We've received a number of questions since the site seemed to go quiet a few years ago, and we've had a go at answering them below.
Last updated: 18 January 2023
(with updates in underlined bold text)
Why aren't things happening yet?
For the former steelworks site - Stori Brymbo - the natural and industrial heritage that we’re trying to protect and improve is privately owned, and that means we can’t spend funds on it without the owner’s consent. For some activities the consent needed is in the form of a ‘licence’ – a formal agreement that details the specific works to be done – but for most (including the old works’ restoration and works to the fossil forest) a detailed land transfer legal agreement is needed. Work to agree licences for various spaces and tasks, and to agree the land transfer legal agreement, has been ongoing since 2017. We signed a legally binding agreement for a 25-year lease for the site on 13 January 2023, and this is helping to start preparing to implement the scheme.
For the wider area, we’re focussed on our Roots to Shoots project. Although paused during the pandemic this work started in 2017 and will continue through to 2025. It's all about improving a range of our ex-industrial public open spaces, increasing people’s understanding and use of them, involving people in improving them, and increasing the sense of communities’ ownership of them. Look around the website under the Roots to Shoots menu to find out what’s going on.
Why is the old works looking so scruffy?
The works is owned by Parkhill Estates Ltd through their subsidiary company Brymbo Developments Ltd, and has been since 1992. With the landowner’s agreement, between 2010 and late 2019 we were able to make use of some of the facilities on the site and to build the momentum to find a sustainable way of restoring and re-using the remains. As part of this, hundreds of volunteers spent thousands of hours clearing vegetation and bringing the space to life, to enable events such as a series of open days and Brymbo Rocks to take place.
Back in 2014 and through to 2017 we were able to secure £137k from Cadw (the part of Welsh Government responsible for Wales’ historic environment) and £27k from Natural Resources Wales (also part of the Welsh Government) to enable the key buildings to be saved from collapse and to fence off the fossil forest, works which the landowner permitted under temporary licences. However, apart from our orchard and bees projects it has not been possible for us to have a regular presence at the works since September 2019. This is because further works, events and activities can only continue once we have a legal interest in the site.
Having now (January 2023) agreed the 25 year lease we can proceed with finalising our planning applications and securing the extra funding needed to meet the costs caused by nearly 3 years of delays. With those sorted, we'll be able to start work later in 2023, with a full programme of repair and conversion works over the next three years, some by contractors and some through renewed volunteer efforts; we’ll also be able to resume community activities and sustain these throughout the 25 year period.
What’s happening with the fossil forest – it’s been covered with black sheeting for ages, but nothing more?
We secured more than £128,000 from the Welsh Government to erect a steel framed building to cover part of the fossil forest back in late 2017. This would provide facilities to allow us to excavate the ground around the largest of the tree and plant fossils and to study and exhibit them in-situ. We went on to secure planning consent for this structure in summer 2018, and to select a contractor in December 2018, but have needed to have both a licence in place and the terms of the land deal confirmed to enable us to start the work. In January 2022 this grant offer was terminated. The scheme is now included within the main Stori Brymbo project delivery timetable, and construction work is set for early 2024.
The black sheeting has been renewed for the winter to give basic frost protection to the fossils, and many of the already extracted specimens continue to undergo scientific examination (including at Bangor University) as part of research and preparatory work that will support both Stori Brymbo and a wider public understanding of the fascinating world of 300 million ago.
During 2023 we will hold several open days focussing on the Fossil Forest with expert input, and we'll start a programme of talks and lectures to explain the fossil forest and our local natural history further - to school children, students, pub-goers, and residents alike.
You got the money years ago – what’s happened to it?
The funding we have had has come in stages for specific activities, and a full breakdown of the £9.5m that we’ve secured for the project can be found here.
Funders generally make their money available to organisations like ours in a series of steps:
1) we outline our project idea to them;
2) they consider the idea and if they like it, invite us to make a full application;
3) they assess our full application, judge the risks and benefits it presents, and make an offer of funding;
4) we accept the offer and then provide evidence against the conditions they set (such as proving that we have a legal interest in the land, planning consent, matched-funding, etc);
5) they then provide us with ‘permission to start’ which allows us to start spending the money they’ve awarded to us, but only in pursuit of what are termed 'the approved purposes of the grant', and only on costs that are eligible for their grant support;
6) we claim the funding awarded, either in stage-payments or to reimburse the expenditure we’ve made in the month/quarter;
7) funders assess our claim and evidence to ensure it supports the 'approved purposes' and is eligible for grant, and make the next payment;
8) we provide quarterly/six-monthly overall progress reports and respond to any queries;
(steps 6, 7 and 8 then repeat monthly/quarterly until the project is complete).
