J D Davies

Carmarthenshire Archives: the Right Hand and the Left Hand

Democracy is a wonderful thing; or, as President Harry S Truman said, ‘if you can’t convince them, confuse them’. (Or don’t reply to their Freedom of Information requests; but that’s another story, for another day.) Such has been the case with the ongoing saga of a possible future location for a new Carmarthenshire Record Office. At pretty much exactly the same time that the county council was explicitly assuring several of those who had written to it about the matter – or at least, those to whom they deigned to reply – that they were seeking a site in Carmarthenshire, a very different story was appearing in the minutes of the latest meeting of the West Glamorgan Archives Service committee, held on 19 June 2015. These minutes have been mentioned in some of the local press reporting of the archives story, but they are available in full online, here, and tell a rather more complex tale than that which has appeared in either the press stories or Carmarthenshire’s own bland and uninformative statements.

West Glamorgan Archives Service is already run by a partnership, consisting of Swansea City Council, Neath Port Talbot Council, and Neath Antiquarian Society. Therefore, it has to hold regular meetings of the representatives of all the partners, and on 19 June they received a report from the County Archivist. The relevant text reads as follows:

Planning for the Future

It was outlined that the Archive Service was in the initial stages of preparation for a period of profound transformation which would see the most significant alteration for more than two decades to the way in which the service was delivered.  The current challenge was to understand and integrate each factor forcing change on the Archive Service and to produce a mutually agreed vision and forward plan which maintained service quality and was financially sustainable in the long-term.  It was added that the factors necessitating change were threefold: impending Welsh Local Government reorganisation; the generic remodelling of the way Local Authority Cultural Services were delivered; proposed sale of Swansea Civic Centre.  It was added that the anticipated deadline for Council services to vacate Swansea Civic Centre was approximately 5 years which provided a timeframe for the Archive Service to plan for its relocation of over 600 sq. metres of historic records from the Swansea Civic Centre basement. 

Reference was made to discussions between Swansea University, the City and County of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council and Carmarthenshire Council [my emphasis] to explore whether it was possible to develop together a shared vision for archive provision in South West Wales [ditto]. These talks had been attended by Welsh Government and facilitated by an external consultant.  It was added that a fact finding tour of the Keep, a shared archive facility in Brighton, took place in early May 2015. 

RESOLVED that a more detailed report regarding the fact finding tour of the Keep in Brighton be provided to the next scheduled meeting.

The specific background to this is that the current civic centre by the Marina on Swansea seafront is to be sold off and demolished in order to provide yet more yuppie flats – sorry, desirable bijou residences – despite it being a relatively modern building. Regardless of Swansea’s particular property juggling, though, this minute raises some very intriguing questions; indeed, the ‘right hand’ of Swansea’s relatively transparent proceedings has effectively pulled the rug out from under the ‘left hand’ of its rather less transparent counterpart across the Loughor Bridge. (My apologies for mixing my metaphors.)

Let’s leave to one side the issue of the probity of Carmarthenshire’s public statements, which still make no mention of a possible move to Swansea or of the discussions outlined in these minutes, despite the fact that this information is all in the public domain. Instead, let’s unpick some of the more intriguing elements of this story. Firstly, this project is to be part of ‘a shared vision for archive provision in South West Wales’. This will probably come as news to the good people of Pembrokeshire, which must have been physically ripped from South West Wales and is presumably now floating off into the Atlantic, next stop Barbados, taking its inconvenient state-of-the-art (but, sadly, already full) new record office with it. But hey, who cares about geographical realities if they stand in the way of neat corporate branding?

