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Tŷ Pawb branded ‘jewel in crown’ of Wrexham as councillors examine early report after ‘wobble’ concerns

Progress of Wrexham’s new arts and market facility has been welcomed by councillors, however questions still remain over footfall figures and future success of the facility; along with an odd comment from a lead councillor over the existence of a previous meeting.

Back in June a committee of councillors had concerns over the progress of the new arts and market centre in the town centre, asking for a report to be brought forward several months early to discover if a ‘wobble’ was taking place.

The past few months have seen ups and downs for Tŷ Pawb, which came to a head in August 2018 when it was revealed that the at the time the council hadn’t collected a single penny in rent since the facility had opened.

Wrexham Council also faced strong criticism from some traders who accused the local authority of “dragging their feet in getting the paperwork sorted”, with one trader telling us yesterday they still had not signed paperwork and was disputing a legal fee.

However just three months later the picture of Tŷ Pawb was presented as unimpeachable by Cllr Hugh Jones, lead member for communities, partnerships, public protection and community safety, who described the facility as the “jewel in Wrexham’s crown”.

Speaking at yesterday’s employment, business and investment scrutiny meeting, Cllr Jones said: “The report in front of us is a report which is strong on figures and a significant amount of detail relevant for the topic being discussed.

“It is important we see the full picture and the journey so far and recall where we came from. It came from a failing market and a limited art gallery, both in appeal and in ambience and attracting a fairly narrow audience.”

“By any measure Tŷ Pawb is a success story. You only have to look at achievements, it was delivered on time and on budget, which is fairly unique in public projects of this size.”

Cllr Jones continued: “There is a temptation to measure success in monetary terms. We need to remember the thousands of people who have visited already, the number of young people who enjoy learning experience in Tŷ Pawb.

“We are providing an opportunity for local people to show their art works, talents and skills. A number of businesses are establishing themselves in the new venture.

“The picture is a very positive one that we can confidently look forward to going forward.

“It is important to set the scene and picture of a project we can justifiably be proud of. It is succeeding beyond our expectations.”

Last week Wrexham.com reported that Tŷ Pawb was working towards a revised business plan and targets, rather than one devised by consultants ‘Fourth Street’ a few years ago, with the meeting last night at one point referring to an even earlier plan by another set of consultants.

The headline figures in the revised financial report show the centre is on track to be in a better financial picture than predicted under the old business plan, with a £188k loss being ‘just’ £173k despite an acknowledged ‘wobble’ – however the council’s £139k arts budget effectively means the entire Tŷ Pawb project is being delivered for a predicted £33k shortfall in year one, and that is not counting spend that may have been required on the Peoples Market.

Those councillors who spoke were accused of being ‘slightly negative’ by their colleague Cllr Alun Jenkins, who preferred to look at the positives that emerged in the meeting.

Cllr Rodney Skelland, a self-confessed critic of Tŷ Pawb from the start, said that constituents in his ward ‘stop him and ask’ why the council have put millions into the project.

He said: “People say you have spent £4.5 million on it and they’ve walked through and there have been few people in there, it does generate a lot of discussion in my ward. I have to defend it.

“But when I walk through sometimes the footfall doesn’t seem to mirror what we read here. When I talk to traders they say the one thing they don’t have is customers because of the footfall.

“I was a critic right from the start as I thought the Peoples Market was good. We had a task and finish group and committee looked at it and we were going to have an internet market there.

“That didn’t happen, the Vibrant and Viable Places money came along and it was dropped for this project. It is a very rosy picture you’re painting, but what are the long-term prospects?

“It did take a long time to start, I had people coming to me saying it was a building site. It has moved on, but what is the future?

“This committee criticised the business plan you brought at the time and it’s moved on.”

However Cllr Jones said while Cllr Skelland “talks about the committee criticising the business plan, it had never been brought to this committee”, adding that “Cllr Skelland’s’ starting point is different from reality”, noting the actual council contribution of £1.5m with the  Arts Council Wales providing £2.3 million and £700,000 from the Welsh Government Vibrant and Viable Places scheme.

A quick look through the Wrexham.com and Wrexham Council archives show that such a meeting did take place in January 2016 – a meeting Cllr Skelland and Cllr Jones attended and we observed for the three hour duration from the public gallery and wrote a long report on it – the meeting being memorable for the farcical end.

Cllr Geoff Lowe said he would like to see Tŷ Pawb succeed “mainly for traders who have had the courage to set up a business there”, but noted that he has also seen low footfall when he has walked through the buildings over the past few months.

