MORE new schools would be built in the Vale of Glamorgan if Labour keeps control of the council in May.
Labour has run the Vale in a coalition since 2019 and Lis Burnett has served as deputy leader since then.
Now ahead of the local elections on May 5, she has argued her case for five more years in power, in a revealing interview.
Over coffee and cake upstairs in Penarth Pier Pavilion, the current deputy leader of the council gave her views on Model Farm and controversial school decisions in a lengthy interview, as well as her concerns over the rise of populism in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Since taking control of the council in May 2019, Ms Burnett said the new administration’s greatest success included keeping vital public services running smoothly throughout the disruption of the pandemic, while also building new schools across the Vale.
“The biggest thing which is quite stunning,” she said, “is that we only had 10 months before the pandemic came in. I think the biggest achievement was to keep everything going through that period and then also to deliver additional things. To deliver five brand new schools in the last 12 months on time, on budget, was stunning. Some of them, like Whitmore, were even early so we were able to get children out of a cramped school into a new, airy, spacious school, which is obviously better for them.
“Our staff proved to be so amazingly flexible that at three days notice they could turn all our schools into childcare hubs. We provided more childcare, I think, than any other local authority. We did seven days a week, 12 hours a day for our key workers. We never had to cancel any refuse or recycling. We worked with the voluntary sector to provide support to vulnerable people in the community, so if somebody got in touch with us we could pass them over to local community groups.”
Another major recent success is the refurbishment of the Penarth Pier Pavilion, which the council took control over in 2020 after the charity previously in charge ran into financial problems. The cafe in the Pavilion is now run by the council’s arms length catering company, Big Fresh, with any surpluses made reinvested into school meals in the Vale. Now, the council is considering replicating the efforts at the Pavilion elsewhere, including the Kymin.
“We launched Big Fresh, which took a few years of planning, in January 2020 as a social enterprise version of our school meals service. It went from a £350,000 deficit in its first year to a £500,000 surplus, which was then reinvested into schools. For example, there’s a homework club with food in Pencoedtre which is now supporting about 100 children a week. They’re going from strength to strength and are just about to publish the second year results, and it’s going to be just as good. So it’s no fluke.
“By October 2020, we knew this [the Pavilion] was going to fail under the charity that was running it. And we had a choice, in the middle of a pandemic, to say are we going to board it up? But that wasn’t an option, so I remember the conversation with Big Fresh saying ‘are you up for a challenge’, and they were. They’re the anchor tenants here and through their contribution into the Pavilion, it helps us keep it afloat.
“We know we have a model that works, so when we’re looking at the Kymin up the road, and we can work in partnership with that, and we’re looking at the Arts Central in Barry, and actually there’s a question about is there a need for an arts and education venue in the rural Vale. We know we have a model, and we’re ambitious, but you can’t just take money out of the public purse to do these things, because the public purse is shrinking. So we need to look at new innovative ways in which we can add value to what’s going on in our communities.”
Asked what she has found frustrating at the council, Ms Burnett answered the Vale has seen growing populism recently, with some disregarding facts in favour of scoring political points.
“One of the huge issues in politics is the rise of populism,” she said. “On the whole it hasn’t previously been an issue in the Vale. But when you have people that are prepared to say things that are patently untrue to score political points while you’re trying to have a constructive conversation, then it’s really difficult. A perfect example is there are some bases going in for electric vehicle charging points in various places. Somebody messaged me this morning saying ‘people are saying there are parking meters going in’, and you just think right, that’s going to be it. One of the reasons we actually came in was because we were opposed to on street parking charges.”
As for future plans if Labour wins the election in May, she said much work needs to be done in recovering the Vale’s economy, and the ambitious school building programme would continue.
“We have to continue with the Covid recovery, by supporting communities and voluntary organisations, providing events which are low cost or no cost to allow people to come out and about but also to support our businesses, so that people are out in the town centres. We’ll be continuing our school building programme, there will be more new schools, but we’re having to look more as well at retrofitting. We’re also looking at investment in adult community learning and working with our youth services.
“We have had 12 years of austerity, and now we have the cost of living crisis. We have had to make a lot of tough choices to protect services. We want to continue to be innovative in public services and we don’t believe in privatisation, but we do believe in social enterprise. So we believe that where we are able to create a surplus, we can reinvest that in services. And we want to do more of that. We want to continue investing in play areas, we’ve spent £1.6 million in three years on that.”