Secondly, the reference to ‘the Keep’ in Brighton, the new joint archive repository for East Sussex (despite being outside its borders), the University of Sussex, and Brighton museums, needs some clarification. There are several partnership schemes running archives in different parts of the country; in her guest post on this site, for example, former West Glamorgan county archivist Susan Beckley identified the complex arrangements that pertain at Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff. The difference between this and the facility in Brighton is that the latter involves a university, as would the proposed scheme at Swansea; there is a similar arrangement at Hull. (One wonders why the fact-finding team preferred a visit to Brighton over one to Hull. Answers on a postcard, please.) However, there is otherwise virtually no comparison between the situation in Brighton and the one which would exist in Swansea. All of the organisations involved in ‘the Keep’ are within the boundaries of one historical and geographical entity, namely Sussex (as is also the case at Hull); one can only imagine how the people of, say, Kent or Surrey would react if it was proposed that their archives should be moved to Brighton, yet that is effectively exactly what is being proposed for the people of Carmarthenshire. It is clear from the West Glamorgan minutes that a Welsh government representative has been involved in these discussions, and it’s common knowledge that the relevant government agency, MALD (no, that’s not the Welsh for ‘mould’: this is the new acronym for the former CyMal, and yes, I know it’s difficult to keep up…), is very keen for this partnership to go ahead. Indeed, the letter I received from Linda Tomos, its director, essentially admits that quite freely, even if it does not mention Swansea by name. One wonders why there is such apparent enthusiasm within MALD for an arrangement that quite evidently treats Carmarthenshire as a tacked-on afterthought to the so-called ‘shared vision…for south west Wales’, which is clearly nothing of the sort due to the omission of Pembrokeshire. (Further answers on a postcard, please.)

One also wonders how on earth this proposed partnership will fit into the proposed local government reorganisation in Wales – if Carmarthenshire is likely to disappear in the relatively near future, what on earth will be the sense in a ‘shared vision’ encompassing Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, and, umm, one third of the revived county of Dyfed, but not the other two-thirds? The only ‘vision’ apparent here is of one of Dante’s circles of hell, as reimagined by George Orwell. Moreover, as Susan Beckley demonstrated in her post, Neath Port Talbot has consistently been treated as a junior partner in the West Glamorgan partnership, and has suffered disproportionately as a result of cuts. Surely that would only be repeated in spades in the case of Carmarthenshire, which (apart from the Llanelli and Amman Valley areas) is completely different in nature to the other components of this potential shotgun marriage?

The dangers of Carmarthenshire being marginalised in such an arrangement are obvious, quite apart from the issues, previously explored on this site, of access to the new office, particularly for those who live in the west and north of the county and who rely entirely on public transport. Again, the comparison with Brighton’s Keep does not hold water. Sussex as a whole has incomparably better public and private transport infrastructure than Carmarthenshire – I lived there for a while, so I experienced the comparison at first hand. The Keep is served by no fewer than four bus routes which stop immediately outside it, as well as being a ten minute walk from a railway station; somehow, one doubts if any new site on the Fabian Way campus in Swansea would be anything like as accessible. Rye, on the eastern border of East Sussex, is almost exactly fifty miles from the Keep. To get from one to the other by public transport involves a train journey of one hour and twenty six minutes, followed by the ten minute walk in question, with at least one train an hour throughout the day. Newcastle Emlyn, on the north-west border of Carmarthenshire, is nearer to Swansea – forty-five miles – but to get just to Swansea rail station would take two and three quarter hours by bus and train, with a further leg out to Fabian Way (by means as yet undetermined) to add on top of that.

The conclusion to all of this is obvious and inescapable. Shoehorning the Carmarthenshire archives into a new partnership based in Swansea would obviously suit the county council, as it could effectively wash its hands of a significant amount of responsibility for something that has clearly become a severe embarrassment to the corporate image it wishes to present to the world. It would clearly suit the other partners, as they would acquire – for next to nothing, relatively speaking – a much richer and more comprehensive collection of archives than they would otherwise possess, in order to achieve their ‘shared vision for archive provision in South West Wales’ (still begging the question of where Pembrokeshire has got to; probably past the Azores by now). It would suit those who would like more democratic oversight of the Carmarthenshire archives, as a partnership would, of necessity, mean the establishment of the sort of committee that already exists in West Glamorgan, with public access to its proceedings; and involving other bodies would significantly reduce the possibility of Carmarthenshire council making yet another shambolic pig’s ear of its guardianship of the priceless documents in its care. It would most certainly suit the supervisory authorities, as noted above. It would, if truth be told, suit professional historians with cars who are based in Llanelli when they are in the area. Indeed, it would suit nearly everybody – except, that is, for the likes of the poor pensioner in Newcastle Emlyn or Llandovery or Laugharne, who decides one day that she’d really like to investigate an aspect of local history in depth.

But then, who cares about her?