Graham King recalls getting to know the former First Minister in the sepia tinted age of flares and desert boots
It’s not generally known that four decades ago Rhodri Morgan, Wales’ inaugural First Minister in the Welsh Government, was a development control trainee. If I remember correctly, he worked for a time in Cardiff City Council’s Planning Department, circa 1966.
The Department had been established in 1964 under the leadership of Ewart Parkinson and had a considerable number of new staff of whom I was one, being appointed Principle Planning Officer (Environment). And then Rhodri turned up. Well there he was, and he was assigned to our department in Windsor Place (now demolished). With his afro hair-do, rangy figure and way with words, he was difficult to ignore. I remember one lunch hour accompanying him to the Cardiff Student’s Union in Dumfries Place where we met a young man with bright ginger hair who I later realised was Neil Kinnock.
I ran (what was) the Environment section upstairs. Consequently I cannot comment on Rhodri’s prowess under John Jones, the rather austere Head of Development Control downstairs. However, I do know it was at about this time that the section received a planning application for change of use of Cardiff Arms Park to a bullring, complete with plan showing location of matador and bull. Another application received was for another change of use, this time for the conversion of the underground toilets in The Hayes to a nightclub. I was not aware of any outcomes or of any particular delivery targets for the section at that time. Mr Parkinson probably sorted it out.
I got to know Rhodri better when he enrolled on the part time course in Town Planning at the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) which I had just inherited as lecturer from Geoffrey Steeley, the Assistant City Planning Officer. The course was entitled Planning Theory and Practice and was my first nervous foray into the world of academia.
About 25 students enrolled, with an intake ranging from three Oxbridge graduates, including Rhodri, to an assistant borough engineer from Penybont Rural District Council. It was difficult to know how to engage their varied aptitudes. Many of them probably knew more than I did about many things. Preparing my lecture notes carefully, I drew heavily on Chapin’s Land Use Planning with its emphasis on activity systems plus the latest system ideas from Brian McCloughlin at Manchester University, from notes informally circulating at that time.
I narrowly avoided disaster at the first lecture thanks to Rhodri’s authoritative interventions. He had the facts and figures on every conceivable aspect of Welsh economic and cultural life. My nervous delivery had gone at such speed that I was in danger of finishing up half an hour early. Gripping the lectern tightly, I was desperately worried I might finish half way through the period. As luck would have it, Rhodri spotted his opportunity and saved the day. A new problem then arose. How to stop him? Nevertheless, the didactic style of lectures became steadily more interactive as the course proceeded.
In time Rhodri introduced me to the Old Arcade and I remember meeting a certain Jack (later Lord) Brooks there. Eventually we planned a weekend’s camping in the Brecon Beacons. So one Saturday afternoon, after purchasing essential sustenance and cooking utensils, three of us – Rhodri, Bob Mingay, another young planner, and myself – found ourselves en route to the Brecon Beacons, arriving at a watering hole in Ystradfellte in the late afternoon at about 5 o’clock.
This was to be our base camp. After replenishing our spirits around a decrepit piano, we were ready for the heights, driving our car to a convenient spot as high on a narrow pass as we could manage. We managed to climb a few metres, raise our small tent and squeeze inside. Night fell quickly. It was freezing cold. Still we had breakfast to look forward to, sizzling sausages, eggs, bacon, and fried bread. Unfortunately, in the cold grey light of dawn the tinder of our modest fire would not take, and eventually we were reduced to one final match which accompanied by frenzied puffing finally did the trick.
Soon we were off, striding westwards, cunningly avoiding the peaks, until we descended for a wet lunch at Dan-yr-Ogof Caves. How we crossed the river I don’t remember. Our return journey went quite smoothly, until in the red glow of the setting sun, we peered over the final ridge above our car only to find we had miscalculated. Looking down there was no road, and no car. Panic set in. We hurled ourselves down the slope, clambered up the other side, our hearts in our mouths, as dusk descended. Thankfully, our car was there, and so we returned to Cardiff.
Another memory of Rhodri was at the Branch Conference on the long awaited White Paper Wales the Way Ahead in 1967. Eirene White was the Minister and she reminded the audience that, as a Minister, if you were in the circus, then you were entitled to ride two horses at once – that is to say, she supported both Cardiff and the Valleys.
The document was full of platitudes and was roundly condemned by Lewis Keeble, President of the Royal Town Planning Institute. At some point in the proceedings, Rhodri strode down to the front of the gallery and harangued the platform at some length, about what I cannot remember, although I do remember envying his rhetorical skills.
And there my memories fade. I believe Rhodri subsequently joined the Welsh Office and was seconded to the Severnside Study. Later he became Officer for Wales for the European Commission (or some such title), with a splendid office in Cathedral Road [today the location of the IWA – Ed]. But I like to think that his planning experiences, both formal and informal, stood him in good stead for his later political career. It’s always good to see him, and engage with his incredible memory for faces and places. I wish him well in retirement.