Co-ops star in Wrecsam
by Marc Jones
In the past year, local people in Wrecsam have made a huge effort to turn the tide against closures and decline.
Wrecsam has always been a proudly Welsh town despite being only 10 miles from the border. The Football Association of Wales was founded there and football, together with the town’s iconic brewing industry, have been central to the market town’s image. Wrexham Lager was the first lager brewery in the UK, having been founded by German immigrants in the 1880s.
Both have taken a battering in recent years with brewing multinationals closing down the Wrexham Lager brewery and a series of property developers trying to asset strip Wrexham Football Club out of existence.
Last year, the football club was finally bought by a cooperative formed by 2000 members of the Wrexham Supporters’ Trust. The club, among the oldest in Wales, has been safeguarded for the community and the team is currently pushing for promotion on a tide of goodwill and pride among supporters and the wider community.
Second, a local family enterprise has re-launched Wrexham Lager. That has created a huge buzz in the town and the lager is already on sale in 45 pubs across the area, despite the best efforts of the multinationals to hamper that expansion.
The re-opening of the former Seven Stars pub is a community effort to celebrate our town’s heritage, our Welshness and to symbolise the growth in the Welsh language locally. It’s a cooperative whose idea is far more ambitious than just reviving a pub.
The Seven Stars has been reborn as Saith Seren, the town’s new Welsh Centre. Initially, the cooperative – Canolfan Gymraeg Wrecsam – will operate the downstairs part of the building. The bar and kitchen are up and running and the pub’s tradition of live music is maintained. It was standing room only for Gwibdaith Hen Frân on Friday and Irish band The Wee Bag Band from Denbigh on Saturday. Once Phase Two is open, this will be a real social centre.
The initial phase was achieved just six months after going public with a share offer, in which people were invited to become members of the cooperative. The money raised has enabled the cooperative to put in a brand new kitchen, decorate, buy stock and appoint six workers to run the centre seven days a week. Crucially, it allowed the coop to pay for a project manager with formidable experience in setting up co-ops. Amanda Brewer also had the contacts to get the best prices for a number of contracts and this, coupled with the expertise of centre manager Amanda Hughes, explains the lightning speed of opening the centre.
Re-opening a pub as a cooperative is something usually confined to villages abandoned by the market (specifically the rapacious pubcos that dominate the licensed trade). That’s been the case with the Raven in Llanarmon yn Iâl, Denbighshire, and the Pengwern in Llan Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, in recent years.
The re-opening of Saith Seren in Wrecsam town centre is a very different project. Phase two will see the upstairs renovated. The living accommodation will be adapted to community meeting rooms, offices for rent and classrooms for learners’ classes. The aim is to be a focus for Wrecsam’s growing army of Welsh learners and provide a hub for the many organisations involved in promoting Welsh language and culture.
It is, however, also a centre that is welcoming and open to all Wrecsam’s people, whatever language they speak. Many of the bands being put on will be Welsh-language acts but the stage is also being used by local bands and promoters.
Equally significantly, all these ventures have progressed with their own money, rather than relying on grants or government finance. All the money Saith Seren has raised is ours – all through the efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The left in Wales can learn a lot from this DIY people power. We know we can’t, and perhaps don’t want to, rely on state grants that are often conditional on compromising your original intentions. The current economic climate means there are lots of empty buildings going for a song that could be bought by local coops as social centres or other innovative uses.
Marc Jones is Chair of Canolfan Gymraeg Wrecsam and Plaid Cymru Councillor for the Whitegate Ward of Wrecsam