Posted: Thu 7th Jan 2016

Arts Hub Green Light As Ongoing Loss Is Cost Of Culture for people living in or visiting the Wrexham area
This article is old - Published: Thursday, Jan 7th, 2016

In what had been one of the more hotly anticipated council meetings for a while councillors gave the effective go ahead for the Arts and Cultural Hub plans in a meeting that appeared to indicate the finances examined were not overly important.

The go ahead was finally given after a three hour meeting with extra guarantees given that assurances made in the meeting would bear fruit by the end of the process.

The discussion looked at the town’s markets and the plans for the Arts Hub, and although the business case was questioned for having an ongoing loss with a large capital expenditure the overall feeling was a large multimillion pound external contribution from the Arts Council Wales could not be lost, and any costs incurred was a price worth paying for the arts in Wrexham.

The debate was held entirely in public, a change from the initial plans which would have seen much of it kept behind closed doors, despite this the main turn out in the public gallery was from council staff themselves with some market traders.

The meeting began with what is now a well worn presentation by Councillor Hugh Jones, the member leading the proposals who apologised to those who have heard his speech three times this week.

Cllr Jones reiterated much of what was said to the Town Centre Forum twenty four hours earlier and to others. Cllr Jones’ key message of the project was one of ambition and reinvigoration for the town by securing outside investment, with the meeting told the initial £1.5m of Council capital expenditure would be ‘recouped over three years’ due to it replacing the need to spend on the Oriel and People’s Market separately.

Further, he stated the £1.5m contribution from the Council would itself ‘lever in’ almost £3m of further initial investment from the Arts Council Wales to not only ‘improve the People’s Market’ but ‘reinvigorate’ the town.

Two reoccurring themes have developed throughout the process, with criticism of both the transparency of the process and communication with existing market traders. However last night Cllr Jones’ said he had gone through meeting records since 2010 and had noted that market traders had been involved since the beginning – with consultants brought in to design the building and business plans, who had also been tasked to engage with them.

The meeting had a feel of one where a decision was required that evening, with any attempt to defer or introduce any item that could slow the issue at hand being rejected or solved more promptly.

Councillor Alun Jenkins asked for information ‘in writing’ on the performance of the three indoor markets and their viability. However a verbal answer and assurance was offered instead, with Cllr Jones stating: “You don’t have it on paper but you have a senior officer from the council saying it.”

A deferment which would see a workshop examine the proposals was put forward by Cllr Derek Wright, who said he ‘quite firmly he believed’ that the so called ‘Plan B’ brought forward by some traders and business people ought to be looked at by Officers of Wrexham Council.

Cllr Wright said: “I have read it and it seems viable to me, it has been put forward by the public of Wrexham as viable, the least we can do it to see if it is viable? It is crucial to us as a council that we look at what the people of Wrexham are saying.”

However Cllr Wright continued onto note that if the deferment would result in the loss of funding and put any ‘investment at risk’, then he would withdraw his comments, which he promptly did.

The finances of both the Arts Hub business plan and the existing markets were examined, with the latter taking a fair part of the meeting to create a basis for the debate. The argument from the traders was from a viewpoint of the markets being historically profitable with the revenues used by Wrexham Council elsewhere rather than reinvested in the markets, and their claims of subsequent poor management and lack of investment creating the issues seen today.

Questioning the figures, Cllr Rodney Skelland said: “The markets were making a lot of money seven to eight years ago for the council, and that money was not being spent on the markets itself. We then had new management and saw light at the end of the tunnel, and this proposal came just as we were going to start to make a difference.”

Cllr Hugh Jones did recognise elements of this position, saying of the People’s Market: “Part of the problem is the lack of investment in that particular building.”

The viability of the markets were also questioned with Councillor Phil Wynn, who stated figures in the report before them were ‘selective’ and ‘misleading’. Cllr Skelland added that they were ‘confusing’, with the question raised if the numbers were expenditure based only.

Cllr Jones replied that the detail had been provided by the Finance Officer, who was then called to speak to the meeting. The Officer clarified the numbers, saying they indicated spending without the income balancing them, and pointed out ‘It is not as big an issue as you are making it. I do not think it is an attempt to mislead, it is just how the figures are explained’.

Regardless of the merits of the financial displays one trader, Rob Clarke from the Butcher’s Market pointed out that whatever the numbers were they were ‘false figures’ as the current position of the markets is not optimal due to the future uncertainty.

Rob Clarke said: “Who on earth would want to start a business not knowing what the future holds? Our management have had their hands tied. The Arts Hub has scared a lot of traders off. If it was run correctly without this thing hanging over it, it would encourage people to have stalls there.”

Echoing the view made by others he referred to a perception that due to the lack of reinvestment a situation had been created where it is said ‘the markets make a loss and so we need to do something else’.

It was confirmed to the meeting that in 2012/13 all of Wrexham markets were making a profit, and it is only since then that position has changed.