The vast majority of the funding that has been awarded to us is still at step 4) of this process – meaning that the funds won’t be made available for us to spend until the all of the conditions are met. For us, concluding the land deal and securing planning permission are the key things that will allow us to meet our funder’s requirements.
I've read the investment table and the other FAQs. How is it possible that you've spent so much money with seemingly so little to show for it?
The majority of the money we've spent so far is for 'development' work - building the case, working up the details, securing permissions, securing funding, building the team, working out the costs, considering and addressing the risks, adjusting the scope of the project to keep it achievable within its forecast budget, and so on. Only a small proportion has been for 'delivery' work - actual building works, events, activities, etc.
That's set to change as we move into the 'delivery phase' later in 2023 and beyond, but we appreciate that you might be concerned about how much has been spent already.
All of the money we've secured and spent has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the organisations providing it. The money hasn't been 'won', or been the subject of a popular vote, nor has it been provided as a 'blank cheque' for us to spend how and where we like. Rather, it's all been the result of a series of specific applications to help us on the journey towards making the project a reality.
For us to spend money from any of the grants awarded, the 'spend' must be within the 'approved purposes' of the grant that's been provided, and the actual thing we pay for (as services, as goods, or as staff costs) must be shown as being 'eligible'.
It must also be procured appropriately to ensure good value for money, and it must fall within the budget allocated for that type of expenditure (although there is often some degree of flexibility to move funds between budgets provided the expenditure in question is still eligible, is in support of the approved purposes, and is procured correctly).
For Stori Brymbo, the development stage was the subject of an application in June 2017 for £914k of costs to be covered over the three year period starting early 2018. Covid interrupted the last stages of this, but this work is all nearly concluded now, and we've achieved our 'approved purposes'.
This work has now allowed the funders to assess whether the 'good idea' they first supported nearly ten years ago is ready to get the full go-ahead or not. They said yes in-principle in March 2020 when they then set out conditions for us to meet around the conclusion of the land deal, car parking provision and planning consents. Once those are resolved, the full 'permission to start' will allow us to start the 'delivery stage', unlocking the remaining funding to make it all happen.
'Delivery' funding allows the remaining technical design work to go ahead, which in turn leads to the building works going through an open tender process, through which we can appoint one or more contractors, so we can then do the actual building works that are agreed. It also allows funding to be released to allow us to pay staff, cover overhead and activities costs, and so on to engage people as we move forward towards opening.
The split between the development and delivery phases for Stori Brymbo is clear-cut. We spent nearly £400k before the formal development stage simply arresting decay and building the momentum to get the project taken seriously; we've now spent over £900k working up the details. The funders accepted our applications for grant to enable us to work up these details – without us doing this work, they would not have been prepared to consider our proposals for the final approvals for ‘delivery’ funding. We are now very nearly ready to go - with £6m ready to fund the work over the next five years.
For our Roots to Shoots project the two phases of 'development' and 'delivery' are blended together. This is highly unusual and stems from the National Lottery Community Fund and the Welsh Government working together back in 2015 to explore ways together of empowering communities to improve and make better use of their local green spaces.
We managed to secure £2m from this £8m Wales-wide budget, with our Roots to Shoots project going live in mid 2017. It runs to May 2025, and after four years we've spent less than a quarter of the budget - meaning there's lots left to spend to make the place brighter and more engaging.
Again, Covid slowed us down, and for large areas of land owned by Brymbo Developments Ltd we can only proceed as quickly as the land deal for Stori Brymbo progresses. With this now (January 2023) in place, public engagement work to help us design improvements to the parkland above lodge is underway, with works covering fencing repairs, interpretation boards and safety works (eg to the 'sunken bridge' set to take place before the end of 2023.
