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‘Our cultural heritage has been ignored’

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The ruined house: an aerial view by Hidden Carmarthenshire

The ruined house: an aerial view by Hidden Carmarthenshire

FOUR years after the council transferred Gelli Aur to a Trust, the property has continued to fall into disrepair and public access to the grounds has been curtailed. Instead of the promised art gallery, café, and public space, the house and grounds are off limits and the iconic grounds and buildings continue to decay, while the trust that acquired the property has failed to file accounts for almost two years and the corporate end of the same trust is about to be struck off at Companies House. Most residents of Carmarthenshire will have some memory of walking, playing, studying or just enjoying the beauty of the old Gelli Aur (Golden Grove) Mansion. The beautiful grounds were home to fallow deer and during its time has been an agricultural college, billet to troops and offices for Carmarthenshire County Council. The way in which Carmarthenshire County Council trumpets ambitious plans and significant public investment in projects that fall some way short of its high aspirations has been a feature of Carmarthenshire’s public life for many years.

The Herald has looked at what happened to Gelli Aur, which was transferred to the ownership of a trust in 2011 in a fanfare of publicity and press releases. At the time, the public were assured of a golden future. Cllr Meryl Gravell claimed: “With the financial challenges we face as a local authority we are delighted to have brought our lease to a close with this happy outcome. The authority is grateful to the Trust for having the foresight and ambition to maintain and hopefully improve the public access and public offer at Gelli Aur. We look forward with much anticipation to watching this wonderful facility evolve.” But what has evolved? The answer is – apparently – ‘not much’.

The grants goose has laid many golden eggs for Gelli Aur, all of which have ended up scrambled. Seized by the excitement of entering a new millennium, the Welsh Development Agency (now gone the way of the dodo), decided to launch four ‘Technium’ projects in Carmarthenshire. The Aqua Technium project sank without a trace. The Bio Technium at Llanarthne became entangled in the undergrowth with the loss of £4.7m in public funds before being sold on the quiet to a private company. The Auto Technium never got its motor going at all and was transferred back to Carmarthenshire County Council’s care in 2011.

Since then it has been excitingly rebranded as The Beacon Centre for Enterprise and remains now, as it was originally, a white elephant. In 2013, a damning report from the Welsh Government saw the plug pulled on six out of the ten remaining Technium projects across Wales, with business analysts and academics pointing out the folly of pursuing ‘Field of Dreams’ economics. The Federation of Small Businesses said the schemes were doomed to failure. “Even in the good times they didn’t do anything for the economy.” The amount of public money wasted across Wales was huge and hugely embarrassing. Millions of pounds of public money have been ploughed into the sands, but what happened at Gelli Aur eclipses all of the other projects. The Media Technium was supposed to bring new life to Gelli Aur. This scheme had a price tag of £9.7 million, of which £5.2 million was to have been funded from public money.

A key partner in the venture was businessman Jeffrey Paul Thomas, acting through his companies Gelli Aur Ltd and Hatham Park plc. An estimated £1 million from the WDA and the County Council went in to Gelli Aur and work apparently began on the house, but then stopped when it was discovered that there was no planning permission. In 2003 the WDA announced that Mr Thomas would be pulling out because of the “prevailing uncertainties in the international climate”, conditions which most economists would probably now describe as a boom. Exit Mr Thomas with the WDA saying that it would be pursuing him for £434,000. The WDA remained confident that the project would still go ahead, however. Around £250,000 of other grant money apparently also went missing. If any of this was ever recovered, history does not relate.

The Council remained in possession of its lease on both the house and the estate after Mr Thomas’s sharp exit. In 2005, Harmoni Developments announced plans to turn the house into a luxury hotel. By the end of the year, the company was out of business. In 2007 another property developer from Narberth announced and interest in turning the property into flats. A similar scheme foundered in 2009, but not before the lead had been stripped from the roof, after which the fabric of the house went into sharp decline. In 2011 a charity reported an interested in buying Gelli Aur and turning it into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers.

That scheme collapsed as well. So, by the time The Golden Grove Trust came on the scene, there was a certain urgency and focus to the Council’s wish to dispose of its interest and reduce the burden of Gelli Aur on the public purse. Trustee Richard Salmon told the media that the first project being undertaken would be renovating the park’s cafe and restaurant. He said: “The Trust is committed to a full restoration and development of the public offer at Gelli Aur Country Park. It is hoped the space available to the public there will be increased in years to come. We are grateful to the council’s partnership input to provide this continued public access.” The Council was committed to maintaining the estate for eighteen months after it was transferred to new owners The Golden Grove Trust. But even while the council was still ‘maintaining’ the estate, Gelli Aur continued its slide to ruin; large areas of the park, including the deer park trail and arboretum, were closed by the new owners.

