LAST week, Plaid Cymru called on the Welsh Government to set up a new fund to enable local authorities and community groups to offer free car parking in towns throughout Wales to support local shops and businesses. Plaid Cymru’s Assembly Member for Ceredigion, Elin Jones, has suggested that free parking in towns across Ceredigion could keep our town centres bustling.
Elin Jones told The Herald: “Wales has more empty shops on its high streets than the rest of the UK, and the Welsh Government could potentially support the high streets in order to keep them as a vibrant economic hub. We’ve seen the shape of our high streets change over the past few years. Places like Aberystwyth and Cardigan have seen a big turnover in shops. This may be down to more people moving online out of convenience. For example, foot fall in Aberystwyth is down by almost one-fifth since 2012. We need that extra incentive to get people in our towns, and free parking could do just that.”
Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Local Government, Sian Gwenllian, said: “By allowing local authorities and community groups to provide free parking for shoppers, we can help level the playing field for high streets and get shoppers back there. Plaid Cymru wants to see the Welsh Government set up a fund to help local authorities cover this cost. And we can do even more. We can lower business rates for small businesses and bring 70,000 of them out of paying rates altogether, and we can try to plug the £500 million funding gap that small businesses face by establishing a properly funded Welsh Development Bank, in order to lend to small businesses and help them grow. We can’t overlook how important the high street is for the well-being of a local area. A bustling high street often indicates a vibrant local economy, so it’s important that we do all we can to save the high street.”
Over the past year, the number of people shopping on the high street has declined UK-wide, posing a major problem for retailers. Fuelling that problem are said to be worries about the economic outlook, and most recently concerns over Brexit, combined with an increase in shopping on the internet. While expenditure in retail outlets declines, however, people are still spending their increasing disposable income on leisure and eating out. Overall footfall was down 0.9% in the first quarter of 2016 compared with the same period a year ago, according to analysts from Ipsos Retail Performance. However, some cities and towns are doing much worse than this national average suggests. In England, the worst performers are Newcastle upon Tyne, with shopper numbers down a hefty 9.95% and Stoke-on-Trent, down 8.1%. Compare these with Elin Jones’ claim that Aberystwyth footfall is down by 20% and it puts the town’s problem in startling perspective.
Across the UK even discount chains such as Poundland are feeling the pinch, with sales slowing. According to the Local Data Company, in April this year across the UK, some 46,000 shops stood empty, with approximately one-third of those have been so for more than three years. The national vacancy rate stood at 12.5%. With free parking, easy access and more space, retail locations outside of town centres are increasingly popular among those shoppers not filling their baskets online. The Office for National Statistics reported online sales rising almost 9% in March compared with the previous year. And online stores accounted for 13.2% of all retail sales. Famously, Mary Portas attempted to spark a resurgence of high street shopping in provincial towns. Places that have paid attention to shoppers’ needs, and so improved facilities, have managed to maintain footfall.
Back in 2011 through to 2012, Aberystwyth conducted its own involuntary experiment in radical free car parking, which left our own special little skid-mark in the history books. Lest we forget, a bureaucratic mix-up between Dyfed-Powys Police and Ceredigion County Council resulted in there being no traffic warden employed for a year. By many accounts, the result was chaos. However, some retailers did report that the experiment was good for business. If that 12 months was chaotic and did cause some people inconvenience at times, civilisation as we know it did not end and the town survived. Unfortunately, at least to The Herald’s knowledge, the experience of the community self-managing parking was not documented in terms of the extra parking places that were creatively carved out of the urban landscape without undue disruption. Neither was the impact on retail businesses measured for comparison. To credit our competitors where that is due, the Cambrian News’ Street of Shame feature, where badly parked cars were pictured with their registrations revealed, surely aided in the community’s efforts to deal with the antisocial in ourselves. Overall, for at least some people, it was quite an entertaining year.
IDEAS FOR ABER?
‘Carmageddon’, as christened by that esteemed periodical The Daily Mail, has little to do with Plaid Cymru and Elin Jones’ suggestion for doing away with paying for parking in towns. But is free parking relevant in Aberystwyth? We do not, after all, have parking metres or ticket machines on the streets of the tow, but rather parking that is limited to two hours, one hour or the deadly thirty minutes. Free parking in local authority car parks further out of town might conceivably lessen the load on the streets, however. Plaid Cymru’s proposal is for the Welsh Government to contribute to the provision of such free parking. They do not expect County Councils to provide a ‘freebie’ and therefore have to cut other services any further. It does, of course, cost a significant amount of money to maintain any car park, free or otherwise.
Current difficulties in Aberystwyth have certainly been exacerbated by the loss of the Mill Street car park which had 265 spaces. Ironically, the retail development on the site of the Mill Street car park is likely to put further pressure on some hard pressed retailers in the town. When it opens, however, the new £40 million development will have 555 spaces and will be by far the biggest car park Ceredigion has ever seen.
