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June 17, 2009

Memorable for its honesty

The largest gathering in Scotland of front line community organisations is the annual conference of the country’s development trusts- this year at Dunblane Hydro.  The speech by Elwyn James of Arts Factory in Wales was memorable for its honesty- an account of what it’s really like trying to establish an independent community trust – including the slings and arrows

Speech at DTAS Conference 2009
Elwyn James

Good afternoon.  My name is Elwyn and I work for a development trust called Arts Factory.  We are based in the Rhondda Valleys, in South Wales.  First off I’d like to thank Ian and his team for inviting me to speak to you today.  Ian said that he wanted a practitioner to “provide a bit of inspiration” – so no pressure there then! 

Arts Factory is one of Wales’ most enduring development trusts, we have been around since 1990.  I first got involved in 1991 as one of our board of directors.  Then I became Chair of the board.  In 1994 I became an employee of the company, leading on Marketing, and in 2004 I was appointed Chief Executive.  A lot has changed around us since Arts Factory’s birth in 1990 but too much has stayed the same.  For our team it has been a wild ride on a bumpy road.  There have been many casualties along the way, but others have stepped up to take their place.  We have seen a lot, and we have learned a lot.  We have won some and we’ve lost some.  We have had great times and hard times, and we have laughed and cried and cursed together.  I would like to take a few minutes of your time to share some of that journey with you.

I would like to rewind and ask you to imagine the Rhondda in 1990.  It is not long after the miner’s strike and the subsequent colliery closures that had ripped the heart and the hope out of valleys communities.   It is nearly ten years before devolution, Wales is ruled by a Tory Welsh Office represented by a secretary of state who can’t even sing our national anthem.  Margaret Thatcher has proclaimed that there’s no such thing as society – communities are nowhere on the agenda.  The dominant culture is one of despair and of fear of a bleak future.  It manifests itself in all the usual ways – family break up, drug and alcohol dependency, crime and the fear of crime, suicide and teenage pregnancy.  Along with the despair comes the blame.  It was not an easy place to live if you were “different” – different because of your disability,  or your sexuality,  your race, your lifestyle or maybe even the length of your hair.

It is against that back-drop that a small group of people get together in a local pub.  Some of them are people with learning difficulties.  They are all people who were sick and tired of being labelled as somebody’s problems.  They want to be part of the solution but they know that there is no cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue and that they will have to do something for themselves.  They decide to set up a community enterprise doing garden clearances and light building work for vulnerable people in the community.  They approach the local social services department and agree a deal where they would take a group of people out of day care settings in return for a modest service level agreement, which funds the purchase of a small van and enables them to employ a team leader.  Arts Factory is born, albeit under the spectacularly uninspiring name “Vales Community Business”.

Now I would like you to fast forward to the present day.   Arts Factory’s mission hasn’t changed at all.  We are still working to build a stronger,  more enterprising and more inclusive community.  Arts Factory’s values haven’t changed.  We still believe in social justice and in sustainable development, and we haven’t seen them yet!  Our values are best expressed in the statement  “No More Throw-Away People!”  which we stole from Edgar Cahn, the inventor of time-banking, and have used ever since – because it says what we are all about better than we ever could.

What has changed is that Arts Factory is now one of Wales’ best known development trusts.  We are well known in our local communities.  Over the years Arts Factory’s work has touched thousands of people’s lives.  We are well known within the development trust movement,  and by both the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government, both of which have showcased our work in various case studies.  We have won a bunch of awards, locally and nationally.

Today Arts Factory manages a portfolio of social enterprises.  Our Graphic Design business has been a real success over the last ten years.  Our Environmental Design Service grew out of our initial garden clearances and has evolved to become a service that supports local communities to transform their public space.  We have an on-line business, Factory Books, which supplies quality used books to customers from all over the world.  We are partners in a joint venture to develop a  social enterprise making improvements to social housing stock, and are developing a business manufacturing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil.  We rent managed workspace to a number of other organisations, some of it in Trerhondda, a historic building that we have transformed from a derelict shell into a thriving community-hub.  Trerhondda hosts an Open Learning Centre run by our local FE college, and advice surgeries run by a wide range of agencies.  It is home to Arts Factory’s youth work programme, to electronic job points, to health and fitness groups and arts and craft classes, and to “Stay and Play” groups for pre-school children and their parents. 

