PLANS to modernise Caerphilly town centre and make it more attractive to visitors have proved controversial for some, with critics arguing the public should have more say on the project.
The Caerphilly Town 2035 transformation plan includes a bigger visitor centre for the famous castle, a new market, and a transport “interchange” to replace the existing bus and railway stations.
Plaid Cymru has criticised the council’s handling of the project, claiming there should be “greater public participation” in the plans, and more focus on championing the town’s heritage.
But a senior member of the Labour-controlled council has hit back at those criticisms and urged a more “positive approach” from the opposition.
What is the Caerphilly Town 2035 project?
Described as a “bold and ambitious vision” for the town’s future, the project aims to “enhance and regenerate” Caerphilly town centre and will receive funding from the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns programme.
Increasing visitor numbers is at the heart of the plan, and modernising the tourist offer at Caerphilly Castle – the biggest in Wales – will play a central role.
The Welsh Government’s heritage organisation, Cadw, will fund a £10 million revamp of the castle facilities, including “fresh” interactive exhibitions and play spaces for visitors.
A spokesperson for the Caerphilly Town 2035 project said these “exciting improvements will not only bring Caerphilly Castle to life, but also conserve the castle for future generations to explore and enjoy”.
Work to overhaul the tourist facilities at Caerphilly Castle is currently at the planning stage, and phased development is expected to begin in 2024.
Another development in the town centre is the construction of Ffos Caerffili, a new market area and “eco-friendly, fresh, modern, multifunctional space”.
The market will be home to a combination of food and drink venues, independent retailers, and flexible workspaces.
The project spokesperson said there was demand for a “more modern” market area following the previous closure of the town’s indoor market.
Ffos Caerffili is currently under construction and is set to open in January 2024.
The town regeneration project also includes a new leisure and wellbeing hub for Caerphilly, dubbed the “flagship facility for the whole county borough”.
The new leisure centre will include a swimming pool, a “state-of-the-art” fitness suite, and spa facilities.
Construction is due to begin in August 2024.
Currently at the planning stage, Caerphilly County Borough Council also plans a major overhaul of the town’s public transport, by building a new interchange for bus and rail passengers on the site of the current stations.
This will mean demolishing the existing buildings – which the council said were deteriorating and becoming unsafe – and replacing them with modern versions.
A public consultation on the interchange is currently underway while the council seeks planning permission.
Other parts of the Caerphilly Town 2035 project are still at the concept stage and will take longer to come to fruition.
These include proposals for 70 apartments in Pentrebane Street and Clive Street, as well as a “vibrant, freely accessible” cultural centre in the town’s grade II listed workmen’s hall, and an 80-bed hotel on Cardiff Road.
Why have some people criticised the Caerphilly Town 2035 plan?
Following the recent publication of the interchange plans and detailed designs, the council’s Plaid Cymru group called for the local authority to engage more with residents before embarking on further stages of the Caerphilly Town 2035 project.
Lindsay Whittle, the Plaid group’s leader, called for “greater public participation than there has been up to now, given it is the people who live in Caerphilly that will have to live with what is decided on”.
After alleging that the council would “plough on regardless” of other opinions, he argued that regeneration of the town should prioritise the town’s heritage and preservation of its historic buildings “by enhancing what is left”.
“Destruction and a new build is not in keeping with a 750-year-old castle,” Cllr Whittle said, adding there was “room for new and exciting new buildings – but not at the expense of any building over 100-years-old”.
On the castle plans, he said visitors would only “flock” to the new facilities if they incorporated “innovative ideas”, adding that he feared the project could be “a waste of a further £10m, on top of the money that has been spent on the already existing visitor centre inside the castle”.
Outlining his party’s alternative vision for the town, he said: “Plaid Cymru strongly feels we need to celebrate what’s different about Caerphilly, not its sameness to other places with developments like the container market.
“We need a distinctive local stamp and we are looking at ideas to achieve that.”
Focusing on “history, art, culture, music or language” would be a “positive alternative” to the council’s vision, he claimed.
Plaid’s suggestions for regenerating Caerphilly include “scaling back” the interchange plan and retaining the former ticket office.
Separately, a petition has been set up calling for that building to be preserved.
Plaid also said Ffos Caerffili should be a “permanent building in keeping with the ancient castle”.
Other ideas include two new car parks, an open air amphitheatre in the castle grounds, open top bus tours of the county borough’s historical landmarks, and a town museum in Manchester House.
How has the council responded to the criticism?
Following Plaid’s criticism of the Caerphilly Town 2035 project, the council’s deputy leader Jamie Pritchard defended the local authority’s record on engaging with the public.
Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, he said he wanted to avoid a party political row but questioned Plaid’s claims about a lack of engagement.
The council had actively encouraged participation and hosted numerous consultation events on the project, as well as a 25-day exhibition of the plans, said Cllr Pritchard, who is also the cabinet member for regeneration.
He added: “We’ve had a great response from the public to the recent engagement sessions held in Caerphilly town centre.
“What has been particularly pleasing has been speaking to people of all ages and walks of life as they came in to discuss the potential projects.
“I attended all the events, so I know we’ve genuinely received a representative sample of views from a cross section of society.”
Looking to the next stages of the project, Cllr Pritchard said: “This is an exciting time for Caerphilly town centre, and more consultation events are being arranged.
“A positive approach is badly needed from all local councillors.”