Thursday, 22 October 2015

Open Letter to First Minister, Carwyn Jones, regarding the funding of CAMU and lack of funding Saith Seren.

October 20, 2015

Rt. Hon Carwyn Jones AM
First Minister
Welsh Assembly Government

Dear First Minister

I am writing to you in your capacity as Minister with responsibility for the Welsh Language. I look forward to meeting you next Thursday, 22 October, when you attend the official opening of the Hwb Welsh language in the Workplace centre CAMU , Cambria College, Yale site, Wrexham. I am a member of the Advisory Panel of CAMU, representing the Wrexham area Welsh community newspaper, Y Clawdd (as Chief Editor of the paper), and the Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren (as a member of the Management Board).

I welcome the Government's investment of £300,000 in order to promote the Welsh language in this area, especially as I have lived here all my life, and have taught at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd, the local Welsh medium secondary school, for over two decades. The main aim of 'Camu' is to increase the numbers of people in the area who are able to use Welsh in the workplace, which is a praiseworthy objective.

However, as you know, all learners who will pass through the centre, in addition to the hundreds of young people who have received Welsh medium education here, and who generally come from non-Welsh-speaking homes, need somewhere to go to hear and use the Welsh language in the community on a regular basis, rather than within the walls of a school or college, or they will lose the language, as thousands have done so before them.

Establishing the Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren, in 2012
The Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren, opened in 2012 in order to achieve exactly this need, thereby normalizing the use of Welsh in an area that is occupied largely by non-Welsh speakers. The centre was opened with voluntary financial contributions from ordinary people with a love of the language, and an agreement with the Clwyd Alyn Housing Association, who bought the Saith Seren building (or ‘Seven Stars’ as it was) in order for us to establish the Wrexham Welsh Centre there and to rent it from them.

The centre was very successful in organising social activities through Welsh in the first few years, but financial problems came to the surface, mainly due to the high rent which was being asked by Clwyd Alyn Association. By spring 2015, despite all efforts to try to ensure some kind of grant or financial support from public bodies, the heart-breaking announcement had to be made that the Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren would be forced to close its doors for the last time in May, and six members of staff would lose their jobs.

Last nail in the coffin of Wrexham’s Welsh speaking ‘society’?

For me, this would have been the final nail in the coffin of the possibility of ​​maintaining any kind of Welsh-speaking social ‘society’ in Wrexham. The town’s chapels were instrumental in doing this in the past, but the numbers who attend them have fallen dramatically, and so the solution to maintaining the language does not lie with the chapels. I remember the time before ‘Saith Seren’, when I was a member of the entertainment committee of Menter Maelor, when we tried to organise Welsh language events in the town. We used one location after another to try to find which was the most suitable, and more often than not we were very disappointed by the numbers who attended those events. This changed with the advent of the Welsh Language Centre, as it acts as a familiar focal point for the vast majority of Welsh social activities in the town.

Fortunately, some people decided that the centre wasn’t going to die without a fight, and Aran Jones, who runs the company 'Say Something in…. (Welsh)' started an on-line campaign, asking people to sign up to a commitment of £10 per month to save the centre, and I ran the campaign in Wrexham. We needed to raise £ 3,000 per month, which is a huge sum, and there were times during the campaign when we didn’t think it was going to work. However, after three months of active campaigning, and following extremely generous donations from more than 200 people, many of whom live outside the town as well as locals, we arrived at the total that was needed to keep the centre open. This showed clearly how much importance the Wrexham Welsh Centre has in the eyes of people who understand the reason for its existence and the important role it plays.

Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren, relaunched in 2015

The newsletter which is attached is a record of some of the activities that have taken place since the centre was saved in May. As you can see there have been many successful gigs (Steve Eaves, Geraint Lovegreen, Moniars etc.) and the centre has been the catalyst for many of our learners to succeed at the National Eisteddfod. This is what people who don’t usually have the opportunity to practice using Welsh desperately need; somewhere to go to meet other learners and native speakers in a homely, social setting, and not in a classroom. This is also crucial in order to show the young people of the town that the Welsh language is alive and well, not just the language of education, media and the Eisteddfod.

