Why do Tory prime ministers keep visiting my hometown? Boris Johnson was there just last week, clipping sheep and serving lamb baps. Theresa May came last year, arriving by helicopter for a two hour visit to talk up her Brexit deal. David Cameron came in 2014 to launch something called a ‘buy local’ scheme, and returned in 2015 to warn of Labour “damage”. They never used to come here, and they don’t bother with it outside the campaign trail either, so what’s responsible for this relatively recent trend?
The town is Builth Wells, in the heart of the Brecon and Radnorshire constituency – the largest by area in England and Wales. With a population of just under 3,000, Builth is far from the biggest town in the constituency – Brecon, Ystradgynlais, Llandrindod Wells and Knighton all eclipse its numbers – and yet, Builth is a place of strategic importance. Having lost it to the Lib Dems in August after former MP Chris Davies was found guilty of a false expenses claim, the Tories are now hoping to win it back with Fay Jones – a former employee of the National Farmers Union and DEFRA, who is courting the agricultural vote.
But Builth’s size has always belied its importance. It was first settled at the beginning of the 12th century to control the crossing point over the River Wye, and a castle was built at the same time to overlook it. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Welsh prince of Wales, pleaded for support at the castle while fleeing King Edward’s army. He was turned away, leading to his death some three miles up the road, and as a result the town’s inhabitants earned the nickname bradwyr Buallt, “the traitors of Builth.” A big mural to Llywelyn was unveiled on the high street in 2003, which feels too little too late to me, but there you go.
Though the castle is no longer there, Builth is the location of an intersection between the A470, which connects Cardiff to Llandudno, and also the A483, which runs from Swansea to Manchester. Right on this intersection is the Royal Welsh Showground, home to the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show and the Winter Fair – the former attracting upwards of 200,000 annual visitors, the latter far smaller but still in the tens of thousands. So it’s unsurprising that when those Tory grandees do come knocking on Brecon and Radnorshire, this is where they focus their energies to wrestle for a majority.
When David Cameron visited the Royal Welsh Showground in 2014, he was the first ever prime minister to do. The show is heavily attended by the vote they’re wanting to court, which forms the majority of the constituency. It’s easily accessible by road (or helicopter), and is covered by major national, local and trade press. Both factors make it a useful and convenient stop on the campaign trail. The Tories’ won back the seat from the Lib Dems in 2015, and a spokesperson for the party once described the show as a “good political platform to be seen at”. Cameron said that his return to the show was a “thank you” to the voters of Wales.
“It's interesting that even in a constituency that was, until the by-election, a pretty safe Tory seat, they don't have the confidence to announce their appearances beforehand,” Ashley, a local charity worker, tells me. “Instead everything is carefully stage-managed, presumably to guard against any negative interactions with unpredictable members of the public. Boris Johnson and the Tories before him use this area for a PR opportunity. There's no attempt from them to engage with people, meet with local organisations, other than maybe the YFC [Young Farmers Clubs], or understand the issues affecting people in peripheral areas like this.”
Prior to Thatcher’s election, Builth it had been a reasonably safe Labour seat for 40 years, owing predominantly to industrial communities in the south rather than the agricultural ones of the middle, including Builth. Demographic changes in the area saw Labour’s majority shrink in the 1970s, until 1979 when Tom Hooson won the seat for the Tories.
In 1983, the Boundary Commission put into effect a huge review of parliamentary constituencies that cleaved off the traditional Labour vote at the southern end of Brecon and Radnor and redistributed them. Hirwaun, Cefn Coed and Brynmawr were put in the Cynon Valley, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent constituencies respectively. The review was so obviously set to benefit the Conservatives that Labour brought litigation against the Commission in 1982, having determined that the new boundaries would have equated to an extra 21 Conservative seats in the 1979 election and 11 fewer for Labour. The suit was unsuccessful, and though the Labour came close to winning back the seat in the 1985 by-election, triggered by Hooson’s death, they lost to the Liberal Democrats by 559 votes. They’ve been on a downward trajectory ever since.
Incidentally, when the Tories do come to Builth they don’t actually come to Builth at all. Technically speaking – although, locally, it’s much of a muchness – they stay in Llanelwedd, where the Showground is based. Were they to cross the bridge into Builth, where Chris Davies kept his constituency office, they wouldn’t have to look far to see evidence of how austerity policies have gutted the community. Our hospital was bulldozed in 2015 despite huge local opposition, meaning there is no maternity or care ward in town at all. As previous town mayor Adrian Jones said at the time, “you can no longer be born or die in Builth,” while the housing development that sits on its former site bears the salt-in-wound name of ‘Hospital View’.
