A robust discussion took place this morning at the Town Centre Forum over the plans to partially convert the People’s Market to an Arts Hub.
As the plans near decision point both locally with Councillors and further afield with co-funders, Arts Council Wales was the topic that dominated the public meeting today – with Wrexham urged to be more positive over the plans.
Perhaps preempting the debate that followed the Lead Member for the project, Councillor Hugh Jones jokingly referred to a leaflet distributed to attendees on the topic of a course ‘dealing with conflict’ and ‘managing difficult people and situations’.
Cllr Jones provided an update to the status of the Arts Hub plans in a manner that was commended by many in the room for being not only eloquent but passionate. Anticipating the questions from the meeting he gave a brief overview of the history of the proposals, pointing out that elected Councillors themselves had requested a report on the future of the People’s Market and from that work (Quarterbridge) the Arts Hub idea was born.
Cllr Jones headed off the market provision criticism by noting: “Any future development of the People’s Market should and ought to have a market provision. This has been a key element of the development coming forward. We have had design and business experts look at the plans, we have a recommendation that has a modern and fit for purpose market element. In terms of bringing this forward we felt it was important to have the Arts Council on board, they are key to part of the funding. We now have a proposal for a project which we believe is viable.”
Speaking of a ‘vision for Wrexham’ where both areas of the development support each other he said: “Arts and culture will never be financially viable, what we have done is put together a proposal where arts and cultural hub will compliment and enhance the market provision.
“This is a vision for the future of Wrexham, the Arts Council Wales see Wrexham as a strategic regional centre for the arts.”
One point made by Nigel Lewis, Chair of the Forum referred to a document submitted by Wrexham Council: “I have the tender document, its a 15 page document , with three paragraphs on markets. The briefing to the consultant asks them to recommend the minimum number of traders to make the operation viable.”
Further questions were raised over the apparent non-provision of requested documentation by stakeholders, including the business case, and keeping documents back to ‘Part 2’ / private parts of meetings. Mr Lewis stated: “We were assured we would have sight of these items.”
In reply to questions over such document retention, Council Leader Mark Pritchard told the meeting: “We only take things into Part 2 if they are commercially sensitive or involve jobs. We take legal advice off our officers.” Providing an example to one forum member he explained that if the Council was negotiating a lease with local business, ‘you wouldn’t want that in public’.
Cllr Jones further explained in detail on what is possible to publish, or not publish, in terms of information reports stating: “As a local authority we are governed by financial regulations most are subject by audit by the Welsh Audit Office. If as elected members we go against the advice of the monitoring officer, and we can be surcharged as elected members. What we have tried to do is to work inside those rules.”
‘Legal advice’ was cited as the deciding factor on keeping sections of reports private rather than a personal preference. To a degree the discussion was moot, with the document being declared in public domain.
The commercial content of the Arts Hub was questioned by one town trader, who said: “Wrexham needs entrepreneurs and the greatest place to get people off the ground is a market. I would like to see a cultural and arts component in the People’s Market but I have no confidence in the arts for arts sake approach.”
Stating a preference for ‘entrepreneurial arts’ examples were given: “A lot of people have lost total confidence in what we are doing. We need artisans crafts, people doing jewellery, woodcrafts such as Simon O’Rorke tree carving is for example – they are retailed to market not themselves.
“It is not introverted, rather it is geared to the marketplace and drives footfall. The plan needs totally restructuring.”
Cllr Jones replied: “I don’t disagree with thrust of what you are saying. 150 square metres of this project is for doing what you say. Artisan marketing would be a key element of this project and there will be provision to encourage it.”
Cllr Jones went on to use Ruthin Arts and Craft Centre as an example, citing 99,000 “…visitors a year go to a relatively remote part of North Wales because of the arts and crafts there.”
Countering the perception of ‘high brow’ arts provision, Cllr Jones went on to give examples of outreach work conducted by the Oriel in Caia and other areas of Wrexham, ‘We are trying to make sure we incorporate a broad cross section, not just highbrow’.
Still not convinced the debate continued with the town trader replying: ” You want to maximise the space for retail, it is retail and other forms of entrepreneurial that will drive footfall. We have several arts facilities and these can conduct the educational elements of this. I don’t think that what you are doing currently is reinvigorating a market, it is changing the brand. If you want to call it a duck we have to make it look like a duck.”
Picking up on the specific educational benefits of the plans Cllr Jones said Wrexham as a town was ‘losing graduates’ as there is no provision of facilities as are planned in the Arts Hub, “We are trying to retain the graduates that are trained in Wrexham.
At this point the Wrexham Council Officer present said: “We have not articulated it as best as we have could.”
The Chair interjected: “If we could see what you have paid for, we could comment. Unfortunately aside from a few floor plans and elevations we have seen nothing. That is the problem.”
A ‘Plan B’ was referred to as having been created by the Town Centre Forum and appeared to have been circulated prior to the meeting. Several ‘Forum Members’ have stated they were unhappy with being associated in support of, or co-authoring the document, prompting a small discussion to the actual make up and structure of the Forum.
