I should have been at the planning meeting, but the lure of a sunny, windless day saw me forget all about it and go out for a blast on my gravel bike instead. It was only as I stopped off at my mate’s coffee shop in St. David’s that I remembered, when I encountered a group of friends who had all gone along.
They were looking shell-shocked – that’s the only way to describe their reaction to the decision of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority last June to approve an application by Premier Inn and the Whitbread Group to build a 63-bedroom hotel on the outskirts of Britain’s smallest city, population circa 1800.
It wasn’t just the fact that St. David’s was now to be blessed by what, to some, is an inappropriate, unnecessary and unsightly development so much as the fact that, according to action group NoPI (‘No to Premier Inn’), some 80 percent of the population of St. David’s were opposed to it.
"For Christians, two pilgrimages to St. David’s Cathedral were the equivalent of one to Rome; today, you might say that if you’re a surfer ten pilgrimages to Whitesands are the equivalent of one to Hossegor"
As a resident of the area for over thirty years I was – up to a point – one of them. When I first learned of the Premier Inn application 12 months earlier I’d signed a petition opposing it, along with large numbers of locals and visitors from all over the world.
Initially I didn’t give my decision a second thought. But then I began to have third and fourth thoughts. I began to question exactly what it was I didn’t like about a Premier Inn sitting on the edge of St. David’s. Was it a purist attitude of not wanting a 21st century corporate monolith (and a horrid purple one at that) intruding on a place that drips with history and culture and sits in the heart of one of the most iconic coastal landscapes in Britain?
Or was it a bit more selfish than that, in a ‘let’s keep it to ourselves and stop hordes of tourists spoiling it’ kind of way?
If you’ve never visited the St. David’s area you perhaps need to know that the region is blessed with some truly gorgeous coastline – Whitesands Bay, St. David’s Head, Ramsey Island - where you can surf, sail, cycle, climb, kayak, coasteer, dive etc. pretty much year-round. For early Christians, two pilgrimages to St. David’s Cathedral were the equivalent of one to Rome; today, you might say that if you’re a surfer ten pilgrimages to Whitesands are the equivalent of one to Hossegor.
The miniature city’s cathedral is one of the most beautiful and revered in Wales, and sits alongside the atmospheric ruins of the 11th century Bishop’s Palace, and the city itself, ‘Tyddewi’ in Welsh, or ‘David’s House’, after St. David, who was born here, is rather twee and appealing, so it’s all a bit special, which is why it’s seen as a ‘jewel in the crown’ of Britain’s only coastal National Park (the National Park Authority’s words, not mine).
All of these factors are major reasons why people like me choose to make St. David’s their home. I moved here many years ago after jacking in a career in the oil industry to become an impoverished surfer alongside my impoverished surfer mates. A good number of us were incomers, entranced not so much by the somewhat mediocre surf as by a place that was on the edge, both geographically and culturally.
Back in those pre-Internet days we made our own entertainment, be that late-night winter ‘lock-ins’ in the Farmers Arms as a January gale thrashed around outside, playing summer beach parties with our chaotic surf band ‘The Decksteppers’, or searching for new surf spots up and down the coast.
They were the kind of halcyon days that make a place ‘home’, because you’re doing more than just living there, you’re becoming a part of it. And a place like the St. David’s Peninsula has enough character and hiraeth (a Welsh word which doesn't translate well into English but essentially means a deep longing for home) to get under your skin and settle in your soul.
"It would intrude on my perception of St. David’s as an unspoilt, wild western outpost of surfers, artists, musicians and assorted other Bohemians"
I guess I signed that petition through fear that the Premier Inn development would dilute all this. It would intrude on my perception of St. David’s as an unspoilt, wild western outpost of surfers, artists, musicians and assorted other Bohemians looking to carve their own way in the world.
But was I painting a far too colourful picture in my own mind of the world in which I live? After all, St. David’s long ago lost most of its small independent family businesses to souvenir shops, art galleries and even corporate entities like Fat Face and Crew Clothing.