That all sounds great doesn’t it?  Job done – there’s your inspiration!  It is all true.  I wouldn’t lie to you.  But it is just one side of the coin.  It is half a picture.  I will get to the other half, but first let me return to the journey.

Back to 1991 – Lots of people want their gardens cleared.  Very few have money to pay!  But our team is out in the community, visible, doing hard work that people value.  Doing something that improves the quality of someone else’s life and of their own.  Flying a flag and spreading a positive message.  Not everyone has given up.

The message begins to spread and other people begin to get involved.  Not in their hundreds,  more a steady trickle of misfits.  I was one of them.  Someone told me about the work they were doing and asked me if I’d be prepared to do a few hours volunteering.  I turn up expecting to be filling a skip and I’m handed a shoebox full of receipts and told that I’m the new treasurer!  No one gives me a chance to say no.  Others simply see our team at work,  ask what they’re doing and why, and then they join in!  Volunteers bring along a friend.  There is an immediacy about everything.  People go straight from a street corner to laying a brick.  Out of the pub and into someone’s garden – filling skips in the rain, and loving it.  There is no strategy at all!  Just do it, and do it now.  Do it because it needs doing.  Do it because no one else is going to.  Don’t talk, act.  No excuses.

1992 – We are building momentum as more and more people get involved.  We don’t have an office yet or any sort of base.  People take their tools home at night.  We gatecrash other people’s offices to use their telephones – we don’t have one.   We are still meeting in pubs but now we are packing them out.    There is a buzz on.  Some meetings turn into parties.  More people come!  We have about 30 regular volunteers and a bunch more that we can call on when we need them.  Of course not everyone is happy.  There are plenty of local people who think our work is pointless.  Others call us “the freak show”.  We don’t care, in-fact we like it!  They are old and in the way.  We are doing things a new way.  We let them wait for their cavalry.  If it comes we will eat their horses! 

We take out a lease on some dilapidated greenhouses for a peppercorn rent and try our hand at growing organic vegetables to sell at local markets.  We think the vegetables grow well but apparently our carrots  are the wrong shape!  We are ten years too early with the organic thing!  We eat the vegetables and switch to growing flowers.  They sell better and we begin to get ideas.

By 1994 the ideas have turned into ambitions.   We blag money from the Welsh Office and move into some dilapidated industrial units.  Now we have a base.  Vales Community Business changes it’s name to Arts Factory.  We shed our skin and move into a new era.  We are scrounging stuff from everywhere and manage to win the support of a couple of charitable trusts.   Within a year we have transformed our units.  We turn the grounds into gardens and create offices, a woodcraft workshop, art space and a full-on garden centre!  In 1996 we get some lottery funding and add a pottery.  By now we’ve got some great facilities and we want to show them off and make the most of them so we open up for evening classes.  More people get involved.  We hold a summer festival on our site – live music, good food, arts and crafts, face-painting and the obligatory bouncy castle.  Over 1,000 people come.

Onto 1997.  Somehow we are now employing over 20 people.  Over 100 people volunteer at Arts Factory every week.  A lot of them are young people as we have invested heavily in a youth work programme.  They are labelled “disaffected youth” but we explain that’s fine – we are disaffected adults.  We need space to grow and we want to get Arts Factory onto the high street where we will be more visible.  Our industrial units are a little tucked away.  We set our sites on a derelict chapel, Trerhondda, and start to circulate a proposal to turn it into a multi-use community facility.  We tour the pubs and clubs telling people about our plans and find there is a lot of local support.  The owners are happy to sell it to us for next to nothing as it has become a liability to them.  We try to talk to the council about our plans but don’t get far.  We don’t understand why, but sympathetic council officers explain off the record that the lady mayoress hates the building and wants it pulled down.  Local politicians tell us to back off and stick to working with disabled people, otherwise they will see us shut down.  We don’t like being threatened and we go for it collecting over 4,000 signatures on a petition supporting our proposal and forcing a public enquiry.  At the enquiry the council parade a succession of expert  witnesses with a succession of reasons why the building should be torn down.   Their barrister leans on a big pile of leather bound legal books when he talks.  We don’t have a barrister, any legal books or expert witnesses because we don’t have any money.  We have a flipchart and a chief executive prepared to stand-up and speak with real passion about our plans for the building.  We win and Trerhondda is ours, but we have made some real enemies. 

