Tuesday 30 October 2012

Gelli Aur - a Carmarthenshire tale

Carmarthenshire County Council runs what it likes to call an "exciting" investment strategy, although as we lurch from one disaster to the next with ever more inventive off-balance sheet deals and slight-of-hand accountancy magic (see Caebrwyn's Eastgate and the Developers for the latest fairground attraction), "terrifying" is probably the word most council tax payers would apply to this out of control ride.

Cneifiwr was recently reminded of the fate of another of Carmarthenshire's famous herd of white elephants, the Gelli Aur estate, now finally retired and limping towards what looks like the elephants' graveyard.
Gelli Aur in happier times

Gelli Aur (which translates into English as "golden grove") is close to Llandeilo, and was originally the home of the Vaughan family who claimed descent from the princes of Powys. The estate was acquired by the Cawdor family at the beginning of the 19th century, and they built the present house in the 1830s. The National Trust apparently considers it to be one of the ten most important historic houses in Wales, and it is Grade II Listed.

The Cawdors left in the 1930s, and during the Second World War the house was used by American airmen. Later the County Council acquired a lease on the property, and part of it has been used by Coleg Sir Gâr, while the surrounding park was open to the public, complete with tearooms.

Four Green Bottles - the Techniums

In 2001 the now-defunct Welsh Development Agency decided to invest in a dramatic expansion of the Technium business incubator scheme which was pioneered by Swansea University. At least five new centres were to be built in different parts of Wales initially, and a couple of years later the programme was expanded again with £150 million of new funding.

Things began to move quickly. On 3 September 2001 the county council's Ratification Committee (chair Meryl Gravell) met to discuss a range of matters. The Technium centres were briefly mentioned, and it seemed that Carmarthenshire would be getting four of the five, although a decision was still pending on Aqua Technium.

Barely two weeks later, on 18th September 2001, members of the county council's Regeneration Board (membership then included Cllr Meryl Gravell, currently Executive Board Member responsible for, erm, Regeneration) met in closed session to discuss a number of different plans and projects. There was great excitement because the WDA had now apparently said that Carmarthenshire would get the four Technium centres, although it had decided to locate Auto Technium at Dafen (aka Llanelli Gate) rather than at Pembrey as originally planned.

There was some disappointment over this, as it had been argued that proximity to the Pembrey racing circuit was ideal for a business incubator specialising in engine components. Councillors were also worried that plans for a horse racing track at Pembrey were looking dicey. This gleam in Meryl's eye later turned out to be Ffos Las, conveniently closer to Trimsaran. In addition to Auto Technium, the county was to get a Media Technium (location undecided), a Bio Technium (National Botanic Gardens) and an Aqua Technium at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre in Llanelli.

£1.6 million of council money was allocated to the Aqua Technium. Whatever happened to this centre is unclear, although it seems that Swansea University may have poached it back. In Carmarthenshire it received a quiet burial at the Wildfowl Centre, possibly along with some other dead ducks.

Roll forward three months, and in late December 2001 Cllr Pam Palmer, then as now a member of the county council's Executive Board, and Rob Sully (now Director of Education) were busy approving an exciting business development plan for the county. The plan included taking "full advantage" of the council's unique position in the Technium scheme by "contributing significantly to the development of Auto-Technium at Llanelli Gate and supporting the development of Media Technium at Gelli Aur and Bio Technium at the National Botanic Garden of Wales".

As this is a trip down memory lane, we should also mention the arrival of another member of the Dream Team at this exciting point in our county's history, as it was at this time that Mark James became Chief Executive, fresh from his triumph with what is now known as the Princess Royal Arena in Boston, Lincolnshire. This grandiose sports arena unfortunately attracted a very critical report from the Audit Commission in 2007. Initially it was said that it would not cost the tax payers of Boston a penny; they are still paying.

Subsequently the Auto Technium limped along, quietly dropping the Auto from its name. The Welsh Government, which had sent the WDA off to the knacker's yard by this time, struck a hush-hush deal with the County Council last year. The council rebranded it "The Beacon" and has several times misleadingly claimed that under its expert guidance the centre's fortunes have been transformed and that it is full to capacity.

What Auto Technium/the Beacon has so far cost the council tax payer is not known, but we can be sure that it won't have come cheap.

