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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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Education

School decisions on hold as Cabinet asks for extended review of council’s Modernising Education Programme

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The council will also prioritise plans for a new school to replace Llanelli’s Ysgol Dewi Sant and for new primary schools in Ammanford and Llandeilo.

PROPOSALS to discontinue primary schools in Mynyddygarreg and Blaenau have been put on hold pending the outcome of an extended review of Carmarthenshire County Council’s Modernising Education Programme.

Cllr Glynog Davies, Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services, has asked his education team to enhance a review of the MEP which is currently underway to ensure it continues to meet the needs of children and communities.

It means proposals due to be agreed today (Monday December 6, 2021), will not proceed at this time.

The extended review will seek to ensure that the MEP can adapt to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and climate change, which has changed the way people are living and making choices, how the education system has been affected and the rising costs of construction.

Cllr Davies said the review should look at how parents’ choices for their children’s education might change following the last 20 months.

The council has already noticed a shift in parental choice following the most recent annual admission of pupils during the pandemic.

With the construction industry having been hugely affected by the pandemic, with increased demand and rising costs for labour and materials, Cllr Davies said it is important to look at the knock-on effect this could have on the delivery and budgeting for school regeneration projects.

Cllr Glynog Davies

“We want to be able to factor these considerations in as we review the MEP, to have the time to properly consider how society is changing and how this will affect education services,” he said.

“Across the authority, several other departmental reviews are also underway. It would be prudent to ensure the MEP continues to align with the council’s priorities and objectives, and therefore it makes sense to take the outcome of these reviews into consideration also.

“I am asking officers to do this piece of work for me urgently.”

Speaking to fellow Cabinet members he said: “I hope that you will agree that no decision can be made today without this work taking place. I am asking that the Cabinet does not push ahead with proposals for Ysgol Mynyddygarreg and Ysgol Blaenau at this point in time, and I will not be announcing the statutory notice for these schools – we have to give full consideration to these proposals.”

Whilst Cabinet agreed to postpone these decisions, Cllr Davies confirmed the council’s commitment to continuing the delivery of a number of projects already in development.

These include a new state of the art specialist school to replace Ysgol Heol Goffa, a new primary school to replace Ysgol Pen-bre, and planned improvements at Ysgol Bryngwyn in Llanelli and Ysgol Bro Myrddin in Carmarthen.

He said the council will also prioritise plans for a new school to replace Llanelli’s Ysgol Dewi Sant and for new primary schools in Ammanford and Llandeilo.

Carmarthenshire’s Modernising Education Programme, in collaboration with the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools and Colleges Programme, is about transforming the network of nursery, primary and secondary schools serving the county into strategically and operationally effective resources that meets current and future need for a school based and community focused education.

This is achieved through developing and improving buildings, infrastructure and spaces that are appropriately located, designed, constructed or adapted to foster the sustainable development of the people and communities of Carmarthenshire.

By the end of 2020/21 financial year, £295million has been invested in accommodation and facilities at schools across the county and it includes building 12 new primary schools and two new secondary schools, plus remodelling and refurbishment in a number of other schools. 

Further information about this programme and individual school programmes can be found at www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales/education.

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Specialist contractors brought in for A484 storm damage clearance

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Specialist equipment is being used to clear and make the area safe.

WORK is ongoing to clear a trail of destruction left in the wake of Storm Arwen along the A484 at Cynwyl Elfed.

Carmarthenshire County Council has had to bring in specialist contractors to help with the removal of over 60 large trees damaged during the storm on November 27.

A section of road between Bronwydd and Cynwyl Elfed will remain closed until next week whilst the clearance work continues.

Specialist equipment is being used to clear and make the area safe.

It is the largest tree clearance operation the council has faced in the wake of a high-wind storm event.

It is thought the northerly direction of the strong 60mph gusts of wind is to blame for the extensive damage which left trees on the hillside unusually exposed.

Over 60 large trees were damaged during the storm

The road closure has meant a lengthy diversion for drivers passing through from Carmarthen to Newcastle Emlyn.

