(Tivyside Advertiser - August 4, 2004)
The Cwmbetws philosophy...
'Politicians are renowned for telling people what they want to hear but I'm not one of those - I never have been and I never will'
In 1972, whilst all around him were clamouring to retain their village schools in Brynberian and Pontyglasier, the Eglwyswrw schoolboy was crossing his fingers that their pleas would go unanswered.
"I knew that the closures of Brynberian and Pontyglasier would turn my own school at Eglwyswrw into something bigger and much better," he recalls. "And when that day arrived, when the new 80-pupil village school was finally opened in Eglwyswrw, I was more convinced than ever that the district council's decision had been the right one. I had new friends, new teachers, new classrooms, new everything. It was an opportunity that could not be missed and thank God it wasn't."
Throughout our interview Cllr John Davies glances repeatedly across his study at the clock. In less than an hour's time history will once again repeat itself when a High Court judge pronounces his decision concerning the future of Hermon primary school. The parents feel passionately that their village school should remain open but Cllr Davies remains committed to his argument that its closure will reap wide-reaching benefits for the children concerned.
The conflict has proved a painful one for this youngest son of Cwmbetws whose roots to north Pembrokeshire lie as deep as the oaks in his fields.
"There are times when it becomes intensely painful," he continues. "It's painful for me personally and also for my family because they have to live and work within this very close knit community. The greatest pain, even greater than Hermon, was when the county council decided to close Moylegrove School.
I had some very dear friends at Moylegrove - I'd even served as best man to a few of them at their weddings. But the problem had to be considered objectively. This was a 24-pupil school and there was a real opportunity to move forward. Yes, I understood their pain, of course I did, but I stood my ground and on the day of that fateful education meeting I said very clearly that this was the price of progress."
Maybe it is a result of his enviable gift for straight talking that John Cwmbetws, despite his controversial views on primary education, remains one of the most respected and influential members of Pembrokeshire County Council. He emerged from last May's elections with an 80% share of the vote in his ward of Cilgerran and Manordeifi while earlier this summer he took up the reins as the youngest leader of Pembrokeshire County Council.
"I've made my views clear from the outset," he continues. "When I was canvassing for the unitary authority back in 1999 I visited a family who felt very strongly about the closure of Manordeifi School, which at the time, was under threat. I laid my cards on the table and told them that if the election was about saving the school, then I wasn't the man they should be voting for. And there's a breed of people in Wales today who respect you for playing an honest game of cricket.
Politicians are renowned for telling people what they want to hear but I'm not one of those - I never have been and I never will."
John discovered the art of straight talking as a young boy growing up on his father's 350-acre farm at Cwmbetws. "It was assumed that I'd carry on farming but as a teenager I didn't have the slightest interest in farming.
I didn't know what else to do but I just had an appetite for the world outside."
Said appetite took an 18-year-old John straight down the M4 to Cirencester where he'd won a place to study at the Oxbridge of farming - the Royal Agricultural College. Three years later John returned to Cwmbetws a farmer through-and-through. "Initially it was difficult. I came back with a head full of new ideas but Cwmbetws was still a very traditional family farm.
My mother was a typical farmer's wife, my sister was still living at home and my father was a farmer from the top of his head to his toes, a unique breed. I tried to introduce some of my new ideas but it was like the lamb trying to teach his mother how to graze."
Two years later, with his feet still firmly ensconced in his wellies, John received his first taste of stardom after being selected to co-present S4C's new flagship farming programme Pentymora. Two series later he received his Equity card and Christmas 1989 he was asked to appear in an edition of Pobol y Cwm where he went on to appear in no fewer than 45 episodes.
Other television work has included roles in 'Halen yn y Gwaed', 'Pris y Farchnad', research work for HTV's 'Ffermio' programme and a triple-back film production directed by the late David Hemmings (The A Team) comprising 'Tn ar y Comin', 'Gypsy Fires' and 'Christmas Reunion'. During this production John worked alongside the likes of Edward Woodward, James Coburn, Meredith Edwards and Myfanwy Talog.
Hand-in-hand with his media work, John was also working his way up the local government ladder after being co-opted onto Eglwyswrw Community Council in 1986.
"I was 23 years old while all the other councillors were in their 60s and 70s," he said. "But I was carrying on a long family tradition, which felt as natural to me as coming back to work on the farm.
My grandfather and great grandfather had both served as chairmen of the community council and in 1994 I was given the chance to repeat history by being made chairman as well. So local government is running through my veins."
Never one to stand still, in 1999 John placed his neck on the block by vying for a place on the newly established Pembrokeshire Unitary Authority. "I'm the kind of animal that seizes opportunities, opens doors and constantly moves on to the next opportunity," he says. "I can't stand still for too long because life passes you by."
But after winning the election onto the new authority John knew that the only way up the hierarchy of county hall was by biding his time and sitting quietly on the sidelines. "I sat back and absorbed what was happening around me," he explains. "In local government you do not try and make your mark straight away. You sit and you listen to the views of the people around you and this philosophy has to be applied to life as a whole.
I do my utmost to get on with the people around me and throughout my career as a councillor I've been mindful of the fact that this is my job for 365 days a year. If I have the knowledge and the information about how local government works, then why not share it? And there's always a return to be gained by helping others."
Beneath the slick politician's spiel however, lurks the ever-present certainty than John Davies' powers of persuasion remain as strong today as that history-making day in 1979 when he turned the political tide in one of Wales' staunchest nationalistic strongholds - Ysgol y Preseli.
"It was my last year in the sixth form and we had a mock election," he recalls. "I defied the school's political history and had a landslide victory as the leader of my party, which may well have been reflected in what happened the same year on a national scale! And some of my teachers have never forgiven me.
"Change is important but only if it's really necessary. And this is why I continue to feel so passionately about the integration of small schools. I may lose friends temporarily but it's only a short period of time before those friendships are renewed. Twelve months after the closure of Moylegrove school many parents are telling me now that the positives of attending a larger school outweigh the negatives they had feared.
"All I ask is that people understand that I have a duty and a responsibility for the 19,000 children who are currently being educated in Pembrokeshire on a daily basis. These are the children who represent the future of this county and its their livelihoods, which need to be safeguarded."