Prawn crackers

Last Friday county council members received a presentation from Egdenol Ltd – the company that has ambitious plans for the former mine depot at Blackbridge Milford Haven; recently bought from the county council for £750,000.

Already in the public domain is that Egdenol intends to construct a biomass burning power station on the mine depot site and use the waste heat for greenhouses, a fish/prawn farm and a cheese factory on the former Gulf Oil refinery site next door which it has bought from the Welsh Government for a further £2 million.

Algae will be grown in heated tanks to provide nourishment for the fish and prawns.

Planned investment is said to be £600+ million with the creation of 500+ jobs.

All very impressive for a company with net assets of just £35,000.

Naturally, given past experience, the people of Milford are a bit sceptical about these fabulous promises of jobs and prosperity and only time will tell whether this will be any different.

My own experience goes back to 1991 when together with other Milford members of the then Preseli District Council I was called to the town hall for the unveiling of a grand plan for a marina in Castle Pill (the one that runs up to Blackbridge) by director of planning Roger Anderson.

We were shown beautifully, and expensively, produced artists’ impressions of what this state of the art marina would look like.

Shortly after that we launched the Milford Mercury and I recall a campaign by the local boat owners who feared their historic mooring rights might be affected by these ambitious plans. They needn’t have worried because 25 years on nothing has happened.

For several years the top brass of Preseli District Council would visit the Cherry Blossom Festival at Macon, Georgia (USA) and on their return it would be reported to council that they had met with Japanese industrialists who were keen to invest in Pembrokeshire.

They used to make their way home the long way round, via Taiwan, and I lost count of front-page headlines in the Mercury following tip-offs from top council officials that a plastics company from that part of the world was about to announce the construction of a factory employing thousands on the former Esso site.

I’m afraid all the people of Milford ever got out of all this were the bills for the plane tickets and posh hotels.

Then, in the mid-nineties, there appeared on the scene one Garth Arwynch – a former schoolteacher – who persuaded Dyfed County Council to give him a large grant towards the establishment of a canning factory for salt cod which we were told was a sure-seller in his native Jamaica.

As a demonstration of his good faith Mr Arwynch bought some secondhand canning machinery which was kept as surety under lock and key in various of the council’s sheds in Waterston, Thornton and Milford Docks.

One Saturday morning Grumpette (then editor of the Milford Mercury) received a tip off that several articulated lorries and a fork lift truck had appeared on the scene and the canning machinery was being loaded up.

By the time Grumpette arrived Waterston and Thornton had been cleared but she did manage to get some nice photos of the low-loaders at Milford Docks and Mr Arwynch supervising the evacuation from the open window of his rather posh car.

When questioned the following Monday, Dyfed’s economic development officer John Ambrey told the Mercury that the council would leave no stone unturned in its efforts to get its money back (see Rhodri Philipps below).

A couple of months later Mr Ambrey had to admit that they had been unable to trace either Mr Arwynch, or the machinery, and when I questioned whether the award of this grant had been prudent he replied: “You have to take risks in this business”.

Blackbridge has played a prominent part in these ambitious schemes and few will forget the dramatic events surrounding the rise and fall of Crownridge Steel.

This was the brainchild of the Hon Rhodri Philipps, son and heir to Johnny Allen-Mirehouse’s chum Viscount St Davids.

I remember sitting in the press gallery as Rhodri and his business partner regaled members of the recently reconstituted Pembrokeshire County Council with their plans to create hundreds of jobs by using the former mine depot as the base for the manufacture stainless steel wire

The old boys (and the odd girl) lapped it up and Rhodri was quickly fitted up with a 99 year lease at a peppercorn rent.

One of the cheerleaders for this development was ex-Cllr Eddie Setterfield who was Rhodri’s constant companion as he worked to get the plant up and running.

The scheme was to import stainless steel bars from Middlesbrough and roll them into wire for which there was, apparently, huge unmet demand.

I must admit it occurred to me that making this wire in Middlesbrough might cut down on transport costs, but one hesitated to rain on the parade/pee on the bonfire.

