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Torch Theatre faces ‘longer term challenges’

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THE TORCH THEATRE will remain closed until at least the end of October.
The news came in a statement released by the Theatre’s management on Friday, July 24, just as the Welsh Government announced restrictions would be lifted on the opening of cinemas, theatres, and museums, subject to social distancing regulations.
The statement described the period of enforced closure during the COVID-19 pandemic as ‘incredibly demanding’ and said the Torch was ‘fighting to survive’.
Even though the venue hopes to reopen on November 1, uncertainty about the extent of social distancing rules has persuaded its management to cancel all of its remaining live shows for this year.

TORCH THEATRE FACES ‘LONGER-TERM CHALLENGES’

Besides the revenue cost to the Theatre from its closure, the ripples from its closure are being felt across West Wales. The Torch Theatre is more than a venue. It is a centre for community life in Milford Haven and a hub for Pembrokeshire’s thriving creative arts sector.
To keep afloat, the Theatre made successful applications to the BFI, Film Hub Wales and the National Lottery Resilience Fund, the Arts Council Wales Stabilisation Fund, as well as being eligible for two Welsh Government Business Rates Grants.
The statement reads: ‘This crucial support has given us the security to plan essential maintenance, maintain audience and community engagement, and develop new modes of working’.
While the support has allowed the Theatre to take the first steps toward recovery, the venue’s management says it ‘does not provide the solutions to the longer-term challenge of surviving the COVID-19 crisis’.
The Theatre will use the closure period to carry out repairs on the building’s fly tower, which was damaged during February’s storms.
Funding for the repair work will come from Pembrokeshire County Council Enhancing Pembrokeshire Fund and Arts Council Wales, who will each cover a proportion of the costs after the settlement of the Theatre’s insurance claim for the storm damage.

CONTINUING CLOSURE LIMITED REOPENING

This decision to remain closed takes account of the following decisive factors:
• Consultation with audiences suggests that there is no appetite to return while there is so much uncertainty over the reproduction rate of Covid-19. To open any part of the operation without an audience is not economically viable and would quickly lead to redundancies.
• Film distributors are unable to confirm release dates and producers of live shows are cancelling and rescheduling tours to ensure that their businesses remain viable. As such, the Company cannot deliver a theatre programme.
• Taking account of its civic responsibilities, the Theatre’s management believes that it would not serve audiences, staff, volunteers or artists well to rush into reopening before reassurance the Torch is a safe place to return to.
• The need to undertake essential maintenance and remedial works on the fly tower renders an immediate opening impractical.
Bearing in mind those factors, the Theatre’s management team made what it calls ‘difficult decisions’ about reopening after November 1.
The management team’s statement says:
• With social distancing in place, it is not viable for us to produce or present live productions. As such, all live theatre performances will be cancelled for the remainder of 2020 including our Autumn production and festive pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.
We are currently in the process of rescheduling our own productions and visiting shows into our 2021 programme and will be contacting affected customers over the next few weeks.
• Pending release schedules from film distributors, we will hope to open with a cinema only offer for the rest of 2020, at a limited capacity to maintain social distancing requirements. Operational staff would be required to work in bubbles under strict health and safety guidelines.
The ambition to return with cinema only for November and December is dependent on the threat posed at that time by Covid-19, Government directives, securing further financial support and commitment from the film distributors.
• From January 2021, should conditions allow, we should like to return to live productions. This would prove our best-case scenario, allowing wider operations to return to something like normal levels in the New Year; however, this scenario comes with the most financial risk attached and is subject to change.
Should social distancing rules remain in place from January, we would be forced to continue with a cinema-only offer into 2021.
• There remain a host of unknowns and whilst we are planning for our best-case scenario, we are also preparing for the worst: should even a socially distanced cinema offer prove untenable from November, then we may yet be forced to close for the remainder of the financial year.

