Category Archives: Assets

Why Open Standards lead to better public services

Darllenwch y flogbost yn Gymraeg

How can the use of Open Standards lead to improved integration of Information Technology systems and public services? Dyfrig Williams reflects on what he learnt from taking part in the Good Practice Exchange webinar on Open Standards.

Digital has been a key theme of our work for some time now. We’ve delivered a range of events on that theme, from our seminar on Information Technology as part of our assets work in 2013, to our latest webinar on Open Standards.

This is the most techy digital themed event that we’ve hosted since our Cloud webinar, but it’s a topic we particularly wanted to give air time to because of how important Open Standards are in the integration of public services. Training and consultancy services the length and breadth of Britain are currently sending marketing material selling all kinds of products and services with the “digital” prefix. Open Standards are key to enabling many of the services that are being sold to integrate with each other and to enable better public services.

During our webinar, I described Open Standards as standards that are developed through a collaborative process for data, document formats and software interoperability. But as Evan Jones pointed out, there is no universal agreed definition of Open Standards – ironically! So for that alone, it’s well worth catching up with the webinar!

So what were my key learning points?

“Do the hard work to make things easy”

Terence Eden of the UK Government Digital Service gave us so much food for thought during the webinar. He followed up this gem with “It’s not about you, it’s about the users.” The opening question from a delegate was around whether it might be difficult to implement Open Standards with their existing technology. Terence’s response immediately got me thinking that Open Standards are an enabler of better public service, rather than an endpoint in and of themselves. We should be thinking about how we can provide the best possible services for the end user, and using proprietary standards that hinder integration certainly don’t help with that. As Terence said, “Open Standards can save lives!”

We’ve done a lot of thinking at the Good Practice Exchange about the complex and complicated environments in which public services are delivered. Our Manager Chris Bolton has written this great post on the problems that come with implementing a one-size fits all solution in a situation that has many variables. The problem with continually going down the proprietary route is that we’re adding layers of complexity in to an already complex environment. It narrows down service options and means that solutions themselves have to be increasingly complex, which can generate further issues and decrease reliability. It’s worth reading how the New Zealand’s Office of the Auditor-General made their information systems open by default, which resulted in a more reliable and robust IT system because of the cleaner configuration without endless permissions and restrictions.

Open Standards aren’t just for IT specialists

The discussions during the webinar weren’t just about Information Technology systems working well together. I mentioned above that Open Standards are an enabler for better public services, and as such knowledge and awareness of them shouldn’t be constricted to IT departments. They help systems to integrate and enable collaboration. The data gathered can be used to plan long term, so it’s clear how they can be really beneficial in enabling organisations to work through some of the ways of working that are identified in the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. If we want to gather data for effective planning and to work together to provide better public services, then awareness of Open Standards is important amongst everyone from Public Service Board representatives, to Elected Members, to Capital Project Managers.

The power of procurement

Linked to the above point about Open Standards being important beyond IT, it’s something that staff in procurement roles should consider. Not only do they reduce complexity to enable integration, they also open up procurement opportunities beyond major vendors to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This is clearly linked to some of the Wellbeing Outcomes within the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, especially around a Prosperous Wales and a(n economically) resilient Wales.

As Evan Jones pointed out during the webinar, Open Standards also help you help you to take a longer term view of systems, as they will be interoperable with the future you. We also had a good discussion about encouraging vendors to work with Open Standards during the webinar, and as Jess Hoare said, it’s important to remember that it’s us as public services who are procuring services. It’s perhaps easy to forget in these situations that as the procurers, the power during negotiations lies with us. Evan encouraged us all to negotiate with vendors – if they can’t store data in an Open Standard, you should be suspicious about their motives.

Where do we go from here?

Resources from this Open Standards work will be fed into our Digital work in order to prolong its impact and also to give people who are interested in the agenda some food for thought. We’re also thinking about how we can share this work internally as well. I’ve fed my learning from the webinar into the Cutting Edge Audit Office project, and we’re also thinking about how we can share the learning with auditors, because Open Standards have a key role in ensuring that systems and organisations can work together effectively to deliver value for money. Short term thinking here has a big impact in the longer term.

