Tag Archives: arts

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?