Something else happens in 1997.  A Labour government wins the general election.   Some people get ready to greet the cavalry.  They never come.  More significantly for us, it is the year that we launch our graphic design service, which will become one of Arts Factory’s most successful social enterprises.   It is also the year that we conduct the first social audit that has been done by any organisation in Wales.

Over the next couple of years we redevelop Trerhondda phase by phase, as we are able to raise the money.  As soon as the building is made safe and we have got a roof on we start holding raves in it.  Young people come and they are the type of young people we could not have reached through more traditional youth work.  They help us to refurbish the ground floor, and then finally the first floor.  By 1999 the building is being used by over 500 people every week.

By then we have contracted with the government’s “New Deal” programme, providing work experience to “job seekers”.  Except for a whole load of reasons many are not actually seeking jobs.  For the first time we have people at Arts Factory who don’t really want to be there and it has a massive cultural impact.   We gradually disengage from the programme.  Some of the job seekers who have got the point stay on at Arts Factory as volunteers.   Some are still with us today.  They still don’t have what society calls  “jobs” and they have no interest in getting them,  but they have done more useful work over the last ten years than they would ever have done in a lifetime on some production line.  I am very proud to work alongside them. 

1999 – devolution.  Still no cavalry.  Instead we get a new beaurocracy.

By 2000 we have reached our tenth anniversary.   Sustainability has become a big issue.  We understand the depth of the problems in our communities and we know that if we are going to make a real difference we need to be around for the long term.  But financially we are very fragile.  We have no reserves and while we are earning some money and pulling in some grants it is all very hand to mouth.  Cash flow is a nightmare.  Our pottery has never generated the sales we’d hoped for and reluctantly we close it.  Our garden centre is next to go.  It has never made us any money, struggling to break even at best and we have a lot of cash tied-up in stock which we need to free-up.  We reign-in our youth work programme.  This is our first experience of downsizing at Arts Factory and it is incredibly painful but we learn a lot.

We are looking for the big one, something that will secure Arts Factory’s long term future.  We initiate a joint venture with a private sector partner to develop a wind-farm in the Rhondda.  If we can pull it off it will provide us with a core income stream for the next twenty years.  We work hard to make the deal and to win European Objective One investment for the project.  We campaign locally and win a lot of support.  Community based organisations from all over the UK send letters supporting us but local politicians are vigorously opposed to the project.  They are the same people that opposed our redevelopment of Trerhondda.  Progress through the planning system is painfully slow.  Eventually the local authority hear our application and they turn it down, against the advice of their own officers.  We go to appeal and prepare for another public inquiry.  We win this one too and at last we have planning consent for a wind-farm.  It has taken five years!  But all is not well.  Our partners have sold their share in the project to another company.  They are less interested in the idea  of a joint venture with a development trust and they  try to squeeze us out of the project.  We resist and we are still in there but time is ticking on.  Eventually they decide that they don’t want to pursue it at all, leaving is to find another partner, but by now our option to develop the land has lapsed and we fail to raise the funds to renew it.  Another developer steps in and secures the site.  They are not interested in a partnership.  Game over.  Years of hard work up in smoke.  More pain, more learning. 

By now we are deep into Europe, drawing down ESF to fund an informal learning programme that reaches literally thousands of local people.   But in 2004 a bid unexpectedly fails and we are forced to downsize again, laying off valued team members that we have spent years developing.  Six months later a similar bid is successful and we are recruiting again.  We are locked into systemic funding insanity.   In 2007 the Objective One programme comes to an end.  The Welsh Assembly Government  has failed miserably to dovetail the forthcoming Convergence programme.  We can’t bridge the gap.  More downsizing, more pain.  We learn not to depend on Europe.