One market trader asked a question very close to a query lodged by on Tuesday, but with a different answer. We asked Wrexham Council if any assessment had been made on the impact of the plans on the Butcher’s and General Markets, and if so what was the outcome. We were told that it was a ‘work in progress’, with Cllr Neil Rogers involved in the work. At the Scrutiny meeting trader Rob Clarke asked a virtually identical question and was told simply ‘no’ to if such an assessment existed.

The essence of the point was cleared up in a roundabout manner when Cllr Jones said there is ‘no cost subsidy between the other two markets’ and that such information was based on an ‘assurance’ from the Officer present. The Officer told the meeting if the indoor and outdoor markets along with town shops ‘worked together’ it would be ‘easily’ possible to ‘bring the markets in on budget and reinvest’.

A further definitive statements were made when meeting chair Cllr Bill Baldwin asked: “If People’s Market goes ahead, will other two go?” Cllr Rogers offered assurances, stating that ‘quite simply no’. In response to a query from Cllr Jenkins asking for evidence that the other two indoor markets would not be affected by the People’s Market and were viable Cllr Jones reiterated the Officers comments, reminding him the Officer present went on record saying it is his professional judgement to say both other markets are ‘financially viable’ independent of the People’s Market.

The business plan for the Arts Hub was probed by some Councillors, with others choosing to use their time for political digs instead. Councillor Paul Rogers expressed his view that he thought it was ‘an excellent proposal’ but criticised ‘aspiring and existing politicians’ for not getting behind the plans. Notably all three declared Assembly Member candidates, including one from Cllr Rogers’ own party voiced their concerns this week.

Questions were also raised regarding the feasibility and viability of the hub, with concerns about the business plan and financial projections over the next decade.

Cllr Alun Jenkins said he was ‘not convinced the business plan stacks together’ and had reservations over using income from parking to ‘subsidise’ the project – and that he felt it ‘has to pay for itself’.

Cllr Skelland questioned the impact on other Council departments, asking: “The business plan is totally dependant on the tax payer, what is the impact on the Council because of that?” with further comments including branding it “Not a business plan, but a plan for a loss”. As well as being critical of the consultation Cllr Skelland referred to a visit to the previous Oriel calling it a ‘disaster’, recounting a trip that saw no visitors and ‘cobwebs and chairs everywhere’ upstairs saying he feared the new centre ‘could go the way of the existing Oriel’.

Councillor Dana Davies also ran through the figures, asking precise questions over the future funding and any exit strategies in place. The implication given was if the project failed at some point in the future that Wrexham Council could have to pay back some portion of the grant monies allocated. Due to this she enquired how committed the Arts Council Wales was to the project, and if the £120,000 per year contribution for ten years was firm.

Councillor Hugh Jones replied saying: “We have a commitment from the Arts Council, they are fully involved and aware of all figures, they have significantly part funded the work that has been done to date. While they have not said yes, they are fully aware by funding business plans to date, that it will require capital funding, and they are aware if it is not forthcoming in full, this project will not go ahead.

“I can’t tell you the Arts Council Wales will agree to support this at the same level for the next ten years. You will know in public life there is no guarantees. The initiative for this comes from the Arts Council, they see this as an initiative they want to support and they have encouraged us. I can say on the basis and evidence and support we have had it gives us some confidence they are with us in the long run in this project. If we ask for 10 year guarantees on projects they would never ever get off the ground. I cannot give you a cast iron guarantee but can give you a judgement.”

Cllr Davies said the Council were ‘chucking every feasible income stream we can into this and it still produces a deficit’ pointing out ‘there is no surplus in the figures over 10 years’ and how she was struggling to ‘make the figures add up’.

At this point the financial debate appeared to become almost irrelevant, with Cllr Jones explaining that such losses are a price worth paying: “There will never be a point where the arts and cultural element makes a profit. There is a price as nation we pay for our heritage and our arts and our culture” going on to give examples of the education system as similar expenditure with no definitive or often tangible gain.

Such a price of everything and the value of nothing style reply did not stop Cllr Davies asking further questions about what if funding was infact ‘pulled’ in the future, and if Wrexham Council would then foot the £200k per year bill.

Cllr Jones replied again saying: “It will never over ten years break even. If Arts Council Wales decide they will not fund it there will not be funding and we will find another use for that element of the building. The scenario you are proposing means Wrexham would be an arts desert if they pull a plug.

“The Arts Council are going into this with their eyes open, they know if they invest £2.3m they will need to continue to support the arts and culture at a significant level. They know that, that is the only reassurance I can give you.”

Cllr Davies was also involved in an odd exchange with a Council Officer over the spending time limits of Vibrant and Viable Places grant monies. Previously at a meeting (believed to be this one in December) traders had enquired if £772k of allocated VVP money could be re-channeled into the markets. At the time the impression was given that such a change would not be possible as the money needed to be spent before the end of March 2016.

