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The Muni – a step too far for community enterprise?

2018 Rhagfyr 28 4:36 PM

Opinion piece - Karen Roberts. Campaign Manager RCT Welsh Lib Dems.

I have been involved in a number of community enterprises over the past 18 or so years and understand the level of commitment and work it takes to make them successful and how easily it can unravel.

I am still a member of the board of the Cambrian Village Trust which I helped to setup, and Cambrian Lakeside which grew out of it. Currently a very successful venture, but only as the result of years of planning and a willingness to diversify and take on new projects - and being able to employ staff who know their business and are dedicated to the scheme. As the local authority looks to move more schemes into community hand then we have been perfectly placed to take advantage. It has brought a huge amount of investment into Clydach Vale but as a board we are very careful not to take its success for granted.

I was also involved in the setting up of the Cwmclydach Development Trust - again based in Cwmclydach in the Rhondda. This grew out of the successful Communities First group there which again ensured substantial investment in projects in the area. The Trust ran the community centre, the local Day Nursery and a micro-hydro plant.

Whilst Communities First was up and running and providing pots of grant money for all sorts of projects we flourished. However, when that stopped it became clear that it was going to be very, very difficult to run it as a community project with a voluntary board a chair - myself - who worked full time elsewhere and other Directors who for one reason and another could not dedicate as much time to the project as necessary.

It became more and more apparent that there were serious financial problems looming but rather than bury our heads in the sand as the Muni board appear to have done we took action. We negotiated with another community group to hand over the Nursery to them so as to ensure its future was secure, along with the staff jobs.

We realised that if the scheme carried on as it was then the Trust would go bankrupt within six months. So we called a public meeting, explained to all those there what the issue was and offered two options.

Our preferred option was to dissolve the Trust completely whilst there was still enough money in the bank to pay off any debts. As we owned the buildings we would then be prepared to hand them over to any new community enterprise which wanted to try and make a success of the centre.

The other option was for other people to come forward and take over as Directors and continue in the name of the Trust. This is what a group of people decided they would like to do and so the Trust is still in existence and trying to make a go of the centre. Hopefully they will succeed, but it is a large building to keep going and already the new cafe they opened there has had to close.

It is not easy running any community enterprise. For it to succeed you have to have good staff and / or volunteers who can be hands on daily. This is especially so in the case of something as large as the Muni. The Council had outlined the financial issues before they handed it over.

All credit to those who tried to get the Muni up and running and keep it going, but they should have been open and honest about the problems and RCT Council should have audited more carefully and seen what was going on.