How to support the economy and strengthen the Welsh language? The ideas at the heart of ARFOR II

October 2023 | Arfor, Featured

aerial view of city near body of water during daytime

By Dr. Elin Royles, Centre for Welsh Politics and Society, Aberystwyth University. Dr. Royles is a member of the Aberystwyth University team collaborating with Wavehill to evaluate the activities of the ARFOR Programme by contributing to the ‘learning and research’ project work package. In this blog she reports on some early reflections of the work emerging from analysing the content of the ARFOR II Action Plan and outlines an agenda for the team’s work that will be conducted over the next few months.

ARFOR II is presented as an innovative scheme to support the economy and strengthen the Welsh language. One aspect of the work is evaluating the scheme, and in doing so encouraging further learning regarding the relationship between the economy and the language. As a preliminary contribution to that work, as a team we have started by considering what are the key assumptions that form the basis of the programme’s founding document, the ARFOR II Action Plan.

On the basis of what is outlined in the Action Plan, and recognising that elements are being considered in implementing the programme, we argue that deepening the analysis of the linguistic and economic situation across the ARFOR region and the inter-relationship between linguistic and economic circumstances is critical; that greater attention needs to be given to understanding the effects of out-migration across ARFOR counties, and the relationship with the linguistic, economic and social situation; that there is value in further assessing how the economy can support the Welsh language and its use alongside the potential of using the Welsh language to promote the economy, particularly at an individual level. Consequently, we present this as our work agenda over the next few months, whilst also trying to better understand the economic vision and audience of ARFOR II.

On examining the ARFOR II Action Plan, what emerges as the key assumptions that drive the scheme? The analysis of the problems and solutions, both linguistic and socio-economic, should influence the scheme directly.

Firstly, while it is completely understandable that the Action Plan’s rationale emphasises the commonalities between the four local authorities (p. 5), there is a tendency to suggest that the situation of the Welsh language and the nature of the challenges facing it are consistent across ARFOR. ARFOR contains the strongest collection of areas with a high density of Welsh speakers, but we also know that there are differences in the factors that affect the language in the four local authorities. For example, don’t the patterns of speaker density vary across the counties and the factors that have affected those patterns? In addition, what about the important variations in rates of language transmission within families, language use practices or in-migration patterns?

Also, while there are common economic challenges, it is likely that the situation differs between local authorities in terms of employment rates, the strength of different sectors, and the economic consequences for the Welsh language also are likely to vary.

As a result, there is scope to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the situation of the language across the region, including between and within local authorities. At the same time, a deeper analysis of the economic situation in ARFOR local authorities is needed and an attempt to understand the inter-relationships between the situation of the Welsh language and that of the economy to establish a firmer foundation on which to act in a way that is purposeful to the variable circumstances and in line with the Action Plan’s emphasis on adapting to the context of individual areas (p. 11).

Secondly, the analysis in the Action Plan of out-migration as a problem and its consequences on the economic-linguistic situation in the ARFOR region is quite general. Strategic Objective 1 (p. 6) refers to creating ‘opportunities for people and young families … to stay in or return’ to ARFOR areas and is consistent with perceiving out-migration and its relationship to the economy as a root of some of the area’s problems. Llwyddo’n Lleol notes an aging population, demographic change and migration as factors that affect the areas and there is a need to increase the desire to return and ‘remove obstacles’ (t.13). Yet it isn’t clear from the Action Plan that the foundations of the scheme go any deeper in their understanding of out-migration, issues such as the similarities and differences between ARFOR local authorities in terms of migration tendencies, including the key destinations, age profiles, and socio-economic profiles of those that move. In addition, it is more widely noted that out-migration is driven by economic and social circumstances. While ARFOR II is essentially an economic scheme, which explains the Action Plan’s emphasis on jobs and career opportunities when responding to out-migration, greater attention could be given to how these factors relate to the social conditions that can influence people’s decisions regarding where they live and work and the implications for the ARFOR II programme. In doing so, it is important to draw attention to key activities associated with the social dimension that are likely to be beyond the scope of ARFOR II and are broader issues for local authorities and other partners including the Welsh Government to consider if they are fully committed to ensuring the vitality of the Welsh Language within the ARFOR region.

Thirdly, focusing in particular on how the Action Plan conveys the relationship between the language and the economy, a recent blog by Huw Lewis has already delved deeper into different aspects of this relationship. While acknowledging that the situation of the language within the four local authorities is affected by more than just work and pay (p. 5), the purpose of ARFOR II according to the Action Plan’s general statement is: ‘Supporting the communities that are strongholds of the Welsh language to flourish through economic interventions (that) will also contribute to increasing opportunities to see and use the Welsh language on a daily basis’ (p. 6). This reflects the tendency of the program as conveyed by the Action Plan to expect economic developments to have direct linguistic effects. New employment opportunities are expected to affect language use and to increase the degree to which Welsh is used as a language of work. Yet despite this, it is not clear from the plan if the emphasis on language use focuses on increasing the services offered in Welsh to customers, or if there is adequate consideration also of ways to encourage use of Welsh within workplaces, as an operational language and between colleagues.

Another element is that while references to matters such as low wages and under employment appear in the rationale as the basis for the Cymunedau Mentrus programme (p.16), it is not clear how the programme proposes to try to get to grips with how linguistic factors influence economic results on an individual level. That is, though there is an expectation to see long term effects such as an increase in family income as a result of Llwyddo’n Lleol, how does the programme foresee  influencing the wage prospects of an individual that speaks Welsh?

A related factor is what is the economic vision for the ARFOR region? As strategic aim 2 refers to ‘taking advantage of the identity and unique qualities of their areas’ and strategic aim 4 to the goal of strengthening ‘the identity of communities’ (p. 6) the language used suggests that the idea of place-based economic development is considered a strength. There is also an emphasis on supporting enterprise in the Llwyddo’n Lleol work stream, and on commercial and community enterprises in the Cymunedau Mentrus scheme. Yet overall, the economic vision for the ARFOR region isn’t clear, what connection this has with current linguistic and economic problems, and the relationship between the vision and the development of the economy and a thriving Welsh language. What combination of interventions and economic sectors are considered most appropriate to realising economic growth that will support the Welsh language within the ARFOR area?

Fourthly, who is the target audience for ARFOR’s activities? A specific group of young people and families of 35 years old or younger is mentioned, without outlining why this particular group and the implications for older age groups. While stating that out-migration is a problem and discussing returning to ‘indigenous communities’ in Strategic Objective 1 (p. 6), the impression given is that the intention is to focus specifically on Welsh speakers born and raised in the region. Is there a broader desire to attract any Welsh speakers that can contribute economically to the region and what are the implications of that in terms of how the porgramme is presented?

There is a richness and great potential to the ARFOR area. Creating an Action Plan with a whole suite of actions to  create a flourishing economy that supports a minority language is far from straightforward. This is particularly the case when other economic plans have the potential to disregard the economic needs of the ARFOR region and there is not sufficient awareness of the implications of the investment of such schemes on the Welsh language. By outlining areas where it would be beneficial to be clearer as regards ARFOR’s main assumptions, we have also outlined key areas where it would be valuable to strengthen the evidence base for implementing the programme and it is in that direction that we as a learning team will develop our work in the coming months.


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