We also have a procurement webinar scheduled as part of this year’s programme, which gives us an opportunity to look again at some of the issues raised here. We’ve come across some interesting practice in our initial scoping work on procurement, particularly how CivTech have taken a different approach to driving innovation in Scotland. We’d love to hear from you if you have further practice that we can highlight. Because after all, our work is only a success if it’s learning from and reflecting the key issues that you’re facing as Welsh public services.

Improving the wellbeing of future generations in a resource-rich cash-poor Wales

Prof Tony Bovaird is Director of Governance International, a nonprofit which works throughout Europe on outcome-based public policy and citizen co-production, and Emeritus Professor of Public Management and Governance at Birmingham University.  In his contribution to the The Future of Governance Seminars in July,  Tony shared his strong beliefs on the need for public bodies to get real about the weak state of collaboration in public service commissioning and delivery, the lack of commitment to clear outcomes and the highly variable performance in engagement citizens in co-commissioning, co-design, co-deliveyr and co-assessment – and how the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act could help on all these front. In this blog he picks up one aspect of co-production – how Wales can make better use of its hugely valuable resources, even in a period when budgets are severely constrained. 

A photo of Tony Bovaird of Governance InternationalThe Governance workshops in July, hosted by the Wales Audit Office and the Good Practice Exchange, provided an opportunity to reflect on the key issues which will determine how the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act can be implemented effectively in Wales. A key issue which was raised at different junctures during the discussions was how resources have become much scarcer in the aftermath of the sharp economic recession after 2008 and the continuing financial austerity budgets of the UK government since 2010.

People

However, I argued at the end of both workshops that this fixation on budgets is misplaced. Yes, cash is scarce in public services. However, this is not the whole of the story –  cash in our budgets represents only one resource.

In particular, Wales is not short of the key resources of capable people, valuable buildings and equipment, or state-of-the-art ICT. However, these are not being used to maximum effect.

Let’s look at the fantastic people resource in Wales. The most common headline statistic is the unemployment rate but the real resource waste is NOT commonly headlined each month – the number of fit, active and willing people who are not registered as being in the workforce.  In 2016, this amounts to just short of a million people in Wales, about half of whom are between 16 – 64 years of age, and the other half are 65+.

The most talked about group amongst these million adults in Wales who are not ‘economically active’ is the over-65 group. We do not, however, talk about the fact that they are the largest group of experienced, educated and, for the most part, fit and healthy people that Wales has ever had on tap, as a ‘reserve army of the under-appreciated’ to do socially and economically useful things to improve their own wellbeing and that of their fellow citizens. No, not at all – we tend rather to talk about them as one of the ‘jaws of doom’, threatening to swallow up all our public sector resources, as they grow older, unhealthier and more needy. Are we actively seeking to help them to maximize their quality of life outcomes, and the way they help others to improve their quality of life? After all, research shows that people who are active, whether seeking the improvement of their own wellbeing or that of others, tend to have far more positive quality of life outcomes. The lack of a co-ordinated approach to this challenge is perhaps the biggest waste of resources in our modern resource-rich, ideas-poor society.

Buildings

We don’t just underuse our resource of people. Our housing is one third under-occupied (and a high proportion of these homes have only one resident, often lonely and isolated, quite often depressed).

Over 20% of our shops are empty, the floors above shops are very often empty, and our public buildings are often only partly occupied. Our leisure centres are largely empty in the mornings, our community centres are often empty in the afternoons and most of our schools are empty in the evenings, at weekends and during the holiday weeks. Our cars tend to empty all day (parked at work) and our public transport is largely empty most evenings.

Isn’t this inevitable? Aren’t these assets generally owned by someone who sees no reason to make them available to those who would most benefit from using them? Well, let’s start with the public sector – is there really any excuse for under-use of public assets when others are desperately looking for venues for events, rooms for meetings, addresses out of which to run their voluntary organisations, facilities for small scale printing jobs, etc? Let’s shift our gaze to the third sector – is there any justification for giving public grants or contracts to an organization which isn’t prepared to share its underused facilities (and volunteers) with others who are doing similar activities? And in the private sector, why not give tax relief to firms which can show a record of sharing staff and facilities with public or third sector organisations?

