A Date at the Palace

The Global Centre of Rail Excellence team conducted a series of ‘Roadshow’ events near to the site in early May to update local communities on the development and to introduce the Masterplan.

Head of Strategic Communications at GCRE, Andrew Johnson, writes a blog about how they went.

It’s the new King’s coronation week and the Global Centre of Rail Excellence team are a touch nervous.

They’ve been preparing for this moment for a few weeks – gently rehearsing their lines and practicing their pitch.

The GCRE staff have a date at the palace.

But not that one…

The team had an appointment at the ‘Palace of Culture’, the local name for the Onllwyn Miners Welfare Hall, just a stone’s throw from the 700-hectare site that will, in just a few short years, house Europe’s premier rail testing, research and innovation facility.

Wednesday 3rd May was the first in a series of our summer ‘roadshow’ events in the villages that surround the GCRE site, with a further two held in Ystradgynlais on Friday 12th May and Abercrave the next day.

The sessions were a chance to update local people on progress with the GCRE development and to introduce the Masterplan that has been developed for the site by our award winning architects Fifth Studio.

All of the sessions were really well attended. 222 people turned out across all three events and for the GCRE team the days were pretty intense workouts as they fielded a range of questions from local residents, businesses and elected representatives.

What does this mean for noise on my road? Will it be dusty? What are you doing with the Neath branch line? Can I still get access to the weekend walking route I use? Where is your energy supply coming from? Will there be jobs for local people? Will you come and talk to my local school? How will trains being tested get to site?

And many, many more.

It was right the GCRE team prepared thoroughly. Those attending had done their research and it was right residents living nearby to the site received as full and as detailed a set of responses as we could provide. This is a big and important construction and so it was understandable that there would be such a broad range of questions.

But perhaps the pre-session nerves of the GCRE team were a little overdone.

What was clear from all three events was the underlying support that existed for the GCRE idea. Local people had clear issues they wanted addressed, but at the same time nearly everyone saw that GCRE represented a unique economic and regeneration opportunity for the area.

Perhaps that was down to the fact that this isn’t just any community.

These villages – at the head of the Swansea, Dulais and Neath valleys – are an intrinsic part of the south Wales coalfield, an area steeped in traditions of manufacturing and engineering and with a history of deep mining stretching back over two hundred years.

The walls of the roadshow venues themselves in Onllwyn, Ystradgynlais and Abercrave bore witness. They teemed with stories, memorials and pictures of the rich industrial past of this region. Indeed, part of what we want to do in time at the GCRE facility itself is have an exhibition centre on site that can inform visitors and future generations and chronicle that story.

And so maybe what underpinned the broadly positive response we saw across the three sessions was that legacy. These are communities that understand manufacturing processes and what it means to have industry embedded in their local area.

They appreciate the benefits that come with having industry located locally, but recognise there are important preparations that need to be made beforehand – and all three sessions became, in effect, face-to-face workshops about how to make an infrastructure development of this size and scale successful. GCRE not only wants to be a good neighbour, but be an active part of the local community and so for both us as a business and for those in attendance it felt a very useful exercise.

We took a pretty simple approach to the organisation of the sessions themselves. We came with clear, accessible information about GCRE that people could look at themselves, with the opportunity for a chat with one or two of the GCRE team after they’d finished.

Of course, we could have structured each event in a very different way, with flashy visuals and sparkling corporate videos, but it just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the face-to-face dialogue local people wanted.

From the outset we pledged to be open, transparent and honest about where we stood.

There is risk with this…” was a phrase that echoed around the halls from every member of the GCRE team, across the three sessions. While we’ve had brilliant funding support from government so far – £50m from the Welsh Government and £20m from UK Government, along with a further £7.4m for research and development – we need £330m of additional private investment in order to finish the job and make the Global Centre of Rail Excellence a reality.

And while that investment raise is going well – by October we hope to have the private funding in place – we wanted to be crystal clear with everyone attending the reality of where we stood. Cards on the table.

We did it, above all, because it’s the right thing to do but also because these are communities that understand that a ‘sure thing’ doesn’t exist. They didn’t believe it the last time they were told it and they wouldn’t wear it now, so going into the roadshow sessions our Chief Executive Simon Jones gave us one, very clear steer – ‘Don’t make any promises we can’t keep’.

And that’s the same spirit in which we will continue all of our community engagement over the coming months and years.

Of course, there were those that left the events still in two minds about the GCRE development. That’s in the nature of a big infrastructure development such as this. But I think everyone did go away appreciating the additional information and the fact that they had the chance to make their views known directly to the team.

But what was also at play in the halls we visited over all three sessions was the question of identity.

Onllwyn, Caehopkin, Abercrave, Coelbren, Ystradgynlais, Seven Sisters… the villages surrounding the site feel great pride in the industrial history of their area. Its how they earned their living and their identity as a community has been fundamentally shaped by it. This part of Wales effectively helped lead the world into the first industrial revolution.

But times have been tough of late and maybe through GCRE they see an opportunity to write the next chapter of their own industrial story. As home to Europe’s most advanced rail research and testing facility these valleys could once again be known around the world for engineering and innovation excellence. Something that’s in the DNA of these parts.

In the coming months, through these blogs, we’ll tease out in more detail some of the bigger themes that came out of these and future roadshow sessions and later this week we will post a Q&A on the website that we’ll add to and keep up to date with the most important and relevant information.

We’ll also be holding further roadshow events later in the year and so encourage everyone to check out the website for more detail.

In the meantime, we want to sincerely thank all those that attended the roadshow sessions. We appreciated your questions, advice and ideas immensely.

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