The café was also eventually closed. Of the Trust’s three original directors, two, William Powell Wilkins CBE and Lady Frances Birt departed in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The remaining original director is Richard Salmon, who has been joined on the Board by Mr Barham Enshari Eshlaghi. A look at the Charity Commission’s website shows that the Trust is (at the time of writing this article) 684 days late in filing its returns for 2012. A proposal is on file at Companies House to strike it off the register. Instead a separate entity, Golden Grove Ventures Ltd with the same two directors was incorporated on June 24. Llanfihangel Aberbythych County Councillor Cefin Campbell used to take his children to the park at Gelli Aur. He said: “It is so sad to see the place like this. We have so many memories of coming here to the park, the children playing, ice cream at the café and watching the deer.”

Cllr Campbell continued: “Since the park has been closed this is the first time I have been here. It was a wonderful place for families to come. To see it overgrown is really sad. What we have here is a part of our cultural heritage, which has been ignored. I know people have tried to bring this back into use but they have failed. The longer it goes on the more worried I am that this will never be open to the public.” Reflecting on the demands on shrinking public finances, Cefin Campbell told our reporter: “It is a worry because public finances are not available. We are in a recession and Government has no money to spare.

We are living in difficult times. You have to balance spending on buildings, social care and highways. I will be speaking to the Executive Board for Leisure (Meryl Gravell) and asking the council what we can do now. It would be a disaster for this area if this went to rack and ruin. “The council has an agreement with the owner for the public to have access to these areas at certain times of the year. The owner is responsible for maintenance and you can see, very little has been done. It is disheartening to see this playground in this state and badly needed facilities left to go to ruin.” Expressing dismay at the fate of such a treasured public asset, Cllr Campbell continued: “We appear to be in a state of desperation taking anybody with an idea. I have spoken to the owners and they were very enthusiastic.

They had an ambition to open it up as an arts centre. There is no money available to spend on something like this. Would Welsh Government, Cadw or the National Trust like to get involved?” Looking forward to the future, Cefin Campbell made some suggestions as to how the situation could resolve to all parties’ benefits: “We need to get people around the table to ask what can be done. There are people who could come here as volunteers from the probation service to clear up the park. A couple of days of strimming and weeding here would make it look better. “The local community council could get involved in this. Elen Rhys was very critical of the Welsh Government when they were dealing with them for Telesgop. The financial crash coupled with the lack of public money has left us with this situation. Looking forward we need to try and find a way forward for this historic building and open the park up to the public again.”

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Carmarthenshire hometown heroes & lockdown legends sought for 2020 National Lottery Awards

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The National Lottery Awards 2019 winners on stage, including Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson from Wales, the first ever recipient of The National Lottery's Lifetime Achievement Award.

THE National Lottery is searching for your ‘hometown hero’ or ‘lockdown legend’ as part of the 2020 National Lottery Awards.

This year the annual search for the UK’s most popular National Lottery funded projects will, for the first time, honour individuals who have made an extraordinary impact in their community, especially those who have adapted during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

New figures reveal more than £3.2 million of National Lottery funding has been invested in good causes in Carmarthenshire in 2018/19 alone.

A total of 158 National Lottery grants were awarded in the region during the previous financial year, providing vital support to arts, sports, heritage and community projects.

From today, The National Lottery are calling for nominations of people who have done amazing things with the help of National Lottery funding and are an inspiration to us all.

Winners in each category will receive a £3,000 cash prize for their organisation and a coveted National Lottery Awards trophy.

Jonathan Tuchner from The National Lottery is encouraging the people of Carmarthenshire to make their nominations.

He said: “The National Lottery continues to have a positive impact on life across the UK. Thanks to National Lottery players thousands of projects are making an incredible difference to their local communities.

Now, more than ever, people have rallied together, and individuals are performing inspirational acts and extraordinary endeavors to help in cities, towns and villages up and down the country.

Thanks to National Lottery players, up to £600 million has been made available to support communities throughout the UK amid the coronavirus crisis. People have used National Lottery funding in amazing ways during these challenging times. We want to honour them as part of this year’s National Lottery Awards and recognise their selfless dedication and thank them for their fantastic work.”