Cllr Carol O’Toole spoke to commend the work done on the plan, however asked: “If the document is circulated more widely some references are made that the document doesn’t represent the views of everyone here. The people who are members who contributed to Plan B should be listed and referred to as a working party or sub group.”
Looking towards a more conciliatory approach Cllr O’Toole said: “The strength of the Forum has been in partnership working. We all come from different viewpoints, we have always acknowledged there are differing views, but have always managed to work in partnership. We are talking about the report going before Councillors , and it is a backwards step if we talk about two plans.
“People have referred to the idea of working together going forward to bring out the best of the proposals that will bring us back to one plan. The reason I am pleading is that there is a risk it will be derailed and we will end up with nothing. Arts Council Wales (funding) is not offered to us every six months, we cannot risk losing it. Without it we cannot take forward this project in any reasonable way.”
A digital presentation screen was fired up in the room, however an expected run through of a ‘Plan B’ document or presentation did not occur so it is not possible to report on the exact contents. The meeting was told by the Chairman the ‘Plan B’ was put together inside a week and ‘offers what they believe is a viable option to that market, and has a strong cultural offering’.
The plan has estimated costs of £500,000 and would be ‘quick to implement’. No details of costings, expenditure, research or sources of funding were given. With the lack of consultation and openness being one main criticisms of the Council from the group preparing Plan B, there was no mention of wider discussions to the source of ideas or proposals, nor if any consultation would be part of their plan. At the latter stages of the meeting it was said the Plan B would be circulated to members.
Wrexham Council did state they wished for ‘elements’ of Plan B to be taken on board to improve the overall plans, however did say they could not comment on the plan fully due to the short period of time from receipt. A comment was made along the general flavour of the meeting that the short period was of the Council’s own making as the wider information had not been made public and therefore until now such a plan was not seen as needed by some.
The debate over clarity was conducted forcefully, with the Chairman replying to a comment over working in partnership said: “For a partnership the key is openness, honesty and transparency and parties having access to information. We are not party to any financial information on this project, it is difficult for us to be active partners. It is more of a master and servant relationship. We cannot do that unless we have the deliverables that have been paid for by its constituents.”
“One of the reasons this has gone forward as there has been no investment in the People’s Market for years. We have never been told that Wrexham Council would be considering £1.5m of capital expenditure and an operational loss.”
Wrexham’s Assembly Member Lesley Griffiths was attending the meeting, who is also a Minister in Welsh Government, and noted the views of ‘many constituents’ that had contacted her saying: “The lack of consultation and lack of transparency is concerning that it is still going on” and referred to the viability of the plans being of ‘huge concern’.
Although stating he was attending the meeting to observe and listen the Council Leader Mark Pritchard weighed in with a forthright defence of the plans, transparency and questioned why the ambition of Wrexham was different to other places nearby:
“None of us have a monopoly on passion, but there will be times when yourselves and others will not be able to see everything as it will be commercially sensitive.” said Cllr Pritchard.
“Wrexham should be and hopefully will be the Capital of North Wales. We have the right. We have the aspirations and the business people to take ourselves forward. For some reason in the past we have doubted ourselves and have been self critical. We should have had a theatre, but have not as people tore themselves apart on personal issues. We need to be aware of that.
“If this was being proposed in Chester, Mold or Shrewsbury, people would be praising it saying ‘lets have it’, in Wrexham we get negativity, negativity, negativity.
“I don’t mind constructive criticism, but I don’t like the ‘we don’t like it for personal reasons’, we should be getting together and taking it forward and working in true partnership.
“What we have is an opportunity for today, the Minister is here today, we (Wrexham Council) will commit £1.5m, we have money from the VVP (Vibrant and Viable Places) and are hoping to work with the Arts Council. Why wouldn’t we want to work with them and bring money to this town?
Stating his frustration he ended by saying: “I am a little perplexed here this morning why don’t you want it. Why can’t we have it? Lets be aspirational! If we don’t get the money, it’s dead in the water, we can’t afford it.”
The meeting was told that as the fuller report has become public knowledge it will ‘remain in the public domain’ and the majority will now be discussed in public tomorrow at the Scrutiny Meeting rather than in secret. There will still be a ‘Part 2’ secret element, with the contents explained as ‘not affecting the business plan’ but dealing with a breakdown of the source of the Council’s £1.5m contribution. The meeting expressed a view that such a restriction and private discussion was sensible and reasonable for such a debate.
Further, an ‘open book’ meeting period was offered via an ‘open surgery’ at the Market’s Office in the People’s Market
we are double checking the details of this offer and will update shortly.
Wrexham Council have clarified saying: “An information event on plans for the Arts Hub will take place from 10am until 4pm on Friday, January 8 at the Markets Office, People’s Market South Mall, Wrexham
“The event will be open to all those stakeholders affected by the development of the Arts Hub, and Cllr Hugh Jones, Lead Member for Communities and Partnerships, will be available to discuss plans alongside officers. Those wishing to share their views can do so by e-mailing email@example.com “