Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Sospan Restaurant - Carmarthenshire Econonmics

Wales is often seen as a begging bowl economy. Apparently unable to survive without hand outs and with insufficient power, resources and/or influence to help itself. The story of Llanelli's generously subsidised fine dining venue illustrates the strange and wonderful ways in which even our supposedly locally "controlled" Councils are encouraged to give away their land and source funding for selected
businesses. Exactly how these projects are formulated is mysterious, but they are often related to or associates of other organisations and projects who also bask in the sun of public funding. No surprise there. Those who know and experience these systems are also likely to use this knowledge for other projects.

The imposing Pump House at North Dock, Llanelli, built at the turn of the 20th century and a listed building, found itself in a Waterfront  Regeneration Project Area. A use needed to be found which would preserve the imposing listed building.

 Bids were taken for developing the building. 3 were considered. {source FOIA/3789 CCC]

Developer A
£254,788  offered for site
£400,000 grant funding required.
Net  contribution grant required of £145,212

Developer B
Nil value for purchase of land.
£575,000 grant required

Developer C
Nil value for purchase of land
Nil grant required

CCC stated in the FOIA reply "However, it should be borne in mind that the award of contract was also based on a Cost and Quality submission, therefore the financial details would not have been scored in isolation."

After the bidding, the contract was awarded to Bendigo 9-10. a firm fronted by Rugby International players Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel. Planning permission was granted. A Plaza built to enhance the site as per my previous blog, but the use of the building was delayed for 2 years until 2010 to allow Welsh Water to try to upgrade the sewage drainage in the area.  The restaurant area itself has appeared odour free whenever I've visited the environs but not so the flats opposite on the other side of the dock so I suspect there are still residual problems in the area.

Of course I can't be sure which bid the Council accepted but I suspect the winners were Developer B.
A Cadw contribution and Business Development Grants and other subsidises were said to be in the region of £600,000 and further smaller grants were allocated  by CCC with £13,750 coming from the South West Wales local investment fund.[ FOIA/5249]

Recently a local resident noted that the car park for the Sospan was being extended onto public owned Council land and flagged this up with the council. The Bendigo 9-10 had paid around £30k for use of the original car park area. Originally CCC claimed there was no issue but later realised there was. This is the revised response

 "Carmarthenshire County Council officers were notified at the time of the recent works that the extension was in accordance with an agreed lease agreement. Since the time of our initial response on 19th April 2017 surveyors have checked the boundaries on site and we are now liaising directly with the owner as we believe there is additional land take. If additional land has actually been utilised the council will look to secure a sale at market value."

Such has been the success of the restaurant that a new venture subsequently opened at the Eastgate, the private owned but public funded Llanelli town centre development which was also briefly home to a business enterprise run by the Scarlets which ran up large debts. Robert Williams, Chair of WRW, local construction firm and member of CCC's constructors' framework, is described as a co-owner of both the Sospan and the newer B 9-10 . Close to the Sospan is the Dragon 24 new office complex, which has had difficulty in letting the floor space. WRW is occupying one of the units. 


B-9-10 was launched at East Gate Llanelli in December 2014 by the same rugby stars Dwayne Peel and Stephen Jones along with local entrepreneur Robert Williams. This set of units has also been difficult to fully let, and ask for very large rents compared with the other areas of the town. The high end Burger bar does not seem to have survived despite an enthusiastic launch...

The new town centre restaurant was described as rugby themed "as it provides a stylish yet informal surroundings to enjoy delicious Welsh food and craft beers and even catch the latest Scarlets game on the big screen! The owners previously launched the multi award winning Sosban in Llanelli, which was most recently crowned Wales best place to eat by the National Tourism Awards, following their title as Wales’ best restaurant with the Good Food Guide, and The AA Guide’s Best restaurant in Wales title."  
One of several empty  units at the Llanelli Eastgate  

No information is available from CCC as to the number of promising young chefs placed at the Sospan for training. The food is very good by all accounts but expensive.

So how is the company doing?

 BENDIGO 9-10 is trading and listed at Companies House. It was planned to provide up to 20 local full time jobs. The current  employment figures are not available.

2016 accounts show a cash balance of £82K, net worth of £596,680, total current assets of £263,244,and total current liabilities of £135,901 with debt held by HSBC and Welsh Government.
This pattern of helping along local enterprises with procuring grants and added extras is perfectly legal and above board. However, although this project has provided a use for an old historic landmark it has not regenerated anything more than the area it stands on and its public plaza has certainly not attracted the public. It should be attractive to tourists but is remote and secluded from the the nearest tourist "hot spot" of  Llanelli Beach. It is not close to hotels and tourist routes and a long walk and short drive from the town. It may be that as a high end fine dining restaurant that makes little difference to trade as those who wish to eat the finest food and have the money to pay for it, may always make the effort.

However, as a reproducible model for expanding the local economy it is not useful. In fact the impression that only a few elite projects succeed in obtaining substantial public funding and  easy planning consent appears to discourage young entrepreneurs. As in much of Wales, there is no economic plan A, never mind a plan B, just build more homes for retirees and commuters. At least this will increase the Council Tax take, but little else.

Like much of Rural Wales, Carmarthenshire's sustainable industries are surely Tourism, Food Production [farming, food processing and packaging], forrestry and energy production.  The Public Sector is the major employer through Health, Education, Local Government etc. There are still some Llanelli engineering jobs, mainly related to the automotive industry but there is little sign of expansion in this area and similarly little prospect of expansion in the residual steel and other heavy industries. If there is any prospect of economic expansion we at least need a plan...  
                                                                                                                    Siân Caiach
Sospan :New Car Park in Foreground, Restaurant on left and the white building in the distance is WRW offices 

3 comments:

  1. This is all very interesting. I live in Swansea but for one reason or another spend weekly time in Llanelli and I've been perplexed as to why Llanelli Town Centre has nose dived so much in the last 10 years - articles/blogs like this explain so much to me and I'm now 'enlightened' - what a "we like our local Rugby boys" stitch up by the Council. It just stinks of small village politics as in who knows who - we'll blindly give them the money coz they can catch a rugby ball pretty good and their from Llanelli. The thing is, it's not the 70/80s anymore unfortunately it pretty much still feels like that when it comes to the Council

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  2. Just want to clarify - do these ex Rugby player own B 9-10 and the Sospan or are they just hired promotional help? If it's the latter, readers, please ignore my references of distain towards their participation in this matter.

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  3. The 2 ex Rugby players are listed in Companies House as directors, not employees. How involved they are in the business is not clear.

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