JOBS UNDER THREAT WITHOUT MORE HELP

Whatever happens, when the UK Government’s Job Retention (‘furlough’) Scheme ends in October, and until ticket income returns to its normal level, the Torch will rely on financial intervention and support from the Welsh Government and other bodies to maintain its staff team and operations until things return to whatever ‘normal’ proves to be.
On July 5, the Westminster Government announced a £1.6bn package of support for the UK’s creative arts sector. Wales’ share of that funding is £59m for the whole of Wales’ cultural and creative industries.
Yesterday, Thursday, July 30, the Welsh Government announced it would allocate £53m of the £59m to the sector. The money’s distribution will be subject to an application process.
Speaking to The Herald this week, David Melding, the Conservatives’ Shadow Culture Minister, said: “While I acknowledge the support the Welsh Government has already given to the creative sector now was the time to demonstrate decisive leadership which they have failed to do.
“Wales rightly regards the creative sector as a strategic growth area and key to Wales’ economic success. It is also central to the nation’s ever evolving story and something we want to project worldwide. Rather than short changing the sector by £6 million the Welsh Government should have added to the funds now made available to Wales by the UK Treasury.”
Nick Capaldi, Chief Executive of the Arts Council of Wales said: “These funds ease the immediate threat of a collapse in the creative sector.”
Siân Gwenllian MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Culture, said: “While I welcome today’s news that £53 million has been promised to the Arts industry in Wales, I would question what has happened to the £6 million – within the space of a month, £59 million has been reduced to £53 million and not a penny has reached the sector.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Ben Lloyd, Executive Director of the Torch said: “Our team are working tirelessly to secure extra funding to help us to avoid job losses from November. Every alternative option will be explored.
“Throughout these times of hardship, we remain committed to our mission to engage, inspire, entertain and challenge our audience, and supported by the Arts Council Wales Stabilisation Fund we will seek alternative methods of delivering opportunities to our community.”
Peter Doran, the Torch Theatre’s Artistic Director said: “Here at the Torch we try and cover all aspects of theatre and the performing arts but at the end of the day, we pride ourselves on being theatre-makers, producing our own work; consequently, if we’re not able to produce, it feels like the creative heart has gone out of the building and so we are determined to get up and running again as soon as it’s safe to do so.
“To that end, we aim to come back in the New Year with all guns blazing and producing great pieces of theatre. We are all looking forward to that. In the meantime, we are planning some interesting community projects for people to get involved in and we also plan something for the schools as a Christmas treat. So look out for us.”
Ben Lloyd continued: Away from the art, we are also planning new membership, guardian, legacy and sponsorship schemes allowing our patrons and business partners to become more connected with us and support different areas of community and artistic activity. Further details and the launch of these new schemes are planned for September.
“A great number of our patrons have kindly donated the value of their unused tickets to the Torch over the past months and there has been a high level of interest in other ways our patrons can be more involved. The kind support of our patrons is always hugely appreciated and will be more necessary than ever in the coming months as we seek to bounce back brighter from this crisis.”
Ben concluded: “As a business and like many others, we are going into the unknown. We have never been in a situation like this before and have been operating on a knife-edge over the past few months.
“We have managed to put in place the first building blocks toward our survival. We have reason to be cautiously optimistic and remain determined to sustain for our community, our staff, our artists and the audiences of the future; but our situation remains critical, with many factors beyond our control and we will be seeking support from all quarters to help us get through the challenging months ahead.”

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Approval recommended for dockyard plans

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A CONTROVERSIAL plan to develop part of Pembroke Dock’s Royal Dockyard comes before the County Council’s Planning Committee next week.

Despite many objections from heritage organisations, Council planning officers recommend the development’s approval.

However, the Planning Committee will only indicate whether it is ‘minded to approve’ the proposal instead of giving it the go-ahead.

The Welsh Government has called in the application for decision by the next Welsh Government minister responsible for planning and infrastructure developments.

That means the Welsh Government will consider the Report presented to the Committee and weigh it against the objections received.

HERITAGE ASSETS VERSUSECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

The application is to develop a brownfield site within the former Royal Dockyard.

It seeks outline planning permission for the demolition or part demolition and infill of various buildings and structures, modification of existing slipways, erection of buildings and ancillary development. 

The development is intended for port-related activities, including the manufacture of marine energy devices, boat manufacture, repair and erection of plant.

The application is for outline planning permission. All matters relating to access, appearance, landscaping, layout, and scale are reserved for consideration as part of reserved matters applications. In practice, as many councils – including Pembrokeshire – have discovered, once outline planning is granted, reserved applications tend to proceed despite potential negative impacts.

A similar situation arose with Milford Haven Port Authority’s hotel development at Milford Marina, where councillors’ concerns were largely overruled by the existence of outline planning permission for the development.

Part of the proposal would see the former graving dock and timber pond infilled, the part demolition of existing slipways, and some buildings on site.

Both the graving dock and timber pond are Grade II listed. Buildings near the development are also listed, including the iconic Sunderland flying boat hangars.

The existing caisson gate currently in situ at the dock’s southern end would be removed and conserved. It is unique in Wales and a rare example. The planning report states that the caisson gate would remain within the marine environment without development and deteriorate. 

