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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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Missing woman too cold for thermal imaging camera

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A MISSING woman who was so cold that thermal imaging cameras couldn’t detect her, was returned home safely thanks to two determined PCSOs.

The woman had been missing for three hours when she was found freezing cold and motionless on a railway track in Carmarthenshire on Wednesday, January 20.

Dyfed-Powys Police received a report that the woman had gone missing from her home at around 8.20pm. With stormy weather, the temperature dropping, and darkness having set in, concerns for her welfare were immediately high, and finding her became a priority for the division.

Led by a specialist search officer, a team of police officers and PCSOs, including the dog unit and Special Constables, were tasked to look for her.

Sergeant Dylan Davies, who headed up the search, said: “This was an incredibly fast-paced search, with officers conducting all possible enquiries to find the woman safe and well, and as soon as possible.

“We managed to trace a potential location, however despite our best efforts, she was nowhere to be found.

“The lack of light, and very poor weather conditions made the search very difficult, but our officers and staff swiftly worked through a list of enquiries to ensure all possible actions were carried out.”

Due to the heavy rain and wind, the National Police Air Service was unable to assist, however help was provided by a Coastguard helicopter.

Despite the Dyfed-Powys Police Force Incident Manager making contact with the missing woman and gaining a vague location where she might have been, searches from the air and on land proved unsuccessful.

“What was incredibly concerning was that she said she was near a railway line, but couldn’t explain where she was,” Sgt Davies said.

“We later discovered that despite having her location, and the helicopter flying directly overhead, she was so cold that thermal imaging cameras were not able to pick her up.

“This shows just how critical the situation was.”

Thankfully, PCSOs Dayton Hughes and Ian Morgan painstakingly searched the area, and finally spotted her at 11.25pm – three hours after she was reported missing.

“She was motionless, soaking wet and freezing cold, but to all our relief she roused and was able to be taken home to her family once she had warmed up,” Sgt Davies said.

“I dread to think what could have happened had she spent any more time exposed to those conditions.

“I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all the team who was involved in the search, but in particular to PCSOs Hughes and Morgan for their determination and tenacity in working beyond their tour of duty to ensure the missing woman was found and taken safely home.”

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Family history research success in Carmarthenshire

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More people in Carmarthenshire have been delving into their past than ever before.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic over 155,000 searches have been recorded by Carmarthenshire libraries of library members taking advantage of free access to Ancestry.com from home.

That is an increase of 220% compared to the previous year, and more than any libraries in Wales.

Ancestry Library Edition covers both UK and international databases and gives access to census records, indexes of births, marriages & deaths, chapel registers, military records, wills and more.

Access to the site is usually provided on the library service’s public computers but in response to the pandemic, Ancestry has allowed library customers to search its wealth of information from their homes.

Cllr Peter Hughes Griffiths said “Many residents have clearly used the lockdown to explore the stories of their own families and homes. These impressive figures demonstrate the popularity of the highly valued family and local history services provided by our libraries.  As well as increasing our sense of identity, researching the lives of our ancestors and local areas help us understand how our communities have developed and changed.  It also reminds us that our ancestors lived through challenging times too and overcame them – an important message during these hard times.”

Anyone who lives, works or studies in Carmarthenshire can enjoy the digital library for free by becoming a member.  As well as Ancestry, there are over 19,000 comics and books to download. Members can also access the driving theory and Life in the UK tests, download newspapers, learn a new language, access over 500 interactive stories and activities for children, learn a new subject, get up to speed on computer software with online tutorials, and search through hundreds of encyclopaedias.

If you are not already a member, you can join here whilst our libraries are closed https://wales.ent.sirsidynix.net.uk/client/en_GB/carm_en#

For further information contact your regional library:

Llanelli – 01554 744327

Carmarthen – 01267 224824

Ammanford – 01269 598360

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Paul Davies MS quits as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd

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PRESELI Pembrokeshire MS Paul Davies quit as Leader of the Conservatives in the Senedd this morning.

The Conservatives’ Chief Whip also quit his frontbench role.

The dramatic move comes only 24 hours after Mr Davies got the Conservative Senedd Group’s unanimous backing.

However, later yesterday (Friday, Jan 21) – as criticism poured in – the Welsh Conservatives’ Executive met. In that meeting, Constituency Chairs reported widespread disbelief and anger among the Party’s members. Conservative Party Chair, Lord Davies of Gower, received particular criticism for a lack of leadership. Simon Hart, Secretary of State for Wales, also attended the meeting and was left in no doubt of the strength of feeling within the Party.

In a statement issued via the Conservative Senedd media office, Mr Davies said: “I am truly sorry for my actions on the 8th and 9th December. They have damaged the trust and respect that I have built up over 14 years in the Welsh Parliament with my colleagues and the wider Conservative Party but more importantly with the people of Wales.
“Whilst using the Senedd facilities at all times my colleagues and I maintained social distancing. There was no drunk or disorderly behaviour. We did not have to be escorted out of the building as some reports have suggested. What we did was to have some alcohol with a meal we heated up in a microwave, which was a couple of glasses of wine on Tuesday and a beer on Wednesday.
I broke no actual Covid-19 regulations.

“For the last 10 months of the pandemic, I have followed the Covid-19 regulations to the letter. As with everyone across Wales, I have not seen family members or friends, I’ve not eaten at my favourite restaurants and, like you, we enjoyed a subdued Christmas compared to other years. I will continue to follow the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Regulations and I would urge everyone to play their part in defeating this virus so that we can all return to normality.

“My priority as Leader of the Welsh Conservative Group in the Welsh Parliament has always been to bring the Conservatives into government in Wales. Our main focus as the Welsh Conservatives must always be on challenging and removing a failing Labour government.

“I am grateful for the support of colleagues in the Welsh Conservative Party for their support in this difficult time, and especially to my wife Julie and my Senedd colleagues who have offered empathy, trust and advice. They have treated me with the same courtesy and decency I hope I have always extended to others.

“Over the last couple of days, I have been speaking with colleagues in the Senedd and the wider Conservative Party. Whilst they have confirmed they do not wish to see me step down, I believe that my actions are becoming a distraction from holding this failing Welsh Labour-led Government to account, not just on their rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines but from more than 20 years of their dither, delay and failure. Yesterday I indicated to the Conservative group in the Welsh Parliament that I wished to resign, but they urged me to reflect further, and we agreed to meet again on Monday. However, for the sake of my party, my health and my own conscience, I simply cannot continue in post.

“Therefore, I am stepping down as Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament with immediate effect.”

“It is for the group to decide how best to choose a new leader, but I hope that process will be seamless and speedy, and I pledge my support to whoever becomes leader.”

Darren Millar blamed ‘wildly inaccurate and unfair reports’ and said:

“There was a member of catering staff present in the tea room for a short time after my arrival on the 8th December but she did not serve me a drink, nor did I request one. In fact, I encouraged the member of staff to go home and close up the counter as it had been a long day for her. No members of catering staff were present on the 9th December and the counter was closed for the whole evening.

“While I am advised that I did not breach coronavirus regulations I am very sorry for my actions, especially given the impact of the tough restrictions that people and businesses are enduring.

“For this reason, and given that Paul Davies has resigned as Welsh Conservative Group Leader in the Senedd, I have decided to step down from my front bench role in the Welsh Parliament.

“I am cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and will continue to do so.”
Whoever replaces Paul Davies, the role is likely to an interim appointment ahead of a vote of the Party membership after the Senedd election.

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