How campaigners in Wales fight to save community buildings

A sneak-peek into the world of campaigners who are doing all they can to keep history alive.

by Kahoru Yuki

© Kahoru Yuki

The low roar of the bulldozers, the dry crash of falling bricks and a distinctive stench of running generators fill the morning air.  As the red-brick building slowly turns to rubble, there is a small group of people watching from the other side of the fence.

“This is horrendous,” Catrin Edwards mutters to herself.

The building is the former University Settlement in Splott, Cardiff. After residents of the Welsh capital found a developer’s demolition plan to make way for new apartments, they tried to stop it and applied for listing. More than 2,000 people signed the online petition but the Council approved the plan and the demolition began in April 2016.

Similar protests occur everywhere around the world. Local newspapers in Wales have reported at least 15 campaigns to save buildings within six months.

Splott: Saving 1904 University Settlement

University Settlement © Catrin Edwards

“It costs money – all they are interested in is money. The way they ‘develop’ in Cardiff is absolutely stupid,” says Catrin.

The University Settlement includes three buildings with 2 to 4 floors each. The oldest block was built in 1904, designed by Welsh architect Robert Weir Schultz. It provided education for working class people in Splott, turned into a grammar school, and then eventually a part of Cardiff University. The entire point of the campaign is to preserve the local history of education through this building.

Catrin and the group members worked towards promoting this campaign by launching petitions, calling and writing to the local politicians, collecting information of historical and architectural background for listing application and holding events to raise public interests.

But the Council denied the request for application and approved the demolition in March.

“I sent a mail to Councillor Huw Thomas asking what was going on the building last autumn. He said, ‘It’s okay, I hear it is going to be listed’ and I believed it. I wasted a couple of months. [..] what went through my mind was ‘oh lovely, it can be an art centre.’ We don’t have any money, but it didn’t occur to me somebody wanted to knock it down.”

Once a building is purchased by a developer, it is difficult to stop its proposal unless it has legal issues or mistreatment on the environment. On top of this, the local residents also have to prove the building is important broadly, not only to the community or to specific people.

While it may seem like Catrin and her fellow campaigners are the only ones having to fight to protect buildings, a deeper investigation on heritage buildings revealed more people doing the same.

Wrexham: Saving 1938 Grove Park School

“The Grove Park School building is really important. Not just the girls, there are a lot of men interested in the future of the building,” says  Elaine Thomas, a member of Save Our Heritage (SOH).

“They feel that the building enhanced their education; it enhanced mine. I’m so proud I had been there,” says Elaine as she recalls her days in the school.

The Grove Park Girls’ School building was established in 1938 as the number of children increased in Wrexham, a town in North Wales. It has art deco features in the main entrance hall and it was recorded to have 900 pupils in 1965. It became a comprehensive school after a while but has not been used after its closure in 2003.

Wrexham Council is planning its demolition in order for them to build a new primary school to address the prospective increase in population. The Council is waiting for the response from Cadw, the department of listing in Wales, because the application of listing the building has been accepted.

SOH believes the building has the power to tell the history of the town and as well as the stories of the suppressed women of the last century. For the campaigners, not being able to stop demolitions in the past has given them a bitter memory. They wish they could have done something.

“We want the future generation to feel proud being part of that building and also, we got our education there. We want the Council to consult with people in Wrexham when it makes a decision,” says Elaine.

Both in Splott and Wrexham, people felt sorry for not having been able to stop the closures and changes around town before. It was a collective feeling of guilt and regret from not being able to do more to preserve the buildings that had already gone. The more buildings demolished, the more pain remains in people’s memory.

Pontypridd: Saving Pontypridd Town Hall

Pontypridd Town Hall © Kahoru Yuki

“Growing group and make it known more by a lot of people is important,” Robert Edmunds, a spokesperson of Save Pontypridd Town Hall, and a member of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust explains.

It was 2013 when Robert began working on the Hall in Rhondda Cynon Taf, a county town in the north of the Welsh capital. It has not been used for more than 30 years.

“I own my theatre company. We were looking for theatre space to do our next show and just discovered [the building]. I never knew it had existed.

“As I found out a lot about the building – a historical building and wonderful place –somehow I wanted to manage [it],” he says.

He talked to local politicians and the owner company about his idea, and organised a group for making a business plan to renew the Hall. As it is not under urgent threat of demolition, he was able to find the people who once worked at the Hall or who have photographs of the Hall during the campaign.

“Listening to the manager about how the building used to be was a very great story. And photographs sparked a great deal of interest on the petition. We need to gather a lot of public interest.”

The group made the proposal to renew the Hall into two theatres and the cultural hub of the community last November. Robert passionately appears in the media, organising meetings, posting on Facebook and talking to people.

“We have a lot of pressure again like the building surveillance or the problem of asbestos. To take this project forward, we’re looking for more people now to make our group larger and get more public support.”

Splott settlement © Kahoru Yuki

In Splott, the demolition is ongoing for more than one month. The view of the community is changing day by day. From Catrin’s house, now she can see the wide blue sky because the building doesn’t disturb the view anymore. It may be narrowed again when the construction of apartment begins.

She is still passionate about working on the building. “We are going to change the nature of our group from protest into keeping the ethos of the University Settlement alive. It is education – for working class, for men and women, boys and girls and enhancing culture.”

She has started mapping artists who live in the community and places they could use for organising events. She says she got to know more neighbours during the campaign and has also found many artists living around the community. She wants to use this opportunity to keep the community history intact and keep people closer.

“The building has gone, but our spirits are alive,” she says with a smile.

Kahoru Yuki is a journalist based in Tokyo, Japan. She worked for Japan’s National Daily, The Mainichi and is now with the Japanese TV Program World Business Satellite. She spends her free time taking photos and listening to people’s life stories.

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