Assets

However, such approaches are only the tip of the iceberg of what could be done. More important than this organizational sharing is the potential for matching of citizens’ capabilities to potential users in the community. This is the dream ‘app’. For the moment, we only record the ‘needs’ which citizens bring to the public sector – not the capabilities they have and the strengths and resources they are willing to share. This is the greatest challenge facing public bodies as they address the issue of improving wellbeing in Wales.  Of course, co-production with citizens needs co-ordination by public bodies – this will need some spending, but it promises to liberate hugely more resource that it uses up.

In summary, the Wellbeing of Future Generations in Wales depends critically on getting the most out of our existing resources, and ensuring their future development and expansion. A resource-rich country where most of the resources are underused and decent people are wasting huge amounts of time in scrambling over small (and declining) cash budgets and grants is a sign of wrong government priorities. A fundamental rethink of how to match our abundant resources to the needs of the citizens of Wales is an urgent priority.

Understanding Staff Behaviours and Business Travel Needs

Aylesbury Vale District Council's on-site hourly rental pool cars

Aylesbury Vale District Council’s on-site hourly rental pool cars

How did Aylesbury Vale District Council save £90,000 and halve their emissions? Ena Lloyd spoke with Alan Asbury to find out.

I recently attended a seminar run by Enterprise Rent a Car on how public services are engaging with the private sector to improve their business travel arrangements. This has resulted in major contributions towards their sustainability targets and big savings.

I caught up with Alan Asbury, Sustainability and Energy Manager from Aylesbury Vale District Council and asked him about the Council’s travel policy. I was particularly interested in their focus on staff behaviour and their critical use of data to get a clear understanding of staff business travel.

I started by asking a little about the Council. The Council covers the northern half of Buckinghamshire and employs around 500 staff of which around 220 drive for business.

They created the policy with Enterprise to bring the council in line with the sharing economy and the latest cost-saving technology. They analysed the council’s usage data and was able to segment its employees’ business trips by cost-efficiency, highlighting where hourly rental and daily rental would be most effective. For example, by restricting daily rental to those with journeys of more than 75 miles or eight hours, it has ensured its low-emission car club vehicles are used more regularly.

Translating the policy into action meant that nine on-site hourly rental pool cars were sourced through Enterprise Car Club, which were provided for employees making short journeys, along with Enterprise Rent-A-Car daily hire cars for longer journeys. These have successfully replaced the grey fleet as a less expensive and more environmentally-friendly option.

The travel policy was changed to focus on safety, which is essential for the council’s duty of care responsibilities. Staff who still use their own vehicles for work first complete a tick box form checking several aspects of vehicle and driver maintenance such as safety, insurance, driving licence, health and fitness and vehicle condition.

As part of the initiative, the ‘grey fleet’ mileage reimbursement rate was cut from up to 0.65 pence per mile to 0.15 to encourage employees to use the Enterprise Car Club vehicles as well as daily rental, given the potential cost savings and the environmental benefits.

After careful monitoring, the scheme now been pared down to eight Enterprise Car Club vehicles. All are all low-emission and include three pure electric Nissan Leaf cars. In the first year of their use, the Council has saved £90,000. It’s also allowed them to re-introduce a 50% bus subsidy on all four locally-operated bus routes. Overall, its transport carbon emissions have been reduced by more than half. The Council also operate electric vehicles including BMW i3s.

Reflecting on their new travel policy, Alan said: “Our new travel policy was based on an in-depth understanding of how our drivers behaved and their needs in terms of mobility. Enterprise helped us analyse where, how often and why staff were travelling, which was vital if we wanted them to do it more efficiently.