The centre is now on somewhat steadier ground, and we are succeeding financially to some extent. However, we are investigating all possible sources in order to secure our future in the long term. We are fully aware that relying on voluntary donations from individuals is not a sustainable position over the long term. We are still here today, but only by a hair’s breadth, as we only narrowly managed to survive, and if we have to close in a year or two, all the effort we’ve put in counts for nothing in my opinion. I have three children, two of which are 3 and 5 years old, and I want to the Wrexham Welsh Centre, Saith Seren to exist when they will be old enough to go out and socialize in years to come.

The only way I can realistically see that happening is if we get financial support from public bodies. Ideally, we'd like to buy the building and pay a mortgage rather than wasting money on rent. Unfortunately, the price Clwyd Alyn Association is asking is very high, because they have spent a substantial amount on renovation. We are responsible for all maintenance work because of the nature of the agreement, so there is little incentive for them to sell. The Welsh Government has just given £300,000 towards the establishment of the CAMU Welsh Language in the Workplace Hub, and an additional £ 130,000 has come from other partners (Wrexham and Flintshire councils), which gives total of £ 430,000. Even a portion of this money would have enabled us to buy Saith Seren and secure the future of the Wrexham Welsh Centre for future generations.

The £ 430,000 has been spent on adapting a block of a building bloc that existed already, and I find it very hard to see where all this money has been spent. This is extremely frustrating for us in Saith Seren as was have to scrimp and save every penny. I ask you to consider on Thursday whether the government is getting value for money when considering the aims of the Bwrw Mlaen grant fund, and whether those aims would have any chance of being properly achieved without the help of Saith Seren.

Fulfilling the requirements of the grant without remuneration

When one of your officers came to visit us at the beginning of the summer, she was under the impression that we were part of the Hwb Cymraeg Cambria application, though we were not. I am sure that the college will emphasize that they are working with us, by sending their learners on us to socialize after being with them. One of the criteria of the grant was that there would be "opportunities for young people to socialize in Welsh, in the community”, and we help them to achieve this, but have not received a penny of the grant money for doing so. I realise that collaboration between agencies such as local authorities and colleges is essential in order to successfully apply for the Bwrw Mlaen grant, but there was no cooperation obtained from Cambria College or Wrexham Council in terms of sharing the grant application in our case.

Is it possible to re-consider the way in which grants are distributed in this way, so that a centre such as us could realistically win such a grant? It's great to see so many new Welsh Centres, like us, which have a strong social component, have been funded by the government, such as 'Y Lle' in Llanelli, and 'Atom' in Carmarthen etc. and I hope that these centres manage to keep the language alive in those areas. I also hope that we do not lose the vulnerable Welsh-speaking society which exists here in Wrexham at present, because the brave, sincere and valuable Wrexham Welsh Centre initiative in Saith Seren did not meet the narrow criteria that are required in order to win a this type of grant from the Government, and because it did not receive the support it deserves from the local college and council.

Even Y Clawdd receives a £1,200 annual payment, so it makes no sense to me that the Wrecsam Welsh Centre, Saith Seren doesn’t get any financial assistance, when considering the excellent work the centre does to promote the use of Welsh in the town. If we do close in a year or two, I will also finish with Y Clawdd, which will in effect bring it to an end, as in my opinion, there will not be enough of a Welsh ‘society’ in Wrexham to justify a community paper documenting its activity.

Yours faithfully

Chris Evans
Wrecsam Community Paper, Y Clawdd
Management Board Member, Wrexham Welsh Centre Saith Seren

1 comment:

The Red Flag said...

In recent years we have observed a trend in Welsh local government that has seen unelected officers effectively take control of local authorities.

This is invariably achieved with the connivance of a small group of councillors who commit their loyalty to senior officers rather than to the council to which they were elected and those living within the local authority area.