The Herald understands that it is written into the contract for the Mill Street site that the parking spaces will be free and allocated on a three-hour basis. There is an option to reduce this to two hours if the car park becomes 85% full. Moreover, there is no compulsion for those parking in the new car park to shop at M&S or Tesco.
Shoppers can still go into town to buy their underwear and groceries. To turn a famous slogan around, for our local retailers, every little helps.
Coincidentally, then, even as Plaid Cymru suggest more free parking, Aberystwyth is on the verge of getting an extra 290 parking places compared with before the Mill Street development. Tesco is on schedule to open before the end of November, with the car park opening perhaps a fortnight before that. M&S is set to open in spring 2017. Whether encouraging more cars into town makes sense from a retail point of view or not, it certainly is not good news in terms of cutting carbon emissions to mitigate climate change nor in reducing local pollution. Town and County Councillor Mark Strong told The Herald: “I’m not in favour of free car parking. I am not convinced it will help increase footfall and in my opinion will encourage car use.” Mark Strong is concerned that more cars will mean more congestion and more pollution and so would actually put people off visiting towns like Aberystwyth.
If Ceredigion could come up with a scheme to benefit those coming into town to shop with a car full of people and/or penalising drivers who travel solo, that might make good sense. Similarly, if parking privileged smaller eco-friendly cars over big fat gas guzzlers, that could work to create space and reduce pollution. Some models of car on the road in 2016 were definitely not designed to be driven on narrow Welsh roads, nor small town streets. To help local retailers, however, radically lowering business rates might be the most supportive thing Ceredigion could do. Herald readers, especially local retailers themselves, are welcome to suggest other measures by writing to our letters page. Readers may also like to suggest a name for the Mill Street Development. Suggestions that we have received already range from the architecturally critical through the politically bitter (ill feeling over the demolition of the day centre and people’s homes refuses to go away) to the more constructive and forward looking. But what do you think?
Ceredigion’s Energy Efficiency work recognised at the Wales Energy Efficiency Awards
ON June, 17, 2022, Wales Regional Energy Efficiency Awards were held in Cardiff. Ceredigion County Council’s Energy Efficiency Schemes scooped 2 awards.
The Energy Efficiency Awards were introduced to help recognise the fantastic work being undertaken by the energy efficiency sector in Wales. The measures were introduced to help homeowners reduce their energy bills, tackle fuel poverty and reduce Carbon emissions.
Ceredigion County Council have been delivering the ECO Local Authority Flexibility scheme along with the Warm Homes Cozy Ceredigion Scheme for a number of years. These schemes have seen a number of insulation measures and heating systems being installed in properties improving their energy efficiency. With the drive towards renewable heating systems the concentration lately has been on the installation of air source heat pumps.
The Council scooped the top prize for the Regional Council or Local Authority of the Year where one exceptional council in each of the 11 Regional areas of the UK has shown a true commitment to promoting energy efficiency within their region. This award was sponsored by Improveasy.
For this award, the judges look at the impact their work has had within the local community, what their customer and local community have to say about the council, what level of expertise the council has within its own teams and what priority the council gives to tackling fuel poverty within its current plans.
The Council also won the Regional Vulnerable Customer Support Organisation of the Year having shown a true commitment to improving the lives of vulnerable people within their region. This award was sponsored by Consumer Energy Solutions.
Councillor Matthew Vaux, is the Cabinet Member responsible for the Housing Service. He said: “I would like to congratulate the Housing team for their hard work and success at the Regional Energy Efficiency Awards this year. With the current rise in fuel costs and the increase in cost of living, this is a fantastic achievement for the Council’s housing team in showcasing that they are helping our residents save energy and combat fuel poverty.”
Find more information about Energy Efficiency Schemes on the Council’s website: www.ceredigion.gov.uk/resident/housing/financial-assistance/energy-efficiency-schemes/
The Welsh Government launches Basic Income pilot scheme
FROM 1 July 2022, more than 500 people leaving care in Wales will be offered £1600 each month (before tax) for two years to support them as they make the transition to adult life.
Launched by First Minister Mark Drakeford, it is hoped the pilot will set care leavers on a path to live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.
The radical approach has trust, autonomy and respect at its centre. It will provide independence and security to people who have faced immense challenges during their childhood, giving them greater control and empowering them to make decisions about their future.
The £20 million pilot, which will run for three years, will be evaluated to carefully examine its effect on the lives of those involved
Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt said the scheme is a direct investment in the lives and futures of some of Wales’ most vulnerable young people.
Those taking part in the pilot will also receive individual advice and support to help them manage their finances and develop their financial and budgeting skills.
Local authorities will play a key role in supporting them throughout the pilot. Voices from Care Cymru will also work with the young people to give them advice on wellbeing, education, employment and help them plan their future after the pilot.
To launch the scheme, First Minister Mark Drakeford, Social Justice Minister Jane Hutt and Deputy Minister for Social Services Julie Morgan met with people taking part in the pilot, and young people who themselves have been in care, to talk about the impact this support will have on peoples’ lives.