Cllr Lowe also referenced the challenges facing the high street and businesses across the country at the moment. Such reference is also made in the appendix two of the Tŷ Pawb report about traders leaving. However Blank Canvas, who operated a coffee shop in the building, left the facility citing ‘management issues’ – choosing instead to return back to their shop in Bank Street in the town centre.

Cllr Lowe continued: “It is important we do give it the back it needs to get through a difficult time. The people of Wrexham deserve a success story.

“We need to see positive signs that we are able to fight our way through the decline in the country at the moment.

“To a degree I don’t agree with the ‘jewel in Wrexham’s crown’, I think it is a bit rich.”

Few questions were asked on the subject of traders, with many focusing on the overall finance of the centre itself, a position not helped by the lack of external input to the committee meeting.

Alex Jones, co-owner of Plât Bach in Tŷ Pawb, was invited to attend the meeting in his capacity as chairman of the Town Centre Forum and was expected to comment on his experiences at the facility. His business partner also attended the meeting, but did not appear to contribute aside from shaking his head in apparent disagreement when Cllr Hugh Jones referenced the ‘excellent footfall figures’.

Just before 5pm both left the meeting, with Alex Jones turning to the public gallery branding it a ‘waste of time’. Later we asked him about his comments and he told us just before the meeting the Chairman Cllr Roberts told him he was attending as Forum chair rather than a trader and had made it clear via the committee Chairman they had a prior engagement so would have to leave early.

Mr Jones told us as he runs the Town Centre Forum meetings, and no questions had been put to the Forum nor feedback invited, he was unsure what he would have been asked on if he had stayed, and queried if this was a method to say the Forum had been consulted when it had not. Mr Jones noted he would have been happy to answer any questions in his position as a trader.

We spoke with councillors who told us that in the ‘pre meeting’ meeting of the committee members expressed a desire to hear from a wide number of sources, including traders if they attended. Some after the meeting expressed surprise that Mr Jones was not asked for his first hand views.

Later that debate ended up on twitter, with committee member Cllr Marc Jones and Mr Jones exchanging tweets:

The running of the meeting is in the gift of the Chairman, which includes who is called to speak and when. Chair Cllr Roberts and Mr Jones are certainly aware of each other, having faced off in the battleground of Erddig in last years council elections.

With the meeting progressing Cllr Dana Davies prefaced her finance and governance questions by pointing out: “I have been in a lot, I have eaten, been to events and so on”

“My concern all along has been the business plan, in a budget position where we are cutting year on year. I have been looking from the point of view any deficits would be funded through grants.”

Cllr Davies said she did not want any such deficit funding to come from the council’s revenue support grant allocation, ‘otherwise we would be cutting education and social services to fund the art project’.

A previously stated £120k Arts Council grant was pointed to by Cllr Davies, which the meeting was told was now had a 4% cut to £115k. Cllr Davies asked a specific question on if the centre was being run at an ‘ambitious’ or ‘conservative’ business plan, with the oddly precise wording later making sense as she revealed she was quoting an earlier report presented to the council’s Executive Board in 2015.

Initially officers said they ‘did not recognise your figures’, prompting a retort from Cllr Davies :”They are your figures, your name was on the report.”

The query revolved around the make up of the council’s own arts budget, on if it contained a match fund with the Arts Council Wales or not, with Cllr Davies appearing to think the latter. Further detail was assured to be provided to Cllr Davies after the meeting to show that was not the case.

Cllr Davies queried if Tŷ Pawb would be subject to support cost charging internally like other services are in Wrexham Council, with the example of such costs being put on schools recently in an effort to tighten budgets with HR, Legal and other such services now ‘billed’.

Cllr Hugh Jones pointed to the ‘significant education’ programme in the centre, apparently missing the point of the question. The meeting was told by an officer that the figures were not in the current figures, and no forecast was available, however they will be included in the year end report and no change to the outturn was expected.

Cllr Davies requested an update on the progress of the Tŷ Pawb Advisory Board, noting the last the committee had heard was interviewing for members was taking place.

Chair of the Board Derek Jones provided a comprehensive update of the make up and progress of the board, that has met several times this year but is targeting January for the first ‘proper’ meeting of real progression having been in ‘receiving mode’ previously.