“Using a car club has helped us save tens of thousands of pounds, and Enterprise also helped us work with our employees to understand the aims of the programme and demonstrate what we were trying to achieve. It has been highly successful and we’ve now been invited to speak with other public and private sector organisations to show them what we did and how we did it.”

Adrian Bewley, Director of Business Rental UK & Ireland at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, adds: “The council has been able to use a blend of hourly and daily rental, as well as leasing, to create a far more effective and greener approach to employee travel.

“The Council is, quite rightly, being viewed as a leader in public sector business travel. They have achieved silver in the annual Energy Savings Trust Fleet Hero Awards November 2015. Most importantly, the success of the programme is due to the fact it was based on an analysis of driver behaviours and journeys. Data is the most important tool in creating a better travel policy and changing how employees think about driving.”

If you’d like to learn more about the project and how Aylesbury might help you to do something similar, Contact Alan at aasbury@aylesburyvaledc.gov.uk

YMCA Plas: A vision for a better Roath

How do organisations develop a strategy for a community asset? Dyfrig Williams visited YMCA Plas (formerly Plasnewydd Community Centre) in Roath to find out.

A photo of YMCA Plas

YMCA Plas

Throughout my recent posts on asset transfer, I’ve visited organisations that have gone through the asset transfer process and are now on the other side. My final visit was a bit different, as it took me to an organisation who are developing their business plan for the site. I went to see the YMCA, who have taken on the old Plasnewydd Community Centre building on a leasehold basis for a hundred years from Cardiff Council. They are looking to redevelop the site, and originally wanted the building on a freehold basis to make the most of it.

Like all the other asset transfers in this series, it wouldn’t have been able to take place without working closely with the council. The transfer comes with an agreement for 25 years rent-free, without which the YMCA would not have been in a position to take the asset transfer forward. This has given them breathing space, and enabled them to put the right building blocks in place to encourage growth.

The price of property in Cardiff made it difficult to find suitable premises, especially with the huge increase in the area’s student market. But now the deal has been done, the move will enable the YMCA’s Youth and Community arm to get out from under the homeless remit that YMCA are widely connected to in the area.

The council didn’t want to restrict how the YMCA makes use of the site, but it has stipulated that it must maintain community usage. The Local Authority deliberately didn’t tie the YMCA into a restrictive agreement, and the only other condition is that they can only sub-let 33% of the site. The YMCA maintained throughout the negotiation process that they would be unable to take on the staff through TUPE, as they didn’t have the capacity to do so.

What is the strategy for YMCA Plas?

As the lease for the building is so long, YMCA Plas needs to be multi-use, so that if circumstance change the building can still be functional. Fewer and fewer people have been coming to the building as it’s been earmarked for closure for quite some time, so the YMCA are currently running events to re-engage the community, and are looking to consult on its future.

The aim is for YMCA Plas to be a community hub for local groups and people in the area. They want to develop a sport facility with space for a gym to generate income, which will give the centre a health and wellbeing focus.

The organisation are also developing a childcare strategy and a nursery. There is a lack of affordable childcare in the area, which they’ve identified through working with Communities First. Not many people know that the YMCA is the biggest childcare provider in UK, which the organisation can draw on to take this part of the plan forward. They are also looking to rent out rooms where possible and to rent spaces to organisations whose purpose aligns with their aims and objectives.

The entrance to the building is on the side of the street, so the organisation is looking to move the entrance so that it focuses on footfall from the street. This will clearly show that it’s open and accessible to the public, instead of relying on people to go down the side street.

Lessons learnt

Throughout the process the organisation focussed on the council’s timelines, which meant that the focus wasn’t always as intense on their own requirements. As staff were not transferred over to the organisation, embedding new staff whilst taking over a new facility was a big challenge. This meant that they couldn’t hit the ground running in the way that they would have liked, and the transfer involved so much work it was difficult to focus on what was going to happen afterwards. However the core message in the short term has been to maintain the current business, which doesn’t pay the bills but does contribute to it. Because of effective planning they are able to soak up the immediate losses whilst the business plan is being developed. The challenge now is for the organisation to continue to run the business whilst developing a path forward.