For the other spaces involved in Roots to Shoots - like Moss Valley, the Blackie and Bronwen's Green - the 'legal interest requirement' is much less demanding, so we only have to demonstrate that we have the landowner's permission to do the works. That's the stage we're at right now, and these are all progressing very positively, with works underway already or set to be underway during 2023.
Why is the land deal taking so long to sort out?
Our projects that involve the former steelworks site are small parts of a large and complex scheme being led by the landowner that will eventually see new homes, school, health centre, retail and a pub/restaurant. Any delays in one part tend to affect the others, and hence our projects can only proceed at the same pace as everything else.
These delays aren’t affecting our wider Roots to Shoots work though, where activities elsewhere in Brymbo, Tanyfron, Southsea, and Moss are now resuming post-Covid-19. Explore the website to find out more.
Will you be running open days again soon?
Yes, we hope to resume open days during 2023 in conjunction with the landowner ahead of the lease starting. We’ll need to adapt the way we run such events around the building works, and for safety reasons certain parts of the site won’t be accessible to us for months at a time….so the open days may well take on more of a ‘work in progress’ feel to them over the next few years until the capital works are finished.
When will you be running Brymbo Rocks again?
If the space we need can be accessed safely we’ll be aiming to run the next Brymbo Rocks just as soon as we can, but we don't expect to run one until 2024. Residents have given us loads of feedback to work with to make this the biggest, most inclusive and best yet, and we’ll be wanting your input to make sure it’s a really great event!
Can I just turn up and have a look around?
No, the site is currently closed to the general public. When open days return we’ll be sure to keep you posted here on the website as well as through our social media.
Have any comments leave them here...
Are the delays causing you to lose any of the funding you have secured?
Yes, at the start of 2022 we lost funding from two Welsh Government funding programmes worth just under £250,000 in total because of the ongoing delays in getting the Stori Brymbo project started.
These relate to £128,000 that was committed to the construction of the Fossil Forest excavation structure, and £120,000 that was committed to the provision of permanent high quality and fully accessible visitor toilets. Both funding offers came with tight time constraints, and factors beyond our control have meant that we have not been able to meet them.
They had both formed part of the 'co-funding' package worth £2m in total that is required to realise the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s grant offer of £4.1m towards the total project cost of £6.1m. All other funding remains in place.
The Fossil Forest funding was secured in October 2017, and the scheme had been ‘ready to go’ since December 2018. The toilet funding was only secured in August 2021 as part of a grant programme that was for the current financial year only.
Both of these elements are integral parts of the overall Stori Brymbo project, and the Trust is now working hard to find and secure alternative funding to cover them both. The Trust will also continue to manage project costs which continue to rise due to delays, and to do its upmost to keep the Stori Brymbo project viable despite these challenges.
The Fossil Forest excavation structure remains the single most advanced part of the project, in that it is fully designed, fully permitted by Natural Resources Wales and ready to start just as soon as the remaining matters relating to the land deal are concluded.
...but didn't you have a licence in place to erect the Fossil Forest strcuture back in 2019?
Briefly, yes. Here's the full story - the licence was relevant about half-way through:
The £128,000 grant for this work was offered in-principle in October 2017 on the basis of BHT becoming freehold owners of the site. It comes from the Welsh Government’s Rural Community Development Fund programme, co-funded between the WG and EU. We'd applied to the fund twice, firstly unsuccessfully in 2016, then successfully in 2017.
The 2017 award decision was made by a grants panel and was based on the notion of the Fossil Forest project being an integral part of the wider heritage project. It scored highly with the panel – but not as a standalone conservation structure, but rather as a catalyst for sustainable community regeneration, tourism and economic growth.
At the time the Fossil Forest project was enjoying a period of very high public awareness, thanks to the work we’d been doing with BDL, Wrexham Museum, Natural Resources Wales and the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.
Hot on the heels of the good funding news we proceeded to appoint our palaeontologist (Dr Tim Astrop) in January 2018, who started with us in May that year. We went ahead and bought the large blue shipping container and started fitting it out as a laboratory – ready for it to form part of the eventual excavation structure. Our architect further evolved the design of the building and helped us to secure its planning consent in September 2018. We then tendered for and selected a contractor. By the end of December 2018 we were ready to go.
The funder’s 'in-principle' offer would become a full commitment (allowing us to reclaim money spent already on fees, the blue container, microscopes, etc) once a number of conditions were met. These included the planning consent already achieved and land deal to show that BHT had a long-term legal interest in the site.
