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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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Our election prediction: No change for west Wales, same MPs will be elected

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COUNTING of ballots is underway at the Pavillion at the Pembrokeshire County Showground, Haverfordwest and in Llanelli at the Selwyn Samuel Centre.

Exit polls from the BBC and Sky News predict a Conservative majority of over eighty seats, with Labour predicted to slip as low as 191 MPs, come the end of tonight’s count

We’re live throughout the night from the County Showground, Haverfordwest, and the Selwyn Samuel Centre, Llanelli, to bring you rolling coverage and news as it unfolds for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Llanelli, Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

We are predicting the following results:

Preseli Pembrokeshire – Stephen Crabb, Conservative, Hold
Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire – Simon Hart, Conservative, Hold
Carmarthen East and Dinefwr – Jonathan Edwards, Plaid Cymru, Hold
Llanelli – Nia Griffith, Labour, Hold
Ceredigion – Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru, Hold

Effectively, we predict no change in members of parliament for any of the constituencies in west Wales.

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Cadno’s General Election message

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NO AMOUNT of lies told by politicians will change the fact that poorer and/or fewer public services in Carmarthenshire are a direct result of budgetary decisions reached in London.

For the last nine and a half years, the Party pulling the budgetary strings has been the Conservatives. Choices made by the Conservative Party in Westminster to cut welfare benefits, target the most vulnerable in society to bear the burden of austerity, strip out funding for public services, to reduce access to criminal justice through cuts to the police and courts – underpin many of the issues affecting Carmarthenshire. If you look around Carmarthenshire and see the number of people dependent on food banks, people in work reliant on charity for food, you must realise how much their use has climbed in the last decade.

Austerity was a political choice made by the Conservative Party. It placed the burden for baling out banks on those with the least. The bankers kept their money, the people with least to give ended up giving the most. Even George Osborne acknowledges – now – Labour wasn’t responsible for the financial crisis.

When you’re angry at the Council, at the Health Board, the persistent ‘they’ who never listen ‘to the likes of you and me’, you should be angry at the people ultimately responsible. Central Government has been very good at shuffling the blame for cuts down the line – but it is ultimately responsible. No jiggery-pokery with spending promises that just reshuffle the same old money or apply only to England will change that.

One Conservative PM called a referendum to hold his party together; a second tried to reach a deal that appeased the head-bangers in her party and failed accordingly; the current PM – one of the head-bangers who blocked Brexit in favour of moving the UK to Narnia – is a proven serial liar and blustering bully whose idea of research is reading back issues of The Beezer.

This column isn’t about Brexit. Quite frankly, most minds are made up on the issue in a way that tolerates no rational debate. For all the difference one fat fox will make to his readers’ thinking on that subject, he may as well pee in the sea at Pembrey.

All Cadno can do is state the facts: every industry which contributes to Carmarthenshire’s economy will be affected adversely by tariffs between the UK and the EU. And the magic lifebelt to help relieve the fall will be a City Deal funded directly and indirectly by EU funding.

But Cadno wants to turn to those of you who either have not decided HOW to vote or those who have decided NOT to vote.

To the first of those, Cadno says the following: take a good look around you. If you are happy with what you see, you know where you can stick your cross. If you are unhappy that Carmarthenshire has become measurably poorer and worse off in the same period, you won’t want more of the same. Not unless you’re some sort of masochist.

To those who have decided not to vote: if you can’t be bothered you waive the right to complain afterwards.

Whatever happens, you couldn’t be bothered to try and influence it beforehand, so stop chirping with the benefit of ignorant hindsight. There is certain nobility in going to a polling station and spoiling your vote or writing in ‘none of the above’. If enough of you do it, even by casting a spoiled ballot your voice will be noticed. It takes ten minutes to vote. It’s better than five years of moaning when you couldn’t make the effort to write the letter ‘x’ on a scrap of paper.

Voting is a right and it is also a duty.

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Your Candidates: Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire

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THE CARMARTHENSHIRE HERALD invited each of Pembrokeshire’s General Election candidates to provide us with a statement asking them to complete the following in 300 words:

Voting for [candidate name] is best for [this constituency] because…
Seven out of eight candidates answered our request.
We present them below in alphabetical order and by constituency contested.

CARMARTHEN WEST AND SOUTH PEMBROKESHIRE:

ALISTAIR CAMERON

VOTING for Alistair Cameron is best for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire because he wants to remain within the European Union, tackle the underfunding in our public services and work for new jobs for our area.

Alistair grew up in South Pembrokeshire and he has a positive vision for our area with a stronger economy, better job opportunities, a cleaner environment and better funded public services.

This depends on staying in the European Union which is vital for farming, tourism and future job opportunities. EU membership benefits our Irish ferries and our oil refinery. Staying in will secure a £50 billion Remain Bonus, with the economy 2% larger by 2024-25. This can be invested in our schools, and in tackling in-work poverty and inequality. Staying in allows British citizens to live and work throughout Europe and EU workers to work in our NHS, care homes, farms and tourist attractions. EU action forced us to clean up our beaches and seas.

