Call it the curse of the politician. If you truly care about the principles, the people, the party – then you can never really retire.
I haven’t been a member of Cyngor Gwynedd since May of this year, but it doesn’t mean that I’ve managed to leave it behind. To my mind, the council is the single public body that has done the most to foster the development of the Welsh language over the course of my lifetime.
It is also, latterly, the most wrongly maligned; a constant, easy target for the King Canute-wing of the national movement – those nationalists who wish to do nothing but loudly command the waves of modernity to retreat, while the rest of us are busy building flood defences.
This, I suppose, is why I found myself sitting by a swimming pool in France last week, obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed while everyone else gorged on a good book.
It was Friday afternoon, and Cyngor Gwynedd was debating whether to adopt the long-overdue Local Development Plan (LDP) that it had spent the best part of a decade developing, in collaboration with Cyngor Môn.
Throughout my nine years on the council, I was involved with land planning in some form or another. It is the area where I developed what little expertise I have in public policy. And it is one of those subjects where everyone seems to have an opinion, but few people have much understanding.
Call me a bore, but I found the debate surrounding the plan as entertaining, and just as enraging, as any shoddy airport paperback.
Aled Job – who I know and respect greatly – argued last week that one of the depressing facts about the debate surrounding the LDP was that not one of its supporters was willing to make a positive case for its adoption.
Those who supported the LDP did so because it was the lesser of two evils; the choice, they argued, was between accepting a flawed plan, or rejecting the flawed plan only to have a worse one imposed on Gwynedd by the planning inspectorate in Cardiff.
And to be fair, this is a view that I myself expressed in the days running up to the vote, writing to the Plaid Cymru group along precisely the lines that Aled suggests. When you hold political power, when you govern rather than oppose, you are often forced to make a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Rejecting the LDP would have been a spectacular act of self-immolation on the part of the Plaid Cymru group on Gwynedd Council, radically deregulating planning policy in a symbolic gesture to appease those people who were clamouring for it to be regulated more tightly.
However, having had a hand in the development of the LDP while I was a councillor, I believe that it is possible to go further than simply defending the plan as the lesser of two evils. While it is clearly an imperfect document, constrained by a national planning policy that is designed to prioritise the interests of landowners over communities, many of the criticisms that have been levelled against it are well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed.
They are informed by a view of the relationship between new housing and migration that is simplistic, dogmatic, and bears little relevance to the real world.
The objections to the plan have been neatly summarised by Dyfodol, the pressure group that has been instrumental in leading opposition to the LDP.
In many ways, Dyfodol – in partnership with Cylch yr Iaith, Canolfan Hanes Uwchgwyrfai and Cymdeithas yr Iaith – have made an important contribution to the development of the plan; they have scrutinised it closely and at length, engaging with the details and offering clearly argued criticisms of it.
However, while they served as a valuable critical voice, many of these criticisms are based upon untested theoretical principles, an obsession with marginal details, and a determination to claim the mantle of objectivity for their own views while denying it to anyone who disagrees with them.
The fundamental problem with Dyfodol’s opposition to the LDP is that it rests on the notion of “too many houses”, and their problematic interpretation of this presumed excess. At the core of their opposition is the argument that the total number of new houses that the plan proposes to build is too high.
They believe that this figure is too high because it takes into account the houses needed to accommodate the natural growth in the local population, but also to accommodate those who move to Gwynedd and Môn from outside the two counties.
In Dyfodol’s words, the total number of new houses “is based upon in-migration, and in preparing for this, promotes it”. Therein lies the fundamental flaw in their argument; the notion that by providing more homes than there are locals, you “promote” immigration.
The assumption that underpins Dyfodol’s reasoning is that house-buyers shop around for housing as if it was a consumer commodity.
It is a vision of a perfectly functioning housing market, populated by rational actors; in Dyfodol’s world, when someone wants to buy a house, they look for areas that have housing gluts (and therefore depressed prices), and move to those areas to take advantage of the lower prices.
But this simply isn’t how the housing market in the UK works. If it did, then there would be no housing crisis in the south-east of England; the people priced out of the market in Kent would simply move to Birmingham, or Liverpool, or Bradford – cities that have thousands of empty homes, at depressed prices.
But we know that this isn’t the case, because houses aren’t toasters that you buy on Amazon. The decision to move from one part of the country another – or indeed, from another country to Wales – is rarely made on the basis of house prices; it is usually the result of other factors, predominantly economic and social.
And it is this realisation that lies at the heart of the LDP. The plan that Gwynedd and Môn adopted rejects the argument that immigration is caused by a housing glut.
Rather, it argues that immigration is driven primarily by economic and social factors; in Gwynedd’s case, by the fact that it is home to a major hospital and a world-leading university (where I happen to work), as well as an international tourist destination where people enjoy a high quality of life.
While these (and other) factors exist, people will continue to migrate to north-west Wales. Take them away and migration may fall, but so will the economic, social and cultural well-being of the locals.
Essentially, the LDP understands that population movement is a feature of modern life in Western democracies – albeit one that is coming under increasing threat post-Brexit.
There are 740m EU citizens who have an unrestricted right to live, and buy property in, Gwynedd and Môn. Even if, post-Brexit, there are strict limits on immigration to the UK, that still leaves 60m British people with the same unfettered right to live and work there.
More importantly, the LDP also realises that planning policy essentially only governs the use of new, undeveloped, land for housing. It has limited power over the use, and none over the sale, of the existing housing stock.
Join together these two factors – freedom of movement and an unregulated housing market – and you create a situation where restricting the building of new homes presents a greater threat to the Welsh language than a housing glut. Why? If immigration is driven by factors other than housing availability, then people will continue to migrate to Gwynedd and Môn.
And since the two local councils have no control over the sale of existing homes, immigrants will continue to buy houses here. Demand for houses will increase, but supply will stay static, resulting in higher prices.
Higher prices could mean that immigrant buyers are driven away, but this is highly unlikely. It is much more likely that local residents would find themselves increasingly unable to compete in the market – as they currently do in areas where available housing stock is limited.
What we would see is the next generation being forced to live in cramped, substandard or rented accommodation. We know that young people who live in rented accomodation are already among the most likely to become “internal migrants”, moving from their local area to other parts of the UK.
Restricting the available housing stock would only create more of them, driven away from the communities that have raised them, and that continue to need them.
Dyfodol, and other opponents of the LPD, argue that immigration is the biggest challenge that the Welsh language faces – and they are right. However, they are mistaken in their belief that immigration can, or should, be stopped.
More fundamentally, they propose that we adopt a housing policy that would amplify the effects of immigration.
The Gwynedd and Môn LDP is designed for a future where the young people of both counties are able to stay and work in their communities – alongside those that migrate here from other parts of Wales, the UK and the world.
The alternative proposed by Dyfodol is one where the next generation is priced out of our communities by the pressure exerted on our housing market by immigration.
An alternative where, in attempting – and failing – to close the door to immigrants, we make emigrants of our youth.