September 2012

 Hello Mr Bowyer

 Sorry for the delay but thanks for your polite prompt.

Whilst it is correct that there is no legal impediment stopping us from making progress with our plans for the new market near Raglan the fact is that KALM are still pursuing  legal actions against the council and I note your own quotes in the Chronicle this week and as such my position is as it was in my email of the 3rd February this year where I am unable to furnish you with the information you are asking for. I do look forward to being able to have a deeper conversation in due course.

Regards

Peter

Leader, Monmouthshire County Council

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Sustainable food systems need sustainable farming systems

As the current furore over ‘horsemeatgate’ shows, our current food system is both complicated and secretive.

Sadly I’m neither shocked nor surprised that unexpected things appear in a cheap ready made lasagne.

For those of us who take an interest, the unpalatable truth about what makes up the cheap food market has been there to see for decades.  In fact, you have to work pretty hard to miss it – from Jamie Oliver’s expose of the cheap chicken industry, to Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Fish Campaign.

It’s a global issue.  For example, the EU has banned the use of sow stalls in which farrowing sows are kept in tiny, bare pens where they can’t even turn round, let alone behave normally. Stalls are horrible things:  I keep pigs: they root, they snuffle, they’re social and they make nests to sleep in.  The ban was announced in 2001 and gave producers 10 years to comply.  Fourteen EU countries still use sow stalls.  The cheap pork on supermarket shelves often comes from animals that have been raised in cruel and illegal conditions, whilst UK pig farmers go out of business because they can’t cover the costs of producing meat in better welfare conditions.

And ‘mega dairies’ are not just fantasy story lines from The Archers.  Established in the US, several applications for mega-dairies are under discussion in the UK. CiWF investigated conditions in such dairy farms in Europe and reported thus:

“Our investigation found the animals were often kept in cramped and squalid conditions. Many cows were tethered inside all year round. Many more were suffering from painful lameness, sores and wounds on their legs, overgrown hooves and docked tails.  Often they are kept in barren, overcrowded, unhygienic conditions with no straw or other bedding.”

And in order to grow all the cereals that are needed to feed these factory-farmed animals, secretive, global, megacorps buy up agricultural land in developing countries, displacing indigenous communities, planting GM monoculture crops, which completely destroy ancient eco-systems.

Back home in Wales, the price of home-produced lamb has fallen through the floor, thanks, in part, to the big buyers abandoning the Welsh market and looking to Eastern Europe for sources of cheap lamb.  Pig farmers have been the victims of this for years.  Unwanted, unpassported ponies are going through the horse markets and being bought up by the knackermen for £50.  Meanwhile, in our poorest communities, people with the least voice and choice end up with the poorest quality food, contributing to poorer health and limiting their life chances.  (Here’s the Welsh Food and Farming Minister, telling an ‘amusing anecdote’ about ‘Pek’, the modern day Spam: anyone would think he had no say in the matter…)

So we have a food and farming system in which family farmers go out of business, consumers are eating goodness knows what in their so-called cheap meat, local food shops go out of business – and supermarkets and the agri-biz multinationals continue to make massive profits.

What has this got to with Abergavenny….?  Regular readers will know that our Council is closing the in-town livestock market and is selling the site to Morrison’s.  This will have a massive impact on the town (though the Council doesn’t know what this will be, since they’ve done no proper impact assessment).  The Council argues that the town is no place for a livestock market and people need more cheap food from a Morrison’s (since the town already has five supermarkets, including Tesco, Farmfresh, Iceland and Aldi).

The fact is that all the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction.  We need transparent, open food and farming systems.  People need to understand more about where their food comes from – what a well produced lamb or steer looks like – and what it costs to produce.  We need to recalibrate our relationship with food – shopping thoughtfully,  cooking creatively and eating joyfully.  We need to ask some serious questions about who is really paying the price for cheap food – and who is still making the profits… With a vibrant, distinctive Livestock Market at the heart of the last authentic market town in South Wales, Abergavenny could lead the way in the UK, showcasing the best in food and farming,   But it won’t, if the Council has its way: it will become another supermarket clone town, with its heritage and distinctiveness lost forever.