The council is working closely with contractors to minimise the disruption and to maintain safe access for residents living within the stretch of road closed off.

Cllr Hazel Evans, Cabinet Member for Environment, said: “Storm Arwen resulted in a number of trees being brought down onto our roads throughout the county, but the A484 was particularly affected and a section south of Cynwyl Elfed had to be closed for safety reasons.

“We have two specialist contractors working on site to clear the road and make it safe to reopen as soon as possible, but this will take some time.

“This is a challenging situation and we are working hard to ensure the road is safe to open as soon as possible but please bear with us if there are any delays. We will provide an update as soon as we can.”

Carmarthenshire County Council’s highways team recorded 150 fallen trees – and 30 other weather related incidents in just 24 hours during the storm.

The council’s out of hours staff dealt with hundreds of calls and staff were mobilised throughout the night and day to deal with the damage caused by the high winds.

Further information about highway problems, and how to report an emergency, can be found at www.carmarthenshire.gov.wales

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Community

Vet completes epic 980 mile cycle challenge from Land’s End to John O’Groats in aid of charities

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A CARMARTHENSHIRE vet has raised over £8,000 by taking on the mammoth challenge of cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats in aid of the Wales Air Ambulance and The DPJ

Foundation.

Cath Tudor a farm vet at ProStock Vets, Carmarthen set herself the task of cycling nearly 1,000 miles as a challenge to do before she was 50 and to mark the ten year anniversary of ProStock Vets.

Cath, 50, from Llangynog, has always enjoyed cycling and raised £5,076 for the Wales Air Ambulance and £3,000 for the mental health farming charity – The DPJ Foundation.

Reflecting on why she decided to raise funds for the charities, she said: “I picked Wales Air Ambulance as it is an essential service for us living and working in rural communities, and as a family the Wales Air Ambulance came out when my brother, Richard Tudor, died in a tractor accident on the family farm in Mid Wales in April 2020. My brother was killed when the tractor rolled on a steep slope when spreading fertiliser. 

“I chose DPJ Foundation as well due to it being a local charity which helps farmers struggling with mental health.”

The vet is no stranger to getting on her bike for charity, in 2016 Cath cycled the length of Wales for The Stroke Association and in 2018 she also completed a charity ride around Montgomeryshire for the Royal Welsh Show and a bowel cancer charity.

Wales Air Ambulance offers advanced critical care and is often described as a ‘Flying ED’.

The on-board consultants and critical care practitioners are highly skilled and carry some of the most pioneering medical equipment in the world. They can deliver blood transfusions, administer anaesthesia and undertake emergency operations at the scene of the incident, before flying the patient directly to specialist care.

Now operational 24/7, the Charity needs to raise £8 million every year to keep the helicopters flying.

Cath at Land’s End

A delighted Cath is extremely grateful to everyone who donated to the fundraiser, she said: “A massive thanks to everyone who has sponsored me and encouraged me to do the challenge. The support and reactions from everyone has been overwhelming.”

Despite having days when the fundraiser was challenging, Cath experience many highlights including seeing every area of the country and making friends for life.

She added: “There was a fabulous group of us, with everyone helping one another and I made friends for life.”

Katie Macro, Campaigns Manager for the Wales Air Ambulance, said: “Cath has raised an incredible £8,000 for two essential charities. It is heart-warming to hear the reason behind Cath’s fundraiser, sadly she knows first-hand the importance of the Wales Air Ambulance, especially in rural Wales.

“Cath set herself the challenge of cycling nearly 1,000miles and her determination to raise funds for both charities is evident. Thank you to everyone who has supported Cath and donated to the Wales Air Ambulance, you’re all helping us be there for the people of Wales when they need us most.”

There are several ways that the public can continue to support the Wales Air Ambulance.

These include online donations, signing up to the Charity’s Lifesaving Lottery or by coming up with their own innovative ways to fundraise at home. Further information can be found via www.walesairambulance.com. 

Alternatively, a £5 text-message donation can be made by texting the word HELI to 70711.

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