We'd been working formally with BDL to agree the written terms of the land deal since the autumn of 2017. By the spring of 2019 these discussions were running behind the timetable we'd agreed for the spend of the £128,000 grant. Faced with the potential early loss of that funding we sought (and achieved) a concession with the funder to allow us to get the project started under licence, provided that there was sufficient assurance that the land transfer would follow swiftly behind. That assurance would come in the form of a signed ‘heads of terms’ for the land transfer. (NB - a licence is a written document that is provided by a landowner to give someone formal permission to do something on their land).
We worked with BDL over the rest of the spring of 2019, and on 5th July that year BDL and BHT jointly signed both the two-year licence and the heads of terms documents and provided them to the funder. Together, these gave us the go ahead we needed, and we swiftly moved to organise technical team meetings with our project manager, architect, Natural Resources Wales, BDL’s representative and the contractor.
At the first of these meetings in August 2019 it was agreed that the top few centimetres of parts of the surface of the fossil forest would need to be excavated by hand to establish the exact positions of any fossils that might be where the pads for the steelwork structure we due to be located. This surveying work would allow the designs to be tweaked to then avoid the fossils. The hand-tool excavation was conducted by our palaeontologist and our team of trained volunteers over the course of September and October 2019 in accordance with the licence and in liaison with Natural Resources Wales. We were then ready to instruct the contractor to order the steelwork and to get ready for the start of construction works (then anticipated as being Jan/Feb 2020).
During further technical team meetings in the autumn of 2019 practical questions were posed about the level of detail in the licence we had signed, and so we put a series of clarification questions to BDL via their land agent, who also had a series of detailed questions for us, which we answered comprehensively. The agent had proposed a re-writing and re-issuing of the licence to reflect the greater level of detail that both parties required.
Unfortunately, this was happening at the same time we were all trying to agree the basis of a new heads of terms for the land deal based upon a 25 year lease instead of freehold. These negotiations were complex, and when they ended abruptly in March 2020 so did discussions concerning the re-issuing of the licence.
Hence, during the rest of 2020 we had to report to the funder that a) there was no longer a licence in place that we considered to be valid, and b) that there was no longer certainty of a workable long term land deal.
In January 2021 we were pressed further by the funder and were asked to provide a revised timeline to ensure the grant could be used entirely within the 2021 calendar year. Whilst we provided a hopeful timeline to achieve this we also cautioned that it could take until March 2022 to complete the scheme. We were reminded of the upcoming closure of the funding programme and of the need for us show progress with the land deal, with a revised signed heads of terms being the evidence required.
Negotiations about the heads of terms for the 25-year lease resumed in May 2021 and within six weeks we’d agreed 95% of the document’s wording.
We gave our last formal update to the funder of the Fossil Forest in late November 2021 explaining that the heads of terms was still some way away from agreement, and that moreover it would no longer be possible to complete the 4-month build programme by the end of March. We asked for a further extension given the ongoing delays, and were told this was not possible and that termination was now being considered. Sadly, we received confirmation of the termination of the grant in January 2022.
As with the Machine Shop (awarded in full in February 2018), Lodge Valley Park, the Wonderbank, and Ocknall's Bridge (all awarded in full in March 2017) funding has been in place for many years to address both the conservation needs and our communities' aspirations. As is now evident with the Fossil Forest project, funders' timescales and patience are not indefinite.
During the Spring of 2022 we made the breakthrough we were hoping for with the land deal, and new 'heads of terms' for a 25-year lease were agreed between the Trust and the landowner on 4th April 2022.
On 13th January 2023 the two parties signed the 'agreement for lease', which makes the commitment to lease the property a binding commitment once a range of conditions have been met. These include planning consents (both for the trust and the landowner, both of which are likely to be hampered by the current 'phosphates issue' affecting developments across many parts of Wales), and evidencing that the project has been able to return to a position of being fully funded (in March 2020 the project cost was forecast to be £6.6m and £6.6m of funding was committed; by the end of 2022 the forecast was £8.3m meaning there is work to do to raise the balance and close the funding gap).
The build scheme for the fossil forest excavation structure will be the first major piece of actual physical work on the main heritage site, with work due to take place in early 2024.