What this latest food crisis reveals is that we are literally killing ourselves and our communities through our inability to think in ‘wholes’.  When we disaggregate complex, interconnected systems, making ill-judged changes in a part of it, unintended consequences occur.  Furthermore, the damage isn’t evenly shared… These so-called ‘cheap food’ supply chains, far from ‘helping’ the poor, damage the poorest communities most of all – in Wales, through poor quality, additive-rich, ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ products in the supermarkets, and, in the developing world, through the large-scale loss of land and livelihoods in rural farming societies.

Wales has a commitment to sustainable development. The Welsh Government’s aspirations are laudable. But they mean nothing without substantial, meaningful actions.  As RAW, the new campaign organisation says:

“We need a food and farming revolution. RAW’s vision is a world where all have access to healthy, affordable food, produced from farming systems that are:

  • Safer, promoting our welfare and that of farm animals
  • Fairer, supporting rural livelihoods and relieving poverty
  • Greener, protecting the planet and its precious natural resources”

Until we develop and practice the capacity to see the connections between the choices we make, to see ‘systems’ in all their complexity and wholeness, we will continue to be faced with the unpalatable truths revealed by this latest food crisis.

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Abergavenny’s future? Morrisons ‘decimates High St’ – according to their CEO.

Many of those who are opposed to a large supermarket on Abergavenny’s livestock market fear that it would decimate the town centre.

In an astonishing admission, Morrisons boss, Dalton Philips, agrees with that view.

Dalton Philips told the Daily Mirror:  “The high street used to have the butcher and the baker, but the high street has been decimated and they are now in our stores, in our ‘Market Street’, and we need to do a better job at shouting about it.”

The Morrisons supermarket is the main plank in Councillor Greenland’s plan to regenerate Abergavenny town centre.  In the light of this admission by the Morrisons boss, can Councillors – and citizens – still have any confidence in Councillor Greenland’s regeneration plan?

Many groups in the town have been working together to develop a ‘Plan B’ for Abergavenny, which regenerates the market and builds on its unique and distinctive identity as “The Last Market Town in South Wales.  There is still time to call a halt to the Council’s short-sighted, destructive ‘Plan A’  – which will leave us with the decimation that the Morrisons boss and numerous local people are predicting.

If Mr. Philips’s supermarket absorbs ‘our butchers and our bakers’ and our greengrocers, our cafes, our newsagents and whatever else they end up selling as they strive to recover their profits  – as he clearly intends that it will – what excuse will Councillors offer to the people of Abergavenny who will lose their livelihood and see the end of the unique character of our town?

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Countryfile asks Council – “Can’t you be a bit more imaginative about Abergavenny…?”

Tom Heap’s piece in Countryfile (7th Oct) on the future of livestock markets came from Abergavenny and Hereford.   Here in Abergavenny we’re fighting to keep our market in town, as a vital part of the town’s identity and its economic future, as a beacon for food and farming. In Hereford, the city centre market is now closed – and the smart new market looks really good.

First, let’s be clear.  No-one wants Abergavenny market to carry on as it is. The current site is badly organised, with a third of the site partially closed off since the FMD outbreak in 2001 and it has not had any investment in its infrastructure for over a decade.  However, The Abergavenny Civic Society’s independent, expert report shows clearly how the market can be modernised to 21st Century standards, to provide an efficient service for farmers AND be a real engine for town regeneration.

The Council is currently investing a great deal in ‘innovation’ – indeed, it has spent a further £250,000 on enlarging its ‘innovation suite’ down in the their offices in Magor.  Campaigners in the town would really like some of this ‘innovative thinking’ to be applied to a real, live, critical issue – the sustainable future of a whole region of the county.

The Campaign which wants to keep the market in Abergavenny represents a real cross section of Abergavenny; from all sides of the political spectrum, including farmers and food producers, local businesses, architects and engineers, market traders, environmentalists, tourist bodies, academics, heritage groups, local people, school groups and visitors alike, This is an extraordinarily rich mix – and all want to be involved in planning for the town’s future.

