A former Kidwelly Town Councillor has branded the further development of the Princess Gwenllian Centre in Kidwelly as lacking vision and risking the town’s capital reserves on what he describes as an obsession with the new at the cost of preserving the old history and turning the town into a heritage site for visitors. Llanelli Online spoke to Mr Byron Huws, a keen historian and a firm believer that the restoration of the ancient town’s buildings is its saving grace.
Llanelli Online asked Mr Huws if he was not purely ignoring the fact that progress often means change and that in order to fund that change assets and finances have to be juggled. He said: The Town Council is selling off land belonging to the Kidwelly estate, which has been valued at up to £1mil. They are selling it off bit by bit for housing. As if we need any more.
Llanelli Online contacted Kidwelly Town Council and we spoke to the town clerk, Virginia O’Reilly. In response to the selling of of land the clerk said: In June we took on new staff including a new estates manager. The first task was to look at the land we have, some of which is rented out. Some of that land is not fit for agricultural purposes for example we had one parcel, which was of no use but someone wanted to buy it to create a parking space. We are not looking at development land. We have land, which could be considered as development land and. Mr Huws is right, we don’t need more houses in Kidwelly but if there were to be development it would include affordable housing. We have land in Mynydd Y Garreg but there is no demand there.
Mr Huws turned to questioning the logic of spending more money on a hall he says is losing money. He said: There is no business plan. If there is it is certainly not public. They are pledging endless support for the hall. They paid £20,000 for a new lift, which only serves one room. They could have rented a ground floor room in the town for half of that.
The clerk told us: The old council offices were falling to bits and it would have cost a fortune to do the building up. We had no funding at the time. We have staff members in a building with no running water and damp. We had to store all the historical items at the Industrial museum. We have a huge amount of paperwork to store. We are in desperate need of new offices We could not justify spending money on a rotting building and it would cost more to rent than the new build. The Princess Gwenllian Centre has made a donation towards the new facilities including a function room, council offices and a community space. There is a lot of activity at the centre and we need more facilities to meet the demand. We are working on a funding bid and the bid to fit out the new facilities will dictate the business plan.
Mr Huws also questions why the Town Council is not applying for grants for the work instead of using up the reserves. He said: Either they are too lazy or they do not have the knowhow.
Virginia O’Reilly in answer said: It is difficult to get funding as a Town Council. It is easier for charities to get the money. We will be looking to work with partners on a bid to fit out the interior.
Focusing on the old buildings now empty in the town Mr Huws said: For 20 years the Town Council wanted a community centre. A lot of money was put up for that. We were looking at the Workingman’s building in the town. Trimsaran had just got a sports hall so Kidwelly wanted one. They saw this money and went for the new build instead of using one of the empty buildings in the town. It was meant to be a community centre but it became a sports hall. They had to stop half way because they had no money. It is in a place nobody in Kidwelly wanted it.
The clerk in response said: We can only address the problems in Kidwelly if organisations come together and work together. We need to work in partnership. The reality is that some of these buildings are falling to bits. Some of the buildings were owned by Carmarthenshire County Council and have been left to rot.
We asked Mr Huws if there were others in Kidwelly who felt as he did and if they were in support of his vision. He said that there were others but that they had given up. At the last meeting of The Town Council one councillor alluded to ‘things in the community scuppering plans’. Of that remark Mr Huws said: They were talking about me.
Mr Huws spoke about the selling off of old buildings in the town and believes that they have been sold below market value. He said: What they wanted to do was fund the next stage. The Community Centre would be part of the project. It looks like it will become three offices, a meeting space and a bar. They targeted The Pelican for sale. It is a beautiful building. It was worth £1m but they sold it for £110,000. That money was ring fenced for the hall. They will sell land or do anything to further the project but nothing for the town. The town is dying and the shops are closing. If it wasn’t for the take aways we wouldn’t have anything.
Mr Huws said that comments from councillors claiming that the Portacabin offices were a cause for concern and made them a laughing stock were only a concern while they were at the hall. He said: No one expressed concern when we wanted to move back to the Pelican. It was not urgent then, all of a sudden it is an embarrassment and requires a new building.
Speaking about the finances Mr Huws said: They are risking capital with no business plan or the project showing any signs of paying for itself. My worry is that further down the line we will be looking for more money to prop it up or will it be sold off again at a rock bottom price. They will blow all of Kidwelly’s assets first. We are fortunate to have a borough which the borough members own. The estate gives us £30,000 a year and helps pay for things. Other councils would kill their Gran for that. Kidwelly has ridden 1,000 years of this. Councillors have to think bout their positions in the coming elections.
In response to finances the clerk asked: Where is the money to come from? We are negotiating with the County Council on asset transfers. We will need more revenue if we take on these assets. We have to adapt to these changes and modernisation. We are reallocating capital for this year only.
When asked what he thought the town needed he said: Kidwelly is blessed. It is the old territory and the land of Cadwal and the whole Gwendraeth. We have heritage coming out of our bones. The castle, Priory Church, The Tin Works, The Quay and the Kymer Canal. It is capitalism in the raw. People were put out of houses to fund industrialism capitalism. I would like to see a university outreach here for medieval history. We could make it a heritage visitor town.
That will not happen in Kidwelly I am afraid. What they have is not a vision it is a project they have bought in to. This town is run by somebody in an invisible way. The Town council could be the Governors of Kidwelly. We have an abundance of heritage appeal to attract visitors. In order for that to happen the town needs investment in the main street where the people gather for carnivals where but for the takeaways we would have boarded up shops or housing. We have become a dormitory town, a retirement town.
Mr Huws accepts that the sports hall has a function but insists that it has to be in use all day every day to work. It is at present only used in the evenings he says.
The Town clerk told us that the centre was in constant use and invited us to go and see the numerous groups, which meet at the centre including keep fit, line dancing and a football club.
Mr Huws was quite clear about what he believes is going wrong. He said: There is a lack of vision – tunnel vision. There is a lack of concern and a lack of care. We had real people of the town as councillors once. People have tried. They left because we couldn’t get a majority. We stood as Kidwelly Community Heritage. There was a lot of pressure put on people. People are afraid to speak out. They keep their mouths shut because they stand to lose what work and what little money they have. What we have is a regeneration of the iron and coal masters but they are now called capitalist investors. They have the same purpose. To force people off the land but in this case, to sell the land we own from under our feet. We can do something differently. We can use the money to rebuild the local economy.
The clerk concluded by saying: We need to work towards a common purpose and create partnerships. The town has a forum, a civic society and the Princess Gwenllian Centre has a committee. People are quick to throw stones but slow to volunteer.