Rhodri and Eddie became bosom pals and an article appeared in the Western Telegraph announcing that the former Mayor of Milford and his sister Barbara had been invited to a polo match at Cardiff Castle as the guests of Viscount St Davids and Rhodri.

Eddie even lent Rhodri his touring caravan which was pressed into use as a site office.

It wasn’t long, of course, before the enterprise went belly-up and when the list of creditors was published it showed Eddie was in for £800 (the value of the caravan that had been seized by the liquidators).

The limerick inspired by all this is worth repeating:

Eddie thought it was all very pukka,
Going to Cardiff to witness a chukka.
With the Viscount St D,
And the Hon Rhodri,
Cost him £800, silly…

I invited suggestions for the completion of this ditty and was shocked how few of my readers, who I had always considered to be a sophisticated lot, came up with “sucker”.

The county council were in much deeper than Eddie – in excess of £100,000 – but they were in a much better position because they had a personal guarantee from the Hon Rhodri and promises were made to pursue him to the end of the earth to recover this sizeable chunk of taxpayers’ cash.

Some years later, when the Mercury enquired how the bailiffs were getting on, the council responded that they were still in hot pursuit, but had been unable to track him down.

At that point, Old Grumpy was able to advise the council of his whereabouts because a reporter from the Evening Standard – having come across one of my Old Grumpy articles after Googling Rhodri’s name – had drawn my attention to an article he had written which described how the Rt Hon was languishing in a Frankfurt jail having been arrested by government agents for asset-stripping the German company Hans Brochier (allegedly).

It seems that Rhodri, who inherited the title Viscount St Davids on the death of his father in 2009, is not the sort of person on who you would stake your future, unless, of course, you are one of those gullible fools that people in some of the remoter parts of Pembrokeshire seem to habitually elect.

If you have twenty minutes to spare and you want a bit of light entertainment you might try the following links (polo neck) (living it up) (we seek him here… ) (Rhodri update) and (stake your future)

Next up at the mine depot was the bidding war for the site between a consortium of local businessmen and Milford Haven Port Authority.

The county council favoured the Port Authority and I recall observing a secret Cabinet meeting (I was a member of council by then) where chief executive Bryn Parry-Jones went to great lengths to spell out the advantages to the local economy of MHPA’s plans build a container port on the site.

Mr Parry-Jones was particularly strong on the advantages a west-facing port would have for our trade with China which he predicted was the coming thing.

So he was years ahead of George Osborne on that one.

However, when I finally obtained copies of correspondence between MHPA and PCC it revealed that all the port authority had ever promised was to carry out a feasibility study into a container port.

For those interested, such a study had already been carried out back in the early eighties when it was concluded that because sea transport was so much cheaper per ton/mile than road or rail it made economic sense to leave the containers on the ship for an extra day and take them up to Avonmouth where they were 120 miles closer to their eventual destination.

This Cabinet meeting was interesting because Cllr David Simpson voted against the sale to the MHPA – the first time the Cabinet hadn’t been unanimous.

For some reason, which I have never fully understood, the deal with MHPA was never concluded, but that wasn’t the end of the Blackbridge saga because a year or so later the local press reported that the county council’s economic development team had found a new saviour for Milford’s economy in the form of a millionaire Irish businessman who planned to create several hundred jobs by building a plant to convert the waste fat (tallow) from his string of slaughterhouses in the Irish Republic into diesel fuel.

The only thing I know for sure about that scheme is that it never materialised.

And, on a recent visit to the county archive, I happened, purely by chance, on a report in the Western Telegraph of March 2000 about the plans of a Chinese entrepreneur, a Mr Chuang, to open a shoe factory at Thornton Industrial Estate with the capacity to produce 1,000 pairs of shoes a week.

This would provide 140 jobs, and, it was reported, Mr Cheung had already visited the local job centre and had booked his two children into Ysgol Dewi Sant.

If even half these grand schemes had come to fruition, everybody in Milford would have three jobs, but, as it turned out, not a single pay packet has resulted.

Of course, this time things might be different though we might be well advised to remember Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result”.