Innovation does not come from private conversations in local government offices.  No, these sorts of conversations are much more likely (the evidence shows) to be inward looking, self-congratulatory and self-serving.  Innovation comes about when organisations really push themselves to work with different perspectives, on their boundaries and with those people whose views may be a bit more challenging.  And, most importantly, innovation which really sticks on the ground simply has to be deeply rooted in local context and conditions, adapted and refined by people who really understand all the components and interconnections in the ‘ecology’ of the place they want to change.

Local campaigners have done the work that the Council should have done. They’ve involved local people, tested opinion amongst farmers, business and town people; they’ve commissioned their own evidence-based reports and built on the innovative suggestions coming from people who know their stuff.

The Council, however, made its decision to sell the site many years ago, in private, behind closed doors and without consulting all those in the community who have a stake in this massive decision.  Their actions, we believe, are largely based on how much cash it can make through selling the site to Morrison’s.  And it has backfilled its evidence and justifications ever since.

Campaigners have taken their case to Judicial Review, being heard right now (3-8 October).  There is still time for the Council to put its grand rhetoric into practice, to take up the Countryfile challenge, to involve local people and to be a lot more imaginative and innovative in how it deals with the real, important issue of the future of Abergavenny and its market.

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Behind the Scenes at Abergavenny Food Festival

It’s been a lovely weekend at Abergavenny Food Festival – the thousands of visitors, traders, exhibitors and speakers are living, breathing illustrations of Abergavenny’s international status as a beacon for all things food and farming.   It is also incredibly encouraging to have such thoughtful and intelligent support from international and highly respected campaigners on market town regeneration and the future of food and farming.

KALM (the campaign to Keep Abergavenny Livestock Market) ran a pop up shop during the Festival.  They did a great job setting out the story of the campaign so far, how the sale of the cattle market site to a supermarket has been opposed by local farmers, town councillors, Abergavenny Civic Society, the Chamber of Commerce, market traders, local businesses, tourist bodies, Friends of the Earth, local people and visitors to the town.  But they were also looking forward, showcasing the other possibilities for regeneration, building on its authentic and distinctive character as a market town.

Visitors to the Festival queued to put their comments in the Supporters Book – including a cattle lorry driver, who said that there’s nothing wrong, in his opinion, with access to the site, that a little planning and organisation couldn’t address: and the local architect who sketched out several ideas there and then on how that part of the town could be redeveloped as both a market and a lively, attractive public space…

Especially welcome were comments from food and farming expert Joanna Blythman, who wrote: “Abergavenny must keep its livestock market. If Morrisons is allowed to open on the site, the slow death of Abergavenny will begin. Independent food outlets and producers will suffer. Selling off the cattle market to Morrisons amounts to selling off the family silver.  Abergavenny has a unique heritage and reputation for fine food that is the life blood of the town and attracts people from all over the UK. The council is thinking short-term. It must think long-term and protect this precious asset.  Otherwise, it is shooting itself in the foot and a slow deterioration of Abergavenny’s image will surely follow.”

Up at the ‘Rude Health Rants’ stage at The Castle, our ‘rant’ took the theme “Whose Voice Counts?”   Monmouthshire County Council has, as its strap line, “Your County, Your Way.”  Can you imagine how cynical and hollow that sounds if you live in or near Abergavenny?

So whose voice counts, then?   Not the 5000+ signatories from KALM’s campaign. Not The Abergavenny Civic Society, who ended up commissioning their own expert report to counter the spurious claims from the Council, that it was impossible to renovate and develop the market.  Not the 300 farmers who signed KALM’s petition, to keep the market in town, nor the 85 farmers, who (in one of the few gestures towards ‘consultation’) took the time to write to the Welsh Government Minister to oppose the repeal of the ancient Abergavenny Acts which protected the market (and this, in spite of Council Leader Peter Fox’s shocking letter to them pleading with them to “be a little bit selfish…” and write to support him. Only two did).  Not the 106 Abergavenny businesses (81% of those canvassed) who want to keep the market in town.  Not the tourism bodies, the market traders, the Food Festival, Friends of the Earth, local councillors, community councils, Brecon Beacon National Park, Chamber of Commerce…  the list goes on.  And clearly not the 200 people who packed out the ballroom at the Angel Hotel in a public meeting last week, in an extraordinary illustration of the passion, anger and frustration in the town – in spite of the Council spinning like mad that the argument is over and they’re pressing ahead regardless.

