Cultural success for Ebbw Vale eisteddfod

Eisteddfod Maes in Ebbw Vale The National Eisteddfod returned to Ebbw Vale for the first time since 1958

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As the National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale draws to a close, there's no doubt that it has been a cultural success for the Welsh language, and a feather in the cap of the former steel town.

But as the clean-up preparation begins of the maes (event field), on the site of the old steelworks, in preparation for a housing and leisure development, how did the eisteddfod afford to come to Blaenau Gwent?

It costs around £3.2m to stage the National Eisteddfod each year, and historically the focus has been far more on the boost to Welsh language and culture than on profit.

Even the most successful events, in the Welsh-speaking heartlands of north and west Wales, have been considered a success if they merely manage to cover their costs.

The eisteddfod receives an annual grant from the Welsh Assembly Government via the Welsh Language Board, which this year was a £493,000.

It also receives annual funding from the Welsh Local Government Assocation, with contributions agreed by an ongoing partnership agreement with all local councils in Wales.

Up to £300,000 was made available as a contingency from the Heads of the Valleys Initiative to underwrite any shortfall in fund-raising for Blaenau Gwent.

An additional £25,000 contribution from the assembly government went towards Sunday's free entry scheme, under which the gates were swelled by 20,000 locals - a record for the day.

Eisteddfod chief executive Elfed Roberts described the scheme as "an outstanding success", adding: "Many of the people who came here on Sunday had never been to the eisteddfod before.

"It is part of our remit to take the Welsh language and culture to all parts of Wales and Sunday proved we can do this successfully.

Start Quote

I know, from travelling around the county, the people have been excited, and have embraced it totally”

End Quote Gordon Caldicott Gwent Gazette editor

"I hope its success will persuade the assembly to fund a similar event next year. But if they don't then its success may have allowed other avenues of funding."

So if financial returns can't be used as a litmus test of an eisteddfod's success, then how about visitor numbers?

A total of 136,933 visitors attended this year; 27,756 down on the event in Bala at the same stage last year, and 19,716 below the total at the eisteddfod in Cardiff two years ago.

But perhaps this is an unfair comparison. Bala has a strong Welsh-speaking community on its doorstep and there is a growing Welsh-speaking population in Cardiff.

A better like-for-like comparison would possibly be with the Newport eisteddfod of 2004, and here too there is a marked decline.

Even without a free entry scheme, around 120,000 had visited Newport in the first six days of the festival.

'Taking a risk'

However, Gordon Caldicott, editor of the Gwent Gazette newspaper, says the figures need to be viewed in the context of the location.

"Are the visitor figures as impressive as the last few eisteddfods? No. Were they ever going to be? No. Does that mean Ebbw Vale has been a failure? Definitely not!

"There are fewer Welsh speakers here, and fewer people full-stop. When you factor in the economic and travel difficulties in Blaenau Gwent, it's amazing the eisteddfod's been this successful," he said.

"I know, from travelling around the county, the people have been excited, and have embraced it totally.

"The eisteddfod organisers could have taken it to a safer area for them, and would almost certainly have made more money.

"But they took a risk on Ebbw Vale, for the good of developing both Welsh and Blaenau Gwent. For that they deserve 100% credit."

Regeneration

Perhaps the biggest selling point for the Ebbw vale eisteddfod was its potential to help in the post-industrial regeneration of Blaenau Gwent.

Figures from Swansea council show that while their 2006 eisteddfod made a modest profit of just £100,000, the local economy was boosted to the tune of around £6m.

Mr Roberts himself was the first to admit that perhaps Ebbw Vale doesn't possess the bars, shops and restaurants to benefit to the same extent, however the Swansea experience has highlighted the need to play the long-game.

Whilst the 2006 eisteddfod initially received a lukewarm reception, such has been the repeat business that they're now planning to bid for the Urdd Eisteddfod on the same site.

Gordon Caldicott added: "A week ago the rest of Wales thought Blaenau Gwent was a scarred and abandoned wasteland. This week they know that exciting things are happening here, and there's life after steel.

"I'm convinced that people will come back and visit on the strength of what they've witnessed in the media and on the maes.

"That much advertising alone would have cost you more than three million."

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