Gower needs to develop own brand

John Ashley reports on an IWA debate on the future of a neglected region of Wales

John Ashley is an IWA Swansea Bay committee member and the author of Ashley’s Walks Around Swansea and Gower.

Gower became the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain in 1956 – “a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them.” Has Gower been an AONB for so long it is taken for granted? At the end of January the Swansea Bay branch of the IWA organised its second forum on this question at the Oldwalls hotel near Llanrhidian. An earlier meeting, in September 2009, had asked whether we were making the most of Gower as an Area of Outstanding Beauty. This time our discussion focused on creating a sustainable vision for Gower.

IWA Offers a perspective on Rural Affairs

The IWA’s Swansea Bay branch will be hosting a lunch-time meeting at the Marriot Hotel in Swansea on Wednesday 6 March. Meurig Raymond, Deputy President of the National Farmers’ Union, and regeneration experts from the City & County of Swansea will present an up to date perspective on the issues that this industry sector faces, and to share their thinking on the core strategies needed to secure a strong future for farming, agriculture, animal husbandry and rural diversifications. For details of how to book, click here.

Perhaps it was the change in emphasis from exploitation to creation that left behind the sometimes bad-tempered 2009 meeting, characterised by clashes between tourism businesses and farmers on one hand, and conservationists and walkers on the other. Nearly 120 crowded out the Oldwalls hall, some standing and with overflow on the stairs from reception. The forum was lively, and most importantly expressed a clearly declared desire to identify and take steps to create that sustainable future.

Courtney Grove of Horton is a member of one of Gower’s oldest farming families. He and his brother are fifth generation Port Eynon life boatmen. His grandfather, a blacksmith, was lost in the 1916 lifeboat disaster. He told us of young people being driven away from family businesses by unaffordable housing, and of second homes lying fallow for most of the year. We also heard a phrase that must be key to creating sustainability – “Visitors love Gower as much as us.”

Alison Tucker’s family runs the magnificent herd of Charolais at Horton. Her children are the ninth generation of Tuckers on the farm. Alison talked of the decline in dairy farming on Gower, and the bleak alternatives many farmers face. She made an impassioned and passionate plea for a way to be found for her children to stay with the family and work in Gower. “Farmers need to work in conjunction with all other businesses,” she said. “We need a new independent body to look at the needs of all Gower residents – especially housing.”

Marion Walters runs the five Blaen Cedi Farm Holiday Cottages at Penclawdd. She talked about what visitors want through the questions they ask – where are the best beaches and walks, where to eat, nearest pub, what to do on a rainy day, where else to go? Though the cottages are self-catering most visitors take at least one meal out, and she encourages them to buy local foods. “Guests always say how lovely the people are,” she reported.

On the downside, however, she said litter throughout Gower was horrendous, signage poor, and education in the history and specialness of Gower largely lacking in the area’s schools. Crucially, she said,  “Swansea is apart from Gower.” This became the major theme of the forum.

Terry Stevens, managing director of Stevens & Associates, is a former Director of Tourism for West Glamorgan. He lives in Loughor, outside the AONB but in the Lordship of Gower. He brought the perspective of the tourism professional to the discussion and developed the ‘Swansea is apart from Gower’ theme. There is no clear message of what we want from tourism in Gower. In the last 30 years Gower hotel rooms have declined markedly in contrast to new cheap rooms in Swansea catering for the ‘stag and hen’ market. Terry concluded that the Gower brand was not working. He said we should be looking for high yield low volume tourism, adding value in jobs created. As he put it, “Unless we change, more of the same will deliver more of the same.”

The following gives a flavour of the debate that ensued:

  • “We won’t get anywhere individually – one voice is needed.”“A new independent body.”
  • “Mumbles is in decline for the same reasons as Gower – it is apart from Swansea.”
  • “Tourists want to see seascapes, not the Atlantic Array offshore wind farm.”
  • “No one is marketing Gower strongly – it is well down Swansea Council’s list.”
  • “Tourism is Number 1 in Pembrokeshire.”
  • “Business Improvement Districts in Scotland have made a difference.”
  • “Poor performance of Swansea City and Welsh Government marketing Gower.”
  • “Nobody will fight your corner other than you.”
  • “In Loch Ness a series of communities lacking a common vision came together four years ago and created ‘Visit Loch Ness’.”
  • “Aviemore brought the ‘bits’ together into one voice.”
  • “It is not just tourism, but living and working together in Gower.”
  • “Swansea does not do anything for Gower tourism.”
  • “Swansea sells Gower as a wonderful place to come to, but does nothing to support it.”
  • “They don’t want anything to happen in Gower.”
  • “Swansea is one of the worst councils to deal with in the UK for planning permission – it is downright awkward.”
  • “Planning needs to be more sympathetic to the needs of local youngsters and businesses.”

This is but a taster of the views expressed. While there was not necessarily a consensus on all the problems and solutions – the old conflicts of interest still simmer but did not surface on the night – there was a strong feeling that we have to help ourselves. Those people in the big white house on Swansea waterfront aren’t likely to do a lot. No one from the white house was there to say otherwise. An encouraging aspect was representation at the meeting of a wide variety of small businesses  operating in Gower, from charcoal and bush craft to a sawmill and software.

And so to action. A Gower Business Improvement District based on the Scottish models was mooted and acclaimed. Volunteers came forward for the next steps, to be facilitated by the IWA. Unlike the 2009 event, the meeting broke up with a plan. ClickonWales will continue to report progress and encourage participation.

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