The two Judicial Reviews must have also slipped their mind. These will be heard in October, reviewing the way in which the Council has made its decisions and also the way in which the Minister for Local Government repealed the Abergavenny Acts (see previous blogs for the details.)

And the mounting evidence clearly doesn’t count either, about what it takes to regenerate a market town – from town experts, food and farming experts, futures experts – and even Welsh Government’s sustainable development policy.

So whose voices DO count then? The initiative is led by Councillor Bob Greenland, supported by Council Leader Peter Fox. Both of these represent wards in the south of the County and are not accountable to Abergavenny voters.  Their voices count.  The Auctioneers’ voices count – the ones who stand to gain a new fully-funded business premises paid for by Monmouthshire tax payers, and with no details revealed about the value for money or return on investment we might expect from this.  The two farming unions voices count, who, we know, had to negotiate in the face of an ultimatum – a new market, or no market at all.

Monmouthshire County Council tells us it is listening to the voices of the “silent majority.”  But how the Council has managed to do this will forever remain a mystery, since they have no records at all of any public engagement, any social impact assessments of removing the market, or genuine, open, option appraisals – none of things you’d expect to see before such a momentous decision is made.  We know this through the results of FOI requests (to which they’ve eventually responded, in part, after nine months of refusal and procrastination and, ultimately, pressure from the Information Commissioner’s Office).

We know that Councils often feel they have a tough job, making choices about how they use public money and balancing many different and competing needs.  However, the best way to do this is now well understood: engage and involve everyone with a real stake in the issue and – together – seek out and work through good, credible, contemporary evidence.

Monmouthshire Council has done neither of these things.

  1. The Council has not done a proper impact assessment on the effects of closing the market and opening a supermarket for the town and the surrounding areas – in contravention of Welsh Government policy on sustainable development.
  2. The Council has not engaged people in the town and its surrounding areas, in an open, transparent and participative way, on the town’s future – how we want it to be and how we can join together in making it happen.  The market is a town asset and the town has a right to be properly consulted.  The KALM campaign, the public meeting and the visits to the pop up shop all illustrate that there is no shortage of knowledgable, imaginative, interested people in the town who WANT to be involved.
  3. The Council (and now the auctioneers) assert that the only possible version of a 21st Century Livestock Market is an industrialised meat depot.  Actually, the jury – even within the industry – is out on this.  Industry experts also make an argument for establishing markets close to towns, reconnecting producers and consumers, providing important business and social networks for farmers, producers and their families.

Abergavenny has just had another brilliant Food Festival, with its international reputation as a beacon for all that is good in food and food production, enhancing the reputation, generating footfall and income for the town. Meanwhile, in spite of its strap line “Your County, Your Say”, Monmouthshire County Council is going against its own policies, its espoused values, the evidence about sustainable food and farming AND local opinion, to risk Abergavenny’s identity, distinctiveness and its future.

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‘Y Fenni’ – a film about Abergavenny Cattle Market by pupils of King Henry School

It’s been a while since we’ve posted a blog.  A lot has been happening.  Here’s a quick update.

1. At the election, the Conservatives lost overall control and formed a coalition with the Lib Dems to stay in power.  Despite the fact the Lib Dems opposed the sale of the Cattle Market when in opposition, this hasn’t troubled their conscience now that they are ‘sharing’ Council control.

2. The Council has finally, after 8 months of refusals and procrastination, and the intervention of the Information Commissioner, responded to the FOI request.  They’ve sent through, perhaps predictably, a huge, unordered ‘dump’ of material which will take some time to sort through.  But sort through we will – and even a cursory read through reveals some – well, let’s say, ‘interesting’ insights into how the Council conducts its business…

3. The Judicial Reviews continue their way through the legal process.

Meanwhile, a rather extra-ordinary and, I think, quite moving and poignant thing has happened. Pupils from King Henry School, in Abergavenny town, decided to make a film looking at both sides of the debate around the Cattle Market, as part of their GCSE course work.  They started their research, talking to farmers, town traders, their own families and communities, to try to build up a picture of the different arguments.  But they couldn’t find anyone who wanted to make the case for the market closure and the sale to Morrison’s for a supermarket.

