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Our city’s history deserves better

Visitors driving around the Welsh Capital cannot fail to notice the number of historic and cultural buildings which are owned by the Council writes Cllr Adrian Robson.

Called the heritage collection, the well-known landmarks such as Cardiff Castle, City Hall, New Theatre or the Mansion House are the fabric of the city, built by those who benefitted from Cardiff’s wealth or who understood the importance of culture in the city.

The Council has an official and a moral duty to maintain its heritage collection. Yet, like many Councils, maintenance above and beyond emergency repairs is often deferred being a problem for the ‘next administration’.

In Cardiff this has meant that there have been few real improvements works to City Hall or St David’s Hall whilst the third floor of the Mansion House has been derelict for decades.

In recent times the urgent work backlog has also increased. In 2018 Cardiff needed to spend £23m on urgent work on its heritage collection and that sum can only have increased since then. Proposals were discussed at the time to tackle that cost with ideas such as a boutique hotel at the Mansion House or changing City Hall into a meetings venue. But not only would these have fundamentally changed the use of such buildings; the coronavirus pandemic means that these ideas will have to be reappraised.

Therefore, with these difficulties looking after its own heritage collection, why are the Labour administration of Cardiff Council trying to purchase two historic Cardiff Bay buildings, Merchant Place and Cory Buildings using millions of pounds public money?

There is no doubt these are iconic buildings. They are prominent, on the corner of Bute Place and Bute Street at the edge of the Roald Dahl Plass. Anyone leaving the Wales Millennium Centre cannot fail to see them and may have wondered why these key buildings have been left unoccupied for so long.

There are reasons why previous private developers have not succeeded in purchasing/developing these properties from the current owners and these were alluded to in a private session of the Economic and Culture Scrutiny committee of which I am a member. And whilst I am not allowed to divulge the exact figure for the sale price, the committee were concerned that the Council had no plan as to what to do with these buildings if it successfully spent millions on purchasing them. Even in the Cabinet report it states: “At this stage, the Council remains open minded as to the final end use of the buildings, which could include a mixture of offices, residential, hotel and food & beverage” which is probably one of the vaguest proposals I have ever read.

Following the session, the Scrutiny Committee decided that it could not support the recommendation to complete the acquisition of these properties due to the lack of a plan. It is a very rare occurrence for a committee to oppose Cabinet recommendations but on this occasion the proposal just does not stack up.

Despite the objection of the Scrutiny Committee, the Cabinet decided to proceed with the purchase of Merchant Place and Cory Buildings. I remain convinced that this is not a good use of taxpayers’ money and without any type of proper plan, it risks the Council being landed with a white elephant. That large sum of public money could have begun to tackle some of that urgent work so that the Council can look after its own heritage before preaching to private owners in the city.

Cllr Adrian Robson is the Leader of the Opposition on Cardiff Council and a Welsh Conservative Councillor for Rhiwbina.

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