The Bio Technium at Llanarthne appears to have had an even less illustrious history. In January 2005, the Western Mail reported that it was going nowhere, although it said that a £2.5 million centre had been built to house it and had been empty for three years. The WDA's contribution to that was £768,000.

Swansea University published a paper in 2002 which put the cost of the Bio Technium at £4.7 million.

At some point after 2005 the Bio Technium also had a quiet funeral, with the Welsh Assembly saying in 2010 that it had been taken over by a bio technology company.

How much the county council chipped in is not known, although the National Botanic Garden is listed as one of the investors, and Carmarthenshire is one of the garden's financial backers.

Which leaves just Media Technium, which was supposed to bring new life to Gelli Aur.

This scheme was more ambitious than most of its sickly cousins, and had a price tag of £9.7 million, of which £5.2 million was to have been funded from public money, according to the Western Mail. A key partner in the venture was businessman Jeffrey Paul Thomas, acting through his companies Gelli Aur Ltd and Hatham Park plc.

There was a great deal of excitement about this in 2002, and one of the companies said to be interested in taking up residence was Telesgop, the Welsh television production company. Telesgop, which had probably done its own due diligence and looked at records from Companies House, quickly dropped out.

It is understood that money began to flow from the WDA and the county council to the tune of up to £1 million, but time dragged on, and nothing much happened. Work apparently began on the house, but then stopped when it was discovered that there was no planning permission.

Then in June 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.

Companies House currently has records of 77 directorships held by Mr Thomas, of which 17 are active. 60 other companies have been dissolved.

As we were reminded recently by the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire, the council does not normally carry out background checks on organisations it helps fund, leaving that to the Welsh Government and other central public bodies.

The collapse of the Bio and Media projects cost the taxpayer millions of pounds without creating a single job, and it is questionable whether the surviving venture at Dafen has ever launched a new company either. A great deal of the centre is currently occupied by public sector agencies, and it is reasonable to ask whether any of the companies now in residence would have done equally well without the scheme.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Technium fiasco and why two of the centres were nicknamed Emptium and Desertium by officials, should read this reflective piece from the Western Mail.

A Golden Future

Meanwhile, the house at Gelli Aur stood empty after the departure in 2003 of the agricultural college, with the county council still in possession of its lease on both the house and the estate. 

In early 2005 the estate was bought by a company called Harmoni Developments, which said it had plans to turn the house into a luxury hotel (see Western Mail article here). The plans were ambitious, and Harmoni said it was actively engaged in other development schemes in Merthyr Tydfil.

By the end of the same year, Harmoni Developments was out of business.

Another property developer from Narberth bought the house in January 2007, planning to turn it into flats. In 2009 it was sold again to another developer with similar plans.

At some point while all this was going on, the lead was stripped from the roof, and the fabric of the house went into sharp decline.

Next up a charity appeared on the scene hoping to buy the house and turn it into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers. That scheme collapsed as well, and in October 2011 the BBC was reporting that the property had been acquired by an outfit calling itself the Golden Grove Trust. The Trust said it planned to turn the house into an art gallery and the grounds into a sculpture park.

According to the BBC, "Carmarthenshire council holds a lease on the mansion and has confirmed the sale, with the council maintaining the estate for the next 18 months".

The council confirmed this in a press release in March 2012. "Golden New Future for Country Park", it announced, assuring the public that most of the grounds would remain open to the public.

Golden Grove Trust was registered as a charity in August 2011, and its records state that it was set up with the express purpose of saving the house and turning it into an art gallery, etc.

The trustees are listed as Mr William Powell Wilkins CBE, Mr Richard Christo Salmon (or Richard Christopher Salmon) and Lady Jane Frances Birt.

Mr Wilkins is an artist, while Mr Salmon has been involved with various art and antiques dealerships and companies.

As a new charity, Golden Grove does not have a history of published accounts, but one of its trustees, Mr William Wilkins is also trustee of a charity called Artes Mundi Prize Ltd, which aims to present a "landmark programme of international, contemporary visual art that will enrich the cultural and educational life of Wales and its people".

The contact person for the Golden Grove Trust is Mr Salmon, residing at a smart address in London.

