Bridgend Town Council: A better building, and better democracy

The Town Council’s move into the old library building at Carnegie House has helped to reinvigorate local democracy in Bridgend. Dyfrig Williams visited the Council to find out more about the new building and how it’s also being used to give a boost to the arts in the town.

A photo of Carnegie House

Carnegie House

Until their recent move, Bridgend Town Council had been based in the former Bridgend Urban District Council’s offices at Glanogwr. In 1987 the offices were converted into elderly persons’ units and the Town Council moved out into the newly vacated former Ogwr Borough Council’s Architects Department (also at Glanogwr), where they remained until January 2014. But when their tenancy agreement was coming up for renewal, the time was right to make a move. With serendipitous timing, Bridgend County Borough Council’s library moved to a shared facility with other resources. The Town Council embraced the opportunity to move to the centre of town and in to the heart of the community.

An external group was also looking to provide an arts centre for the town at the same time as the Town Council moved into the Town Centre. Carnegie House has much more space than the previous building, so the Town Council decided to develop the ground floor into an arts centre and to use the first floor to home the town council.

How did they do it?

A photo of the Town Council Chambers inside Carnegie House

The Town Council Chambers at Carnegie House

The Town Council obtained the building on a freehold basis for £1, which meant that the County Borough Council were able to offload an unused building. It also meant that the building was kept as a community facility, which the Town Council was able to make the most of after it held a consultation evening to hear from the community about what they wanted from the project.

The Town Council recognised that it would have been impossible for the full council to take responsibility for the move, as it would not have been able to be responsive to the changing events and requirements. So they set up an independent group of 6 councillors as a relocation group who dealt with all aspects of the asset transfer.

A good relationship with Bridgend County Borough Council was key to the transfer’s success. The County Borough Council often went the extra mile during the process by providing assistance through their conservation officers, architects and surveyors. This positive relationship also allowed the Town Council to take over the building under licence in the first instance. This meant that what they would’ve paid in rent was used to refurbish the building. The Town Council wouldn’t have been able to afford to do both, so this reciprocal approach really helped the process.

The collaborative approach between the two councils also meant that the Town Council could make the most of the County Borough Council’s service level agreements for things like maintenance. The County Borough Council already has agreements in place, ones which the Town Council would struggle to match due to its scale. This means that the Town Council gets better deals and can, for example, use the County Borough Council’s telephony and intranet systems.

Heritage

A photo of the town bell that was donated to the Town Council with clippings about it

The bell  from the original town hall that was donated to the Town Council

The Town Council have made a concerted effort to revamp Carnegie House in keeping with the history of the building. They’ve adopted Edwardian colour schemes and worked with the County Borough Council Conservation staff to develop the space. They have also had items donated to them from the community, including the bell from the original town hall in the 18th century, and a memorial board from a local school, for which the Town Council held a dedication ceremony. Previously there was no community space for civic events as there was no town hall, but now local people are actively engaging with the council to help preserve and remember their history.

The Town Council itself has also grown, as its location within the town centre means that there’s much more awareness of its work. The relocation has been the catalyst in getting the Town Council further into the public domain, and now members of the public are observing Town Council meetings on a more regular basis. The expanded facility has also meant that the staff team has expanded from 1 person to 4 part-time staff. This increased staff capacity is important as it’s come at a time where the Town Council is taking over more non-statutory services.

The Arts Hub

The Town Council applied to the Arts Council of Wales for funding to work on the ground floor. The first year’s programme of activity ran from March to November 2015. By the end of that time, around 1700 people had attended events in the hall, including poetry nights, concerts and jazz nights. Last year’s programme was trial and error, but this year the Town Council will be building on what it’s learnt by running a series of events with both Jazz and Classical music.

Some extensive work is taking place as the building itself is a listed building. They’ve received a Heritage Lottery grant (with match funding from both the Town and County Borough Councils) as the stonework has crumbled, and the old artificial ceiling is being stripped back to improve the acoustics. The Town Council has also bought a PA system, and they now have a website up and running for the first time.

What does the future look like?

So the future looks bright for the Town Council, and any surplus made from the Arts ventures will be ploughed back in for equipment and to invest in the programme. As the adult and community learning provision has disbanded, the Town Council is looking to develop independent classes on arts and culture (like sewing, painting and ceramics) as an opportunity for local people to get involved with the building.

I learnt so much from my visit to Carnegie House, not least the importance of being flexible and thinking outside the box. It’s obviously an incredibly labour intensive process, but by working in collaboration with the County Borough Council, the Town Council have been able to make the most of the opportunities that have come their way from the asset transfer. In a time where resources are so tight, it’s great to see organisations working together to make sure that they deliver the best possible public services for the people in their area.

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