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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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Tregaron: Spider landed on driver before fatal crash

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A SPIDER landing on a woman’s hand caused a car crash which resulted in the death of her 11-year-old son, an inquest heard.

Tristan Silver was being driven to school by his mother Cloud Younger alongside his sister Branwen on May 4 2018, when the crash occurred near Tregaron.

The inquest in Aberystwyth on Wednesday (Jun 19) heard that the blue Subaru Legacy estate car drifted on to the wrong side of the A485 and hit a black Mitsubishi Shogun towing a trailer.

Farmer David Glyndwr Jones had loaded 60 lambs into the trailer before setting off for a market in Builth Wells with his wife. Around 8.45am Mr and Mrs Jones saw the Subaru driving towards them, and having seen that the vehicle was not slowing down, Mr Jones decided to pull his car into the verge and brace for impact.

When the cars met head-on, Mr and Mrs Jones, Mrs Younger and her daughter were left with minor injuries, but Tristan suffered serious head injuries. He was airlifted to hospital in Cardiff where he was pronounced dead.

After an interview with the police in June 2018, where Mrs Younger answered ‘no comment’ to each question, a prepared statement to police later explained that a spider had landed on her left hand as she was driving. This caused eight-year-old Branwen to start screaming, and Mrs Younger then tried to calm her daughter down, whilst continuing to drive.

The statement said that the Subaru had recently passed its MOT and all three people in the car were wearing seat belts. The inquest heard that the speed of the vehicle at the point of impact could not be ascertained, but Mr Jones said that his car was nearly at a standstill at the time of the crash.

Ceredigion Coroner Peter Brunton recorded a conclusion of misadventure.

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Plaid Cymru Cardigan hold event to support local initiatives

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MP Ben Lake led the evening

THE CARDIGAN plaid Cymru branch held a successful evening at the Fisherman’s Rest, Cardigan on Friday June 14 2019 to help share information and the experiences of local community benefit groups, as well as grant opportunities available to support such initiatives.

The evening was led by County Councillor Clive Davies and Member of Parliament for Ceredigion, Ben Lake. During the evening a presentation was given on far-reaching grant opportunities available for such community groups – drawing from examples of societies and community enterprises created in Cardigan over the last 5 years – and how they got started, grew from strength to strength, and received funding to achieve and support their objectives.

Following the meeting, Cllr Clive Davies said: “The success of local initiatives and groups have played a key role in Cardigan’s success as a vibrant market town over recent years. I welcomed the opportunity to further raise awareness of the opportunities and avenues of support available to such groups and enterprises to help them to continue to make an invaluable contribution to the town and local area.”

Ben Lake MP added: “Cardigan boasts a successful array of lively community projects and small businesses that have brought an added vigour to both the town and Ceredigion as a whole. It was useful to have the opportunity to discuss the challenges these groups face, as well as share information regarding the wide array of support and funding available to support and maintain their important work”.

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Ben Lake MP pledges support for advancing MS research

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BEN LAKE MP for Ceredigion has shown his support for investment in MS research, after visiting an exhibition by the MS Society in Parliament this week.

The exhibition, ‘Multiple Sclerosis – The Research Story’, gave parliamentarians the opportunity to hear from people living with MS and leading MS researchers around the UK. It featured personal objects from the MS community, representing what it’s like to live with the condition, alongside the latest developments in cutting-edge research.

Ben Lake, MP said: “I am delighted to have attended the MS Society’s parliamentary exhibit and see first-hand how close we are to stopping MS”

“MS is an unpredictable and challenging condition, which can be painful and exhausting. I want to see investment in this area of research continue to rise so everyone living with MS in Ceredigion and across the UK has access to effective treatments.”

Over the past 20 years MS research has led to major advances, including more than a dozen licensed treatments for people with the relapsing form of MS. But more investment is needed to find more, and better, treatments for everyone – including ones that can slow or stop MS from progressing.

Dr Susan Kohlhaas, Director of Research at the MS Society, said: “We’re really grateful Ben Lake MP has pledged their support for our work. More than 100,000 people live with MS in the UK and many are still left without treatment options that slow or stop progression. But we are at a turning point in MS research and the UK is at the forefront of this. We are closer than ever before to having treatments for everyone with MS, and stopping MS for good.”

The MS Society is the UK’s leading not-for-profit funder of MS research and is currently supporting over 70 active projects worth more than £20 million. To find out more about the MS Society and the vital research it is funding visit www.mssociety.org.uk

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