There is nothing to suggest that the latest venture is anything other than a bona fide attempt to bring art to the people of Wales, but the project will be a huge and very expensive undertaking given the vandalism and neglect that has gone on while the County Council has been responsible as leaseholder for the house and estate. Local people and those familiar with the recent history of the estate could be forgiven for being sceptical.

The three backers are all in their 60s or 70s. Two of the three (Mr Salmon and Lady Jane Birt), appear to live in some of the most upmarket parts of London, while Mr Wilkins is an established artist who was born in England but is known for his Welsh landscapes.

One oddity is that given their artistic backgrounds you might have thought the trustees would have been aware of cultural sensitivities in this Welsh-speaking part of Wales and used the actual Welsh name of the house, Gelli Aur, rather than an Engish translation of the name when setting up their project.

It is also appropriate to ask how the project, which will almost certainly require several millions of pounds, will be funded.

[Update - thanks to Anon. for putting another piece of the jigsaw into place. William Wilkins was the brains behind the National Botanic Gardens at Llanarthne (see article here), another "won't cost you a penny" project. He was also heavily involved in the successful restoration of Aberglasney gardens.]

Meanwhile, with the county council still "maintaining" the park and the house continuing its slide to ruin, large areas of the park, including the deer park trail and arboretum, were closed by the new owners in March 2012. The cafe, which is privately operated, will be closed in the next few days.

The closures were necessary, apparently, on the grounds of health and safety, security and insurance considerations. No timescale has been given by the Trust for letting the public back in.

And so ends this sad and sorry tale of incompetence, greed and good intentions gone bad. Although the Welsh Development Agency bears the primary responsibility for the failure of the Technium schemes, the County Council was by no means an innocent bystander. One of the remarkable things about this is how many of the key players in this drama are still in place as senior officers of the council or members of the governing Executive Board. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been wasted, without a single job created, and there are grounds for suspecting that there may have been serious fraud involved at some points along the way.

It is also surely extraordinary that as leaseholder with responsibility for management of the estate for so long, the County Council has stood by as the house was vandalised and allowed it and parts of the park to fall into neglect.

The BBC's current affairs programme Taro 9 carried out an investigation into the Media Technium farce some years ago (background article here in Welsh). Perhaps it is time for them to take another look.


Anonymous said...

Is that the same Christopher Salmon from London who is standing to be the Police Commissioner for Dyfed Powys?

Cneifiwr said...

No, just a coincidence that their names are the same.

Anonymous said...

Ymchwil rhagorol Cneifiwr- Mr Wilkins sydd a thy yn Nhrap gafodd y syniad o ail greu gerddi Aberglsney, a'r Gerddi Botaneg, tra bod Aberglasney yn ardd breifat lewyrchus, ni'n dal yn gorfod talu am ei eliffant wen yn Middleton, diolch Wil.

Anonymous said...

It is a real shame if the Gelli Aur estate cn not be used by the public. I have spent many happy hours in the grounds as they are quite beautiful- or at least they used to be. I thing the area infront of the house is an arboretum.

They used to have wild deer roaming in the grounds and Im sure that if marketed correctly the grounds could pay their own way. Not sure about the house though - its very big and would probably cost a fortune to improve and run.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Aberglasney would have been restored without the work of William Wilkins, he has a strong track record in restorations -- just as well, considering the dreadful state of Gelli Aur.
On the subject of Carmarthenshire money pits, will the Towy Community Church project become another one?

Anonymous said...

It's not only the house that has had its name anglicized.


Anonymous said...

Gelli Aur would make a lovely hotel or a location for a out of town shopping ie Sainsburys!!! but William Wilkins lives in Trap and is also the man behind the restoration of LLanelly House .He pushed for the Botanic Garden ie for Wales to have its own Botanic Garden

Anonymous said...

The malevolent force here is Carmarthenshire Council and its cronies full of closed meetings.
Mr William Wilkinsis the one to be supported and indeed reminded the project might go further with its' original Welsh name.

Anonymous said...

Another case for the ombudsman!

Anonymous said...

At a recent civic meeting William Wilkins said that he is no lonegr involved in the project.

Council hve withdrawn from the country park which will close next month.

Most of the 'features' of the Towy Valley now belongs to people who do not live in Wales and the council offer no facilities in any of the villages in the valley.

Anonymous said...