A vision for the future

I’ve lived in Roath for the past few years, and it’s a vibrant and diverse place to live. I’ve given blood at the centre a few times, but I must admit that I haven’t made the most of the facility that’s been on my doorstep.

The area has lots of people living side by side, but who aren’t always integrated. I’m all for anything that brings people together in the area, and I’m excited to see how the YMCA make their vision for the community centre into a reality by involving community groups and the people of Roath.

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.

The Muni Arts Centre: An asset transfer driven by the community

The closure of the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd prompted an outcry, which in turn prompted a community led bid to take it over. Dyfrig Williams visited the thriving centre to find out how it’s progressed since the asset transfer.

Chris Bolton wrote a post a while back about how annoying your citizens can lead to community action. It’s a thought-provoking read about how closing a community asset can lead to a strong public response, and that public services can build on the strength of this reaction.

It was fascinating to see how that has happened at the Muni Arts Centre, where a grass roots campaign to save the centre and develop it sprung from the decision to close its doors by the council.

Background

The Muni Arts Centre

The Muni Arts Centre

There was a huge outcry when the decision was made to discontinue the Muni Centre from council cultural services. 150 people attended a consultation event on the future of the building in the space of a couple of hours. A number of groups wanted to make sure it stayed open, and a number of companies expressed an interest in making the building a base for their business. Artis Community, Pontypridd Town Council, Cylch Cymreig and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust came together as the Muni Working Group and quickly formed the newly incorporated Muni Arts Centre Limited. They built on their similarities and strengths to develop the bid, which is remarkably similar to the Assets Based Community Development approach on the Nurture Development site that Chris references in his blog.

In terms of building on the strengths within the community, there’s no better place to start than with the board itself. Taking control of a building like the Muni is a huge responsibility, but the Muni’s board members are well placed to do so and to put strong governance processes in place. Jon Huish, a former councillor, has a great understanding of council processes and the public sector. Alun Taylor of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust specialises in governance. Rob Hughes, the Chair of Cylch Cymreig, runs a festival in Ynys-y-Bwl, and Gethin Williams, Chief Executive of the Town Council is also a Solicitor. Wendy York, the Chief Executive of Artis Community was responsible for much of the groundwork, has extensive experience of the arts and strong voluntary sector networks.

The council faced criticism from the community over its initial decision, and the asset transfers it had previously dealt with were on a much smaller scale. They were clear that they wanted to help the process and created an enabling grant fund. They took a risk in choosing to transfer the asset to the community, when a private sector development would have clear commercial benefits. It’s an example of decision making that focuses on the long term, and it’s the kind of approach that public services will have to show has been considered under the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

The community

With such a strong board, it would be easy for them to do what many other organisations have done over the years and use their own individual visions as a roadmap for the Muni. But the business case was based on the vision of the 150 people who attended the consultation event. It is rooted in the community, with the Muni as a hub for the regeneration for the wider area and the arts’ place within it.

A photo of the Think Food Life café inside the Muni

The Think Food Life café at the Muni

The café at the Muni is a social enterprise called Think Food Life, which focuses on people’s health and wellbeing by providing nutritional food. It’s the first café in Pontypridd that can cater for specific dietary requirements, and it aims for 80% of its food to come from local sources. There was interest from Merthyr and Valleys Mind to set up an allotment to provide vegetables for the Muni, and the idea was strengthened by the Muni Project veteran’s group, who proposed work on garden land at the Muni with potential support from the allotments society. The Muni has received funding from the Armed Forces Community Covenant Grant as the recruitment centre used to be next door, which provides opportunities for veterans to take part in the Muni’s work, be it through volunteering or directly in the arts.

A Fit for Life project will also look to connect health and fitness work to the nutritional focus of the café, which shows how the Muni is looking to go beyond a strictly arts focus and be a hub for the entire community. The Muni is also looking at bringing organisations together at a strategic level to enable people to do more for themselves through working with Pontypridd YMCA and the development of the Courthouse, which will support the startup and growth of social enterprise.

