The Cywain centre – right time, right location but wrong project … and why

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and is something that we as auditors need to guard against when looking back and forming a view on the rights and wrongs of a case.

This is particularly true when a project goes off the rails, as happened with the Cywain Centre – the heritage, rural life and sculpture centre near Bala that closed in September 2011 at a cost to the public purse of £3.4m.

The public sector funding for the Centre came from a number of different sources. The potential benefits of the project would have been very clear to the public funders who were considering making grants to the Centre – it offered jobs and a chance to develop tourism in a rural part of North Wales.

For a number of funders it will have ticked many a box in in terms of showing how they were meeting their high-level commitments and priorities. There was also a temptation for some of the smaller funders to ‘follow my leader’ and allow any concerns they may have had about the Centre to be outweighed by the intention of other funders to commit significantly higher sums to the project. It was also true that this was just one of many projects being considered by the larger funding bodies.

So why did we end up thinking that this was a case of right time, right location, but wrong project?

Well, to quote from a former prime minister, it was a case of going back to basics.

Was the Centre ever going to attract the number of visitors it needed to stay afloat?

Would people be willing to pay the entrance fee that the Centre needed to charge?

Was the Centre ever going to increase so significantly the visitor numbers over its first five years, and would people have spent substantially more to get in and when on the site?

The information that was available at the time that funders were making their decisions clearly indicates that the numbers used in the business case for the Centre were, at best, highly optimistic. Also, having worked on the review for a number of months I still have difficulty picturing what the centre was all about – heritage… rural life… modern sculpture, it all seems an odd mix.

But, the final nail in the coffin should have been that even with these highly ambitious assumptions on visitors and income the Centre was still projected to initially make a loss.

About the Author:

Steve AshcroftFollowing a varied career in the private sector and in Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, Steve Ashcroft has worked for the Wales Audit Office and its predecessor organisations since 1994.

In this time he has project managed a large number of performance audits mainly within the health and social care sector, and within mental health in particular.

Steve is now a manager within the national studies team with a broad range of projects across the public sector.

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