They discussed how they hope the financial stability will give people the opportunity to make positive life choices as they leave care and provide a more solid foundation from which to build their adult lives.
First Minister Mark Drakeford said: “We want all our young people to have the best possible chance in life and fulfil their full potential. The state is the guardian of people leaving care and so has a real obligation to support them as they start their adult life.
“Our focus will be on opening up their world to all its possibilities and create an independence from services as their lives develop.
“Many of those involved in this pilot don’t have the support lots of people – myself included – have been lucky enough to enjoy as we started out on our path to adulthood.
“Our radical initiative will not only improve the lives of those taking part in the pilot, but will reap rewards for the rest of Welsh society. If we succeed in what we are attempting today this will be just the first step in what could be a journey that benefits generations to come.”
Minister for Social Justice Jane Hutt said: “We’re in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis like no other and we therefore need new ways of supporting people who are most in need.
“Our Basic Income pilot is an incredibly exciting project giving financial stability to a generation of young people. Too many people leaving care face huge barriers to achieving their hopes and ambitions; such as problems with getting a safe and stable home, to securing a job and building a fulfilling career. This scheme will help people live a life free of such barriers and limitations.
“We will carefully evaluate the lessons learnt from the pilot. Listening to everyone who takes part will be crucial in determining the success of this globally ambitious project. We will examine whether Basic Income is an efficient way to support society’s most vulnerable and not only benefit the individual, but wider society too.”
Tiff Evans of Voices from Care Cymru, speaking on behalf of young people who have experienced care, said: “This is a brilliant opportunity for care leavers in Wales. It is good to see that care leavers in Wales are being thought of and Welsh Government are providing this opportunity for them as young people to become responsible, control some parts of their lives and have a chance to thrive and be financially independent.
“We thank Welsh Government for investing in them and their future and we look forward to other changes and developments for care experienced young people in Wales in order for them to reach life aspirations.”
Ceredigion man living in Ireland sentenced after involvement in illegal meat operation
A CEREDIGION man living in Ireland has been extradited and sentenced after his involvement in illicit farming and trading of meat that was unfit for human consumption.
Robert Thomas, 45, was found to be part of an organised crime group (OCG), who were involved in running an illegal meat operation, where “smokies” were being prepared for human consumption. The production of “smokies” involves the illegal slaughter of sheep which, as part of the production process, have their fleece retained on the carcasses and burnt with blow torches to impart a smoked flavour to the meat. This process is illegal in the UK and many European countries.
The initial prosecution was undertaken by Ceredigion County Council in 2015, but due to Mr Thomas persistence in evading justice it has taken 7 years for the proceedings to reach a conclusion. The prosecution involved Mr Thomas and another male person from Ceredigion, who is still wanted on warrant in respect of the charges.
At Swansea Crown Court in December 2015, Thomas was sentenced to a 28-week term of imprisonment, suspended for two years and was ordered to undertake 200 hours of unpaid work and ordered confiscation proceedings to try and identify and recover any assets obtained by Thomas, through his illegal activities. That confiscation investigation was undertaken by officers in the Tarian Regional Economic Crime Unit (RECU) assisted by Ceredigion County Council. Various Proceeds of Crime Act hearings took place during which Thomas gave evidence on oath that his assets and income were minimal.
He declared that he had two old cars and was earning just £40 per week working for his parents. He also claimed that he had two UK bank accounts with no money in them and produced bank statements to prove so. Over the course of three years, Thomas persistently denied having any more than this, and in April 2017 he failed to appear at court.
Further investigations revealed that Thomas held a number of bank accounts and held property and land in Ireland.
A European Arrest Warrant was subsequently obtained, and he was finally located in Ireland and arrested in December 2021 by the Irish authorities and extradited to the UK in February 2022.
On Monday 13 June 2022, Thomas appeared in Bristol Crown Court having previously entered a guilty plea to a charge of perjury. At sentencing, His Honour Judge Cullen described Thomas’ actions as ‘a considered lie and a practiced lie’. He also said that giving sworn evidence to a Judge was a serious matter which could only be dealt with by an immediate imprisonment and requires a significant custodial sentence.
Thomas was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment for perjury and for breach of a Community Order, he was sentenced to 2 months imprisonment to run consecutively, making a total of 24 months imprisonment.
Councillor Mathew Vaux, Ceredigion County Council Cabinet Member for Public Protection Services, said: “This case has shown that regulatory services will work together effectively in partnership in order to bring justice for these serious crimes. The illegal trade in “smokies” is a serious public health risk, as the meat is often infected with diseases and parasites that could pass to those people who eat the meat. The animals are also killed inhumanely with no regard to their welfare, which is against the principles of high animal welfare held by the farming community of Ceredigion County Council.”
The proceeds of Crime Act proceedings have not been concluded as Thomas has not fully discharged his liabilities under the Order which the Court concluded amounted to a criminal benefit sum of over £200,000. Thomas will therefore be subject to further legal proceedings.
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