The three banks that existed in town in 2009 are down to one, and for twelve months there was no Post Office – only a temporary mobile service available once a week, until a permanent Post Office concession opened at the beginning of November. In 2018, Builth Wells High School and Llandrindod Wells High School, seven miles up the road, were merged to create a new high school based over two campuses, partly as a cost-cutting measure. However, in June this year the new school, Ysgol Calon Cymru, was projected to overspend massively, its first head teacher having resigned without serving a full year.
Builth has some of the lowest average weekly earnings. Our local library is under review, having already had to move from its purpose built high street location. A food bank opened in 2019 (according to the Trussell Trust, usage is up 14 percent this year across Wales). Internet connectivity is poor. Transport connectivity is poor – Builth Road train station notionally serves the area, but is a two mile walk from the high street, further still from people’s homes, very much the Ryanair airport of regional train stations. In total, Powys County Council has endured cuts of over £100million under austerity and lost more than 1000 jobs, around 20 percent of its workforce, while council tax has increased by 9.5 percent. And Builth isn't the only town in the area to be bearing the brunt of austerity.
"There hasn't been a doctor that I've been able to see in our local mental health hospital since last year,” Charmaine, a mother from Llandrindod Wells tells me. “Since moving back to Llandrindod in 2017 from South Wales I have not been able to register with a local dentist at all, and have had to register with a dentist in Brecon, 45 minutes drive away – or two hours on a bus. I have travelled to as far as Welshpool for emergency treatment.”
Shane, a local musician, echoes these same sentiments. “The last 10 years of austerity has caused misery to locals of Brecon and Radnor,” he explains. “There's no spare money in people’s pockets and the high street are boarded up. Even charities struggle to stay open. Youth clubs and groups are non existent which has left many children with nothing to do. There's a rise in local suicides and depression is rife. Hopelessness has infected children and more kids are suffering mental health issues than any time I’ve known in this area.”
Only last month it was revealed that money from a £3.6 billion Towns Fund, originally implemented to help 100 of the UK’s “left behind” towns, has instead been allocated to richer areas where Conservatives are fighting to keep seats. According to the Independent, a third of the towns set to receive funding are not even among the 300 poorest, and over half of the towns selected have an incumbent Tory MP. When they do show face, as with Boris Johnson’s recent visit to Yorkshire in the aftermath of serious flooding, they’re called out – and in that case, it’s worth remembering that analysis from 2016 suggested that flood defences were skewed towards protecting wealthy homes over poorer communities.
Objectively speaking, I should be happy that those in power are choosing to visit the town I’m from, but the fact they essentially use it as a PR opportunity sticks in the teeth. The least Conservative party leaders could do is cross the bridge and see the effects of their policies first hand, rather than staying in the confines of the Showground where they can present prizes and cozy up to those insulated from the action they’ve taken in government.
Let’s briefly go back in time, to the dying embers of New Labour in 2009. Tom Lewis wrote a piece for the New Statesman on how Builth was coping with the recession. On the whole, it’s surprisingly positive. “It’s easier to start a business now,” is the view of antiques dealer Rob Clement. Farm income across Wales is projected to increase 22 percent, with prices for lamb exports having risen substantially. It mentions how the recession had little impact on visitors to the Royal Welsh Show, with 220,000 people attending in 2009. Trading conditions were getting tougher, but are described as “steady”.
He writes: “The sense of unease among some locals is less a response to the tangible effects of the recession and more a mild crisis of confidence about what might lie ahead,” while also mentioning a survey published by Manchester and Sheffield Universities in 2008 that named the overall county of Powys as the happiest place to live in the UK, and ending the article by saying “although the people of Builth Wells are far from complacent about what the financial future holds, there is a definite spring in Builth’s step today”.
Reading back now, it’s genuinely upsetting. A decade on and Lewis’s forecast is clearly way wide of the mark. It’s often said that Brecon and Radnorshire is a bellwether constituency, a microcosm of the rest of the country. Well, there can be no greater evidence of that than the optics of our current Prime Minister getting his photo taken with a sheep whilst courting the vote of one affluent community, while ignoring those less than a mile away who have suffered from his party’s political decisions.