We create two new joint venture companies with fellow development trusts as partners.  One to develop a construction-based social enterprise making improvements to social housing stock, and one to develop a social enterprise manufacturing biodiesel from waste vegetable oil. 

In 2008 we launch Factory Books, our on-line bookstore and within 12 months we have 20,000 books listed and we’re breaking even.  Just a month ago we launched a business providing IT solutions.  DTA Wales were our first customer.

So that brings us up to the present and by now I think you will have glimpsed the other side of the coin.  It has been a hard journey to get to where we are today.  And where are we?  In many ways Arts Factory is back where it all started.  Some good people, with some good ideas, and the commitment, energy and enthusiasm to make things happen.  Our culture is robust but financially we are still incredibly fragile.  We have no financial reserves, we have loans and a massive overdraft.  We are still surviving hand to mouth,  juggling that cash flow.  But we didn’t stand still to get here, we have done the miles, we’ve walked the talk and learned our lessons.   A lot of people’s lives have changed for the better because of their involvement with Arts Factory, and I know that because they tell me.  Our work has inspired other people to stand-up and do what’s necessary in their own communities, and I know that because they tell me.   And when all is said and done that is what Arts Factory is all about – changing people’s lives for the better.  The buildings and the businesses are just the tools we use to do it. 

What about the future?  It is uncertain, unwritten, like it always was.  These days we do have a clear strategy.  We are completely focussed on developing our enterprise portfolio to the point where it funds all of our operating costs, and we won’t be distracted from that.  The work we want to do is far too important to be left to the vagaries of government programmes and the grace and favour of grant funders.  We will continue to tap into these opportunities when we can, but only to fund work that directly contributes to our long term sustainability.  Over the last few years we have significantly increased the proportion of our  income that’s earned through trading.  We know that it will be very hard to maintain that trend in the face of the current recession.  These are challenging times, but we have never ducked a challenge. 

In closing I would like to say two things.  The first is to directed to those of you who are here representing government  departments.  Take a risk.  When you see positive people, with good ideas, who are prepared to step-up and work to transform their communities, get behind them.  Give them the resources they need to get things moving.  They are taking a risk.  They are daring to hope, daring to act, and they’re risking failure and all of the humiliation and hurt that comes with that.  That takes real courage and they need you to be courageous too and share some of that risk with them.   Some will fail, but many will succeed.  If we don’t learn to take that risk together nothing will change.

The second is directed to the members of DTA Scotland, and particularly those that might be thinking of joining.  We didn’t make this journey on our own.  We would never have made it.  For our first five years we were working in isolation.  We didn’t know anyone else who shared our agenda,  who believed that the solutions to the problems our communities faced lay within those communities themselves.  Sure,  we knew of various voluntary associations and all sorts of charities but none that had the ethos of building community at their heart.  There was no internet to search then and no community sector. Then in 1995 I went to a conference run by something called the Development Trusts Association – it was the first I’d heard of them but the programme looked interesting and I thought I’d check it out.  I came back to Wales and said to my chief executive “I have found them!”  He asked “Who?” and I said “the others.”    When he met them he knew exactly what I meant and we have been active members of the DTA ever since.  We had found a group of people who shared our values and our ethos.  They had ideas, knowledge, contacts, skills and experience that they were happy to share.   When we ran into problems we had people we could ring for advice.  When we could help them we were happy to.  Arts Factory was instrumental in setting up DTA Wales and we have worked hard to build our membership there.  I can’t over-emphasise the value we have had from being part of this movement for change.  We have found that it’s like many things – the more you put in the more you get out.  So if you are here because the programme looked interesting and now you are wondering whether it’s worth joining – just do it.  You won’t regret it.  If you are already a committed member of DTA Scotland then you already know what I am talking about.  We have our Welsh conference on July 8th and 9th and it would be good to welcome some of you there.  E-mail me if you want the details.

One final thing and it is a shameless plug.  If you want to show your support for Arts Factory you can.  You can buy our graphic design services.  Distance isn’t a problem.  We can video conference and work with you on-line.  E-mail me about that too!

Thanks for listening