Melville Centre for the Arts Community Interest Company occupies the main building on the site of Abergavenny’s former King Henry VIII Grammar School – a Victorian Grade II listed building, built in 1898. The school was closed in 1971 when the last of its pupils were transferred to the new comprehensive school. The site was retained by Monmouthshire County Council and tenanted by Gwent Young People’s Theatre, DanceBlast and Careers Wales. In March 2017 the County provided Melville Centre for the Arts CIC (MCA CIC) a ‘Licence to Manage the site’ after Gwent Theatre for Young People (GYPT) went into administration.
In January 2019, the Council agreed a two-stage process for the community asset transfer of the site to Melville Centre for the Arts CIC. The first stage is to obtain funding for, and carry out comprehensive surveys of the site, consult the community, construct site plans, and obtain outline planning permissions and estimates of costs for site development. The second stage is to obtain further funding for the actual development of the site, which includes a sensitive restoration due to its graded status. Unfortunately, from March 2020 Covid restrictions have largely curtailed MCA CIC’s fund-raising activity, with few physical meetings or activities taking place, however zoom has become a familiar tool and the board has participated in two support programmes hosted by DTA Wales- Enterprising Solutions and Renew Wales.
A local co-ordinator on both programmes, Nicola Perkins, brought them onto Enterprising Solutions in order to get support with their business planning, marketing strategy, community engagement and funding sources to get the ball rolling with future plans.
They were matched with two ES mentors. Vina Patel ran two workshops which discussed the governance of the group, short and longer-term objectives, an action/ business plan for 12-18 months and support for funding applications. They also needed to develop communications with their ‘community of interest’ which would strengthen and improve their plans and ensure that local, interested people were a firm part of the venture. Rosie Cribb worked with them on the online questionnaire (which attracted 214 responses) and facilitated three focus groups – one with representatives from local organisations they already work with, one with current users of the centre, and one with the general public of the area. A further focus group, to capture the views of the young people is planned. The outcome has been really welcome, with around 137 people signing up to help and support the process.
Penny Simcock (MCA CIC Chair) says:
“The help overall from Enterprising Solutions has been really productive, focusing on our strengths and resilience strategies, identifying and working on next steps in the major grant applications including business plan revision and signposting and helping us evaluate our chances with major grant making organisations in terms of accessing funding…”
The MCA group are a mixed bunch- with a great deal of professional managerial and social experience amongst them. They are all about creating a non-elitist venue without barriers and low-cost access to the arts in its widest form. They currently have 6 directors, including a Swedish member who is adding her expertise in journalism and photography to the skill-mix.
The group also wanted support with drawing up an environmental policy to help inform their funding applications as well as an energy audit of the site’s buildings, so Nicola brought them into Renew Wales. There was a session held early on as part of the process to explore climate change as an issue and Nicola concluded that overall, they were really clued up with issues and what they could do to help:
“It’s more important now than ever before to be sustainable going forward” said one.
“We work with a wide cross section of the community and need to inspire future generations, as well as making the historic building in which our theatre is located as environmentally friendly as possible – to meet our CO2 reduction targets, reduce overheads and future proof it.”
The building audit was done in July 2020 through a referral to Sustainable Communities Wales. It flagged-up opportunities for both energy and financial savings. The site has an annual energy spend of around £10,800, with most of that being or heating and lighting. The report identified potential year-round savings of almost £2,800 (31% reduction in energy costs) and recommended both no cost and low-cost actions, as well as suggestions for larger and more impactful measures.
The group then received support from Renew Wales mentor Margaret Minhinnick who helped them develop their environmental policy, incorporating action to address the environmental impacts on the site’s energy use, waste management and land management. The group now promotes active travel and cycle racks have already been installed in place of two car parking spaces. Over a 12-month period in 2020/21 this support has transformed the board’s perspectives on the environmental impact of the current management of the site and enabled the directors to become proactive in setting environmental targets. They have established a number of priorities which they can now address incrementally and effectively in bite sized chunks. Most significantly, the board are now able to take action in areas that they would never previously have considered.
As of March 2021, the building has still not been transferred to the group – things have been delayed while many major funding pots were closed for non-Covid-related applications- but the ball is now rolling again and MCA directors are aiming to complete their first major funding applications within two months. Very exciting times ahead!
Nicola Perkins, said “It has been brilliant to be able to offer a tailored package of support to the Melville, and by drawing on the specialist support offered by both Renew Wales and Enterprising Solutions it has given Penny & the Board access to a fantastic range of highly skilled Mentors. The two strands of support have definitely complimented each other looking at all aspects of the Centre’s sustainability; from who their customers are, to strengthening their governance, to reducing the environmental impact of the building as well as outlining their environmental commitments going forward. It’s been a pleasure working with the group over the last 15 months and I look forward to seeing them grow and develop as a Centre.”