The development would include a new ‘super slipway’ built over the land extending into the River Cleddau and the construction of massive new industrial sheds to accommodate new marine technology.

JOBS AND THE CITY DEAL

The planning report claims the facilities erected will support anywhere between 288 and 975 full-time equivalent jobs in Pembrokeshire and make a substantial contribution to the local economy. However, the report also notes that the numbers of jobs claimed cannot be corroborated.

This proposal is linked to the establishment of the Marine Energy Test Areas (META), the Marine Energy Engineering Centre of Excellence (MEECE) and the Pembrokeshire Demonstration Zone (PDZ). These collectively comprise the Pembroke Dock Marine (PDM) project. 

The project forms part of the Swansea Bay City Deal to facilitate the next generation of marine renewable energy technology.

Companies who could potentially gain from the development have signalled their support from the proposal.Although their enthusiasm is predictable, the economic potential for local businesses cannot be ignored.

DOCKYARD ESSENTIAL TO TOWN’S EXISTENCE

However, a raft of objections also exists.

The Council received representations from, among others: The Victorian Society; The Georgian Group; Hywel Dda University Health Board;  Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre; Pembrokeshire Historic Buildings Trust; Pembroke Civic Trust; Naval Dockyards Society; The Commodore Trust; Ridgway History Group.

Not all of those organisations objected to the principle of development. For example, Hywel Dda expressed concern about the potential effect on access to South Pembs Hospital and patient care. However, most criticised the impact on the historic environment of the Royal Dockyard. Individual objections also expressed the same concerns.

The Naval Dockyard Society points out that the Dockyard construction was the reason for Pembroke Dock’s creation as a town. Without it, the town would not exist.

The Society continues: ‘The proposed scheme would severely damage Pembroke Dock Conservation Area and crucial listed buildings. 

‘The Grade II* Graving Dock would be infilled and partially built over, the Grade II Timber Pond infilled and built over, and the Grade II Building Slips Nos 1 and 2 partially demolished and removed. It would also be detrimental to the adjacent Grade II Carr Jetty setting, which adds to the group value of these threatened structures at Pembroke Dockyard.

‘These structures are the last and most important features of the magnificent and unique assemblage of thirteen slips, graving dock and timber pond constructed and functioning 1809–1926. 

‘Pembroke Dock specialised in building warships during the transition from wood to iron and steel, sail to steam and turbines. 

‘While the eastern slips were sacrificed in 1979 for the Irish ferry terminal and the deep-water berth Quay 1, we now live in a more responsible era, when significant community assets merit planning protection.

‘The Royal Dockyard established at Pembroke Dock from 1809 was unique: the only one in Wales, the only one on the west coast of Britain, and the only one created solely as a shipbuilding facility. 

‘It built over 260 warships for the Royal Navy, including many of the most prestigious warships of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as five royal yachts. Many of these vessels were built on the two large slipways at the western end of the yard threatened by the current development proposal’.

THE COMMUNITY’S VIEW

William Gannon represents Pembroke Dock Town Council on the Milford Haven Port Authority. Mr Gannon recently hosted an online event that reviewed the application and gave local people the chance to express their views.

We asked him what the public had to say about the plans.

Listening to the community: David Gannon (photo credit: David Steel)

William Gannon told us: “The feeling of the Community following our Zoom Meeting was that we welcome the 1800 jobs and the £63 Million of investment that the Pembroke Dock Marine Project has promised. 

“However, the Community is concerned about the Pickling Pond and The Graving Dock’s loss, which will be buried beneath the new slipway. Both The Pickling Pond and The Graving Dock are Grade 2 Star listed heritage assets.

“The Community are also concerned about the size of the two ‘super sheds’ that may be built. It is felt that these sheds are both too large and ugly, and they will damage the appearance of the Dockyard and The Haven and could damage Pembroke Docks plans to develop Tourism in and around the Dockyard.

“Our Community is looking to strike a balance between the need to develop the Dockyard and to preserve our Heritage Assets. 

“We believe that we can do this by working with The Port to develop a solution that allows for both.”

The Port Authority plans to infill the dock and pond in such a way as to preserve the structures and excavate them in the future. Once they are built over, however, the circumstances that would be possible or even likely are unclear. 

The Port Authority also proposes to use digital media to provide an ‘augmented reality’ experience to show visitors what the Royal Dockyard looked like before its development.