Encompassing all aspects of National Lottery good causes funding, the 2020 National Lottery Awards are seeking to recognise outstanding individuals in the following sectors:

And there will be a special Young Hero Award for someone under the age of 18 who has gone that extra mile in their organisation. All nominees must work or act for a National Lottery funded organisation or have received National Lottery funding.

To make your nomination for this year’s National Lottery Awards, tweet @LottoGoodCauses with your suggestions or complete an entry form through our website www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards . Entries must be received by midnight on 19th August 2020.

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Chancellors economic update includes VAT cut for hospitality sector, and customer discounts

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The Chancellor had set out his coronavirus recovery package today.

Rishi Sunak set out the measures in his summer economic update in the House of Commons on Wednesday (Jun 8), as he faces pressure to assist those who are most vulnerable to the financial crisis.

The Chancellor said he will cut VAT from 20% to 5% for food if people eat out to help those businesses which he said had been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The chancellor announced discount to encourage people to eat out in August.

He says restaurants, pubs, bars and hotels as well as other attractions will be able to claim the money back within five days. It had been reported he was considering giving all UK adults a £500 voucher to spent with companies hit by coronavirus, but the Chancellor has decided not to go ahead with that proposal.

Instead Sunak announced a discount worth up to £10 per head for eating out in August. He said his final measure has never been tried in this country. It is an “eat out to help out scheme”, offering customers as discount worth up to £10 per head when they eat out from Monday to Wednesday in August.

Speaking in the Commons today, he said: “Our plan has clear goals, to protect, support and retain jobs.”

Regards furlough scheme, he said it must wind down, adding: “flexibly and gradually supporting people through to October” but that he is introducing a bonus for employers who bring staff back from furlough.

Employers who bring someone back from furlough and employ them through to January, paying them a minimum of £520 a month, will receive a £1,000 bonus.

He says that “in total we have provided £49bn to support public services since the pandemic began”.

He added: “No nationalist can ignore that this help has only been possible because we are a United Kingdom.”

Mr Sunak says the UK economy has already shrunk by 25% – the same amount it grew in the previous 18 years.

He also announced:

A £2bn kickstart scheme paying employers to take on unemployed 16 to 24 year olds for a minimum of 25 hours a week – he says the Treasury will pay those wages for six months plus a sum for overheads. He says there is no cap. This will apply in England and Wales.

VAT on food from restaurants, cafes, pubs and hotels will be cut until January 12 from 20% to 5%
Funding for apprenticeships and traineeships in England, there will be a separate announcement for Wales.

£1bn for the DWP to support millions of people back to work through Job Centres. A £2bn green homes grant in England to cover two thirds of the cost, up to £5,000, for energy efficient home improvements. Again the Welsh Government will have their own proposals on this given time.

A temporary cut to stamp duty in England and Northern Ireland.

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Calls for Amman Valley rail line to be mothballed

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CARMARTHENSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL today passed a motion tabled to investigate the opportunity to mothball the Amman Valley rail line until a Metro for the region can be established.

With the Amman Valley Railway line coal transportation coming to the end of its life, Carmarthenshire Council agreed there should be a feasibility study of the railway line, to see if we could do a modern environmentally-friendly green railway. The modern rail bus would connect the Amman Valley and the Gwendrarth Valley with Llanelli and Swansea.

This motion follows on from a motion tabled by Carmarthenshire Council nearly three years ago on the need for sustainable, environmentally-friendly and cheap public transport within Carmarthenshire, under the umbrella of a Swansea Bay Metro.

As part of the discussion, it was revealed that a feasibility study into the Swansea Bay Metro has now moved to Transport for Wales for competition after a delay in its competition.

Cllr Rob James, Leader of Carmarthenshire Labour, stated: “Like many communities in Carmarthenshire, residents in the Amman Valleys are unable to catch a bus a lot of time, when they do they realise the costs of ticket and it’s our town centres that are suffering as a result.

“There is a need arising with opencast mining ceasing in the near future to mothball the Amman Valley railway line until plans can be furthered on the Swansea Bay Metro proposal.

“We know from experience that attempting to bring lines back into use after years of neglect is extremely costly and as a result, makes infrastructure projects, such as this, less desirable for Governments.

“We cannot afford to sit on our hands and hope others will pick up the slack if we are to sort out public transport in Carmarthenshire.”

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