Passion

This all shows what is possible when projects are based on the passion and talent of the community. The building itself is really impressive, just like the drive and determination of the board and the community members who’ve put in such incredible effort to make the project a success. If you’re looking to transfer an asset to the community, it’s worth asking how can you genuinely work with the community and build on their strengths?

Gwesty Seren: Effective asset transfer and a new way of providing respite care

As we live in challenging economic times, it’s likely that a lot of voluntary organisations and Town and Community Councils will have community assets transferred to them. Dyfrig Williams visited Gwesty Seren to hear the lessons learnt from their community asset transfer and how they deliver respite care.

We are often signposted to examples of good practice, but it’s not so often that we hear about a project with good practice to share for a few different reasons.

We went to Gwesty Seren, a hotel based in Gwynedd that offers supported holidays, to learn about how it’s been transferred successfully to the community. But I also had a broader interest in how they’re providing respite care in a very different way.

The charity’s work

Picture of Gwesty Seren

Gwesty Seren

Seren is a charity that is based in Blaenau Ffestiniog, which provides care for people with learning difficulties. The charity was founded 20 years ago under Care in the Community, with the aim of supporting people to move out of institutions and into the community. People create craft and art, which is then sold in the shop and market garden. This helped people to be independent so that they didn’t rely on fees from Gwynedd Council or private individuals, and it also gives them a chance to get a taste of work. This mentality has continued at Gwesty Seren, where they provide work experience.

Gwesty Seren decided to go further than standard respite care. They wanted to provide a different kind of care, so they created a 3 star hotel with a focus on supporting disabled people. The toilets and rooms have been developed so that they are accessible to everyone.

The hotel also allows families to stay there. Their research showed that a lot of families have received poor respite care in the past, so they weren’t happy to leave their children’s care entirely in the hands of someone they didn’t know. The hotel allows them to stay with their children if they want, but whilst also giving them the break they need. This unique service means that the hotel also provides spaces for people who receive services from nearby councils, like Conwy and Ceredigion, with families even travelling to stay from across the border in England.

The success of the hotel has led to it working with three companies that specialise in holidays for people with learning difficulties, and recently, two further companies that specialise in holidays for physically disabled people began using the facilities. The people who have stayed there often end up coming back and making a block booking.

A photograph of a room at Gwesty Seren

A room at Gwesty Seren

The history of the building

The building itself was originally built by Lord Newborough in 1728 as a summer house. It stayed like this until just after the First World War, when the family took in soldiers who had had an accident or shock in the war to have a break or respite.

In the 1930s the building was given to two Franciscan Monks. They invited homeless people to stay, with the youngest monk travelling to London to invite people to stay at Bryn Llywelyn, as it was called at the time. Then the building was sold to Meirionnydd Council as a residential house for children, before being turned into an old people’s home. In 2010 the Council decided to close it.

Seren made a bid for the building to the Welsh Government and the Big Lottery Fund’s Community Asset Transfer Fund. A full application was submitted, before the work began in 2013. The work was completed in April 2014.

Transferring the building

Usually the transfer of assets from the public sector take place free of charge, but in this case, the council decided to sell the building at less than the market price. The council had to go through committees and raise awareness through the media, so it was not a quick process.

The cost of everything, including the purchase, was around £1,000,000, and applying for grants was a laborious process. Because it required a significant amount, the charity went on to borrow from the Charity Bank.

They were aware that questions would be asked about State Aid, so the charity hired a Cardiff law firm that specialised in it. A report was written on minimising the risk and the document showed the rationale for why it did not break the rules. It was a great help when working with European Officers and the Welsh European Funding Office.

Key messages

So one of the main message from Gwesty Seren is that asset transfer isn’t a quick process. But it’s clear by looking at the comments on their TripAdvisor page that the hard work has been worth it. And from the testimonials of other customers (whether it’s directly to the hotel or in a newsletter), I can see that their respite care that has a big impact on people’s lives, has helped the regeneration of  Blaenau Ffestiniog by creating 10 full time jobs and is actively contributing to the area’s tourist industry.