The Liberal Democrats will tackle the health and social care crises through an extra £7 billion funded through putting 1p on the basic rate of income tax. In the longer term, we support a dedicated, progressive Health and Care Tax, offset by other tax reductions.

We will be carbon-neutral by 2045 through insulating all of Britain’s homes by 2030, ensuring 80% of UK electricity is from renewables by 2030 and planting 60 million trees a year. We will electrify Britain’s railways and ensure all new cars are electric by 2030.

We will provide free childcare for all children with parents in work from nine months and for all children from two years up to starting school.

Contact Alistair on facebook: AlistairCameronPembs, Twitter: AlistairPembs or email: alistairc@traseweb.co.

SIMON HART

Voting for Simon Hart is best for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire because leavers and remainers alike share a desire to get Brexit done and get on with the important business of improving the NHS, law and order and sustaining the livelihoods and jobs of those who live and work here.

In my experience though there are plenty of non-Brexit topics that keep us awake at night – our house, our health, our job and our schools. The environment has rocketed up the list of concerns too which is why our new Environment Bill has become a flagship issue.

On top of this we are going to recruit 20,000 extra police officers (50 of them in Dyfed-Powys) invest £34 billion in the NHS (which translates into £1.4 billion for Wales) make major improvements to broadband and mobile phone coverage and invest in schools, housing and jobs – something our Labour colleagues running the Assembly will also receive the funds necessary.

We will increase the national living wage from £8.20 to £10.50 and increase the threshold for National Insurance payments to £12,500 – lifting thousands more people out of paying NI altogether.

I am lobbying strongly against the plans to reopen a Waste Transfer Station in Royal Dockyard in Pembroke Dock and fighting to retain vital services at Withybush Hospital.

I have spent years taking on BT to improve the rollout of superfast broadband and still battle with the Welsh Assembly to improve dangerous junctions such as Nash near Cosheston and Red Roses.

I have now been your MP for almost a decade during which time my local office has helped well over 10,000 local people with a whole range of different issues. Our area is special because we have such a wide range of jobs, from oil to agriculture and such a diverse community. We like to get on, to succeed, to aspire and to look after each other. My ambition is to see that continue.

RHYS THOMAS

Voting for Dr Rhys Thomas, Plaid Cymru, is best for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire because we need an MP who’s lived life: a man with a proven track record of serving his country and saving lives. After 17 years as a front-line army medical officer in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, Dr Rhys co-led on setting up the Wales Air Ambulance service after retiring as a Lt. Colonel to run the family farm and work as a Consultant Anaesthetist in local hospitals.

“The Wales Air Ambulance service is the best in the world and we should also work towards making our NHS the best in the world,” he said.

“While Labour, which runs the NHS in Wales, is dragging its feet, Plaid sees integrating health and social care as the only sustainable future for both services. Meanwhile, at a time of huge staffing shortage and financial cuts due to the Tory UK government’s failed austerity project, front line NHS staff are doing a heroic job,” said Dr Rhys.

“People are fed up with Tory lies and Labour false promises. Westminster is a toxic mess. This election won’t change that. ‘Let’s get Brexit done’ is a misleading lie. Brexit isn’t an event but a process – a long and hazardous process which will take several years. Wales will badly need a powerful voice to get fair play for our nation in a post-Brexit Britain. Here in west Wales, that means ensuring continuing support for agriculture, fishing and small businesses; investing to create jobs in sustainable energy to boost our economy, mitigate climate change and provide future generations with a clean and safe country to live in.

“Plaid Cymru is the only party that exists to fight Wales’ corner. Wales needs Plaid MPs more than ever before,” said Dr Rhys Thomas.

MARC TIERNEY

Voting for Marc Tierney is best for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire because Marc is totally committed to getting things properly done. Unlike the Tory MP we have had for the last decade, he will get the support we need for jobs, the environment, hospitals and surgeries, social care, schools, training and infrastructure.

Marc said: “This has become an election about hope for a better future. I’m really excited about Labour’s plans for green jobs – including the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, an incredible boost for West Wales. I’m proud of our clean seas and our green farming and I’ll be a strong advocate for our food and tourism sector. Better technology, free broadband, and training in high skill industries mean our young people will no longer have to get out to get on.

“This has become an election about empathy. Like you, I love living here but we see every day the struggles local people have, just like in other areas. I will support a compassionate government that supports you and your family, with better-resourced services and fairer social security. Asking the very well off to pay a little more tax so that others don’t have to struggle. I support the fair pension fight for women born in the 1950s. Labour will deliver that justice. As your MP, I will always stand by your side.

“And this has become an election about trust. Throughout the campaign, I have met people right across the constituency who have told me they don’t trust Prime Minister Johnson. They have seen him lie on Brexit, on hospital funding and on nurses. They are frightened that a majority would give him free rein to pursue a trade deal with Mr Trump using our NHS. We can’t let that happen and if I am your Labour MP, trust me–it won’t.

Change only happens when you vote for it. Vote Marc Tierney on Thursday.

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