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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

How Swansea's Labour run Council has mislead and let down a local community

Yesterday in the Assembly we discussed the Welsh Government's best practice guide on Community Asset Transfers. As the Minister pointed out: "Community asset transfers provide an opportunity to help communities develop thriving and diverse localities and sustain the long-term use of property assets and services. These transfers also open up opportunities for generating local economic benefits, reinvesting income locally and creating new jobs and skills."

Essentially, this mechanism allows for a community, a community council or local trust to take over and run public assets. It is a means to keep important services going in the face of public expenditure cuts or just to empower people. There are already good examples across Wales, including trusts set up to run leisure facilities in Swansea and Bridgend and the numerous libraries that are now being kept open only through the work of local people.

However, as I pointed out yesterday, this best practice guide comes very late in the day and appears to have very few teeth. After all the Localism Act was passed in England in 2011 and enshrined a community right to bid when public assets are being disposed of.

The Minister could have commenced these provisions at any time in the last four years without having to go through this palaver of appearing to take her own path. And if she had done then communities would have a far more robust framework to work within than they will do under the Welsh Government's proposals.

In the discussion yesterday I raised two examples of communities in my region being frustrated in their ambitions. The first of these is Pennard Library, which is still under threat of closure and where the local community put together funding of several hundred thousand pounds to take over that library and rebuild it. Unfortunately, the local council has so far frustrated that, despite initially promising in writing to save the library if the community raised the cash to rebuild it.

Another case that was brought to my attention recently is Melyncryddan community centre in Neath. A local community group there wanted to take that on and have again been frustrated in their ambitions by the town council, who own that community centre.

In the case of Pennard, clear and unequivocal promises by the Labour Cabinet member were broken by his successor. It is little wonder that residents feel mislead and let down. This is an extract from an e-mail I received from some local residents:

Further, the reasons for the cabinet member reneging on former promises made by his predecessor appear to be purely political. He has said: "It's a pity you live where you live." Thus, it appears that the withdrawal of the service from Gower is because of our postcodes. We have been repeatedly told by the council leader and the cabinet member that the west of Swansea is better serviced than the east in terms of libraries – which has also been reported in the press. This is incorrect. There are five libraries in the west and 12 in the east. The buildings in the east, generally, are in better condition and opening times are longer etc.

In short, FoPL have been blocked every step of the way - especially by the current cabinet member and the leader. The stance of: "It's a pity that you live where you live" has been poorly received by Gower residents, who feel short-changed and marginalised by this attitude.

Residents are though continuing to pursue the issue.

They are raising grants independently to build a new library / community hub for Gower and currently have £122,000 in principle with a target of £350,000. The hub would have a cafe and exhibition / IT space to rent out to various groups, and thus generate an income to run the library building and make a contribution to staffing the library, this is exactly the kind of community partnership model recommended by the Expert Review of Welsh Libraries 2014.

I am happy to support these residents in any way I can. What is not clear though is how the Minister's new best practice guide helps. Her approach has no teeth and councils are taking on board her request to empower local residents only when it suits their agenda.
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