But the school building programme has proved controversial, with many parents campaigning against unpopular decisions like closing Llancarfan school and replacing it with a new school five miles away in Rhoose called South Point, as well as merging Bute Cottage nursery in Penarth with the nearby Evenlode Primary School. While the council insists the nursery will not relocate due to the merger, some parents are still concerned about a potential move in the future.
“I was in one new school a couple of weeks ago in a disadvantaged area and a teacher said to me that a child had said ‘this is too good for us’. And that really got to me. Whenever we have a new school I’ve said I want the children in this school to know that it might have cost £30 million but they are worth every single penny. This is an investment in them and they are valued.
“I didn’t say I would save [Llancarfan] school—I said if we had been in power we wouldn’t have been in this position. I would have still built South Point. I think [Llancarfan] would have closed itself. There are 13 children going from Llancarfan going into South Point at the moment. It would have been up to them to keep their school open. There was a need for a new school in Rhoose. I wouldn’t have proactively changed it, but that’s history now, and when I was there when it opened everybody was absolutely over the moon.
“When you have petitions that state that Bute Cottage nursery is being closed and moved to Evenlode, when that’s not part of the consultation, how do you get a sensible response? The vast majority of consultation responses were based on inaccuracies. It’ll have the same teachers, the children and their parents will probably notice no difference except that it’s under the leadership of Evenlode. Will it move? I don’t know. But you have people who are trying to take their children to a nursery and they haven’t got cars, and they’re having to go from lower Penarth all the way up to Bute Cottage.
“We have two nurseries left and two primaries left, all the others have their own nursery. The school would be part of that discussion, and the parents of the school. As far as the site goes at Evenlode, you couldn’t just build a separate nursery there. There’s also issues with traffic and transport around Evenlode now, and the people who live locally are long suffering with the issues around there. Unless you could find some sort of solution, apart from whether you wanted to do it, you probably wouldn’t get planning permission. From a personal perspective, I can’t see that it would work. Can I say never? No I can’t say never. In the current situation it’s not on the table.”
The 66-year-old deputy leader was first elected in 2004 three years after joining the Labour party, but later lost her seat before getting reelected. The current council leader Neil Moore is not standing again for reelection.
“I didn’t join a political party until 2001,” she said. “There was a bit of a direction change in my life and an awful lot of stuff that I had done up to that date had shaped my views on community driven initiatives and social enterprise, and people feeling that they were part of a community. The Labour party seemed to be more in tune with my values. I’m also a Cooperative party member.”
Labour has run the council since 2019, in coalition with the Vale Independents Group made up of former Tory councillors, and the support of the Llantwit First Independent councillors. It’s unclear whether another coalition would be formed after the election.
“It’s been good,” Ms Burnett said. “It’s been based upon shared values. It hasn’t been people interested in self-promotion so we could always talk about things from a perspective of what’s best for our communities and the Vale. In terms of how we go forward, it’s always a hope that you’ll win power on your own. But the Vale is an interesting makeup, this is the third coalition we’ve been in now. If there were to be any discussions, that would be once we’ve seen what happens at the ballot box.”
One major controversial decision made during the current administration was not made by the coalition, but by the council’s planning committee. Legal and General are planning to build a giant business park on a family farm east of Cardiff Airport. The Model Farm plans proved hugely unpopular, due to fears about the impact on the climate and local environment. But Ms Burnett said creating quality local jobs could cut commuting times.
“People still need homes and work. If you have people driving miles and miles to go to work, that has an impact. Model Farm is not related to the council, it’s a planning application from a separate entity, and so the council as planning authority has to determine it based on current legislation and current policy. If you don’t do that, you end up in court.
“We have a commitment to no net loss of biodiversity. If you grow something which is a single crop, then actually there’s not a huge amount of biodiversity. That site has been [allocated as] employment land in various development plans since at least 2010, so it’s very difficult to go against that policy. And if you don’t have employment land, then you have roads choc-a-bloc with people in cars driving here, there and everywhere.”
- To view all the candidates in the Vale of Glamorgan in Thursday’s election, click here.