The Port says that part of the land, the Carriage Drive, would be enhanced and restored under its plans for the site.
The balance between preserving heritage and creating future jobs in one of its pet project areas is one the Welsh Government will wrestle with on this application and others.

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Primary school teacher would ‘moan’ as he touched female pupils, court hears

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A HAVERFORDWEST primary school teacher would “moan” while he touched his female pupils in a sexual way, a witness said in Swansea Crown Court.

In total, 11 former pupils, who were all under 13, have come forward and accused James Oulton, 34, of sexually assaulting them.

Oulton denies all the charges – saying the case was a “witch-hunt” and that he had behaved appropriately all times.

One of the pupils, who was in year four at the time, opened day four of the trial by giving evidence via a video link.

The girl told the court: “He would put his arm around by back and backside.”

Under cross examination Chris Clee QC, for the defence, asked the witness: “Did you tell the police that you were touched in an inappropriate way?”

The witness answered: “Yes, teachers should not be touching in that way.”

James Oulton

Asked if what he was doing wrong, the witness replied:

“Yes, very wrong”

In cross examination letters and cards were produced, made the witness whilst in school, where she had said Mr. James Oulton was “the best teacher in the whole world.”

One of the cards said: “You’ve made my life complete”.

Another card said: “Thank you for being so nice, and thanks for everything that you’ve done for me.”

The witness added: “Despite what he did do, he was a good teacher.  

“He used to buy us treats.

“He was nice caring and a sweet and fun teacher – but not what he was doing.

Referring to the cards, she said: “I would definitely not be saying that stuff now.”

Explaining how she told her parents the witness said: “Once I realised that [x] was in his class, I asked her ‘did he do this stuff to you?’

“She said yes.

“I realised more and more it was wrong and it was time to grow up now, and to speak.

“As soon as I found out that this was happening to [x] I stood up and told my parents.

Asked if she had seen inappropriate behaviour happening to anybody else the witness answered: “He did it to most of the girls in the class, but he had his favourites.

Asked if she had spoken to other girls about the touching, the witness said: “Yes, I was just curious was it just me, or was it normal?”

“Teachers should most definitely not be doing that to students.

“Doing what?”, the witness was asked, “You said in your police interview that he would pull you off your chair and make you sit on his lap, is that true?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Did you try and stop him?” she was asked.

“Yes, I tried to push him off sometimes and said, ‘get off its weird’, but I didn’t want to make a scene.

“He would make me sit on his lap whilst he was marking my work.”

When asked by the defence barrister how she was sat on her teacher’s lap, and if it was under a desk, the witness answered: “No, not under the desk, as both of our legs wouldn’t fit under.”

The witness also said that when she was sat on the defendant’s knee he would make “a low grunting noise.”

Asked if she had spoken others about this case, the girl said: “Police told my mum and dad that there were very many people involved in the case.

“I thought it was just me and [x] that was going to be at court, I only recently discovered that others had come out.”

A second female pupil was also giving evidence via video link. She was 9-years-old at the time of the alleged offending.

Firstly, a pre-recorded interview was played in court in which the witness said: “My teacher, Mr. Oulton always put his hand up my leg like that and up my t-shirt.”

She added: “If he calls you over and he pulls you onto his lap, if you don’t, he pulls your chair over and makes you.”

“How would he make you?” the QC asked.

“He would grab your arm, push you, and then pull you in”, she replied.

When asked if this was a one off, the witness said that the defendant “did it every day.”

“How would you be sat on his lap?”, she was asked.

“He would have one arm on my stomach, then the other arm would be rubbing my leg.”

“He would swap arms and then put one arm up my t-shirt.”

When asked to clarify if it was under her t-shirt the girl explained: “Yes it was under my t-shirt rubbing his hands up and down.”

The witness added: “If I tried to get up for work, he would just grab my arm.”

“He would make a funny sound like a hissing airplane.”

“We had a helper in the class, and when he came in, he would stop, and then I could go and sit down.”

The trial continues.

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New trees planted to help town

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SEVERAL new trees have been planted on Riverside Avenue in Neyland.

They were planted by Grandiflora, courtesy of the Town Council which recently pledged to plant more trees in the town in an attempt to help the environment.

As well as helping the environment, the trees will prevent vehicles from being parked on the grass verges on Riverside Avenue, which had been severely churned up over the winter and looked unsightly.

The Town Council will be working with Pembrokeshire County Council regarding parking issues in Neyland.

The trees will be tended and watered over the summer period to ensure they reach their maximum potential and enhance the area for residents and visitors alike.

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