Economic development at the heart of Senedd campaign in Welsh language heartland
Gareth Williams, local democracy reporter
Despite being Wales’ smallest constituency in pure voter numbers, the statue of a former British Prime Minister standing proudly on Caernarfon’s Maes also points to a mighty past.
More urban in nature than its neighbours, with the scars of a once mighty slate industry still prominent on its landscape, Arfon can also consider itself a bastion of the Welsh language.
Even in modern times, the area has continued to provide job opportunities for residents on both sides of the Menai Strait, with both Bangor and Caernarfon traditionally seen as major regional employment centres in their respective fields.
The city’s skyline is dominated by its university which has provided thousands of direct and indirect job opportunities while Caernarfon – just nine miles away – contains the headquarters of the local authority as well as hosting a small but declining number of media and broadcasting prospects.
Tourism, of course, remains a major – if not always highly paid – employment sector with Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) straddling its border with Dwyfor Meirionnydd.
But the negative impacts of the industry have also been felt here, with much publicised scenes of a packed summit and reams of cars lining up along busy highways resulting in claims of “over tourism” being raised during a summer where Covid-19 ruled out foreign travel for most.
However, the decline of the traditional high street has also been as keenly felt in both the rival settlements of Bangor and Caernarfon as anywhere else in Wales, with any influx of new jobs being a rarity over recent years.
Hopes were initially pinned on Parc Bryn Cegin Business Park on the outskirts of Bangor, which was the mooted site for a cinema, restaurants and a bowling alley.
The site, built in 2000, was advertised as being able to host up to 1,600 jobs over a 70,000 sq m site.
But there are no businesses trading there and despite several promises of development and over £11m being spent on it, has remained empty for two decades.
Also controlling the local authority, Plaid Cymru has held this seat at both Westminster and Senedd level since 2007, as well as its predecessor Caernarfon constituency at every national election since 1974.
Sian Gwenllian, who hopes to again retain the seat for the party, said it was “scandalous” that not a single job has been created at Parc Bryn Cegin since the Welsh Government took ownership of the site 20 years ago.
She added: “I have been challenging the Welsh Government about this since I was elected in 2016 and have called for an independent investigation.
“I understand that there will be further investment at the site as part of the North Wales Growth Deal with new business units being built. Time will tell if that will lead to new jobs.
“Plaid Cymru has sound economic policies that would see prosperity spread to all parts of Wales – not just in the M4 corridor. I will continue to be an effective voice, standing up for the north of Wales.”
Labour hopes here are pinned on Iwan Wyn Jones, who’ll be hoping to capitalise on the party’s 2017 General Election result when they came within 92 votes of capturing the seat.
The Welsh Government says it is working with the Plaid-run Gwynedd Council to “attract businesses to the site.”
But with Arfon’s predecessor seat having been held for half a century by David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister during the First World War, Calum Davies is hoping to make an impression.
The Bethesda native, standing for the successor Liberal Democrats, said, “We want to help business to expand and grow.
“The next few years are going to be uncertain and that is why we are pledging to freeze business rates to give firms certainty over their operating costs and will create a ‘Job creation Premium’ which will offset the recruitment and training costs for businesses looking to expand.
“We need to attract more businesses locally which in turn will bring jobs and customers.
“We should not rule out re-purposing some areas for housing or recreation in order to make the area more attractive.”
Tony Thomas, a Denbighshire county councillor, is standing for the Welsh Conservatives here.
Hoping to build on a successful 2019 General Election for the party in Wales, he said: “Bangor University is a World Leader in Research and Development and this talent needs significant investment to attract even more opportunities in these fields.
“Establishing a solid Medical and Dental School will help attract health care professionals of the highest calibre which currently the health board is struggling to do.
“The Natural resources are a great attraction and experience but we need the jobs to back up our economy which needs to be far stronger, including building starter units ready for small businesses.
“All the units on Llandegai Industrial Estate are occupied making it more industrial than business, there is little demand for offices at present.
“We could also bring some retail there as a counterbalance to, and reduce pollution, on Caernarfon Road.”
As well as being Wales’ smallest constituency by electorate, Arfon has the distinction of being the most Welsh speaking with 66% proficient in the language according to the 2011 census.
But while the Welsh Government has set a target of achieving a million Welsh speakers by 2050, protecting the language in heartlands such as Gwynedd will be a cornerstone for such an aim is to be realised.
But like most parts of west Wales, rising house prices are continuing to have an impact here with the ongoing economic woes also seeing young people being attracted to larger settlements in the south or across the border.
On how she would protect the language, Sian Gwenllian said, “I have been the Welsh Language Shadow Cabinet Member for Plaid Cymru since 2016 and I use my first language of Welsh in the Senedd nearly always.
“Plaid Cymru would introduce a Welsh Language Education Act to give every child the gift of fluency in Welsh, as well as allocating additional funding for Prosiect 2050 with an aim to create more than a million Welsh speakers.
“We’d also set a target of 1,000 new Welsh language spaces, including cultural spaces and workplaces, establish a new ‘Menter Ddigidol Gymraeg’ as part of a new digital strategy for the language, and extend the Language Commissioner’s remit and powers into the rest of the private sector.
“Naturally, Plaid Cymru’s Arfor strategy is of particular significance for the Arfon constituency. Investment in the western coastal Arfor region will provide high-skilled, well-paid jobs in Welsh-speaking communities.”
Calum Davies, also a fluent Welsh speaker who contested the recent Llanrug county council for the Lib Dems, said: “It was the Welsh Liberal Democrat Education Minister Kirsty Williams who introduce the Made in Wales Curriculum which will support the future of Welsh language in our children.
“We want to introduce a Welsh Language Education for All Act which will normalising the Welsh language in education including for life-long learning and in post-16 education.
“We will support the development and investment of Welsh language technology to further support industries and services.
“We have an amazing community of Welsh speakers in north west Wales and I believe that we will continue to provide our amazing language to generations to come.”
Tony Thomas, however, believes that its a strong economy that lies behind the retention of local young people and to keep the first language of many thriving.
“The creation of jobs for both apprentices and already skilled employees gives the opportunities particularly to our younger generations to stay in the local area where their experience of the Welsh Language can be put into practice and indeed expanded,” said the Welsh Conservative candidate.
“To back up the economy Arfon needs a strong housing program of both affordable and social housing so that families can flourish and put down roots for life.
“Arfon has major employers like the University, the Hospital and also Gwynedd Council. There are many SME’s and larger employers like Siemens which no doubt may need a little help and opportunities open to them, which I would be able to help and guide direction.
“If the opportunities are out there then residents particularly the young will stay in Arfon, enjoying all the natural resources of the area.”
The Labour candidate, Iwan Wyn Jones, was approached to contribute as well as Reform UK, who have put forward Andrew Haigh as their candidate.
Martin Bristow, who is also standing under in Arfon under no party banner, has stated he is not engaging with the media during the campaign.
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Even though the media industry has been in decline since the disastrous digital policy by S4C several years ago, there’s a huge opportunity for creatives in the area across TV, Film, Digital, Theatre, Live events & Arts. The latter will be post Covid but Screen could be thriving now. Also we seriously need to think on how this can impact on our town centres, cheap & not so cheerful is not the answer. Co-working could be part of the solution.