Writing exclusively for Cardiff East Trowbridge Councillor Ralph Cook gives the inside account of how the new community centre came to be built. The Labour councillor, first elected to Cardiff Council in 1999, becomes the first of east Cardiff’s politicans to write for Cardiff East.
The ongoing controversy about the new Trowbridge Community Centre is something that need never have happened. I was elected as one of three Labour Councillors for the Trowbridge Ward in Cardiff (includes the area known as New St. Mellons), in May 1999. I had several key objectives (most of which have been achieved, or are about to be) and amongst these was to have the old Trowbridge Shopping Precinct redeveloped. Built in the 1960s it was a classic concrete monstrosity that served an important role until the changes sweeping local retail aside in favour of supermarkets really took hold in the 1980s. Gradually the shopping centre entered a cycle of decline that ultimately led to the Council facing difficulties in attracting retail tenants and the yobs and vandals took over.
By 1999 the shopping centre resembled something I’d seen in eastern Europe in the 1980s with the added blight of graffiti and vandalism that Margaret Thatcher’s Britain saw rise to unprecedented heights. Adjacent to the shopping precinct was a rather basic community centre, managed by local residents but falling rapidly into disrepair, it suffered from being unable to attract the range of activities required in a community like Trowbridge. The Council was frequently called upon (by myself), to bail it out with cash simply to keep the building going. It was nevertheless a large structure with a spacious hall, offices and a substantial kitchen.
Under the last Labour Administration the Council agreed to redevelop the shopping centre and provide a modern replacement community facility. Over several years of consultation, planning and with my hands-on involvement the project was taken through the various stages that to a planning application being passed by the Council’s Planning Committee in 2004. The application included a community centre of roughly similar proportions to the existing facility and with a sizeable kitchen included. It was expected that work would begin that year and the entire project be completed by the end of 2007.
Unfortunately, the local government elections of June 2004 saw Labour swept out of Cardiff County Hall and its substitution by a weak minority administration run by the largest party – the Liberal Democrats – themselves bolstered by the Conservative Group which had seemingly agreed to keep the Lib Dems in power (i.e. not supporting any motion of no confidence), in exchange for unspecified benefits. One of the first acts under the new administration was my removal from the Trowbridge redevelopment project board. Council officers told me this was done at the behest of the Lib Dem Executive Members, Executive Councillors told me it was at the behest of Council Officers!
Denied day to day access to the men and women working on the project I completely lost touch with what was going on. I was reduced to contacting the media and asking questions in Council in order to establish what progress, if any was being made. The Trowbridge estate itself was blighted for years by the remnants of the evacuated shopping precinct (one half was demolished fairly early on, the second not until 2006/7) and the ruins themselves became playgrounds for youths, fire-starters and vandals.
In 2007 things got going but contrary to the original intention the community centre was the last phase of the project to be completed, finally opening in autumn 2009. The Council had agreed years earlier that the redevelopment would be managed by the Cardiff Community Housing Association (CCHA), a decision I supported in the absence of volunteers from the community itself. Today the centre is successfully managed by CCHA and an interesting programme of activities is taking shape.
Unfortunately, in 2007 the Council and CCHA decided (without my knowledge) that the centre as planned would be too costly and had to be reduced to about a third of its original planned dimension. This meant a much reduced kitchen and a smaller main hall. Councillor Monica Walsh and myself attended a “consultative” meeting in January 2007 with an officer charged with driving the project forward. He was supposed to advise us of the all the planned changes and their implications. For whatever reason (and I haven’t reached any conclusion about this), he failed to inform us that the footprint of the building was to be drastically cut and two extra houses put on the site. We thought we were being told only that the rather optimistically proposed first floor was to be deleted from the plans. As I never really believed a first floor would be affordable in the short term, I merely requested that the walls be designed in a way that would ensure they could take the addition of a first floor at a later date should that become affordable and desirable. This was agreed so I was not too unhappy with the outcome of the meeting.
On August 2nd 2007 the revised plans were passed by an officer of the Council (not the Planning Committee of which I was a member at the time) but it was not until 2008 that I became aware of the true nature of the redesign. Councillor Walsh and myself then demanded a meeting to discuss the situation and proved (at least to our own satisfaction) that we had not been properly appraised of the changes. At this meeting we insisted that if the footprint of the building could not be increased then a first floor should be added. Surprisingly this was agreed quite rapidly and since the completion of the building everyone involved has told Monica and I that we were right to argue for it so resolutely.
Now that the building is complete I must say that I think it is a real asset to the local community. Obviously I have reservations about the small size of the kitchen but in truth only one group of people have made this a significant issue. If at some point in the future the kitchen can be enlarged I would support that but there really does not seem to be a great demand in the community for a larger kitchen at the present time. The hall too is smaller than was originally planned but it does feel larger than I feared it might when I first saw the revised plans.
The centre is now vibrant, attracting more and more activities and users and I believe it is in safe hands under CCHA’s management and an advisory group that includes representatives from Cardiff County Council, CCHA and the Ward Councillors. Plans are being developed to expand membership of the advisory group to include members of the local community and user groups.
If I have learnt one lesson from this project it is just how important it is that local Councillors, regardless of their political hue and regardless of the colour of the Council’s political Executive, should always be kept involved in developments in their Wards. Placing barriers to our involvement in the project between 2004-2009 (whoever’s decision that may have been), was a disservice to the people of Trowbridge and those responsible should be ashamed of themselves.
Councillor Ralph Cook