‘You have to stay tuned in’: Plaid leader of Carmarthenshire council on his journey from musician to the top job
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
You are a target when you become the leader of a council, according to Emlyn Dole – and he says he is glad about that.
“It’s what keeps you tuned in,” he said. “It’s about learning to deal with it effectively and turning it into a positive. My take on leadership is that the nearer your feet are to the ground, the more effective you’re going to be.”
He says he had an inkling what it would entail, having been opposition leader. But he described the walk across the floor of the chamber from opposition to council leader as “a heck of a walk”.
He said: “I’m more comfortable as a council leader; it’s easier to be opposition leader.”
Mr Dole’s journey to his current role in Carmarthenshire has certainly been long and winding.
The Carmarthenshire Plaid Cymru leader was born and spent his early years in Llannon, where his father was a minister, before moves taking in north Wales, North Carolina, and Maesteg.
He trained as a carpenter before studying theology at university, and later a master’s degree in creative writing.
“I did a year as a full-time minister,” he said. “I realised that wasn’t for me.”
Mr Dole then trained and worked as multi-camera director and producer, did marketing and translation work, and composed music.
He writes poetry, plays the guitar and lives in Llannon with his wife, singer Gwenda Owen.
It has been a varied career to say the least.
“The thread running through it is words,” he said.
Through his translation work at Carmarthenshire Council, Mr Dole got to know the then Plaid group leader, Neil Baker, who represented Llannon.
He stood for election in 2008 when Cllr Baker called it a day and became one of two Plaid councillors representing the ward.
“I’ve always had a social conscience, and I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
In 2014 Mr Dole became Plaid opposition leader ahead of colleague Glynog Davies, with whom he serves in the cabinet.
“I had my own take on how you were effective in opposition,” he said. “I took it on as a full-time role. I needed to be in County Hall five days a week with an office.”
A year later, in somewhat bizarre circumstances, Mr Dole became council leader.
It occurred when the Labour party, which was in coalition with the Independents, removed their own council leader, Kevin Madge.
The Independents chose not to work with his successor, Jeff Edmunds, and turned to Plaid.
Mr Dole became the new council leader as part of a new Plaid-Independent alliance. It all happened in days. And who said politics was dull?
“It took a bit of political manoeuvring to make it happen,” recalled Mr Dole, who said not everyone in his party was comfortable with the prospect of a coalition. “You have to make those connections.”
‘Door is open’
Plaid increased its councillor numbers in the 2017 election from 28 to 36, and has remained in coalition with its Independent partners since.
“The aim is to take Carmarthenshire for Plaid,” said Mr Dole. “But we have worked in coalition, which has worked successfully.”
We were speaking a day before Storm Eunice hit south Wales, exactly a week before the invasion of Ukraine.
The storm warning and its implications for council services was one of many subjects in Mr Dole’s in-tray.
“The leadership role is so vast in terms of its ask,” he said. “You’ve got 190,000 residents. It’s a daunting task but an absolute privilege as well.
“It’s also about connecting with staff, and we have 8,000 who are looking at you for some direction and purpose. I take that very seriously.
“I have tried to make myself available. The door is completely open. I hope I have become a better listener. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of the people you are dealing with at the the time.”
He added: “I have a very close working relationship with (council chief executive) Wendy Walters.”
Mr Dole also has ward work to do – he is a prospective councillor for Llannon once again – plus regional roles for the Welsh Local Government Association and Swansea Bay City Region. “It’s full on, and then some,” he said.
“I haven’t composed a song for seven years. Gwenda is badgering me.”
Mr Dole also takes some church services still, plus weddings and funerals. “That keeps me grounded and in touch,” he said.
I put it to him that Plaid got the vision part of the brief, but that delivery sometimes did not keep pace.
“I think that’s fair,” he said. “You’ve got to get the vision right. I was very clear from day one on that. But there is a whole load of interference – hoops and hurdles appear. They’re the most frustrating thing in the world but you have to deal with them.
“That means sometimes the vision seems to get a bit further away from you. It does not change the intent or the energy, but it does frustrate the hell out of you.”
Mr Dole was buoyant about the city deal projects the council was leading, and proud that Carmarthenshire secured a third of all the first round of Levelling Up Fund money allocated to Wales.
Councils, he added, became “the deliverers” during the Covid pandemic. Central government funding for authorities has risen significantly this year, although inflationary and Covid-related pressures are sure to bite.
Asked what he felt key issues would be for voters in May, he replied frontline services. “Always is”, he said.
The recovery from the pandemic was also a priority, while the drive towards net zero in terms of greenhouse gas emissions was “front and centre” for the council.
When asked about a role in national politics, the 65-year-old said he had been asked to stand as a Member of the Senedd. But he felt he could make more of a difference being in Carmarthenshire, rather than being stuck in an office in Cardiff, or Westminster for that matter.
What, then, would a vote for Plaid mean on May 5, I asked?
“Voting for people who understand the needs of the community, whether it’s rural or urban, and who are tied in and devoted to that,” he replied. “It’s the best value for your vote.”
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Lots of people carp on about local councillors. There are many councillors who stand for election because they do want to make a difference for the communities they live in and Emlyn is one of those.