Katie Hamer continues her A–Z series with an investigation into the heart of Welsh politics. Here’s what she discovered…
And so I reach my penultimate article. For this one, I chose a landmark with a distinctive Welsh name: Y Senedd. And my reason for this choice? Well if there’s anything that puts Wales on the map, it’s the shifting face of politics, and Y Senedd (Welsh Assembly Building) places Cardiff firmly on the political map of the United Kingdom.
Also, disclaimer – I realise that the ‘Y’ in Y Senedd means ‘the’ in English … but I wanted to get the Senedd in somewhere, and had already done a post for S…
You could argue that, as I’m born English, how could I possibly understand the unique political situation required by a country like Wales? Indeed, this would be a valid question to ask, as, before I moved to Wales two decades ago, I had little or no understanding of what it is to be Welsh.
However, upon moving to Wales in 1995 to study in Swansea, it didn’t take me long to realize that central governing from Westminster made little sense here. I am a supporter of the steps devolution that commenced in 1997, as I can see how it benefits Wales.
It’s this devolution that has ultimately led to the creation of this Welsh home of politics, which became fully functional in 2006. The building, with its fully-glazed façade, is designed with full political transparency in mind.
The political debates take place in full-view of the general public thus re-enforcing the all-inclusive nature of Welsh politics. It is possible to watch the Assembly in motion from the Plenary (Public Gallery). You can also go on a guided tour of the public areas of the building. The guided tours and access to the Plenary are both free of charge, and available to the public for most of the year. Advanced booking may be required, and it’s worth getting in touch with the reception before visiting to avoid disappointment.
I’d been lucky enough to get in touch with Gareth, the Tours Manager, prior to visiting the Senedd. He very generously provided me with a one-to-one tour of the areas open to the public, and I learned some fascinating facts.
The Assembly has 60 members. Forty of these represent the 40 constituency areas. The remaining 20 represent the five regions of Wales (four Members are elected within each region). The Regional Assembly Members are elected by semi-proportional representation; this process re-addresses the imbalances of power that often result from first-past-the-post politics. Each person in Wales is thus represented by five Assembly Members, who make laws and ensure that the government is run efficiently.
Like the Millennium Centre, the Senedd is built from sustainable materials, which are sourced locally wherever possible. Welsh oak and slate are used throughout the building, although the roof and the funnel are constructed from Western Red Cedarwood sourced from Canada. This was chosen because its natural oils mean that it is low-maintenance, as well as being a stunning feature. The structure is designed to last for 100 years, from the date the building became fully functional.
The building’s sustainability also factors in environmental concerns. Steel pipes at the front of the roof harvest rainwater to be recycled in the building’s public conveniences. The windows, another environmental feature, are made from reinforced and insulated glass. They open and close automatically, providing a consistent temperature and humidity throughout the building.
In the centre of the Siambr, (debating chamber) is a beautiful glass sculpture. Entitled ‘The Heart of Wales’, it has been created by Swansea-based artist Alexander Beleschenko, and is made from painted glass up-lit by fibre optics. Apparently:
‘The dots symbolise ideas flowing outward from the Assembly and feeding in from the people of Wales.’*
The funnel, which is the central feature of the Oriel (or Gallery), is meant to symbolise the tree of life. It clearly represents a well-established tree, with roots that delve deep into Welsh traditions and culture. One of my information booklets states:
‘The tree-like shape of the funnel is intended to encourage visitors to meet here and share ideas.’**
It also filters natural lighting into the Siambr through a glass lantern situated at the top of the funnel, another conservation feature.
The Welsh Language
I also discovered that Gareth, my tour guide, is a very committed Welsh-speaker. He enthused to me about the promotion of the Welsh language and the future of devolution in Wales. The information he provided me with would have been enough to fill five articles. So Diolch, Gareth! I’d say it’s well worth going on one of these guided tours. I certainly learned a lot.
Refreshments are also provided for visitors, and they have a lovely coffee shop with a good selection of food and beverages. You can also sit on one of the Swan chairs within the Oriel and watch the world go by in the Bay.
Other places of interest
There is a place for art exhibitions within the Neuadd (front-of-house reception area). Exhibitions are free to view and often reflect local themes.
You can find more information on the Senedd and the surrounding community here:
Senedd Community FB page
I hope you enjoyed reading my article. Until next time!
* and ** are taken from the ‘Explore the Assembly’ booklet, which is freely available to visitors.