This date was referenced as being in 2017 rather than 2016, and was challenged by Cllr Davies who cited the minutes of the meeting, that had been approved as a true record. A typographical error was blamed for the misunderstanding, along with two separate tranches of VVP money being referred to. In December was under the impression, and reported, the discussion referenced the entire £772k of VVP money and a ‘very tight’ 4-5 month deadline rather than a 16-17 month deadline.

On this point we have reviewed our own notes and believe the error could stem from the wording ‘next year’ being used in terms of financial years, and the interpretation of what that means to laymen in a meeting and how that is recorded, although the ‘very tight’ descriptor was used in December to describe the period between then and the deadline.

With the plans for the People’s Market involving significant building work taking place the disruption of market traders was mentioned, with talks ongoing as late as the day of the meeting between traders and Council representatives.

The meeting was told by a trader of the difficulties already endured due to the uncertainty, which would be compounded by any building work, “Footfall is down due to negativity and no investment, the next 12 months will not see any new investment. The management we trust and respect will be lost, then there is 12 months in a building site. Most of us will not survive that.”

Cllr Jones referred to a meeting the previous night saying: “We have some ideas and are working with you to get you through this difficult period”, mentioning he did not intend to ‘drive traders away’ rather wanting them to remain as ‘the market is a key element’ reiterating the plan for a ‘twenty first century market for Wrexham’.

No answers were specifically given to the concerns raised, but again with the theme of sorting the issue on the night in the background assurances were given that work would be taking place to ensure no trader is negatively affected.

Such a vision was challenged by a market trader who pointed out: “On plans we have seen the existing market as it stands does not have food traders, we need products people want to buy today. We don’t buy carpet or lipstick every day, we need a food offer. There is no provision in the new plans to provide that. We might have a shiny new market but with people not attracted into it.”

Fears over future space for traders were addressed with Cllr Jones saying: “We believe all the existing market traders who want to come into the new Arts Hub and market will be and can be accommodated if they want to.”

The meeting was told the £1.5m of Council capital funding would come from the ‘commercial estate’ of the Council, however the details were due to be explained in a ‘Part 2’ private session of the meeting due to it involving third party contracts.

In a bizarre end to the meeting this further session did not occur, with the clock heading towards 7pm a swifter pace took hold and a move to a vote was made.

To ensure last minute views were heard an invite was made for the traders to speak, with one giving an impassioned impact statement: “We are market traders here, but we are also business people. We have built our businesses from nothing”. Saying she felt ‘disrespected’ and treated as an ‘afterthought’ the meeting was told her view that the markets were not integral to the plan, “It seems the stalls have been put in to balance the books, to polish the plan. I feel extremely angry, we have been treated badly and not kept in the loop.”

Cllr Jones replied saying there was historic issues going back to 2009 with the People’s Market and under investment, “I do understand where you are coming from, but I do believe this project will revitalise the People’s Market.”

It was unclear what would occurrence would take place at 7pm, however with the haste made to wrap up the meeting as the clock ticked on the chair pointed members to move towards a vote on the recommendations before them. Again following the theme of sorting the issue on the night there was no attempt to adjourn the meeting to allow further debate with two Councillors obviously wished to ask questions and make further points.

Cllr Alun Jenkins proposed a slight amendment to the recommendations before them, to agree what was suggested with a note saying it was ‘subject to assurances given to members and traders in the meeting’. The assurances at that point included further work with traders to ensure the new market plans included an improved offer, that reinvestment in the Butchers and General markets would occur and elements of the proposed ‘Plan B’ would be looked at seriously. Further assurances over a smooth transition were mentioned, with traders promised that building work would not impede their ability to do business.

A further recommendation was suggested by Cllr Wynn who challenged Wrexham Council to ‘put their money where their mouth is’ and offer compensation via a system of voluntary surrounding of leases if traders so wished. Cllr Wynn explained, “If we can deliver then fine” citing protection for traders “if it goes belly up and we cant deliver”. The proposal was dismissed by the Finance Officer who suggested it was ‘unreasonable’ as “We have less than five minutes and issue is fraught with legal and finance issues”, it is worth noting it did not appear there was a seconder for the proposal.

At this point the meeting took on a sadly familiar farcical nature with Councillors raising hands to vote, one stating they were unsure what they were voting on, another keeping their hand down as they were against yet another doing similar pointed out he was doing so to abstain.

The amended motion appeared to pass with 4 in favour, 1 against (Rodney Skelland) and 1 abstaining (Phil Wynn).

In added confusion Councillors then rose to leave, along with those in the public gallery, with Councillor Wynn eager to move to the planned ‘Part 2’ he believed was due to take place, but the meeting was closed just before 7pm.

With the proposals now passing the Scrutiny stage they move forward to next week’s Executive Board meeting, where it is unusual for recommendations to be rejected, and thus the headline that the plans have the green light from the Council.

There is a separate planning application for the physical and use changes to the building that will also be heard by Wrexham Council, with the grant application being heard next month by the Arts Council Wales.

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