So they made the film that reflected the perspectives they found, seen through their eyes – the young people of the town.  Have a look.  And watch to the end – the pupils’ own reflections on the filming process are as interesting as the film itself…

http://www.valleyandvalecommunityarts.co.uk/news-category/y-fenni-documentary/

Monmouthshire County Council continues to argue that the Cattle Market campaign is run by a small, unrepresentative, old fashioned bunch, with an Ambridge-inspired perspective on rural life.  We already know that the people opposed to the cattle market closure come from all walks of life – farmers, traders, the Chamber of Commerce, The Civic Society, Friends of the Earth, tourist organisations, community groups – and now, quite independently, the town’s young people have had their say too.  Next time you hear Monmouthshire County Council blow its own trumpet on ‘engagement’, ‘innovation’ and ‘involvement’, you might decide to probe a little more deeply beneath their rhetoric and ask them about the real experiences of people living, working and trading in Abergavenny.

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Vote for a change

With local elections coming up we have a chance to cause Monmouthshire County Council to stop, reflect and to take the views of people in the county into account.  We focus on the way they’ve handled the whole Abergavenny Market story.  But this is not just important for people in and around Abergavenny: it’s important for the whole county.  

This is a story of questionable deals done behind closed doors, with minimal transparency, accountability or proper scrutiny by Councillors.  A story of the most enormous waste of public money, in a cash strapped county, on legal fees, consultancy fees and aborted land deals – and all to cover up the council’s mistakes and short cuts in planning procedure.  It is also a story of massive complacency and manipulation in which some councillors and officers play the system instead of proper engagement with local people.

So when you come to vote on Thursday – and you should vote, even if you are feeling pretty cynical about local government – think about whether you want to return a councillor who has been part of this sorry saga.  Or whether you’d like to see a change, forcing the political parties and the Council to rethink how they treat and respond to the citizens of Monmouthshire. 

Things to consider (which are explained more fully in earlier posts).

1.  The council has pressed ahead with the sale of Abergavenny Cattle Market to Morrisons, in spite of prolonged and broad-based opposition. They have claimed they have support – but have never conducted a consultation which would prove this.  In contrast, various groups and individuals have come out publicly in opposition.  As well as local residents and businesses, market traders, farmers and visitors, groups who have written to state their objections include The Chamber of Commerce, The Civic Society, the local Tourism organisations; the Food Festival, Friends of the Earth – and many more.  All everyone wants is a genuine say in the future of their town.  This is not about EITHER a supermarket OR the market. It is about working together to make a proper plan that BOTH values the distinctive history and potential of Abergavenny AND provides for what the town needs – in the right place and in the right way.

2.  The Council bought a piece of agricultural land at Bryngwyn, without doing proper searches and promptly gave themselves planning consent to convert it to industrial use for a new cattle market.  This land had covenants on it.  The council has spent (we are told by a Councillor) over £2m in legal fees on this particular cock up alone, which is now the subject of a Compulsory Purchase Inquiry. This legal hearing revealed just how appalling the Council’s conduct had been.

3.  The Council does not know how much it has already spent on this whole business, nor how much it is committed to spending way into the future – because they do not report on it as a proper project.  This is a shameful failure of scrutiny and oversight by Councillors.   Freedom of Information requests were made in November and were declined.  The Information Commissioner took up the case – and the Council failed to respond within statutory timescales. The Information Commissioner has now required them to respond by May 11th.  Funny how the Council managed to manipulate the system just long enough for this information NOT to be made public before the elections…. 

So, in the absence of any better information, we believe that the Council has: 

  1. Wasted over £5m of public money on legal fees, aborted land deals and consultants on the whole project
  2. Committed £5m of public money to build a new cattle market in Bryngwyn, when refurbishment could create a high quality market AND a showcase for local food and farming diversification, at a cost of £2.3m*
  3. Signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the auctioneers to subsidize their business for the next 50 years at the new market with below-market rents.  They’d make more money leaving it in a bank – even at today’s interest rates.

On Thursday, think about how you’re voting.  Vote for a change.  Show the Council that they are accountable to voters for what they’ve done. 

 

*according to a report commissioned by the Abergavenny Civic Society from civil engineers who are experts in market regeneration.

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