The meeting was told the Board has eight members made up of a marketing and PR expert, three from the private sector, three from the arts and a facilities and equalities representative. Mr Jones spoke of further discussions and outreach to other partners, including Glyndwr University’s deputy vice chancellor who is keen to be involved. Mr Jones noted: “I am very confident people on board are very good.”

Mr Jones took the entrepreneurial opportunity to note his own personal involvement in Tŷ Pawb via a music orientated programming on Thursdays, inviting all to come and visit to experience it themselves, also securing a mention of the event via this report.

Mr Jones also gave the meeting its only non-councillor or non-council officer viewpoint on Tŷ Pawb, noting comments he had to the centre from visitors outside the area that were “100% positive”, with one common comment that stuck in his head along the lines of ‘we wish we had a facility like this in our town’.

Cllr Davies said she thought the Board would possible ‘morph into a trust’ to then take over the centre and enquired if the structure made that an easy process.

Cllr Hugh Jones replied, reiterating what he told Wrexham.com last week, that the advisory board will ‘make recommendation at some point in three years’ regarding the appropriate governance and delivery model for the centre, and such a recommendation would go to the Executive Board for a decision but nothing was being prejudged.

Cllr Davies felt the need to reiterate her support for the centre, and explained it had been suggested to her that some council officers were ‘surprised I was there so often’ as they had the impression that her scrutiny of the business plan implied no support.

A quick glance on the Tŷ Pawb Facebook page, the main source of information on what is going on at the centre (the What’s on Page link on the website for example clicks directly through to Facebook) shows a relatively low engagement level, meaning unless you are a registered user on a platform and their various algorithms are in favour of showing you posts, you’re unlikely to see the information.

This historic issue was picked up on by Cllr Marc Jones, who said he doesn’t see posts “popping up as I’d expect it to” on his social media and that “these days you have to spend money to get noticed.”

He added: “What makes Tŷ Pawb unusual is the marrying of existing use of market with new use. The jury is still out on how successful the marriage is.”

The meeting was told by Officers that one thing Tŷ Pawb will be looking to do more of is to “pay for social media presence, to get more prominence”. No reference was made to how else events or Tŷ Pawb would be marketed, however the budget was noted as reduced from £75k to £40k.

For the record Wrexham.com informed Tŷ Pawb management earlier this year we will not be open to any paid promotion from the centre due to the verbal abuse received from a Wrexham Council employee unhappy with our previous reporting on the centre. Interestingly one such ‘clickbait’ article contained a question and answer the Chair of this committee asked, as noted below. Thus the above is not a pitch for using this site for ads, and we continue to promote the centre on an unpaid basis.

As the committee offered no more questions the Chair Cllr Paul Roberts held his own mini quick-fire question and answer on a range of topics.

Cllr Roberts asked questions on depreciation if and when the centre moved into a trust, but was told it would depend on the model, and some areas such as business rates could see costs lower in a trust.

Cllr Roberts was most critical on the footfall data, preferring harder stats via footfall counters rather than headcounts, saying it was ‘not satisfactory’ the equipment was not in place by now. An officer explained there was a range of issues that had prevented the installation, including interference with heaters, that had all been resolved so it is expected full counting will start in the new year if not sooner.

The Chair queried if any revenue had been lost when the main gallery had to close due to a water issue earlier in the year (clickbait detail here) referring to ‘well published technical difficulties’ causing ‘major disruption’, asking if Wrexham Council and therefore the taxpayers were out of pocket. Cllr Hugh Jones replied that ‘full cost recovery’ had taken place, praising the contractors for their subsequent response and work.

Cllr Roberts probed details on invoicing and outstanding debate, being told normal council procedures apply for those who do not pay the issued invoices.

Not being done with that stream of quick queries, he wrapped up by asking about how the formally privately run bar area in the centre was now run by the council, and how that revenue stream would ‘stack up’ against the rent lost. No definitive answer was given due to the early days of the new venture, but it was described as an ‘opportunity’ and that things had ‘started off well’.

As the meeting wound down Cllr Hugh Jones reiterated “Tŷ Pawb is a success, there are no questions about it. All the evidence and figures show it is a success and I do not think anything”, earlier Cllr Jones had noted the only criticism had come from ‘keyboard warriors’ online.

The committee agreed to meet in June 2019 to scrutinise more detailed figures for the end of Tŷ Pawb’s first year in operation. It was also suggested that more information on the advisory board and its work was provided at the next meeting, along with input from volunteers and traders who work in the centre.

As is usual, our live tweets from the meeting can be found below, in reverse order… 

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