And unlike Premier Inn, the latter two (admittedly way smaller enterprises than the new hotel will be) didn’t also come ‘bearing gifts’ – the full Premier Inn planning application also included the building of 38 affordable rented homes and 32 properties for sale, a percentage of which will be offered exclusively to local residents, or individuals with a connection to the local area, for a limited period of time.
Many of my friends were far more emphatic than me in their opposition to the new Premier Inn. St. David’s born and bred Andy Middleton, one of my oldest friends, the guy who introduced me to surfing and the founder of TyF Adventure, based in the city, doesn’t pull his punches.
“Love, legacy and common sense were left on the bike racks outside when the National Park’s planning committee voted in favour of corporate giant Whitbread/ Premier Inn's plans,” he says.
“The hotel will have more rooms than the next three biggest hotels in St. David’s combined. It’ll have more rooms than all of the Air B&Bs put together. Whilst some businesses (including mine) will undoubtedly make more money from the extra visitors, this is the worst possible decision that the planners could have made for our precious community, the hundreds of thousands of visitors who love St. David’s as it is, the B&Bs who will surely be squeezed out of business and future generations”.
His comments are echoed by local landscape photographer Jacki Sime, who has lived above Whitesands Bay since the 1970s. “I feel residents and the environment are being sold out,” she says. “The 2010-2021 St David’s Development Plan states that there is enough visitor accommodation and that no building should affect the visual impact of this historical city.
“Not only that, but the hotel will neither source nor buy anything locally – think of the environmental impact of bringing in all the stuff that a 63-bedroom hotel needs every day on narrow country roads, not to mention the fact that local businesses miss out on that trade.”
On the other hand, Emily Barnes, representing Premier Inn, claims that the hotel will result in 22 new full-time jobs and host 40,000 guests throughout the year, injecting an additional £1.5 million into the local economy annually as they eat and drink out and visit local attractions.
And there are plenty of locals in favour of the development on the basis that it will bring in new affordable housing along with more visitors, including St. David’s Mayor Mike Chant and many city councillors.
Mike, who was born and grew up in St. David’s, is pretty sanguine about the issue, as you might expect from a man who is not only head honcho of the city council but a well-known local musician and the only man I’ve ever met who can pull off a facial tattoo and look cool rather than psychotic.
"While it seemed there were far more people opposed to the hotel than in favour, many of them were not even people living in this country"
“I’ve tried to remain impartial, but one of the things I’ve noted is that while it seemed there were far more people opposed to the hotel than in favour, many of them were not even people living in this country; in terms of people on the St David’s electoral register things looked a good deal more balanced,” he said.
“But I was saddened to see that there was so much angst between people, some of whom were unnecessarily unpleasant and to be honest not wholly objective. The corporate presence is certainly not our preferred choice and if it had been an independent I think the mood would have been a little softer. [But] we have actually ended up with a far higher percentage of much needed social housing than we originally expected and well above what is normal for such a development.
“Sadly we don't live in an ideal world and I sincerely hope this project ultimately has a positive outcome”.
When even the local MP, Conservative Stephen Crabb, called the National Park’s decision “controversial” and says the authority “needs to show that it backs local people and businesses too” you can get some idea of just how big a deal this decision is.
Indeed, the strength of feeling the issue has aroused has been quite rancorous at times – I was even told that Premier Inn supporters at the planning meeting has jeered the NoPI crowd when the decision was announced.
For my own part I see the issue as being much like Brexit – it’s something most people didn’t particularly care about or want, but now it has been thrust into the limelight there is anger, frustration and ill-feeling where none previously existed, and these emotions are unlikely to go away any time soon.
Andy Middleton added: “The threat [from Premier Inn] will catalyse change for good too, as existing businesses work together to proclaim the value of interdependence, local sourcing, fair pay and sustainable business. The battle, Premier Inn will find, has only just started”.
Unfortunately, all this means that ‘Tyddewi’ – David’s House - is no longer a happy house. But then this is the 21st century, and big businesses like Premier Inn are hardly likely to put such issues ahead of keeping their shareholders happy. And as long as the shareholders are happy... well, the rest remains to be seen.
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